How To Fail At Dialogue: The Realistic Method

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Eigen foto Licentie Categorie:Afbeelding voedsel Categorie:Afbeelding cacao (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One day, my friend Sharon told me, “Carol, you are so cute. Do you know how often you use the word ‘basically’?”

This horrified me. My sweet, and generally sarcastic, friend told me of a vocal tic I’d developed. She also confessed she didn’t want to say anything because she knew I would quit using the term. I didn’t fail her expectations.

When we write dialogue, we need to make our characters sound like a real human being, but as in every portion of writing, we must make it interesting and let’s face it, our daily dialogue is usually mundane.

Here’s an example:

“Hey, Neil, want some hot chocolate?”
“Um. Yeah. Okay, I guess.”
“Want the mint flavored or plain?”
“Um, okay. Plain I guess.”
“Here you go.”

Are you asleep yet? I am.

Good dialogue contains all elements of good plot. So how do you convey realistic dialogue without becoming banal?

  1. Avoid vocal tics–the errs, ums, ahs–even when showing the hesitation of the character.
  2.  If a pattern of speech is necessary, use it sparingly. If I used the word ‘basically’ continually, it gets annoying. However, if this helps characterize me, use it–sparingly.
  3. Include only essential information. Don’t ask if another character wants hot chocolate unless that action is essential.
  4. Use dialogue to characterize. In my snoozer above, why is Neil drinking chocolate rather than coffee–every character drinks coffee.
  5. Make sure dialogue advances the action, the conflict, the themes. If it doesn’t, ask yourself why the reader needs it
  6. Make the character interesting. Even if the character is a dullard, why do you include him or her in the scene? Give us an emotional reaction to him.

Here’s my dialogue rewritten following the above rules.

“Want a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, Neil?”
“Shouldn’t you have that figured out by now?”
“Do you want mint or plain?”
“We’re out of plain, basically.”
“Neil? Neil? Why aren’t you answering me?”

Although no one will nominate the above dialogue for a Grace, Christie, Critics’ Circle award, you can see the tension, the characterization, the conflict beginning to build. In my novels, I would sprinkle the word basically throughout the work, but never in the degree I used to use it in real life. Basically.

What dialogue idiosyncrasies drive you nuts?

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No Comments

  1. You are too funny, Val!

  2. "Like you know" ugh I hate that one and I try to avoid it!!

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