On Dialogue: Realism, Conversation and How to Get It

I admit, I love writing dialogue.  To me, that’s where the characters really blossom and show their true colors, even if they’re speaking evasively.  They can’t help but reveal parts of themselves.  I actually enjoy passages in books where there’s a heavy conversation going on.  If it’s done well, it’s like the story has just decided to shift gears and rev the engine a little, show off a bit, and lets us see how characters interact.  And if it’s done really well, the writer can even get away with a bit of exposition while they’re at it.

It does take practice to write good dialogue, though.  You have to be a good listener of course, but you also need to be able to know what you’re listening for.  For example:

1.  You don’t want them to sound like you.

I fell prey to this quite often when I was starting out.  All my characters sounded like townies from central Massachusetts, quick with a smartass remark or a localism, generally friendly to everyone, and so on.  I grew out of that when I learned how to create unique characters.  I kind of cheated on this while writing True Faith, basing many characters off of real actors and actresses of the time.  One character was based on Denis Leary, so he was often abrasive and unafraid to say questionable things; another on Christian Slater’s Heathers character so he often sounded slimy and untrustworthy. That was the only project where I went out of my way to create a cast list like that, but it definitely made me listen closer to actual conversation.

2. Don’t just listen to the words.

That was also in 1995, the year I worked at a theater chain, so I was able to watch pretty much all the blockbusters that year for free, and that’s where I really started focusing on dialogue.  Movies can often be a great study guide.  You don’t always need to watch the classics repeatedly like I did in college; pick out your favorite movies and study them.  And don’t just listen to the words; listen to the pacing, the delivery, the intent.  Listen to the way someone evades answering a question, or the reason why they’ve raised their voice.  They’re not just throwing words at us, there’s meaning behind them.  Dialogue can help drive the story just as well as prose can; find out how your characters can do that for you.

3. Be realistic, but not too realistic.

One of the most irritating things I’ve seen over the last decade or so is the literal quote in news stories.  Say you’re reading coverage about a congressman explaining why they voted as they did; what we’d like to see is an easy-to-read quote: “We deliberated long and hard on this issue, and to tell the truth, we almost couldn’t make it pass…but we were relieved when it did.”

But what we’ll sometimes get in the coverage is this:  “We, uh. We deliberated long and hard, you know, on this, the issue.  We–to tell the truth, I’ll say this, we almost couldn’t–it nearly didn’t pass.  But we were relieved when it, when it did.”

Sure, if you want to quote a person exactly and without edits, by all means, go right ahead.  I understand that you may be doing so to avoid any possible misquotation.  But as you can see from the previous paragraph, it’s hard as hell to read.  Your brain gets impatient because you already know what they’re going to say before they said it, and you lose interest before you’re even done.

Some writers can get away with that kind of dialogue, especially in film, and depending on your tastes, it works or it doesn’t.  It really does depend on the story, because the dialogue needs to flow just as smoothly as the prose does.

Let’s highlight that: the dialogue needs to flow just as smoothly as the prose does.

The reason for this is that, more than anything else, you’re telling a story, and nothing takes you out of a story quicker than a passage that feels desperately out of place, yes?  It can be tricky sometimes, especially if you’re writing jerky dialogue on purpose (say, the character has a stutter or is too nervous around others), but at the same time, it needs to be able to sustain the interest.

Of course, there’s always the caveat: if the dialogue is being used as a plot device–say, the character says something shocking and unexpected–if you can pull it off, go for it.

That said, dialogue can be just as tricky as prose, but at the same time, it can be a lot of fun.  Experiment with it, figure out how it best works for you and your stories.

*    *    *

Here’s a few of my personal exercises on learning how to write dialogue:

1.  Watch movies and certain television shows.  I’ve already talked about movies, but some tv shows work too.  I’m talking about mysteries, dramas, finite series; shows that not just tell a half-hour or hour long story, but have an arc that ties the whole season or series together.  Listen to how the characters speak to each other over the course of the series.  Does their friendship deteriorate or grow stronger?  Why are they growing nervous around them when they speak?

2. Try writing a short story with nothing but dialogue–no dialogue tags, no description, nothing, just the characters speaking.  Trust me, it can work.  I tried it a few times for my daily words exercise some time ago and posted an example at my LiveJournal, and I had a hell of a fun time writing it.  By limiting the extremities, I forced myself to tell the story through what the two characters were saying.  A few hints at the setting, who they were, what kind of society they lived in, just by having them talk to each other.  It’s not nearly as hard as you think–in fact, it was a hell of a lot of fun to do, and well worth trying.

3. Real life listening.  My wife and I do a lot of walking and taking the bus around our city, and we both have a habit of catching snippets of other peoples’ conversations.  We’re not spying or being rude; we’re simply catching some of what they say to their friends as they pass by.  We’ve heard all sorts of great gems from tourists and locals alike, especially if they’re heard out of context.  Not only are they great for story prompts, they may influence how you see the characters speaking such things.

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