Simple Dos and Don’ts for writing realistic dialogue
If you want to change the rules of dialogue, first understand why some of them exist.
“What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Swimming with the president.”
“Quit calling him that.”
“He acts like he is.”
“And he always gets his way. Since he wants to go, mom’s making me take him.”
Now, I don’t know what you understood from reading that, but my guess is you understood enough to know a little about the characters and the situation. This was achieved without dialogue tags. Before I continue, I am not bashing dialogue tags; they are necessary. However, they are not necessary in every piece of dialogue. Use them with purpose but if you want to read more on dialogue tags, read this article.
Back to business. There are thousands of rules in writing. Some rules are there to defy (because we all like to rebel) while others have a few notes you should take.
When people write dialogue, there are a few things that need to be considered. Take the above dialogue for example.
“What are you doing tomorrow?
“Ugh! I’m taking Charlie, my brother, swimming.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, because the president wants to go swimming, mom said I have to take him. I don’t want to take him.”
“Stop calling him that.”
“Why? Just because he’s five?”
They’re pretty similar, yeah? Try reading them both aloud, and ponder on the words for a moment. Which sounds more realistic? Which gives you a better flow of information? Granted, this is a rule and like all rules, there are exceptions. Never forget that. But don’t break it because you can. Break it because it will benefit you. Before you break this rule, however, learn what the “rules” are . . .
- Just write it. Before you refine your dialogue, get that sucker out there. Go back and figure out how you want it to look, of course, but first get your thoughts out there.
- Make it conversational if it’s conversational. Otherwise, change the tone to mirror the situation. (lecture, guilty comeback, whining, etc.)
- Change the choice of words to mirror the tone of your character. If he’s intelligent, he just might use big words and long, complete sentences. If so, go for it. If not, think about your words!
- People don’t tend to reiterate what the other person already knows (i.e. “Charlie, my brother” in this example. I’d assume this person’s friend knows who Charlie is. If not, fine, but I wrote the dialogue. The person knows who Charlie is. Promise).
- Use incomplete sentences. (Not constantly.) How often do you talk in complete sentences if you’re not trying to impress someone? Seriously. Don’t lie.
- Split up dialogue. If you have a lot to say, break it up. Let the friend interrupt or let something happen. Let the reader’s brain breathe. I didn’t split up my dialogue, but that was an example and didn’t count. Let them fiddle with their thumbs, curl their hair impatiently before someone answers . . . let the doorbell ring . . . something. They aren’t news reporters staring at a camera with blank expressions, and they aren’t empty rooms that lack character and life.
- Listen to people speak! Grab a notebook then sit in a bar, park, grocery store, or wherever you need to be to write your scene. Listen to people talk. Think about the words they use over and over, how many times they interrupt each other, what they do when they’re listening, thinking, speaking. What happens when they’re ready to leave? How do they react to strangers talking or the people around them in general? Look at their actions and listen to their words. Pay attention to how the dialogue and actions treat each other and implement the idea.
- Consider using some interjection. Oh, aren’t we all just gems of patience? Yeah, right. We interrupt each other because we have a thought, and we must speak this thought because it’s important. No, don’t interrupt constantly unless it’s part of a character’s annoying traits, but consider the option.
- Yes, people can trail off with their sentences or interrupt themselves with a new choice of words. It’s normal. Just don’t overdo it.
- Use those wonderful italics. Italics exaggerate a word, and sometimes it’s fun and unique. “But I need to go to prom.” I think she really wants to go. Or he. Whoever.
- Don’t reiterate what the person already knows or what the current situation is. I know, I said this. I see it all the time and I feel like I’m being babied as a reader, so I’m reiterating it. Yay!
- Don’t info-dump in dialogue (or at all, but mostly in dialogue). “I met her the other day when I walked home from work. She came from another planet, but she told me, later, that she wasn’t going to harm anyone on Earth. She needs to find a cube that can save her planet, and it was stolen by…” No! Ah! Wait! So much information in one place makes it ridiculously hard on your reader. We don’t get a chance to retain anything you’re saying because you throw out information as fast as our eyes can read but slower than our minds can retain it.
- Don’t use onomatopoeia. Ah! Ugh! Eeeeeek! Aaaaaaahhhh! If you want to listen to anything, please listen to this one. Fifty “a’s” will not make your scene more suspenseful than one, and one “Ah!” will not make our chests erupt with fear. Children cannot understand fear in writing, usually, so onomatopoeia is used to show them. Unless you’re writing a children’s book, don’t insult your readers by saying their imagination is similar. Let them see the fear burst from their eyes or show in their trembling fingers. Or let their nose crinkle in disgust. Let them see because your readers can understand body language cues.
- Same with “!!!!” and “??” and “?!”. I promise this does not lead to more surprise or curiosity. For that matter, the exclamation point won’t always benefit your dialogue.
- “Jason, how are you?” “Not too bad, Amy.” Consider this. Do you greet your friends by their name, reply to their question with their name, and ask a question using their name? Not in every sentence. Let dialogue tags help you with this. Amy grinned widely as Jason strode through the hallway. “Hey, Jason, how are you?” He returned the smile. “Not too bad.”
- Don’t provide too much dialogue at once. Let some action happen. Maybe some self-reflection, too.
- Don’t use filler words. “Um” and “Erm” and “like” are going to say something about your character. I guarantee you can make someone nervous, indifferent, or bubbly without forcing the readers to read those annoying filler words. In excess, anyway. Consider your character.
- Don’t overdo dialogue tags. If we know who’s speaking, keep it at that. “He said,” “she said,” “he chuckled,” and “she whispered,” can drag out dialogue.
When it comes down to it, you need to know who’s talking, why they’re talking, and what you want your reader to know as a result. If you can communicate that efficiently and in a natural way, you have a winning dialogue set. It takes work, but it’s worth it if you want natural dialogue. Naturally, these rules won’t apply to everyone. Not all of them, anyway. Your character will determine what rules to consider, but these are just a few to think about while you’re writing.
Dialogue tags could have an entirely separate article of their own, and in fact, they do here, but don’t be afraid of them; don’t become comfortable with them. Use them where necessary. Consider who’s saying what, and consider the thinking that occurs in between. Are the thoughts important? Do the mannerisms say something about the mood or character? Consider all these things because they may improve your dialogue, too, and possibly replace a dialogue tag or two.
Different styles of dialogue are building blocks to your characters. Simple things will make them seem more intelligent or, well, less. I could tell you a number of things to consider, but it’s up to you in the end, and you should be writing more than I should be listing off every suggestion I can think of.
I hope this article helped clear up a few things about dialogue, and I hope you can incorporate some of these tips in your writing.
Have a blessed day, and I’d love to hear your thoughts or comments.