How do people talk?
People don’t talk like each other, and they definitely don’t talk the way many authors write them. As a writer, you’ve likely had it hardwired into your brain that you need to use proper grammar and sentence structure to be taken seriously. If you’re writing fiction, there’s a two-part problem that pops up right there:
- If you use formal English in dialogue, your dialogue will sound unnatural and unconvincing.
- If you write what people actually say, your dialogue will sound confusing and unclear.
Fortunately, you don’t have to get stuck on either side. If you take some time to observe common speaker quirks, conversation types, and the “errors” of spoken English, you’ll be able to balance clear, engaging writing with enough realistic patterns to make your dialogue read like a convincing conversation.
Types of speakers
Everybody has their own special way of talking. It might be strong speech, or it might be poor speech; either way, it’s them. Watch for these people:
- The “like, so, I mean,” repeaters—these people don’t necessarily sound like teenage girls, but they do have little words or phrases that constantly pepper their speech. Like it or not, you probably do this, too—I’ve been fighting the meaningless “like” in my own speech (as in “It’s like really annoying that I talk like this!”), and I’ve been told that I start sentences with “so” all the time. What can I say? I’m Minnesotan. I know what it would look like for someone to write me!
- The sentence stretchers—these people can form a run-on sentence like nobody’s business. They have something to say, and they’re going to say it, and it doesn’t matter whether or not it would make sense as a written sentence because nobody’s ever going to write it down anyway, and they don’t have time to stop and put a period and new sentence start in the middle of whatever it is they’re communicating because that would break up the flow and make it so they didn’t sound like themselves anymore, which is something that is now true of my writing because I just spent this whole bullet point giving you an example of what I’m talking about—and I only stopped here because it’s time to move on!
- The careful grammarians—these people actually do speak in Standard English, at least when they’re in a setting that they believe requires some level of professionalism from them. These people, upon answering the phone, will carefully ask: “For whom are you calling?” instead of just spitting out: “Who did you want to talk to?” If this is you, I’m not saying your excellent grammar is an issue! Just make sure that you aren’t unintentionally making more casual speakers feel bad. More importantly, make sure you’re not stifling
- The family jargon users—these people are, to some extent, all of us. We have a certain lexicon that comes from the family members and friends we talk to the most, and it doesn’t always make sense to everyone else. When I asked a friend if somebody was “being a pill,” he stared at me blankly. I had no idea that everyone didn’t know “pill” as an idiom for someone who’s being obnoxious and hard to swallow. Likewise, my family commonly uses words that I don’t even think have real spellings, like my mom’s drawn out “yeep” for “yep” or my cousin’s lifelong nickname that sounds like “teedie” and has absolutely no link to her actual name. Know this about your own jargon as well as that of your characters—it helps in forming memorable voices!
Conversation goals and formats
The way conversations go in real life isn’t consistent. The things that are said and the ways people say them depend on what kind of conversation it is and what they’re trying to accomplish. Pay attention to the purposes of the conversations around you and then use the same elements to shape the dialogue in your book. Consider:
- Formal conversations—When speech has a formal use, such as a public address or an interview, the participants’ goal for their words is to sound professional and educated. Casual comments and wording are typically cut—often along with natural-sounding language use. The more formal the situation is, the more likely the speaker has rehearsed what they’re going to say and chosen what they feel will be the strongest words.
- Information dumps—Sometimes, people just have a lot to say. If they have facts to report, a story to tell, or a problem to rant about, they’re going to talk about it in whatever way gets the point across. This will include many words, many details, and (many times!) many emotions. The more worked up someone is about what they’re saying, the less they’ll monitor what’s actually coming out of their mouth.
- Constructive talks—People regularly use conversation to do useful things like asking for information or making plans with someone else. In these situations, they’ve planned what they want to say, but the other person likely hasn’t. One person’s speech will be more direct and controlled, while the other’s will be more instinctual or undecided.
- Idle chatting—There isn’t always a task or plan for spoken communication. Often, people fill silent space with small talk or passing comments. This kind of conversation might sound strange to someone who’s not part of it, thanks to the lack of focus and frequency of non sequiturs (comments that don’t follow from what was just said). You’ll notice this type of communication more in real life than in fiction; it happens all the time, but it falls into the category of details that are irrelevant to most stories.
Common speech “errors”
The average person is not using Standard English grammar rules when expressing themselves verbally. Sometimes, meaning transcends form, especially when you have to think and speak on the spot. Try writing down, word-for-word, a conversation that you have or overhear. How many of these do you notice?
- Sentence fragments—We usually get a slap on the wrist for writing like this, but it’s common in speech: “But I saw it!” “So then what?” “Didn’t know.” “Which isn’t my problem.”
- Restructuring sentences—This isn’t how we put sentences together in Standard English, but it’s how the words sometimes come to us (especially if we change what we’re saying partway through). Either way, the sentence is unparallel or interrupted: “I got ready to go, went out the door, and then my phone started ringing.” “I didn’t think that she—I was surprised by her little speech.”
- Tense and pronoun swaps—This is what happens when we’re so focused on conveying the sense of something that we don’t bother with the rules and technicalities (people will know what we mean!): “Me and Andy are thinking about that party tonight—are you?” “So I’m running late for work, and then I saw that the meeting had been cancelled.”
Other patterns aren’t mistakes but are common to speech:
- High use of contractions—As a general rule, people use contractions whenever possible when speaking: “don’t” in place of “do not,” “we’re” in place of “we are,” “can’t” in place of cannot,” etc. They don’t tend to expand the contracted phrase unless they’re trying to emphasize a specific word. It often sounds unnatural and funny when people speak without contractions.
- Using sounds of affirmation and protest—As people converse, they sometimes convey emotions, not just thoughts, in their exchanges. There will be many sounds like “mhmm,” “ooh!” “hmm?” and the like. They’re not full words, but they still convey what the speaker wants to convey.
- Mirroring conversation partners—While some people always stay true to their own speech patterns, others of us change the way we speak based on whom we’re talking to. This isn’t always conscious, but it still happens: with formal speakers, we might speak more carefully; with outgoing people, we speak in a more lively way. Sometimes, this looks like mirroring sentence structure patterns; other times, people might even borrow the vocabulary of the person they’re talking with. It makes each conversation a unique creation.
Find the balance.
There are different types of speakers, different types of conversations, and many different language-use quirks that go into real-life speech. Those same things are relevant when writing fictional speech. When you’re writing dialogue, ask yourself the following questions:
- What kind of conversation is this?
- What kind of speakers are my characters?
- What kinds of imperfections and quirks go into their use of the English language?
When you’ve answered those questions, you’ll have a good idea of what the conversation would sound like in real life.
Next, you’ll want to make it readable, so ask yourself a couple more questions:
- Am I only including the conversations and exchanges that expand characterization and progress the plot, thereby making sure the reader isn’t bored by long, casual talks?
- Am I keeping the use of repeated words and quirky sentence formation to a minimum, thereby making sure the reader gets the sense of the character’s voice without struggling to uncover the meaning of what they say?
Balance is key. Let your characters talk the way real people talk, but clean it up just enough to make it easy-to-read without losing character voice. If you need more guidance, read how some of your favorite authors handle this. If nothing else, remember that practice makes perfect! Keep listening. Keep writing.
For more dialogue tips, come back for posts 2 and 3 in the Writing Dialogue series. In part two, I’ll cover ways in which dialogue can reveal what’s going on in a character’s head (beyond what they’re actually saying!). In part 3, I’ll be talking about the use of dialogue tags and accompanying actions so that you can practice writing conversations that your reader can really see.
Writing great dialogue doesn’t have to be hard!