The Way We Talk

When I write, I often struggle with writing what falls within the quotation marks because I’ve been told conflicting things over the years about how to write dialogue.

For most of my writing career, I tried to write dialogue the way my writing instructors taught me. An often-taught rule in beginning writing classes is: Listen to the way people talk, and try to recapture that on paper. Unfortunately, this did not work out well for me. Either I am surrounded by rather ineloquent and unwitty people (I don’t think this is the case. My family, co-workers and friends are at somewhat above-average, I think), or my instructors were not giving me the right direction. At least in my life, most conversations generally occur to fill silence, conduct business or be polite. I know that doesn’t sound very nice, but it’s true. I actually at one point started to record mentally the conversations that I was having during the course of a day and I was rather shocked by how ridiculously banal they were. I could not possibly write 99% of my real-life conversations into a story.

Have you ever tried taking down dialogue verbatim? When I do, I find people talk at each other rather than to each other, and most of the time people are talking to themselves more than to another person. People reference things that will have absolutely no importance to anyone other than the two people having the conversation.

Also, people don’t talk, then listen, then respond to what was said, then listen, then respond to what was said again. That’s what happens in an ideal world. That’s how we’re taught to behave during a job interview or first date. But in the real world, we jump into each other’s sentences, change the subject, and ignore each other’s responses. Many responses are monosyllabic or tangential. All-in-all, very little of it makes for enjoyable reading.

Here’s another big problem: For the most part, people don’t talk about the really important and dramatic issues in their lives in a coherent way. Most of what should be said by people to make for a great moment in a story remains unsaid. That’s why alcohol and therapy are multi-gazillion dollar industries in America. For a writer, people’s failure to verbalize leads to an even worse problem. In many truly dramatic occasions, people stand there wishing they had the guts to say something, but without saying anything. How many moments are there in my (and likely your) life when I wished I had said something, but didn’t? If I had said something, I’d probably have a better story to tell people.

Because my reality rarely creates good dialogue, I actually break the rule that my college writing instructors taught me all the time. I don’t write dialogue as it’s actually said. In fact, I remind myself of three questions when I am writing dialogue.

The first thing is pretty basic, and, I think, uncontroversial:

Do the statements in quotation marks move the story along?

I don’t believe the niceties need to be in a story. The reader will imagine all of that happening without me having it stated explicitly. Generally, I only include quotes that are important to the plot. The conventional back-and-forth familiar to any adult can be summarized without bothering the reader, i.e., “After introductions, he said….”, or left out altogether.

After I reduce dialogue down to the bare essentials, I find there are two more difficult questions that are usually in tension.

What do I want my characters to say? Vs. What would they really say?

In my early drafts, my main aim is creating a good plot arc, so I’m much more concerned with the first question.

I want to know first and foremost whether I have a story that works from beginning to end. Thus, in my early drafts, I have my characters say exactly what I want them to say without regard for realism. I imagine each character had time to think for a few minutes before each response, and crafted one that was just perfect for the story.

Usually, after a first draft, my characters sound pompous and unrealistic. That’s okay, because that’s what revision is for.

When I revise, I consider the question:

What would they really say?

Usually, they would say not very much, and they would not say it in a dramatic or pithy way. Also, if emotional, they would not make much sense. Thus, the above question is often at odds with What do I want my characters to say?

I try to balance the two by writing dialogue that the reader will believe in, but not necessarily because it’s so real. I want to write dialogue that readers will believe in, because it feels just right for that moment. I find that “what feels right” is very different from what is “real” most of the time.

I got the idea to write dialogue like this from film. One of my favorite writers of dialogue is Aaron Sorkin, and, not to insult one of my heroes, but most of the dialogue he writes would not occur in real life. Ever see The Social Network? I work in Silicon Valley. I hear Facebook and Harvard people speak all the time. They are, for the most part, incredibly smart and eloquent people, but they don’t sound like the people you see in The Social Network. Frankly, no one is as witty as some of the characters in that movie in real life, even if one condensed their best moments into a two-hour highlight reel. But I wanted to believe that there are people who talk like that, so I suspended my judgment and listened. By the end, I didn’t even notice how unrealistic the dialogue was. I was just glad to be listening to people who spoke with an eloquence that I wished I possessed.


We are always looking for great work. Have you considered submitting to Ploughshares?

About Thomas Lee

Thomas Lee is a writer and lawyer who lives in Northern California. He is developing a short story collection about the experiences of Korean American immigrants in New York City, where he lived for many years. He is the winner of the first annual Ploughshares Emerging Fiction Writer's Contest. His work has also been published in American Literary Review, Asia Literary Review, Eclectica, AIM Magazine and several other literary journals. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a StorySouth Million Writers Award. He received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Glimmer Train Fiction Open and was a finalist in the 2008 Glimmer Train Family Matters Competition. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Yale Law School.
This entry was posted in Writing, Writing Advice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Way We Talk

  1. I have been thinking about this issue a great deal, especially in relation to the abundance of super-intelligent teenagers on film and in print. I like the idea that we suspend our disbelief because we want people to be able to talk that way. Well said.

  2. John says:

    Dialogue is a good way for the writer to get down thoughts that would fall under the “tell, not show” error so many of us make; having a character discuss things is a good way to solve overblown passages of description. Genre fiction is good at this; open any Lee Child book and see how much plot goes into the dialogue, and how readable it is.

    One key is that in between dialogue, the writer has to fill in the scene and the perceptions the dialogue is inflicting on each character as they here/speak it.

    “Yes,” he said, looking down.
    “So why did he say that?” she asked.

    is boring. Adding something like, “As he looked down he dreaded being caught in the story when he was just a third hand witness. Secretly though perhaps he longed to be bound to her in some way, and sordidness was as good as any.” and “She asked the question flatly and congratulated herself on concelaing her interest. Truth is, she’d thought of nothing else all day; why and how the entire affair had begun.”

    is essential as it fills in the spare moments.

  3. bob says:

    I disagree with you, John. Seeing flowery writing like that every now and then is okay, but I prefer dialog to be direct. You don’t need that many adjectives during dialog.

  4. Pingback: Dialogue

  5. Pingback: The Weekly ‘Podge: 11/18/12 | The English Majors' Weblog

  6. transiit says:

    I’m with you, Bob, but watch how much fun it can be.
    “As he looked down he dreaded being caught in the story when he was just a third hand witness. Secretly though, perhaps he longed to be bound to her in some way, and sordidness was as good as any.”
    “Well, that’s sort of an odd statement to make, were you just rambling again, or did you think somehow that would impress me?”
    “I, uh…”
    “No, I get it, you wanted me to think of you as a tortured artist but you couldn’t quite be brave enough to just talk to me like I wasn’t reading one of your books.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> <div align="" class="" dir="" id="" lang="" style="" xml:lang=""> <embed style="" type="" id="" height="" width="" src="" object=""> <iframe width="" height="" frameborder="" scrolling="" marginheight="" marginwidth="" src=""> <img alt="" align="" border="" class="" height="" hspace="" longdesc="" vspace="" src="" style="" width="" title="" usemap=""> <map name="" area="" id=""> <object style="" height="" width="" param="" embed=""> <param name="" value=""> <pre style="" name="" class="" lang="" width="">