Writing Realistic Dialogue : WAKE Editing Articles and Advice
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Writing Realistic Dialogue

by Weston Kincade on 10/16/13

Too often I see manuscripts with dialogue that’s grammatically correct—no contractions, nothing. People don’t speak this way. To create great characters, they have to live and breathe. This means the author’s voice should be nowhere in the dialogue. As a growing author, listen to the voices of the world and you will discover the core of a character’s dialogue and individuality.

 As Quentin Tarantino said, “I was kind of excited about going to jail the first time, and I learnt some great dialogue.”


Common Dialogue Problems:

The most common problem I encounter with dialogue in clients’ books is speech that is too prim and proper. While third person narrators normally speak in traditional English, characters have their own speech patterns and dialogue. These often make use of colloquialisms, fragments, contractions, and even cliché phrases.

Consider this: 

“You have to go and tell Mom that we will be late. She is most certainly very concerned about our absence.”

Overall, this doesn’t seem bad. It’s clear and makes since, but do people really speak this way? No, and speech like this will often grate on readers’ nerves. There are a few authors and books that succeed with dialogue done this way, normally popular books that have been translated, but most do not. 

Depending on the character’s attitude and speech patterns, wouldn’t something like this be more realistic:

“Go tell Momma we’ll be late. She’s gotta be worried sick.”

Cliché phrases like “worried sick” should be avoided in your narrative, but in real life, people use them. It can make your characters real. Also, colloquial terms and nicknames like “Momma” express not only a relationship, but a real connection between the characters. Words like “gotta,” while not grammatically correct, add a deeper sense of realism if sprinkled amongst your dialogue. Bring your characters to life, and the readers will forget there’s an author behind it all.

 

Finding Examples of Realistic Dialogue:

For a great example of realistic dialogue, you don’t have to go to prison like Tarantino. Try looking up transcripts of real interviews. 

Look at this example from a recent BBC interview with Kanye West:

“So I’m gonna take music and I’m going to try to make it three-dimensional, like…, like in Star Wars, and the hologram’ll pop up out of R2-D2. I’ma try to make something that jumps up and affects you, in a good or bad way.”

Another great example is Billy Corgan, lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins. Last August Monita Rajpal interviewed him on CNN’s Talk Asia:

“It's not a corporate thing. It's been turned into a corporate thing, but really, people like me - you can't invent people like me. We kind of come out of weird places and strange backgrounds and we can't be sort of prototyped or copied. Although we can be imitated, we can't be copied.

“So I think that's really what it is. I mean people - in essence, they have to go to a live band event to see this one-of-a-kind thing. And it's no different than King Kong, you know, in chains. Like, ‘Rrrr.’ You know, that's how I feel sometimes. I mean, there I am. I'm a flawed thing, but there's only one of me. And if you want to see that one of the thing, there it is.”

Whether you know who Corgan is or not, reading this dialogue automatically gives the reader a sense of who the character is. The speech is distinct.

 

Wonderful Dialogue in Literature:

Dialogue doesn’t have to be long. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Most conversations are short, clipped back and forths. One of the best literary examples of dialogue is from the mind of talented Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“Drink up,” said Ford, “you've got three pints to get through.”

“Three pints?" said Arthur. “At lunchtime?” 

The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

“Very deep,” said Arthur, “you should send that in to the Reader's Digest. They've got a page for people like you.”

“Drink up.”

The dialogue is short. It even includes quips that make us laugh, but also speak to the characters’ relationship.

The last example is one by Toni Morrison from Beloved:

“Something funny 'bout that gal,” Paul D said, mostly to himself.

“Funny how?

“Acts sick, sounds sick, but she don't look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull.”

“She's not strong. She can hardly walk without holding on to something.”

“That's what I mean. Can't walk, but I seen her pick up the rocker with one hand.”

“You didn't.”

“Don't tell me. Ask Denver. She was right there with her.”

As I’ve mentioned, there are short snippets, fragments, and even the word “’bout.” As in real life, characters sometimes drop letters from the beginning or ends of words. To show this in dialogue, a closing single quotation mark is used in place of the letter.


Less Is More:

With any literary technique, remember one of the most important lessons I teach, Less is more. Maintaining the balance between realistic and legible dialogue is very important. Don’t overuse anything, because one phrase, literary device, or even overused punctuation mark can be the reason a reader puts your book down or leaves a bad review.

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