The Scale of Realism in Dialogue

I have a theory: that you can chart the level of realism in scripted dialogue on a simple scale.

None of this is implied to be judgmental: any level of dialogue realism has its uses, and dialogue at every level has been employed in great writing.  The level of realism a writer chooses for their dialogue is just that – a choice, tied to the type of story being told.  And, of course, a writer can mix different levels within one piece.

I would say the scale looks like this, with more realistic at the top decreasing to less realistic at the bottom:

Hyper-realistic
Realistic
Cleaned Realistic
Stylized Realistic
Stylized
Poetic
Abstracted

What do I mean by those?  Let’s start at the top, with Hyper-realistic.

Hyper-realistic dialogue is basically what you get in court transcripts.  It’s the way that people speak, unadulterated.  Let’s take as our recurring example a basic conversation: Mary is uncertain if Joe has her house key (and doesn’t want to falsely accuse him of losing it if he does still have it); Joe says he does still have it and offers it back to her; Mary receives it.  That dialogue, Hyper-realistically, might look like:

MARY: Joe hey hey Joe Do you Do you have my uh The Remember the clip The uh key The key I gave you?  My house key?  Do you Do you still ummm
JOE: Huh?  Here?
MARY: Yeah thank-  Here, thanks.  ‘K.

Some writers occasionally do write in Hyper-realistic dialogue, but usually something that extreme is annoying spoken aloud, and definitely hard to read, and even harder to memorize accurately and perform honestly.  In fact, on the page, it can actually look less realistic than the ‘less realistic’ levels; only when you have normal conversations like this out loud does it become invisible, because you’re used to parsing out the errors and start-stops of natural speech.

Realistic dialogue is what we normally think of and talk of when we talk about “natural-sounding” dialogue.  It approximates what actual, Hyper-realistic dialogue sounds like, but without the severe qualities (the repetitions, the mispronunciations, the stammering) that makes Hyper-realistic unpalatable.  You might say that Hyper-realistic dialogue contains every quirk of actual speech that occurs because people are imperfect speakers; Realistic dialogue narrows the imperfections down to the ones needed to 1) establish character and subtext and 2) make it seem Hyper-realistic enough.  Like so, perhaps:

MARY: Hey, hey Joe.  Do you have… Um, remember the key I gave you?  My-  My house key?  Do you still…
JOE:  Huh?  Oh, yeah.  Here.
MARY: Great, great, thanks.  Okay.

Cleaned Realistic is what we are used to hearing or seeing in most books, almost all TV and movies (Law and Order is a great example), and most newscasts and talk-show interviews.  It has a natural “rhythm” to it, and doesn’t feel forced, contrived or false to our ears, because it basically narrows down the dialogue to the essence of what the speaker is trying to say as opposed to capturing the errors that occur along the way.  Cleaned Realistic dialogue sounds like every word spoken was intentional on the part of the speaker:

MARY: Oh, hey, Joe, there you are.  Do you remember that I gave you my house key?  Do you still have it?
JOE:  Your house key?  Oh, yeah.  I have it here.  There you go.
MARY: Great.  Thanks.  I knew it was somewhere.

Stylized Realistic is dialogue that starts to sound a little “writerly” or “cooked.”  It’s more literate and less casual than the previous forms mentioned, but it still deals in colloquial language and standard sentence structure, and could be spoken in such a way that it sounds like everyday speech.  Sometimes inexperienced writers end up writing in this mode when they have their characters speak in nothing but complete, detailed, grammatically correct sentences – but that’s not to say that this mode can’t be used by skilled writers as well.  It’s the kind of dialogue you see in “writer-y” TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, Community or anything by Aaron Sorkin; or in many a Tarantino or Coen Brothers movie or a play by David Mamet.   No individual element of this kind of dialogue stands out as specifically stylized in and of itself – it’s more that when you put it all together, it clearly is somehow “more” than the way people talk – “more” witty, “more” rhythmic, “more” elegant, “more” something than the day-to-day.

MARY: Hey Joe, baby, listen.  I have a question for you, okay?  Don’t look scared, geez, you look like I told you I have a root canal for you. Nothing like that, hon, so just relax.  I’m only a little worried – see, I can’t find my house key, and I’m pretty sure either I gave it to you or I got very specific key-related amnesia.
JOE: You gave it to me, Mary, to me, so you don’t have to worry.  I put your key in my pocket when you gave it to me, and unless I’m mistaken it’s still there waiting for you to ask for it back.  Hello?  Are you in there, little key?  Ah!  There it is.
MARY: Oh thanks, thanks, buddy.  I was freaking out there for a minute, I thought I might have to call a locksmith!

Stylized, in contrast to Stylized Realistic, would never be mistaken for something anyone would actually say in day-to-day speech.  This is what you get when you see, for example, a play by Beckett or Wilde, or a TV show like Pushing Daisies, or an over-the-top anime.  There are lots of ways to stylize dialogue: making the characters unnaturally witty; writing angular, elliptical dialogue; writing extremely articulate or big-word-abusing speeches; using an outmoded type of speech; etc.

MARY: Hey big guy.  Why doncha come over here a minute, I gotta question for ya.  That’s right, sidle up over here.  Now, I don’t wanna sound like I’m accusin’ you a nothin’, aright, but listen: I been lookin’ for my house key, ‘cuz, well, my house is pretty tricky to get inta without it, right?  So now I’m pretty dang sure it was you who I last gave it to.  So tell me, old buddy: you got it with ya?  Do ya?
JOE: Oh, is that all, Miss Mary?  No worries, pal, no worries, I got the key to your anxieties right here, you might say, I got yer house key right here in my pocket.  Why don’t I just hand it back to you right there.
MARY: That’s a good boy.  Thanks a bunch, that sure is a major weight offa these old shoulders.  See ya later, toots.

Poetic is where we leave the realm of anything that could sound remotely like people actually talking.  Even Stylized dialogue, in the hands of the right actors and played in the right way, could sound like two real people “playing” in the way they talk.  (Take the “hey big guy” example above, and imagine two friends just messing around, adopting wise-guy accents.  Real people can, and do, talk in Stylized ways sometimes for the fun of it.)  But Poetic dialogue is undeniably authored.  It could be straight-up Shakespeare, or it could be a more modern version, but it’s poetry-as-dialogue either way.

MARY: Joe, listen; listen, Joe:  In my house, a door.  In the door, a keyhole.  How strange, I think: the home of my heart is kept away from me by a short, thin piece of metal.  That object, that little pin, separates me from home.  Listen, Joe: I gave it to you, and now my house is separate from me, unless you can return it to me.  How much we depend on objects.
JOE: You give, I take.  I take, I keep.  I keep, I wait.  I wait, I listen.  I listen, I know.  I know, and I return.
MARY: And with that, you restore me to wholeness, to homeness.  My gratitude is eternal.

That example’s no Shakespeare, of course, but if you think of Shakespeare and how there’s almost no way someone could just break out into extemporaneous Shakespearean poetic speech in the middle of their day (the most anyone can really manage is a “verily thou art” here and there), you’ve got the difference between Stylized and Poetic.

Abstracted differs from Poetic in that Poetic, for all its poetic-ness, is still comprehensible.  You can still understand (or could have, if you were in Elizabethan times) everything Shakespeare’s characters say, and you could (I presume) understand what Mary and Joe were saying, for the most part, in the Poetic example.  Abstract dialogue is not directly comprehensible: it’s words-as-music, with the words acting like the colors and lines in a Pollock painting.  Usually it did mean something to the author, originally (unless it’s Dada), but it has no literal effect for the uninitiated audience.  We probably don’t see this much on stage and definitely never in movies or TV, actually, but theoretically it can’t get less realistic than this while still using actual words.

MARY: The bird/ The bird/ The golden bird.  I am drowned/ Outside the sea/ I am drowning.
CHORUS: The bird, the bird breathes.
MARY: The air I gave you.  Breathe the bird and save me, Joe.
JOE: Exceed/ Beyond the barriers/ The lightning connection/ The golden flash.  We are equalized.
CHORUS: He watches her take the lightning.
MARY: Lala‘gaste.  That means “thank you forever.”  / In my home/ To my home / To me. / Flight.
CHORUS: Flight.
MARY AND JOE: Golden flight.  The cottoned plane.

*****

Aaaaand that’s the scale.  According to me, anyways.

In my mind, a professional or skilled writer understands and can move between most of these levels of dialogue, picking and choosing as fits whatever they are writing, because each level of realism has different uses and applications.

(A side effect/corollary of this scale the way I put it together is: the less realistic any dialogue is, the closer it is to being poetry, so long as it remains comprehensible.  I don’t know if it’s true, but the setup suggests it all the same, I realized.)

So, thanks for reading and responding.  Agree?  Disagree?

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3 comments

  1. Exactly the article I was looking for.
    Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome, and thank you for reading!

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