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.


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.”


  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.

Editing Giveaway for #ToAppomattox

In order to generate more awareness for the To Appomattox Kickstarter Campaign, which ends May 16th, I’m doing a giveaway of my editing services. You can win a line edit of your first ten pages, a critique of your entire manuscript, or a full edit of up to 120,000 words! Please, SHARE this contest with your friends. The more response this generates, the more I will be giving away! 


  1. What is To Appomattox?
  2. Editing Giveaway Eligibility and Terms
  3. Trivia Questions—First 10 Pages
  4. Retweet Sweepstakes—First 10 Pages
  5. Creativity Contest—Manuscript Critique
  6. Pledge Drive—First 10,000 Words or ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT


1. What is To Appomattox?

To Appomattox is a historical drama miniseries created by Michael Frost Beckner. Beckner has been trying to get this series produced for many years. I think I first heard about the project in 2010 or 2011 and have been interested ever since. It’s been presented to all the major studios, who have all liked the script and the cast but have rejected it, claiming that American audiences want reality TV, not historical dramas.

I disagree. With the success of Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Tudors, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, etc., I think that a high-quality Civil War miniseries would be very successful.

The project has been on hiatus for so long, Beckner wants to get started with the pilot episodes, which is basically a 2-hour film. Once studios see the pilot, and once they see that Americans DO want a show like this, they are more likely to produce the remaining episodes. Beckner’s raised half the cost of the first two episodes and has gone to Kickstarter to crowdfund the rest.

This is huge, and it’s never been done before to this scale. The Veronica Mars movie was crowdfunded, yes, but remember that series had a longstanding, very devoted fan base. This is for a series that hasn’t begun filming yet.

As rewards for pledging, YOU, the audience, get to watch the film take shape and even shape it yourself. Have you ever wondered how movies are made from beginning to end? Donate $2 and you’ll have access to the production blog from start to release day. Donate $10 and you’ll get the production blog access plus the shooting script for both episodes. (EVERYONE can read the second episode! Just visit the Kickstarter page to read the script. You don’t even have to pledge! Think of it as a free sample). There are TONS of rewards available. Scripts, shirts, DVDs, the soundtrack. If this project gets funded, my husband and I are attending a screening and Q&A in Chicago to meet the creators and give our notes on the film. Awesome? Totally.

See the website for the cast and more information. Robert E. Lee had to be recast, but the casting isn’t public yet. I unofficially heard who is in negotiations for the part, and I am REALLY EXCITED about it. I’m also excited to see Damian Lewis (Life, Homeland, Band of Brothers), Noah Wyle (The Librarian movies, ER, Donnie Darko), and Neal McDonough (Captain America, Red 2, Minority Report, Flags of our Fathers). If you’re a fan of Jason O’Mara (One for the Money, The Good Wife), Rascal Flatts, or Trace Adkins, then you really need to check it out.

Editing Giveaway Eligibility and Terms

  • To be eligible for the contests, you must make a pledge of at least $2 to the Kickstarter Event. This is on the honor system, but if you won and I see that you had not made a pledge before entering in the contest, then you will be disqualified. When you make your pledge, you are promising to pay that amount if the Kickstarter is 100% funded. No money will leave your account if the Kickstarter is not 100% funded.
  • Do not email me your Kickstarter receipt unless you have pledged more than $150 or I have already contacted for winning.
  • The first four contests require a Twitter account. The last requires a Kickstarter pledge of $150 or more.
  • If you aren’t writing a novel, I’ll edit short stories or poems also. In fact, I have more experience with short fiction and poetry editing than novel editing. See the word count maximums I list below in parentheses.

Trivia Questions—First 10 Pages

For the first editing giveaway, I’ll be asking trivia questions on my Twitter account (@larathelark). You have 24 hours until May 12 to tweet me the correct answer. One entry per person, per trivia question. I’ll use Random.org to choose a random winner from the correct answers. Winners get 10 pages (up to 2,500 words) edited by a professional editor and writing coach (me!).

Hint: Retweet the trivia question. The more answers I get per question, the more questions I’ll ask each day! If I don’t get much of a response, I might only ask one or two trivia questions.

Retweet Sweepstakes—First 10 Pages

For the second editing giveaway, I’ll post a tweet on my Twitter account (@larathelark) and choose a random winner from those who retweet it. Winner gets 10 pages (up to 2,500 words) edited by a professional editor and writing coach (me!). I will choose one winner per tweet. Retweet each day’s for better chances of winning!

Here’s the current Tweet to RT:

Creativity Contest—Manuscript Critique

This contest goes from May 5th–May 12th, with the winner chosen and announced Tuesday the 13th.

Why do we need To Appomattox to be funded? Use the hashtags #WeNeed #ToAppomattox and my handle @larathelark in your answer to be considered for the contest. My favorite tweet will win the choice of either a manuscript critique of an entire novel (up to 120,000 words) or a substantial line edit of the first 30 pages (up to 7,500 words).

Pledge Drive—First 10,000 Words  or ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT

Contest closes May 15th.

First 5 backers to pledge more than $150 to the To Appomattox Kickstarter will get a professional, line edit of their first 10,000 words, plus writing coaching, valued at $600. If the Kickstarter event is not fully funded, then you can still get 10,000 words edited for $150, payable to me instead. I’ll contact you May 16th to give you that option.

First backer to pledge more than $500 to the To Appomattox Kickstarter will get a professional, line edit and writing coaching for their entire manuscript, up to 120,000 words! This is valued at $8,000.*


Email your pledge receipt to lara willard <at> icloud <.> com (remove spaces and brackets).

Follow me on Twitter for the remainder of the contest to see if any more giveaways will be announced. Now SHARE, PLEDGE, and ENTER!

Have any questions? Ask them in the comments below.