Commit to Contract in Dialogue

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Make Sure Your Characters Don’t Sound Too Formal

by Editor John David Kudrick

A common area of concern I hear from novelists relates to the dialogue in their stories. Mostly, these authors want to make sure that when their characters talk, it sounds smooth and natural. Thus, they often spend a great deal of time crafting carefully written dialogue—and many times actually weaken the novel in the process.

What do I mean by this? Take a look at the following passage:

“Where are you going today, Jimmy?” Polly asked.

“Oh, I am going to go see the new elephants at the zoo with my daughter,” Jimmy said.

“That sounds like it will be a lot of fun, so I hope that you will have a nice time with her.”

“Yes, I think it will be a really great outing with her, thanks.”

So, what’s wrong with this dialogue? In the technical sense, nothing. It’s fine in terms of grammar and spelling, and it even embraces some of the nuances of well-written dialogue—keeping dialogue tag verbs simple (said, asked), and not using a dialogue tag in every instance if it’s obvious who is speaking.

But it just doesn’t sound right, does it? To really get a sense of where I’m going with this, try reading it aloud to yourself now.

Did you hear it?

The stiffness, that is? An almost formal way of speaking that’s not typically been heard for many decades now?

In this passage, we find the biggest obstacle comes in the lack of contractions. Think about any conversation you have during a usual day. How often do you say “I am” instead of “I’m,” or “You are” rather than “You’re,” and on and on? Yes, sometimes we use such phrasing for emphasis (“I am so done with writing stiff dialogue!”), but the majority of the time, we use contractions when speaking.

So let’s look at the same passage again, this time revised a bit:

“Where are you going today, Jimmy?” Polly asked.

“Oh, I’m gonna see the new elephants at the zoo with my daughter,” Jimmy said.

“That sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun, so I hope you have a nice time with her.”

“Yeah, I think it’ll be a really great outing with her, thanks.”

Read the revised passage aloud and see how much smoother it sounds. Now let’s break it down line by line:

“Where are you going today, Jimmy?” Polly asked.
[No changes here, so on we go.]

“Oh, I’m gonna see the new elephants at the zoo with my daughter,” Jimmy said.
[Contracted I am to I’m, and going to go to gonna. No, you don’t necessarily have to go so far as to use “gonna” if your character wouldn’t speak that way, but even going to see would sound more natural.]

“That sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun, so I hope you have a nice time with her.”
[Contracted it will to it’ll, and you will have to you have (even though it’s technically lacking the future will, which is fine because it’s how most of us speak and because it still makes it clear). Also deleted that after I hope because it makes for smoother talk.]

“Yeah, I think it’ll be a really great outing with her, thanks.”
[Contracted it will to it’ll. Also changed Yes to Yeah—again, not necessary, but it’s a word most of us use, and if Jimmy says gonna, then he likely says yeah as well.]

All that said, in any given novel with a variety of characters, you’ll have a wide spectrum of language styles. And, if you have a character who would indeed speak so formally as to never use a contraction, then by all means do proceed with crafting his/her dialogue as such.

In general, though, make a commitment to contract in dialogue. Trust me, it’ll sound better.


To find out more about John David Kudrick and the scope of editorial services he can provide to you, please visit his bio page.

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