Here’s a thing I hear people say a lot:
Your book will fall flat without believable dialogue.
I hear people saying this because I spend a lot of time listening. I didn’t start listening because I wanted to improve my writing or anything stupid like that; I’m just a bit of a voyeur. I’m the creep in the corner who’s watching you and wondering where you’re going, where you’ve come from and who you love. I remember doing that as a kid–making up stories about the people on the bus or in the supermarket or in the next car. Not because I was always destined to be a writer, but because I find people (and society) inherently interesting. And probably a bit because I’m kind of pervy.
The most important thing about dialogue is this: people don’t speak the way that they write. Even in fantasy stories or period dramas where the dialogue is quite weighty and needs to convey lots of emotion, good dialogue sounds like speech, not writing. But that’s not the whole story. Pun … awful.
The only way to learn how to write good dialogue is to listen.
Now I tell people I’ve always known that, and my listening/illegal monitoring was to help me write.
Some people use movies and television to help them write dialogue, and I guess if you’re a mental like me or you’re afraid of people or you were convicted of crimes that mean you can’t be around people, this is a good alternative. But ultimately you will still be listening to scripted dialogue. It’s not exactly like speech. It’s close. But for the most part, it is missing the realness of speech.
What I do is to take my laptop (laptops provide more coverage than notebooks) to a shopping centre (they have good diversity) and observe. Not just the words that people use to talk to each other, but how they use them. Do they speak fast? Do they use superfluous words? Do they use sounds in place of words? Do they make eye contact? What sorts of things do they talk about? Do they interrupt? Are they listening (this is one of my favourite things to watch)?
I put myself in the place where the subjects will be. I’m writing some “middle grade” fiction, so I sit in Timezone like the worst, dreariest lecher ever and listen to young boys. I write down things about how they talk through the side of their mouths and how they usually don’t use their inside voices and how they use words with only a couple of syllables.
Sometimes I write down the words that people say to each other, like this gem from last year, when I was sitting in an Armadale cafe next to a man in a second-hand suit and his frowning girlfriend:
“I can’t help it if I’m naturally inclined to the sciences. I’m just supposed to be a doctor. Don’t be like that.”
But mostly I don’t. Because the words that people use are not what makes their conversation real. I have two primary school children, and when they speak they say “um” a lot (and also “No I won’t clean my room” and “You’re the worst mother ever can’t you just get off the computer?”). Rather than just copying speech word-for-word, like this:
Hey mum … uh … I just wondered, um, can I uh play the, you know, iPad?
which is how they speak when they know the answer will be no, the aim is to capture the essence of speech. In words, and not exactly the same words as the ones they used. That’s why listening is so important. What you’re training your ears toward is not the literal order of the letters, but the bits in between. Those are the bits you can wrangle and mangle and bash into something that resembles the conversation, but isn’t a transcription.
Great written dialogue is not identical to spoken word. It is aware of the idiosyncrasies of speech and expression, but it is not a facsimile of them.