I try not to be an eavesdropper, but sometimes you can’t avoid it when people are talking loudly in a café or coffee shop or on a bus or train. I think the most interesting ‘eavesdrop’ I ever heard was ‘Well, he had to kill her after that, didn’t he?’ I only hope the speaker was talking about a movie or something on TV!
Next time you’re with a group of people who are chatting together, take a mental step backwards for a few minutes and listen. The chances are the conversation will include a lot of half sentences or phrases, broken up by pauses or interruptions. Many people will start a sentence, hesitate, and then start again, or go off at a tangent. There’ll probably be plenty of words like ‘erm’ or ‘well’. Grammar rules will be broken. There will be very few ‘long’ words, and maybe some wrong words will be used.
We’re told we should write natural sounding dialogue in our stories. However, if we did this, our readers would probably become exasperated because much of it would be jerky, repetitive, even incomprehensible. I’m reminded of a TV mini-series about President Nixon where every so often the characters would reproduce some of the dialogue from the infamous tapes. It was glaringly obvious when they moved from the smooth scripted dialogue to the fragmentary dialogue of the tapes.
Writing dialogue as it tends to be used in everyday conversations would be equally as disastrous as having our characters speak to each other as if they were at a public meeting (to paraphrase how Queen Victoria complained about the way Gladstone spoke to her).
So how do we write dialogue?
The trick is to make the dialogue seem real without actually reproducing everything we normally hear in everyday speech e.g.
Omit ‘um’, ‘er’ and ‘well’, unless you specifically need your character to appear hesitant.
Use contractions – don’t, couldn’t, can’t etc.
Let your characters use short sentences, not long convoluted ones, or speak in phrases. Have them break off mid-sentence occasionally, or interrupt another character (but not all the time – unless that’s one of their bad habits!)
Don’t have them making ‘speeches’ (unless they really are making a speech). If they’re describing or explaining something, have the other person interrupt or ask a question, to avoid having any lengthy monologues.
Don’t use dialect that might be difficult for a reader to understand. Slip in an odd word to give a flavour of an accent or dialect, but let the reader imagine the rest.
Don’t have your characters calling each other by name all the time. Generally speaking, people don’t tend to do that.
Don’t turn a casual conversation into a stilted one or, conversely, into one that’s too flowery. I’ve read conversations that sound as if they have been lifted out of a 1930’s movie, and others where the heroine (and sometimes the hero too!) use ornate, fanciful phrases that people would never use in everyday speech.
A final tip is to read your characters’ conversations out loud. I can usually ‘hear’ my characters speaking in my mind – but there have been times when, on reading out loud, I’ve winced at what one of them has said, or how they’ve phrased it, and I’ve then changed it to something that hopefully sounds more natural.
What other tips do you have for writing dialogue?