Episode 15: Detangling Conversations


The art of writing conversations (i.e., dialogue) is an interesting balance. On one hand, you want your characters to seem convincing, but on the other, capturing the way people really talk can be bland. Do this experiment: go to a coffee shop or university library and listen to and write down some of the conversations you hear. When you’re done, look at what you’ve got. I would wager that it will mostly be small talk about so-and-so, school, jobs, weather, classes, bosses, events, etc. Some of this can be useful in fiction writing, but a great deal of it would simply bog the prose down. This is why dialogue in stories and novels can be tricky: you have to make real-sounding characters say things that keep the story moving or reveal something about themselves.

So, let’s take a look at some characteristics of real conversation and how you can use that in your writing.

Small talk: When people meet who haven’t seen each other in a while—or even if they have—they often start by asking about non-committal or easy topics, such as family, weather, jobs, classes, etc. This can lead to deeper subjects (e.g., emotional responses), but it doesn’t have to. Writing, on the other hand, tends to suppress most small talk. After all, you as the writer choose what scenes to highlight, and small talk rarely gets to the message you want to convey. Now, obviously, there’s no hard rule for this, as small talk can move the plot if used correctly. But for the most part, you’ll want to cut to the emotional aspects sooner.

Verbal tics: Umm . . . so . . . I’m not sure why people would use these. Verbal tics can really set off people you know. You know your Uncle Rob is going to say “eh” after every other phrase or your brother uses “man” every time he talks to you. So, shouldn’t characters have the same tics? Yes and no. If a character is known for a verbal tic, you might be able to get away with using it. However, such traits get old very quickly in writing because, unlike spoken words, they stay on the page in black and white. My suggestion is to describe the traits characters have in the description and not in the dialogue itself.

Graham often paused mid-sentence and repeated but or to until he got going again.

You can get away with some of that if the character is minor, but use it in your dialogue sparingly.

Dialect: I am guilty of wanting a character’s dialect come through on occasion. But the main problem is that colloquial grammar isn’t always easy to interpret and often traipses through stereotypes. It can also be tedious to the reader. Some writers get away with the down-home style of writing, and it becomes something of a trademark for them. However, readers often love it or hate it. It is much better, in my opinion, to simply tell that the person has an accent if it’s important—or leave it to the reader to discern based on the region the person is from.

The bottom line is that dialogue in fiction, while immitating real life in function, does not often immitate real life in practice. This, too, is an element of the art involved in sculpting words.

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