Dialog–Keeping it Real

Dialog–Keeping it Real

Thanks to bensound.com for intro and exit music!

ASK THE AUTHOR: What is the best way to include description without overwhelming or alienating the reader? With sincere thanks, Ilene Dover (Jacqueline Patterson)

Aaron: We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s still a great question. The answer isn’t very easy. I think it’s different for every author. I like rich description and sensory detail. I know others who are less expressive with their detail. I tend to think if you’re beating a dead horse, it’s time to move on. In times of sadness, you want to show less and tell more (as counterintuitive as that may seem). I think the goal is to overwrite on the first and second drafts, then cut on the third. Finding the right one or two descriptions is always better than including eight weaker descriptions. As Bret Anthony Johnston says, you want to give the reader the raw materials to build the library without giving them an exact linguistic blueprint of that library. Of course, he said it much more eloquently…

MOLLY: I write in first person, so I include whatever my character would notice/sense/feel/think consciously. She wouldn’t normally think, “I breathe in, I breathe out” but when hit with the humidity of New Orleans, it’s foreign to her so she notices it. “My skin felt clammy and it was a little harder to breathe.” The trick for me is to bring my reader into the story; not preach it to them. And since people react in different ways, I want them to translate and interpret the story unless they absolutely have to know certain things, such as furniture placement. Unless someone’s going to stub their toe, it doesn’t matter if a desk is on the left or right side of the room. Give the general information, and let your reader create in their own mind the minute details.

Firsts in Fiction

DIALOGUE: Keeping it 100

AARON: Pardon the use of quasi-current slang by a middle-aged man. I thought it would make a catchy title. This month we turn our focus to dialogue. This week, we’ll look at how to keep dialogue real. Next week we’ll look at dialogue killers, and the following week we’ll look at how to beat attribute tags.

Keeping it 100 (Keeping it real, authentic)

Al: A couple of basics from Al’s Know Your Terms Emporium

  • There are two acceptable spellings for dialogue. “Dialogue” is the prefered spelling but some dictionaries give “dialogue” as a second spelling.
  • The word comes from the ancient Greek and intro English through French. The Greek is a compound word of the preposition “dia” (through or between) “logos” (“speech” or “word”), so “converse with.”

First, let’s define what we’re talking about when we say dialogue. There are several types:

  • Summary Dialogue: No quotation marks, more of a summary than a quote.
    • Yvonne told him that she wanted a divorce.
  • Indirect Dialogue: More specific, better portrays the feeling of what was said.
    • Yvonne said that she wanted a divorce, that he was selfish, that he had always been selfish, that he’d never given a thought about what she really wanted.
  • Direct Dialogue: Exactly what comes out of the characters’ mouths.
    • Yvonne said, “I’m done with you. Paint the house any stupid color you want.”
  • Intermixed Dialogue: A little of each:
    • Yvonne listed his faults—too selfish, too domineering, too petty. “And cheap too. Cheapest person I’ve ever met.” She unfolded some yellow paper and read out loud what the lawyer had told her about equitable property division.
      • These examples come from Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction.
  • Internal dialogue: Sometimes a character carries on a mental conversation.

For the purposes of our conversation tonight (and in the coming weeks), we’ll be looking specifically at direct dialogue, which is what most people think of when they hear the term.

Here are some things to keep in mind about dialog:

  • Dialogue should be an intensification or expansion of the conflict. That is, It should create conflict or further complicate existing conflicts. Rob Roberge says that dialogue is people saying “no” to each other in interesting ways. He continues to say that it’s about people talking, but it’s also (or often can be) about people NOT communicating.
    • When you have a lack of communication between characters, it creates conflict or at very least tension.
    • When you have an argument, that’s conflict.
    • When you have a character quietly acquiesce to a point, that can be conflict as well.
    • Not ALL dialogue in a novel will be conflict driven, but the best examples of dialogue demonstrate these elements. There’s still room for comic relief, the occasional quip, an appropriate turn of phrase, etc.
  1. “Dialogue is not a break in the action. It’s an intensification of the action. Here’s something else dialogue is not: It’s not the way we speak. Dialogue must appear realistic without being realistic. It’s not natural, but must suggest naturalness.” –John Dufresne
    1. This is a difficult concept to grasp. dialogue must not be natural, but must feel natural. It isn’t real, but must feel real. For us, that means we need to tune our ears to listen for dialogue the way it is, and the way it should be.


  • Al: In fiction, dialogue is written for the eye but it’s target is the ear. Sounds strange, I know, but readers consume fiction through the eyes and process it in the brain so they can “hear” the words. This is almost an art.


  1. In King’s Dreamcatcher he uses curses, swearing, and general vocabulary to help define his characters. One character was well educated and he spoke, even swore, differently than some of his pals who had far less education. I was about a third of the way through the book before I realized that the dialogue taught me more about the characters than the narration did.
  • On that note, I think good writers listen intently to different people to hear how their dialogue varies. Consider the character who can’t shut up, the character who rarely speaks, the character who constantly mixes up his idioms, the character from Brooklyn vs. the character from Austin, TX or a foreign country like England. England has a ton of idioms.
  • Consider the following when creating a “voice” for each of your characters:
    1. Age: Are they older? Younger? This will tell you what kind of “slang” they may use (or may not, if they’re too old for that). It will also hint at their level of education and life experience, both of which can have a profound impact on the way someone speaks.
    2. Gender: While this may not change their vocabulary, it may inform some of the way things are said. Especially if they’re speaking to someone of the same gender or the opposite gender. Men speak to men one way; they speak to women another, and vice versa. How they speak to the other gender can help build character.

    • Al: I did a series of books for Zondervan featuring an architectural engineer and his team. The way the male team interacted was very different from the way they spoke around women. Perry Sach’s Adventures: A Treasure Deep, Beneath the Ice, and Vanished.


    1. Origins: Where do they come from? The deep south? The midwest? India? China? Consider the difference between “soda” and “pop.” Some of these regional differences are important. Also, you will know of their religious background (or lack thereof). Do they talk about “being bought by the blood of the Lamb,” or do they have trouble understanding that “being born again” doesn’t mean reincarnation?
    2. Occupation: Many occupations have their own vocabulary, their own language.  We expect teachers to throw around terms like “curriculum” and “IEP” (and another thousand acronyms, really). We expect lawyers to speak like a walking contract, “I’m afraid our agreement constituted a Quid Pro Quo, and therefore, I do not owe you the money you insist I do.” Even in fast food there’s room for rich, unique language. “I need eggs, stretch ‘em and wreck ‘em.”
      1. This is especially true among military, both serving and retiring. A real estate agent who spent a good number of years in the army might agree with something you suggest by saying, “Roger that.” Enlisted come out of bootcamp calling everyone, “Sir,” even civilians if the civilian is older than the soldier.
    3. Education: If they’re highly educated, their vocabulary will be far more expansive. Less educated people might be prone to repeating themselves often to make their point, whereas educated people may talk in circles to confuse their listeners *ahem, politicians, ahem*.
    4. Hobbies: If you ask me to talk about Magic: the Gathering, I will. And you’ll likely not understand much of it. “So, on his end step, in response to his trigger, I cast Stifle. He’s so angry, he flips the table!” Makes sense to me, but not to you. Often, we’ll use examples of our hobbies in figurative language.
  • Paying close attention to these can lend credibility to your fiction.
  • Characters do not sound alike and should not sound like the narrator (unless it’s first person).
  • Dialogue should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation.
    1. “How are you?” “I’m good. Thanks. You?” “I’m fine.”
      1. The problem with these “ordinary exchanges of conversation” is that they do not add anything to our knowledge of a situation. They do not add to the conflict (unless there’s some dramatic irony at work contextually, and even then, it can be a challenge to pull off). They’re empty words, and so should be cut. Remember, less is always more when it comes to dialogue.
  • Does it convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk?
    1. “Do you like the Coke?” “Yes. I like it. It’s good.”
      1. Repetition like this rarely has the impact we’re looking for. Here, the character answers a simple question in three different ways. She may do that in real life, but in fiction, it’s too much.
    2. “Well, I was kinda, you know, wondering if maybe, like, if you’re not busy, maybe we could kinda go out together if you’re not busy.”
      1. Very repetitive. You want the asker to seem unsure of himself/herself. You want them nervous. But there’s another way to get that information to the reader in a more streamlined, efficient manner like: He fidgeted, stared at his feet, worked hard not to stumble over his words. “If you’re not busy later, maybe we can go out for coffee?”
  • How to learn to write dialogue.
    1. One. Catch each of this month’s podcasts.
    2. Two. Pick a few skilled authors and study the dialogue. By study I mean more than read. I mean analyze.
    3. Three. While reading skilled authors take note of…
      1. Punctuation usage
        1. Quotes and single quotes (different in United Kingdom)
        2. Comma usage
        3. Odd spellings and phraseology.
          1. “Whatcha think?”
          2. “I ain’t gonna do it.”
          3. “He be out a racin’ is motorbike.”
        4. Use of dialogue tags, which we’ll be chatting about later this month.
        5. How dialogue is used to show emotion.

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