I wrote this post in 2014. It was originally published on The Better Novel Project. I am reposting with minor updates.
Does all of your dialogue sound the same, no matter who’s talking? Have you had feedback saying that your dialogue is awkward or unrealistic?
Nearly any book about writing fiction will have a section on dialogue. Consider this a quick reference or summary.
These are my top 7 tips for writing realistic dialogue:
1. Read the dialogue aloud.
This is the #1 tip that will solve 90% of your problems if you pay attention to how the words sound. Fix the awkward syntax, the too perfect grammar, the long-winded response.
A breath unit is the number of syllables a reader would have to read aloud in one breath. Readers take breaths at punctuation marks.
Try keeping to 20 syllables or fewer per breath unit (25 is pushing it), and vary the lengths.
Too many long segments make your reader lose his or her place.
Too many short ones are choppy and jarring, like using exclamation points after each sentence.
- Example of too many, too-short breath units:
- And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination. —Charles Olson, 1950
- Breath units: 4, 3, 3, 9, 7, 3, 4, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 3, 5, 9, 4, 3, 4
- Example of varied breath units:
- The vorticist relies on this alone: on the primary pigment of his art, nothing else. Every conception, every emotion presents itself to the vivid conscious in some primary form. —Ezra Pound
- Breath units: 10, 10, 3, 5, 21
2. Take notes on how people actually speak.
Use a journal or tape recorder. Consider the era, location, and culture of your character. Then find diaries, spoken interviews, or Youtube videos of people with a similar background. Study their vocabulary and the way they string words together.
What kinds of idioms do they use? What kind of words do they leave out? Record their speech and then craft similar sentences in the same style. One of my notebooks has these recordings: “What he did was he told me” and “‘Matter of fact, they.”
Note that reality TV is often scripted and quotes in newspaper interviews are often edited. You want unscripted, unedited speech—so try to find interviews you can watch or listen to.
- Example: Letters to the editor or “Dear Abby” from your time period can give you a glimpse of how people talked in certain decades, but unless you can find a local paper, they won’t give you regional clues. Here’s a letter with some great diction:
- DEAR ABBY: My wife sleeps in the raw. Then she showers, brushes her teeth and fixes breakfast—still in the buff. We’re newlyweds and there are just the two of us, so I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with it. What do you think? —ED
- DEAR ED: It’s O.K. with me. But tell her to put on an apron when she’s frying bacon. (Source)
3. Write in standard English, not dialect … unless it’s your own.
Bottom line, if it’s hard to read aloud, you’re doing it wrong.
If one of your characters speaks with an accent, that’s a good time to tell us rather than show us (an exception to the oft over-quoted “show, don’t tell“). Spelling words to show pronunciation is called “eye-dialect.” Eye-dialect is usually stereotypical, at best confusing to some readers, and at worst, racist.
Nicola Yoon’s Instructions for Dancing includes two characters who speak with accents: Fifi, the dance instructor, and Mom, the mother of the main character and narrator. Yoon uses eye-dialect sparingly to show the reader how Fifi sounds, but after that, she sticks to standard spelling and describes the voice for the reader.
“You are interested in the waltz, I see.” Except for when she says it, it sounds like You are eeenterested in zee waltz, I zee. Her accent is vaguely Eastern European and very heavy.
If Yoon had written all of Fifi’s lines in eye-dialect, readers would spend more time decoding what she was saying rather than enjoying her sense of humor.
“No rocking side to side. You are not little teapot.”
Twice she tells me that my hips are “like rusty spring.”
For Mom’s voice, Yoon does not use eye-dialect, instead describing how and when the character’s voice becomes more accented:
Mom’s originally from Jamaica. … The only time she has a Jamaican accent is when she’s nervous or upset.
…She sounds like she just immigrated yesterday.
Rather than employing creative spelling, make diction (word choice) and syntax (word order) your tools. Vary Latinate and Anglo-Saxon diction, vary sentence length, and switch up word order until you get a distinctive (but realistic) voice.
4. Read plays and screenplays.
Good ones. Award-winning ones. With diverse writers and casts.
Dialogue is the meat of a screenplay. Screenwriters know how to convey tone, conflict, backstory, motivation, and more through dialogue.
- Hint: TV shows are written by multiple people and tend to be more inclusive in their representation than movies or plays. Sitcoms and dramas with large casts need to be able to realistically portray many different voices.
- Hint: Try The Internet Movie Script Database for finding screenplays online.
5. Take an acting class.
Preferably improv! Acting will show you how to get into your character and make them sound and act realistic.
If you can become your character, if you can live inside your character’s mind, not only will your dialogue be realistic, but your plot will also ring true.
6. Leave out AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.
Use invisible dialogue tags.*
Eliminate all empty words. Realize that subtext is even more important than text—what isn’t said is more important than what is said. Think of dialogue as an espresso and each dialogue tag as a slap in the face.
It’s okay to excite the reader, but overexcite them, and you’ll give them a panic attack.
*Invisible dialogue tags are “he said” or “she said,” placed unobtrusively, usually at the end, if used at all.
7. Don’t use dialogue as an information dump.
“I know that…”
Anytime a character says one of the above, you know that the dialogue is highly contrived. If the character already knows it, then why is he or she stating the obvious?
Dialogue has two functions: to characterize and move the story forward. Not backward. If you can characterize the protagonist through the interchange, then do it. If your information is absolutely necessary, but doesn’t characterize more than one character, summarize.
- Example: In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Jones and Henry, Sr. are chatting in the Zeppelin, we get backstory through dialogue. The “It was just the two of us, Dad” line is a bit contrived, but Henry’s side of the conversation makes up for it. The conversation characterizes both Indy and Henry, and portrays their relationship as it was and as it currently stands. It moves the story forward; it doesn’t hang out in the past.
Bonus Exercise from The Hunger Games
Here are a few lines from chapter nine of The Hunger Games. Can you guess which character—Katniss, Effie, or Haymitch—said what?
1: “Well, you better learn fast. You’ve got about as much charm as a dead slug.”
2: “Well, try and pretend! See, like this. I’m smiling at you even though you’re aggravating me.”
3: “And you’ve given me so many reasons to be cheery.”
- “You better learn fast” isn’t correct grammar, but it’s what this character would say. Not every character would choose to compare a person to a slug.
- This character has a rhythm to their speech and chooses words like “aggravating.”
- This sounds like a sarcastic character.