Writing Real and Avoiding Contrived Dialogue

DSC07229by Jean Foster Akin

I’ve edited for other writers since the year 2000, and in that time I’ve read stories in every conceivable genre about every imaginable topic. Sometimes I can get caught up in a story, forget I’m reading fiction, and believe completely that the characters are living, breathing people somewhere; I want to know what happens next. But then there are other times…well, there are other times when stories I’ve been editing really don’t ring true to life at all. And I’m not talking about genre here, because a good writer could place his protagonist in a diving bell, send him off exploring a body of water on Mars (with his faithful dog Astro) and we’d believe it. Didn’t you believe Watership Down? When you first heard who the main characters were, did you ever think you’d believe that story? Me neither. But then I read the story. And I believed it. It was written “real.”

There are any number of reasons why a story might not ring true, and contrived dialogue is a big one. Dialogue should move the story forward, teach you something about the characters, hint at things to come, reveal backstory, and so on. What is contrived dialogue? Let’s use some to reveal backstory:

“Robert, as my brother, you know that our father was a railroad man and hardly ever home. This caused our mother to be sad, and in her sadness, she took to drink. I, along with your other brothers, Tim and Edgar, have noticed that your wife Janet is also depressed because of the amount of time you spend at the office, and we…”

PROBLEMS: Stilted voice. No real emotion. Telling the reader little instead of showing the reader much. Unrealistic–both the brothers know the family history and both know the names of their family members so there is no need for one brother to remind the other of these things. And yes, I have worked with many clients who believe this kind of dialogue is a perfect substitute for actually taking the time to create a world populated with realistic characters, speaking and behaving in ways that feel genuine to the reader.

A BETTER WAY to REVEAL BACKSTORY and DEVELOP CHARACTERS AT THE SAME TIME: “Robert! Listen to me, will you?” Alfred slammed his palm on the kitchen table, and Robert turned, startled and angry. Alfred ignored the fury in his brother’s eyes and went on. “Do you want Janet to end up like Ma, in and out of rehab? Do you want to wake up one day and find she’s become an alcoholic? You’re never home anymore, you leave her for days alone with the kids, you growl at her when you are home. Just like Dad! The mother of your children is drinking herself into a stupor every night and the whole family’s worried—even if you’re too selfish to be.”

The reader learns much about the two men here: Robert is a bad husband, he’s defensive and stubborn and careless. Alfred is frustrated with his brother’s lack of concern for his family. He’s filled with anxiety over his sister-in-law, but he feels there is hope if only he can get Robert to listen. The reader can understand that the men’s mother has had a tragic life and a bad marriage without having to know every detail of it, simply because of what Albert says about the relationship between Alice and Robert. The dialogue isn’t contrived, it’s real.

One other item I must mention while on the subject of contrived dialogue. I once had a Christian client, a lovely fellow, who believed that whatever he wrote had to be an evangelistic tool. Now, this is perfectly fine, and I have no issue with this. But what I did take issue with was my client’s belief that, as Christian people, his characters had to be perfect. They were always loving, always helpful, always kind, always thoughtful, never became irritated, never said anything “gossipy,” never had even a mild argument with their wives. In other words, totally contrived. Because of this, in addition to being unrealistic, his characters were terribly boring. They were not characters that readers would ever be able to connect with or understand. The story involved mafia dons and drug lords, and these bad guys were chasing the protagonist throughout the chapters with the intention of ending his life. When he falls into the trap of the antagonist, Big Louie (a guy who was a killer at the age of 15 and who has wealth and prestige and power now in the world he’s created), our hero’s dialogue seems even more contrived.

“Look Big Louie. I know you feel you have to live a life of crime. But Jesus loves you and he wants you to lay your sins at his feet and be born again.”

I think more contrived than this line is Big Louie’s instantaneous response, spoken as he lowers his fist from the protagonist’s face. “You know kid, my pop brought me up to be tough. I thought the way to get to the top was by bulldozing over anyone who got in my way. But I’ve been moved by what you said, and well, I guess I’m ready to make some changes in my life.”

Then Big Louie doesn’t snicker, as you’d think he might, and fit our hero with cement galoshes before tossing him into the East River. He actually gives up the life of a kingpin, just like that, and joins forces with the protagonist that minute.

My point here is not “don’t write Christian fiction.” My point here is “write Christian fiction well.” Develop characters from the people you’ve met in your life. Don’t make every bit of dialogue a sermon. You aren’t maligning the faith by writing characters who have doubts, who struggle with selfishness or bitterness, who have done wrong. You’re being real. And when your hero sees the error of his ways, give him time to work it out like real people work things out. Your story will have much more impact and will touch many more lives when you write real.



photo by JFA


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