Even great writers struggle to write dialogue that sounds like anything resembling a normal human conversation. Two books that really illustrated that point for me this week were The Green Road by Anne Enright and Finders Keepers by Stephen King.
While I enjoyed both books, I found myself suddenly yanked out of the narrative due to some rather awkward dialogue. I think there are some lessons we can learn and apply to our own writing from Enright and King’s struggles with dialogue.
Anne Enright, The Green Road
Mother: Go on up to your uncle’s for me, will you? Get me some Solpadeine.
Hannah: You think?
Mother: My head’s a fog…[sic] I have a chest coming on.
Hannah: All right.
Mother: Try anyway. You will.
– Anne Enright, The Green Road, page 3
There were many moments in this novel where I had to stop and ask myself, wait, what did she just say? As illustrated by the quote above, a lot of the dialogue is simply nonsensical.
I think perhaps Enright was striving to reflect the way people talk to each other in real life. However, I think she’s taken it a step too far and pared down her dialogue so much that it’s very difficult for the reader to follow.
The truth is that if dialogue in novels and movies were to actually reflect reality, it would go something like this:
Charles: Which Charlie then?
Camilla: What Charlie do you think I was talking about?
Charles: I didn’t know because I thought you meant…
Camilla: I’ve got lots…
Charles: Somebody else.
Camilla: I’ve got a lot of friends called Charlie.
Charles: The other one, Patty’s.
Camilla: Oh! Oh! There! Oh, that’s further away. They’re not…
Charles: They’ve gone…
Camilla: I don’t know, it’s just, you know, just a thought I had, if it fell through, the other place.
If you don’t recognise this, it’s an excerpt from the infamous Charles and Camilla tapes. Pretty boring, isn’t it (at least this section of the tapes, anyway)?
When you actually consider how often we communicate with indiscriminate sounds, shrugs, head tilts, disjointed sentences, and long silences, it’s clear that we cannot write dialogue that both accurately reflects reality and keeps the reader engaged.
I think the lesson learned is this: while dialogue should sound realistic, it doesn’t need to be realistic.
Stephen King, Finders Keepers
King had the opposite problem in Finders Keepers. The dialogue is so peppered with things that no normal person would ever say that it’s equally jarring the reader.
I personally have never heard a thirteen year old American girl in 2016 refer to her parents as her ‘folks’. In fact, that would make a good drinking game: take a shot every time a character in Finders Keepers uses the word ‘folks’ and you’d be drunk by Chapter 5.
Another problem I had was the use of nicknames: the Barbster, Petie, etc. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with using nicknames in dialogue, but I think it’s worth questioning when this is appropriate and when it seems out of place.
For example, a father figure talking to a young girl might call her ‘the Barbster’. However, I don’t think he would refer to her as ‘the Barbster’ when talking to his work colleagues. And I certainly don’t think that a young girl tied up in a basement about to be murdered by a psycho would call her brother ‘Petie’.
It may not seem like a big deal, but it’s small details like this that undermine the credibility of your characters and your entire book.
What can we learn from this?
There are many ways to make your dialogue seem realistic that don’t involve cutting it down to the point where it is no longer comprehensible. Some tricks I use:
- Use contractions (can’t, won’t, don’t) instead of the full forms. People don’t say ‘I cannot go to the party’; they say ‘I can’t go to the party’.
- Cut out the details where you can. For example, if the context of the conversation is that the characters are talking about the party, it’s probably enough for the character just to say, ‘I can’t go’.
- Think about the language you’re using and whether it makes sense for the character. A fourteen year old girl in 2016 would probably just say ‘my parents’. However, ‘my folks’ may be perfectly appropriate for a fourteen year old girl in 1956.
- Don’t try to ‘spice it up’ by throwing in obscure words or strange synonyms. Put down the thesaurus and back away slowly. ‘My parents’ may seem boring compared to ‘my folks’, but it will make sense to the reader and won’t stick out like a sore thumb. The point is for your narrative to read as smoothly as possible. Odd phrases don’t make your dialogue exciting; they only distract the reader.
- Keep it concise. People in real life don’t tend to launch into long monologues. Yet with the number of lengthy diatribes that exist in literature and TV, you’d think we were all pulling out our soapboxes at least once a day.
On the topic of nicknames: timing is everything. Nicknames are light-hearted and fun, so save them for scenes that are also light-hearted and fun. Nothing undermines your big, climatic show-down with the deranged villain more than a sudden appearance of ‘the Barbster’.
Do you struggle to write good dialogue? What tricks do you use to make your dialogue sound realistic?