One of the most crucial elements of great fiction is great dialogue.
You can write a novel with no dialogue, but it gets very avant garde very quickly—and if that’s not what you’re going for, then you’re going to need your characters to talk to each other, at least occasionally.
Dialogue is an amazing tool for revealing plot points, deepening characterization, developing in-story relationships, and conveying the kind of depth and tone that every author wants to achieve.
But writing natural dialogue is way harder than it seems like it should be. We talk to each other all the time; shouldn’t writing natural conversations flow smoothly from that lived experience?
Yet dialogue continues to be something many writers struggle with. Their characters’ conversations sound forced or stilted, like they’re reading a script or dictating a textbook instead of having a real discussion. Or the dialogue is clipped and abrupt, failing to flow with the rest of the writing.
There’s a ton of ways writers can work on improving their dialogue skills, but one of the most effective is using found dialogue.
Found dialogue is just snippets of conversations that you’ve overheard as you go about your daily life. Whether you’re on the train during your commute, walking to the post office, or at a family picnic, there’s always conversation around you. With a little practice, you can subtly tune in to those conversations and use them both as writing prompts and to enhance the flow and pacing of dialogue in your work.
It should go without saying that the only way to catch other people’s speaking habits is to listen to them.
Yet few of us actually take the time to listen in our everyday lives. One of the biggest conversational failures we have as humans, in fact, is that we’re almost always formulating the next thing we’re going to say instead of really listening to the other person in the conversation.
Start challenging yourself to listen more. Whether it’s in a meeting, on the train, in the grocery store, or at a party, give yourself a goal of listening more than you speak.
This could be hard at first—maybe you’ll only be able to manage true quiet eavesdropping for a few minutes before someone pulls you aside into a conversation. Maybe you’ll struggle with listening actively to what someone is saying without trying to figure out what question to ask them or what to say next. But with practice, it gets easier.
And you can encourage people to help you with your listening exercises. If you’re in a conversation with one or more people, see how long you can go without breaking in or speaking. When you do speak, ask a question and then fall silent again to listen to the conversation. Don’t be rude, but do take a step back and listen more than you talk.
If you’re in a situation where people around you are talking but don’t expect you to contribute (like at the mall, in a restaurant, or at a street festival), plunk yourself down to the side and just listen. This is often easiest if you have your computer or a notebook open in front of you; people figure you’re working. Which you are, really—you’re working on developing your eavesdropping and dialogue skills!
Close your eyes, tune out the sound of cars, and pick a conversation to focus on. Listen for a little while, then pick another conversation and follow the flow.
Right, now open up your eyes—conversation is about far more than just spoken words. Our body language says just as much about what we’re thinking and feeling as the words we utter.
Look around you and see how some of those people use their gestures, position, and other elements of body language as they communicate. Pushing someone away or reaching towards them, slouching, crossing your legs or arms, tilting your head to the side, rolling or closing your eyes…all of these add depth and subtlety to a conversation.
Try incorporating a few of these into your next round of dialogue. Instead of just going back and forth with “he said, she said” lines of speech, inject some physical action and body language.
Angela sighed. “I just don’t think you understand.”
“How can I explain it better? We’ve already been over this,” Martin said, putting his hand on her shoulder.
Angela shrugged away from him, glaring. “No, you’ve already been over this.”
The addition of action breaks up the dialogue, but it also adds to the emotions of the scene. Check out how real people use their body language in a variety of situations and conversations and you’ll start getting the hang of how to incorporate these elements into your writing.
Jot a Few Notes
While you’re listening (and watching!), it can be helpful to jot a few notes down. This is easiest if you’re in a public environment and you’re “working” at your laptop or notebook—you can just quickly write down whatever interesting comment you just heard or make a note to yourself about how someone’s using contractions in their speech.
If you’re at a party or at work, this can be a little more of a challenge. For some reason, folks tend to get annoyed if you pause the conversation to write down something they just said!
But you can start training yourself to pay attention to both items of overheard dialogue and to general speech patterns. As you do this, you’ll start developing your memory for these things, enabling you to file them away until you get a chance to pull out your phone or a small memo pad to write a couple shorthand notes for later.
Observe Personal Patterns
One key element of great dialogue is that each person sounds different and unique.
Now, that doesn’t mean that each person has a written-out accent or that you use a different font for every character! Instead, it means that every character you write needs to have his or her own voice.
At first, that seems like a tall order—how can you make every character sound different, but not so different that it’s annoying?
This is where found dialogue comes in. Listen to as many different people as you can and pay close attention to how they shape their phrasing. A 15-year-old girl is going to sound a lot different from a 67-year-old male car mechanic. Both are going to sound very different from a 43-year-old female math professor!
People have different speech patterns based on their age, their gender, their place of birth and their current location, their education level, and more. Some will use “upscale” terms, while others prefer very simple speech. Some folks use lots of slang and contractions, while others sound more formal.
To create great dialogue, you have to build up a toolbox of all these different variations of speech and be able to deploy them in new and interesting configurations. The best way to get all those tools is to listen to real people and see how the patterns develop!
Break up Conversations
No, not between your friends, family, or coworkers! That’s just rude.
What this means is that you should break up conversations in your writing based on how people break them up in real life.
When we’re out in the world talking to one another, we tend not to lecture or ramble for the equivalent of half a page—yet many writers let their characters do just that.
Don’t let your character be that annoying guy at the party who won’t shut up about his trip to the ATM yesterday.
If you’ve got a whole paragraph of one character talking or, worse, several paragraphs, consider whether it really needs to be dialogue. Should it be narrative exposition instead? What are the other characters thinking? Would any of them get fed up and break in?
How much more interesting would the scene be if, instead of droning on about a plot point, the character trying to lecture was interrupted by another character, injecting a new point of dialogue?
Pay Attention to Rhythm
When you’re listening to those around you, pay attention to what they’re not saying just as much as to what they’re talking about. How do they pace their words? Are they talking fast or slow? Do they let silence stretch out? Are their sentences fully developed, or are they tossing out fragments left and right?
Another important point of rhythm is the use of fillers. Most of us pepper our speech with “ahs” and “ums” and “ehs,” all non-words that let us regroup as we’re thinking and allow our mouths to catch up with our minds.
These filler words are natural, but they clutter up your written dialogue. Don’t let your writing become simply a transcript of what you’ve overheard. Instead, clean it up and fix the flow—but learn from how real people use filler in their speech cadence and rhythm.
This will let you throw in “ums” and “ahs” right at critical moments, making them feel natural and integrated. You’ll also start to develop a knack for when repetition works, when you need to trail off a sentence with a dash or ellipsis, when someone might interject or exclaim, and when hesitation or silence is the most powerful.
Although eavesdropping is most powerful for helping you understand how real people speak and interact and integrating that into more natural, flowing fiction, it’s also great for getting inspired to write.
That’s because snippets of found dialogue, comments that you have no context at all for, make great writing prompts.
For instance, you might overhear someone on the train talking on the phone, saying “Yeah, I dunno, but it seems to be vanishing now.”
What’s vanishing? Why is it going away? Why did it appear in the first place? Why does the other person care? You’ve got the start of a story.
Or how about this line, overheard at a recent picnic: “Frankly, there were just too many owls.” There’s about a thousand stories that could stem from that one simple comment.
Take the time to exercise some silence, listen to the conversations around you, and start integrating what you’ve learned into your writing. Before you know it, your dialogue will be flowing better than ever before!
Use the art of eavesdropping to inspire your fiction, develop a better sense of dialogue and pacing, and take your writing to the next level!
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