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Conventional wisdom for writers says that, when it comes to writing dialog, you should listen to how people really speak and capture it on paper.

Like most conventional wisdom for writers, that’s a load of hogwash!

Yesterday, I interviewed a young woman for an article I’m writing at my day job. She was very eloquent and expressive, and I was completely engrossed during the whole of our conversation. Today, though, when I sat down to review the transcript, it amazed me how scatterdash and haphazard her words seemed when written. Even once you filter out the inaccuracies of the automatic transcription (which sometimes produces gems like “Burris birdie URRIS. La.”) and the not-do-occasional “ums” and “you knows” and other speech disfluencies that are common to conversational speech, natural dialog ends up sounding like a bunch of nonsense when you try to write it down word for word, as is.

Natural dialog doesn’t follow the rules of written communication. Commas and periods don’t exist, Run on sentences are common, and words flow from thought to thought without pause, often leaving out transitions between them, the ideas that connected them in the mind. Add to that the hundreds of non-verbal layers of communication, from inflection to tone to pace and body language, and you realize how impossible it is convey “natural” conversation just by copying down what someone says.

Crafting good dialog is much more than a transcript of real life. All those non-verbal cues I listed above have to be replaced. Punctuation and descriptions are part of it, but you have to get creative with the word choice and sentence structure, too. You want people to believe they’re reading the kinds of things people actually say, how they really talk, without actually giving them that. It’s a big deception.

So when people tell you to listen to how real people talk in order to make your narrative more realistic, remember that you’re not actually listening to how they say it…you’re listening for the meaning that’s taken away.

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