Dialogue that Speaks


I once critiqued a fictional story based on the writer’s own life experiences. When I noted that his dialogue didn’t sound authentic to me, he replied, “But that’s what we really said.”

I’m sure that was correct. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that what someone actually said works effectively in fiction. Replicated everyday speech in a novel or story can be stilted, rambling, even boring. The fiction writer’s goal is not to imitate real speech but to create dialogue that reveals character, moves a story forward and provides insight into relationships. Writing effective dialogue is an art.

Two “v” words exemplify what I mean: verbatim and verisimilitude. The first word, of course, is what the writer whose story I critiqued intended. He meant to repeat verbatim or “word for word” a spoken exchange recalled from a scene in his own life. Sometimes this can work, although words on a page seldom carry the same emotional weight as words spoken in a live conversation. We don’t get body language or hear tone of voice from a printed sentence. Of course, we can add body language and tone with descriptions, as in “he shouted, angrily, shaking his fist.” But there are more artful ways to do this. An important tool for the fiction writer is the ability to create dialogue that literally speaks for itself.

Which brings us to verisimilitude, a literary term that means having the appearance of truth, or seeming true. Fictional stories are a writer’s imaginative reconstruction of reality, even when based on actual stories or events. This is especially true of dialogue. Books and articles on fiction writing offer writers “how-to” lists for constructing effective dialogue, but here are some of what I consider the more subtle and artful characteristics of good dialogue.

–dialogue needs to serve the story we want to tell. It’s important to avoid aimless chit-chat unless the chit-chat has an artistic or plot purpose.

–sometimes what isn’t said in an exchange can be as important as what is said.

–identifiers that precede or follow dialogue should be kept to a minimum. Plain old “he said” works best 90% of the time, rather than tortured verbs such as “she expostulated” or “he vocalized.

–“real” people tend to be guarded and even evasive when speaking about matters of consequence. The best dialogue suggests rather than tells the motives and emotions underlying a character’s actual spoken words. Getting nuance into dialogue is an art in itself.

–in real-life conversations, people often talk past each other, sometimes without hearing what the other says or misinterpreting it, sometimes purposefully.

–“real” people can unintentionally reveal things about themselves in conversation, even things they might not want to reveal or may not even know they’ve revealed. The best mystery writers are especially good at this kind of dialogue.

Next time you’re creating a scene through dialogue, you may find some of these ways of coming at it not only effective but fun to write!