7 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue

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.

“Remember when…?”

“I know that…”

“You know…”

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 Crusadewhen 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.”

Hints:

  1. “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.
  2. This character has a rhythm to their speech and chooses words like “aggravating.”
  3. This sounds like a sarcastic character.

8 Book Recommendations for a 13yo Kid Who Loves TikTok, Anime, and Marvel

Today my Twitter mutual, Ebony Lynn Mudd, tweeted the following question:

#writingcommunity #kidlit friends, What book could I gift to an almost 13-year old boy who stays on TikTok all day and loves anime, but isn’t a reader? #mg

Maybe you know a kid with similar tastes! So I figured I’d share my recommendations with my blog readers, too!

(If you don’t have an independent bookstore near you, I recommend ordering from Bookshop.org. Any purchase benefits independent shops. You can even choose an individual shop to support, like Black Garnet Books, the only Black-owned book shop in Minnesota)

This was my first response to Ebony’s tweet:

If reading Manga might be too difficult (since they’re read backwards and can have very long series), try a standalone graphic novel or comics volume. What shows or topics does he like?

Ebony responded that he likes Marvel and Stranger Things. So here we go with recommendations!

Highly recommend Gene Luen Yang’s middle grade or YA. One of his Avatar: the Last Airbender series or Superman Smashes the Klan (each series told in a collection or 3 short books).

For comics, look for the words “vol. 1” or “omnibus” or “collection” so it includes a whole story arc.

I also highly recommend the Shuri comics by Nnedi Okorafor and Leonardo Romero, which include some great cameos from other Marvel characters.

Axe Cop is ridiculous and hilarious, if he likes weird slapstick humor on TikTok.

My 10yo absolutely loves Preeti Chhibber’s Marvel books. He’s constantly snickering while reading them, and sharing his favorite parts with me.

He also enjoys the Ms. Marvel’s Fists of Fury chapter book (ages 9-12), where Kamala Khan teams up with Thor.

War of the Realms comics are really fun (though violent, so rated T+ and recommended for 13+) and mix a bunch of Marvel heroes into different teams. They also include this gem of Spider-Man talking to a horse [content warning: bloody violence].

If you want to get him a prose novel, get him anything by Jason Reynolds! I’d start with Miles Morales: Spider-Man, given his likes.

Those are my starter book recommendations for a young teen non-reader who loves anime and TikTok! If you ever need a book recommendation (or 8) for a child or teen, tweet me @larathelark or send me a message on Instagram @larathelark!

Beyond Beginning, Middle & End

“A story has a beginning, middle, and end!”

Is it just me, or is this just the writer version of the “How to Draw an Owl” meme?

1. Draw some circles. 2. Draw the rest of the ******* owl.

If the whole “beginning, middle, end” thing never did much for you, either, try this:

Think of a story, not as beginning, middle & end, but as a change with a before, an after, and all of the trial, error, and perseverance in between.

I’ll use Yaroslav Shuraev’s videos to illustrate. Here’s a moment—a woman at the summit of a mountain.

We’ll use this as the ending of our story, just for simplicity’s sake.

What happened at the beginning of this day? Probably the hiker getting ready. But a beginning and an ending don’t make a story:

Something has to happen in the middle. Let’s say the hiker saw some flowers on the way up the mountain. We could add something like this:

Does this feel like a story to you? Or does it feel like a series of events?

We know that stories need conflict or obstacles to create drama. So let’s add some obstacles in the middle:

Adding obstacles creates conflict, and conflict turns a series of events into a story.

…But obstacles don’t necessarily mean a character is changing.

Did the hiker change at all during that series of events? It’s hard to say. What makes her climb of that mountain any different from anyone else’s?

What makes this climb significant? Worth telling a story about?

As writers, we have to be intentional about our choices of conflict, setting, and character.

To create a dynamic character who changes over the course of the story, instead of thinking beginning and end, think before and after.

Let’s go back to the hiker alone on the summit of the mountain. If that’s her after, what if this is her before?

The hiker wasn’t always alone.

Giving the solo hiker a companion at the beginning shows that something has changed from then to her alone at the top of the mountain.

Now we can add a bit of a montage of before and afters (yeah, OK, I’m not a film editor):

Awkward transitions aside, a story is starting to emerge. Can you feel it?

Did you notice that I took out the original “beginning” of the hiker tying her boots? It wasn’t significant, so it got cut.

That obstacles clip—where she runs out of breath but decides to keep going—did that affect you a bit more the second time around, knowing her “before”?

To give a character a before and an after is to create change.

What got our hiker from before—climbing together with this other hiker—to after—hiking alone?

The answer to that question is the “middle” of the story: the trials and errors and perseverance that changed her relationships and changed her as person.

I’d love to hear what kind of story you can make from this before and after. The hows and whys and whens and wheres, and the whos and whats that brought our hiker to that mountaintop.

Your intentional choices are what makes a story yours. For more inspiration from Yaroslav Shuraev’s gorgeous and story-provoking images and video, see more footage from his hiking shoot or follow him at yaroslavshuraev.com or on Instagram @yaroslav_shuraev.

Think of a story, not as beginning, middle & end, but as a change with a before, an after, and all of the trial, error, and perseverance in between.

Now as much as ever, humans need stories that can inspire them to persevere, stories that show change.

Write on.

-Lara

how it started, how it’s going

I bought my first book on writing when I was 15. Who knows where I even found it, since there were no bookstores for 60 miles in any direction. And I went back to my first three writing books when I started my MFA in 2018: Creating Unforgettable Characters, Writing the Script, and Writing Fiction. Yesterday I got my diploma in the mail. Today, this “how it started, how it ended” meme is going around on Twitter.

So many writing milestones involve publishing news or big investments. Most of our effort as writers may never become tangible beyond our words spilt in pixels or ink. It’s good to step back from the degrees and deals and remember why we started writing in the first place. I wrote because it gave me freedom to be whoever I wanted to be. To escape into another character for a while.

I hope I can remember that girl who decided she needed a book about writing unforgettable characters instead of whatever else may have been at that bookshop or thrift store. The girl who annotated it in ink, in pencil, in highlighter, multiple times over 16 years, by the public pool while waiting for swimming lessons to finish, in the car, on a bunk bed in a dorm, by the lake while my kids splash in the water, the handwriting shifting and changing over the years just like everything else. That first highlight in that first book is just as monumental to me as pulling this diploma out of its mailer.

Writing isn’t just having written. Writing isn’t just production. Writing is reading, and dreaming, and growing, and trying, and struggling, and researching, and breaking, and resting, and returning.

Wherever you are in your writing journey, I hope you can remember your first choices that led you here, the small victories and the big ones, the camaraderie around rejections, the breakthroughs, and the courage it takes to keep coming back to the page.