“She speaks with a strange even-ness and selects her words a shade too precisely.” –Anya, about April
Yes, you too can learn to write more natural-sounding dialogue! Just send your cheque or money-order to deird1, and YOU can become a better writer, RIGHT NOW!
Not going to work? Damn.
Okay, well, in the spirit of general nice-ness, I will give you my Valuable Writing Advice (TM) for free.
Valuable Writing Advice: Making Dialogue Sound Realistic
I’ve read a whole bunch of meta on writing, and nearly all of it mentions that you should make your dialogue sound more natural by “adding in umm’s and oh’s and stuff like that”. Very few people actually take it further and explain this in any more detail.
So I thought I would. After all, I have almost four months of experience writing fanfic. I must be an expert by now, right?
So, without any more stalling,
Piece Of Advice 1: If you (the writer) get something wrong, don’t backspace over it and then type in the correct version. Leave in the mistake, and let your characters correct it mid-sentence.
I first heard this idea on Jane Espenson’s blog, and it is by far the most valuable writing tip I’ve ever come across.
For example – Dawn gets an email. And Xander asks:
“Aren’t you going to reply? Or read it? Or maybe read it and then reply?”
Originally, this was just “Aren’t you going to reply?” until I realised she hadn’t actually read the email at all. And what was a very boring question suddenly started sounding a lot more Xanderish…
But finally I just gritted my teeth and went for it. And here’s my first piece of advice: if you’re planning on frenching someone, gritting your teeth is not the best way to start.
I wrote the first sentence, using “gritted my teeth” in a metaphorical sort of way. Then I realised how it sounded.
The thing is, writing takes time and effort. If you’re doing it properly, you should be going over everything you’ve written several times, searching for the perfect words. But if you write dialogue like that, your characters start sounding like… well, like they’ve been going over everything several times, searching for the perfect words.
And that’s not how people talk. Most people will think, at most, one sentence ahead. And they won’t realise how ridiculous something sounds until it’s already left their mouth.
You could, of course, make an exception for job interviews, and other situations where a character will have rehearsed what they’re saying. And then, if they start getting nervous halfway through, they might slip back into self-correcting…
This technique is also helpful in situations where you simply cannot come up with a good way to phrase something.
Got it. Real Men Have A Pulse.
Which wasn’t grammatical. And Willow would kill him if she spent hours tutoring him and then he deliberately mixed up singulars and plurals.
Real Men Have Pulses, then. Except that sorta sounds like a bad porn movie.
(from When I Get A Car)
I couldn’t think of a good way to phrase it, so I put both of them in.
And then there’s this one:
“Too easy. It was sitting right where they said it would be. Gold case. Velvet lining. Big sign saying The Eye of Oregano – and what kind of nuts name their mystical treasure after a herb, anyway?”
“It wasn’t! It was named after the warrior queen Orega, who destroyed-”
“Whatever. It’s still a crap name.”
The Eye of Oregano really was a crap name. But once I got it in my head, I couldn’t think of anything else. And by inserting my thought process into the mouths of the characters, this conversation suddenly became most people’s favourite part of the fic.
The wonderful thing about this concept is that it frees you from having to be a perfect writer. If you can’t think of how to phrase something well, it’s not because you’re not any good. It’s because your characters are nervous, or uneducated, or possibly going insane…
Other mistakes I’ve left in:
There was a hill, behind the elementary school. It was covered in aspens, or possibly beeches… I don’t know trees. Whatever they were, they were pretty.
Or maybe it was a software problem. Or a hardware problem. One of those problems that meant you had to call the technicians, and they’d fix her computer, and charge her a fortune, and then she could get back her email from the time-frozen Bolivian dimension of digital post guys.
Maybe not fake, but definitely a nightmare. Or, actually, wasn’t that supposed to be the other way round?
Piece Of Advice 2: People will rarely tell you all the necessary information in one hit. Let them stop halfway through, and wait for someone else to ask them for the rest of the story.
For instance, look at what Willow says in this drabble:
The phone rang.
"Tara! Do you have Fermetum's Grimoire in your dorm?"
It was Willow. Tara blushed, and was very glad Willow couldn't see.
"Um... I'll check. Why do you need it?"
"I accidentally ate four of Buffy's muffins, and there's only one left."
"And I didn't want her to come back and be all 'Hey! One muffin!' so I tried a multiplication spell, but it went kinda freaky, and I forgot to check the whole room first."
"Hmm. Well, I'm sorry, but I can't see it anywhere."
"Well... do you know anyone who wants twenty pet rats?"
As far as Willow’s concerned, “only one muffin left” is a perfectly good summary of her situation. It doesn’t really occur to her that Tara hasn’t kept up with exactly what’s going on. And the “twenty pet rats” is kind of embarrassing, so she doesn’t mention it until she absolutely has to.
Then there’s this:
She was shredding leaves, one by one, very methodically. She already had a pile of decimated pieces next to her.
I sat down beside her.
“You want to tell me about it? Or do you want to finish composting the shrubbery?”
“My mom’s back in the hospital.”
She never really talked about it much, but from what I’d picked up her mother had been in and out of the hospital for about five years.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
And there wasn’t much more to say.
We find out the necessary plot (Tara’s mom is back in the hospital), and because she takes so long to mention it, we get a good clue about her mental state as well.
Piece Of Advice The Third: Sometimes characters will just leave sentences hanging.
Spike is upset:
“There’s just nothing left. And I can’t – There’s just… Nothing.”
And Angel is being cagey:
“No. Paint. We repainted it again after… well, anyway, I like it.”
And… I don’t really have much more to say on that one…
A Fourth Piece Of Advice: People sometimes multitask.
If your characters are sailing a boat, at least a portion of their conversation will be about fish, tying knots, and wind conditions. If they’re trying to outrun an enraged stegosaurus, almost everything they say will be dino-related. And if they’re cooking, you get stuff like this:
“I know she remembers the others – and so do I – but I wanted her to have something real. Can you pass me the chicken?”
“Thanks… A real Christmas. A perfect moment, to look back on. One that did actually happen.”
(from an unposted Joyce/Giles fic, currently un-named)
Especially if they’re uncomfortable having heartfelt discussions, this can be a useful way for them to keep the conversation casual. And it also provides your readers with a handy reminder of what’s actually going on.
Piece Of Advice 5: When people know each other well, they will sometimes see where a conversation is going, and jump forwards.
Sophie was sitting cross-legged on his desk. “Who would you say is the hardest worker here?”
“For the last time, no-one thinks you’re slacking off.”
(an out-take from Glowy Green Things)
“I brought you some food.”
“And there’s a pillow and a blanket set up on the couch in my office, so you can-”
“Tru, it’s been fifteen hours.”
“I’m not going to sleep – not until he asks for help.”
POA Six: If you have to deliver a whole chunk of exposition, try getting the characters into an argument.
“Team A – that’s you three – goes in first. You have to get the Eye to the centre chamber – that’s ALL. The army is not your responsibility. They will be dealt with by team B – that’s your backup.”
“So we don’t get to kill any vamps?”
“Of course you can kill some-” Suzanne says, patiently.
“That’s good, cause I’m not leaving them all for our backup. They take down a small army while we prance around with an amulet? No thanks.”
“Jules, there will be plenty of vampires to deal with, after we’ve gotten the amulet to the central chamber. Until then, leave them to the others. Okay?”
The first one was my original draft. I had to get the information across, and that sentence worked as an exposition dump. But not only was it way too blatant for what I was after, it was also kinda boring.
In the second version, though, the information is still all there. And the readers are still getting it all. But they’re barely going to notice all the exposition that’s going on, because they’re much more focused on the character dynamics revealed by the argument.
Or there’s this:
“Tru, this wasn’t your fault.”
“Wasn’t it? If I hadn’t asked him to help out- I didn’t even think about the danger. I was too busy helping the next dead stranger to- And next thing I know someone stabs him through the neck and dumps him in a parking lot! Well, dammit, it’s not going to end like this! Not this time!”
All the relevant plot is included, but the focus is on Tru’s emotional reaction.
And finally, there’s this one:
“Well, there’s not really much competition, is there? I mean, we’re talking about Little Miss Scoobie herself. Miss I-Can-Speak-Five-Languages-Fluently-Yet-S
omehow-Feel-Compelled-To-Teach-Myself-Tw o-More. Research is all well and good, but the girl reads the B’zenti Codex. For fun!”
(an out-take from Glowy Green Things)
I could have just written: Dawn could speak five languages fluently, and was learning two more in her spare time. But this conversation expresses the whole thing as petty jealousy, which puts a whole new slant on things.
Piece Of Advice 7: Take word repetition out of your narration, and put it into your dialogue.
As a general rule, using the same word several times in quick succession is a bad idea. You’ll usually want to rephrase a couple of them so that it seems more natural.
In dialogue, though, repetition can sound very true-to-life – especially when characters are repeating words used by the person they’re talking to.
“Oh yes? He goes asteroid spotting and suddenly decides to make himself a girlfriend? What would you call it?”
“He’s not making a girlfriend. He’s – he’s repairing a girlfriend. Totally different.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. He’s repairing a girlfriend. Out of a bunch of parts that could have come from anywhere. And even though every person we’ve met so far has wanted us dead, I’m sure this girlfriend will be perfectly harmless and friendly. You’re right, Lister. I was worried over nothing.”
“A shroud that made people crazy.”
“Space monster who ate crazy people.”
“Yeah… that is better. Damn.”
In the second example, Spike originally was going to say “A snot monster from outer space.” But because he phrases his Impressive Mystical Threat in exactly the same way that Angel did, the fact that they’re trying to one-up each other becomes much more clear.
This kind of repetition works very well for emphasising comedy:
The doorbell rang, and Xander’s face brightened.
“That’ll be Spike with the firewood! Finally.”
Buffy’s face brightened too.
“That’ll be Anya with the furniture polish! Finally.”
(from Perfect For Home Or Office)
When word repetition is used by a single person (repeating their own words, rather than someone else’s) it creates the impression of a character without much self-confidence, who is tripping over their own thoughts.
If you’re doing the right thing, you’re supposed to know that it’s right. You can just tell. And I know this is the right thing to do.
But I wish I was sure.
“Um… hello? We help the hopeless, so, if you need anything – any help – I can… um… help. Help you.”
Witness, by the way, yet another application of POA1 (leaving in mistakes). Angel sounds less and less confident, the further he gets into this sentence, and the more he realises just how many times he’s said “help”. Why? Because that’s exactly what I did.
Point Of Advice Number Eight: People will rarely answer lists in the exact order they heard them.
“Firstly, I think movies in space just suck, on principle,” began Lauren. “Secondly, Darth Vader is a ridiculous name for a villain. And thirdly, that gold bikini looked really uncomfortable.”
It was a compelling argument. Nick tried to come up with a good answer. “Well, first – Star Wars isn’t actually set in space for the entire movie. There’s a large portion of it set on planets. Second, Darth Vader sounds really scary to me. And third, that gold bikini was sexy as hell!”
Leaving aside the weirdness of their argument, doesn’t Nick have an impressive memory? He’s got every one of Lauren’s points, in the exact order that she said them, and even though he really wants to enthuse about the gold bikini, he still has enough self-control to discuss the other two issues first.
People just don’t work like that.
Now look at this:
“Spiderman has superpowers!” argues Suzanne. “All Batman has is an entirely lame costume.”
“But he’s the master planner! He can come up with a way to defeat anyone! And his costume isn’t lame.”
“Lamer than Spidey’s.”
“And Spiderman wouldn’t give him time to formulate a plan. He’d corner him in an alley, and take him down right there.”
Andrew raises two points:
1) Batman is the master planner.
2) Batman’s costume isn’t lame.
And Suzanne ignores point 1 completely, until she’s settled point 2.
This can be a useful tool for showing what characters really want to focus on. If there are five issues mentioned, and your main character starts by responding to the fourth one, it’s obviously much more important to him than issues one, two, and three.
And finally, Piece Of Advice 9: Leave it to the readers’ imagination.
There is no rule out there that says your story must include every word spoken during every conversation. Feel free to cut in and out of the dialogue, and trust your readers to keep up.
For example, look at this drabble:
“I had this dream.”
Mmm. Dreams. Dreams were wonderful.
“I always enjoy them.” Darla leaned forward, smiling, and slowly traced one finger down Angel’s face.
“-and she smashes open the door to my crypt, and barges in-”
Darla’s hands were under Angel’s shirt, moving with professional skill.
“-hate her! And she’s not exactly ugly, but-”
“Really, darling.” Darla took the phone from his hand. “Must we listen to this twaddle? I’ve got a much better idea.”
This. This was how things should be.
It wasn’t until he woke up that afternoon that Angel realised which petite blonde Spike had meant.
In particular, look at what we actually hear of Spike’s dialogue:
“I had this dream.”
“-and she smashes open the door to my crypt, and barges in-”
“-hate her! And she’s not exactly ugly, but-”
Which is all we need. Especially in this case, because as Buffy fans, we already know what Spike is talking about. Any more of what he’s saying, and we’d get very bored, very quickly.
Or look at this one:
I have loved our last few years together. But I don’t think…”
And that’s how Maclay broke my heart.
Now, I don’t have a clue how to write a believable break-up letter. So this has just enough to clue the readers in that it is a break-up letter, and then cuts back to the story.
“-teach her. Or a red-hot crowbar, right through-”
Angel prided himself on being an understanding sort of person.
“-to pieces with a mallet, until she realises-”
Able to put up with almost any opinion expressed by almost anyone.
“-unless she screams for more.”
But if Spike didn’t-
“-for at least fifteen hours. And then, I’d switch on the-”
If Spike didn’t, pretty soon, stop listing all the hundreds of ways he’d like to painfully torture some common sense into Buffy, Angel would reach the end of his tether.
“-peel it right off again. She just needs to-”
Any second now.
Readers are, at their core, sick sick puppies. They can imagine thousands of possible activities Spike could be devising. Really, any further input on my part would be overkill. And why waste time coming up with realistic ideas when you can just write “peel it right off again” and watch people’s minds turn to mush?
So, there you have it! The entirety of my dialogue-writing knowledge, in nine easy steps. Thanks for reading.