Write how people talk, but don’t write how people talk

On writing dialogue, I hear two common pieces of advice:

1. Write how people talk, because it’ll ring true on the page.

2. Don’t write how people talk, because it’ll be totally boring.

I see the wisdom in both schools of thought. On the one hand, you want your characters to sound believable. On the other, you don’t want readers yawning their way through your characters’ conversations.

One habit I picked up when I was writing for a newspaper was to avoid quoting facts, and instead quote a source’s comments on those facts. (Mr. Jones’ driveway is two-hundred feet long. “It’s a monster of a driveway,” says his neighbor, Mrs. Smith. “Far, far too long for this town.”)

For the most part, when quoting my fictional characters, I employ a similar technique of making dialogue the “color commentary,” so to speak, and it helps me find that tricky balance between writing how people talk and not writing how people talk.

Also, it seems to go along with Elizabeth Bowen‘s oft-taught dialogue rubric, which I think is excellent:

1. Dialogue should be brief.

2. It should add to the reader’s present knowledge.

3. It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation.

4. It should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.

5. It should keep the story moving forward.

6. It should be revelatory of the speaker’s character, both directly and indirectly.

7. It should show the relationships among people.

So, I’m curious ….

Writers: What’s the most useful dialogue-writing tip you’ve heard? And readers: Whose dialogue do you admire?

~Alicia Bessette

13 Replies to “Write how people talk, but don’t write how people talk”

  1. I think the “boring bits” of real conversation *can* be used, if used carefully. I find they can demonstrate awkwardness, avoidance, etc. They can be used in lieu of pauses.

    Also, I use first-person narrators, which allows the colorful thoughts around the “boring” conversation to interpret the mundanity.

    (WordPress tells me that “mundanity” is not a word. Then again, it’s telling me that “WordPress” isn’t a word, so…)

  2. I like to read it out loud. I also try to get the words that are unique to the heart of the area’s lexicon.

    “Hey brah, maybe you like mo bettah I break your head, o wat?”
    “Dude, I will mess you up.”
    “Fool, you about to meet God.”
    “Vato, your life just changed.”
    “You big fat tomato, let’s have lunch.”

    Thanks Alicia.

    ps. The dog’s asleep on my feet, my son’s watching Avatar, and I’m hunting words. Have a great day.

  3. I think the best advice I ever got on dialogue is that most people don’t actually answer the question they’re asked. For example:

    How people tend to write it:
    Do you want coffee with your cake?
    No, thanks. I don’t drink coffee.
    What would you like then?
    Ummm…I think I’ll have milk.

    How people tend to talk:
    Do you want tea or coffee with your cake?
    Actually, I’m going to have milk.

  4. Great advice, Alicia! I struggle with dialogue a great deal. I think #6 (it should be revelatory of the speaker’s character) is what always separates good dialogue from great dialogue. Quirky ways of saying things reveal so much more than any descriptive paragraph can. Zadie Smith comes to mind as a master of #6.

  5. These are great tips! (and timely, too, since I’m in the middle of a dialogue-heavy scene).

    I adore Jennifer Crusie’s dialogue. I also want to be her when I grow up, but that’s another conversation.

    Great blog post!

  6. Good rules to follow (and to occasionally break!)
    And Joelle – I’ve never heard that before, but it makes sense.

  7. great post — right to the point without giving 1000 misleading examples. huzzah!

    when i teach creative writing it’s really hard to get young writers to understand that dialogue isn’t supposed to capture the reality of speech. i remind them that we don’t listen to every word people say. and, as Joelle’s post astutely points out, we don’t always respond in a step-by-step fashion. (conversations are not A-B-C-D but A-D.)

    Still, people look at Mark Twain and Toni Morrison and think things like dialect are evidence that dialogue is like Memorex. if you look closely at Morrison, though, her dialect is just part of her really poetic, well-crafted dialogue. people don’t actually speak the way her characters speak.

    capturing exactly how people talk is not fun to write (or read) for me. I want people to sound different. not perfect, but like poetry in a way. concentrated language, a use of vocabulary that matches and expresses the character but not via stereotypes of class/race/gender. I think about regional phrases and try to limit my use of them. if every character is speaking the same way it ceases to be unique, even if i can say that “everyone from south jersey sounds like that.”

    i will state, also, that the rhythm of how people speak is often just as crucial as their diction. writing a character that rambles without using lots of conjunctions or empty pausing words is tricky but amazing when it works. in fact, I saw an interview with Christopher Guest (of Best in Show etc fame) and he said that most of his movies begin with the way people talk. he listens to how people say things and will create a character based on that. not on WHAT they say, but HOW. but he takes it to this creative place that allows him to see that how people talk can reveal and suggest how they live and what they believe as well.

  8. You know how sometimes you have a conversation and afterward you think “I should’ve said, x, y, and z”? That’s how I write dialogue. So it’s realistic (ugh! I should’ve said THAT!) but yet more interesting than regular everyday speak. I actually find dialogue far easier to write than anything else!

  9. Wow, really chewy comments today. Awesome.

    Evan: “concentrated language” — that’s it, exactly! That’s going to be my mantra from now on when writing dialogue. Morrison’s dialogue always takes my breath away. And you’re right: no one in “real life” talks like that. It’s distilled poetry.

    Michelle: I totally see what you mean. Cool!

    Joelle: Great point. That’s going to change the way I approach dialogue, actually. Thank you for it!

    BD: I struggle with it too.

    Greg: Reading out loud is incredibly helpful, isn’t it? (Nice lines!)

    Emily: I totally agree: “boring bits” of regular conversation can be revealing if written a certain way.

    Scott: Twain has some gems, doesn’t he?

    Sarah: Yep, rules are for breaking.

    And thanks to Violet and Tawna for mentioning writers who are new to me. I will check them out.

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