Did They Really Say That?

Making fictional dialog sounds like something people would actually say takes practice. Having spent so many years writing for think tanks, I have to be especially careful my characters don’t sound like they’re lecturing a roomful of dozing college students. As a result, a few lines of conversation can demand as much time and concentration as whole paragraphs of description.

Usually the key is subtraction, and you can get a master class on how few words dialog needs by reading Elmore Leonard. A guideline that should be emblazoned in neon, is “no tennis matches”! A conversational ball that goes back and forth, back and forth, each person responding to the other’s shot, is tedious. In real life, people change the subject, they answer a question with a question, they go off on a tangent, they reveal hidden agendas. In fiction, they can do this too, without real speech’s stumbling, imprecision, and grammatical tangles, like, you know?

But most of all, I try to make the conversation sound like anyone but me. Is the speaker male, female, old, young, ethnic, rich, poor, well educated or not, from the South, the Midwest, New England? Is the story set today or fifty years ago? What phrases, idioms, and slang does this character use?

Two New Tools

If you’re looking for insights into how people speak, the partnership between linguistics and Big Data provides some answers. Orin Hargraves at Visual Thesaurus has described Brigham Young University’s two new databases of conversation, based on dialog from English-language television and movies. TVCorpus has some 325 million words from 75,000 television comedies and dramas from 1950 to today. Movie Corpus compiles 200 million words from 25,000 movies from 1930 to 2019. These data sets let you compare British and American English, and the way speech patterns change over time.

I know, you’re thinking, screentalk isn’t how people really talk (though it’s better than it used to be). In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the influence goes in the other direction! Would people really be so reflexively snarky and would casual conversation be so laden with profanity if television sitcoms and the movies hadn’t paved the way? And Hargraves cites research showing that movie-talk better matches how native English speaker think we speak than actual speech does.

However that relationship works, these databases are a fascinating way to learn about “very informal language,” which is probably what most of your characters speak. At the very least, you can use them to check for clichés and archaicisms or to devise language to fit a particular era.

I did a quick scan of the phrase “perfect crime,” and found the TV database has recorded its use  203 times—a lot of times by Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Psych. Go figure.

(Meanwhile “go figure” appeared 427 times in the TV database, including a lot of “go figure it out,” while the movie database includes 224 examples, most of them like my standalone “Go figure.” Since the earliest use was from 1938, you could use it in a classic noir story without worrying you were introducing 21st century expression.)

“Perfect crime” appeared 91 times in the film database, with the first usage recorded in a 1936 film titled The Case Against Mrs. Ames: “There is no perfect crime because there is no perfect lie.” Nice!

photo credit: Jon Seldman on Visual Hunt.com, creative commons license