Why Good Dialogue Is Never Realistic

30 Nov

The quality of the dialogue can make or break a book, and I’ll admit this is something that I struggle with (thank god for editors!).  But why is writing good dialogue so difficult?  After all, most of us know how to have a conversation, so why should writing one between two characters be so hard? I think part of the reason is that it needs to seem real, while at the same time it must bear little resemblance to how we actually speak.

To see the difference, eavesdrop on someone’s conversation and listen to how those around you talk to each other.  Their speech will be filled with unneeded uhmms and errs and pauses.  There is also a good chance they’ll repeat certain words with annoying regularity.  In my home city of Glasgow, there is a tendency to end every sentence with the word ‘but’, while every second word that comes out of some teenagers mouths seems to be ‘like’. There are other little idioms too.  Some people will start, or end, and sometimes both, almost everything they say the phrase ‘At the end of the day’ while others will endlessly repeat the phrase, ‘You know what I mean?’ (or in Glasgow, ‘You know what I mean, but?’ – compounding two of the above examples!). And these aren’t even the most annoying verbal tick that real people have. I once had a colleague who repeated the last three words of every sentence anyone said to them. It was a purely unconscious but it got very old, very fast.

While these are examples of how real people speak, none of them would work on the written page. The reader would find it just too boring, repetitive and unrealistic. To make dialogue work, you shouldn’t aim to capture how people actually speak, instead it should capture how they hear themselves talk inside their own heads. It turns out that people naturally filter out all their little ticks and idioms, and only hear the words they actually want you to hear. This means they are unaware of much of the actual dialogue that come out of their mouths. Similarly, when we try to plan what we’re going to say in a given situation, we may imagine speaking with the type of perfect dialogue any author would be happy to have grace the pages of their books. It’s just that somehow it gets garbled between our brains and our mouths, and what comes out often bears little relationship to what we intended to say.  Either that or we come up with that killer come-back to something someone said to us, but it’s many hours later, often in the middle of the night and well after it’s of any use.

So good dialogue needs to capture not what someone would actually say in a given situation. Rather, it needs to capture what they wish they’d say when faced with it. Yet, it’s easy to go too far the other way too, and make your dialogue sound too over-rehearsed, leaving your reader thinking ‘No one would every really speak like that.’ In particular, remember that no one speaks, or even thinks, in perfect prose.  You need some of the little ticks and idiosyncrasies of everyday spoken language in there to make it sound like someone is speaking in the readers head. It’s just that (unlike real people) you have to be careful not too use too many or to use the same ones too often. The best dialogue falls somewhere between pure prose and how people actually speak. It can take a while to find that middle ground, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find your writing, and your characters, really start to come alive, both in your own mind, and that of your readers.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.


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