Updated: Dec 8, 2020
As soon as we learn to talk, we engage in a variety of verbal interactions multiple times a day. It is a function unique to humans. It enables us to cooperate with one other, exchange ideas, organise ourselves into groups, provides us a means by which to agree or disagree, and above all else, it allows us to gossip. What is more, it is something at which we all quickly become adept. Why then, of all the disciplines that test writers of fiction, is it dialogue that most often presents us with a feeling of inadequacy? The answer can be found not in our lack of ability. Rather, in our lack of understanding of what constitutes cracking realistic dialogue.
Let’s start with a truth about dialogue. Dialogue is not the same as conversation.
Generally speaking, conversations are little more than a swapping of trivial and inconsequential information. Conversations are often stuttering, repetitive, random, prone to deviations, and expositive tangents. Conversations are littered with, er, hesitations and . . . pauses. Many are too pedestrian and throw-away to be memorable.
That’s to say, of all the countless verbal exchanges in which we partake during our lifetime, few are riveting enough to put down onto paper verbatim and pass around as an example of high drama. Few are enough to keep us gripped by a momentum of unfurling details, enough to turn into a farcical comedy or a Greek tragedy.
Believe it or not, real conversation is the boring relative of dramatic dialogue.
Or perhaps that should read: dramatic dialogue is an everyday conversation with all the small talk and dull bits edited out.
Consider the following (example 1):
“Hello, Dwayne. What are you doing today that is interesting?”
“Um . . . well . . . not much. I am just hanging out with Dave at the moment.”
“Okay. Well . . . I think . . . er . . . what sort of dog is Dave, Dwayne?”
“He’s a cross between a German shepherd and a Chihuahua, Teagan.”
“That’s fascinating, Dwayne. Is he friendly?”
“Huh-huh. He’s as soft as an eiderdown, Teagan. So . . . how is your mother, then?”
“She is very well, thank you, Dwayne. She had a doctor’s appointment yesterday.”
“Is there anything wrong with her, Teagan?”
“No. It was just a check-up.”
“Awesome. Well, see you soon, then, Teagan”
“Yeah, see you, Dwayne”
Imagine reading that on the first page of a new novel whose spine you just eagerly broke! Would you turn to the second page? Or drop the thing in the trashcan as an insult to your intelligence and ask yourself how on earth did this get published?
In the first instance, Teagan and Dwayne’s dialogue was stilted beyond measure. I mean, nobody speaks like that.
Secondly, what did we learn about Teagan and Dwayne? About their lives? Who they are and what they’re about? What did it tell us about their relationship? Which parts were juicy enough to compel you to WhatsApp your Bestie and pass on the gossip?
None at all, right?
Okay, yes, it was conversational enough, an everyday – and awkward – if badly conceived - encounter we often all experience. And that is exactly the problem. It was trite and immediately forgettable.
Now try this (example 2):
“What’s up, Dwayne?”
“Had to get out the house. Couldn’t deal with it. Said I’d take Dave for a walk.”
“Is it your mama again?”
“Doctor given her three weeks.”
“Jeez, that’s rough, dude. Where you going to do? You can’t stay in the apartment, right?”
“Rent’s paid till end of next month. Then I’m looking at cardboard accommodation.”
“You can’t go live with your Pop?”
“He took up with that bitch homewrecker from the store. She’d more likely let Ted Bundy unpack his bags in the spare room.”
Now that’s more like it, right? That got your attention, didn’t it? Right off, you want to know more about Dwayne and Teagan.
One word -
Drama - from the Greek “action.”
Their dialogue moves and propels the reader forward. Much is said that intrigues us, and just as pertinently, much is implied. Questions are posed in the subtext. Part of the story exists beneath the surface.
So let’s unpack this step by step:
Immediately you are given to wonder why Dwayne doesn’t want to be in the house. Why he made an excuse to take Dave out. There is a sense of urgency and desperation in his words – “Had to get out the house. Couldn’t deal with it.”
It’s fairly certain that Teagan and Dwayne are more than passing acquaintances. For Teagan knows something is wrong with Dwayne’s mother and we can tell that it must predate their meeting here – “Is it your mama again?” she asks. It is the use of a single word “again” that achieves this with effortless brevity. So Teagan has a personal insight into Dwayne’s family affairs. Therefore, it would not be presumptuous to suggest they’re probably good friends. Possibly more.
“Doctor given her three weeks,” Dwayne tells Teagan. Nobody needs a doctorate to understand that his mother has a terminal illness. And who wouldn’t be moved by this story?
It's clear that once his mother passes away, Dwayne will have to move out of their apartment (because he’s too young to rent and is still at school and has no income?) and could, in effect, find himself homeless. We know this because he says he’ll be looking at “cardboard accommodation.”
And when this happens, it’s evident he would not be welcome at his father’s place. We can see Dwayne has little fondness for his father and his father’s girlfriend, that bitterness and resentment rattles on the surface of his words.
And so, what is the story behind Dwayne’s father being with another woman, then, who Dwayne calls a “bitch” and a “homewrecker”? Would it be fair to assume his father is a louche or is there more to it than meets the eye? Is the foreshadowing of his father being with another woman indicative of the behaviour of an adulterous douchebag, or are we being led up the garden path?
In just seven short exchanges of dialogue (we’ll exclude the opening two lines, which simply introduces us to the principal characters), we have extrapolated a heap of information. And a good portion of that we have deducted not from the lines written, but from all that exists in the blank parts between them.
And that’s the thing about dialogue that we are not always conscious of but, as writers, we would do well to remember. People don’t always express themselves explicitly - largely because they don’t need to. People learn how to interpret body language, facial expressions. They pick up on ticks and twitches. They are experienced at intuiting what another person is saying or feeling even though very few words might be spoken.
Indeed it is possible to hear a conversation in which the main topic is not mentioned at all but can still be easily known (example 3):
“Weren’t me, guv. Didn’t do it. Nowhere near the bank last Tuesday.”
“Ha! And I'm Marilyn Munroe.”
“I’m telling you. Butter wouldn’t melt in this cakehole.”
“You reckon you’re an angel, do you? You got form longer than the Great Wall.”
“You hurt my feelings. Broke my heart, you have. I’m fillin’ up here.”
“Right. Should get an Oscar, you should.”
There are few – if any - English speakers who could not very quickly explain the nature of the above dialogue. To a foreign ear, however, the topic being discussed might prove more difficult, due to the cryptic and indirect language our two unnamed characters use. Which, to the uninitiated, is likely to sound like nonsense.
Because more than we perhaps realise, people speak in metaphors. But since we are so well versed in understanding their implication and in deconstructing them, an explanation is seldom necessary.
Rarely would we translate “Want to come up for coffee?” as an invitation to drink a hot beverage. Empirical experience of how our cultural language has evolved informs us that the use of the word “coffee” in this context, stands as a replacement for “sex”.
By the same knowledge, we would interpret exactly Dwayne’s meaning of “he took up with that bitch“ as: “my father moved into a house with his girlfriend”.
And we can all make an accurate guess at what sort of crude accommodation is made from “cardboard”, and imagine the circumstances that might see someone living as such, and without the word “homeless” ever once being mentioned.
But what else can we learn about the way people talk from the examples above?
Dialogue is unashamedly ungrammatical.
We are lazy speakers and don’t always use the pronoun “I” when referring to ourselves, or “It” when referencing an object or subject. “[It] Weren’t me, guv. [I] Didn’t do it.” (Example 3.)
We don’t always begin a sentence with an article. “[The] Rent’s paid till the end of the month.” (Example 2.)
Sentences are often truncated - “[The] Doctor [has] given her three weeks [to live].” (Example 2.) - with no loss of meaning.
We have a habit of using language to create an impression of ourselves intended to mislead or to serve our favour and get others to like us or trust us or both - “You hurt my feelings. Broke my heart, you have. I’m fillin’ up here.” (Example 3.) And in this way, it can work to obscure or disclose, deceive or expose, reveal or conceal.
Character and personality are visible in word choice. To portray someone with a sunny disposition, a writer is unlikely to have them using language with a negative bent. While to present someone as cynical or bitter, a writer will not be searching a thesaurus for optimistic synonyms. “He took up with that bitch homewrecker from the store,” (Example 2.) speaks plainly enough of Dwayne’s less than positive opinion of his father’s girlfriend.
Word choice and sentence construction can aptly demonstrate class distinction. It is certain that the exchange between the characters discussing the bank robbery – “Weren’t me, guv.” - shows they are not from the chattering classes, whose speech patterns may jolly-well sound rather more educated, clipped, and mannered. By the same token, it would not be churlish to suggest that the pair’s chirpy East End London, geezer-bloke dialogue smacks of cliché, something all writers should avoid like the plague.
Similarly, an exchange of dialogue can dutifully explain the relationship between two or more people by means of that old writerly wisdom: show, don’t tell. Familiarity, closeness, affection, love, respect, hate, enmity, conflict, and so on - every abstract emotion can be presented through dialogue. “Doctor given her three weeks.” “Jeez, that’s rough.” (Example 2.)
People rarely use one another’s name when conversing, and never with such irritating regularity as heard in example 1.
More often than not we talk in short, punchy sentences. Only rarely do we articulate ourselves with long and rolling sentences that seem to go one forever and ever without pause and only every now and then are broken up with, as here, a comma, because such sentences are laborious and difficult to read and readers are inclined to skip to the next paragraph to get to where the action is and furthermore only James Joyce could get away with writing a 50-page single sentence as he does in Ulysses and so . . .
And now a word about modifiers.
In almost all incidences, a simple “he said” or “she said” is all you need to explain who is talking. Unless the implication of the emotion is not implicit in the dialogue itself, a modifier or tag will be nothing more than fancy window-dressing.
In example 3, this is what could have been written: “Should get an Oscar, you should,” he said sarcastically. But given the tone and context of what preceded this final snippet, we know this utterance is dripping with glibness and therefore negates the need for the word “sarcastically”, and is exactly why it wasn’t included.
You will have noticed, too, how in example 1, it was not once written “Teagan said” or “Dwayne said”. There was no need. We established in the first two tidbits of dialogue who was who and the order of their exchange, which always takes on a question and response pattern, and thus cancelled the necessity for such directives and ensured a skipping pace. Maintained the action, kept the drama moving.
In order to get a better understanding of how to write cracking realistic dialogue, take a look at a few plays or film scripts. Study works by Tennessee Williams or Quentin Tarantino. Notice how every word included is included for a reason, has earnt its place. How every word says something about somebody or some event, providing information, and driving the story forward. Notice how nothing is wasted.
Eavesdrop on conversations on the Metro or at the bus stop. Listen out for regional idioms, peculiar turns of phrase, idiosyncratic sentence structures. Stay alert to the glut of metaphors hidden in everyday speech. Keep a notebook handy and write them down. As one should to collect story ideas.
And finally, and most importantly, read your work out loud. Or again, employ a friend and each take a character. You will – should – hear when something sounds crass or naff or just plain wrong and implausible. And when it does, you’ll know what to do.
Now believe in yourself and put to practice all you’ve just learned.
Start with this 30-minute exercise and imagine the way the dialogue might go when:
Dwayne and Teagan bump into each other on the street. It’s an awkward encounter. They haven’t spoken in several years. The last time they saw one another, hurtful things were said by both parties.
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