By J. Robert Lennon
Featured Image: Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1867
The key to writing realistic dialogue in fiction is to abandon all presumption of authenticity and acknowledge the necessity of total fakeness in achieving the illusion of truth.
Human speech is not simple. The words we say in conversation convey, at best, 25% of what we mean,1 with the remaining 75% taken up by body language, volume and tone, facial expression, and prior understanding between parties. The fiction writer has access to these conversational elements, of course, and may fill in back story, provide stage direction, and apply (judiciously, lord help us) descriptive dialogue tags to convey the intended meaning. But a good writer can evoke the character of a speaker, his or her intended and actual meaning, and even very subtle contextual clues, using only the words within quotation marks.
Among the tools the writer has at her disposal when writing dialogue: Sentence length. Punctuation. Rhythm (along an axis of consistency, from entirely smooth to completely broken). Syntax and diction (specifically, its breadth, expressive sophistication, and degree of formal correctness). The reader should be able to understand who is speaking in the same way that he requires no assistance to identify, by sound alone, the voices of his friends in a crowded room. I often instruct my students2 to use their phones to record overheard conversations, then to go home and transcribe the recordings, verbatim. From this invariably sloppy text I ask them to try to render persuasive and coherent fictional dialogue. This process can help to reveal the underlying logic (or illogic) of a conversation, the hidden intent of the speakers, their insecurities and unacknowledged desires.3
The most common mistake beginning writers make when writing dialogue is to assume that conversations consist of people listening to each other and then responding to what they have heard. In reality, people spend at least some of their conversational time planning what they’re going to say next, while paying only cursory attention to their interlocutors. The spectrum of conversational styles extends from the careful and patient talker, who punctuates her listening with nods and facial reactions, pauses before responding, and offers only the minimum required speech in return, to the unrepentant blatherer, who cuts off his companion mid-sentence, expresses himself in big looping dependent clauses that terminate somewhere deep inside a bewildering cognitive spiral, and reveals things about himself he thinks he’s keeping secret.
Both of these extremes can be very interesting people to talk to, for very different reasons; they, and everyone in between, can serve as excellent models for a fictional conversation.
But remember, it’s all fake. Invite actors to recite your excellent fictional dialogue and listen as it emerges stagey and stiff. Good dialogue is a construct. In her 1990 book-length essay The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm warns of the danger of journalist-transcribed speech; nobody likes the way they sound transcribed, even if (especially if) the transcription is exact. “The literally true,” she writes, “may actually be a kind of falsification of reality [ . . . ] When we talk with somebody, we are not aware of the strangeness of the language we are speaking. Our ear takes it in as English, and only if we see it transcribed verbatim do we realize that it is a kind of foreign tongue.”4
Or, alternately, it’s the printed dialogue that is the foreign tongue, of which every fiction writer needs to develop her own dialect. Dialogue is a trompe-l’oeil for the mind’s ear, a shapely illusion that expresses the truth behind the truth about the way we talk.
1 A completely specious figure that I just made up.
2 With the disclaimer that this practice is probably illegal.
3 If I were a marriage therapist, I would record my clients’ conversations with each other, then transcribe them into readable dialogue for their perusal. I would probably not be a very good marriage therapist.
4 Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), page 154.
J. Robert Lennon is the author of two story collections, Pieces For The Left Hand and See You in Paradise, and eight novels, including Mailman, Familiar, and Broken River. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Originally appeared in NOR 17