Dialogue As Conversation

In this excerpt from Fiction Writer's Workshop, Second Edition, Josip Novakovich offers a lesson and exercises that teach you how to create distinct, conversational dialogue.
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Dialogue is basically conversation. Your characters talk to each other. They should sound like real people. This could mean that all you need to do is transcribe people’s conversation. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple—or rather, fortunately, it’s not that complicated to write dialogue. Real conversation may sound like this:

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“Er, Jim, have you heard the latest thing, on, what’s his name, you know, er, I mean the guy who’s so much like in the news—”
“This coffee sucks. Well, I’ve been too busy lately, all the job applications and all—”
“Shit, he’s a pop singer, oh jeez, why can’t I remember his name, like, he’s like real famous, I mean, er, you know?—”
“Uh huh.”
Pause. A cough. “He’s hiding, you know who I mean, er, he’s got an—damn it!—”
“Sure, it’s easy for those guys, they’re all millionaires. Well, where’s the waitress?”
“Uh huh.”

Even in a direct transcription resembling this one, you can’t indicate where both characters speak at the same time, where vowels drag, consonants double, and so on. Moreover, in real speech, you get a person’s melody of voice, see his body language, and so you might suffer all the hesitations and indirectness and irrelevancies much better than when you read the transcript in print. You can’t reproduce real speech. You can approximate it now and then, but your dialogue should be quicker and more direct than real speech.

“Dialogue should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk,” said Elizabeth Bowen. It may be effective to use or somethings, I means, and sort ofs for the sense of realism and spontaneity, especially where hesitations simulate not only the sound of real speech, but psychologically indicative moments. But use these fillers sparingly.

Moreover, your character needn’t talk unless there’s a point to be conveyed. Eudora Welty said that “only the significant passages of [characters ’] talk should be recorded, in high relief against the narrative.” So make your talk matter, and find the right balance between realism and economy of speech.

To make realistic dialogue, create a distinct voice for every character. By his diction (word choice) you reveal a character’s region, class, education, and style of thinking (logical, impulsive, spiteful, etc.).

Give each character a voice with a distinctive level of diction. Let some speak in fragments, others in complete sentences; some in slang, some in professional jargon, others in standard English; some with fashionable and others with idiosyncratic vocabulary—of course, all within the reasonable limits of what kind of story you write. Where do you get people’s voices? Listen. Remember. If you need to, record. Some people are fortunate because they remember sounds rather than images. The sound more than compensates for the lack of image. Frank O’Connor, for example, said, “I just notice a feeling from people. I notice particularly the cadence of their voices, the sort of phrases they’ll use, and that’s what I’m all the time trying to hear in my head, how people word things—because everybody speaks an entirely different language. … I cannot pass a story as finished … unless I know how everybody in it spoke, which, as I say, can go quite well with the fact that I couldn’t tell you in the least what they looked like. If I use the right phrase and the reader hears the phrase in his head, he sees the individual.”

If you are primarily a visual person, you may rely on vivid images with great success, but you still need the sounds. Get them any way you can. Record people, study their talk, study dialogue and dialects.

EXERCISES

1. Two pages. Use a tape recorder and record a dinner conversation. (If you don't have such gadgets handy, listen carefully and write quickly.) Transcribe the conversation. Then read what you have. Most likely the transcript will be cumbersome to read, with all the pauses, fillers, and so on. Edit it. Take out all the repetitions. Read it again. Perhaps now it’s too spare. So put back a few repetitions for the natural sound, and, here and there, describe minimal actions between spoken sentences—slurping the soup, clanking the china—so the dialogue does not appear to be suspended in a vacuum. These little details will turn the dialogue into a scene. Now the conversation should read smoothly, if for no other reason than because you've read thousands of dialogues done in that vein.
Objective: To learn to distinguish between real conversation and written dialogue. In your final dialogue, keep the best parts of the actual conversation, and the best artificial props—if any—you came up with in rewriting.
Check: Since this is an exercise in revision, the check is included in the task description.

2. Two pages. Reproduce a quarrel you've had. Don't edit for diversity of insults, subtlety of word choice, dignity of the scene. Just give it to us, raw.
Objective: A quarrel is a paradigm of dynamic dialogue. Conflicting motives drive word choices. Even if there's no quarrel in your dialogue, use a conflict to propel the conversation.
Check: Is it clear what the quarrel is about? It may be about two issues, one on the surface, another beneath it, but at least let the theme of the surface quarrel be clear. If it's too confusing, it won't work. Anger probably more than any other emotion helps the mind simplify problems into sharp outlines.

3. Four one-page dialogue scenes. Write probing dialogue between (1) a demented psychiatrist and a client, (2) an evangelist and a philosophical homeless person, (3) a police officer and a burglar who pretends to live in the apartment from which he is stealing, and (4) a mother who's just miscarried and her four-year-old, who wants a baby sister.
Objective: To practice writing different people's dialogue. Let characters speak spontaneously, pulling you in and saying things almost on their own. Perhaps once you begin hearing a voice, the voice will write and you will merely record.
Check: Do the characters sound different from each other? They should. Do your characters talk at cross-purposes? They should. Let them evade answering questions. Sometimes a question should be countered with another question. Sometimes, the answer should have nothing directly to do with the question.

Excerpted from Fiction Writer's Workshop, Second Edition, by Josip Novakovich (Writer's Digest Books, 2008)

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