Dialogue can make your story. In fact, as Shakespeare knew, you can tell a whole story just through dialogue.
Good stories are about real people, and real people love to talk to each other. We are biologically disposed to receive pleasure from conversation.
If you want to write good stories, learn how to write good dialogue.
Dialogue is a Skill
And skills can be learned. You may not write good dialogue now, but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to write bad dialogue forever.
When I first started working seriously on my writing, I would go into coffee shops, eavesdrop on conversations, and write down everything people said.
This helped me begin to understand how real dialogue worked, but it wasn’t enough. Before I could write dialogue well, I had to ask WHY. Why did this person say this thing? Why did that person reply like that? How did they get on this subject in the first place?
I eavesdropped on conversations for months. It was actually a little creepy. But it’s taught me so much about how real dialogue works.
Here are sixteen things I’ve learned about realistic dialogue:
1. Real People Say Random Things
As writers, we want our characters to talk about things central to our plot, but humans are weird. They don’t talk about important things. More often than not, they talk about mundane things like the weather.
To write realistically random dialogue without losing track of your plot, have your characters begin a conversation about something random, and then circle around to the important parts of your plot.
2. Real People Bicker
I’m sure some people manage to be nice to each other all the time, but in my experience, the closer you are to someone, the more you bicker. Bickering rarely turns into full arguments. It’s more like a constant buzz of tension.
3. Real People Don’t Have Long Monologues
I know you want to show off your exquisite writing skills with a long speech, but in normal situations, real people don’t like making speeches. They feel uncomfortable when they’re the only one talking for a long time.
If you want to write a speech, you need to create some kind of excuse for your character to give the speech. Perhaps he just won an award or he’s about to go on a long trip or he’s dying and wants to share his last words or he’s a priest and he gives speeches every Sunday.
4. Real People Don’t Always Hear You
Real people are hard of hearing. Real people have lawnmowers go by them in the middle of their conversations. Real people say, “What’s that? Huh? What did you say? Come again? Sorry, what?”
5. Real People Refuse to Repeat Themselves
Sometimes, when the other person can’t hear and says, “Huh? What did you say?” real people don’t repeat themselves. They say, “Nothing. It’s not important. Never mind. I’ll tell you later. Forget it.”
Sometimes, this leads to bickering.
This technique is especially effective if a character has just said something vulnerable. People will rarely repeat something embarrassing or hurtful or vulgar. You can draw attention to their vulnerability by having them refuse to repeat themselves.
6. Real People Don’t Always Reply
Sometimes, someone will say something like, “Man, it’s a beautiful day,” and then wait for the other person to respond. Usually, the other person says, “Yeah, gorgeous, right?” But sometimes the other person doesn’t say anything. They just grunt or roll their eyes or stare out the window.
People learn how to do this as teenagers, and it’s a good way to show underlying tension.
7. Real People Use Nicknames
No one calls you by your first, middle, and last name. So don’t use whole names in your dialogue.
8. Real People Cuss
Some people are very sensitive to curse words, and I get it. But real people pepper curse words throughout their speech, and if you want to write realistically, you need to think seriously about interjecting an occasional D-word in your dialogue.
9. Real People Speak in Tangents
I know you’re a grammar snob and you only speak (and write) in complete sentences, but that doesn’t mean your characters do, too. Let the rules go when you’re writing dialogue. Seriously.
10. Real People Lose Track of Time and Their Surroundings When They Talk
Don’t intersperse your dialogue wit a lot of description or action. Your characters aren’t noticing what they’re doing or what they’re seeing. They’re paying attention to the conversation. If you’re using any kind of deep viewpoint (i.e. third-person limited), your narration should be paying attention to the conversation, too.
11. Real People Exaggerate
Real people don’t tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They don’t exactly lie either. They just leave things out and exaggerate to make themselves look better. It might be morally questionable, but it’s very human. (And you’re writing about humans, aren’t you?)
12. Real People Tell Stories
The only time you can write long speeches is when your character is telling a story. People love to tell stories, especially stories about themselves. Sometimes, people will even listen to them.
William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, the author of Arabian Nights, and many others have exploited this with the literary technique of the Story within a Story. Heart of Darkness is basically one long monologue about an experience a sailor had on his travels (in fact, it’s a monologue about a monologue). The majority of Arabian Nights is a woman telling stories to her murderous husband. Often, in these situations, the author allows us to forget we are actually reading dialogue. All the speaker tags would get really old. Every once in a while, though, another character will make an interjection and remind us.
13. Real People Have Accents
But remember, writing in an accent can be extremely annoying to read, not to mention distracting. Feel free to experiment with accents, but don’t be surprised if your readers don’t appreciate it.
14. Real People Talk When No One is Listening
Even when people don’t reply, real people keep talking anyway. This is a great way to show annoyance, if your character’s lecturing someone, or insecurity, if he can’t stand the sound of silence, or even social awkwardness, if he can’t pick up on social cues.
15. Real People Don’t Talk at All
Sometimes, real people are too mad or too nervous or too sullen or too much of a teenager to talk. Don’t make your characters talk if they don’t want it.
16. Real People Say Less Than They Feel
In the end, dialogue isn’t the best tool for developing a plot because real people are unpredictable. They rarely speak about the things closest to them. They rarely speak about their vulnerabilities. They often talk about the most superficial, irrelevant subjects. Real people say less they feel, which makes it very difficult to get emotion, sentiment, and transformation across through dialogue.
What are your favorite observations about realistic dialogue?
Write a piece of dialogue using the observations above.
Write for fifteen minutes. Afterward, ask yourself whether it sounds like the way real people talk. Is it realistic or are you trying to get your characters to say what you want them to say?
When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please give some feedback to a few other writers about whether their dialogue sounds realistic or not.