Real dialogue isn’t really real


Like Misty, I’ve been thinking a lot about dialogue this week and I wanted to add to her excellent points.  On Monday I was on a flight listening to people talk around me and I remembered a manuscript I read a while ago that began with two characters on a plane.  They were strangers and we watched as the hero walked down the aisle (dealing with people in the way, looking for overhead space — the usual stuff) and then him sitting, getting comfortable, and striking up a conversation with his seat-mate.  They talked about what you’d expect: wondering if they’d have the middle seat between them free or if someone would snag it at the last minute, where each was headed, was the plane going to take off on time, what were they doing in the departure city and what waited for them in the destination city.  

It was all very very real.  And that was the problem.  Because real conversations can be really really boring.  None of that dialogue was important to the plot point — it was just dragging the scene along until something interesting could happen.  Sagablessed asked last week how you make dialogue in the “real world” seem so easy and my response would be to not make it real.  I know that sounds counter-intuitive but in real life we inject a whole lot of “extra” into our conversations which is fine for real life but can really bog down the pace of a narrative.

One of the ways to keep pacing tight in a story is to cut out anything extraneous.  The key here is to determine what “extraneous” is.  Describing someone’s expression or the action they’re taking while speaking probably isn’t extraneous.  And sometimes including the “um” and “er” in dialogue is important as well (within limits).  What’s extraneous are all the little filler things that exist in almost any conversation.

Take this morning for example.  I’m at a writing retreat and a friend of mine has access to sales data that I wanted to see.  So she walked into the kitchen and our real conversation went something like this: 

Me: “Oh, hey, you’re awake. I was hoping you wouldn’t sleep too late today.”

Her: “Yeah, I’m still not used to the time change.”

Me: “I know and also it’s so dry out here.  I can barely stand it at night.  My eyes are killing me.”

Her: “I know, at home we have a humidifier and it helps.”

Me: “I know.  Anyway, so since you’re up now, I was wondering if at some point I could use your computer to look up some numbers?”

Her: “Oh yeah, of course.  Sure, not a problem.”

Me: “Oh, are there still bananas over there?”

Her: “I think there are a few left.  They put them over here with the bread but I don’t know why.”

Me: “Hmmm.  Maybe I’ll make toast instead.  But do I really want toast?  When do you think lunch will be?”

Her: “Dunno — do we know if anyone’s cooking lunch today?  Oh, and did you want to see those numbers now?”

Me: “Sure, might as well before you get to work.  No reason not to.”

Her: “Let me just grab coffee and some grapes first.”

Me: “Fine.  Should we go outside so we don’t bother anyone?”

And OMG if you’re like me right now you’re dying of boredom!  But that’s what a real conversation looks like!  It meanders and rarely stays on point and even the important information is buried.  If that scene were in a book, what would be the point of the scene?  That I want the information, that she has it, and that I need to get access to it.  Maybe throwing in a line about bananas adds to the layering of the scene but all the rest of that stuff is extraneous and it buries what’s important.

I spend a lot of time thinking about this because I always have a difficult time writing the very first conversation between two strangers who will be developing an important relationship in the story (often they’re the hero and heroine of my romance sub-plot).  Because if you remember meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend you know how many inane and long and boring (to an outsider at least) conversations you had in order to create the romantic bond.  But in a book you don’t have that luxury.  The reader is going to get very bored very quickly with the kind of introductory surface-level dialogue that takes place in real life before you get to the more substantive stuff.

So this is why you have to break “real life” when you’re writing dialogue.  Sometimes you can engineer a situation where you can leap immediately into the substantive.  Perhaps the “strangers” were friends in the past so you can bypass the awkward beginning stuff; or maybe they’re in a very tense situation together where you skip over the beginning stuff because there are more pressing issues.  

To tie this back in: if you’re going to introduce two strangers on a plane and the reader knows the plane is going to crash soon, don’t bog it all down with the kind inane dialogue that actually exists in real life.  Figure out what the point of that scene is: to establish the hero? To introduce a secondary character? To show the “before” snapshot (and the secondary question to that is what is the before snapshot and how best can you show it?)?  Once you know the point, tailor the dialogue to meet it.  If the goal is to introduce the hero, figure out what the reader needs to know at that moment: maybe that he’s on a business trip and needs to get home to his kids.  If that’s the case, do we need to hear from the stranger about his troubles finding overhead space for his bag?  Probably not.  But if the goal is to introduce the secondary character, then dialogue about the overhead bins might be relevant and important.

Think of it this way: if you were in that scene on that plane, sitting in front of those characters would you be listening in or tuning them out?  If your answer is the latter, why would the reader choose any differently? 


14 comments to Real dialogue isn’t really real

  • I could not agree more with this – most of our real talking is dull. I work in a library and I thought back over a few of the conversations I had today, and I swear, if I hadn’t been standing up, I’d have gone to sleep during some of them. I guess the smart thing is to remember that every part of your story, especially the dialogue, has to have a purpose, or it doesn’t belong.

    Great post, Carrie!

  • Carrie, I like. In fact, I’d like to see you rewrite the dialogue scene as you might use it in a book!

    Conversation is even worse if you hear my mom and me talking, in which the use of the word *thing* is overused. Like,
    “You remember the thing we were talking about?”
    “Yeah, the thing.”(holding up hand to indicate a bracelet that attaches to the fingers too, and for which we’d forgotten the name.)
    “Um, yeah. The chaine maile bracelet thing?”
    “Yes. Well, Jim found a different style, and it’s made of these things?”
    “Diffferent kind of rings?”
    “Yes. And it had stones? Yellow things?”
    “Like, maybe amber? Citrines? Yellow agate?”
    “And the finger thing?”
    “Yes, was made with stringed pearls.”
    “Cool. I like those things.”
    (rolls eyes)
    NO WAY to use that in book dialogue.

  • The dialogue discussion this week has been really interesting for me, in addition to being helpful, because I’m teaching a business course on presentation skills and just realized I’ve been telling my students basically the same thing you’re telling us. I’ve been trying to get them to understand that they need to practice enough to *appear* natural when speaking, not to actually be natural since our natural way of talking is rarely organized or clear or free of “ums, ers, and likes.” Until this week I’d never really made the connection between “natural” dialogue and “natural” presentations.

  • Nathan Elberg

    I approached this by having a 3rd person POV summarize the boring stuff, and then note when it gets interesting. Summarize the boring stuff, instead of presenting it:

    “At first all the discussions were about the game, about strategy, who were the strongest players… After some time the discussions were about grain prices, the lack of rain, would they be better off surrendering to Ja’ix?
    Zeresh’s ears perked up as she caught the drift of the latter conversation. What would their fate be if they surrendered, someone asked.”

    In my novel Zeresh is in charge of enhanced interrogation for the Bronze Age community where this takes place.

  • My conversations tend to be strange because my head’s filled with so much stuff that things get pushed out.

    Me: Oh, I found the uh…” waves spatula in the air while the food on the stove sizzles, “um…that thing, the flibbertiwatsis, you know that thing with the thing and the things on it that you press and make the thing turn on so shows–”

    Her: “The remote?”

    Me: Points. “That’s it! The buttons. They were in the whatchacally, the couch.” Flips meat, stirs vegetables, and turns to add more dishes to the dishwasher.

    Her: “It’s a good thing I’m getting used to speaking Dan.”

    Me: “Idnit?”


  • Carrie, great post. As I said the other day in response to Misty’s post, we should have our characters speak the way we WISH real people spoke. Casual, colloquial, relaxed, but directed and without all the mannerisms — the ums, likes, you knows, etc. It’s a hard balance, but when you find it, scenes with dialogue really flow.

  • My word, yes. If any one took a transcript of the way I talk, especially to people I know well, it would be incoherent because I talk with my hands. I also say um and er far too often. It occurs to me that what we’re looking for both in public presentations and novel dialogue is sprezzatura – the art of appearing spontaneous rather than real spontaneity.

    The other thing that stood out from Carrie’s example dialogue was that there’s no tension. Even if we pare away the extra stuff in the conversation there’s no conflict simmering (or boiling over) between the two characters. Most conversations in life aren’t high on conflict and reasonable adults usually try to reduce tension rather than ramping it up. I may want to stand up and yell “You fool! You’ll ruin us all!” at a colleague who wants to eliminate my favorite class from the catalog, but I won’t. (I’ll think about it though. Hehehehe.) In real life that would be bad. In a book it might be great.

  • Just to throw a kitten in the dishwater, there are times when the ers, uhms, and likes can come in handy. They’re great for ‘showing’ hesitation, uncertainty, deceit, uhm… confusion?
    And those off topic conversational rail-jumps we all do can be used to effect, as well. They’re useful for a character who desperately wants to change the subject, or to – again – show a character who is easily distracted.
    Something I read a long time ago had two main characters. During transition scenes as the characters moved from one crisis to the next – and sometimes, in the middle of a crisis – they’d pick up the thread of an old conversation/argument. It didn’t move the plot forward, didn’t really have anything to do with the story arc or scene, but what it did do is show that these two had a long, comfortable relationship. It almost got to where you ‘wanted’ that next off-topic bit of dialog because you were interested and wanted to know where they were going with it. (Kudos to the author; one of the characters did actually decide to buy the blue one!)

    What I’m trying to say here is that, as with anything else, there are exceptions to the rules. And as with any spice, use sparingly, and to taste.

  • This reminds me of a scene from The Simpsons (like everything does) where they are going to film Radioactive Man. While looking around the set Martin sees some guys painting horses to look like cows.

    Martin: Uh, Sir, why don’t you just use real cows?
    Painter: Cows don’t look like cows on film. You gotta use horses.
    Ralph: What do you do if you want something that looks like a horse?
    Painter: Eh, usually we just tape a bunch of cats together.

    And so it with dialogue I think. If you watch Big Brother (the reality show, or any reality show) you’ll find the conversations are boring as heck. If you watch a prime time drama the dialogue is dramatic, on point and character defining. It is a bit disconcerting when someone talks to you in perfect sentences and with emphatic drama in their tone.

  • sagablessed

    I also listen to conversations. I go to collegiate hang outs and places where HS kids gather to listen to how they speak. One person in my writers’ group complained my younger characters sounded like Valley Girls. Well, not only did he date himself, but to be honest, it IS how kids these days talk. I modify the uses of ‘like’, ‘boo’, and other colloquials, but it is the flow and pattern of modern speech. Making such talk fit for plot points etc is difficult, but I think the smattering of such words gives the dialogue a realism. Because kida today do not talk like the TV shows.
    Think of Cordelia on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How she spoke was far closer to what kids say in real life. Maybe not such superficial idiots, but the inflective patterns and verbage are far more correct for the modern teen. It would not work in a written book, but a smattering I think would lend a realism to dialogue for younger characters.
    Just saying.

  • Megan B.


    It is authentic, but I think the way teens talk is also really annoying to many people 🙂 So I guess the question is, is that level of authenticity worth potentially annoying the reader (even if just a smattering)? That’s my two cents anyway.

    By the way, love this topic. It’s a really important thing to consider, finding the balance between realistic and interesting. Maybe that’s part of the reason I like fantasy; even day-to-day conversations are more interesting, just by nature of everyday life being different from the real world.

  • It is authentic, but I think the way teens talk is also really annoying to many people 🙂 So I guess the question is, is that level of authenticity worth potentially annoying the reader (even if just a smattering)?

    Which is why real dialogue isn’t really real, as Mindy has said. As in many things, it’s a balancing act. Balance in all things. You still need to add the flavor, as even in cooking, to use an analogy I probably know better than writing, without overpowering the palate of those enjoying the dish. And just as with everything, even food prep, there are those that will still not like the spice. But add just enough without going overboard, and the majority will get what you’re trying to show without being turned away by it. And that takes practice and a discerning eye…or taste buds…something like that…

  • The coolest thing, by far, about dialogue is that it isn’t real. Which means when the real dialogue is something like:

    “Vaguely insulting statement,” said character one in some kind of committee meeting.
    MC is hurt, but ignores it, saying instead, “shall we move to the next agenda item.”

    On the other hand, in fiction, it can go like this:
    “Vaguely insulting statement,”
    MC is hurt, but says “yeah? bring it bitch…” and the committee meeting explodes into cattiness and, possibly, violence.

    I try to think about what the worst thing my character could say, or the best, (and still in character), or the thing I’d love to say in a similar moment but can’t because I live in reality, not just the “like reality” of books.

  • quillet

    I totally agree with this, Carrie. Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is like real life with the boring bits removed. True for movies, and definitely also true for dialogue in a novel. Characters have to want/need something, even in the simplest-seeming conversation, and there has to be conflict/tension, otherwise it’s a scene that doesn’t need to be told. So… What everyone else said!