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How To Write Realistic Dialogue

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Style Choices

Dialogue which isn’t believable or simple to follow is a sure-fire way of yanking your reader out of the world you created. When they sought immersion, they instead find themselves irritated by your choice of words. Dialogue can be hard, and it can be easy to slip into a bad habit. Thankfully, we have rounded up the worst offences so you can see exactly what these traps look like, taking you from novice to pro before you next open those speech marks!


Read Dialogue Aloud


Read your story’s dialogue – and dialogue alone! - out loud and ask yourself the following questions:


  1. Does it sound believable?

  2. Is there a natural beat to the statements?

  3. Are there any words or phrases that sound ‘odd’ in the overall sentence?

  4. If appropriate, would I be able to identify the speaker based on the choice of vocabulary?

  5. Is there any way for the reader to mis-read the meaning of the dialogue?


If it doesn't sound right, it may be time for a re-think. If you struggle to say it aloud without really concentrating, there's also every chance reading it will not be an easy task either. After you have read it aloud yourself, ask another person to listen to you read the dialogue for a second opinion. Take in what they have to say and reflect on if it can be improved.



Do Not Use Dialogue To Info-Dump!


Dialogue is not the place for exposition, no matter how ‘natural’ you think you could make it sound. Not even the pros can pull this off without it coming across as pandering at times. Avoid this pitfall by questioning whether what is being said would realistically come up between the characters, or if you might just be using it to get additional information over to the reader in a more interesting manner. Most of the time, realistic dialogue free from exposition is preferred even if it means you need to add a little more detail in your paragraphs. Don't be afraid to leave some things un-said. Readers don't need drip-fed as much as we think they do.



Watch TV/Movies


Hone your believable dialogue skills by letting your ears do the work. Watch movies or TV show that won decorated awards in screenplay or other writing categories as they likely got the dialogue right! As you watch, pay attention to what makes a line snappy, meaningful or personal to a speaker. What lines brought you out of the moment? Identify what breaks the immersion and try to avoid similar dialogue in your writing. Consider it a fun way to enhance your skillset.



Write Standard English


If your characters are speaking English, write in English. That may sound obvious but bear with me! By all means, include slang terms and dialect phrases but only when it won’t hinder readability. That means the reader will not have to pause in their immersion to pay extra attention to your word choice. Slang and colloquial terms should blend into regular writing, adding a splash of flavour without demanding special consideration. Resist the urge to demonstrate regional or 'poor' speech by phonetically writing out their dialogue. If you need convincing, just consider some real examples below.



Real Book Extract Examples


Good: ‘The walloper owes me two quid. He’s getting a skelp if he doesn't cough up!’ Good: ‘I will bid you goodnight, my friends,’ He said through an accent so strong I could barely understand. Bad: ‘'Ere, I've 'urd tha' old Joe 'as only gon' an' sold the farm! I thought me ears wur bleedin' deceivin' me!'



Be Stingy:


Being selective in when you utilise dialogue will help avoid flooding your story with needless, flat or distracting speech. Be stingy: not every quip or comment deserves a place in your work. Ask yourself what you want each line of dialogue to achieve, and only include speech when it will do at least one of the following: 1. Move the plot forward
 2. Deepen the reader’s understanding of the character or the relationship dynamics
 3. Help achieve a mood or atmosphere
 If it does none of the above, or does it poorly or without a need - for example, it is one of many lines which set up a scene's mood - don't let it stay long enough to demand more of your reader's attention than it should.



Personalise


Much like real life, not every person in your story will speak in the exact same way. Personalities, age, upbringing and other such influences should personalise each character's way of speaking. Before writing, consider differences between characters and look for deviations. Use these questions to influence your dialogue:


  • Who would naturally have a wider, more adventurous vocabulary?


  • Who would rely on short statements, and when?


  • What slang terms would individual characters or groups from the same area use on a regular basis?


  • Who will they speak to – an inferior, peer or superior. Would it matter?


  • Are they lazy, anxious or long-winded when they talk?


Personalise your characters using your answers to the questions above to guide you. Preferably, each main character should have their own unique voice - even if most readers won't notice small details!



Tag Sensibly


Dialogue tags, when used effectively, are imperative to fleshing out the context of a scene and can enhance characterisation. They have the ability to convey tone, volume, mood and intent. But there are pitfalls you need to watch for. Remember this rule of thumb: dialogue tags should compliment the speech, not overshadow it. It’s purely functional, and the moment a writer tries to impress their reader with flowery add-ons or additional detail they run the risk of losing their flow. Consider this example:

‘You stole my charger!’ Timothy roared, his rage peaking. ‘No, I took mine back,’ Stephanie snipped back at him snidely. ‘I’m telling mum,’ threatened Timothy as he moved to the door to the hallway. Stephanie’s eyes widened and she wailed ‘No, don’t!’

You probably would agree that there is too much going on here. The dialogue tags are suitable for the situation, and using one or two might add the overall tone the writer is going for, but using descriptive tags for every new speaker quickly overwhelms and what is being said starts to fade into the background. This may surprise you, but the majority of the time "said"will work better for your dialogue than any other descriptive tag. It’s boring, true, but that’s the point. Speech should stand on its own if possible, and said does not detract attention away from the literal words spoken. It is also true that if the speaker is obvious from the overall context, there is no need for any dialogue tag at all. It would just be fluff, which can slow down an otherwise enticing scene. Let’s re-write the example in a more reader-friendly manner:

‘You stole my charger!’ Timothy's rage was peaking. Stephanie turned up her nose and said ‘No, I took mine back,’ ‘I’m telling mum,’ Stephanie’s eyes widened as Timothy moved to the door. ‘No, don’t!’ She wailed.

Trust that your reader is intelligent enough to craft the situation without you needing to tell them everything. With less unnecessary detail, they can focus on the core elements and this will lead to a more positive experience. 'And you can quote me on that,' I said, oozing confidence.


Dialogue which isn’t believable or simple to follow is a sure-fire way of yanking your reader out of the world you created. When they sought immersion, they instead find themselves irritated by your choice of words. Dialogue can be hard, and it can be easy to slip into a bad habit. Thankfully, we have rounded up the worst offences so you can see exactly what these traps look like, taking you from novice to pro before you next open those speech marks!


Read Dialogue Aloud


Read your story’s dialogue – and dialogue alone! - out loud and ask yourself the following questions:


  1. Does it sound believable?

  2. Is there a natural beat to the statements?

  3. Are there any words or phrases that sound ‘odd’ in the overall sentence?

  4. If appropriate, would I be able to identify the speaker based on the choice of vocabulary?

  5. Is there any way for the reader to mis-read the meaning of the dialogue?


If it doesn't sound right, it may be time for a re-think. If you struggle to say it aloud without really concentrating, there's also every chance reading it will not be an easy task either. After you have read it aloud yourself, ask another person to listen to you read the dialogue for a second opinion. Take in what they have to say and reflect on if it can be improved.



Do Not Use Dialogue To Info-Dump!


Dialogue is not the place for exposition, no matter how ‘natural’ you think you could make it sound. Not even the pros can pull this off without it coming across as pandering at times. Avoid this pitfall by questioning whether what is being said would realistically come up between the characters, or if you might just be using it to get additional information over to the reader in a more interesting manner. Most of the time, realistic dialogue free from exposition is preferred even if it means you need to add a little more detail in your paragraphs. Don't be afraid to leave some things un-said. Readers don't need drip-fed as much as we think they do.



Watch TV/Movies


Hone your believable dialogue skills by letting your ears do the work. Watch movies or TV show that won decorated awards in screenplay or other writing categories as they likely got the dialogue right! As you watch, pay attention to what makes a line snappy, meaningful or personal to a speaker. What lines brought you out of the moment? Identify what breaks the immersion and try to avoid similar dialogue in your writing. Consider it a fun way to enhance your skillset.



Write Standard English


If your characters are speaking English, write in English. That may sound obvious but bear with me! By all means, include slang terms and dialect phrases but only when it won’t hinder readability. That means the reader will not have to pause in their immersion to pay extra attention to your word choice. Slang and colloquial terms should blend into regular writing, adding a splash of flavour without demanding special consideration. Resist the urge to demonstrate regional or 'poor' speech by phonetically writing out their dialogue. If you need convincing, just consider some real examples below.



Real Book Extract Examples


Good: ‘The walloper owes me two quid. He’s getting a skelp if he doesn't cough up!’ Good: ‘I will bid you goodnight, my friends,’ He said through an accent so strong I could barely understand. Bad: ‘'Ere, I've 'urd tha' old Joe 'as only gon' an' sold the farm! I thought me ears wur bleedin' deceivin' me!'



Be Stingy:


Being selective in when you utilise dialogue will help avoid flooding your story with needless, flat or distracting speech. Be stingy: not every quip or comment deserves a place in your work. Ask yourself what you want each line of dialogue to achieve, and only include speech when it will do at least one of the following: 1. Move the plot forward
 2. Deepen the reader’s understanding of the character or the relationship dynamics
 3. Help achieve a mood or atmosphere
 If it does none of the above, or does it poorly or without a need - for example, it is one of many lines which set up a scene's mood - don't let it stay long enough to demand more of your reader's attention than it should.



Personalise


Much like real life, not every person in your story will speak in the exact same way. Personalities, age, upbringing and other such influences should personalise each character's way of speaking. Before writing, consider differences between characters and look for deviations. Use these questions to influence your dialogue:


  • Who would naturally have a wider, more adventurous vocabulary?


  • Who would rely on short statements, and when?


  • What slang terms would individual characters or groups from the same area use on a regular basis?


  • Who will they speak to – an inferior, peer or superior. Would it matter?


  • Are they lazy, anxious or long-winded when they talk?


Personalise your characters using your answers to the questions above to guide you. Preferably, each main character should have their own unique voice - even if most readers won't notice small details!



Tag Sensibly


Dialogue tags, when used effectively, are imperative to fleshing out the context of a scene and can enhance characterisation. They have the ability to convey tone, volume, mood and intent. But there are pitfalls you need to watch for. Remember this rule of thumb: dialogue tags should compliment the speech, not overshadow it. It’s purely functional, and the moment a writer tries to impress their reader with flowery add-ons or additional detail they run the risk of losing their flow. Consider this example:

‘You stole my charger!’ Timothy roared, his rage peaking. ‘No, I took mine back,’ Stephanie snipped back at him snidely. ‘I’m telling mum,’ threatened Timothy as he moved to the door to the hallway. Stephanie’s eyes widened and she wailed ‘No, don’t!’

You probably would agree that there is too much going on here. The dialogue tags are suitable for the situation, and using one or two might add the overall tone the writer is going for, but using descriptive tags for every new speaker quickly overwhelms and what is being said starts to fade into the background. This may surprise you, but the majority of the time "said"will work better for your dialogue than any other descriptive tag. It’s boring, true, but that’s the point. Speech should stand on its own if possible, and said does not detract attention away from the literal words spoken. It is also true that if the speaker is obvious from the overall context, there is no need for any dialogue tag at all. It would just be fluff, which can slow down an otherwise enticing scene. Let’s re-write the example in a more reader-friendly manner:

‘You stole my charger!’ Timothy's rage was peaking. Stephanie turned up her nose and said ‘No, I took mine back,’ ‘I’m telling mum,’ Stephanie’s eyes widened as Timothy moved to the door. ‘No, don’t!’ She wailed.

Trust that your reader is intelligent enough to craft the situation without you needing to tell them everything. With less unnecessary detail, they can focus on the core elements and this will lead to a more positive experience. 'And you can quote me on that,' I said, oozing confidence.


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