Imperfect Dialogue: Making Characters Sound Real

I’ve been reading manuscripts lately and one thing keeps jumping out at me: dialogue that is too perfect. It’s grammatically correct, perfectly punctuated. And totally unreal.

Characters don’t talk that way. Kid-characters, especially, in the midst of an exciting bowling tournament or soccer or other sports games do NOT talk in complete sentences.

Use Sentence Fragments for Realistic Dialogue

You must get over the fear of sentence fragments in order to write believable dialogue. Really. Right now. Commit to at least one sentence fragment on every page of your manuscript, just for practice.

Here’s an example from Clementine, Friend of the Week by Sara Pennypacker:

“What does that stand for, M.V.P.?” I asked.
Margaret scratched her head like she was fake-remembering. “Oh, right! Moron-Villain-Pest,” she said. “He wins it every year. No competition.”

That is three sentence fragments: Oh, right! Moron-Villain-Pest. No competition.

What if Pennypacker had filled out those sentences?

“Oh, you are right! M.V.P. means Moron-Villain-Pest. He wins it every year. There is no competition.”

That is clumsy to read, more boring, and destroys the voice of the novel. Sentence fragments work better here to keep the rhythm, keep the pace interesting and maintain the ironically-innocent voice of Clementine.

Sentence fragments also allow the writer to put emphasis where needed to direct the reader’s attention. Here, the emphasis is on the definition of M.V.P and how well the M.V.P fulfills his role. No competition.

Are you struggling with believable dialogue? Look at writers like Elmore Leonard, David Mamet and Woody Allen.

What authors do you admire for their dialogue?

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