Talk Like Real People

A quick addendum to yesterday’s post on dialogue, because I’m going to be away from my keyboard for most of today:

“Realistic dialogue” isn’t.

Verbatim transcriptions of actual people in actual conversations are almost painful to read.  The speakers wander, and digress, and go ummm and errr, and half of the time only address the actual subject of the conversation obliquely, or in partial sentences (well, they already know what they’re talking about, so they don’t need to explain it to each other.)  Even a Harvard professor will sound stupid in print, given the verbatim-transcription treatment.

“Realistic dialogue” in fiction is a carefully constructed artifact.  It’s human conversation stripped down to the essential information, cleared of extraneous pauses and let-me-think-for-a-moment syllables, and kept on course toward the writer’s desired goal.  The goal could be almost anything, or several things at once — revealing character, imparting information, moving the plot along, maybe even just providing a few paragraphs of light banter as relief before everything gets heavy again.  Whatever the goal is, the dialogue needs to be pointed right at it and not allowed to head off somewhere else, even if the conversation itself may seem to be rambling about aimlessly.

Because you can’t write aimless rambling by writing aimlessly.  You have to be, if anything, even more purposeful about what you’re doing than when you’re writing dialogue that has a clear and self-evident goal.

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