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Realistic Dialogue

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Old 01-17-2009, 01:21 AM
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Default Realistic Dialogue

Originally Written by HoiLei

Realistic Dialogue

Many writers struggle with writing realistic dialogue. This is because good dialogue is not exactly like real speech, but itís not like the rest of the prose either. Good dialogue straddles the line between talking and writing. Letís examine some common mistakes and their remedies.

But, oh my god! Thatís, like, totally how I, like, say it!
In real life, people can have annoying habits like saying "like". Teenaged girls, especially, use "like" to excess. But this can be annoying in a story. Unless you mean to be humorous, one or two "likes" is quite enough to tell us about the speaker.

Real people also pepper their conversation with ums and ahs and other verbal pauses. These dysfluencies are not distracting in speech, but they should be used sparingly in writing. The only time you need an um is when youíre emphasizing that a character is nervous or something like that. Even then, be careful not to overuse it. You can get the same effect by saying "he stuttered".

$#%@ curse words!
People curse. Itís a fact of life. Certain people curse a lot, using four letter words as space fillers and all-purpose adjectives. But curses on paper are a different matter. Itís an interesting fact that, given a large block of text with an obscene word in it, people will inevitably see the obscene word first. The first time they see it, it has shock value. After that, itís just distracting. So, no matter how coarse or vulgar your character, you should consider other ways of conveying that. Save the curses for those rare occasions where theyíre perfect and the shock is necessary.

Overly formal and educated speech is not entirely desirable.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, some writers put very formal language into their charactersí mouths. They write things like "Having arrived ten minutes early, I sat down, very annoyed, to wait for the clerk to unlock the door". I ask you: how often do you talk like that? Subordinate clauses, embedded sentences, and whatnot are a facet of written language. They call for more planning than most people do when they speak..

Try transcribing a conversation some time. You can use a movie, or just the people in front of you on a train. You'll notice a couple of things that will help you write dialogue. Speech involves shorter sentences, fragments, and little constructions which I'll call topic fronting ('cause I don't know the correct name). What that means for writing is that you should concentrate on...
  1. simple sentences, like "He was waiting for me".
  2. compound sentences, like "I said 'Get out', but he just laughed".
  3. topic fronting. This is when people state the topic out front, then comment on it with subject and predicate: "My mother in law, she's a complete nightmare" or "The rain? We're talking buckets!"
Such shorter bursts are closer to how people really talk. And don't worry that simplifying sentence structure will make your characters sound dumb. It's quite possible to convey intelligence and education with simple sentences; it's a matter of word choice, mainly, and the way the thoughts are ordered.

Ve haf vays of makink you talk!
Occasionally, a story calls for characters to speak with a particular dialect or strong accent. However, beware of too many phonetic spellings or apostrophes!

"Eez zees a Frenchman I see?"
"Och, nae. Itís a Scot, ye ken!"
"Yer both wrong, matey! Oiím a poirate! Arr!"
"Me so solly. You lookee velly weird."

You see how annoying that can get to read? (Not to mention potentially offensive!) If you want to suggest that a character speaks in a marked way, the best thing is to do your research first. Look into how the person might really talk. If youíre doing a historical piece, learn the difference between thee/thou and ye/you, so that you can use them right.

Then, use the dialect sparingly! Your words should be a window, not a wall. Donít overload readers with authenticity; you donít want to get points for research but lose all your readers. A good compromise is to choose a few vocabulary words specific to the time and place you wish to evoke. You can use them consistently, spelling them the same each time, to remind readers that the speaker has an accent:

"Pardieu! Is this a Frenchman?"

Better, isnít it? You can also simply tell readers that the character speaks with a "lilt", "brogue", or whatever. Itís easier not to spell out every word phonetically. Let your readers know about the accent, then leave it to their imagination.

So, you can see that the guiding principle of dialogue is to let your characters speak to the readers. Donít let the way they speak get in the way!

Twenty-year-old Marisa discovers her life is all a lie:
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