This is Part 2 in a series about dialogue. If you missed reading Part 1 where I talk about regional overkill and writing accents, feel free to check it out here.
I'm not sure how this happens, but for some writers, there is a major disconnect between conversing with people in real life and writing about people conversing. Why is writing dialogue so difficult for people who talk to others on a regular basis?
I think the major hurdle for many writers to overcome is making dialogue "proper" according to grammar rules. There's only one problem with that: dialogue rarely sounds grammatically correct.
Before you write dialogue for your characters, watch people for a while, and listen to them talk. Yes, I'm asking you to stalk a little . . . for research purposes, of course. I'm willing to bet you see at least a few of the following:
- Contractions—Most people use contractions when speaking, and yet so many writers are shy about using them for dialogue. "I do not understand" sounds a lot more stiff than "I don't understand." I did edit a novel once with one character who never used contractions (much like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation), but that was used as a distinguishing trait for a particular purpose.
- Multiple Threads at Once—Any parent can relate to this. Or anyone who's looked at a chat window between S.K. Anthony and me. More often than not, there is more than one conversation going on at once, even if there are only two people involved. Somehow, we keep it all straight; conversation is rarely linear.
- Mishearing—Conversations happen in a variety of places, and not all of them are quiet. Is your character talking on the phone, or are children playing around those talking? Someone is bound to say, "What?" at some point. My specialty, according to my husband, is talking to him from two rooms away in our house. I get a lot of responses that sound something like, "I can hear you but I can't understand you," and "You're not talking to me, are you?"
- Getting Sidetracked/Self-Interruption—These two sort of go hand in hand. I get sidetracked all the time when I'm talking, and my kids make fun of me for it. I tend to be thinking of lots of things while talking, and this results in my sentence either changing midstream, or fading off altogether. Real conversation between me and my daughter in the car:
Me: I'm so thankful . . . [gets distracted by oncoming traffic]
Ellie: [waits a few moments, then speaks] . . . for . . .?
Me: [looks around] Four what? Where?
Ellie: Thankful. For. What. What are you thankful for? You never finished.
Me: Oh . . . I'm thankful someone's picking up your brother so I don't have to.
- Body Language/Movement—These are essential in conversations. People don't stand straight at attention, facing each other to deliver their scripted lines in a tidy order. They move, they fidget, they pace, they do the dishes or fold laundry or any number of things. Sometimes their bodies reveal more than their speech does. S.K. Anthony did a four-part series on Using Body Language in Your Novel that shows how many ways your body language can help you or give away all your secrets.
- Sentence Fragments—These differ from self-interruption or getting sidetracked, in that you don't need to be sidetracked to speak in fragments. People don't converse in the manner we all had to use in high school English tests, where we had to put our answer in the form of a full sentence. "What's for supper?" "Chicken piccata." You'll hear that as an answer far more often than "For supper, I'm making chicken piccata."
- Age is Relevant—Children don't sound like adults when they speak (though they do come up with gems every so often), so don't write the six-year-old's dialogue as if she has the insight and wisdom of a sixty-year-old. Kids are pretty simple: they want things and are happy when they get them.
These examples are a fraction of the things to consider. There are awkward silences. Sometimes when people talk, they can't always recall the facts, so their speech is peppered with uncertainty and fishing around in their brains for the right word. Someone might always say, "Ya know?" between phrases.
Something I hadn't considered when writing this post is the dialogue info dump. I'm so glad I ran across this gem in an article by Janice Hardy on NowNovel. Her number one tip on writing dialogue is "Stop using dialogue for information dumps." She points out that starting a conversation with "As you know . . ." is ridiculous. If the other person knows, then why is Person #1 repeating it all? Her advice on how to tell if you're info-dumping in dialogue or not:
When characters share information, says Janice, "If the information is for the reader's benefit, chances are you're dumping. If the information is for the character's benefit (or detriment), chances are it's fine."
In the situation above, I always think of the boss who talks to his employee while perusing through the employee's file folder. "As you know, Joe, ten years ago when you were just a rookie, you took down that laundry-laundering operation singlehandedly even though your dog's cousin was going through psychotherapy for his issues with the neighbor's cat. I know that caused your divorce, but you can't keep blaming yourself by refusing to go to the laundromat."
Don't be afraid to read your dialogue aloud after you've written it . . . to "speak it out." It may sound natural or you may come to the sudden realization that it doesn't. Picture yourself saying those words to a friend (or an enemy, depending on the dialogue). Think of those awkward homemade commercials—Hey, Susan, you're looking so fit and trim! What's your secret? Is it that new 24-hour gym, Fat2Fit, at 123 Barbell Street?—and . . . don't do that.
People don't speak perfectly. Dialogue is not structured the same as a prepared speech given to a crowd, and is more often than not grammatically incorrect. Just let it happen and don't stress the specifics.