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Nothing is Sacred

Knowing how to write dialogue is an important tool for a writer. Even more important, though, I’d wager, is being able to write believable dialogue. Countless articles and books have been written on the subject, but the same advice always crops up: Pay attention and listen.


By David Benbennick [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What we hear in daily conversation doesn’t always work for the written word, of course. Slang, for example, can be problematic to explain to someone unfamiliar with its roots, just as dialect speech can be nightmarish for a reader to slog through. (Joseph, I’m looking at you.) Generally speaking, though, even these examples don’t have to be make-or-break issues with dialogue. If your characters are strong enough in their own voices, the little tweaks and twinges shouldn’t matter so much. Quirky speech patterns can even help identify characters to the audience, often a good thing.

But, those are generalities. I’m talking about specifics, here.

The other day, while sitting with some friends, we were talking about the transience and flow of language across generations. The discussion went pretty deep as we argued our opinions and went back and forth with pros and cons to each perspective. Then, from nowhere, one friend piped up, “I’m gonna bring back ‘rad’ to the common lexicon.”

I burst out laughing…and I knew I’d have to use it in a story.

My friends learned a long time ago that almost nothing said in my presence is sacred. Not to say I can’t keep a secret, because I can do that. But, the words themselves become free to my pen, the second they’ve left anyone’s mouth. I don’t make any excuses for myself in this regard. If I hear it with my ears, it instantly becomes reality – and believable – to me. And, that makes for great dialogue.

Some of my favorite conversations in real life I’ve decided to preserve in my stories. Many of them were simply jotted down in 100-word shorts or random snippets tucked into the pages of a notebook, for use – or not – at some later date. But, others have found their way actively woven into the larger tales, adding a sense of deeper realism and stronger truth to the story that may not have been so deep or so strong without them.

Other writers (ones better than me) say to listen to the world and words around you. Pay attention to the details. Keep your eyes and ears open. And, that inspiration can be sitting right in front of you. Or just to the left, spouting pearls of beautiful dialogue between peanuts and sips of beer.

Some among you may consider my technique of stealing borrowing words from such conversations cheating at my art. As for me, I prefer to consider it art imitating life. For real.

How do you create believable dialogue? Have you ever used real conversations in your stories? Were you able to read Joseph’s dialogue from Wuthering Heights without looking at a translation sheet?