I love writing dialogue. I also love eavesdropping, which is why I suspect I love writing dialogue so much, since essentially I am eavesdropping on my characters.
In theory, dialogue sounds like it should be easy to write. We all talk, right? And dialogue is talking, right? So clearly, dialogue is just recording how people talk, yes? Not exactly.
The problem with trying to exactly reproduce what people say in real life is that real life is not written on a page. In real life, people stammer, ramble about things, repeat themselves, jump around in their topics, repeat themselves, use cliches, repeat themselves and talk about uninteresting things that don’t reveal character or advance the plot. So to reproduce dialogue exactly as people speak can lead to tedious prose. Chances are, you don’t want your story to get bogged down in small talk about the weather, nor do you want your characters to ‘like’ and ‘um’ and ‘hmm’ so much that you are forced to send them all to elocution classes.
On the other hand, when dialogue does not sound natural, it sucks. It sounds contrived and strange. People don’t usually speak in perfect grammatical sentences. People don’t speak evenly in turn. One subject seldom leads smoothly to another subject.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to try to create bad examples to see why they are so bad. Here’s my take on the worst dialogue I can write:
“Hello Mary,” said John.
“Hello John,” said Mary.
“How are you today, Mary?” said John.
“I am well, John,” said Mary. “How are you?”
“I am also well,” said John. “I find the weather is cold today. Mary, do you also find the weather cold today?”
“Yes, John,” said Mary. “I also find the weather cold today. The coldness reminds me of my father from whom I have not heard in many years.”
“Speaking of your father, Mary,” said John. “Last night I received a telephone call on my cellular telephone from a person who claimed to be your father.”
“That is odd,” said Mary. “Why did my father, from whom I have not heard in many years, call you last night on your cellular telephone?”
What’s wrong with this dialogue?
- The language is stilted. Most people do not speak this carefully. Nor do most people say things like ‘cellular telephone’. Or ‘father’.
- People do not refer to each other by name nearly this often.
- It’s boring. Do we really need this much discussion about the weather?
- The small talk very conveniently leads to Mary bringing up her father, which in turn conveniently leads to John bringing up the phone call.
- It’s repetitive. Everyone repeats back the same phrases as if they are in language conversation classes.
- Mary and John are extremely polite in waiting for the other to speak and react. How they speak tell us nothing about their emotions, or their relationship to one another.
Here’s a better take on the same dialogue:
“Cold today,” said Mary.
“Your dad called me last night,” said John.
“What?” said Mary. “Called you? I haven’t heard from him in ages.”
Try this as an exercise: Write the absolute worst dialogue you can. Have fun with it and do your worst. Post it in the comments so we can share bad examples.