Having a Dialogue About Writing Realistic Dialogue

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For the past couple of weeks, I have been reading a book that I have tentatively dubbed The Room of novels. I’m just over sixty pages into this 400-page behemoth of a novel with no substance, but that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to read. No, of course it’s interesting. Despite its unnecessary textbook size, egregious spelling and grammatical mistakes, and gaping plot holes, this as-yet-unnamed book really does have a gripping plot, if not for the so-bad-it’s-good writing style. However, the dialogue is another problem altogether.

Writing good, engaging dialogue takes effort. As someone who has been told she writes effective, down-pat dialogue, I can tell you bad dialogue is glaringly obvious, and it really detracts from the effectiveness of the novel. While similar to real-life conversation, it is not the same. If you recreate a real-life conversation in your work of fiction, it’s going to sound awkward, clunky, and downright unreadable. For example, here’s a scene from my novel Reunion ’92 (its placeholder title):

“D’you know when Scott and Sofia are coming?” she asks.

The informality of it makes me cringe. Could her voice be any more accented?

“About five,” I say. “I thought you knew.”

“You’re the one with the phone, Darrell.”

She looks down at her magazine, pointing one of those faux nails at something in that trash. I suppose Scott and Sofia will add some excitement to our bland mix.

“There’s a party,” Nicole says, still looking at her trash-rag like it’s the Wall Street Journal.

“What?”

“Rhys. That’s why I want the phone. He’s going to a party. He said Caroline will be there.”

I shrug. “Why don’t you have your own phone?”

She doesn’t answer. Her cheeks redden, and she rubs a hand over her forehead. At least my bile from before has vanished.

However, if it were to sound like a beginner writer’s words, you might actually get something like this:

“Hello there, Darrell, do you know when our good friends Scott Turner and Sofia Belo will be coming over to visit us?” Nicole, my wife, asks me.

“We both were told by our friends that it would be five p.m., because the reunion will start not long after that, and we want to be there on time.”

“I do not know what the time is, that is why I was asking. There is no need to be rude. Anyway, there is a party.”

“What do you mean, a party?”

“Yes, a party. My son Rhys is going to a party where there will be many teenagers, including the girl that he likes, Caroline.”

“I do not care. Why do you not have a phone, Nicole.”

“I do not know why, Darrell,” she blushes.

Yikes. That sounds really awkward, robotic and unnatural. What about a completely realistic conversation?

“Um… Darrell?”

“Yes, honey?”

“D’you know…um…when they’ll be coming?”

The informality of it makes me cringe. Could her voice be any more accented?

I sigh outwardly, to let her know my discomfort. “You should know. Like… five?”

“Well, um… well, I thought, since you have the cell…”

She looks down at her magazine, pointing one of those faux nails at something in that trash. I suppose Scott and Sofia will add some excitement to our bland mix.

“Well, um, you know, there’s a party. I think I told you at dinner yesterday. Well, yeah, Rhys is off to a party, and Caroline’ll be there.”

“And?”

“Well…I thought, in case you forgot.”

Slightly better, but still off. Are the um’s and ah’s really necessary to the plot?

As someone who’s also completed a degree in Professional and Creative Writing (for the most part, a completely unnecessary degree, in case you were considering), we were told the specifics of how to write realistic, well-thought out dialogue. And I can tell you it’s something that just doesn’t come to everyone. Dialogue isn’t easy to write. However, there are a few ways you can turn your character’s conversations from drab to fab, excuse the clickbait. Now listen up!

  1. Listen to real life “dialogue”, aka conversationsWhether that’s eavesdropping on conversations on the bus or train, listening to podcasts where the speakers have clear chemistry, or hearing how your co-workers or customers communicate, then go ahead and listen. Don’t make it too obvious though, or you could be arrested for stalking. Joking aside, listening to real-life conversation gives you an ear for popular words and phrases, otherwise your characters are going to sound like formal caricatures of a cardboard cutout, and who’s going to want to identify with and support a cardboard cutout of a human being?
  2. Mix it up!

    If you’re just posting long chunks of dialogue, your reader is going to start skipping scenes. Especially when it’s long chunks of text telling you things that really are unnecessary to the whole plot. For example, in my current read, there’s a scene where the author describes the lives of the owners of the local diner for two pages, and there is excessive banter between the character and the diner owners. The scene changes dramatically when a random eavesdropper starts to talk about what he’s seen, and there’s suddenly four chunky paragraphs of this new character’s dialogue with no breaks. Mix it up. What’s Benny Saxon doing as he recites the story of the haunted creek? Is he talking in huge, breathy gasps? Does he reach over for a sip of coffee? Does the owner of the diner walk past and give the main character a knowing look?
  3. Read more

    I know I say this a lot, but read more. And by “read more”, I mean books where the reviewers aren’t just the author’s friends, and it’s not just fifty ★★★★★ reviews that were clearly paid for. Books where there are honest reviews, where you’ve perused the text and can tell you might learn from it. After you’ve read the classics, the genre fiction, whatever, switch over to the terrible books. Read Fifty Shades of Grey, read terrible indie and traditionally published books, read James Joyce’s later works. Read for dialogue, discern the difference between the good and bad, and implement the best of both worlds into your own works.
  4. Relax

    Your writing doesn’t need to be perfect. There are no rules that simply have to be followed, except, you know, for it to be a book it needs to have words and a plot and character/s. The more you focus on how much of a badly written steaming pile of junk your own writing is (it really isn’t), your writing will suffer. As long as you feel it’s halfway decent, the average reader won’t notice. For the most part, you’ll have either beta readers, editors or both, to pull you up on your mistakes. And while Stephen King’s On Writing gives some good advice for writing, one of those—that your beta reader should be someone close to you, like his wife Tabby—should, for the most part, be ignored. For the love of [insert deity], make sure you go with a professional. Otherwise you’ll end up the Tommy Wiseau of writing.

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