Writing Dialog is an Illusion

We don’t really talk like the people in our stories. There has to be some editing by the writer, and we have to focus on moving the story forward. If you doubt me, go online and pull up any transcribed conversation you can find. This is where a stenographer writes down every word exactly as it’s spoken. These are usually court documents, but are occasionally used in police reports, human resources, and other places.

Here’s just one tiny example I found:

Bob: I said ‘You know, I was meeting with trying to get her to get me receipts, so I could see where she was at, so she could at least…so she could pay up if she didn’t have the receipts. And if she didn’t have enough receipts of showing what she’d done, then she would have owed $3,300, and I would have collected that from her.

Tom: Um, I understand what you’re saying.

Bob: OK. Alright, So that’s…that’s as long as you understand what I’m saying. And so…but that never…that never materialized. It never, ever, ever got to that point, because she never reconciled; she never provided the receipts. She never got back to me, um, and she… she, she told me when she was leaving…

I won’t make you suffer through any more of this. I’m sure this conversation was conducted with a certain amount of hand gestures, and probably some physical items being exchanged. The parties involved knew what was going on, but they were the only ones who needed to understand. (I substituted the names I found with Bob and Tom.)

This is the way many people speak. They carry on perfectly normal conversations like this every day. They may understand what’s happening, but as a reader I sure don’t. When we write fiction, we need to make sure the reader gets included.

I’ll take a stab at writing what “Bob” had to say if this were a novel. It may be lame, but I want to get all the important information in the dialog. I’ll even include a bit of flavor to develop the “Bob” character:

Bob said, “I told the bitch she needs to show me receipts, or show me the money. She moved out in the middle of the night. Know what I’m saying?”

That’s one line, and I believe it covers everything Bob had to say. My goal is to get it on the page and move forward. Maybe Tom is going to react somehow, and that’s more important than Bob’s rambling. Maybe whatever “she” is going to do is the basis of the story.

Writers don’t have to shy away from stuttering, and all mannerisms, but they should be kept to a minimum. Bob stammered: she, she, she. He also threw in a few pauses: Um, OK, Alright. If you feel the need to do this, save it for the exact time Bob is the most nervous.

If anyone is interested, you can find transcriptions online and take a crack at it yourself. There are probably any number of statements from steroid users in athletics, or apologetic politicians. How would you write a real  conversation as dialog in your story? How are you going to pull off the illusion for your readers?

8 Comments

Filed under Writing

8 responses to “Writing Dialog is an Illusion

  1. Neat exercise. Get it on. the. page.

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  2. Great post! Sometimes I have fun with this, sitting in my living room and transcribing what my friends/family are saying. It’s really interesting to see how differently actual conversations go from novelized conversations.

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  3. Alas, some writers never learn this lesson. They don’t grasp that realistic dialogue is not “real conversation.” There’s a real distinction, and getting it right takes time and practice.

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  4. I speak like a writer would write. I pause, but I never return to the same phrase. My husband speaks like Bob’s first dialogue. I am a very patient woman. Most people would be shocked if you showed them what their speech looks like on paper. Great topic!

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