Real Conversations Don't Make the Best Dialogue

January 24, 2019

 

I once had a great writing teacher who thought novels are so engrossing because, when done well, they give you a glimpse into the secret, inner lives of other people better than any medium can—and there’s no more direct way into a character’s psyche than good dialogue. The right line pulls readers in and makes your fictional creations feel like flesh-and-blood people. By the same measure, stilted, forced dialogue is a quick and easy way to push readers out of the vivid and continuous dream and make them put down your book.
 

Writing strong dialogue is exceptionally hard. On a mechanical level, dialogue advances the story’s plot, reveals character, or establishes your fictional world. Ideally, it does all three at once. But it also has an aesthetic requirement that, say, plotting does not. Dialogue is supposed to be pointed, poetic, truth-telling. Even more than sounding true, it has to sound authentic. Characters should appear as if they’re talking extemporaneously even though what they’re saying is highly composed.
 

That might lead a writer to believe, understandably, that the best dialogue should include all the trappings of everyday conversations. That the closer they mimic the things they hear people say at work or on the street, the better. That’s a bit misleading, though, and it’s actually where a lot of dialogue goes off track.
 

If you listen to the way people really talk, it doesn’t translate well to the page. There are stops and starts, uhs and ums, repetitions, digressions, and callbacks to previous conversations—none of which advances a scene or reveals much of anything interesting about your characters. Rather, producing this kind of dialogue might frustrate readers and make them wish the characters would just spit it out already.
 

Studying the best dialogue writers closely reveals that they don’t directly copy real-life conversations verbatim. They’re just so good, it feels like that’s what they’re doing. In actuality, their dialogue has music and rhythm, and is loaded with meaning—qualities that everyday conversation lacks. Richard Price, John Steinbeck, Iris Murdoch, and Elmore Leonard are drastically different writers, but they all write rich dialogue, and they all sound like real speech to some degree. But those authors sand off the roughest edges and focus the conversations in ways that move their stories along, demonstrate character, or reveal truth. This page has a great rundown of 10 successful stylists.
 

There are certainly other dangers to consider when writing dialogue—such as exposition dumps or being too melodramatic with the characters’ emotions—but making your characters sound realistic, if not "real," is one of the trickiest. A certified ghostwriter has the knowledge of craft necessary to make characters pop on the page through their speech, and to write dialogue that keeps your book moving toward its exciting climax. Trusting a professional to tell your story gives you the peace of mind that your novel is the best possible version of itself, and that includes ensuring that dialogue between characters is lively, absorbing, powerful, and believable.
 

For a free consultation to learn how POV Certified Ghostwriting can give your novel a spark through potent dialogue, call (800) 717-3314 or email pov@povghostwriting.com.
 

Incidentally: Writing colloquially is one of the four common mistakes new writers are most likely to make. For more on these pitfalls—and to learn how to sidestep them—download our free PDF, Avoid These 4 Big First-Time Author Blunders.

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