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:
- Indirection. Have you ever written a story in which two characters meet and have a conversation that goes something like this? “Hi, Sally. How have you been?” said John. “I’m doing well, how about you?” said Sally. “Oh, pretty good,” replied John. “Good,” said Sally, “Well, see you later.” I bet your lids started to close a bit as you read the above. Yeah, it’s pretty dull. One way to avoid these dull meeting conversations and any other dull portion of dialogue is to use indirection. It’s the idea of not answering a question or not responding to a statement directly, but instead creating a line of dialogue that advances the story by creating conflict, imparting some needed information, or heightening the tension in response to the question or statement. Let’s look at another snippet of dialogue, but now using indirection: The security guard shined a flashlight in John’s face and demanded, “What are you doing here?” “Leave now if you want to live,” said John. “What?” “Don’t stand here yapping, just go!” “If you aren’t out of here in five minutes I’m calling the cops.” “In thirty minutes this whole place is going to be turned into a self lighted glass paved parking lot!” Sounds more interesting, doesn’t it?
- Lean Conversations. Its likely that you’ve visited a book store looking for a thriller to read for that vacation at the beach. After perusing the back cover you probably paged through the book checking for white space. An abundance of white space usually means a lot of lean dialogue. And this usually means that the story moves along quickly with exciting “edge of your seat” chapters. If you want to learn about lean conversations read the novels of the late Robert B. Parker, king of the lean conversation. Here is an excerpt from his Spencer novel, Chance: “I heard about you,” Ventura said. I nodded modestly. “Talked to some people about you.” “Un huh.” “Like your man Hawk, for instance.” “Hawk is some people,” I said. “Says you’re a big pain in the ass.” “He’s jealous,” I said, “’Cause girls like me better.