For me, one of the hardest things to master has been the art of writing dialogue. This comes up all the time in discussions of writing. Despite the fact that we hear and engage in dialogue every day, when it comes to putting it down on paper, we tend to give up on writing and set to drawing something called a blank instead.
Readers often complain that dialogue that is poorly written in a novel sounds unrealistic. That is often the case. Try reading a bad section of dialogue aloud. If you can even get the inflection right, it’s not too far gone. Some dialogue is so unnatural that you can’t even tell what’s supposed to be coming across. Dialogue is a terrible thing to botch.
So, what makes dialogue sound right? There isn’t a definite set of dos and don’ts here, a lot of it depends. Check out my previous post on character voices for further discussion on this. There are a few things, however that should be avoided in conversational dialogue.
Be careful with sentence-structure variation. Varying sentence-structure is a good thing in the narrative text, but how often do you hear somebody start a sentence with an adjective in conversation? Do people usually say “Happily, I took the goldfish home,” or “I happily took the goldfish home,?” There are exceptions, of course. People start sentences more comfortably with the adjective “finally”. Also double-check when you start a sentence with a prepositional phrase. You might say “Under my bed, there is an egg-beater” if you wanted to emphasize the location of the egg-beater. But would you say “Beside ourselves with excitement, we forgot what we were doing”? Well, you might, but not every day.
While we’re talking grammar, don’t worry so much about grammatical correctness in dialogue. Real dialogue is full of fragments. People leave out words and don’t finish sentences. That’s a good thing in dialogue, it’s often much more efficient.
At the same time as I’m telling you all this, let me mention something that you may or may not have ever thought about: Good dialogue, while natural-sounding, is not actually that realistic. And readers and critics are just fine with that.
So, what does this mean? Think about it. If you sit and listen to people having a casual conversation, what do you notice? Generally, people are very ineloquent and, without context, almost impossible to understand. On top of unfinished sentences (which are not the same and fragments), randomly mispronounced, misused, or skipped words, people interrupt themselves, use sound effects, expressions, gestures, and forget what they were saying for no reason. There are probably avant-garde authors who write their dialogue like that, but it might be a pain in the neck to read, and would probably hinder the flow of the plot, at least in the readers’ minds.
The trick is to sound natural. Dialogue has to be effective above all, not true-to-life.
I’m excited to bring up the subject of profanity. You know why? Because there’s a lot of discussion among authors about the use of it, and I tend to disagree. Let me tell you something right now, You do not have to use profanity to write good dialogue! There. I said it. I said what commercial authors are all afraid to say. If you don’t believe in saturating your writing or even your speech in four-letter words, rock on, tiger. Like I said, just because that’s how people talk in real life, doesn’t mean you must reproduce it in your dialogue. If you go out among people who swear in every other sentence, something should strike you eventually. Profanity is more often than not used because they couldn’t think of a stronger word. As funny as that sounds, if you think about it, the way people use profanity today is extremely empty. The words mean nothing. What are authors instructed to do with empty words? Don’t do anything with them.
One word of caution only here: If you don’t use profanity, don’t use euphemisms in place of it. That is the only time it would be considered awkward dialogue not to swear. If somebody’s really murderously angry, don’t let them say “darn it.” People will laugh.
Some authors have argued that not using profanity will hurt your ability to sell your work. That’s stupid. Can you imagine getting a rejection slip from a publisher saying “Hated it. There was no profanity.” That would be their problem, not yours. No one will even care if there aren’t any four-letter words, and some might not even notice if you heed the previous paragraph. People who insist upon profanity in literature are either (1) snobs who think they’re so sophisticated with their overuse of empty words and phrases, or (2) they have a slight issue with being addicted to reading dirty words. Either way, it’s not your problem, you don’t need their money that much anyway, and you can jolly well find another publisher. Their loss.
So, remember, realistic isn’t actually the goal. Effectiveness, the ability to relay action and portray character. It’s not about just sounding like what we hear every day. We all know talk is boring.