by Kirt Hickman
Realistic dialogue is one of the most important things to achieve in your writing. It’s also one of the most difficult. When people talk, they ramble, they pause, they repeat themselves—they say all sorts of unnecessary things. Written dialogue that includes all this stuff will be cumbersome. Your reader won’t have the patience for it. The objective of dialogue is to make it more efficient than normal speech yet still have it sound realistic. This is what makes dialogue a challenge.
The single most effective thing you can do to make your dialogue realistic is to compress it.
Cut any line of dialogue down to as few words as possible. Consider the following passage, excerpted from a critique submission with the author’s permission. The viewpoint character observes this exchange between a young woman in a tavern and a druid who has just walked in.
One of the girls suddenly stood and waved at the shrouded figure. “Hey, Cuddles, it’s Nancin! What are you doing here? Hey, this might just turn out to be some fun after all. We have to get together later on and catch up on old times. I haven’t seen you since that party at Sister Hillary’s Nunnery and Bawdy House back in ’65. Come on up to my room when we get through with this rah-rah what-ever-it-is that’s going on here and we’ll crack a bottle or three and talk about old times – and more. Hot Damn, Cuddles is back, WHEEE!!!”“Silence Woman! Hold your tongue. There is serious business afoot—and many unanswered questions. We will surely talk, later, and in private . . .”“Okay. I can wait for you to finish playing those ‘serious business’ games that you little boys insist on playing. Just don’t forget that you and I have more important things to do.” The soft purr of the reply held the promise of interesting times ahead.
This passage can and should be greatly compressed. In the first paragraph, Nancin rambles for far too long. The druid, a man of some renown, would probably be embarrassed by Nancin’s outburst. He would likely stop her. The rest, I’d compress as much as possible without sacrificing the essential voice of each character
One of the girls stood and waved at the shrouded figure. “Hey, Cuddles. What are you doing here? This might just turn out to be some fun after all —”“Silence, woman,” the druid said. “We’ll talk later.”“Okay,” came the soft purr of her reply. “Just don’t forget that you and I have more important things to do.”
Decide for yourself which passage is more engaging.
Compression can make dialogue more crisp and realistic even in less extreme cases, as in this example from my science fiction novel, Worlds Asunder.
“Randy performed the preflight checks according to protocol.”“Randy did the preflight checks correctly.”Meaningless Words
Eliminate expressions that don’t carry meaning, such as:
“Well,” “Hey!” “Um,” “Aw, geez.” “Oh my gosh.” “Right?”
Phrases like these make dialogue sound rambling and unimportant. They reduce tension. These types of expressions can be useful in making each character’s speech distinctive, but use only one per character and use it sparingly.
Consider the following dialogue exchange:
“Have you had lunch?”“No, not yet.”“Do you want to go to Stufy’s?”“That sounds good.”
People don’t generally speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. Look for opportunities to use sentence fragments to emulate real speech patterns:
“Had lunch?”“Not yet.”“Stufy’s?”“Sounds good.”
It not only makes your dialogue more natural, it makes it more crisp. It quickens the pace.
Use contractions wherever possible. Otherwise your dialogue will sound clunky and mechanical:
“We will need results on this one,” Snider told Chase. “And we will need them fast.”
Contractions make dialogue more natural:
“We’ll need results on this one,” Snider told Chase. “And we’ll need them fast.”
Use these tips to compress your dialogue, to make it realistic, taut, and engaging.
Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).
This article was originally published in the April 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.