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How to write a damn realistic dialogue?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Writer’s_Magic, Apr 6, 2018.

  1. What’s a realistic dialogue? Or better say: What to avoid for a real dialogue? I often read you shouldn’t write things like "err" or something similar. You shouldn’t be too formal. Or don’t be clear with information. But why?
    I mean if I have a guy who is very polite or who got a good breeding. Why shouldn’t I use “err” when I have an extremely nervous girl who wanna flirt with her crush—and uses “err” because she doesn’t find the right words?
    So, what’s in your opinion for a real dialogue?
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    Actually listen to what people say and then try to write it down verbatim. It looks terrible and is almost impossible to read. There are breaks, run on sentences, people interrupting each other, pauses, mistakes and a lot of other things... It's a mess.
    So don't write it.
    I think of good dialogue is what you wish you had said after you had the conversation. Think what you you say if you got a chance to re-run the argument or discussion and get things right.
    You can add the errs and ums in if it adds to the character [like a nervous girl or a liar trying to remember what he said last time] but not if they don't add and especially not if they hinder the reading and understanding of what is going on.
    Okay, I know it is not the same as a novel, but I watch a lot of TV and I think Aaron Sorkin writes the best dialogue. I've even tried to transcribe what he has dome to see how he does it. Jane Espenson is right up there too.
  3. CupofJoeCupofJoe Don’t worry for your tips! It’s more a present for me. I am interested in screenplay writing, too. So, it’s not such a big dilemma.
  4. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Study screenwriting to learn dialogue. That’s my opinion. Watching tvs and movies can a bit tricky for learning dialogue because there’s often a batte between was it a horrible line? Or a line horribly delivered? Was it a last second splice in a hurried edit? DeNiro might take a crap line and make it work, while a Will Ferrel shooting for drama might gag it down like fresh slurry from a bass-o-matic.

    On the nose dialogue works best in tense situations and/or with flipped expectations, but otherwise subtext is king.

    A great example of on the nose dialogue working is: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

    And yet, it is such a twist from the expected it’s great. A bad ass line. Dirty Harry’s “do I feel lucky” scene, for instance.

    Way too many writers use on the nose for expostiion and moving the plot without subtext.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    It seems odd to say this at Mythic Scribes, but ...

    realism is overrated.

    Write what sounds right to you. You have to start there because you cannot start anywhere else. Once you've written two or three complete stories (short or long), then get feedback on the stories. If the dialog is off, your readers will let you know.
    TheCrystallineEntity and pmmg like this.
  6. With dialogue, I find I never get it right the first time. If I'm struggling, at worse I just write the dialogue so it's on the page and then I come back to it after it's had some time to fester on the page. After a few look overs, I then start to craft it. Eventually, it will work together.
    kyrrimar likes this.
  7. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

    One trick I've learned is to (typically) not answer the dialogue that came before. Every character has an intention when going into a scene and the dialogue they speak will reflect that reality. Also, adding movement, action, making it clear that characters aren't in space (unless they are lol) when they are talking will help you get the flow it down immensely. I'll share this resource with you: https://www.amazon.com/Crafting-Dyn...d=1523630516&sr=8-4&keywords=writing+dialogue
  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    So, as with a lot of things, I feel that much of the advice surrounding dialogue is misleading. I have found myself moving more and more towards dialogue that is direct, clear, "on the nose." And if that's not good enough for a scene, there's usually a problem in the way the scene is structured and how things are moving forward.

    I mean, are you trying to write a good dialogue or one catchy line?

    Here, this is in my opinion the most boring dialogue I've written for my recent fanfiction project, which is why I've picked it to talk about. The character, Marinette, is also the superhero Ladybug. She's going on a date with a guy she likes at school and realizes she has to break the heart of her superhero partner Chat Noir. Tikki is like a fairy thing that her gives her the ladybug powers.

    I say that the dialogue is "boring" because it's self-reflective. It's a "sequel," set in dialogue, where she works through her own feelings, so that readers can come to care about her and their relationship more. (You can see the full scene here.)

    I bolded a line that I'll talk about below.

    There are four big things about this dialogue:
    1) It's almost entirely on the nose, direct, clear, expressive of exactly how the character is feeling.

    2) Even though nothing happens for three quarters of the dialogue, the emotions keep moving. She's happy, she's sad, she's afraid, she struggles with her choices, she comes to a decision and moves forward. It's not supposed to "dwell" in a circular back and forth.

    3) The bolded lines - those lines are the reason this dialogue had to happen. Everything here is designed to bring her to admitting the lines in bold, and then pulling her back to her normal self. It's important for understanding the choices she's making: She's terrified that if she makes the wrong move her partner will stop showing up when she needs her. That piece of character development, understanding her motivations, has to come across clearly, convincingly, and memorably. If a reader doesn't understand it, nothing in the story will make sense.

    4) I wanted to end with action - I wanted readers to forget that it may have felt a little long and boring. It's important to keep things moving forward. Most people would probably assume that Tikki falling through the floor at the end was the point of this dialogue - it wasn't. It's part of a plot I designed just to make scenes like these more interesting.

    So what am I trying to say here? It's simple. Good dialogue is about taking an idea and moving it forward with the help of multiple characters. If you find yourself going in circles - even for a couple of lines - even if it's "realistic" - you're probably making a mistake. And if you're giving up clarity because it's "on the nose"? I can't imagine how that kind of dialogue isn't a mess.

    Be clear, and advance the narrative. Maybe I should make that some kind of a slogan.
  9. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I doubt that a single, perfect approach can be defined to cover every bit of dialogue. Character personalities, motivations, and relationships will vary, and these influence the dialogue. Situation will also play a large role. A married couple on the verge of divorce might say the most direct, hateful things to each other, but not in public or not around their children or not if one of them always has the habit of hiding his or her true feelings.

    The advice about "err" is good advice in my opinion. It stems from the idea that fictional dialogue in a novel is not the way people really talk. Real life conversations meander, speakers get distracted, people rarely use an "err" without also using an "uh..." an "um..." and other things besides in the same conversation. An older Writing Excuses podcast really brought this home to me: Writing Excuses 5.38: Dialog with John Scalzi. Brandon Sanderson: "What you're trying to do with dialogue is you want it to feel real, but not be real."

    This is difficult for me to explain, heh. It feels real....but isn't real? I think Devor's right, Good dialogue is about taking an idea and moving it forward. The problem with a lot of real conversation is that it doesn't always get to the point—and lots of things may often go unresolved, no matter how long the conversation meanders. But in fictional narrative, we want the reader to feel that the story is always progressing. So fictional dialogue is usually a lot more abbreviated than real dialogue and more often "to the point."

    Now a segue, heh...

    "To the point" is a phrase that probably deserves more attention. I think not everyone is on the same page about what constitutes "on the nose dialogue." I think dialogue can be direct without being on-the-nose. How to explain? I'm not sure I can. I think the difference will appear in the disjunctions between a) What the characters are saying; i.e. the actual words, b) what the characters actually feel (and they may not be aware of this themselves) and what they are actually thinking, and c) what the reader can glean about "b" from "a" and the surrounding context/narrative of the conversation.

    For instance, that married couple on the verge of a divorce. John is in a hurry and on the way out the door, but Mary needs him to do something else relating to their preteen son Calvin:

    Mary: Calvin's radiology appointment is today.

    John: Call me if something is found.

    Mary: It's at 9 am.

    John: I'll be at the office until 11:00. Jeanine will let me know if he finishes after that.

    Mary: My meeting with the planning committee starts at 10. It's on the other side of town.

    John: Well can't you call your sister? She's always hanging around anyway.

    Mary: Deb is in Florida. I told you this last week.

    John: I'm sure the committee will wait for you. You said the deal is all but done. I've got to go.​

    I think both John and Mary are being direct here; i.e., making pointed arguments, suggestions, observations. But I also think there's a lot of subtext. (Nevermind that I spun this spur-of-the-moment and might revise later, heh.)

    An on-the-nose version would be something like this:

    Mary: Where are you going? Don't you remember that Calvin's radiology appointment is today at 9 am?

    John: I really have to be at the office this morning. I do love our son and am worried, but there's nothing I can do until the tests come back. You can call me to let me know the results.

    Mary: I know you love our son, but I don't think you love me anymore.

    John: I'm not really sure I do.

    Mary: That makes two of us. Like usual, I'll have to give up that planning committee meeting to take care of our son, just like I've given up everything else.

    John: I wish you had given up your complaining and demands. It's like I can't have anything else in my life but always have to take care of your needs.

    Mary: Maybe we should get a divorce.

    John: That's a good idea, Mary. Let's divorce.
    Heh, ok, that's really bad. But this example shows how the two speakers are directly addressing the central issue as if that's the only thing in their minds during the conversation. It's like they are robots programmed to deliver the purpose of that exchange in the most direct, blunt way in order to advance the story, and only to advance the story. Story calls for blowup. Check. Must let readers know Mary and John are headed toward divorce. Check. Must let readers know what they really think of each other. Check. All the system parameters are aligned.
  10. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Writing dialogue and writing in general isn't realistic. It only feels that way. It's an illusion.

    In real life, conversation drifts into unimportant tangents, it's full of unclear and half-formed ideas that are put forth and just left out there to hang, and it's messy-messy-messy.

    First step to casting that illusion of reality is to take away most, if not all, the boring and unimportant bits. Then make sure it's clear and every word has a purpose. All words, including dialogue, has to be doing work to move the story along, by expanding the world, establishing character, or advancing plot.

    Story is life with all the boring bits take out.
    kyrrimar likes this.
  11. kyrrimar

    kyrrimar Acolyte

    Many good points here. Lots. I love writing dialogue. Too much, really. It is something I had to get control of as a writer. haha My gut feeling is that writing "realistic" dialogue simply doesn't work. At least not entirely. It isn't the hems and haws and idiom and tics. Those can be used effectively. BUT... we talk ALL NIGHT and go off on tangents. One liners and inside jokes and rambling. That's real life. That isn't dialogue. That's conversation. They aren't the same. In fiction (and on screen where there is even less time to develop the story), dialogue needs to be essential to moving the story forward. It exists to serve the story in some capacity. So, the idea of distilling a conversation down to key elements (without insulting the reader) might help. You might write far more in an earlier draft than you will end up with six revisions later. That's okay. You may find a better way of saying it once you know what it is that needs to be said. This relates to another idea from above about thinking about what you wish you'd said. I like that. I'd also like to add that reading dialogue (reading anything really) out loud reveals a multitude of sins.
  12. I think the sky is the limit when to comes to non-official words. Pffft is one I have seen done well.
  13. Peat

    Peat Sage

    I once saw an author blog post capturing how Sorkin often has two to three different conversations going on in one, particularly when a group conversation. That's how real conversations work. That can be hard to capture in text mind.

    Ultimately, as people have said, you don't want realistic dialogue (because people are awful at talking), you want dialogue with the appearance of reality. But that is splitting hairs somewhat.

    The big key is to avoid obvious "That's not how people talk!" things. Like the formality thing. Yes, some people do talk very formally, but most people don't. Nothing wrong - everything right - with having characters who avoid contractions when it makes sense, but if that's every character it'll sound wrong. Bad made-up swears is another. Unrealistic responses.

    There's worse things to do here than find an author who you think writes realistic dialogue and try copying their style for a little.
  14. Rebekkah V.

    Rebekkah V. Acolyte

    There’s already been a lot of great advice been given here! I don’t really feel I’ve much to add, but there is something you can do in addition to make a dialogue more authentic without losing track and avoiding meandering discussions:

    Give each character an individual style of speech based on their social/educational background, personality, current mood etc. People have favourite words and phrases or speak in certain patterns. Some tend to express themselves very sophisticated, whereas other keep it simple or prefer colloquial speech. Some even swear a lot or do it when exposed to stress. There are many options you can play with in addition to gestures and facial expressions.

    If you want to let your characters talk incoherently, you can still do so in small, well-placed doses. Like, let’s say, if you have character who is unable to construct complete sentences. Or the person speaking is just too emotionally agitated. But keep it economically.

    Actually, this is of the things I appreciate most about well-written dialogues. It doesn’t only make them more authentic, it’s also a powerful tool for characterisation. It adds uniqueness your characters and helps the reader to engage with them.
    Penpilot likes this.
  15. Some other good advice came from Stephen King's On Writing. Consideration must be given to a character's education-- that alone really makes for some fine reading when a real simple-minded character and a luminary talk about something (that rule of contrasts also works well).
  16. D.G. Laderoute

    D.G. Laderoute Dreamer

    Try reading dialogue out loud--actually reading it like actors reading from a script for an audition. Get someone (or several someones) to help out. You may need to do it a few times before everyone gets comfortable with their "part". I've done this a few times and it's really instructive hearing people stumble over dialogue, or just stick out their tongue and go "blah" because the dialogue they're trying to "say" just doesn't work. I wouldn't try this with ALL of your dialogue (unless you and your friends have a lot of time on your hands). If you do it with samples of it, though, you'll quite likely find your own "ear" for dialogue improving, which improves your ability to write dialogue in turn.

    But, yeah...um...I'll certainly echo...you know, like emphasize...what others have, you know, said on here. Um...writing stuff the way people...real people, I mean...talk is...um...pretty...crap. What's the word? Oh, yeah...off-putting. So your stuff...dialogue, I mean...is gonna be pretty...idealized. Yeah...idealized.
    Night Gardener likes this.
  17. Wingivese56

    Wingivese56 New Member

  18. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    This is very much my attitude also, plus reading your dialogue out loud to ensure you have the rhythm just right.

    You can't (entirely) replicate real life dialogue on the page - it'd be a pig's breakfast! The crucial thing is make sure the dialogue seems real for the characters and that it keeps the story moving. After all, the dialogue is part of the story and should not distract the reader from the flow.

    If I can write dialogue without needing tags (said Harry) then I know I'm in the zone because the characters' voices are strong enough for the reader to always know who is speaking.
    Night Gardener likes this.
  19. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    I would suggest that the key to writing realistic dialogue is to listen to the dialogue used by people on public transport. The reason is that public transport is one of the few places where people from a wide diversity of backgrounds, educational levels, occupations etc can be found.

    Don't just listen to the dialogue but note the body language, the tone, what words are emphasized or minimized, their use of words that might be offensive among some groups and if they incorporate words from other languages into their speech (such as us New Zealanders who incorporate Maori words into our daily speech).

    Looking at books that were written at the time you are setting your story in will also give you an insight into what words were used at the time. Just keep in mind that many words over the centuries have changed in meaning and appropriateness.
  20. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

    In The Noble Rogue, the first line by M. Legros got 2 "hem" and a total of 11 em dashes:

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