How accurate should dialogue be? How close to how people really talk? There’s precedent here. A vast number of novels have been written, most of them packed with dialogue. Millions and millions of imaginary conversations. How many of them could be taken as transcriptions of a real conversation? I would say, approximately none.
It’s an interesting thing about fiction. A serious writer about modern social issues might sneer at your novel about vampire kittens on Mars, but his conversations are every bit as other-worldy. They don’t correspond with the way people really talk. He might spend years observing how people behave, how they walk, their little gestures, how they wash, how they get dressed – but once they open their mouths, it’s fantasy land.
Nobody in a book talks like somebody out of it. However – dialogue can still be realistic – in a way.
When people in real life talk to each other, they are exchanging ideas. But it’s in real time, and it’s highly interactive. When I say something to you, I have no idea what you will reply. I can’t have a clever answer ready. I have to react to what you said – and I have to do it instantly. You have to do the same. Considered reasonably, it’s surprising that conversations make any sense at all. In fact, objectively, they often don’t. It’s not what I say that matters, it’s what you hear. If we are talking about something of mutual interest, we pluck the meat out of the other person’s words, and grasp the meaning.
When we try to write a conversation, we need to write what people hear, and what they mean – not what they say. When we listen, we filter out the stammering, the misspeaking, the sentences that stop in the middle and start again. Try remembering a talk you had with someone. You’ll remember the substance of it, not the false starts and mistakes. Then try to notice what somebody says when you’re talking. It will be very different.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have hesitations in a conversation. It’s just that they are there for a reason. If someone speaks slowly, or trails off a sentence, it’s to tell us something about him. It’s almost never because that’s how people really speak.
Here’s this week’s example. I thought I might use someone of genuine stature this time. The best writer of the twentieth century, king of the modernists, chronicler of the American South, master of the historical novel, creator of some of the longest sentences ever outside of Joyce – William Faulkner.
“What’s this, corporal?” the American captain said. “What’s the trouble? He’s an Englishman. You’d better let their M.P.’s take care of him.”
“I know he is,” the policeman said. He spoke heavily, in the voice of a man under physical strain; for all his girlish delicacy of limb, the English boy was heavier – or more helpless – than he looked. “Stand up!” the policeman said. “They’re officers!”
The English boy made an effort then… “Cheer-o, sir,” he said, “Name’s not Beatty, I hope.”
“No,” the captain said.
“Ah,” the English boy said. “Hoped not. My mistake. No offense, what?”
“No offence,” the captain said quietly.
And so it continues. Faulkner has five pages of conversation. There’s two American officers, and a drunken young British officer arrested by an American military policeman. After a couple of pages, a British policeman appears.
All five characters are talking, but Faulkner arranges it that the conversation revolves around the captain, even though the boy gets to drunkenly ramble, and the American policeman gets to have a lengthy monologue. We aren’t surprised when the policemen disappear from the story. They’ve done their bit. In the course of the conversation, they mutate.
The first policeman is identified as an American Military Policemen. Then he’s just referred to as “the Policeman”. Then, when the British Policeman arrives, they are both identified by nationality. The captain starts to refer to the American policeman as “corporal”. When the American policeman leaves, the British policeman is just “the policeman”. However, through all the changing, where some speech is almost monosyllabic, and sometimes it’s paragraphs long, we get the steady beat of “the captain said,”, “the captain said,”, reliably inserted. We know that when we’ve finished with these interchangeable policemen, and the mostly silent lieutenant, we’ll have some kind of interaction between the captain and the English boy.
Good dialogue will do all this. When it’s done by Faulkner, he can convey multiple meanings and many layers of information with the simplest of language. In a way, he does it almost too well to be a good example.