Dialogue vs. Conversation

Dialogue is an artificial construct. Dialogue does not mimic conversation but instead gives readers the impression of realistic conversation.

Books on how to write dialogue often suggest listening to people talk to learn how to write dialogue. Seems like good advice, but have you ever truly listened? “We . . . um . . . we, like . . . you know . . . we stammer and like we repeat ourselves and um . . . you know.”

Even when we speak coherently, we don’t converse. We lecture. We tell long, boring, convoluted stories. We interrupt others and talk over them. We use clichés. We tell jokes that take forever to get to the punch line. None of which helps us write dialogue. If characters in books talked the way we talk in real life, who would bother reading? We want our characters to sound like us, just not talk like us. We also want their conversations to be witty, to the point, and conflicted.

In life, most of us cannot come up with that clever quip when we need it — it comes to mind (if at all) late at night when no one is around to be impressed. Our characters don’t have to suffer from that malady because they have us and our late night epiphanies on their side. We can change their words as often as necessary to get it right.

And get it right we must. Good dialogue advances a story and shows character interacting with other characters. Good dialogue makes a reader keep reading. Bad dialogue, no matter how crucial to the story, makes readers go in search of other amusements.

The following is another excerpt from Daughter Am I showing the use of dialogue.

*     *     *

Mary noticed, for the first time, her father’s receding hairline, the deep crinkles at the corners of his brown eyes. Soon he would be as old as Kid Rags, Teach, and Crunchy.

Tears stung her eyes at the thought of her father living alone in a dingy hovel, and she vowed she would not let that happen.

Realizing the silence was stretching out awkwardly, she opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a palm to forestall her.

“I don’t want to know what you’re doing,” he said. “Whatever it is, I know it’s something you feel you have to do. I thought you should be aware you’re upsetting your mother.”

“I don’t mean to.”

He heaved himself out of the chair. “That’s all I came to say.”

“I’m glad you stopped by,” she said. “I planned on calling you later anyway to tell you I’m going to be away for a few days.”

He stared at her for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish, but I suppose you know your own mind.”

You are so wrong. I don’t know anything.

He walked to the door, paused with his hand on the knob for a second, then turned to face her.

“I love you,” he said softly.

She swallowed. “Oh, Dad. I love you too.”

He opened the door. “Be careful, okay, honey? You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”

2 Responses to “Dialogue vs. Conversation”

  1. Coco Ihle Says:

    Pat, excellent blog post! So true! You said it very well.

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    Yes, this blog is to the point for sure. Dialogue may be artificial but it still must ring true to the reader. Showing character in dialogue, as you say, is a good way of keeping everything jogging along nicely.

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