Jan 24, 2011

Keep it Real ... Or Maybe Not

Writing natural-sounding dialogue is something that comes very naturally to some people, but it's also something that others will struggle with for a long, long time. Whether we're good at it or not so good, dialogue is a very important tool when it comes to story-telling, and it's one we can't afford to overlook.

Dialogue can be used to provide information. We all know this. But chatter just for the sake of providing information can create clutter in your work. Dialogue that exists only to provide information to the reader will almost always sound stilted and unnatural. What you tend to get is one of these conversations -- what many of us call the "As You Know" dialogue
"As you know, John, I’ve been blind since the accident that also left me psychic.”
"Yes, but didn't your mother tell you that psychic abilities also run in your family?"
"Why, yes, John. My great-aunt Freda, whom you met at the family reunion last summer, is also psychic. You remember that she told you about her husband who ran off with his secretary."

“Well, you know I’ve been trying to find someone to clean my house for the past three months.”

"Yes, and the last six people who applied for the job just didn't fit the bill. I don't blame you for turning away the woman you told me about who had the prison record."

Sometimes it's necessary to write conversations between people who already have all the information you're planning to share with the reader, but there’s a skillful way to work the information into a conversation. It takes a little more time, but the end result is worth it. Take the first example I just gave you. Instead, write something like this: 

“I know it’s useless, but I keep wishing . . .”

“What?” His voice was kind. “That you will see again?”
She nodded. “It’s been three years since the accident and I still have trouble accepting that this is how I’ll spend the rest of my life.”
“Try not to think about what you’ve lost,” John urged. “Try to think about what you’ve gained.”

“I do try,” she said. “Some days it helps, but others . . . Tell me, John, would you consider exchanging your eyesight for the limited ability to see the future a fair trade?”

Or for the second example: 
“Any calls today?”

“About the housekeeper’s position?” Marsha shook her head. “It’s been three months already. Wouldn’t you think I’d have found somebody by now?”
“You’ve had plenty of applicants,” Trudy said with a grin. “You’re just too picky.”

Marsha laughed. “You can’t seriously think I should have hired the ex-con?”

“Of course not. Just pointing that you’ve had options, that’s all.”

The trick to believable dialogue is to provide information to the readers subtly, so that it sounds natural and interesting at the same time. 

Real dialogue, the kind real people engage in every day, is often almost unreadable and a lot of it is beyond boring. People interrupt one another, leave sentences unfinished, and say a whole lot of nothing, especially when they first come together in a room. As writers, our task is not to repeat real dialogue, but to create a facsimile of real dialogue that is actually worth the reader's time.
photo credit: Oh Winter, let's get married via photopin (license)

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant way to sharpen the weapons on a Monday.

    Thanks! I'll retweet.


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