“Realistic” Dialogue

Dialogue is a key component of the vast majority of fiction, and certainly of the kind of books that I read and write. While readers and writers can have distinctively different views on dialogue, often what readers, and even some editors, think is “realistic” dialogue is nothing of the sort.

Over the years a small number of readers have occasionally complained that my dialogue is too formal. And compared to the way many people talk today, it probably is, but throughout history, the educated and professional classes in any society have used more formal dialogue. Some languages even had “high” and “low” versions. Ideally, dialogue should be specific to the characters and their culture, not to what’s comfortable or familiar to editors, but in writing there has to be compromise. I’m not about to write in the equivalent of high German, but the word choice of those who would be speaking in that fashion should suggest formality.

What many Americans, in particular, fail to understand is that most cultures have far tighter social customs and restrictions, as did an earlier United States, than the U.S. does at present. The January 6th attempted “insurrection” at the U.S. Capitol reflects this. In no earlier U.S. period would that many Americans ever thought it proper to storm the Capitol. It wasn’t “the way” things were done. And certain phrases and terms just weren’t used in “polite society.” What tends to be forgotten is that in most societies and times, the equivalent of “polite society” is where the power lies.

In practice, that means less formal dialogue belongs to the outsiders, not the insiders. It also means, even in fantasy and science fiction cultures, if they’re to be realistic, that there should be unlegislated or customary restrictions on what is proper to be said in public, and in private, and on what actions are “beyond the pale.” Obviously, customs change over time in any culture, but history has shown that societies without unspoken restrictions seldom endure, while enduring societies have more unspoken restrictive customs and speech patterns than are obvious to the casual or careless observer.

7 thoughts on ““Realistic” Dialogue”

  1. Grey says:

    I think you can make the case for realistic language by coming at it from the other direction as well: I kept getting knocked out of the rhythm of enjoying an otherwise great fantasy series because the characters talked in rapid-fire wisecracking like they were in a modern sitcom.

    I’m guessing that the Venn diagram has the complaint makers in a near overlap with the people who complain your body counts are too low.

  2. Tom says:

    The advantage of communicating using “formal” language is that it is more likely to be comprehended by everyone, not just the “in” crowd.

  3. John Mai says:

    Does anyone remember the T.V series “Kings”? The dialog in that show was nothing short of beautiful to listen to, and the acting superb.
    Fox canceled it because, according to one executive, it was “Too highbrow for our audience.” I was really disappointed when that went away.

    1. Tim says:

      Way back when, the BBC dramatisation of Carré’s Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy was also panned by my work colleagues as they preferred the fast action and dialogue in Kojak. And that was in tbe 80s.

      1. John Mai says:

        Which brings us back around to Modesitt’s point. I’ve never thought twice about the dialog in his books. It just fit the characters and the culture I suppose.
        But then, as you said, there are always those who will prefer the “Kojak” version of books over one of elegance. Which is why we have individuals writing barely legible messages to each other using some form of techno short hand.

  4. Joe says:

    Was decency also a stronger value in that earlier United States you mention? Decency, as in not just walking past a person in need? Kindness is something else.

    1. I think there was more “decency,” but it was selective, even then, based on whether the “need” was perceived as “real,” and the assumed background of those in need.

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