Dialogue has a lot of power in writing. If it’s good, it can make your characters as vivid as real people. If it’s stilted or clunky, it can make even a well-written scene fall flat. Visually, it breaks up the page, cueing the reader to know that something’s going to happen just a few sentences ahead.
Whether you love crafting a conversation between your characters, or the thought of hitting the quotation mark key on the keyboard fills you with dread, here are some practical techniques you can employ to improve your dialogue-writing skills, to make writing it effortless, and to help you edit it so it fits seamlessly into your written work.
Become a human recorder.
Practice writing down conversations after you have them. Don’t wait too long; sit down while they’re still fresh and try to write them out word for word as they happened. You don’t have to record the whole thing, enough to fill a page or two, whatever you remember best and can capture accurately. Afterwards, scan through and see if you can add any gestures or facial expression that occurred as well. Now you have part of a scene. This will train you to be more attentive to how people speak in real life and give you the experience of transmitting that onto paper.
Beyond broadening your memory bank of speech patterns, this habit is especially useful if you’re writing a character that has a unique way of talking. Think you know how an emergency room nurse talks to her colleagues? Go find one and listen up for an hour to make sure. Recording a whole conversation, as suggested above, can also be done here, but it’s just as useful to simply note tone, distinctive word choices, or repeated phrases. You can work these into your dialogue later in order to make it ring truer.
Listening to real people having a conversation is a great way to learn how to recognize aspects of realistic dialogue. It might seem creepy, but the next time you’re in a crowded coffee shop or hanging out with a group of friends, take a moment to sit back and eavesdrop.
Notice that people often ramble, stop and start again, and switch topics mid-sentence. People don’t always have to respond to questions or hold conversations in a straightforward way. Each person speaks differently, with different dialects, different word choices, different slang, and different attitudes.
Follow the conversation, whether it’s between strangers at a bus stop or an interaction on reality TV, and write down the phrases and mannerisms that strike you as particularly insightful.
Learn from famous writers.
Read famous screenplays, plays, and books to see how experienced authors write dialogue. You can also study dialogue in famous movies and TV shows.
Theatre plays are great to study because most of the time in theatre the story is in the spoken dialogue between two or more characters. Not only will this give you a feel for well-written discourse that pops, it’s also a great way to study how dialogue inspires action in a piece.
How do the words of one person provoke the response of another? What is the intention behind this or that sentence? What did the exchange do to change the course of the events to follow? This is all a lesson in subtext, which can infuse even the most mundane exchange in your work with sizzling energy.
Bonus points if you can find a play that matches your genre or style, be it noir, science fiction, thriller, or historic drama; there’s plenty out there to choose from!
Differentiate between characters.
This one is tough. Even if you feel comfortable writing dialogue, it’s tricky to keep all of your characters from sounding like the voice you use in your head. Try this; spend a day constructing the internal monologue of your main characters, making it as authentic as your own as you think their thoughts. If this is too much of a commitment, write three pages of stream-of-consciousness for each one; find out how they talk to themselves, and use this knowledge when you compose what they say to others.
An easy way to test if all your characters sound the same is by removing all their names and dialogue tags. Can you still tell who is saying what or do all your characters sound like the same one person talking?
Hopefully, this will give you enough insight to craft unique voices for individual personalities, but just remember there are certain exceptions; people who spend a lot of time together do tend to sound alike!
Define your character using suitable dialogue.
Dialogue defines your characters, their upbringing, their attitude towards others, their unique personality, as well as the location and era they live in.
When writing dialogue, here are 3 important things to consider:
 What era are your characters living in?
Language changes over time. If your story takes place in the middle ages, research how people used to speak in those times.
What slang did they use? How different were the language and dialect back then? What words did people commonly use?
Anyone who reads Shakespeare will notice how different many of the words and sentences are.
“Me lady…I am forever thy servant” or “‘Tis yer duty to do what is asked of ye” is something a person from a few hundred years ago would say.
In some countries in the 19th and 18th centuries, children of upper-class families had to respectfully address their father as “sir” instead of “dad”.Spend some time researching common words, slang, greetings, and dialects from the era and location where your story takes place.
 Who is your character? Where does your character live, what country does he come from, and what is his family like?
Is he a low-class thug from a slum or an upper-class gentleman? Your character’s upbringing greatly influences his or her language.
Will he use profanity, fancy words, street talk, or broken English?
Professors usually use sophisticated words, while gangsters use simple words and a lot more profanity.
If your character is an immigrant, he might have low-quality English with grammatical mistakes, and sometimes use words or exclamations from his native language.
Even if your character speaks perfect English, if he, for instance, comes from a Spanish family or Spanish speaking country, inserting occasionally a Spanish word or exclamation makes the dialogue sound more authentic. A Spanish person is more likely to exclaim “Dios mio! What did you do?” than “Oh my God, what did you do?” or “Jeez, what did you do?”.
An Italian servant or waiter is more likely to address his employer as “Signore” than “Sir”.
 How old is your character?
If your character is in his 80s, he or she may still use phrases, slang, and words from the 60s. Similarly, if your character is an American teenager, he will likely use contemporary American slang. Boys often address each other as “dude”, while most adult men address each other by their first names or nicknames.
Not sure what slang teenagers or kids use nowadays? Google it. Ask in Quora and other question & answer sites. Visit places where teenagers hang out and listen to them talk. Read some YA books featuring teenagers. Watch an episode or two of a teen TV show to see how teens interact.
 What is your character’s job, occupation, and lifestyle?
If your character is a butler, servant, soldier or employee, he will most likely to address his employer as “Yes, sir” rather than “Yes, Danny”.
Consider your character’s lifestyle and income when writing dialogue.
A rich lady will unlikely complain to her friends about the cost of buying diapers. She will more likely chat about the new jewelry she bought or the beautiful designer shoes she saw on sale at the Soho mall. Having your millionaire actress mom moan to her friend about her kid outgrowing his $200 shoes sounds very unrealistic.
A wealthy entrepreneur might talk with his friends about the new yacht he bought, the company his friend sold, and the stock market, while a working-class man might complaining about his annoying boss, the rising cost of electricity, his wife’s wasteful money-spending habits, the cost of college etc.
Read it out loud.
Probably everyone has heard this advice, but very few actually do it. Why? Because it feels silly. If you’re struggling with your dialogue, it’s not a suggestion, it’s mandatory. Even better, improvise the conversation aloud to yourself before you write anything down. This will start you off in a realm of likely speech before you put anything on the page. Afterwards, enlist a friend to help and enact the dialogue between the two of you; it’s more fun than doing it by yourself, and will test how the lines roll off of the tongue for someone who didn’t write them.
Listen to see if there is any awkward wording, if the rhythm is choppy, if all your characters sound the same, or if your character’s response is too long. Remember, real people usually don’t speak in long-winded soliloquies or perfectly constructed complex sentences.
Incorporate your dialogue into your story.
Even though your dialogue now flows with all the idiosyncrasies and flaws of natural conversation, the worst thing you can do is have your dialogue stand out in a bad way. Vary the rhythm of your dialogue and the placement of your dialogue tags. Instead of placing dialogue tags at the end of each line, try placing it at the beginning or in the middle of some lines to create emphasis and mimic the fluctuating rhythm of natural conversation. When it’s obvious who’s speaking, don’t use dialogue tags at all.
Instead of using “said” all the time, look up synonyms on Google. Dialogue tags such as yelled, whispered, gasped, cried can completely change the way your dialogue sounds to your readers. Describe emotions in the conversations by using adverbs such as “she yelled angrily” or “he admitted fearfully.”
Jerome Stern, author of Making Shapely Fiction, offers great advice when he says, “Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.”
Don’t let your dialogue exist in a void. If you want to indicate pauses in a conversation, instead of simply writing “there was an awkward pause,” describe an awkward action such as fiddling with buttons to show that break in conversation.
Once it’s there, trim it down.
Even the most riveting exchange of phrases should be subject to a merciless edit. In real life, most people speak in short sentences rather than long paragraphs, and if your speaker is especially loquacious make sure it’s essential to his character. Dialogue benefits your work best when it’s tailored to move the plot forward or reveal something that couldn’t be expressed as well in prose.
Don’t let your characters ramble about extraneous sub-plots. Avoid using dialogue as an information dump to explain backstory or information the characters already know. Trying to show dialect through misspelled words is confusing and hard to read. Instead, show a character’s dialect through word choice and syntax.
As Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz puts it, “If you [simply recorded] the real conversation of any people and played it back from the stage, it would be impossible to listen to. It would be redundant… The good dialogue writer is the one who can give you the impression of real speech.”
Ask yourself if certain conversations could be left out entirely, with just a sentence or two of description to let the reader know that they happened. It’s a balance that will become more instinctive with practice, and allow you lace your work with the concise, affecting dialogue that your readers deserve.
We hope this article helps you!
What are your best tips for writing realistic dialogue? Let us know in the comments below.
This article was written by Jen Batler with some additions by Erika Roberts and Jennifer Lewis.
She has been published by the North American Dostoevsky Society, and in the Hart House Review 2016.
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