Five Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue
Great storytelling requires great dialogue.
Used well, dialogue is one of your best tools for showcasing character, revealing backstory, and moving your plot forward.
It’s often said that every line of dialogue in your novel should serve two functions:
1. It should reveal character
2. And/or it should move the story forward
There’s a bit of wiggle-room, but largely if your dialogue doesn’t serve at least one of these functions, you should probably cut it.
Another sticking point for authors can be writing realistic dialogue. Dialogue that reads wooden or stilted (think of an eight-year old child speaking like a wizened grandmother) draws attention to itself and can impede the enjoyment of a good story. Full realism, though, should also be avoided. Think to a recent conversation you had in real life; it was probably littered with false starts, stutters, ums and ers, trailing off and interruptions. If we were to transcribe all this onto the written page, I don’t think there is a reader alive who would have the patience to slog through it.
The trick to writing good dialogue is that it should sound realistic enough that wouldn’t sound jarring to the human ear, yet not be so true to life that it bores the reader to tears.
I think James Scott-Bell puts it well in his book How to Write Dazzling Dialogue:
“Dialogue isn’t real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose.…What we do is render something that feels real but is intended to create a desired effect.”
Here’s five tips for writing dialogue that sparkles.
First, study how real people speak
Go out into the world and really pay attention to how people speak to each other. Listen to the radio. Watch reality TV. Transcribe conversations and notice the rhythm and idiosyncrasies of people’s speech. Notice how person A has his own slang, he peppers his speech with certain words or phrases and uses certain cultural references, where person B reaches for others, and think about how their choice of words is linked to their upbringing, education, and life experience.
Then cut out the crap
Real dialogue is littered with repetition, false starts, stutters and pauses. Creating realistic dialogue does not mean including these. Use them sparingly, stylistically, with careful thought and purpose, for example where they emphasise a character’s emotional state, e.g. your character is nervous while giving a presentation so she stumbles over her words.
Small talk is tolerable in super small doses. But don’t include it for the sake of it – cut out the hellos and goodbyes, and instead use it as an opportunity to reveal an element of character.
Take a look at the following example, for instance.
‘Hey Gavin,’ said Pam as she dropped off the morning’s paperwork at his desk.
‘Oh, hi Pam. How are you?’
‘I’m okay, thanks Gavin. You?’
‘Exhausted. I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night again.’
‘Ugh, insomnia’s a bitch. Would you like a coffee? I was just going to get one for myself.’
‘I don’t want to be any trouble.’
‘It’s no trouble.’
‘Okay. Thanks Pam.’
His head jerked up, his eyes casting about blearily. Had he actually fallen asleep at his desk?
‘Still battling that insomnia, huh?’ said Pam, thrusting a cup of coffee at him. He took it gratefully.
The first exchange is incredibly boring to read, whereas the second is much snappier, and tells us the same information all while avoiding any dull pleasantries.
Dialogue is a great way to reveal backstory and character information, but take care not to info-dump.
‘As you know, Melanie, I have two children, aged two, and five …’
There’s a difference between dropping information into a conversation in a natural way, and doing so in a way that draws attention to itself.
‘You remember my ex, Daniel?’ said Janet.
‘Of course I remember,’ said Susie. ‘He was the really good looking one you met at that bar who you dated last year. He worked as a banker and you dated for about two months before you caught him texting another woman.’
‘Yep, that’s him.’
‘What about him?’
‘You’ll never guess – he came into my work today. Told me he was really sorry and wanted to try again.’
The way the character immediately goes into a detailed description of Daniel sticks out like a sore thumb. People don’t speak like this in real life. It’s obvious the character is only doing this for the reader’s benefit. If you were Janet in this exchange, you’d surely be looking a little strongly at Susie for her behaviour.
You should absolutely use dialogue to get backstory across to readers, but subtlety is required. Here’s the above example reworked:
‘You remember Daniel?’ said Janet.
‘Daniel …’ Susie frowned as she racked her memory. ‘You’ll have to remind me which one of your many suitors he was. They tend to blur.’
‘Oh, hilarious,’ she said, though it was with a knowing smirk. ‘Last spring. Tall, dark and handsome with a wandering eye.’
‘Ugh, I remember. Go on.’
‘Well, we came into my work today. Told me he was really sorry and wanted to try again.’
Real, 21st century people use contractions pretty much all the time in normal, everyday speech. However, when we’re writing our brains are often in ‘formal’ mode and it’s easy to forget this.
‘I am sorry, Jimmy. I did not see you there.’ Vs. ‘I’m sorry, Jimmy. I didn’t see you there.’
Do a search on your manuscript for phrases such as I am, you are, they are, do not, did not, have not, etc. You’ll be amazed at how much this quick fix can instantly make your dialogue flow more naturally.
Some exceptions where you might want to skip contractions are in historical fiction or if characters are in settings where they would naturally speak in a more formal way.
Read your dialogue aloud
What might look like perfectly fine dialogue on the page may very well sound stilted and awkward when you read it out loud. Read your work aloud. You might notice yourself getting confused over too-long sentences or stumbling over vocabulary. If you do, it’s a sign your dialogue isn’t something a real person would actually say.
Word’s Read Aloud feature is great for this. I use it all the time in my own writing, and also when editing others’ work.
Melanie Kirk is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). She offers manuscript critiques, line editing, copy-editing and proofreading. If you are interested in her services, you can get in touch with her at email@example.com