Writers are great observers. We pay attention to people’s mannerisms and listen to conversations in cafes and train stations. Something we all know is that real-life conversation is not realistic dialogue. More than other writers, this is something I need to be reminded of because I love realism. I attempt to write my dialogue as authentic as possible, but that never means replicating natural speech.
It would be largely incomprehensible. We ‘um’ and ‘ah’ far too often in real life. Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was “life, with the dull parts cut out” and this rings true for what I’m saying about dialogue. Every line of dialogue needs to serve a purpose. How much of our real-life conversations serve more purpose than simply filling time?
Real conversations can often be pointless. They go around and around and never go anywhere, often without a satisfying end. People stutter and change their minds, and although there could be a good reason for this kind of dialogue within a story, such as showing how indecisive a character is, it wouldn’t be overly entertaining to read. The ums, ahs, likes, and you knows, would sound extremely authentic, but they would make the character sound unsure and nervous because we’re not used to reading them in dialogue.
How to write realistic dialogue
Overhearing conversations in cafes and train station platforms remains a valuable writing exercise, though. We can pick up the rhythm of real-life conversation. Hemingway, in particular, replicated the rhythm of real conversation to great effect in his writing. Good writers take a conversation and filter out every superfluous syllable to rework the passage into realistic dialogue with intelligent subtext.
If you take the time to listen to actual conversation, you’ll hear how inappropriate it would sound on the page. I say ‘take the time’ because our brains automatically filter out all the filler unless we’re really listening. Have you ever transcribed natural speech? Half of the words aren’t doing anything useful. Dialogue must feel real to the reader, but that’s something different than being real. You won’t find pure, authentic conversation as dialogue in fiction, and if you did, you probably wouldn’t enjoy reading it.