Keeping dialogue real
Listen to how people speak to capture rhythm and craft believable lines
Published: November 2, 2011
The playwright Beth Henley once told an audience, “When I was young, I used to read novels and skip through all the pages of description. I wanted to know what the characters were saying.” Dialogue isn’t crucial, but it’s a prime aspect of realism, since most people talk, and, furthermore, talk to others who talk back. Don’t stint on dialogue. Unfortunately, a lot of dialogue on the page looks—wrong somehow. Why is that?
Some distortion happens between the ear and the eye, or what’s heard versus what emerges in print. For many beginning writers, it’s almost as if a corrective principle is at work, perhaps the memory of a 10th-grade English teacher who didn’t allow her students to write in the first person and lectured that “one must never use contractions when writing a formal essay.” Unfortunately, such rules lead to dialogue such as this:
“Would you like a hamburger?”
“Yes, thank you. I would very much like one.”
The structure is too stiff, and so is the word choice—unless your characters are nonnative English speakers practicing politeness. Let us—no, let’s—face it: the above exchange in real life runs something like this:
“Want a burger?”
In short, you’ve got to unlearn some of the principles most cherished by that English teacher of yours. People speak with contractions, rely on pauses (“Um, no thanks”), and aren’t so nice about their grammar (“Hey, ain’tcha hungry?”). They don’t talk in whole paragraphs, unless they’ve been paid to make an after-dinner speech at the Rotary club. Still, believable dialogue often has its own rhythm.
Richard Price, author of Clockers and other novels, gives an authentic feel from the moment a character opens his mouth. Here are a few lines from the opening of his latest, Lush Life, featuring four shady guys in downtown New York, looking over the passersby for easy takings:
“Guy looks beat. Probably just finished up his week.”
“That’d be a nice score too. Payday Friday, pulled your eighty-four hours, walking home with what, four? Four fifty?”
“Could be his whole roll on him if he doesn’t use banks.”
No need for nice diction or good grammar, just apt description. Note the syncopation, which saves the lines from flatness. These guys could describe the whole street this way: They speak casually but authoritatively, and the reader is flattered to be included.
If you don’t care for city life, here are a couple of characters from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree. The owner of a hog is talking cautiously to a man who’s stolen and killed the animal:
This hog’s dead, he said.
I swear if it dont look almost exactly like one I had up at my place.
It was just sort of runnin around.
What was your plans for this here hog if you dont care for my askin?
Well. I’d sort of figured on eatin it.
For an earthy feel, McCarthy has abandoned quotation marks and even apostrophes in some places. Does it work? Doesn’t it sound real? I’ve turned the page, but I can still hear those two men jawing.
Next month we’ll look at how to keep your dialogue lively.
David Galef, the director of the
creative-writing program at Montclair State University, is a shameless
eclectic, with more than a dozen books out. His latest short-story
collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman
, is due out from Dzanc Books this month.