How to Fix Unrealistic Dialogue
by Jason Black
Readers are notoriously sensitive to dialogue that feels wrong. That is, dialogue that doesn’t match their expectations of how real people talk. As well they might be: after all, every reader you’ll ever have has spent his or her entire life practicing the skill of dialogue with other people, each and every day. Every one of them is a world-class expert with a literal lifetime’s experience in ascertaining what does and doesn’t sound right” Little surprise, then, that one of the most common critiques in narrative writing is about dialogue that doesn’t seem realistic.
The irritating part about such critiques is that the critique rarely goes further than to say “this doesn’t feel right,” which of course gives you no actual guidance as to how you can fix it. Fortunately, it is possible to concretely articulate what it means for a piece of dialogue to be unrealistic.
A linguist named Paul Grice studied this question and set down what is called the “cooperative principle” of dialogue: namely, that when people talk with one another, the natural way they do so is with a bias towards being most helpful to the other person’s understanding. From there, Grice derived four “maxims,” or rules, which speakers generally follow in order to be cooperative in their speech.
The Maxim of Quality
Don’t lie. All else being equal, the information in a person’s (or a character’s) dialogue should be trustworthy. This makes some sense: if we couldn’t generally trust people to be truthful most of the time, what would be the point of talking to anybody at all? Obviously, real people violate this maxim all the time. But when they do, it’s because they have an ulterior motive for doing so. In a novel, so long as readers understand the reason, it’s fine for characters to break this maxim. Otherwise, your characters need to be generally truthful to be believable.
The Maxim of Quantity
Don’t run on at the mouth. Say what you need to say, but no more. This makes some sense too: speaking is actually quite slow. Ridiculously so compared to reading. It’s just plain cumbersome. Consequently, we don’t generally waste words. We say only what needs to be said. By far, this maxim is the one writers have the most trouble following. We writers, in fear of readers not understanding something, tend to pack our characters’ dialogue with way too much information.
In practice, “too much” translates into “anything the character can reasonably expect the other characters to already know, or to be able to figure out on their own.” If I hand you a few bucks and say “go buy some milk,” that sounds reasonable. But if I say “go buy some milk at the store,” now I’m providing too much quantity: you can figure out where on your own. Similarly, if you ask “Whole milk or two-percent?” and I respond “one of those, yes” I’m violating the maxim in the other direction by not providing sufficient quantity of information. Don’t give too much. Don’t give too little. Aim for only what the other character truly needs to know.
The Maxim of Relation
Stay on topic. It doesn’t feel natural if one person’s response has no clear relationship to what someone else just said immediately prior. In a normal conversation, people don’t just randomly change subjects without warning. If someone does want to change the subject, there’s a protocol for doing so politely. You try to finish up the current subject and use some sort of transitional phrase to introduce the new subject: “Yeah, that’s cool, but did I tell you about the Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card I just got off eBay?”
The Maxim of Manner
Be clear. Normal, realistic dialogue uses ordinary vocabulary, rather than a bunch of two-dollar words. Normal speakers understand that language is naturally ambiguous, and attempt to clear up ambiguities before they cause misunderstandings. (Though, obviously this sometimes fails anyway.) Normal speakers try to say what they have to say in an orderly fashion, without their thoughts meandering all over the place. (Though people vary greatly, from one to the next, in how much they meander.) But in general, people strive to speak clearly. Think of it as the flip-side of quality: clarity is how we make sure the other person understands us; what would be the point of talking at all if the other person couldn’t understand?
Breaking the Rules
As writers, there are many specific circumstances in which we need our characters to violate these maxims. That’s just fine. Characters lie for all kinds of reasons. They give more information than necessary (a “snow job”) when intentionally trying to overwhelm someone else’s ability to argue back. They give less information when they’re being evasive. They’ll stray off topic if they’re in an altered mental state (drunk, really tired, possessed, et cetera) or if there’s some single topic they’re totally fixated on. They’ll be unclear if they’re intentionally trying to obfuscate or confuse someone, or if they’re just scatter-brained. That’s all fine. Violate the maxims when there’s a good reason for doing it, but do it specifically because of what those violations indicate to the reader.
Fixing Your Dialogue
When someone criticizes your dialogue as being unrealistic, what they’re really saying—though they usually don’t know it—is that the character is violating at least one of Grice’s maxims, but they can’t see why the character is doing it. From that perspective, it becomes obvious how to fix unrealistic dialogue: when it’s supposed to be normal dialogue, revise it to follow the maxims. Otherwise, make sure readers can clearly see why the character isn’t following them.