In high school, when I was first starting to get a little more serious about my writing, I read several books by Orson Scott Card on how to write science fiction and fantasy (as I recall, one of them was even called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I would definitely recommend it if you’re getting started on writing your own stories). In one of them, there was a section on writing dialogue, and Card suggested that the best way to write believable dialogue that won’t sound stilted and artificial is to go outside and listen to people’s conversations. Not in a creepy, eavesdropping way, just in a people-watching sense. The idle pleasantries you might hear people exchange in the office throughout the day, the difference between how someone talks to their superior versus how they talk to their friend, and the further difference when they’re talking to a stranger. Then take those observations, the patterns to those conversations, and use them to form the basis of how you structure your dialogue.
So I did that. I spent weeks, even months, walking around the school, making mental notes about the ways in which people spoke to different people, how it was different depending on the person and the relationship involved, the different dialects and slangs and jargons that were employed, the patterns to the words. Then I sat down, and in my first serious attempt at a novel length work (which I still intend to finish one day), I sought to incorporate what I had learned about conversation into my dialogue. When I’d written the first sixty thousand words or so, I sent out the rough draft to a few people, and asked for feedback.
If you’re a savvy reader, and I imagine you are, you can probably guess from how I’ve set this introduction up what the response was. Everyone said different things about what they liked and disliked (this was before I really looked into how to guide test readers to generate useful feedback), but everyone agreed: the dialogue was terrible. Not terrible in a content sense, but terribly hard, even painful to read. That was when I began to formulate my ideas about the differences between conversation and dialogue.
On the surface, it appears that an author would desire to make their dialogue as close to a real conversation as possible. Readers have conversations all the time, and know how they should go, so the closer your characters get to that realism, the more familiar it will seem and the more natural, like the reader is just overhearing a real conversation between the characters. This, however, doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work because real conversation is messy.
I know they tell us all in public speaking classes how we should never use filler words and phrases, but the truth is that they are a natural part of language. Not just English: every language that linguists have studied, from English, to Mandarin, to tribal dialects spoken by one or two members of tribes living in the Amazon rainforest with no awareness of the outside world, has versions of filler words and sounds. While having too many of them, or repeating the same ones too often, can hamper understanding and make a conversation hard to follow – as you know if you’ve ever been obliged to listen to a “like” person – having some of them provides valuable pauses, breaks, queues, and other markers and social indicators for the people involved in the conversation. When I tried writing dialogue “like a conversation,” I included those kinds of filler words.
The problem is that, while those kinds of markers are important in a conversation, our real-time brains filter them out, processing them on a mostly subconscious level so that we can concentrate on the meaning being conveyed. That’s why having too many of them or too few in a real conversation of any kind will be detrimental to the understanding of those involved – it moves the processing of those markers from the subconscious to the conscious level. When we read, however, our brains process the words differently. I’m not a neuroscientist, and haven’t done any electromagnetic encephalograms of people reading, but it seems that when we read dialogue, we are processing almost completely with our conscious minds, and therefore don’t filter out fillers the same way we would if we were hearing the conversation. Plus, there is a difference between being a conversation participant, even just as a listener, and being a conversation observer – in the past tense, if you will.
Furthermore, there are different expectations for dialogue. There is an expectation by readers that the dialogue they read will be at least somewhat more polished than it would be if it were a real conversation taking place. This is perhaps partly a matter of conditioning – maybe someone who had never seen a play, watched a movie, listened to a musical, or read a book would find our form of dialogue disorienting – but so much of writing, and life in general, is about managing expectations, and this would be a hard expectation to overcome. As readers, we don’t want our characters to all be little Shakespeares, pronouncing overly dramatic soliloquies at the slightest provocation, but we also want them to sound a little more polished than we expect real people to be.
Dialects, slang, and jargon are a related piece, though somewhat separate, and there is more room for debate. Most people will tell you that writing in a strong dialect is a bad idea and will interfere with reader comprehension, but I also know of several books where such a dialect has been executed very well. I personally tend to avoid writing in my dialects, and instead use the dialogue tags to convey that kind of information, along with the character’s word choice, but that is really about personal preference as a writer and as a reader. I try to keep jargon and slang limited, and use it mostly as a world-building and characterization element, helping to differentiate characters from different places or backgrounds, and maybe offering tiny hints into the world’s history and cultures.
Of course, in that first novel attempt, I did write in conversations, not dialogue. My characters were as close as I could come to replicating how I heard people talk in real life, and it was painful to read. That experience led me to shy away from dialogue for a time, and eventually to really work at improving it and figuring out what I was doing wrong. These days, I actually get compliments on the dialogue in stories like Blood Magic, which is very satisfying, knowing how much work and thought I put into finding the right balance to make it work.
To clear something up: this is not me saying that Orson Scott Card is wrong, and that I’m right. The problem was all in my interpretation. Card’s advice is still sound, and even today I still listen to how people speak and converse for ideas about how to improve and structure my dialogue in different ways, or how to make it distinct from character to character (something that I know I still need to work on). It’s the next step, turning what you hear into dialogue, which I missed on those early efforts. If you are working on improving your dialogue, I recommend, as he does, that you listen to read people talking. But when you go to write, remember the different between conversation and dialogue.