Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

But That’s How People Talk

I’ve seen dialogue from new writers that was too realistic. It included every um, uh, and other fillers that we use when we speak. It rambled. Things were mentioned that no one cares about. It didn’t make sense. When I suggested cuts and tightening, the response was, “But that’s how people talk!” Yes, it is. When we talk we can all be pretty boring at times. Our thoughts aren’t always organized. We go off tangent. We use filler words. We see something that sidetracks us. Squirrel! We forget what we were talking about. We talk over others.

But writing fiction isn’t a record of the real world. In some ways, it is better as it leaves out the dull parts. In fiction, every piece of dialogue has a purpose. It might be character development or plot related. It moves the story forward. It’s intentional. It doesn’t bore the reader. We don’t need all the greetings and good-byes in a story. Nor simple pleasant chats. We want tension and disagreements. We want age-appropriate flirting and romance. We want questions and comments that make us laugh or think or worry. “The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story.” – Anthony Trollope

Does that mean a fictional character can never stumble or go off track? Of course not. Used judiciously these are all appropriate. Um, er, and other pauses can show a character’s nervousness or uncertainty. It might indicate lying. A character going off track might be changing the subject deliberately. A character might ramble due to tiredness, or drug or alcohol influence. One character might be extra chatty. Other characters may interrupt.

Readers will stick with characters they care about. Our job as writers is to make it easy to care. If we bog down dialogue with extraneous words, it’s easy for readers to give up on the story.

“Dialogue is like a rose bush–it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along.” – Nigel Watts

For further information on writing dialogue for children, check out these articles: “Children’s Dialogue: They Don’t Talk Like Adults” by Jessi Rita Hoffman and  “Writing Great Middle Grade Dialogue” by Jan Fields. And for teen dialogue: “Writing Authentic Teenage Dialogue” by Ellie Blackwood (written when she was a teen) and “Creating Teen Dialogue when Writing Young Adult Fiction” by Deborah Halverson and M.T. Anderson. And, of course, listen to kids the age of your characters.

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4 thoughts on “But That’s How People Talk

  1. Indeed, written dialogue isn’t strictly realistic, a la speech-to-text. (such as we see on a phone app) I once had an editor refer to one of my characters as “not sounding like a child,” only that character (and him alone among many others in the manuscript) was specifically very precocious and stood out for his unusual speech patterns. The dialogue, more than description, is a powerful tool in bringing characters to life.

    1. Every child is different. And girls usually talk more than boys at a young age. My children had higher than their age of vocabulary due to all the reading we did and limited TV. I remember a neighbor telling me when she was offered a Twinkie or Ding Dong, my 4-5 year old said, “We don’t eat desservatives at our house.” aka preservatives.

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