The Way We Talk

by Bruce Blake

“Hi everyone,” Bruce greeted enthusiastically

“Hi, Bruce,” they replied.

Bruce asked: “How is everyone today?”

“We’re fine. How are you?” the group responded joyously.

“I’m fine, too,” Bruce said.

“Nice day today,” they commented knowingly.

“It sure is.”

In case you haven’t guessed yet, today’s post is about dialogue.391px-quotation_marks_svg1

As an author, I try to be observant of what goes on around me. You never know when an idea for a story or scene might play out in front of you, or someone’s character traits and quirks might inspire you. Part of this habit of observation means I listen in on people talking.

Now you know my dirty little secret…I’m an eavesdropper.

Hearing people’s speech patterns and habits can be quite an eye-opener and lend credibility to a story when used properly, but all writers have to be careful not to fall into the above trap: recreating daily conversations word-for-word. The problem is, many conversations real people have are just throwaways, empty of any real meaning or importance. Authors can’t afford for their characters to have conversations that don’t advance the story or reveal vital information about the speakers, their motivations, or their conflicts. When a conversation in fiction happens the way I began this blog, readers are likely to tune out (admit it, you considered it, too). Might have been more interesting had it gone something like this:

“Hi, everyone.”

“Hi, Bruce,” a few of the readers grumbled; many remained silent.

Bruce’s gaze darted between the faces of those gathered at the edge of the blog, reading their expressions. His enthusiasm waned.

“H–how’s everyone today?”

Sullen stares greeted his inquiry. A drop of sweat formed on Bruce’s temple, but he resisted the temptation to wipe it away. A woman stood, arms crossed in front of her chest.

“You’re late,” Chantal said. Beside her, Autumn nodded, her lips pursed.


What do you think? A bit more intriguing? Something’s going on here, isn’t it? Hopefully, you want to know what it is and would keep reading. So what’s the difference? A few things.

1. Tension – as I said, there’s something going on. Why did some of the group grumble and others not respond at all? Why is Bruce nervous about it? Tension is the thing that makes readers want to keep reading.

2. Space – instead of rapid fire, back and forth dialogue (which has its place), there is some space in between. These are called beats and are often comprised of action, internal monologue (character thoughts), or description. They not only open up space for the dialogue to breathe and add pacing, they can reveal more about the story or characters.

3. Attributions – there’s no ‘Bruce Said’ after the first or third lines if dialogue. Why not? Because everything around it lets the reader know who is speaking. Unnecessary attributions are wasted words. Some can be removed completely, others can be replaced by beats. When you do need to use them, it’s best to keep attributions simple–‘he said’, ‘she said’–rather than going over the top and having them call attention to themselves by constantly having your characters shouting, screaming, crying, responding, and the like.

4. Adverbs – I’m not as anti-adverb as some authors. There are those who will tell you that any word which ends in ‘ly’ should be stricken from your manuscript, but I like to give the little suckers a little more leeway. Having said that, you should do whatever you can to get rid of as many as you can…not by chopping them arbitrarily, but by finding stronger verbs or assessing their necessity. If it reads as well without it, then drop it.

5. Characterization – did we learn something about the characters? Not a lot–there aren’t many lines–but Bruce gets nervous very easily and we see the different reactions between Chantal and Autumn. Do these small items tell us something about the characters? Certainly, though we likely have to read on to find out what.

A final note on dialogue and real conversation

DialogueIf you pick up my habit and start eavesdropping, you’ll notice how many people use habit words and space fillers–things like ‘um’, ‘er’,’like’, etc. I’ve noticed the mots du jour recently is ‘literally’, as in “I had too much to drink last night and I was literally gooned!”

Using some of these in dialogue can add layers to your characters, but be careful, some of them aren’t endearing or revealing, some are just annoying. I read one book where the author had pretty much every character’s dialogue littered with ‘ums’ and ‘ers’…it got old pretty quick.

Do you listen in on other people’s conversations? What are some things you’ve noticed that could be used in your character’s dialogue? What do you think about when you’re writing dialogue?


Bruce Blake is the author of three Icarus Fell urban fantasy novels, the Khirro’s Journey epic fantasy trilogy, and his most recent novel, WHEN SHADOWS FALL (The First Book of the Small Gods). Find out more about Bruce on his blog.


5 comments on “The Way We Talk

  1. Hey Chantal, I think we were just promoted to time police?! We need a raise and Bruce was late… 😉

    But it is a good post, so maybe we can let the tardiness slide. I feel the same way about adverbs, Bruce. Looking at some of the classic (Ursula Le Guin) writers to modern favorites (George R.R. Martin), they use adverbs – just not many. They are part of the language – it seems silly not to use them at all (except for those science papers I had to write in college. They laughed at you if you used adverbs!)

  2. It’s interesting that another blog that I follow, Writers Get Together, has a post today on this same subject. That blogger’s advice: don’t eavesdrop!

    It’s true that real dialog doesn’t do much to advance anything. Just think about your average business meeting. The main reason people talk in those is to hear their own voices.

    Check out the results of eavesdropping on a real conversation to try to capture it:

    • I think eavesdropping can serve a couple of purposes: you can steal some interesting phrases and mannerisms and it also gives you an ear for the cadence of speech to keep your dialogue from sounding stilted.

  3. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 11-14-2013 | The Author Chronicles

  4. You have made some interesting points in here. These days, so many writers are being obsessed with those realism or your own experience stuffs that they seem to really intend to put real conversations into their stories…

    An enlightening read. I will bear what you’ve said in mind. 🙂

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