Writing dialogue presents many challenges, chief among them the question of how to make your characters’ conversations ring true. You want your reader to remain engaged in your story, and nothing will throw them out quite as quickly as a bit of dialogue that seems wooden or stilted, or, worse yet, boring. It’s one thing if your reader starts skimming your descriptions of the setting (no, you don’t want them to do this, either, but it’s the lesser of the evils) and another entirely if they give up on the character bits. One they skim a conversation or two, chances are you’ve lost them for good.
But what makes a character sound real? Often writers make the mistake of approaching dialogue like a form of transcription. They sit in a coffee shop and eavesdrop on the tables around them, then mimic the speech patterns they’ve overheard, including all the verbal ticks that human beings exhibit when they’re sitting around chatting. This practice tends to produce dialogue riddled with written-out pauses, indicated by ellipses or dashes, as well as verbal space holders, such as “like” and “um” and “uh.” But when was the last time you read a novel that copied this real-life practice? Including these non-words wastes valuable real estate in your novel, they don’t add to the story, and they actually get to be annoying to read. In a real-life setting, we tend not to notice each other’s verbal ticks unless they’re unusual or extremely frequent. We’re used to them and our ears and our brain conspire to dismiss them entirely. When reading, however, we become hyper aware of them very quickly.
Another real-life verbal pattern that gets left out of written dialogue is small talk. I’m not saying there isn’t any chit-chat whatsoever, but what there is tends to be pared down, used very sparingly, and it should prove some sort of point about your characters — discomfort with the situation, strangers who don’t know what to talk about — rather than simply starting off a scene. Just because two people meeting for lunch might start their conversation with “hi” and a couple of sentences about the weather before getting down to business discussions or the latest juicy gossip, doesn’t mean your characters should as well.
So what can you take away from your coffee-shop eavesdropping sessions? Plenty of things. Pay attention to body language. How do different people hold themselves during a conversation, and what do you think it means? Do they lean in, meet the other person’s eye? Do they keep their eyes down on the table, fiddle with the sugar packets? How do they behave if there are more than two people sitting together? Can you determine their dynamic? All of these clues are great things to note about your characters between lines of dialogue, and can often help you establish who’s speaking without getting into the repetitive “he said/she said” attributions.
Pay attention to tone and volume. Listen to see if they say each other’s names. Writers frequently have characters start a line of dialogue by saying the other person’s name, but in real life, we rarely do this, especially if there are only two people speaking. If you’ve established a scene between two characters — no one else around — why would they keep addressing each other by name? What does it serve?
When it comes time to write your dialogue, there are a number of things you can pay attention to in order to make it flow and seem realistic — meaning that a reader believes that a human being might have said those words.
- Develop a voice for each of your major characters. This involves considering who they are, what sort of background they have, and the vocabulary that might go along with their personality, career, and lifestyle. If you have them use a very notable word or expression — something that stands out and is memorable for the readers — make sure that becomes their thing. Don’t let your other characters use the same distinctive terms or phrases unless there’s a reason — echoing to poke fun, a child repeating after them, etc.
- Avoid long, intellectual-sounding words unless there’s a specific reason to include them. If you have a couple of scientists discussing their work, you can get away with including some technical terms, but those same scientists chatting about what they did over the weekend will sound far more like your average human being talking about their off time and use the associated vocabulary.
- Vary your sentence lengths, but keep them mostly on the shorter side. If you have a very wordy character, it’s okay to let them run on occasionally, but dialogue in novels tends to work better when you actually let everyone speak, maintaining a back-and-forth. Again, there are exceptions based on situation and character — someone’s shy, or getting chewed out — but broken up dialogue sounds more realistic and is easier to read. Keep long speeches and rambling sentences to a minimum unless your story specifically calls for a monologue, lecture, etc. (And if it does, be sure to break it up a bit with mentions of action/reactions/surroundings, etc.)
- Read your dialogue out loud. This is important. I recommend reading all your work out loud at some point — it’s a fabulous way to catch missing words, half-edited bits, repetition, etc. — but it’s especially vital with dialogue. If you can’t say the sentence yourself, can you expect your character to say it? As you speak, ask yourself if you can imagine a real person saying those words.
The key to writing realistic dialogue is not to copy the way people speak in real life, but to write dialogue you could believe a person said. Real-life dialogue is boring, riddled with broken sentences, space-fillers, back tracking, and dropped subjects. If you sift through the average one-hour conversation, you might find twenty minutes or so of interesting information, with the rest divided between mindless murmurs, random tangents, and repetition. We excuse it in real life, but we don’t expect it in our fiction. A scene of dialogue is like any other scene in your novel; make it advance the action and add to your characterizations. It needs to pull its weight from start to finish.