We recently ran across a blog on which a reader wrote a brutally candid assessment of an author’s treatment of dialogue.

The reader criticized the author’s insistence on using formal and stiff speech in direct quotes before he noted that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, finish the book. “Nobody speaks that way,” the reader groused, in much the same vein as the critic in the Choice Hotels television commercial: “Nobody glows,” the  actor sneers.

We’d paraphrase the reader and advise that no author write that way. We’d also suggest that authors become comfortable and adept with contractions.

So, let’s first look at dialogue and the many roles, all of them essential, it plays in fiction:

  • In its simplest form, dialogue allows your characters to communicate with one another and helps establish their relationships. 
  •  It reveals character traits. Are your characters philosophical? Brusque and rude? Empathetic? Rosy and appealing? Earthy or sophisticated? Dialogue demonstrates your characters’ personalities to your reader.
  • Dialogue moves the story. It performs the critical roles of signaling plot twists, foreshadowing events, and heightening tension. Dialogue also conveys humor, despair, and other emotions critical to good storytelling.
  • It motivates the reader by drawing her into the plot and providing it with authority.

Dialogue must be authentic. If it’s not, it will let your reader down.

Your dialogue’s success or failure depends on its ability to convince the reader that it accurately reflects the character’s essence. Miss this mark and you run the risk of disappointing or, worse, losing your reader. It’s a matter of keeping faith with realism.

Dialogue succeeds when it mirrors everyday life. That’s why we recommend that you make contractions a familiar and frequent part of your dialogue efforts.

In considering how you build and use dialogue, listen to how your friends and family speak. Chances are they speak casually, not formally. They shorten and combine words. They use contractions.

Try to remember the last time you heard someone say: “I do not think I will be home for dinner because there is not time before class.”  They’re more likely to say: “I don’t think I’ll be home for dinner because there isn’t time before class.

Writing dialogue without contractions consigns your characters to the twin sins of pomposity and conceit. It also makes them sound silly and stilted. 

Do not treat them so shabbily.