Recently, I asked the question, “What would happen if we spoke in dialogue all the time?”
Let me explain how this is even a question, in case you think the things we say in real life would be considered dialogue.
Nope. They’re not. The purpose of normal, everyday language and the purpose of dialogue are not the same. If they were, you’d be bored out of your mind by the first page of your favorite novel.
In stories, dialogue exists to advance the plot or characterize the speaker (or the subject or society or whatever). It’s not to cram loads of background information down the readers’ throats or give us overly obvious foreshadowing about what will happen next or tell the readers things they’ve already figured out. It should feel real without being real, without the “um”s and “How are you”s and totally unnecessary clauses and sidetracks of real life.
Let me give an example, the one that sparked my wondering about people speaking dialogue.
After watching three hours of T.V. shows, editing four different manuscripts, and creating a character for my own writing, I was alone in my room. I stared at my computer screen, overloaded with fiction and vaguely confused as to where reality was and where I was in relation to it.
And I got this overwhelming urge to go find a random friend and say, in a begging tone of voice, “Can you please…please tell me that I matter in the real world?”
Most likely this friend would give me a strange look and reply, “Um…what? Why?”
Then I would burst into the following rant: “Because I’ve spent too much time in places that aren’t real, fixing problems in stories that didn’t happen, investing time in entertainment that has no objective relational value outside of my own experience with characters who don’t actually exist.”
Chances are good that I would have a facial expression halfway between philosopher-passionate and puppy-pathetic (if you don’t know what this face looks like, you need to hang out with me more). And I would say, “I just need a hug.”
And, depending on which random friend I found, the other person would either give me a hug or sternly ban me from all fiction for the rest of the week. Or make a very special phone call to the local mental institution.
The point is, that’s dialogue. It doesn’t have a lot of unnecessary information. It’s dramatic. It expresses something that we often think, but don’t put into words. And it characterizes me. Not necessarily in a positive way, but still. You know some things about me, but not clear, neat little facts that you could pin to a board and label. You get an impression of who I am, what I fear, and what I believe about life, meaning, entertainment, people, and probably a lot of other things.
There would be some good things about speaking in dialogue in the real world. Things might be a little less ordinary, a bit clearer. Exchanges between people might have the tension dragged into the open instead of constantly hiding in the background. Things we instinctively feel might be expressed in such a way that others could feel them too.
But I’m not sure we would like it if everyone talked in dialogue all the time, and here’s why: in fictional words, things are always happening. There’s no rest, no space for normal. And we need normal.
Back to life as a movie script. Sure, a lot of the boring stuff would be cut out. But so would a lot of the things that matter to us, the tiny compliments, the hour of debate to finally get to a conclusion, the perfect comeback that comes to mind a day later, the stutters and stammers of everyday life that make us more complex and imperfect than fictional characters.
We hate sloppy dialogue in books, but are patient with it in real life from people we love (to a point). Think about the conversations you’ve had recently—if someone wrote them down and handed them to a stranger, how much of what was said would interest that stranger? Probably not. But we love people, so what they say matters, even if it’s not a collection of quotable lines or dramatic speeches.
Coming from a writer, this is especially important: talking in real life isn’t as tight or witty or full of conflict as dialogue. But it matters more.