It’s stranger than it seems.
One of my favorite writing exercises is to go to a coffee shop for an hour to listen, to observe, to eavesdrop. I’m in a coffee shop right now, eavesdropping on multiple conversations, and I’ve realized a few things about dialogue:
- People mostly talk about themselves. They don’t ask a lot of questions. They’re just waiting to say the next thing about themselves.
- Real dialogue sentences are short. People speak in short, simple sentences. They don’t have vast vocabularies and they don’t speak in complex metaphors. So when writing dialogue, keep it simple. Avoid metaphors. Save your complexities for your paragraphs of exposition.
- People say, “I feel like…” “It seems like…” and “The thing is…” ALL. THE. TIME.
- In real dialogue, people repeat their favorite phrases over and over. The guy next to me has said, “Well, people are stupid” 8 times already in less than 10 minutes.
- People trail off when they speak. They speak in half sentences, then make gestures with their hands. If the conversation is animated, the other person will jump in and finish each half-sentence. If the conversation isn’t animated or emotionally charged, people will sit back, and there will be long pauses while the person gestures vaguely with his or her hands.
But in a novel, we can only incorporate some of this, some of the time. If all our characters only talked about themselves, and in half sentences, and interrupted to finish most sentences, none of our characters would be likeable.
So choose semi-realistic. Or almost real. Incorporate some of these things some of the time.