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How to Write Believable Dialogue

Updated on August 7, 2017
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While drafting a narrative, writers often focus on capturing the right amount of detail in their prose, perfecting their exposition before shifting to their characters. Yet, when it comes time for their characters to speak, their writing falls flat.

Their dialogue feels scripted.

After all the effort you put into the prose, the sudden shift in tone distracts even the most captivated of readers. The suspension of belief disappears. Your dialogue just doesn't sound real.

Dialogue is essential in a character-driven narrative. Unbelievable dialogue makes your whole story unbelievable. This can crush an otherwise perfectly written story. It's a shame-writing dialogue is simple. It takes a few key things to remember.

The Structure of Dialogue

There there are an infinite amount of ways to write a conversation. But there are only eight ways to write a piece of dialogue.

  1. "That's odd, I wasn't expecting company."
  2. “That's odd, I wasn't expecting company,” she said.
  3. “That's odd, I wasn't expecting company,” said she.
  4. “That's odd,” she said. “I wasn't expecting company.”
  5. “That's odd,” said she. “I wasn't expecting company.”
  6. She said, “That's odd, I wasn't expecting company.”
  7. Said she, “That's odd, I wasn't expecting company.”
  8. “That's odd,” she folded her arms, eyebrows furrowed. “I wasn't expecting company.”

Knowing these constructions by heart isn't necessary. You just need to know that these sentence structures exist to add more variety in your writing. By adding variation, you can maintain your reader's interest without doing any more work.

After knowing the structure of dialogue, there are a variety of ways to make your character's conversations more interesting.

Add Action to the Conversation

When you are having a conversation with someone, you aren't just talking. You gesture and fidget, emphasizing your words with movement. This is action.

Action prevents your characters from droning on about a topic and losing the interest of your reader. It keeps things interesting. All you need to do is break up your scene with extraneous action.

Let's say there's a couple having coffee at a café. What sort of things could they be doing? They could be drinking coffee, eating scones, or reading the menu. Or maybe the conversation hit a low point, and one of them excuses themselves to the bathroom, or calls over a waitress for a refill. These things happen so mechanically we barely even realize how much we do while we talk. This makes the conversation you wrote more believable.

Action also includes body language. Body language gives you a clue on what your characters are feeling. Let's say the same couple at the café and the woman confesses she's pregnant. What does the man do? Does he spill his coffee? Does he grab her hands and kiss her wrist? Does he get up, go into his car and leave? His actions speak louder than his words. His reactions give his words meaning.

Let the action behind the dialogue enhance and emphasize the character's true meaning. Then, you can worry about their words.

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Give Your Character a Voice

Each one of your characters is unique. Yet, when writing, it is easy to have your characters speak like they've had the same experiences, the same childhood, the same thought process. This makes your character's words lose impact. They all sound the same. They drone on and on without giving them the thing that makes them unique.

How do you fix this? Give your characters a unique way to speak. Try adding in colloquialisms, unnecessary "like's" and "as's", or use profound similes and unusual metaphors to your character's speech. Even changing a character's use of syntax can make them unique.

However, be careful: don't overload your story with too many unnecessary words or give them a strange speech pattern. This makes your story clichéd.

How much is too much? This depends on your own personal preference. Does your writing style tend to be more verbose? You can get away with more extravagant dialogue, not to startle your readers with an unsolicited tone shift. If your style is more casual, stick with a few "catch phrases" here and there.

Have Your Characters Speak With Purpose

There needs to be a purpose for each conversation in your narrative. If there is nothing to gain from the conversation, either in the form of information or plot development, there is no reason for the conversation to be had. While polite conversations and small talk happen in life, such luxuries bog down your story with useless information.

However, dialogue is not the place to dump information. Releasing information on a need-to-know basis works just fine for most narratives. Besides, most dialogues have a certain rhythm to them. Messing up this rhythm by having your characters spout important plot points constantly makes for a boring conversation.

To cure boredom, you must create conflict in your character's dialogue. While not all conversations must result in life-shattering consequences, all conversations need to have tension to maintain interest in your story.

You can do this by having one person mistake what the other person means. Miscommunication issues happen all the time in life, as we have different interpretation of what words mean in our own minds. What may be sacrilegious language in our own head, may be normal in another persons. Such conflict can be a great source of suffering for your characters, which you can use to hook your audience into your narrative further.

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Omit Unnecessary Words

Often, while writing dialogue, you use words you don't need. Even though they are grammatically correct, these words clog your writing, leaving it feeling stiff. In this case, it's not the fault of the dialogue itself, but the writing around the dialogue. To help you identify the problem, here is a small list of words that you should avoid.

1. Don't use another word for "said". Just use "said" itself. There's no need to pull out a dictionary to find another word for "said", as it disrupts the flow of your writing and forces your reader to pause. "Said", on the other hand, is an expansive term, encompassing many variations on how things are mentioned in conversations.

2. Don't use adverbs after the word "said". Your reader will understand the emotion behind the words if the dialogue is written well enough. If not, then the dialogue wasn't good to begin with.

  • For example, look at this sentence: "I'm glad," she said happily.
  • Adding "happily" in this sentence is redundant. There's no reason to add "happily" after a sentence already expressing enjoyment. Doing so only wastes your reader's time.

3. Don't use the word "as" to say that a character moving and talking at the same time. The reader assumes this happens anyway, so doing so wastes space.

4. Don't use the word "that". It's formal language which, in most cases, can be omitted to maintain a more casual tone. Leaving this word out of your writing makes your words flow.

By removing these words from your story, your dialogue should be more polished.

Techniques for Dialogue Writing

Keeping in mind all of the tips and tricks to writing dialogue is difficult. What you need to do is practice and see what works for you. Below are two techniques to get you started.

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Rewrite Conversations

Oftentimes, the reason why your dialogue may be stiff is that you don't understand what makes a good conversation. Even though you speak daily, you can't transfer your social knowledge into writing. You don't know what makes a conversation real. To understand this for yourself, you can practice rewriting conversations you hear in public.

While you are out, keep a small notebook, or a section in your phone to write notes. When you hear something interesting said out loud, write it down. Then, follow the rest of this conversation, hearing what each person had to say, and how people stumble on their words, interrupt each other, stutter, and all the other things we do when talking. If you need to, write down the major points in the conversation of the conversation as well.

Then, once you have the time, rewrite the conversation you heard in your own words, using the quote and any notes you took as a guide. You'll begin to loosen your writing, emulating the flow and pace of real conversation. This is exactly how you must write dialogue in your future narratives.

Read it Out Loud

While editing your piece of dialogue, say the conversation out loud. If, you find a certain phrase flow conversationally, or the conversation feels lifeless and stiff, then you either need to rewrite the scene or remove the dialogue piece altogether.

Our eyes auto-correct our own sentences, so speaking out loud is another great way to edit your dialogue. You'll be surprised by the amount of misplaced words, awkward sentence structures, and excessive uses of adverbs you'll find in your rough drafts.

Dialogue is the perfect venue for information, conflict, and tension to occur. Yet, writing dialogue that flows seamlessly with the rest of your narrative is difficult. But, so long as you remember that dialogue needs variation, action, and purpose, all you need is practice.

Do you have any tips or tricks for writing dialogue to add? Add a comment below!

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    • renee21 profile image

      renee21 2 years ago

      Great hub. I have always struggled with writing believable dialog. I'm working on it, and I think I've gotten better.

    • jlpark profile image

      Jacqui 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Awesome hub as always, Nicole. My bookmarks are going to be full of your hubs shortly!

    • Nicole Grizzle profile image
      Author

      Nicole Grizzle 3 years ago from Georgia

      @Laura335 You are welcome! Thanks for the comment.

    • Laura335 profile image

      Laura Smith 3 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Bad dialogue is often a deal breaker for me when I'm reading a story. Thanks for showing how to do it right!

    • Nicole Grizzle profile image
      Author

      Nicole Grizzle 3 years ago from Georgia

      @toptenluxury I'm glad you liked this hub! Thanks for the comment.

    • toptenluxury profile image

      Adrian Cloute 3 years ago from Cedartown, GA

      Dialogue is often the biggest problem I have in writing. The story I can do, the dialogue... is often bland... thanks for your tips

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Nicole, I'll give both techniques of dialogue analysis a try.

      You are correct that text-to-speech software does not capture the natural flow of a conversation. It is, after all, an unintelligent robot talking. I think that that is an advantage. An actor can make a phone book sound interesting and a flawed story sound great. Read by a computer program, the words get no help holding the listener's interest.

    • Nicole Grizzle profile image
      Author

      Nicole Grizzle 3 years ago from Georgia

      @B. Leekley Knowing the guidelines is easy. Understanding their application is not.

      Other than headstrong practice, it'd be good for you to do some dialogue analysis. It gives you a feel for what makes a conversation a conversation. If analyzing real conversations doesn't "click" for you, you can always see how other authors write their dialogues. Go through the motions, checking for different things, like structure, uniqueness, action, etc. Look for patterns in their writing, and try to emulate this in your own writing. It's awkward at first, but you'll see a huge jump in improvement in this way. Especially since you seem to know "why" behind these things.

      You've also taught me something new today. I've never thought to use a text to speech program for dialogue before! Conceptually, it sounds like it wouldn't capture the natural "flow" of a conversation. But I can also see the benefits of something else reading my own work. I'll have to try that out at some point. Thanks for the comment.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      All good advice.

      The dialogue in my fiction needs improving. A beta reader recently called the dialogue in one of my stories in progress "stilted". I hope it is better in the rewrite I just finished.

      I know the theory of dialogue writing--such principles and guidelines as you describe; it's the application that is difficult to do well and takes lots of effort, practice and trying again.

      An alternative to reading a story aloud is to listen to a text to speech program read it, such as Microsoft Windows Narrator or the Read That feature in Nuance Dragon Naturally Speaking or any of several open source text to speech programs. I was able (I hope) to improve the dialogue in my story in progress that way.

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