- Books, Literature, and Writing»
- How to Write
How to Write Believable Dialogue
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.
- "That's odd, I wasn't expecting company."
- “That's odd, I wasn't expecting company,” she said.
- “That's odd, I wasn't expecting company,” said she.
- “That's odd,” she said. “I wasn't expecting company.”
- “That's odd,” said she. “I wasn't expecting company.”
- She said, “That's odd, I wasn't expecting company.”
- Said she, “That's odd, I wasn't expecting company.”
- “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.
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.
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.
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!