Keeping It Real [on dialogue]

Ahh, the joys of reading…

I’ve been reading a bit over on a site called where I occasionally go. I do reviews, have a few pieces there for people to read, that sort of thing. Generally, it’s a place I go online to read some short pieces of fiction (and occasional essays and the like) when I’m not in a writing mood or I’m stuck or I couldn’t be bothered ploughing through a novel.

The new books... allegedly...

The new books… allegedly…

One thing I notice a bit on the site is the dialogue people use when writing their tales. It’s made me realise that there are 3 different sorts of dialogue writers (again with the threes!): stilted, phonic and right. Yes, I’m inventing terms here, but it’s my blog.

Let me explain. Stilted dialogue is the sort where the form of the dialogue is the same as the form of the writing around it. While this might work in some older pieces of noir fiction, it really stands out when characters who stand out as different from the rest of the tone of the book come in. For example, if the two talking characters are being very formal, then exchanges like, “I do not think I would do that;” “Please could you procure for me some lemonade?” and, “Your shooting of my person hurts a great deal;” might occasionally fit. But somehow I doubt it. When every verbal exchange is like this it makes it seem like some well programmed robots are involved in the story, not people.

Would you please remove yourself, oh one with a short-statured buttock region."

“Would you please remove yourself, oh one with a short-statured buttock region.”

This occurs especially when a writer is relatively new and they have done one of those writing courses that tells them that all professional writing has to be professional and formal and the like, and also when a writer is trying too hard to be politically correct. The biggest issue, though, is that, of course, no-one speaks like this. Ever. Not even in Victorian England.

This leads us on to the phonic dialogue, which is the complete opposite. This is when what is written is exactly what is said by the people in said situation. On said website it is obvious that some writers have taken copious notes or have recorded with some sort of magic voice recording device thing

yeah, that's the one

yeah, that’s the one

and just transcribed everything on it. That’s wonderful and incredibly authentic, but, really, listen to the way people really talk. It’s not in  perfect sentences. It’s punctuated by a lot of pauses, ‘umm’s, ‘err’s, and grunts, and often – especially when two old friends are talking – unfinished sentences and ideas because they know already what’s going on. Authentic, yes, but it doesn’t help the reader. For example: “Yeah, well, so I was, umm, yeah, you know, with Dan and we, like, umm, went to the , uhh, shop.” Very true to life… and very hard to read.

What’s worse is when people try to transcribe phonetically an accent, which takes a story going along in its own pace and brings it to a grinding and sudden halt as the reader tries to work out what the hell is going on. The following is an example I’ve ripped from a real, published story: “I a-canna d’ et; et’s a-tu ‘evveee.” I think that’s, “I can’t do it; it’s too heavy,” but you can see the point.

An even worse example is when they combine these two with the verbalisations of teenagers from their own current time period, and that they are not a part of.

Teenagers, strange creatures from another world come to... do things...

Teenagers, strange creatures from another world come to… do things…

It comes across as trying too hard and a completely foreign language. “Like, I was, you know, rollin’, and we were, uhh, err, yeah, you know, lolin’ and…” [I can’t do any more… this is an actual conversation starter] just does not make sense on any level.

So that leaves us with the right way, which is a strange cross between the two. In books people talk informally, they add some slang terms from their own idiom / country / identity group, and they have occasional pauses, but lots of the “err”-like interjections and blank passages of incomprehensible vernacular just do not exist. What this means is that dialogue in books, though based on reality, cannot be completely real if you want a reader to actually keep on reading your stuff.

[all photos courtesy of]

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  1. #1 by kontor on April 19, 2014 - 8:02 pm

    Hello, after reading this amazing piece of
    writing i am as well delighted to share my experience here with friends.

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