Thursday, August 24, 2017

Editor's Notes #37: Dialogue Part 2—Sounding Real


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.

16 comments:

  1. Good points about mishearing and getting sidetracked. I'll try working those into my next story.
    Writing dialogue is fun since most grammar rules are out the window. Just look at texting.

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    1. My kids will be the first to tell people I am terrible about finishing sentences. Either I distract myself or I tangent to something else.

      I admit to loving the freedom I have when using Messenger . . . S.K. Anthony and I have a rule that we do NOT correct our spelling unless the other person can't figure out what we're actually trying to say. No one has time for corrections in a PM.

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  2. Good morning. A most interesting follow-up on dialogue. Natural-sounding dialogue has long been one of my strong points, and probably the one I've received the most compliments on, but I have this question about Multiple Threads, Mishearing, and Getting Sidetracked. I have always been taught to omit anything that might confuse the reader because readers don't like that. Are you recommending these as realism-enhancing techniques, or merely pointing out their existence? Because I would never start a line of dialogue in one direction, then suddenly yank it off on a different tangent, because it offers a great risk of loss of reader immersion, and if immersion is lost, very often, so is the reader. I'm always looking to learn new tricks; care to educate me on this?

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    1. Hey, Jack! Good morning, and good questions! I mention those things because they're part of real-life dialogue, and therefore they help things to feel more natural. Like many things, though, I would recommend those particular ones to be used sparingly. You're absolutely right in that they can pull a reader out of the immersion, and therefore do the opposite of what you're trying to achieve. You're right to omit it if it's confusing. But if you're trying to show confusion, or create an atmosphere of confusion/distraction, those techniques could be used effectively.

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  3. I have a pretty good handle on writing dialogue, I think. One of my rules is what you said above, that "dialogue rarely sounds grammatically correct." Things like "I don't feel good," "I could care less," "her and I went somewhere," and the like are heard all the time in real life, so why shouldn't these phrases and expressions like them come out of your characters' mouths?

    Two or three decades ago, it seems, I told Janie Junebug I'd try to write a guest post for her blog concerning my tips for writing dialogue. Hopefully I'll actually do that someday.

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    1. Well, now she'll have to let you, since you've called her out in public. Good move!

      I like Alex's observation above about dialogue being more fun to write because of ignoring grammar rules. And the stories you've posted on your blog have certain had natural-sounding dialogue, so I'm going to consider you a pro.

      On an unrelated note, I saw your headline of happy birthday to Jack Kirby, and thought, Oh, how nice, no dead guys this week, only to realize he's really dead. Like 20+ years dead. But I'm going over to read it anyway, because I know it will be good no matter what.

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    2. Oh, it's not her fault it hasn't seen the light of day, it's mine. I'm the one dragging his butt!

      Thanks for your compliments, btw.

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  4. One of our most recent chats had so many topics at once, that reading this now (again) just makes me crack up wondering how we kept such good track LOL

    Really great points, the age one always gets me. So many YA books either sound like they're 40 year old with so much wisdom or they sound like an immature 10 year old. And I just don't get it. o_O

    Thanks so much for including the body language series link!!! :D

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    1. I even thought of posting a screenshot, but I couldn't find one that would make sense to anyone but the two of us. I'd like to think it's our superior brain(s) that allow us to multi-talk—like multitasking, but with words. Yes, I made that up and yes, I stand by it.

      One of my beefs is the point you made, with people not sounding the appropriate age, whether it's too young or too old. I read a NA book once where the 30-somethings ended up playing a game of Spin the Bottle. Really? Isn't that for young teens? Not that I ever played it, but I've heard . . . things.

      And I was happy to include the body language series. I'm still trying to figure out how to convince people that my feet are sending them a message they're missing.

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    2. Oh SK your body language series was great just read it.

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  5. Really proper dialogue as a character trait? I would have never thought of that! I hate when people don't have dialogue appropriate to age. It sounds like the character is trying to be something they are not when those are not the facts of the matter. I need to read SK's series on body language. I forget to add the body language in my dialogue frequently. Again a great post Lynda.

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    1. Yeah, the no-contractions guy was a mage, and therefore his speech was very proper and formal. It suited him. And I'm in complete agreement (of course) about the age thing. It makes the writer seem really out of touch with the characters.

      Glad you liked SK's series! It was pretty cool, and covered a lot of ground.

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  6. Great advice. Dialogue's something that's really hard to get right - of course, you don't want to go the other way of putting in too many "ya knows" and non-sequiturs, to the point where it becomes annoying for the reader.

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    1. It's so funny, because we all manage to talk to people every day, and yet, writing it down suddenly makes us freeze up.

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  7. I struggle with dialog. I think I'll go back and reread some of the key dialogs in my current draft aloud, Perhaps get your thoughts. Thanks.

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    1. I'm just an email away if you have questions. Thanks for the visit!

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