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?