Realistic dialogue is a make or break for most novels and all plays. If it sounds phony to the readers, they won’t believe in the characters uttering it. And yet ….
Listen to yourself. Most people don’t talk in proper sentences – they start and stop, jump between past and present tenses, and between singular and plural. They repeat themselves, or miss whole bits out. And interruptions rarely come exactly as we plan. Usually we make ourselves understood, but that maybe because our listener has a lot of other non-verbal and contextual clues to go on. And I haven’t even mentioned the ‘umms’ and ‘ers’ that pepper our conversations.
When writing, we may want to show a character as hesitant or inarticulate, but a reader will quickly get bored if we copy speech patterns too literally. Likewise with swear words. A character may use colourful language, but if every other word is a swear word, a reader switches off. Better to use a few choice phrases and descriptions and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.
I learnt this the hard way when writing my YA novel, Girl Friends. Having worked for many years with teenagers and their parents with similar backgrounds to the girls in the book I was used to ‘f**k’ being the most frequent word in any sentence, and ‘c**t’ being a distant, but still all too frequent, second. When I started writing the conversations between the girls, or between Courtney and her mother, I wrote pretty much the phrases I had overheard. Then a (very successful) writer friend told me I would be lucky to get it published if I left all the swearing in. She added, for good measure, that she also found it all a bit boring after the first couple of pages.
So I cut out most of the swearing (over 200 ‘f**ks’ as a start!), and soon found a publisher (Solstice). Since then, several people who have read the book have commented on how realistic the dialogue is, and how well I must know what I was writing about and the young people involved. I’m pleased they approve, but the dialogue isn’t realistic really. Convincing may be a better word.