A Guide to Writing Realistic Dialogue in Fiction

We use it everyday. It is the basis of most human communication. It is language. And when we write fiction, it’s called dialogue. Dialogue can make or break a piece.
Whether you use only one line of dialogue or a majority of dialogue, if it doesn’t fit your character, if it’s not clear, if it’s not plausible, the entire piece can fall apart.

Writing dialogue can be daunting, though we all speak most everyday. But, when writing dialogue, we aren’t writing what we would say, but our characters. Through a few relatively easy exercises, realistic dialogue will only be a keyboard away. As long as we always remember that dialogue is central to characterization, plot, and interest, we can take the apprehension out of writing dialogue.

One of the most important and best things you can do when writing dialogue is to first read your dialogue ALOUD. If you are not reading your dialogue (or your whole piece, both dialogue and non-dialogue) aloud to yourself, you are not giving your work a chance. To read aloud you create a detachment between your mind and the work. You’re able to edit with a little less bias. You hear what the reader reads. Sometimes, you read your own work with a skimming eye. After all, you wrote it; you know what’s there. But, when you allow yourself to voice the words, you just may find some clunky phrase that just doesn’t fit; that will make the reader go “what?” and lose their train of thought, lose their interest in the story. By reading aloud you can fix those phrases and work them out so the piece becomes a continuous whole.

Second, don’t forget that you (and the reader) should be able to tell who is speaking at all times. Each character must have a distinct and differing dialogue. Notice how we all speak differently. Compare the way your friends, or your family even, speak. Each has a different vocabulary, a different tone, a different way of phrasing things. Young and old speak differently; ethnicity can have an effect on how someone speaks. Someone who was well educated will speak differently than a high school drop out. It is important to make these differences clear. Billy the gas attendant from Oklahoma isn’t going to use “indubitably” in his everyday language unless he is also well educated or has a reason behind the word choice that is mentioned in the piece itself.

Personally, I carry on conversations between characters in my head all the time. I’m not always writing them down, they’re not always pertinent to the story I’m writing, but it gives me a kind of practice. When I sit down to write a scene I am comfortable with the way these people talk, and can translate their words into the story. It is important for you to make as real a connection with your characters as possible. Feel what they are saying. If you do not have an emotional connection with your characters, neither are your readers. As Robert Frost once said, “No tears in the writer; no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader.”

When I get stuck with a particular dialogue, whether in inception or during editing, I work it out ‘out loud’. I tuck myself away somewhere and become an actor, inhabiting my characters and feeling out how they would react and what they would say. Too often people think writing is all silent. They assume poetry is the only thing that needs rhythm and flow. This is absolutely not the case. Reading aloud is essential to the readability of your work.

Remember, that if you think a line of dialogue is cheesy, doesn’t work, doesn’t fit a character, your reader will pick up on that. Dialogue is especially important, because everyone uses dialogue. There are so many nuances like dialect and slang, so many different ways of speaking, but everyone does it. Whether English, Chinese, or ASL, EVERYONE speaks, and can pick up on when dialogue just doesn’t speak. Think of watching a really bad movie or TV show and someone says something and you just cringe at how contrived it sounds. Don’t let this be you. Just because your readers aren’t reading your work aloud (on most occasions) doesn’t mean they can’t pick up on bad dialogue. They are reading your work for the first time, trying to soak everything in, they will notice and be upset when Granny Webster from West Virginia says “I’m down with that, dawg.”

In the end, you just have to feel it out. Just like creating good characters and dramatic situations, good dialogue takes time and practice. It takes listening and speaking aloud. It takes observation and trial and error. It takes letting the unconscious take over and go wherever it wants.

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