by Victor Salinas
Dialogue. It’s the lifeblood of any work of fiction. It’s how we get to know the characters of a story. It’s the way the characters speak to us.
And it’s also a trap for many writers.
It’s one thing to write dialogue. It’s another thing entirely to make it convincing.
So often, dialogue comes out as forced. Stilted. Not sounding like real people speak. Dialogue can sound like the author is having a conversation with themselves… which is exactly what’s happening!
So how can this be avoided? How can you stick to writing natural dialogue?
I have a few techniques I’d like to share with you.
Listen to Real People
We hear dialogue every day. People around us, on TV, the radio, in print. They’re all speaking, all the time.
It’s odd that in spite of this, it’s still so hard to sound natural when writing dialogue. If we are immersed in a world of speaking, why can’t we seem to get it right?
Because we don’t listen to how people speak. We only listen to what they say. And there’s a huge difference.
When we speak with someone, we want to exchange information. We speak to ask questions, entertain each other, exchange ideas, share memories. The words we use evoke a set of images and understandings in our minds. That’s what words are, an auditory code for information relatable by a number of people.
After we get the information we seek, we stop there. And for a writer, that’s the mistake.
The best way to start writing natural dialogue is to listen to how people actually speak. Pay attention not just to what they say, but how they say it.
If you’re a writer and want to improve your dialogue, try this out a few minutes each day. Listen to someone else’s conversation (even on TV or online). Actually listen to it.
Listen to what words people choose to use. Listen to when they stop and let the other person speak (or keep going, or interrupt one another). Watch out for the exasperation, the pauses, the emphasis.
Pay special attention to sentence structure. People rarely speak in complete sentences. The language of verbal communication is very different than the written word. It’s less formal. It’s choppier, filled with short cuts, slang, and colloquialisms.
If you spend 5 or 10 minutes a day listening to real people speak, you’ll improve your dialogue drastically in a month’s time.
It’s not sufficient to just mimic everyday speech. In fact, it’ll get you into trouble.
When you listen to real people speak, they are… well, real people!
We make a lot of mistakes when we speak. There are a lot of “oh’s” and “um’s” and “eh’s.” We stutter. We say the wrong word at the wrong time. We mispronounce things.
(But we should give ourselves a break. We’re only human, after all!)
A lot of that won’t do in writing. Dialogue must be clearer than that. Otherwise, it’s off-putting.
It’s strange in a way. For real life verbal communication, we’re more willing to tolerate mistakes. But when it comes to what we read, we demand not only authentic dialogue, but unnaturally clean dialogue.
How can a writer balance these two opposing demands?
It’s easy. Take what you learn from real life speech and just clean it up. Rarely should we ever read an “um” or an “eh.” Cut out the “tch’s” and the “ugh’s.” They just don’t read well.
Mispronunciations and misuses of words should only occur when there’s a point to them. Like a child, or a character who is new to a language, or maybe, just an idiot. But only under those kinds of circumstances.
Dialogue should feel real, but be clearer than real speech. When it comes to reading, we have only so much patience. Because unlike with real speech, when you’re dealing with another real person, we can stop reading right now.
If your dialogue doesn’t meet a reader’s expectations, they don’t have to risk hurting your feelings directly. They can just stop reading your work and walk away.
Because writing takes more time and has the implicit idea of effort… we expect more from it. So work hard to clean up your dialogue.
Make it naturally unnatural!
Improve With Practice
You’ve heard it a million times before. But it bears repeating:
You have to practice!
Nothing comes easy to anyone. Not even the pros. If you don’t like your dialogue, work on it.
Take the time to listen to real people. Take notes. Listen often. Then get to work trying to simulate real conversation.
And don’t forget to make your dialogue cleaner and clearer than real life. Too real is a turn off. After all, we read fiction as an escape. Sometimes we want a slight departure from even our linguistic reality.
But not too far!
Victor Salinas is a long-time fan of many fantasy and sci-fi series including the Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Star Wars (his all-time favorite; he dares you to test his knowledge!). He currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area. with his wife, cat Dorado, and giant collection of nerd memorabilia.
I used to think that if I could copy actual dialogue I heard verbatim my fiction would be realistic. But so much was lost in the transition from verbal to written that I had to rewrite, and keep rewriting until my dialogue sounded real, or at least believable.
It’s an interesting paradox that the further my dialogue was modified from the actual inspiring dialogue the more real it sounded.
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Brilliant article. Great advice. It’s always amazing to read writings from fellow bloggers. Cheers!
The expectations for good dialogue is interesting: it must be realistic, but it also shouldn’t be realistic (easy to read, without “ums” and “ahs”, etc).
Anyway, thanks for the advice! My screenwriting professor made my class do the same writing exercise.
I’ve found reading it aloud is very useful, too. I’ve made many a change when I do that. I add/delete words, break up sentences. Reading it aloud allows you to hear it much better.
Watching TVs and/or movies is such a good tip. Depending on what I’m writing I’ll watch certain things to get a feel for the language I want to use.
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Reading it aloud always helps me too! It helps me catch any awkward moments.
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Oh my goodness yes. Hearing the words has saved me from many awkward situations.
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Not only real life, but also movies.
The fact that in movies we have a wider range of characters, and characters we may never be able to meet in real life, analyzing them and seeing how and what they speak can be a great exercise as well.
Reblogged this on Kim's Author Support Blog.
I agree for the most part, although the uhm’s, eh’s, and mispronunciations can do some real good for the story. They can tell the reader how the character is feeling or if he or she is in another country other than the one he or she is from. Of course, all of these must have an impact on the story or leave them out.
This is great advice! I teach a communication and public speaking course and we always talk about how important it is to listen to how people communicate things. Funny, that I never really thought to apply this to my writing as well!
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
I don’t think dialogue is something I have ever struggled with, yet so many write dialogue as though they are writing a speech to be read out in the House of Lords. No, you shouldn’t litter it with “ah” and “umm” but I think some of the rules of normal language should be dropped, like not ending sentences with a preposition (we do it all the time) and fragment sentences.
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Thanks for the shout-out!