When is the last time you heard a person talk profoundly to his dog or cat?
“Come here, thou furry companion. The one I have bestowed the name of Buster, the canine
pictured in Buster Brown shoe ads.”
Who in their right mind talks like that? It should be, “Here boy. Here boy. Come on. Come here. Come here.”
The dog would more likely come to his master if he spoke like a normal person. Readers expect to read conversations that are real and not like the speaker uses a thesaurus to craft his speech.
One of the most popular writers of the 19th century was Mark Twain. He wrote his characters speaking like people naturally spoke. Many English teachers and literature teachers complained
about his language. His characters didn’t speak proper English like characters in other stories and books spoke. I would have told those teachers, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They would have jumped all over me for using the word ain’t. But a lot of people use that word. It might not be perfect. But it is real.
Here are some examples of stilted language compared with natural language.
“Men, we have worked hard to achieve the benefits of largess from those that are reluctant to part with their monetary units. We must demonstrate resolve to acquire more monetary units from another establishment.”
I can imagine the men sitting in a den before a roaring fire surrounded by books and paintings and dressed in smoking jackets. No one would speak like that. Here’s how the conversation might go and excuse me for the language because it is going to be raw.
“We took down the fucking bank hot and heavy. They shouldn’t have put up such a fight since it’s not their fucking money. Tomorrow we hit the bank out in the boonies where they ain’t gonna fucking think we’re going to go. But it has money up the wazoo and the bastards are gonna to shit in their pants when we take the place down.”
I normally don’t use that language. But it’s what bank robbers would say in the real world. Here are two more examples of speech.
“My love for you, my dear Alice, knows no boundaries. We are soul mates that have been ordained by God since before the beginning of the world. You complete me. I am for the first time in my life whole.”
That sounds like something one might hear on the Hallmark Channel coming from a handsome young man standing in front of his sweetheart in Canada during the 19th century. Here is how a normal guy might talk to the woman in his life under normal conditions today.
“Hey babe, lets get it on.”
We all know what he has on his mind. And if she is “into him,” she will want to have sex with him. I don’t need to describe what happens next.
If you write a conversation in a story or book, it is best to read it out loud to see if the words flow naturally. Short is often best. Most characters aren’t giving speeches in front of Congress or on the stage as an orator. It is hard to control yourself when one of your characters is saying something important. A paragraph might take up most of a page if you’re not careful. Also, if a character is talking with someone, you should have the other person respond to what he or she is saying every now and then. I’ll give two examples of conversations between two people.
“I believe I will eat roast beef for dinner tonight. I haven’t had it for awhile.”
“The price of roast beef is much higher than hamburger. I bought some the other day that was $1.89 a pound.”
“I enjoy some savory beef gravy poured on my meat. I’m starting to make myself hungry.”
“Many children go to bed hungry every night. We should give food to food banks to help feed the poor.”
It was as if both people were talking past each other. One mentioned eating roast beef and the other started talking about hamburger. Then when the first person talked about making himself hungry, the second person sounded like a public service announcement. Here’s how the conversation might sound like.
“I believe I’m going to eat some roast beef tonight. I haven’t had any for awhile.”
“Ooh, that does sound good. Too bad I just have some hamburger to eat for dinner.”
“I think I’ll make some gravy for my beef. I’m starting to get hungry just talking about it.”
“You’re making me hungry too. Maybe you could invite me over tonight for dinner.”
That conversation sounds more natural. The second person responds to his friend as a reader would expect him to. Writers need to make readers believe the characters are friends that talk to each other on a regular basis.
I find some of the most ridiculous conversations are those in James Bond movies and that genre. The bad guy tells the super spy all of his plans for world conquest as if no one can stop him even though we know the spy will foil his plans. If James Bond lived in the real world, he would have been killed off by the second movie. All he would have needed to say is “Bond. James Bond.” A second later, a bullet would probably slam into the back of his head. I am a writer of action scenes that don’t normally need exposition to set them up. If James Bond were to get in my way, he would be a dead man. If the bad guy is evil and thinks he can get away with anything he does, killing James Bond would be relatively easy. Once the spy is captured, the bad guy would have him held down by three or four henchmen and a bullet to the head would be all that’s needed to end the threat of James Bond. The body would be dumped somewhere and it would be the responsibility of MI6 or some other agency to stop the bad guy.
When I was a beginning writer, many conversations were child-like since I was a child. Then again, I didn’t know much about being an adult. I didn’t grow up around English majors and my friends were normal. They spoke like normal people using the words uh and you know and okay and other “filler” words that we use between important thoughts that we are expressing. I insert filler words in many of my conversations. They sound more natural.
Don’t write conversations that can’t be spoken in one breath. I’ll give some examples.
“I am pretty certain that despite all the problems we face in this world, be they man made or nature that is so wild and unforgiving that it is a wonder anyone can survive the onslaught of disasters that are inflicted upon us at times we are least able to endure them, we will end up exactly where God wants us to be which is in his loving arms in Heaven where we will live forever.”
That is a beautiful statement. But I couldn’t say it in one breath. If I were rewriting this statement it might be this:
“We have a lot of problems in this world. Some are man made while others are nature. We need to withstand the onslaught of disasters. But in the end we will be with God in Heaven.”
I divided the statement into a few sentences that were easier to say. Here is another example of a statement that isn’t natural.
“The long and winding road that leads me to my destination can be rough. Sometimes I wonder if it is worth carrying on. I miss some people that I haven’t seen for so many years. I remember Lisa Dellinger. If I were back in Missouri we might have been married and maybe grandparents years ago. I hope my grandchildren would have ended up successful.”
That statement rambles as if my train of thought derailed off a trestle into a raging river. Unless the character is suffering from a mental breakdown, this statement makes little sense. Writers must be coherent or else readers will stop reading.
I can’t stress the importance of using natural speaking when writing conversations too strongly. Words should come out of the mouths of characters as if they are real people. Even if the story is supposed to happen a millennium from now, the words that come out of the mouths of the characters should sound natural. That doesn’t mean a writer should be lazy and use profanity unless his characters naturally speak using those words. My characters don’t resort to profanity because I don’t. But it is up to the writer to determine if profanity is appropriate.
If you wouldn’t say something, maybe your characters shouldn’t either. It’s up to you. If you become a noted writer, don’t give excuses for why your characters talk the way they do. Give good reasons. How we talk shows how we think. How your characters talk shows how they think. Since you control their speech, you fill their mouths with the words they say. Make sure they say what you want them to say and it is what readers would expect them to say.