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Writing Dialogue: The 5 Best Ways to Make Your Characters’ Conversations Seem Real

Categories: There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, Uncategorized.

Whether you write novels or prefer writing short stories, it’s important to know how to write dialogue in a story. Dialogue is one of those key elements of fiction that a lot of writers struggle with. It’s difficult to make the things your characters say smack of real life—to convey the important details of the story without sounding forced or fake.

How to Write Dialogue

Here are 5 great ways to make sure your dialogue sounds convincing:

  1. Never use dialogue as an information dump. Too many writers rely on dialogue for story exposition—that is to say that they relay details about plot or backstory through the things their characters say. The result? Writing that sounds completely fake or is what is often referred to as “on the nose dialogue.” Like this: “As you know,” Dr. Constance said, “I’m a forensic specialist, trained by the FBI in DNA analysis, so I’ll take this sample back to the lab for testing. (For more about writing realistic dialogue that doesn’t sound stilted like the previous example, I recommend this free article from Jeff Gerke [excerpted from his book The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors, and Readers, and Set Up Your Novel for Success.])
  2. Use simple dialogue tags. Fancy dialogue tags like she denounced or he proclaimed might seem like a good way to show off your writer’s vocabulary, but in truth they draw attention away from your dialogue. She said or he said is almost always your best choice. Let the characters’ words speak for themselves.
  3. Use dialogue beats to help with story pacing and to convey information or emotion. Dialogue beats are brief depictions of character action inserted in between dialogue that help bring the scene to life. Like this: “Nah, I don’t mind,” Dan shrugged his shoulders and grinned as he wiped a dirty bandana across his forehead, “Let’s do this thing.”
  4. Remember that often less is more. When you write dialogue look back and see if there are words you can leave out or there is a shorter way to say what you just wrote. People often say things the shortest way possible in real life.
  5. Be careful when writing dialect. Many writers think that giving a character an accent or a drawl is a great way to make the character come to life—and it can be. But if done in a way that is too heavy handed it can turn your character into a stereotype or a joke. Or even worse, you can offend or annoy readers. So, keep in mind that when it comes to dialect, a little goes a long way.

These are just a few ideas to help you hone your dialogue into something that sounds true to life. For a more complete resource on writing dialogue check out the classic text Write Great Fiction: Dialogue by Gloria Kempton.

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3 Responses to Writing Dialogue: The 5 Best Ways to Make Your Characters’ Conversations Seem Real

  1. Pat Marin says:

    I just find it is punctuated incorrectly. If they were a separate sentence with periods, it would work for me. Example: “Nah, I don’t mind.” Dan shrugged his shoulders and grinned as he wiped a dirty bandana across his forehead. “Let’s do this thing.”

  2. myrtlebeachgirl says:

    Thanks for the excellent pointers!

    I must point out, however, that the example in number 3 (about dialogue beats) is faulty. One cannot “shrug” a statement. Nor can they laugh one, smile one, or any other action. One may only shout, scream, cry, say, and any number of other vocalizations. With the exception, of course, of words/phrases like “began”, “continued” and “went on”. Perhaps the sentence might have been better presented something like this:

    “Nah, I don’t mind,” Dan said, shrugging his shoulders then grinning as he wiped a dirty bandana across his forehead. “Let’s do this thing.”

    I also ended with a period after “forehead”. With the second part of the dialogue in this sentence beginning with a capital letter, it just didn’t flow the other way. To me, if you’re going to break a piece of dialogue into two parts by inserting an action, the second half should be a flowing continuance of the first. Such as,

    “I believe,” Sally said with teary eyes, “that you love me.”

    Thanks, Writer’s Digest, for allowing me to share my thoughts, and thanks for providing the best writing advice out there!

  3. bsrb13 says:

    I once wrote a story without any dialog tags. There wasn’t a speck of one in sight. That was hard, but the end results were pretty good, at least in my humble opinion.

    Leaving out the ‘he said’ ‘she yelled’ ‘they squawked’ left more creative room, and forced me to be inventive with how I wrote my sentences and dialog.

    I quite enjoyed it, and I am going to try it again. It’s fun and makes me stretch the writing muscle quite a bit instead of letting me rely on tags.

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