The best advice I ever read was from William Ash in The Way To Write Radio Drama:
‘What is required is very carefully wrought dialogue which contrives to sound natural.’ (Page 42)
What Ash means by that is that a writer doesn’t need to exactly replicate modes of speech. On the most basic level when writing fiction we don’t need characters to walk into a space and start saying ‘Hi, how are you? I’m fine…’ and so on. If writers were to stick exactly to the lines of real world conversation books would probably all be as thick and dull as the telephone directory. It’s a process that Rib Davis, in his book Writing Dialogue For Scripts, calls ‘selective naturalism’ (Page 39), I always thought that phrase summed it up nicely. In essence that’s what fictional dialogue is, artificial replication of speech that doesn’t appear artificial because it’s simply that the little fiddly bits have been snipped off.
I’m not saying you can’t have verbose characters, obviously you can because that’s their character but the next time you read a book or watch a movie or TV show consider how many times the characters walk into a scene and even say ‘hello’, not often, if ever. If you hadn’t been thinking about it would you have noticed? Try writing out a scene with all the little bits of everyday conversation then cut out the extra bits and compare them and you might find that the exact replication of everyday speech actually sounds more unnatural than ‘selective naturalism’.
Having considered it I think this might be because we know the speech on the page is not two real people talking and attempts to make it exactly like people talking actually has the reverse effect of drawing our attention to this. It also has the effect of bringing on a bout of ‘get on with the bloody story’ which isn’t something you want your reader thinking.
As I seem to be on a quoting roll today I’ll drop in another useful one from Rosemary Horstmann in Writing Handbooks: Writing for Radio Third Edition:
‘Dramatically effective dialogue is everyday speech boiled-down into a concentrated essence, in which every word has a reason for being there, whether to illustrate character, to carry the plot forward, or to build atmosphere.’ (Page 39)
As Horstmann says words need to have a reason to be there, this is because fiction has a certain amount of space to get the job done and readers only have a certain amount of patience with dithering. By dithering I don’t include exploring character, I know with an interesting character I’m quite happy to let them carry me along for a while but going off too far with dialogue that tries too hard to be ‘realistic’ doesn’t work so well.
You might’ve noticed that while I’m discussing general fiction rather than specifically scriptwriting all the books I’ve quoted have been about scriptwriting. This goes back to what I was saying in The Interconnectedness of Form there’s plenty to be learnt from different writing forms so if you’re struggling with dialogue I would definitely suggest picking up a scriptwriting book or even trying to write your dialogue as a radio script so we only have sound to identify the characters. Can we identify different characters by what they say or how they say it? Or do they all sound a bit samey?
- William Ash, The Way To Write Radio Drama, (London: Elm Tree Books, 1985)
- Rib Davis, Writing Dialogue For Scripts (London: A&C Black Limited, 2000 orig 1998)
- Rosemary Horstmann, Writing Handbooks: Writing For Radio Third Edition. (London: A&C Black Ltd, 1997 orig 1991)