Monday, July 22, 2013

Writing Believable Dialogue

 People speak differently in person than they do on the page. To understand this, try listening to real folks talk. They hesitate and use 'um' and 'ah'. They don't speak in complete sentences, and they don't use correct English. However, if you write 'real' dialogue in a story, it will slow down the pacing, and it won't read convincingly.

On the other hand, if you write dialogue in the same style as the narrative in a manuscript, it will sound too wordy and will also slow down the story.
What's a writer to do?

1.      Edit!
Read the dialogue and then delete any unnecessary words. Believable dialogue needs to sound like real dialogue without all the tics and hesitations. People often leave out the subject or the object in a sentence, and characters should as well.

2.      Choose Phrasing and Rhythm Carefully
Observe real speech and listen for distinctive phrases. Write the interesting ones down and give them to a character. But make sure each character has a different sound. Pay attention to the rhythm of speech, and give each character a distinctive one. People sound distinct and different, and characters should as well.

3.      Use Dialect Sparingly
If a character speaks in dialect or a foreign language, the temptation is to write all their dialogue as if every word was in the argot. DON'T DO IT! Making the dialogue too difficult to wade through is just plain frustrating for a reader. Instead, choose several key words or phrases and use these as 'seasoning' to flavor their speech. And if you choose to use foreign words, make sure they are absolutely correct for the location and timeframe. But don't overdo those either.

4.      Read Out Loud
One of the keys to writing believable dialogue is hearing it read out loud. Larry and I have an advantage in that we write together and read all our work aloud to each other. We will often read conversations with each of us assuming the role of a different character. In addition to that, it's even more valuable to have someone other than the author read the dialogue aloud. It's the only way to actually hear where a reader has difficulty, hesitates, is confused, etc. The writer can also hear where dialect or other speech patterns work or fail.

5.      Eliminate Tags and Address
Few things are more annoying to me as a reader to have each line of dialog end with, "he said" or "she said." Another easy trap to fall into is to have each person entering the scene greeted by name: "Hi, Jane," said Sue. GRRR! Instead, add action whenever possible to indicate which character is speaking. For example: Jane entered the room. "Are you ready for tea?" We know who is speaking (Jane) and she is addressing whoever was already in the room ahead of her.

6.      Must Suit Each Character
Make sure each character has a distinctive voice, but it must fit the character in personality and background. A drill sergeant from Texas will sound different from a debutante from Georgia and a valley girl from California. Don't exaggerate the verbal clues, but each should speak using different vocabulary, phrasing, and rhythm.

Dialogue can either make or break a story. If a reader knows exactly who is speaking, it is unnecessary to identify the speaker as often. Learning how to write effective dialogue will go a long way toward making stories enjoyable for readers, and that, after all, is the author's intention.

Do you have any other tricks or advice for writing believable dialogue?


  1. Why did no one comment yet on this post? I think it's a good one, filled with good, common sense tips for sharpening dialogue.

    My advice is to be more of a listener than a talker. The more you listen to people talk, the more you develop an ear for dialogue. Also, watch a lot of character-driven movies that are top notch. Screenwriters have to write good dialogue-- it's the thing that's pushing the movie forward.

    Also, some people just seem to have a gift. It never hurts to practice, though, and apply sound principles, like those you've suggested. Thanks, Lorna.