Conversation versus Fictional Dialog


Conversation versus Fictional Dialog

Here’s how a real conversation goes:

“Hi, Jen,” I said.

“Hi, Frances,” she replied. “Can you believe the weather?”

“Unbelievable. They’re predicting more snow tomorrow.”

“And then the temperature is going up so there might be freezing rain.”

I shook her head. “I can’t wait for spring.”

“Me, too. Hey, did you see the news last night?”

“I know, would you believe the gall of the guy?”

Okay, I’ll stop it there. We’ve all had these conversations and there is nothing wrong with them as lubricant to social interaction. But as dialog, they are deadly and break the unwritten laws of fiction of which your reader is unaware but you ignore at your peril.

The problem with real life

Let’s assume the conversation above is intended as fictional dialog. What’s wrong with it?

  • First, it is just noise unless your story is about an impending tornado or the comeuppance of the guy with the gall (but if it is one or the other, one part of the conversation is unneeded). Readers get bored with extraneous stuff and quit reading.
  • Second, the dialog doesn’t have a purpose. By that I mean, it doesn’t move the story forward, either by showing something about the characters we need to know or by disclosing part of the plot.

How to make your dialog read like conversation

The answer is not to vow, “Right, I’m going to decide the purpose of this dialog before I start writing.” If you do, you’ll probably end up with quite a stilted scene. Let the dialog flow as it might in conversation (minus the extraneous bits), but get to the point quickly.

Another equally effective way is to write the initial draft of the dialog as feels right. When you have finished the story and are in edit mode, consider each piece of dialog to see whether it contributes to the story or character development. If it does, great. Doubt? Try to identify how it helps the story. If you can’t, this might be a candidate for the chopping block. 

Conversation revisited

Let’s redo the conversation above to make it useful dialog in a story. The first redo is if the story is about an impending tornado and the second about the galling guy.

Impending tornado

“My god, did you see the weather forecast?” Jen asked.

“I know, tornadoes! That’s crazy this far north,” I said. “And on top of all the snow and freezing temperatures.”

“This has got to be climate change,” she said.

Story might end up being about climate change; might not. But this version immediately introduces the main topic. No greetings, no small talk.

Galling guy

Jen tossed her bag on her desk. “Did you see McFarlane on the news last night?”

“Unbelievable,” I said. “The gall of the guy.”

“He’ll stoop to anything.”

“Of course, will anybody be able to prove that he’s lied?”

Same thing—use the dialog to move the story forward even if it is simply setting the scene for more complicated events later.

Conversation is actually quite different from dialog in that it doesn’t need to go somewhere whereas dialog does. Another example of where saying “But that’s how it really happened,” gets the response, “And what’s your point?”