There’s a lot to say about writing dialogue—more than anyone wants to read in a single blog post. But here are two lessons I learned the hard way. (That is to say, I learned these lessons through lots of study, trial-and-error, and getting ripped apart by sharp-clawed critiquers.)
Lesson 1: Realistic dialogue does not imitate real life.
I used to think realistic dialogue imitated how people really talked. But the sad fact is: Most people—even smart people—aren’t that articulate when it comes to speaking. If you don’t believe me, read a few unedited interview transcripts. They sound something like this:
“And, you know, I just knew, like people know, I knew I was going to do something big. It’s a feeling I had, the whole world being my oyster…”
To quote British author Elizabeth Bowen, “[D]ialogue must appear realistic without being so. Actual realism … would be disruptive.”
And that’s because actual realism would include all the “ums” and “you knows” and disjointed phrases that are par for the course in everyday speech. So get rid of them. I don’t care if that’s how people really talk. It’s boring and disruptive.
Lesson 2: Cut the chitchat. (And don’t forget the conflict!)
And while I’m on the subject of boring, let’s get rid of the chitchat, shall we? Yes, we say hello to people and ask how they’re doing and joke around with each other, but when you’re writing fiction, your dialogue has to do more than that or else your reader will stop reading.
Take a look at this excerpt from an early draft of my young-adult novel, A WORK OF ART (available March 2015).
Dad looked up from his sketch. “How was your day?”
“Good. Mr. Stewart gave me an A on that painting.”
Pretty boring, right? But look what happens when I add an undertone of conflict to the conversation:
I stood there for a good minute before Dad looked up from his sketch.
“Well?” he said. “You have something to tell me?”
My nails dug into the mosquito bite on my arm. “Mr. Stewart gave me an A on that painting.”
“Really? You sure he wasn’t high?”
“Good one, Dad.” I made myself smile.
With the added conflict, we get a much better sense of the relationship between the protagonist and her father. She seeks his approval, and he’s reluctant to give it.
I could include more lessons on dialogue, but I don’t want to strain your patience, just as you shouldn’t strain the patience of your reader. It doesn’t matter if the conversation you put down on paper is how people really speak. Your job as a writer is to develop your characters and advance your story… at the same time. If your dialogue isn’t accomplishing both of those goals, then you’d best get to revising.