Thursday, July 14, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers Part 30: Write the way people talk.

Sometimes, some writing teachers teach people to mimic the way people talk when writing dialogue.
The truth is, it doesn’t work.
Our last installment of “Lies” addressed trite words we use in conversation (“incredible,” “awesome,” “amazing”) that are mostly useless on the page.
Then there are those other little clichés that creep into and out of our mouths. Just for fun, get yourself a notebook and make a mark every time you hear someone start a sentence with “So.” It’s an affectation of epidemic proportions these days. Imagine what your page would look like if every other or third or fourth line of dialogue started like so:
While you’ve got that notebook in hand, keep track of the abuse of “like.” You know what I mean: “He’s, like,” “I’m, like,” “it was, like,” and the like. Likewise, “I mean.” 
Sometimes writers try to mimic the speech of young people (where most of these language trends start) in an effort to sound “cool” (another word rendered useless to the point you dare not use it, even correctly). It doesn’t work. It’s usually overdone. It sounds phony. It sounds like the author is trying too hard. And it doesn’t fool anyone.
The same holds true when unknowing writers try to mimic the way cowboys talk. Or doctors. Or sailors. Or the lingo of most any other assemblage of folks with a language partly their own, including dialects. As the late, great Elmer Kelton used to say about writing dialect and slang: a little goes a long way.
Fear not. You can write good dialogue. You can create conversations that are realistic, informative, reveal your characters, advance the story, and entertain. It’s not a matter of simply recording the words people use. It requires hearing—listening beyond the affectations and clichés and hearing the characteristics of conversation that define the speakers and capture their lingo.
Then, rather than filling pages with the phony-baloney twaddle a recording device hears, you can write dialogue that sounds like people talking rather than writing the way we really talk. Your readers will thank you.
So, uh, I mean, give it a try. It’ll be, like, um, awesome, y’know.


  1. I hate it when writers think they sound like cowboys if they use horribly bad grammer. Is that part of what you mean?

  2. Now I'm worried. I just finished writing dialogue (a heap of it) in my new novel.

    1. Not to worry, Janice. Past experience tells me you did just fine.