Writing dialogue can be tough. It’s a key part of any novel and allows us to show the reader what’s happening instead of telling them through narration. And, it lets the characters reveal things about themselves while moving the plot forward. But how do you do dialogue well?
The trick to writing dialogue in fiction is two-fold.
- Dialogue should sound like real people talking.
- Dialogue should not sound like real people talking.
Let’s break this down.
1. Dialogue should sound like real people talking.
A character’s dialogue should sound like who they are, and like a person talking. Every person speaks in a way unique to them. A ten year old child will speak differently than a 65 year old woman. In the same way, a person raised in the UK will speak differently than a person raised on the west coast of Canada.
A character’s dialogue should sound like that person, and not like the author writing them. I’ve read books where the 20 year old woman from Washington state sounded like a middle-aged British woman (the author), and where a seven year old child sounded like an elderly man (the author). Word choice is huge here! As is sentence structure.
A character’s voice needs to be developed with their age, location, personality, education, and goals in mind.
- What words would they use?
- Would they speak casually or formally?
- What do they care about or want and what do they not care about?
- Who are they speaking to?
The answers to those questions will impact what they speak about and how they speak about it.
5 Tips for making dialogue sound like real people talking
- Use sentence fragments. We don’t always speak in complete sentences or with perfect grammar.
- Use contractions like don’t, can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, etc.
- Use jargon or slang (sparingly and where appropriate).
- Have characters interrupt other speakers to continue or join a conversation.
- Have characters not always say exactly what they mean.
You have my permission to go eavesdrop in a coffee shop or grocery store. Listen to how people talk, especially if you’re writing about characters in a different demographic than you. Listen to the words they use, the way they structure their sentences, and how the conversation ebbs and flows.
2. Dialogue shouldn’t sound like real people talking.
When we talk, we tend to use a lot of filler words. When we need a second to think, we say um or ah or like. And that is brutal to write and brutal to read. Dialogue in a novel should give the impression of real speech, but should be a cleaned up version that is easier to read. Just remove those filler words.
Another thing I see often in books I edit is long speeches by characters. I know that sometimes we go on rants or speak for a long time, but in fiction that doesn’t work. It’s boring to read. The reader wants to see action and tension. Break those long speeches up with dialogue from the other characters in the scene or with action beats.
What else does dialogue need?
All dialogue should have a purpose – to either reveal character or move the plot forward. And the best dialogue has tension or conflict.
Dialogue should have a purpose.
Now that we’ve cleared up that confusion, think about why you’re writing dialogue. All dialogue in a scene should have a purpose to either reveal something about the character (by what they say or don’t say) or move the plot forward. Be concise and ensure every line of dialogue has purpose. If it doesn’t, cut it.
One of the best methods I’ve heard of to trim dialogue is to start the scene late and end it early. This ties in well to dialogue shouldn’t sound like real people talking. When we greet people in real life, we say hello and then ask about their family or talk about the weather and so on. This is usually unimportant to the plot of a novel. So trim it. Start the scene and the dialogue where it’s interesting. And end the dialogue as soon as you’re tempted to get back into niceties or more of the that filler conversation.
Dialogue should have tension.
The most interesting dialogue has tension. Conflict creates tension. Characters who disagree create tension. Characters who say one thing with their words but another with their body language create tension. Characters with agendas create tension. This conflict and tension drives the plot forward and shows relationships and character personalities and motivations. Plus, it’s way more interesting to read than characters who agree about everything or put all the info on the table at once.
Dialogue is hard to write, but the effort is so worth it.
I struggle with writing dialogue too. But when I’ve worked and worked and worked on a scene and finally get to the point where I feel like the dialogue if great, man alive am I proud of myself.
Poorly written dialogue can break a novel. It can pull readers out of the story, make them put the book down and not pick it back up again. So take the time to write fantastic dialogue. Get to know your characters, give them each a unique voice and a goal in every conversation. Read your dialogue out loud, and if it sounds strange, keep tweaking it.