writing tips

Monday Minute: How Do You Create Realistic Dialogue?

Dialogue is important in a story. It can reveal a character’s personality, provide critical information to the reader and evoke an emotional response. But how do you make it believable and interesting to the reader?

This has been on my mind lately because I’ve been thinking about dialogue in my own writing and listening to an audiobook of The Mortal Instruments: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare. (More to come on that later). I’ve been wondering: Is my dialogue credible and engaging to the reader? Should I make it a practice to listen to audiobooks more often, to get a feel for how conversation should ebb and flow between people?

I’m no expert on this but I have come across some really useful tips on creating good dialogue. These are tips I’ve heard of over the years or discovered on my own.

listen to audiobooks

City of Glass is the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to because I’ve only ever read print or electronic books and never had much of an interest in audiobooks before. But I have to say listening to audiobooks has its perks over print. Firstly, you get more of a feel for how words sound on the page when narrated. A large part of how much you enjoy an audiobook depends on the narrator’s skill and effort. Luckily for me, Natalie Moore, the narrator of City of Glass in the unabridged version, is a pretty talented voice actor. When you listen to audiobooks, you get an idea of what sounds natural versus unnatural, where punctuation should ideally be placed, where the emphasis might be, etc.

listen to how people talk

This seems like the most obvious way to improve dialogue but it’s also a really easy method to use. We hear people talking around us everyday. On buses, in stores, in movie theatres. We might overhear snippets of a conversation, an argument or a joke but do we really pay attention to how words are said and what exactly is said? It’s useful to listen to how friends and family talk or even how strangers interact in a cafe. You can also take note of the dialogue in movies; there are some really well-written movie and television scripts out there and I find myself wishing I could incorporate some of that depth, humour or wit that’s evident in the interactions between characters. People often speak without any thought to proper grammar (I’m guilty of that), sentence structure or clear meaning. We use slang, fragmented sentences and improper grammar all the time.

listen to how your words sound spoken aloud

I’ve read that reading your work aloud helps writers figure out if the words sound right or not. Oftentimes, I’ll repeat it over in my head but reading it aloud might give me a better idea. You’ll see what you need to delete, edit or revise. I think a good rule of thumb here is if it sounds unnatural to the ear, it’s probably unnatural dialogue. I think it’s also a good idea to change your cadence, intonation and rhythm as you speak, seeing and saying things from the point of view of your character. I noticed how Natalie Moore changed her voice around to suit the different characters in City of Glass. This really added to the listening experience and helped me know who was talking. It’ll also help to get into your character’s mindset and literal voice if you alter your speaking style slightly.

How do you create realistic dialogue? Do you have any tools or tricks that make it easier? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this 🙂


3 thoughts on “Monday Minute: How Do You Create Realistic Dialogue?”

  1. Definitely listen to how people talk. Notice how they pause, and what they’re doing with their eyes, hands, feet, while they’re talking. Notice what makes each speaker distinctive. This one seems to speak in scripted sentences; that one stops and starts. And definitely read what you write aloud. I often speak lines of dialogue while I’m writing them, or I hear them in my head and then write them down. Audiobooks hadn’t occurred to me as a tool, but they sure could be. I’ve learned a lot over the years from doing community theater: playwrights have to convey almost everything in dialogue, and good actors bring it to life. Well-written TV shows and movies work the same way as long as they don’t rely entirely on action! action! action! to move the plot along. I’ve also learned a lot from watching (and even doing) improv. In improv, Actor A is sometimes assigned the task of getting Actor B to do something. Actor B doesn’t know what it is, and Actor A can’t just come out and say it. Real conversation often works like this: one person is trying to communicate something to another but can’t or won’t say it in so many words. When writing dialogue, keep in mind what each character is thinking: what are they trying to say? what are they trying to get the other to do? Finally, when you’re in first-draft mode, go ahead and just write the whole long conversation (or argument, or whatever). It may be long-winded and flat in places, but you’ll find out what the characters have to say (which may surprise you!). Then distill it to its essence. You’ll have dialogue that sounds natural but gets to the point more efficiently than any real-life conversation.

    1. I hadn’t thought of gestures but that’s a really important part of communication as well. The non-verbal part is huge and very meaningful, more so than words sometimes. I should definitely study scripts, theatre and improv more to give me a good idea of dialogue, that’s a great idea. I’ve heard doing improv is pretty fun too. That’s so true about conversation–people often beat around the bush of what they’re really trying to say and communicate figuratively rather than literally. I agree, it’s good to just write it all out and then cut it down to its core meaning. I’ve been really surprised by how my characters have communicated in the first draft, it’s not always what I expect or plan but I’m able to par it down from there. Thanks for your thoughts on this 🙂

      1. If your characters surprise you, you are definitely on the right track. That’s one of the crazy wonderful things about writing fiction. 😉 Improv is fun. A little scary too, but then again, so is writing!

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