7 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue
Deconstructing Bestselling Novels, One Doodle at a Time.
Christine’s Note: This is a guest post by Lara Willard, who edits novels and query letters and blogs writing advice.
Does all of your dialogue sound the same, no matter who’s talking? Have you had feedback saying that your dialogue is awkward or unrealistic?
Nearly any book about writing fiction will have a section on dialogue. Consider this a quick reference or summary.
These are my top 7 tips for writing realistic dialogue:
1. Read the dialogue aloud.
This is the #1 tip that will solve 90% of your problems if you pay attention to how the words sound. Fix the awkward syntax, the too perfect grammar, the long-winded response.
A breath unit is the number of syllables a reader would have to read aloud in one breath. Readers take breaths at punctuation marks.
Try keeping to 20 syllables or fewer per breath unit (25 is pushing it), and vary the lengths. Too many long segments make your reader lose his or her place. Too many short ones are choppy and jarring, like using exclamation points after each sentence.
- Example of too-short breath units:
- And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination. —Charles Olson, 1950
- Breath units: 4, 3, 3, 9, 7, 3, 4, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 3, 5, 9, 4, 3, 4
- Example of varied breath units:
- The vorticist relies on this alone: on the primary pigment of his art, nothing else. Every conception, every emotion presents itself to the vivid conscious in some primary form. —Ezra Pound
- Breath units: 10, 10, 3, 5, 21
2. Take notes on how people actually speak.
Use a journal or tape recorder. Consider the era, location, and culture of your character. Then find diaries, spoken interviews, or Youtube videos of people with a similar background. Study their vocabulary and the way they string words together.
What kinds of idioms do they use? What kind of words do they leave out? Record their speech and then craft similar sentences in the same style. One of my notebooks has these recordings: “What he did was he told me” and “‘Matter of fact, they.”
While I think reality television is 98% garbage, it does give you an idea of how people actually talk. Just try to find one that isn’t obviously scripted.
Note that quotes in newspaper interviews are often edited. You want unedited speech, so try to find interviews you can listen to.
- Example: Letters to the editor or to “Dear Abby” from your time period can give you a glimpse of how people talked in certain decades, but unless you can find a local paper, they won’t give you regional clues. Here’s a letter with some great diction.
- DEAR ABBY: My wife sleeps in the raw. Then she showers, brushers her teeth and fixes breakfast— still in the buff. We’re newlyweds and there are just the two of us, so I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with it. What do you think? —ED
- DEAR ED: It’s O.K. with me. But tell her to put on an apron when she’s frying bacon. (Source)
3. Write in standard English, not dialect.
Bottom line, if it’s hard to read, you’re doing it wrong.
If someone speaks with an accent, that’s a good time to tell us rather than show us. Misspelling words to show pronunciation at best is confusing to some readers, and at worst it’s offensive.
Diction (word choice) and syntax (word order) are your tools. Vary Latinate and Anglo-Saxon diction, vary sentence length, and switch up word order until you get a distinctive (but realistic) voice.
4. Read plays and screenplays.
Good ones. Award-winning ones. With diverse writers and casts.
Dialogue is the meat of a screenplay. Screenwriters know how to convey tone, conflict, backstory, motivation, and more through dialogue.
- Hint: Try Drew’s Script O’Rama for finding scripts online.
- Hint 2: TV Shows “Criminal Minds,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Single Ladies,” “Raising Hope”, “Reed Between the Lines” and “The Game” have the greatest percentage of diverse writers, according to LA Times.
5. Take an acting class.
Preferably improv! Acting will show you how to get into your character and make them sound and act realistic.
If you can become your character, if you can live inside your character’s mind, not only will your dialogue be realistic, your plot will also ring true.
6. Leave out AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.
Use invisible dialogue tags.*
Eliminate all empty words. Realize that subtext is even more important than text—what isn’t said is more important than what is said. Think of dialogue as an espresso and each dialogue tag as a slap in the face.
It’s okay to excite the reader, but overexcite them, and you’ll give them a panic attack.
*Invisible dialogue tags are “he said” or “she said,” placed unobtrusively, usually at the end, if used at all.
7. Don’t use dialogue as an information dump.
“I know that…”
Anytime a character says one of the above, you know that the dialogue is highly contrived. If the character already knows it, then why is he or she stating the obvious?
Dialogue has two functions: to characterize and move the story forward. Not backward. If you can characterize the protagonist through the interchange, then do it. If your information is absolutely necessary, but doesn’t characterize more than one character, summarize.
- Example: In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Jones and Henry, Sr. are chatting in the Zeppelin, we get backstory through dialogue. The “It was just the two of us, Dad” line is a bit contrived, but Henry’s side of the conversation makes up for it. (Start at 0:45.) The conversation characterizes both Indy and Henry, and portrays their relationship as it was and as it currently stands. It moves the story forward; it doesn’t hang out in the past.
Bonus Exercise from The Hunger Games
Here are a few lines from chapter nine of The Hunger Games. Can you guess which character said what?
- “Well, you better learn fast. You’ve got about as much charm as a dead slug.”
Hint: “You better learn fast” isn’t correct grammar, but it’s what this character would say. Not every character would choose to compare a person to a slug.
- “And you’ve given me so many reasons to be cheery.”
Hint: This sounds like a sarcastic character.
- “Well, try and pretend! See, like this. I’m smiling at you even though you’re aggravating me.”
Hint: This character has a rhythm to his/her speech and chooses words like “aggravating.”
ABOUT LARA WILLARD
Lara Willard wanted to be a lot of things as a child. A goalie in the NHL, a marine biologist, an actress. Since her hometown was in the desert and she was terrified of whales, acting seemed the most viable career. She started writing plays to act out, read Shakespeare and Wilde and Shaw, and realized she’d rather be a writer.
Lara’s background in theater has informed her new career. She holds a degree in writing and graphic design. Now she edits novels and query letters, coaches writers on her blog, and is in the process of finishing her first novel.
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More novels on Betternovelptoject
Collins, Suzanne (2009-09-01). The Hunger Games. Scholastic Inc. Kindle Edition. (“HG”).
Meyer, Stephenie (2007-07-18). Twilight (The Twilight Saga). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Kindle Edition. (“TW”).
Rowling, J.K. (2012-03-27). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1). Pottermore Limited. Kindle Edition. (“HP”).
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