Writing Dialogue: Why Characters Shouldn’t Talk Like Real People

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

I know, I know:  you’ve been told the exact opposite about dialogue writing by every other fiction teacher and book writing coach on the planet.  And they were right.  To a point.  Now I’m here to explain to all you hard-working fiction writers why your characters SHOULDN’T talk like real people. 

I promise:  my advice on how to write dialogue will make more sense if you keep reading . . .

I was judging manuscript entries in a book writing contest the other day, and I just wanted to cry. Somebody had obviously coached several of these (otherwise promising) fiction writers to write the conversations of real people.

::groan::

Let me put my groaning into perspective for you.

Characters are the heart of your book. Complex and compelling characters will keep your readers turning the pages. In essence, your mission is to make your characters think, talk, and act like believable people.

Notice that I didn't say "like REAL people."

Why the hair-splitting?

Because writing the dialogue of real people is a SNOOZER, folks.

Real people say, "uh," every three words.

They throw in unnecessary exclamations, like, "Really!" every 20 seconds.

They go galloping off on mental tangents, which tumble out of their mouths in confusing sentence fragments, like:

"The trouble with Pam is . . . Dang skeeters. Hey, did you watch . . . uh . . . Are we out of toilet paper? Ow! Here, Fang . . . "

And my #1, absolute favorite example of real people talking (at least in Texas), goes something like this:

"We need to order more paperclips, and so forth, and so on."

Honest!  I’ve heard folks in Texas tack “so forth and so on” onto their sentences!   I think it’s a Lone Star thing.  Kinda like, ya'll, chicken-fried steak, and jackalopes – which is a beast that looks like a jack rabbit with antlers.  (Curiously, jackalopes can be spied more often in Texas taxidermy shops than in Texas woodlands and prairies . . . )

But I digress.

How well do you think the following passage of dialogue meets the complex and compelling rule for characterization?

"Hey."
"Hey."
"How's it goin'?"
"All right. You?"
"Yeah."
"Whatcha doin' later?"
"Nuthin'. You?"
"Nuthin'."
"You wanna catch a movie?"
"Dunno. You?"
"Maybe."
"What's playing?"
"Dunno."
"You wanna check?"
"Don't have my phone. You?"
"Got my iPad."
"So you check."
"Okay. . . Well, I checked. It's all crap."
"Figures."
"So whatcha wanna do?"
"Dunno. You?"
"Dunno . . . "

(Are you SNORING yet?)

That was real-live conversation, folks. I overheard it at the grocery store yesterday.

The moral of this story?

When writing dialogue, do not pad your manuscript with "real" conversations, unless you want your reader to toss your book into the nearest porcelain bowl and flush.

(Don't try book-flushing at home, kids.)

Now let's rewrite the previous dialogue passage, applying one of our favorite tricks from our Writers Toolkit. We'll call this tool, paraphrasing:

Billy ran into Johnny outside the 7-11. After a knuckle-bump and some good old-fashioned ribbing -- the kind that used to get them in trouble in high school Biology class -- Johnny invited Billy to see a movie. The trouble was, none of the shows were worth watching.

(Riveting, right?)

The point is, by summarizing commonplace greetings and wishy-washy conversation, you are well positioned to advance your scene with INTERESTING dialogue. (Or an attack from a killer bee swarm. Your pick.)

So now it's your turn!

Let’s see all you fiction writers belly-up to the keyboard and practice writing GOBS of compelling dialogue for your characters. Your readers will thank you!

And so will your contest judges.

Now it's your turn!  In the comments section, below, let us know your best practices for writing dialogue and using it to develop the characters in your novels.