Don’t write accurate dialogue

Write believable dialogue, but don’t try to be accurate about it.

When I was in college, I took an education course and one of the assignments for the course was to record a one-on-one learning situation and then transcribe it as literally as possible.  The point of the assignment was to show how much non-verbal communication is present in learning situations and how the learning situation is a negotiated process between the teacher and the student.

I no longer have the assignment. (Those Hoarders episodes made me go through a purging exercise a few years back.  Of course, I’ve kicked myself about ten times since then, because I ended up getting rid of things that it turned out I should have kept.  Like spoons.  But I digress.)  So, I don’t have the assignment, but it went something like this:

“Ok, we’re going to learn HTML today.  Now…do you..see?  uh uh, yep.”
“Right, yeah…”
“Mmmhmm.  And…”
“Yeah…see the?  Yep, that one….and, yep…”
“Uh, oh, an…uh, the?”
“Yeah!  Exactly!”

I won’t continue.  It’s painful.  You have no idea what’s happening.  Perhaps it wasn’t quite as ridiculously difficult to follow as that, but it was close.  Turns out, many times we don’t actually complete words when we talk.  We most definitely don’t complete sentences.  We have lots of odd pauses and little utterances like uh-uh, mmhhm, yep, etc., etc.  We start words and restart them.  We correct ourselves as we speak.

Accurate dialogue is a nightmare.

I dabbled with linguistics for a bit and one of my jobs was working with a spoken language that had never before been documented or transcribed.  It was a controlled setting where the interviewer asked, “how do you say ‘cat’?” and the person responded.  My job was to isolate the sounds that represented cat in this other language.  And, even with those controls, it was still a challenge to isolate the words sometimes, because every once in a while instead of responding “gato” (Spanish for cat) the person would respond “pues, depende…” and go off on some discussion about how there was a slang word for cat that meant something very different.  (My Spanish sucks these days.  My apologies).

So, anyway.  Write believable dialogue, not accurate dialogue.  I’m still struggling with probably too many pauses and stutters and trail offs in what I write, but I can’t bring myself to completely eliminate them just yet.  I’m sure I’ll get there eventually…

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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3 Responses to Don’t write accurate dialogue

  1. rilaly says:

    That’s an interesting concept. We (writers) are all looking for the organic experience that brings the reader in and makes them feel like they were there. Your concept is one I’ve always known, but I’ve never articulated. It will stick with me M.H., as I continue down my road. Thanks for the insight.

    • mhleewriter says:

      Rilaly- glad you liked the post. I’m still so far from getting it right it’s not even funny, but I figure if I remind myself often enough someday it’ll stick.

  2. Pingback: I can’t write first person POV | M.H. Lee

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