Writing natural dialogue can often be one of the most difficult parts of writing a story. Writers are drawn to lyrical language, unique words, and unusual sentence structure. While these elements can create lovely description, unfortunately, they are not the most effective tools to create believable dialogue.
When done properly, dialogue can give insight into who your characters are, develop relationships between characters, and breathe life into your manuscript.
The following are some do’s and don’t’s for creating believable, realistic, and effective dialogue.
- Give each character a distinct voice.
In the real world, everyone talks just a little bit differently. Some people are prone to being wordier than others, some are prone to using slang, some are prone to having “catch phrase” words they use often. Including elements that individual characters are likely to use differently will help not only the dialogue in your manuscript, but also the characterization.
- Mimic ways in which people actually talk.
Conversations between people are often not straightforward. People are prone to changing the subject, not directly answering questions, or maybe even not paying attention at all. If dialogue between your characters feels stiff and unnatural, try making one character more focused on something else than on the topic at hand.
When speaking, people often engage in cross talk, which occurs when one person asks a question that the second person doesn’t quite answer, maybe even changing the subject, and the conversation continues thusly, with each person not exactly responding to the other. Conversations like this can work effectively at some points in a narrative, as it’s an effective tool to show topics characters are sensitive about discussing. Much characterization can be revealed in the ways in which people talk about, or don’t talk about, something.
- Give your characters something to do.
When your characters are conversing in a scene, make sure that they have something to do, even if it’s as simple as washing dishes or tying a shoe. Breaking up lines of dialogue with periodic interjections of action will help your characters avoid the dreaded “talking heads syndrome” and ground the dialogue in scene.
- Overuse dialogue tags.
Overusing dialogue tags, particularly when they make use of strong verbs like retorted, bellowed, grumbled, shouted, etc., may be done with the intention of offering more detail, but may actually take the reader out of the scene. Words like these tear the reader’s attention from the dialogue itself. The tone in which a character is speaking should be effectively portrayed through the dialogue itself and shouldn’t rely on the crutch of a descriptive word. If you feel that one is still necessary, perhaps re-examine your dialogue and see if rewriting the line could better express the tone with which it is being said.
- Overuse slang.
While slang can be used sparingly to provide a valuable insight into who a character is and how they talk, constantly overusing it—or placing it in every line in which a character speaks—can be frustrating and take a reader out of the story.
- Use dialogue to convey a large amount of information.
Conversations are typically quick, back-and-forth banter, so long paragraphs of information often read as unnatural. Lines of dialogue should be kept somewhat brief in order preserve a sense of realism in the conversation as a whole. If long blocks of information, such as backstory or significant plot points, are necessary, they are best conveyed outside of dialogue.
Dialogue may seem like a simple element—and at its best, it is simple—but the effects it has on characterization and suspense can be huge. Dialogue that mimics real speech can work with other elements in your story to develop authentic, full-of-life characters.
By following the above do’s and don’t’s of writing believable dialogue, you’re well on your way to crafting believable dialogue and enriching your characters.