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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Monday Musings--Realistic Dialogue

What makes dialogue "feel" realistic? This isn't a rhetorical question--I'm actually interested in hearing, and then reposting, your responses. Please post examples, reference writers, or quote passages you feel might be relevant.

The interesting thing about dialogue that feels real is that, interestingly, it's actually NOT perfectly realistic. For example, in real life, you might be on the phone with your friend telling a story about your night while simultaneously surfing the internet, and a direct transcription of your end of the conversation would look like this:

"Yeah, and so then he was like, getting all crazy or whatever, and I was, like, wtf? You know? It's like...he has such a problem... [pause] What? Oh, no, sorry. No, I'm not typing. No, anyway, what was I saying? Oh! So he was, like, you know that's over, say it's over, and I was like, what are you talking about? I don't know. And then Jon came over and we kind of just, like, dropped it, so I have no idea."

While that may be "real" dialogue, it actually reads as both stylized and incredibly annoying. In fact, it's the opposite of good writing: it uses lots of words without actually saying anything meaningful.

On the other hand, we all know the dreaded "Dawson's Creek" phenomena: I hate it when I read a manuscript (or open a book) and find a 16-year-old girl, described as an average student, shy, maybe with not much of a romantic history, who speaks like this when in a confrontation with, say, her stepmother:

"I'm tired of the fact that you and dad have a perfect domestic life, while I feel totally excluded. It's as though he has completed forgotten about my real mother, and you're pretending she never existed!"

That's a lot of clarity for a 16-year-old, and more transparency of thought/communication than most adults ever express.

Then again, if a 16-year-old were to say to her best friend in a novel: "I hate how dad and Kerri just pretend like we're some family in, like, an LL Bean commercial, you know? He doesn't even talk about her anymore--my mom, I mean. Like she never even existed."

I'd buy that.

Again, though, it's far easier to point out what makes BAD dialogue than to identify what makes GOOD dialogue. Some more pet peeves:

"Cliche" dialogue: "Oh my god," Becky, the head cheerleader, chirped, "Did you, like, see what she was wearing? Lo-ser."

In teen books, too many "teenisms": "OMG WTF! I cannot BUH-LIEVE Andrew didn't retweet you!"

In children's books, children who talk like what conservative grown-ups in the fifties wished their children had spoken like: "Oh, wow, Tommy!" Sarah said, as Tommy showed her the treehouse. "That's super neat!"

I'd like to spend time this week on the blog, focusing on dialogue. So please, tell me: what kind of dialogue do you respond to? And what kind of habits/tendencies do you see in written dialogue that drives you bananas?


william said...

Being a minimalist my favorite dialogue writer is Cormac McCarthy who doesn't even use he/she said or "" marks.

In my opinion qualifiers like "chirped" above negate the *show don't tell* aspect of novel writing.

A reviewer (the name escapes me)of The Princess Diaries by the great Meg Cabot once said the book reads like a note from a friend. I think dialogue should be like that, as if the character took a moment to write down their thoughts in their own voice.
My own most natural dialogue seems to come from characters that reflect some aspect of my own personality which, in the end all of my characters do. However, rewrites remain a constant.

Side note: It's not just dialogue either. Recently I read a novel where the author used descriptive terms in the first person narrative that felt too advanced for the character. They were like cherry bombs going of on the page and sullied an otherwise wonderful book.


Elena said...

For example, the very popular "Maximum Ride" books by James Patterson drive me crazy. The story itself isn't too bad, but the dialog and writing seems very forced. The books have very forced "teen" dialog, like many "oh my god"s and "what the?"s. Not that teens like myself dont use those words alot in everyday conversation, but it seems to me like there should be some sort of balance between "teen talk" and more sophisticated use of wording. The characters, I think, can think in their heads in a more intelligent way than cliche ramblings.
People CAN think in a intelligent manner, even though they may not talk that way. I think people don't talk the way they think because sometimes it is hard to communicate what you've been thinking through just words. Writing seems to be a lot easier to communicate in that way.
if that all makes sense :)
Just some thoughts...

Alexis Bass said...

One of my favorite (as of this afternoon) uses of “real” dialogue was in YOU by Charles Benoit. When the main character, Kyle Chase, is hardly listening as his crush babbles on using ‘like’ about a million times, the reader – in line with the character – takes what she says as background noise. Very interesting.

Unknown said...

the best kinds of dialogue are those you get 'lost' in, like you are actually there, listening in, hearing the characters speak, with just a sparse smattering of um...like..so...sort of...you know...i mean...so that the book's language reflects common, everyday language, giving it an authentic and specific feel. not too much of teen slang/teen speak though. books with too much date the book.

Genevieve said...

Most people don't read books out loud while reading, they silently read in their heads. While the dialogue may be very true to real life if you read it out load, it tends to read as forced or fake. I recently read a book (which will remain nameless)that people raved about, I couldn't get through it because it had too many cliche's and teenisms.

Dialogue is like dance. Every word is carefully choreographed but appears to be seamless and created on the spot.

I recently beta read for a friend. I loved the dialogue but found myself counting how many times a character said the phrase "I guess..." (as in "I guess so", "I guess not", "I guess I'll go now") or started off a sentence with "Well,". Sometimes repeating word or phrase to establish a speech pattern can trip up the reader.

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