How People Talk

Dialogue in fiction is nothing like how people talk in real life. Anyone who says different needs to a) listen more and/or b) get a job where they have to talk a lot, like sales or retail. Actually, scratch that last one, it’s probably not worth it.

            There are the obvious differences, such as the absence of uhs, ums, and ers from most dialogue (unless planted there deliberately and with intention). There’s tendency of real people to go off on rambling tangents that interest no one, or share irrelevant details of their lives.

There is rarely ‘small talk’ in good dialogue. Rarely do characters start a conversation in an interesting book with: ‘Hey, how are you today?’ Not too bad. How about you? Had to take the dog to the vet…’

            A group of people in a book manage not to interrupt each other for the most part, unlike real people in a crowd, who will shout and interject constantly, derailing the conversation a hundred times a minute.

            But even when you take all of these differences into account – and if you do nothing more than that your dialogue will at least be readable – there is still so much more to learn. You might think you’re writing dialogue in English, but in reality you’re speaking another language, with its own rules to follow, few of which apply in real conversation.

            This is what I know so far about that language.

  1.  There is conflict in every conversation.

There’s an important point to be made here. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that conflict means two characters yelling at each other. That can make for a good scene, depending on what they’re yelling about, but it’s not necessarily what I mean by ‘conflict.’

            Here’s an example: one character has an idea about how to solve the book’s central problem, another character has a different idea. They disagree about it, and maybe someone takes action the other has warned them against.

            Another: The two characters prioritize different goals that don’t necessarily match up. Gollem covets the ring; Frodo is trying to destroy it. Even though they are working together, their goals are different, giving rise to constant conflict in their every interaction.

            There are plenty of ways to create conflict between characters. Even if they agree on their goals and solutions to a problem, give them radically different worldviews. Perhaps character A did something in the past which character B disapproves of, and the lack of mutual respect is always present in their dialogue.

            Plenty of possibilities, and one of the best ways to create engaging dialogue is to ask yourself where the conflict is, or how it can be created. Do not write, as I often have in the past, dialogues with this kind of format:

            ‘Oh my god! Terrible thing has happened. We have to do X thing in response to solve the problem!’

            ‘Oh no that’s terrible. Yes, you’re right, that response seems completely reasonable. Let’s go do X right now.’

            Come on, man. No one wants to read that.

2. Constant underlying tension

There is a lot of overlap here with the above point, since you can often use the conflict inherent in the dialogue to create underlying tension. That isn’t always the case, though. For a good example of what I mean, go watch basically any Quentin Tarantino movie.

That guy loves putting in long dialogue scenes in which nothing meaningful is said, yet the audience is fully engaged.  

            The reason he can pull it off is because he practically always infuses the dialogue with tension. The perfect example of this is in the opening scene of ‘Inglorious Basterds’, where the SS Colonel is interviewing a family who he suspects of hiding Jews. The tension is there because of course, we know they are in fact hiding Jews who are holding their breath in another room. Watching the scene, the reader is constantly on edge because of the question will he discover them? And if he does, what will he do then? Probably something violent and horrific, something viewers have long come to expect from Tarantino. And, of course, the more sympathy Tarantino can drum up for the honest farmers, the more we fear this possibility.

            In that scene, the Colonel does not kick the door down and start yelling about hidden Jews. That would be a release of tension, not a preservation of it. Instead, he calmly and politely addresses the farmers, asks for milk, and so on. Compare this to another famous Tarantino scene, in which the two hitmen talk, not about the people they are about to murder in cold blood, but about what big macs are called in France. The very mundanity of the conversation preserves the tension – but it only works because we sense what’s coming.

3. Dialogue is a window to character.

In both fiction and real life, you can learn a lot from the way people talk. There are a million factors that can play a part here. How much do they talk, or how little? Long, rambling, breathless sentences, or short, blunt ones? Do they have an affinity for beautiful speech and wordplay, showing off their intelligence, or are they plain spoken? Do they laugh a lot, or never?

            Obviously I could go on, but it’s better if you consider your own experience in dealing with people. If you truly pay attention to the people in your life, you’ll start to notice all of the ways their personalities come through in their every word and gesture.

            From there, you will be able to match certain speech habits and patterns with particular character types. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but keep the ideal in mind: if you do it perfectly, the reader should not need dialogue tags at all to know who is speaking, but will immediately hear the correct voice in their minds. (You will not, of course, ever do it perfectly, but it’s good to try).

4. The non-verbal is as important as the verbal.

Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to write conversations that consist purely of dialogue. It can be done – Elmore Leonard often goes for pages of pure dialogue – but it’s not advisable. For one thing, you’re likely to find yourself writing a script rather than a novel. For another, the longer you leave your reader with nothing but dialogue, the harder it becomes for them to actually visualise the conversation. The characters become frozen in place, a couple of talking heads floating in a void.

            Another less obvious use for doing this is to help manage pacing. One of the problems with a continuous stretch of dialogue is that it reads too fast – especially if the sentences are short. That can actually be useful for short action scenes, but for most dialogue the use of body language helps to give the reader a small amount of time to digest what’s being said.

            Note the difference between these two exchanges:

Exchange 1:

            ‘The last thing he told me was to watch Alex. Said he didn’t trust him at all. Said there was a rat somewhere in the organisation.’

            ‘What, you think it could be him?’

            ‘Rats are rats, Jim. Could be anyone. Could be me.’

            ‘Yeah, well. I’ll take my chances.’

Exchange 2:

            ‘The last thing he told me was to watch Alex. Said he didn’t trust him at all. Said there was a rat somewhere in the organisation.’

            ‘What,’ Jim said, finally igniting the cigarette that had been hanging from his lips for several minutes, ‘You think it could be him?’

            ‘Rats are rats, Jim. Could be anyone.’ Ray’s expression remained deadpan. ‘Could be me.’

            The corner of Jim’s mouth turned up, just slightly, acknowledging the unspoken implication. Could be me, could be you. Taking a deep lungful of smoke, he let it all out in twin streams through his nostrils and sat back in his chair, serene.

            ‘Yeah, well. I’ll take my chances.’

The second exchange is much slower, giving the reader time to think about every word. But the sections between dialogue do more than that. They serve as dialogue tags, so that at every moment the reader is fully aware of who is talking. In a long chain of straight dialogue, it gets very easy to lose track of that, and impossible if there are more than two characters talking.

            These pauses also add depth to the conversation. ‘Could be me, could be you.’ This is an added subtext that adds tension. It’s clear that Ray suspects Jim, and Jim knows it. His relaxed response to this, leaning back and having a smoke, tells us something about him as a character.

            You might also notice that I used ‘Ray’s expression remained deadpan’ to split his sentence into two parts so that the pause after ‘Could be anyone’ is longer, and the final statement ‘could be me’ hits harder.

5. Dialogue attribution

If you’ve read On Writing, you’ll know how Mr. King feels about dialogue attribution, and I tend to agree: he said/she said is best. But even better, in my opinion, is to be clear enough so that even that isn’t necessary. As invisible as the word ‘said’ tends to be (and invisible is what you want in this case), it becomes all too visible if overused, as in the following case:

            ‘I don’t know what to do,’ Darla said.

            ‘Listen, we just have to figure out what Bill wants, and co-operate, right Bill?’ Ryan said.

            ‘But what about – ’ Darla said

            ‘Never mind him,’ Ryan said.

            ‘Right. Both of you in the corner, for a start,’ Bill said.

            ‘I can’t – I won’t go!’ Darla said.

Setting aside for the fact that the dialogue itself sucks, all those ‘saids’ sound repetitive. This kind of exchange is better served by other kinds of dialogue tags. Ideally, if you’re sure the reader knows who’s talking, you can eliminate dialogue attribution altogether.

            King also takes a hard line on adverbs, and while he makes a good point (specifically, that context should tell your reader how someone said something), I have read many books that use them quite well. Overuse is a pitfall, but as long as you’re conscious and careful with how you use adverbs, and stick to ‘said’ most of the time where necessary, the occasional ‘he said harshly/serenely/sharply’ is okay and can sometimes clarify the intention and tone of the character.

6. Everyone has an accent; everyone has a verbal tic.

Yes, even you. There is no one on earth who does not possess some kind of accent and some kind of verbal tic. You might not realise this if you have always lived in the same small community where everyone talks the same, but it is true. I discovered this when I emigrated to Australia from South Africa. Within my first week of school I learned a painful lesson: it was not the Australians who had the bizarre foreign accents, but me!

These kinds of verbal tells can be useful for a number of reasons – adding realism, giving the reader a sense of place and time, dialogue attribution etc. But it can also be easily overdone. In my experience, the best way to go about it is to keep the speech patterns of your characters in mind, yet use as little accent as possible in dialogue.

            For example, if you have a character from the American south, the last thing you want to do is write every sentence like this: ‘Well ah do say sah what a fahn day we’re havin’. I mean, imagine trying to navigate through that mess as a reader. And never mind the potential for unintentional racism.

            Instead, make sure that when the character is first introduced, a particular accent or verbal tic is fixed in the reader’s mind. After that, only very occasional reminders are necessary to maintain the effect. As long as the reader remembers what they’re supposed to be hearing, they will make all the necessary changes in their own mind.

            Of course, don’t say a character has a thick Jamaican accent and then allow them to say things like: ‘I do say, this is a curious situation.’

At the time of writing, that’s about all I know when it comes to the art of dialogue in fiction. If you really want to improve, though, I wasn’t entirely joking about getting a job in retail or sales – although any activity that forces you to constantly interact with other people will help. The listening, of course, more than the speaking. And the watching. And the smelling. Yeah, people smell different, and sometimes that’s a useful thing to know when you write about them. People feel different, too, and probably taste different, as I’m sure some uncontacted tribes might attest… but that’s all for another post. Hope this helped.

2 comments
  1. Sisti Kuper said:

    Fantastic Ben. Thanks. I wish someone had taught me all that in “English Composition” classes. It would have avoided a lot of cringing….by both writer and reader!

    • Ben Pienaar said:

      Thanks Sisti! Plenty of cringe out there that’s for sure…

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