We are all used to reading dialogue in novels and short stories. And the conventional wisdom is that dialogue is a cinch to write. After all, we use dialogue every day. We speak with our coworkers, family members, friends and acquaintances. We hear conversations between strangers all the time. Writing dialogue should be no problem. Right?
Wrong! Dialogue in fiction can be quite different from the dialogue conducted in real life. Dialogue used in day-to-day communications consists of incomplete sentences, fillers such as “um” and “er”, and nods and shrugs. In short, our regular conversations sound pretty dull and disjointed if written verbatim as part of a story.
As an example, take a little known movie about Charles Colson, one of Nixon’s henchmen who later became a Christian. Based on his book, Born Again, the script used portions of actual excerpts of the infamous Nixon Tapes verbatim for the White House scenes. In contrast to the rest of the movie this segment came across as stilted and artificial.
Just to illustrate what I mean, read aloud this excerpt from the actual Nixon Tapes. I bet you’ll come away wondering, what were they saying? Here it is:
Nixon: That’s right.
Haldeman: That the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters call Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this…
this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” That’s not an unusual development,…
Nixon: Um huh.
Haldeman: …and, uh, that would take care of it.
Nixon: What about Pat Gray, ah, you mean he doesn’t want to?
Haldeman: Pat does want to. He doesn’t know how to, and he doesn’t have, he doesn’t have any basis for doing it. Given
this, he will then have the basis. He’ll call Mark Felt in, and the two of them …and Mark Felt wants to cooperate because…
Haldeman: he’s ambitious…
So, how is dialogue supposed to be used in your writing? I’ve got a couple of guidelines that can help you write more exciting dialogue: