Good dialogue should be easy to write, right? After all, we all have a lot of real-life experience to draw on for inspiration. We spend a lot of our time having conversations with our friends, family and colleagues, and we’re constantly hearing fragments of other people’s conversations in cafes, at bus stops, at work… so why is it that when we make our fictional characters talk to each other, it’s easy for the result to be disappointingly unrealistic?
There are two secrets to writing good dialogue which are, in fact, counterintuitive. Instead of trying to emulate real-world conversations in fiction, use these unexpected tricks to bring your dialogue to life on the page.
Secret 1: Fictional characters are more articulate than real people
In real conversations, we don’t consistently use complete, coherent sentences. We get stuck and search for the right word, or we break off mid-sentence and start a new one, because we suddenly thought of a better way of phrasing what we want to say – or perhaps we thought of something more important to say. Our sentences meander and repeat themselves, on the way to conveying what we want. Many of us make noises like ‘umm’ or ‘ah’ or ‘er’ while we’re doing this. The thing is, we don’t tend to hear those breaks, repetitions and random noises – because we’re listening out for the meaning that the other person wants to get across.
When conversations are written down, those stops and starts and ‘umm’s and ‘ah’s really stand out, because we can’t ignore them like we do when we’re listening to someone talk. As a result, they become meaningful out of proportion, giving the impression that it’s important for the reader to know that this character is struggling to get their point across. In fiction, (unless your character is truly struggling to get their point across,) the dialogue only needs to contain the essence of what each character wants to say – effectively, it needs to contain the meaning that is deciphered from amongst the stops, starts, ‘umm’s and ‘ah’s. Making your fictional characters speak more articulately than real people will, counterintuitively, make your dialogue sound more realistic.
Secret 2: Fictional conversations have more purpose and less fluff
With real conversations, we don’t necessarily set out to achieve anything in particular. We easily drift from one topic to another: we ask people how they are and whether they want a coffee, then we remember that funny story we wanted to tell them, and that reminds us of something else… Even when we’ve agreed to sit down and discuss something very specific, there are pleasantries, asides and tangents. Because real conversations (aside from work meetings and the like) are less about achieving a predetermined goal and more about connecting with people, they contain a lot of purposeless (but meaningful) fluff.
Fictional conversations happen for a purpose – and it’s not necessarily the characters who have a purpose for a conversation, more likely it is the author. The purpose of every fictional conversation is either to move the story forward or to reveal some information to the reader, rather than for the characters to connect with each other (unless, of course, the characters connecting with each other is what moves the story forward in that scene). If the offer of a coffee or the recounting of that funny story doesn’t do either of those two things, the dialogue will sound meaningless to the reader. Being clear on the reason why your characters need to have a conversation, and cutting out all the fluff that doesn’t play into that reason will, again counterintuitively, make that dialogue sound more realistic.