Monday, October 19, 2020

People Don't Talk Like That

I started reading a book the other day and within a few pages, DNF'd that sucker.  The problem was the dialogue.  It was stilted and wooden with loads of 'as you know' stuff where the author used the characters to supply backstory without any reason for them to be talking about the past.  

People don't talk like that.  And they don't converse that way.

I realize sometimes it's hard to see where your dialogue might have gone wrong.  (And as such, I hope I never present dialogue to my readers that's anything like that.)  For me, though, writing and reading is like listening to someone talking in my head.  Basically, it's all dialogue up in there.  So, when the dialogue goes wrong, it really sticks out.

If you're not like this, a basic way to figure out if your dialogue has gone wrong is to read it out loud.  If you find yourself tripping over stuff, it's because the way you've written it isn't the way people generally talk.  If it sounds wooden and hollow, it is.

Your mileage may vary if you're writing high fantasy.  People don't talk like that anymore either.  Still, even then, there should be a flow to the words.  Read Shakespeare aloud.  (Which, imo, is the only way to really enjoy Shakespeare if you're not actually at a play.)  Shakespeare's old stuff, but he's still relevant because he had the ebb and flow of human conversation down.  If you're worried about reading Shakespeare, read the newer fantasies of Brooks, Butcher, Farland, etc.  They do good dialogue.

Of course, the book I was reading was YA.  I think that only made it worse.  People don't talk like that.  Teens definitely don't talk like that.  It's been a while since I was a teen or had a teen, but I don't think the general drift of teenage conversation is towards more formal and stilted.  (Would that it were sometimes.)  It was also paranormal, which made the stilted dialogue even worse.  Ebb and flow is key there, folks.  

Ebb and flow is key everywhere.  Any well-received book of any genre has an ebb and flow to the dialogue.  Hell, there's an ebb and flow to the whole damn thing.  If the reader is tripping and stumbling and trying to make the writing make sense in their heads, they're going to put the book down.  Or throw it against the wall.  And never pick up another one by that author.  None of wants that, now do we?

Anyway, I'm probably the last writer to go to for advice - since my sales are dismal - but since I'm also a prolific reader, you should probably take note.  A little.  Maybe.  Do yourself and the world a favor and make your dialogue sound more like the way people actually talk.  K?

If you're a writer, do you read your stuff out loud?  From a reader standpoint, can you think of any writers who do dialogue especially well? 


  1. I've fallen out of the habit of reading my dialogue out loud, but you've reminded me to do that as I'm revising a book in the newer series. It's definitely harder when the characters are still shiny and new and harder to pinpoint.

  2. I read the whole book out loud. That's were I find all sorts of things, including typos and missing words. My eyes/brain might "see" the missing. My mouth? It's on top of things.

    There's a way to incorporate backstory in dialogue that isn't chonky, clumsy, or tedious. And it's often better than large chunks of info dumping.

    Also, one of my oeeves is when a male character comes off sounding like a 16 yo girl in love. Gah! Men don't talk like that! Men don't talk like women!

    As for authors who do dialogue well...JD Robb, though that may be due to the quality of the narration and I'm mostly listening to books these days. Ilona Andrews. Darynda Jones. Believe it not, Andre Norton, espcially given the "clunkiness" of the times. As much as I enjoy her books, the dialogue in Anne McCaffrey's Pern series was a bit...over the top, even for a space fantasy.

    Okay. I'm so late getting around today. Stuffs to do and all that! Stay warm!

  3. I used to read my fiction sort-of out loud -- I'd mouth the words without putting any breath behind them (my mouth got too dry if I actually spoke).

    Your fiction always sounds fresh and real to me!

    btw, did you get my email a couple of days ago? Sometimes stuff goes into the spam folder, never to be seen again.