If you’re a fiction writer, writing dialogue is a lot like death and taxes. It’s inevitable—and it can be really difficult, if you’re not prepared to handle it.
Because humans are such social and communicative creatures, the way your fictional characters talk to each other is central to making them seem believable to your readers.
Nothing can torpedo a character’s credibility faster than bad dialogue, and as a writer, you’re already starting at a disadvantage. A skilled actor’s expressive performance can make even the most stilted or wooden script seem warm and human, but you don’t have any Day-Lewises or Streeps lurking among your pages.
All you’ve got to sell your dialogue are the words on the page—so you have to work extra hard at making what your characters say to each other sound realistic and genuine.
But what does this mean? What does “realistic” fictional dialogue actually sound like? After all, human beings communicate in such a staggering variety of voices—surely there can’t be hard-and-fast rules for mimicking their speech on paper. Can there?
You’re right—like so many other aspects of the craft of writing, the so-called “rules” are more like guidelines… and they’re meant to be broken.
So don’t consider these “rules.” Consider them tools you can utilize when crafting your characters’ dialogue, to be used alone or in combination with each other where appropriate.
8 Tips for Writing Authentic-Sounding Dialogue
First, let’s define our terms. When we say “realistic” dialogue, we don’t necessarily mean “photo-realistic.” Mimicking real human speech patterns perfectly is certainly admirable, but the value of injecting your own authorial flair into your characters’ dialogue should not be discounted either.
Hemingway’s characters talk in a sort of “condensed” form of human speech, while Alex in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange speaks entirely in invented slang that almost sounds like a foreign language. Yet both come off sounding perfectly natural because they manage to evoke how real people talk—even without mimicking it to the letter.
That’s the key: no matter what flourishes you add to your dialogue, some germ of reality should always remain to ground it firmly in our world… and with these 8 tips and tools, you’ll be well on your way to crafting evocative, unique dialogue for all your fictional characters.
1. Build Imperfections into Your Dialogue
Real humans rarely stick to the script.
We stammer. We mispronounce things. We ramble and repeat ourselves. We trail off mid-sentence…
So while you shouldn’t necessarily write your characters with an exaggerated speech impediment (like Bill Denbrough in Stephen King’s IT) or entirely in dialect (that went out with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God), building imperfections into your characters’ speech can be an effective way to “punch up” your dialogue.
Consider writing some of your dialogue, perhaps for one character, in sentence fragments, or simply leave some ideas half-finished. Or mash two unrelated sentences together with a dash, as though the character just thought of something important. Have characters interrupt each other, or pause for breath mid-sentence, or lose their train of thought, or misuse a word accidentally—or on purpose!
And above all: throw grammar to the hounds.
Unless your characters are posh Brits or English professors, their dialogue probably won’t be grammatically correct even 50% of the time. Imperfect syntax is the most common imperfection of all, and it can go a long way to making your dialogue sound grimy, grounded—and unmistakably human.
2. Be Indirect
While it might seem logical to frame your characters’ dialogue in repeating patterns of question-response, real dialogue doesn’t sound like an interview transcript.
Humans are stubborn and willful and not very good at listening. We answer how we want to answer, regardless of what the question actually was—especially if it’s a question we don’t want to answer at all!
Imagine one of your characters has just been asked a particularly prickly question. Let’s go with a classic: “Do you even love me anymore?”
Now, naturally the asker is looking for a simple “yes” or “no,” but in reality he probably wouldn’t get one. Instead, the other character might answer with another question: “Why would you even ask that?” Or she might answer a different question that wasn’t really asked: “I care about your safety.” Or she could ignore the question entirely: “I need a drink.” Or twist the knife: “Your twin brother asked me that today.”
Or she might not respond at all.
None of these responses really answers the question being asked, but they’re each emotionally charged, and they convey loads of information to your readers. And, best of all, each sounds far more natural and human than a simple “no” ever could have.
Of course, having your characters constantly dissembling and deflecting can get tiresome after a while, and runs the risk of rendering them unlikeable.
But when used sparingly, a healthy dose of indirection can sell a scene, and sell the characters to your readers.
3. Use “Found Dialogue”
When Walt Disney Studios was making the animated film Bambi, the animators brought live deer and other woodland animals into the studio and studied how they walked and moved in order to animate the film’s characters as realistically as possible.
You too can use this technique when “animating” your human characters in your writing: study how real humans talk in the wild, and incorporate your findings into your fictional dialogue. Consider carrying around a notepad to jot down particularly juicy snippets of discourse, or copy-paste interesting Internet chatter into a Word file for later perusal.
Whether you’re basing your characters’ dialogue on these pilfered phrases or simply using them word for word, adding a little “found dialogue” lends authenticity to any fictional conversation.
4. Use Dialogue as Background
What counts as dialogue in fiction? Is it only conversations between central characters? Or does it include background noise: radio chatter, TV advertisements, intercom PSAs, ringtones, conversations in other rooms?
In reality, there’s dialogue happening all around us all the time, whether we’re tuning into it or not. Background dialogue can build atmosphere in your writing, and make your fictional world feel populated and lived-in.
A radio broadcast can interrupt a tense conversation, or punctuate an awkward silence between two characters. Snippets of drunken chatter can sell how crowded and loud a party scene is. Or an automated voice can act as a ticking clock, constantly reminding characters of a self-destruct sequence.
Remember this simple rule: dialogue in the foreground moves the story forward, but dialogue in the background can build the world.
5. Use “Physical Beats”
Not all dialogue is verbal.
Humans are visual creatures, and we pay attention to facial expressions and body language just as much as we listen to the words being said.
Try using “physical beats” to break up long stretches of dialogue—a look, a gesture, a sigh, anything that might suggest how the character is feeling without them voicing it. Not only can this add nuance to a scene, it prevents your characters from feeling like mere talking heads.
Consider the difference between these examples:
He turned to her, beaming, arms outstretched. “You’re finally here,” he said.
She found him facing the dark window, arms folded. “You’re finally here,” he said.
See the difference? Note that the dialogue didn’t change at all, but the physical beat that preceded it drastically changed the line’s tone.
Try using these physical descriptions to punctuate important or emotional moments in your stories—because even in dialogue, actions really do speak louder than words.
6. Hide Your Dialogue Tags—or Don’t
We’ve talked at length in the past about the value of “said” as a dialogue tag—or of simply removing most of your tags altogether. This is still valuable advice, since “said” is largely regarded as an “invisible” dialogue tag, unobtrusive enough to get ignored by most readers. And so long as there are only two characters in a scene, you can even forgo dialogue tags entirely and let the back-and-forth play out much like a radio drama.
However, there’s something to be said for a well-placed tag that isn’t “said,” for one particular purpose: volume.
Most other dialogue tags (“uttered,” “intoned,” “declaimed,” etc.) are don’t really add to the story and can even distract your readers. But if a character is angry or a long way off, “said” won’t convey just how loud the character should be speaking the way “shouted” or “called out” might.
Likewise, a tense situation where a character is either despondent or in hiding might benefit greatly from a “whispered” or “breathed” dialogue tag.
We maintain that hiding your dialogue tags makes your writing feel more natural. But using something besides “said” can still act like salt on a well-cooked meal when used frugally: it’s not quite invisible, but it does add a little extra flavor.
7. Don’t Use Direct Address
There’s a common temptation, especially among rookie writers, to have characters constantly say each other’s names in dialogue, and it’s easy to see why: how else will the reader know what to call your characters?
In, practice, however, direct address can make your dialogue come across as either robotic or unintentionally aggressive or creepy. Consider the difference between “Listen to me” vs. “Listen to me, Samantha.” The line is almost identical, but the simple addition of the character’s name makes the words sound much more confrontational.
There are a few times you can use direct address, though. One is when one character is trying to get another’s attention, or to single her out among a group of others. (“Samantha, you’ll be responsible for leading the others to safety.”)
The other is when you want to intentionally invoke a confrontational air—to make a point, to intimidate, or simply express displeasure. (“You knew this would happen, Samantha.”)
Use these sparingly, however—or run the risk of your characters all sounding like androids… or like they’re engaged in a blood feud.
8. Avoid Exposition Dumps
A former writing teacher used to refer to certain characters of mine as “exposition fairies”—characters whose dialogue consists primarily of world-building descriptions, explanations, or summaries of past events.
These speeches are commonly referred to as “exposition dumps.” Avoid them wherever possible (in and out of dialogue) because unless they’re handled extremely carefully, they can bring even the most exciting story to a screeching halt.
Exposition dumps don’t move the plot forward, they don’t characterize the speaker in any way, and in especially egregious situations they can even ruin the integrity of an otherwise well-rounded character.
Imagine if you were talking to a friend, and in the middle of the conversation he took five minutes to tell a story both of you already knew. You’d be annoyed, right?
Well, so would your readers.
Here’s an alternative: use your dialogue to hint at the background of your world and characters, rather than stating it outright. Acknowledge past events without telling the stories in full—show the footprint they made, rather than the foot that made them. FYI, it’s completely fine if this leaves gaps in your readers’ understanding of your fictional world. Let them fill in the gaps with their imaginations, and they’ll thank you for it.
And remember: anytime a character starts off a sentence with “As you know…” or “You remember when…” they’re probably about to deliver an exposition dump.
Let Your Characters Speak for Themselves
As we said before, these so-called “rules” aren’t set in stone—but they can be powerful tools for improving both your dialogue and your writing as a whole. Study and use them well, and before you know it your dialogue will roar like Aaron Sorkin’s…
…or cuss like David Mamet’s.
Want more quick and dirty advice on improving your writing? Look no further:
- Writing Quiz: Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?
- Don’t Get Crippled by Crutch Words: How to Speak and Write More Effectively
- NOW HEAR THIS!!! 3 Mistakes You’re Making when Writing Emphasis
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