What Are You Talking About?

June 19, 2010 at 5:52 am (Dialogue, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


It has occurred to me recently that if I were to actually write dialogue the way most people speak there is very little chance that someone who wasn’t inside either of the speaker’s heads would understand what on earth the conversation was about.

For instance, I recently overheard the following conversation.

“Did it?”

“Ya. Like.. Just yeah.”

“OMG. Really. This is just… Oh my god.”

“So have you told..?”

“Shut-up.”

“Ooh.”

“Shut-up.”

“We have to tell…”

“Duh.”

“She’s… Where is she?”

“Hm. Dunno.”

And this continued for another few minutes and then the two people talking walked away. An entire conversation unfolding and yet nothing that actually identified a subject or point to the conversation. What if characters spoke like this in books? The reader would need a lot of narration surrounding the conversation to make heads or tails of it.

Then again, my characters always speak far too precisely. I’m trying to work on that and find a more natural flow for the dialogue.

What about your characters? Do they speak in grammatically correct English or do they take a more natural approach? Love to hear your thoughts.

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18 Comments

  1. Alex Willging said,

    I notice that my characters tend to switch between grammatically correct and naturally-flowing, depending on the situation. Someone who has to explain something may sound a bit more formal and drawn-out than usual, whereas a more action-oriented scene might have shorter lines, more slang and obscenity, and more back-and-forth dialogue. It also depends on the characters themselves. I have one protagonist who’s more hesitant and academic, so she sometimes speaks like a student in a class, whereas another of my characters is more freewheeling and devil-may-care, so he’ll be likely to boast and drop a few one-liners.

  2. agatha82 said,

    It’s funny that you mention that, my main characters is very well spoken, and he even tends to say do not or cannot instead of don’t or can’t – however, when angry, he swears so that’s quite amusing. Must admit that I do not think I could ever have a character with a very distinct regional dialect for example as I hate having to ‘decipher’ what they’re saying when I find that in other books. The hardest thing for me was writing a novel in the first person, with the point of view of an American girl…I lived in America for 18 years so that helped but I still had to get my American friend to make sure it sounded ‘real’.

  3. Lynn Rush said,

    Great post.
    Yeah. I have a couple characters who have old dialect, but then quite a few younger characters who babble like you described above. :-) It’s fun trying to vary it up. :-)

    Great post.

  4. David Cranmer said,

    When I’m writing westerns I’m very careful not to have all the characters speaking like they would have circa 1885. If I did, no one would understand what the heck was going on.

  5. Mason Canyon said,

    If I were reading a story with that conversation in it, there would have to be a very good lead in before hand. I got totally lost there.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I have to admit, I was also totally lost while listening.

  6. Jemi Fraser said,

    I think my characters speak pretty informally, but nothing like the dialogue you posted! They do use a lot of sentence fragments, but they still make sense…. I hope! :)

  7. AlexJ said,

    More on the natural side, but not like that. Valley Girl lingo has no place in the Cassan military I’m afraid!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      There are very few places where it is appropriate in my view of things.

  8. Talli Roland said,

    My characters use a mix of slang but they don’t go round and round in circles for hours, like most conversations do! I can’t imagine reading conversations verbatim. Snore!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      True, if people stopped talking in circles they would probably run out of things to say much faster.

  9. Casey Lybrand said,

    It can say a lot about characters and the situations they are in when they don’t speak in complete sentences — when they can’t or won’t or don’t have to finish a thought. I love reading fragmented, natural sounding dialog (though maybe not anything quite so casual as what you overheard). I am working to bring that out in my own writing, along with the supporting narration so the conversations make sense in context. At this point, I may err on the side of too casual rather than too precise.

  10. Levi Montgomery said,

    I think it’s important to ride that fine line between the way we write and the way we speak. Spoken language is full of reversals and corrections and directional changes in a way that written language never is. Or rather, the corrections we make in writing are invisible in the finished product. When we’re speaking, the only ways to correct something are to repeat ourselves, saying what we meant to say, or to simply go on as though we have said exactly what we meant, and expect the listener to keep up.

    If your characters do this, and it’s within reason, meaning it still makes sense, then I think that’s a strength. I think it makes the character more real, more believable.

    “He had everything! He got it all, everything he ever wanted! Things always worked for him, and the only thing I ever wanted, and I never even knew it, but all I ever wanted was you, and he took you!”

    Note the directional shift of the sentence after “…I ever wanted…” and the resultant skewed construction. If Michael were writing this sentence, he’d correct it to the expected state of parallelism, but in speech we don’t get that luxury, so neither does he.

  11. jannatwrites said,

    Could you imagine putting a dialog like that in a novel? That would be hilarious!
    My characters use mostly use natural flow, but dressed up a little from what I hear on the street. Like instead of “Idunno”, I’ll write “I don’t know”. I like to keep the tone of how I can picture my friends and I talking so it doesn’t seem too stilted.
    Great post – I enjoyed reading. Thanks!

  12. jesdavidson said,

    I’ve found learning screenwriting really helpful in crafting dialogue that gets to the point, reveals character, moves the plot forward and has lashings of subtext bubbling underneath. Can’t always manage all that in every line, of course. But reading and writing scripts helps you to focus on the essential information and show character concisely. I usually just let my characters let rip then pare it back. Also, it helps if you can make each character distinctive, so for example in a script you should be able to take out all the character cues and still know exactly who is talking. If you can apply all this to dialogue in prose it just zings along, real punchy. Great blog. Thanks.

  13. Tooty Nolan said,

    I’m definitely a ‘Dunno’ person. I even use contractions in the narrative – like ‘she hadn’t known him long but’. But conversely I love giving my comedy characters great mouthfuls of purple prose at the most innapropriate moments. I hope it catches the reader by surprise – especially when I turn it on it’s head and then describe something that is patently not the case – such as “Ugh?” he enquired eloquently. Am I alone in this?

  14. Miss Rosemary said,

    Conversation is tricky. It has to be better than regular conversations but seem normal … a fine line if you as me!
    And you could totally embelish that conversation you heard and make it into a pretty god story if you were ever so inclined … :)

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