When I’m editing fiction, I always pay close attention to dialogue because it’s tricky. I usually see it go one of two ways:

  1. The writer tries to make it too formal.
  2. The writer tries to make it too informal.

Pretty basic, huh?

I’m editing a book right now that falls into the first category. The writer uses no contractions in the the dialogue whatsoever. For example, “I cannot believe you have been to the store already. I did not think you would get it done that fast.” (I’m making these sentences up, but using the writer’s style to make my point.)

Read that dialogue out loud. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Okay. Now tell me, do you talk like that? Do you know anyone who talks like that? Should your characters talk like that? (I can believe it’s possible to create a character whose speech patterns would be similar to what I’ve written, but those characters are few and far between.)

Wouldn’t most of us say, “I can’t believe you’ve been to the store already. I didn’t think you’d get it done that fast”?

Read that one out loud. I’m patient. I’ll wait again.

Now, doesn’t that sound more natural? Notice anything about my method here? I’m encouraging you to read it out loud. I can’t begin to express how much that helps–with both the narrative and the dialogue.

For the second point, trying to make dialogue sound too informal, I see things like this a lot: “Saw him swipe one of those cookies and eat it whole,” Sam said.

I don’t know why this is a trend, but it’s starting to look like one, at least in many of the books I edit. For some reason, writers think that leaving the subject out of a sentence of dialogue makes it sound more realistic. It doesn’t. It makes it really hard to read. Yes, you want your dialogue to sound authentic, but you also want people to be able to read it without stumbling.

I don’t know a lot of people in real life who would leave the subject off in the first place, who would say the example I’ve given about the cookie instead of this: “I saw him swipe one of those cookies.” Regardless, read them both and tell me which reads better, which reads easier and less awkwardly.

I’ll tell you now, readers will struggle less with the second example, with the complete sentence. And that’s what you want. You want your readers to be able to digest your words without choking on them. You want your words to slip effortlessly off the page and into their imaginations–and then you need to trust their imaginations to do their jobs.

Maybe the reader is someone who speaks without subjects. Maybe the reader really would say, “Saw him swipe the cookie” instead of “I saw him swipe the cookie.” But if that’s the case, when he comes across a well-written sentence that flows, his imagination will translate that dialogue into a speech pattern he recognizes. It will drop the “I.” But I’m almost willing to promise that if you drop the “I” for him, he’ll stumble.

So, in a nutshell, use contractions because we do, for the most part, speak in contractions, and write (fairly) complete sentences. Can you get away with fragments? Of course. Rules are made to be broken after all. But you have to be careful. You have to do it deliberately. And it cannot make your reader stumble. (I used “cannot” instead of “can’t” because I wanted to emphasize the word. Did it work?)

Is it hard to figure out when to do what? It can be. That’s where an editor comes in. That’s one of the things I can help you with. I can make sure your dialogue sounds like real people speaking realistically.

If you’re thinking about hiring an editor or you know you’re ready to hire one, send me an email at sharon@editorsharonhoneycutt.com or leave a comment below this post. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!