Writing realistic dialogue may well be the biggest challenge a fiction writer will face, and succeeding at that challenge is arguably an author’s greatest achievement. Nothing is as effective as believable dialogue in making characters come to life for readers.
Shakespeare is often cited as a model for creating dialogue because each character in his plays had his or her own distinctive voice; Shakespeare effectively captured the natural rhythm of how people spoke at the time, while still using poetic elements. One can read his contemporaries’ plays to see by comparison how stilted other authors’ characters’ language could be. Jane Austen is also often cited as having a wonderful ear for listening to dialogue and recreating it effectively.
So when writing dialogue, an author should use Shakespeare and Jane Austen as models… right? Absolutely not. People in the twenty-first century do not speak as they did in Elizabethan or Regency England. Unless you are writing a historical novel set in one of those periods, stay away from trying to copy these or any other writers from the past. Even an author from just a few decades ago has probably written what is now outdated dialogue. Instead, strive to write dialogue like that spoken by the people around you-people you overhear talking at the mall, your best friend, your priest or minister, your coworkers, your professors in school, the waitress at the local restaurant, or anyone you know who could be an inspiration for how one of your characters might speak.
Following are some tips for creating realistic dialogue that can transform your characters from stick figures to well-rounded individuals, all through the words flowing from their mouths:
Listen. Listen. Listen. Nothing is more important than listening to how people talk. Countless writers have been inspired to write great books just because of a few words or a sentence they heard someone else say. Sometimes one funny sentence spoken can become the source for a character or his way of speech. Don’t just listen to people, but listen to individuals. When you go out to lunch with a friend, pay attention to her expressions. Are there words she uses repeatedly? Does she insert “like” into her sentences often, or have a tendency to begin speaking with “Well,” or end sentences with, “you know what I mean?” What about her speech patterns is annoying to you? What phrases does she use that if you recreate will annoy your readers? What will make her speech easily identifiable to readers? Remember that the first time a person opens his mouth, people automatically judge him. Practice speaking to strangers so you can listen to them. Ask a cashier at the grocery store a question and see what she says. You don’t know her, but what can you assume about her-you might think she’s a lazy, stupid girl when in truth she has a Master’s Degree and is just frustrated that she can’t find a better job-but what is important is the impression she gives to you and the impression she would give a reader if her speech were included in your novel. Listen and recreate what you hear.
Speak your dialogue. An effective way to write dialogue is to step away from the page. Go for a walk and talk to your characters. Interview them, or imagine you are eavesdropping in on the conversation of two of them. As long as no one is around to think you are crazy, go ahead and talk in their voices. Become familiar with how they talk-not just their words, but how often they pause in speech, how fast they talk, their “er’s” and “um’s” and accents.
Read your dialogue out loud. What sounds well on paper may not sound as well to your ear when spoken aloud. Dialogue is not about the written but the spoken word. It needs to read like it sounds when spoken, so read it out loud to determine its authenticity. Don’t forget that you may be your own worst critic. Find a couple of friends to be your characters and have them read a scene of dialogue while you listen. If you have no one to help you, read your dialogue aloud and record yourself. Then playback the recording to hear where it may or may not sound realistic.
Avoid Proper English. People speak in contractions. People speak in fragments. People start sentences asking a question but end with a statement; when they open their mouths, they might still be formulating what they plan to say so by the time they finish, their intention has changed. As long as your reader will be able to follow your sentence’s meaning, strive to imitate spoken, not proper, English. Even people who are grammarians and English professors will, in speech, say “who” where they should say “whom” or get caught replying to “How are you?” with saying “Good” instead of “Well.” Nobody is perfect, so neither should your dialogue be.
Keep It Short. Do you know anyone who just can’t seem to shut up? We all do. Nothing is more irritating than when you can’t get a word in. Don’t make your characters annoying in the same way. Don’t write conversations where one person repeats to another everything that happened to her up to that point in the book. The reader already knows what happened and doesn’t want to hear it again, even if her best friend doesn’t know it. Just write, “Marcy then told Mindy everything that had happened since she woke up that morning” and then show Mindy’s reaction. And don’t let your characters lecture others. It’s okay for Mindy to say, “Marcy, this wouldn’t have happened if you’d just followed my advice and quit smoking,” but no more than that-we don’t want to listen to Mindy quote statistics from the Surgeon General. Any character who speaks more than two or three sentences consecutively is potentially going to annoy a reader to the point where he closes the book so the characters’ words are never read again.
Adverbs are Not Your Friends. Stephen King, in his book “On Writing,” states “Adverbs are not your friends.” In my opinion, that’s one of the best pieces of writing advice ever given. I’m not referring to using adverbs in dialogue so much here, though please try to avoid that, but rather in dialogue tags-the “he said” or “she replied” part of the sentence. I can’t tell you how it makes my skin crawl to read dialogue tags that continually say, “she said vehemently,” “he replied loudly” or “Fred jokingly said.” Any word that ends in “-ly” should be stricken from your dialogue tags. Your sentence of dialogue should be written well enough that it is clear to the reader that the speaker would have said it jokingly, vehemently, or loudly without you needing to state how it was said. Using adverbs is false emphasis. So is constantly writing words in caps or italicizing them. Overemphasis does not emphasize but distracts and takes away from the meaning of sentences. Use words that show the speaker’s tone without having to explain it to the reader.
I could mention many more tips for writing effective dialogue, but these few will be enough to get your characters to sound human. The best compliment an author can receive is that he has created characters who seem like real people, and nothing will help to achieve that effect more than realistic dialogue.
This book uses realistic conversations and moments!