Tips for writing realistic dialogue

From Rick:

Why is dialog important?

In the past I’ve done several posts on dialogue, and you can find them under DIALOGUE in the categories list.

There are five narrative modes in fiction (Description, Exposition, Dialogue, Thoughts, Action), and of these, dialogue ranks among the most important because, done properly, it SHOWS the characters interacting. Poorly written dialogue lapses into telling and becomes unrealistic.

Whole books and numerous articles have been written on dialogue. My goal here is to point out a few tips that can help you refine your dialogue and make it to sound more authentic and less forced.

Two types of dialogue to avoid are called “as you know” and “on-the-nose.”

“As you know” dialogue is so named because it often begins with one character telling another “As you know, Bob…” and then the speaker proceeds to mention what the characters in question already know. Such dialogue is written by the author to inform the reader, and doing it this way makes a poor impression. Granted, people in real life sometimes talk like this, but in fiction it’s deadly.

Most of the pleasantries, greetings, and mundane phrases we use in everyday life don’t belong in good dialogue.

TIP #1: To repeat what I’ve said here before, good dialogue should either tell us something about the characters speaking or advance the story. In the best cases, it does both.

That brings us to the second tip.

TIP #2: Good dialogue should not be or sound like a transcript (unless it is a transcript). In real life conversations, we often add a lot of fluff to our speech, words spoken in passing that carry little weight.

=====

“Hi, Jon. How’s it going?”

“Good, Phil. You?”

“Same old, same old. Wake up, go to work, come home, go to bed, and eat somewhere in between. Work five, get two off. Rinse and repeat.”

“I know what you mean, but I had a bit of excitement Sunday evening. I got into a bit of a brawl at the sports bar because some guy took issue with my favorite team jersey and got in a lucky punch before he slipped on the floor and knocked himself out.” Jon removed his sunglasses.

“Ah, that explains the bruise around your eye.”

=====

While there’s nothing wrong with this in real life, for fiction it’s flat and emotionless. Phil’s second line shows his character to a degree, but he’s outright TELLING Jon. It makes for very boring fiction. Yet too many writers fall into the trap of feeling that they need to include every little thing that comes to mind in their characters’ conversations. In the worst cases, one character shares information with another, then a scene or chapter later tells the same thing to another character or group. And I’ve seen places where it doesn’t stop at two iterations of the information.

Let’s look at a different version of that same scene.

=====

Friday morning Phil saw Jon entering his office and gave him a shout. “Jon, hold up.”

Jon turned around.

“What’s with the sunglasses?”

Jon removed them.

“What the hell?”

“One of the patrons at the sports bar objected to my choice of team jerseys.”

“You okay, buddy?”

“Yeah, but the other guy needed stitches.”

“You hit him?”

“Didn’t touch him. He tried a second punch, I dodged, and his drunk self slipped and fell. His head hit a bar stool on the way down.”

=====

It’s still not the most exciting scene, but this version is all SHOWING, apart from the short explanation of the source of the bruised eye. This scene lets the reader picture everything, and it shows Phil’s concern for his friend. The first version included unnecessary information from Phil about his daily routine that adds nothing to the plot. Although in this brief scene there’s no plot showing, we can almost see some hints of it.

This brings us to the next dialogue problem and tip.

TIP #3: Avoid on-the-nose writing.

On-the-nose dialogue is a term used often with screenwriting, and most online references talk about it in that context. But it’s certainly not restricted to screenplays. It’s a problem anywhere dialogue occurs. I’ve listed several articles below that explain it better than I can. The first article just gives some good examples but ends there. The other two go into more detail.

ARTICLE 1: ON-THE-NOSE DIALOGUE IN SCREENWRITING

The next article (2) takes the discussion further and explains it, then shows you some remedies. You should watch the video excerpt from Good Will Hunting that shows a superb example of NON-on-the-nose dialogue.

ARTICLE 2: AVOIDING ON-THE-NOSE DIALOGUE

And a third article offers suggestions for fixing the problems.

ARTICLE 3: FIXING ON-THE-NOSE DIALOGUE

SEMI-TIP #4: One of the pieces of writing advice I’ve often heard is that you should never begin a novel or story with dialogue. Why the cautionary advice? As with any opening, you must grab your reader’s attention. If dialogue can manage that, then why not? The key is that it must be strong enough to carry the story from that opening line and make the reader immediately want to know what prompted it.

“Fuck you and your ancestors!”

“This is your last chance to exit,” came the announcement.

TIP #5: Use pronouns rather than names when referring to characters where possible and when it’s clear who is being referred to.

Most of the time, the use of pronouns brings the reader closer to the characters. If the only two characters in the scene are a male and a female and the reader knows their names, then he/his/him and she/her/hers pronouns should be used most of the time.

TIP #6: Don’t overuse characters’ names.

If you’re talking to someone you know, how often do you mention that person’s name? Almost never—unless you’re trying to get their attention or adding emphasis. Yet I see this done too often in dialogue by novice writers. The result is unrealistic dialogue because people normally don’t call one another by name in most conversations. These same writers don’t heed TIP #3 either. Both of these result in writing that’s stiffer than it should be.

Consider the following romantic dialogue that I took in part from a novel and modified:

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David was so glad to have Ellen back, safe with him now. “Ellen…” he muttered. “You’re beautiful.”

Ellen moved closer to the bed and extended her arms. “Please, David, hold me.”

He drew her into his arms. Ellen closed her eyes and wilted against him.

He sucked in a big breath. After all Ellen had gone through, David had to be strong for her. “Everything is going to be okay, Ellen. I promise I’ll never let you go.”

Ellen lifted on her tiptoes and tilted her chin until her mouth was hovering just an inch beneath his. Her pulse pounded, and she ached to feel his lips against hers once again.

Encouraged by her warm invitation, David slid his hand behind her neck and cradled her head in his palm. His heart had ached for so long to have Ellen in his arms once again. When he lowered his mouth to hers, Ellen’s heart fluttered like the wings of a butterfly.

David drew his lips away and leaned his forehead against hers. “I love you, Ellen.”

She touched his face. “Make love to me, David.”

=====

I can feel you cringe. Aside from the blatant headhopping (although in a scene like this it sort of works okay here), look at how the two characters talk to one another. Does it seem realistic that these lovers would call one another by name in an intimate setting like this? How often do you call your significant other by name when he or she is standing in front of you? If you refer to the other person at all, you’re almost certainly going to use something more affectionate than a first name. But even then I just can’t imagine my wife saying, “Honey, make love to me.”

In that dialogue, with only two people, every instance of name use should be either cut or replaced with a pronoun, except in the first sentence, and if this is not the start of the scene, even that sentence should use pronouns. As written, this scene sounds artificial. It sounds like WRITING, not like a real situation. Read it again, mentally replacing or removing the names, and listen to how it then reads.

TIP #7: Pay attention to your use of contractions.

Normal speakers of English frequently use contractions in informal speech, and most people will use at least some even in formal speech. You need to remember this when writing dialogue, but you also need to pay attention to how your character would speak. Is he or she a more formal person, or does the situation call for more formal speech or more relaxed speech? Keep in mind that your character’s speech may need to change to match the situation.

However, when you have a character whose first language is NOT English, it’s important that you establish in your mind how fluent your character is with English.

The use of contractions is generally a finer point in English that comes later, although it depends on how the person learned it. A young person who picked it up from the internet may learn the use of contractions (and slang) much sooner than someone studying it in a classroom situation.

When you have a character from another country speaking English, you should determine in your own mind (or in the character’s bio or profile notes) how good the character’s English is before you have that character use contractions in his or her dialogue. If your characters are all fluent in English (or your sci-fi novel has characters using electronic translating devices), then feel free to have them contract their speech all you want. On the other hand, if you don’t want all your characters to sound alike, give some of those non-native speakers a few speech traits that set them apart. Of course, this should apply to ALL characters even if English is their first and only language.

TIP #8: Avoid dialects and attempts to render foreign accents in your writing. Unless you know what you’re doing and are careful, you’ll annoy or turn off your readers with your ineptitude or unintelligible phonetic renderings.

Before you consider putting dialects into your writing, do some serious internet research to learn why you shouldn’t even attempt it. If you really need to, then learn how to do it properly and sensibly. But you should avoid doing it with major characters. Aside from annoying your reader with dialect overload in the character, you risk not being consistent, which is VERY hard to do and something even a good editor might miss. It’s better if you pick out just one or two words that the character always messes up or misuses.

It’s all right if you want a little flavor to a minor character who maybe has a deep New York City accent. Look at this sentence:

Do yuh tink dey’re de ones responsible fawh all de mass murders in de city?

I think that’s a little too much. We hear people saying “ya” in place of “you” all the time, and we see it in fiction writing. That’s a more familiar rendering to readers than “yuh.” And “fawh” is such a totally foreign-looking word that is likely to stop many readers while they figure out what it means. That’s where it’s better to ease off the dialect and use the regular “for.” The reader already got the hint of the accent, and that should be sufficient. Here’s my revision:

Do ya tink dey’re de ones responsible for all de mass murders in de city?

In the novel I took this from, this character only makes a brief guest appearance in a couple of scenes, so that little bit of dialect, not pushed too far, does no harm. But it’s probably best to leave it out completely.

Some writers feel obligated to render dialects and the accents of foreign speakers. While some authors in the past, like Mark Twain, who took great pains to accurately render the dialects of his various characters, most modern writing advice cautions against this. Anyone who has read The Color Purple knows how the extensive use of dialect can markedly slow your reading.

Likewise, when attempting to render a foreign accent, you should avoid it or use a light hand. One better way than using phonetic renderings of the speech (as we did with the New York accent above) is to simply tell the reader the character speaks with a heavy German (or Scottish, or whatever) accent. Another is to research some of the linguistic patterns of the language in question and to incorporate some of those translational peculiarities or different use of wording or mistakes that a foreign speaker might make. These will give the reader the proper flavor without forcing the reader to parse those strange phonetic spellings.

Here are some examples:

In German an initial “s” is pronounced like “z”; “w” is pronounced like “v”; and there are other differences in certain consonants:
“Vhat is zee problem, Fräulein?” (for “What is the problem, miss?”)

You could instead simply substitute the German word “Fräulein” for “Miss” and not use any phonetic rendering attempts.

Russian has no definite or indefinite articles (the, a, an). There is no “w” sound in Russian either, but Russians are aware of this in English and will often get it right, but at the same time they may overcompensate and say “wery” instead of “very.” Star Trek fans will know this from how Chekov speaks. So, a Russian speaker will often get the “w” sound right but will not add the definite article: “What is problem?”

The Japanese have no “ell” sound in their language and don’t use the definite article either, not in the way we do: “What is probrem?”

But in all of these, do not carry it too far or overdo it. If you are not familiar with any of the nuances of the foreign language your character speaks, then don’t try to render it because you’ll make yourself look like a fool. Or if you want to go to the trouble, do some research or consult with someone who can help you add the right bit of flavor to the dialogue. However, most of the time you’re better off avoiding such subtleties.

Another thing to consider is that characters who are more fluent with English won’t have these speech issues most of the time, only an accent, but they may not always know the English word they want. You can have the character stumble for the right word when appropriate.

What about your own writing? Are you guilty of these mistakes? Do you try too hard with your foreign-speaking characters? Do your characters call one another by name too much, or do you use characters’ names when not needed and where a pronoun would work?

Some of this advice may seem overly picky, but attention to these details is what separates good writers from mediocre writers.

–Rick

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