Sunday, March 28, 2010

Real-life Dialog

Dialog is alleged to be hard to write.  I disagree.  I find it easy to write (what I've been told is) convincing dialog.  I studied-up before I started, and I know that helped me to write dialog that works.  In my search for tools to put in my dialog toolbox, I came across some useful items, and some (on the surface, at least) outrageously bad advice.

First the good:  I heartily recommend Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella.  Once you've got your dialog written and you're trying to tighten it up, go for Self Editing for Fiction Writers  by Browne and (not Stephen) King.  Browne and King cover a lot more than dialog, by the way.

Now the bad:  many people suggest that you write dialog that sounds exactly like real conversation.  That is so wrong.
"Hi," A said, "how you doing?"
"Fine.  You?" said B.
"Okay.  Um... I had a cold last week, you know."
"Oh yeah.  I heard."
"Better now."
"That's good."
"I hate having a cold."
"The flu is worse."
"Ain't that the truth."
"Uh huh."

The problem is that real conversation has too much filler, and entirely too much of the remainder is inconsequential.  Fictional dialog should be just like the rest of your fiction:  just like life, but without the boring bits.  [Alfred Hitchcock said the "boring bits" thing about drama.  Smart guy.]  If you take that into account and adjust your dialog just as you adjust everything else in your writing, you'll be okay after all.

Here is some transcribed real-life dialog.  Picture two teenage male video game players...
A: "No -- if you hit it smack in the corner you get x2."
B: (thumbs flying) "They call this section workout for a reason."
-- pause in speaking, thumbs still a blur --
B: "We're working on score so we can do survival?"
A: "Yeah."
B: (half to himself) "Grab many bunnies."
A: "Yeah.  Grab 'em and hold onto 'em."
B: "You can't get hit at all!  Oops."  (all thumb action stops)
A: "That was intense."
B: "That was crazy."

(picking up a bit later, during continued game play)
B: "So I just?"
A: "Yeah, put it in there."
B: "Oh.  Okay.  But the light's still..."
A: "It'll stop in a minute."
Or three engineers:
A: (to B) "I want to know if you think it's okay to send it."
B: "Well..."
A: "The writes or reads have problems --"
C: "But they don't use the same thing we do to get stuff in and out."
B: "No. That's right. So we can give it to them."
C: "There's still the, um, the [piece of software] has to be updated."
A: "That's in there."
B: "Good."
A: "What about the doc?"
C: (to B) "Is there a copy of that other than on your machine?"
B: "It's in the, um..."
A: "Transfer site?"
B: "Yeah, the transfer site. But I was making changes. Not done. Just got started."
The first thing to notice is that there's some filler here.  Not as much as in many conversation -- these are all fairly high-pressure situations.  You'd still want to strip these things down to their essentials.

The second thing is that people don't speak in complete sentences, and often don't get to finish their thoughts.  This can be distracting to the reader at times, but at other times it's essential to make the dialog seem real.  You probably don't want every conversation to be littered with unfinished thoughts, unanswered questions, etc, but when the characters are in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, a sprinkling of tangents and lost threads can be just what the doctor ordered.

Third is average and maximum sentence length.  The sentences are short.  Often single words.  Some of those would be replaced by beats, nodded heads, shrugged shoulders, making the spoken lines even shorter.  Even the long sentences aren't very long -- no one is "holding forth."  A good rule of thumb (I think it's in the Dialogue book) is that you shouldn't ever have someone string so many words together that they'd have to take a breath before they finished.  Unless your character is a long-winded sort of person, you should just keep things moving by keeping their dialog short and clipped.

Lastly, context is vital.  Real people in real conversations don't usually explain what they're talking about because everyone involved already knows.  Fictional dialog becomes stilted very quickly when explanations or observations are offered to participants in violation of conversational norms.  It's one of those "you'll know it when you see it" things.  If your characters have arrived at the conversation naturally, there'll be no need for explanation to suit either the characters or the reader.  Sometimes you can have characters engage in conversation with mismatched contexts (people talking at cross-purposes), but you have to make sure that the reader understands what each of the characters thinks they're talking about -- otherwise you're only confusing the reader.

Have you ever studied actual conversations for clues as to how people communicate?  What changes do you make so your dialog works on the page?


  1. Good dialog is more than an info dump. It also needs to move a scene from point A to point B.

    If I have long dialog I break it up with action. I also read it out loud. And while I agree it shouldn't sound exactly like a real conversation, it does need to flow like an actual conversation, and use verbiage typical of the character speaking.

  2. Yup -- EVERYTHING needs to move the story forward. If anything fails to do that, it needs to be removed.

  3. Hi John,
    Well, you know I'm not an aspiring writer, but I do follow your blog. I also dabble in photography and have enjoyed your cloud formation pictures. I can understand your affinity to them given your previous flying experience. Did you take the pics yourself. The red and black clouds posted on March 7, I've never personally seen. Do they occur before or after a storm?

  4. I take the photographs myself, usually just by stepping out my front door. Click. Click-click. Step back inside. My neighbors must surely think I'm crazy.
    Getting on toward sunset is a great time to catch dramatic lighting, and in many cases it throws in some wonderful color, like the March 7 photo. As I remember it, there was no storm coming or recently passed. That roll of cloud is just a small piece of the entire picture, though.
    And in case you don't know, there are some serious restrictions on pilots who fly visually (as I did) when it comes to being near clouds. If I remember correctly, you must stay 500 feet away vertically, and 1000 feet away laterally. You neither want to fly into a cloud (without the proper equipment, training, and support of air traffic control) -- you can't tell which way is up! -- and you don't want someone else popping out of a cloud coming straight at you at 200mph, either.

  5. I've a take a couple of cloud scapes around sunset and they are quite beautiful. Nature's palette is amazing!!

    With so much to keep track of on the control panel of an airplane, I never considered the "cloud variable" factor. But I guess when you're a trained pilot, you just know the rules of the air and to keep your distance. Flying your own plane sounds exciting, but I myself am a landlubber and enjoy the view from where my feet are planted...but I can't deny the beauty from above when I have taken a commercial flight!!!