Realistic Dialogue

During a previous meeting with the Renegade Writers, our illustrious leader, Peter Coleborn, said something that ordinarily shouldn’t make sense. He said that dialogue in fiction isn’t true to life, but it has to be written to appear realistic. As the vast majority of my writing career has been spent as a scriptwriter, I understood exactly what he was saying.

If you listened to a conversation in real time and then transcribed it, no one would believe it to be realistic. In our daily lives our conversations are peppered with oohs, ahhs and other verbal tics. We veer off on tangents that’d confuse a mathematician and often spend so long getting to the point, that our quick chats become as long as, Ronnie Corbett’s legendary monologues.

In fiction, the reader must hear the voice of the character and believe what is being said is real. If we construct our dialogue to include too many tics it becomes plodding. Of course the occasional tic or tangent is acceptable, but they must be used sparingly. For example, if our character says, “I don’t believe Matthew slept with Alice. Did I just say that out loud?” the speech is bland, add a tic,  “I don’t believe Matthew slept with Alice. Oops, did I just say that out loud?” and it becomes realistic. But beware, the overuse of these tics can become annoying.

For dialogue to be effective we must be prudent with our text, use only what’s required and say it succinctly. Even if you have a character in your story that’s prone to ramble, and it’s an important part of that persons make up, still use it only when it moves the story along. To explain this let’s create an imaginary character and call her Agatha. Now Agatha is prone to wittering on, however we can use this in important pieces of dialogue to establish her personality and add colour to the story.

The young policewoman asked the question again, “What exactly did you see?”         “Well, let me see,” said Agatha, her eyes rolling upwards to assist the memory, “it was Friday, I know it was Friday because Jean always calls with the local paper for me. You see they print the weekend television schedules in the Friday edition and I like to plan my weekend viewing in advance.” She saw the policewoman nod her head; an attempt to urge her onto the important part of her response to the question. “After Jean had called, I walked down to the bottom of the garden to see if the badgers had taken the peanuts. Badgers do like peanuts, I’ve been feeding them for years. I saw that the peanuts had been eaten and that’s when I noticed the shed door was open. Gordon never leaves the shed door open, he locks it every time. Gordon says an open door is an invitation to a thief…”

You can see how this piece of what could be considered to be real-time dialogue works by establishing both Agatha’s character and answers the police officer’s question. (Possibly later in the story, this wittering trait will paint her as an unreliable witness.) But if she rambled on throughout the story, during minor pieces of dialogue like a neighbour’s enquiry into to her health, it wouldn’t work and you’d find your reader switching off or worse putting your story down, never to return to it.

When I write dialogue, I like to hear it as I type the words, this helps me to keep it clean and keen, (a phrase I’ve developed for my own editing.) What I do is write the conversation then look at it and decide which words are slowing it down and can be cut to make it flow better.  Let’s return to Agatha.

“Officer, I saw the man come out of the shadows, beneath that tree over there. He had, Gordon’s, prize marrow under his arm and he left through the gate by the rose bed.”

The dialogue looks realistic, we can believe that Agatha would say this, but not all of it is necessary for the story, in fact it slows it down, We don’t need her to address the officer, as we are already aware of who is involved in the conversation, so straight away we’ve trimmed a word from it; freed up seven letters for use elsewhere. We don’t need the reference to the shadows, as this adds nothing to the dialogue: Some may argue it sets the scene, but should dialogue be used to set the scene? (There’s an argument for a later blog entry.) And finally who left through the gate, the man or Gordon and do we really need to know that the gate is situated by a rose bed? A quick restructure and the murder of a few darlings, gives us:

“I saw the man beneath that tree, he had, Gordon’s prize marrow under his arm. Then he left through that gate.”

The dialogue works so much better without the superfluous padding and trimming it helps to create pace. So back to Peter’s comment earlier. In a real-time conversation the original thirty-three word line would sound natural to the listener, however when trimmed down to to just twenty-one words it sounds much more natural to the reader.

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5 Responses to Realistic Dialogue

  1. Tim Diggles says:

    One thing that does make speech realistic, that unless people are telling stories, nearly everything people say are questions, and questions answer questions. Few people actually make a finite answer.

  2. jan says:

    Good dialogue looks so easy on the page but is so very hard to achieve.

  3. Craig Pay says:

    I love writing dialogue and this post is bang on. You can’t write 100% ‘true’ dialogue in a piece of fiction because it looks dreadful–and it may even be completely unreadable. A good exercise (no matter which genre you write) is to sit in a cafe or equivalent public meeting place and listen in to other conversations, writing them down. You’ll find that the result is a mess. I personally aim at a point halfway between ‘true’ dialogue like this and the neat ‘he said/she said’ dialogue that we were taught at school.

  4. Jem Shaw says:

    Good article (as always), Barry. I’ve had a problem in “The Larks” when trying to report a speech by Hugh Trenchard. Trenchard was famously incoherent, but I’ve not been able to find what form that incoherence took. Here’s my rendering – do you have any thoughts?

    Trenchard’s deep bass voice contrasted strongly with Tiverton’s somewhat
    uncertain tenor, but his speech was uncertain and halting. “Thank you,
    Major. It’s… er… fine to see you all. We’ve heard a lot about… um… a
    German pilot recently who…” He stopped completely, examining the end of
    his swagger stick. After a few seconds he resumed, frowning at the stick as
    though the words were written small on its head. “Whose name is… er…
    Boelcke. Well, we… that is… my staff and I…” He looked appealingly at his
    aide, who nodded. Trenchard relaxed slightly and gestured to the staff officer
    alongside him. “Boelcke. Yes. Important you know more. Captain Baring
    will tell you…” Trenchard stepped back, massaging his left side with his

  5. Pingback: Friday Faves, August 23rd | Living Simply Free

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