The Art of Dialogue

There’s an interesting post by Evan Maloney over at the Guardian Books Blog on “The unreal art of realistic dialogue.” Many writers find the task of writing dialogue to be daunting. And Maloney hits the nail on the head by pointing out the reason why: It’s hard to write dialogue that sounds realistic—but that also filters out the “dull” parts of reality.

Here’s a quick snippet of the post:

Writers of fiction are told to “listen” to how people speak in order to create realistic dialogue but, like all our perceptions, our hearing is unreliable. We unconsciously filter out the crap in people’s speech to refine sense and meaning. What we’re left with is a type of distilled speech far removed from the realism of what we hear and, crucially, we rarely notice this until we see it with our own eyes, while reading a transcript of what someone said.

Maloney goes on to give three primary ways that writers approach dialogue.

Natural Rhythms of Speech

Some writers, such as Hemingway, approach dialogue as a way to create rhythm to move the story along. The focus is not so much on creating realistic sounding speech. It’s to make that speech rhythmically move the story along at such a pace that you neither notice nor care that the speech itself is not like anything you’ve ever encountered in reality.

Formal Narration through Speech

As Maloney writes, “Other writers use dialogue in the same way they use formal narration: to express profound ideas in complex language with scant regard for realism.” With this type of dialogue we suspend reality because the formal narration fits with the literary tone of the book we are reading. This is very common in pseudo-philosophical novels that are more concerned with expressing ideas than with creating compelling and swift-moving narratives.

Carbon Copy Speech

The bravest of writers might actually try to capture realistic speech with all of its um’s and st-stutters. Maloney gives the perfect example: Woody Allen. Allen’s scripts are written with all the ticks and breaks we hear in natural speech but often filter out mentally. It’s an art that is much harder to accomplish well than one might think. But when done right, it resonates.

Take a look at your writing. How are you presenting your dialogue? In what ways are you filtering reality out of your realistic dialogue? What’s your favorite approach to writing speech?

What you find may surprise you.

[Photo by SteetFly JZ]