Dialogue: Keeping It Real
Author Robert Newton Peck, winner of the 1982 Mark Twain Award, is known for his distinctive, memorable characters. In Fiction Is Folks, his second book on the craft of writing, Peck shared ways to develop characters so that readers make an emotional connection and experience story events right along with those characters. Peck notes the importance of dialogue: “What people say is part of what they are.”
Hearing characters speak can pull readers into a scene. It helps bring characters to life so that readers can believe in them and in the story world the author is building. If we want characters to seem real, their dialogue must sound real—both the words they say aloud and the words they say to themselves through inner dialogue.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of your dialogue:
Give characters distinctive speaking styles.
Characters should sound like themselves, with distinct voices readers can recognize in the story. Their speech will reflect their age, personality, cultural background/ethnicity, education level, geographic location, social roles, and possibly gender. When we know our characters well, we can individualize their speech. And as we write, characters even “speak” for themselves, adding interest to our plots.
They might have certain speech patterns or favorite words or phrases you can use (in moderation). Try listing such “signature phrases” for fictional characters in your favorite books. If your character is upset, does she say “Rats!” “Fiddlesticks!” or use a stronger, more contemporary, four-letter word? When your characters disagree, do they say “I beg to differ,” “No way,” “I’m outta here,” or something else? While expressing opinions, are they blunt, forceful, tentative, tactful, nervous? Will they use a loud or soft voice, speak quickly or slowly, use simple or fancy words? Do they tend to sound positive, pessimistic, pragmatic, patronizing, analytical, conciliatory, serious, humorous, enthusiastic, sarcastic?
Think about how real people talk.
In day-to-day talk, people don’t always use clear, logical, well-constructed sentences. They might search for words, stop in mid-sentence, maybe mispronounce something or use the wrong word. People often use contractions and may speak in fragments or run-on sentences, especially in emotional situations. Too many neat, complete sentences in dialogue can sound formal and stiff. Save that for characters who would normally talk that way.
Passages of uninterrupted dialogue can also fall flat. Use action, body language, and other “breaks,” including inner dialogue, to enliven a conversation and replace some of the speaker tag lines. Suppose your characters are eating lunch:
Jane dropped her fork with a clatter. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” said Alec. He took a gulp of iced tea. “Max told me himself.”
“I’m surprised—but glad.” She smiled and plucked an olive from her salad. “Your worries are over.” At least I hope so, she thought.
Dialogue should fit the situation.
Realistic dialogue flows naturally from the scene and circumstances. Like real-life people, characters have reasons for saying what they do. Their speech will flow from the who, what, where, why, and how of the scene. Ask yourself: What are the characters’ needs, wants, and motivations? Why are they talking about this subject?
Characters may also speak a bit differently, depending on the situation. Think about how your character might talk to a spouse, friend, young child, employer, client/customer, family member, teacher, student, public official, or others. They might discuss the same event/topic differently, changing their words, phrasing, and tone of voice. Even so, you want their speech to be recognizably “theirs.”
What about a character’s conversational style? Are they good listeners, or not? Are they stubborn or open to new ideas? Do they share a lot or keep things private? Do they interrupt or talk over other people? Take forever to make a point? Tell the same old jokes? Pick fights? Some characters do what is called “hijacking.” When somebody brings up a topic, they interrupt to tell their own experience. In regular conversations, people may also stray off topic or repeat themselves.
Avoid dialogue that seems contrived to provide backstory or other facts.
“Show; don’t tell” is vital for effective writing, and dialogue is a great way to “show.” It lets readers hear things for themselves as a scene unfolds. Beware of dialogue that does too much “telling.” As author Sandra Gerth points out: “Maid-and-butler dialogue, also called ‘As you know, Bob,’ dialogue, is a form of info-dumping through dialogue. The author wants to reveal some information to the reader, so he or she has the characters tell each other that information, even though they both know about it already and have no reason to talk about it.” Here’s an example, taken from Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress: “I’ve loved you ever since I first saw you, which was when we met in the eighth grade the year after my mother died.” To express that more naturally, the character could share the history of his romantic relationship with someone who doesn’t know about it. Or, try internal dialogue: Can’t she see what she means to me? Ten long years I’ve loved her, since eighth grade, after that tough year when Mom died….
Along with dialogue that feels forced to provide description or backstory, avoid long passages where characters do a question-and-answer back and forth in order to state facts. That can sound like an interview, not a lifelike scene.
Don’t Make It TOO Real.
Dialogue that sounds exactly the way real-life people talk can be wordy, pointless, and boring. Too many exchanges can also drag down a scene. Edit conversations to remove things that don’t enhance character or plot development. Consider this example:
“Not much. How about you?”
“Nothing new here.”
“Any plans for tonight?”
“Maybe. I haven’t decided.”
“I might watch a movie.”
Does this dialogue have a purpose? If so, identify it and revise the scene, showing why it matters if these characters meet up that evening. To quote Alfred Hitchcock, “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.”
Make It Work
We face many choices in crafting a scene, including who will say what, how they will put thoughts into words, and when and why. Knowing our plot and characters, and identifying with their problems, goals, and struggles, can help us write powerful dialogue that draws readers into our fictional world.
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles, poetry, and books for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught writing for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. She loves seeing her students master the techniques that bring their fiction and nonfiction to life.
Writing involves choices. Word by word we can harness the power and magic of words. Let’s make the most of our writing choices with today’s post.