Updated: Apr 24, 2020
When we began this series on writing realistic dialogue, I told you about my customer service experience with ASUS.
It wasn’t the most frustrating customer service experience ever. I’ve had worse from Dell, for one. Much worse. And, speaking of tech companies, Amazon ain’t so awesome either. (HP, however, has always been a dream.)
A very big problem with ASUS, Dell, and Amazon’s customer service channels is their habit of outsourcing. As an English speaker calling in about a problem, you’re rarely going to talk to someone whose native language is English.
Instead, they’re probably going to be stationed at a call center in India that trains employees to follow a particular script per identified issue. As I noted on Tuesday:
Similarly, the rep [I was speaking with]… wasn’t talking out of a vacuum. He’s been trained to diagnose and resolve caller’s issues as quickly as possible according to a set manual. We were both coming from somewhat set, somewhat malleable situations that led us to verbally react the way that we did.
The set situations would include our background details: the nature and nurture aspects that are – at least in that moment – set in stone, such as our upbringings, cultural contexts and all.
This next part of writing realistic dialogue, however, delves into the maybe more malleable side of the pool.
Sometimes, to be perfectly honest, it’s a little difficult to differentiate between the two.
A very large part of writing realistic dialogue is understanding each character for who he, she or it is.
That might be a:
Dentist in Detroit
Co-ed at NCU
Potato farmer in Idaho
They’re all going to talk at least a little bit different from each other. Possibly even a lot.
Get to know your characters on a dialogue-deep level.
By this point in your story-writing journey, you no doubt know a thing or two about your characters: their genders, ages, income levels, standings in their communities (wherever those communities may be), etc.
A lot of that is going to come out most clearly through dialogue. There might be certain location-specific lingo, age or occupation-related jargon, and other nuances in how each of them say what they say. As their creator, you need to make sure their speech matches up in a realistic manner without detracting from the story.
In other words, don’t rely on stereotypes if those stereotypes aren’t rooted in reality. They might be. Stereotypes can become stereotypes for legitimate reasons. But as we’ll discuss further below, don’t automatically assume that is so.
And don’t be unintelligible or unengaging in the process of being realistic. There’s a point when depicting jargon or colloquialisms can get either annoying or confusing.
How do you know if a stereotype is rooted in reality?
One way is to research it, either by browsing online or interacting with the kind of characters you’re writing about. Don’t be dangerous or rude in the process, but still try to get out of your socially safe bubble to see how people sound who aren’t exactly like you.
Who knows. You might find that not all teenagers say, “Like, seriously.” Then again, someone from the Bible Belt really could exclaim, “Golly, gee whiz.”
You won't know unless you look.
Then there’s the matter of determining how much “location-specific lingo” and “age or occupation-related jargon” you should include. For instance, just because your main character is an on-the-job forensic scientist doesn’t mean she should talk exactly like a forensic scientist in every single line of dialogue.
If she did, nobody but other forensic scientists would understand her. So have her speak about infrared spectroscopy or PMI (two terms I had to look up because I know next to nothing about forensic science other than what I've seen on TV and read in fiction) only if the dialogue itself or the words surrounding that dialogue can easily explain what those terms mean.
Writing realistic dialogue should always be somewhere front and center of your story-telling brain. But reader comprehension is kinda important too.
It's requires a constant weighing of the two, which can admittedly get annoying. But when you find the right balance, your story can come alive in ways that are well worth the effort.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on writing story dialogue here.