Have you ever read stories where the people sound stilted? Maybe they don’t use contractions, or they use long sentences and/or words that don’t tend to be used in ordinary speech. It sounds wrong. You know very well that people don’t talk like that in everyday life.
But have you listened to how people DO talk? Everyday speech is often fragmentary and wanders randomly from one topic to another. Count up how many times someone says ‘well’ or ‘you know’ or ‘erm’ or ‘look’ or ‘yeah, but’ or ‘no, but’. Listen out for unfinished sentences, pauses or interruptions in a ‘real-life’ conversation.
If we wrote dialogue which echoed normal patterns of speech, it could become as irritating as stilted speech. Somewhere there has to be a happy medium. Dialogue in novels must sound real to the reader without necessarily echoing all the idiosyncrasies of real-life conversation.
In my first draft of a story, when I hear the characters speaking in my mind, I find myself including some of the words and phrases which pepper everyday speech. As I read through a conversation I’ve just written, I invariably delete most of these as being unnecessary. I say ‘most’ because I may leave in an occasional one where I feel it adds to a particular piece of dialogue.
It goes without saying that dialogue should suit the person who is saying it. Hoever this has the hidden danger of stereotyping people. I read recently in one article about dialogue that people’s vocabulary is a result of their upbringing and education. The example given was that a college professor would say ‘That’s unfortunate’ whereas a plumber would say ‘That sucks’ – and I cringed. To me, it’s perfectly feasible for it to be the other way round! In the same way, I think it’s wrong to assume that a college professor wouldn’t know anything about plumbing, or a plumber about Shakespearean plays. But now we’re into stereotyping, rather than dialogue (maybe I’ll use that for my letter ‘S’ in the challenge!) – so back to dialogue again. Here are three pointers which I’ve found useful:
Dialogue should move the story forward. Don’t involve your characters in a conversation which is completely irrelevant to the story. The reader isn’t interested in the heroine and her mother discussing what colour of curtains to buy or the hero and his friends having a post-mortem on the latest football match unless these conversations add something to the plot.
Dialogue can also provide information about the characters, but not as ‘info-dumps’. I always groan if I see the words ‘As you know…’ in dialogue. If the other character already knows, then why is he/she telling them again? In reality, it’s the author trying to slip in some information.
Dialogue should reflect the mood, tension or emotion. If the characters are angry with each other, their sentences are likely to be short. If the heroine is trying to hide her anger, she may speak in polite and longer sentences to avoid showing what she feels.
Finally, unless a character is actually making a formal speech, keep each person’s part of a conversation short and to the point. It's dialogue we want, not lengthy monologues!