One of the most common criticisms of bad dialogue is that it “sounds written,” which is to say that it sounds more like the way people write than the way people talk. This creates a dilemma for the dialogue-writer, if not an existential crisis: your job is to write something that sounds as if you didn’t write it. Add to that the fact that you spent your whole career trying to learn how not to write like you talk, and you have a recipe for heartache.So how do you make the people in your stories talk the way people talk in the world God made? I have written on this topic in earlier issues of The Habit, so I will quickly recapitulate the big ideas and direct you to those letters. Then we will hunker down and talk about some practicalities with regard to sentence-structure and word-choice.
Some big-picture principles (and where to find out more)
Use the words outside the quotation marks to control the pace of the dialogue.
One of the most important ways to make dialogue ring true is to match the pacing and rhythm of spoken language. Speakers interrupt themselves, they interrupt each other, they pause, they gesture. The words outside the quotation marks control all those back-and-forth rhythms; they also keep your characters from becoming disembodied voices. Read more about this dynamic in this letter: Think Outside the Quotation Marks.
Remember that people rarely speak directly and/or truthfully about what they think or feel.
People don’t always know what is going on inside them. Even when they do, they tend to misrepresent their thoughts and feelings, for various reasons. When you are writing dialogue, the question is always “What would this kind of person say in this kind of situation?” Read more in this letter: Out of the Fullness of the Heart the Mouth Speaks.
Make sure the characters in a dialogue are talking to each other, not to the reader.
While it is true that dialogue communicates information to the reader, it is important that your readers feel they are eavesdropping on a conversation that might actually happen. Read more here: Spontaneous Human Combustion: What a Stroke of Luck.
Now, on to some specific, sentence-level issues…
Coordination and Subordination
I don’t have space here to get into all the technicalities of subordination and coordination. I do explain these ideas at considerable length in Grammar for Writers, which is included in the Field Notes membership.
Suffice it to say that the subordination-to-coordination ratio is much higher in written language than in spoken language. In written prose we are much more likely to combine ideas via dependent clauses (adverb clauses, adjective clauses, noun clauses), which allow for more complexity and nuance. When we speak, on the other hand, we are more likely to connect ideas in compound sentences using coordinating conjunctions, or else just to string simple sentences (or sentence fragments) together. It’s not that spoken language is less nuanced than written language; rather, in spoken language the nuance comes from inflection, gesture, tone of voice, pacing, etc., whereas the writer relies on diction, syntax, sentence structure, etc. to replace some of that lost nuance.
Consider the sentence I wrote above:
While it is true that dialogue communicates information to readers, it is important that your readers feel that they are eavesdropping on a conversation that might actually happen.
This sentence begins with an adverbial clause (“While it is true…”), which itself includes a noun clause (“that dialogue communicates information…”). The main clause includes a noun clause (“that your readers feel…”), which contains another noun clause (“that they are eavesdropping…”), which includes an adjective clause (“that might actually happen.”)
If you’re keeping score, that’s five subordinate clauses in this one unremarkable written sentence. But that’s not how people usually talk. If I were talking, I would probably say something more along these lines:
True, dialogue communicates information to readers. But your readers need to feel like they’re eavesdropping on a conversation that might actually happen.
Notice how little has changed with regard to diction. We’re mostly using the same words in either version. The difference is sentence structure. We’ve gone from one long sentence with five subordinate clauses to two shorter sentences with two subordinate clauses (“they’re eavesdropping…” and “that might actually happen”).
In the “spoken” version the subordinating conjunction while goes away, and the two sentences are connected by the coordinating conjunction but. In spoken English, by far the most common connecting words are and, or, but, and so. I’m quite sure those are the most common connectors in written English as well, but not by such a large margin; writers use a much wider variety of connecting words than speakers do.
Also, I changed feel that to feel like. That like is grammatically questionable here, but it sounds a little truer to the way people talk.
Often when I point out to a writer that a character’s speech feels written, the writer will say something like, “Actually, that dialogue was based on somebody I know who actually talks like that, in big, complex sentences.”
Well, first, I’m not sure I believe them. Nobody’s spoken language is as complex as their written language. Second, let’s imagine that the writer actually sent me a recording of their friend speaking extemporaneously in sentences containing five subordinate clauses each. In that case I would say, “I stand corrected. You do have a friend who speaks the way other people write. Nevertheless your reader, who is not acquainted with your unusual friend, isn’t going to believe this dialogue.” Conjunctions and Conjunctive AdverbsIf you are trying to make written dialogue sound like spoken English, you will have to adjust your diction, or word choice. That may or may not mean simplifying the big words. But it will almost certainly mean adjusting the little words—especially conjunctions.
I have already mentioned the fact that the coordinating conjunctions and, or, but, and so are the most common connecting words in English. The other three coordinating conjunctions—nor, for, and yet—are less commonly used in speech. (Note: I’m talking about for and yet as conjunctions, not as prepositions or adverbs). Whereas there are only seven coordinating conjunctions, there are dozens of subordinating conjunctions. Here is a partial list:
as long as
as much as
as soon as
in order that
You wouldn’t have any trouble handling any of these conjunctions in your written prose. But you don’t hear all of these conjunctions in conversation every day.
Every now and then, somebody says provided that. But most of us would say if instead. In order that isn’t unheard of in conversation, but so that is quite a bit more common. I’ve used whereas twice in this letter already. But you could follow me around for a week and you probably wouldn’t hear me say whereas once.
Conjunctive adverbs are those adverbs that we use at the beginning of a sentences to connect it to the previous sentence and/or point to a transition from one idea to another. Here’s a list of some of the most common conjunctive adverbs:
You can see where this is going. Some of these conjunctive adverbs are common in spoken English (still, when, however, instead), and some are less common (when was the last time you started a spoken sentence with thus or henceforth, unless you were trying to be funny?).
My point is that when you are trying to write realistic-sounding dialogue, start with the connecting words. Your reader’s ear is finely tuned to the way people use little words like conjunctions (both subordinate and coordinate), conjunctive adverbs, and prepositions. Small mistakes in those words can derail your dialogue in a hurry.