One of the most important yet least talked about aspects of writing is dialogue. The way characters speak to each other carries an entire story. You don’t want your characters to come across as unrealistic to your audience. Authentically imitating how people talk can be difficult, so I’ve come up with a few basic tips for ensuring your dialogue conveys character and emotional depth.
1.) Listen to other people speaking.
This advice is pretty self-explanatory. One of the easiest ways to write better dialogue is studying how people speak. Listen to conversations happening around you. Write down the quotes that stick out to you. Try to note where certain words had particular intonations when you write it down.
For example, there is a notable difference between, “I don’t know a lot about this,” and “I don’t know a LOT about this.” The capital letters on “lot” focuses the emphasis on that word, and thus changes how one interprets the sentence. While the first comes off as lacking confidence, the second might be humble bragging, though it also depends on context.
2.) Read the dialogue you write out loud.
After you finish writing a scene, read the dialogue out loud to yourself. While initially embarrassing, saying it out loud is as effective as reading the entire piece. If it sounds awkward while you read, chances are the dialogue isn’t written in the way people usually talk.
This doesn’t mean the sentences that are grammatically incorrect. Dialogue is allowed to be all over the place grammatically, because people don’t speak in perfect English. If a line of dialogue doesn’t suit your character, you will know when you read it aloud.
Let’s say you’re trying to write an angry teenager. How do they usually speak when angry? Are they still articulate?
“You’re not making any fucking sense!”
“You never make sense!”
“Do you ever make any damn sense?”
The choice to swear, the four-word response, or making it a rhetorical question are all character choices. Read it out loud and determine which one better suits their voice. There aren’t any particularly right or wrong answers. It’s entirely dependent on how you view your character.
3.) When in doubt, write how it sounds.
I mentioned before that dialogue doesn’t have to be in perfect English. To designate a character speaking with a dialect or accent, people often write their words with apostrophes to omit particular sounds. We’ll use a Southern dialect for this example.
“Well now ain’t tha’ jussa purdy picshur?”
Because of how it’s written, it’s easier to paint the proper intonation and inflection that suits the character speaking. Conversely, if a reader isn’t familiar with the dialect, this causes confusion as they try to figure out what they’re saying. Make sure to know your audience and discern when to write out the dialect.
“Well, ain’t that just a pretty picture?”
The word “ain’t” can be seen as either slang or as a marker of dialect since certain U.S regions say it frequently. Writing out the sentence in this example makes the dialect lighter, but also hints to where the character might be from should that detail not be explicit in the story.
4.) Play with punctuation.
Writing dialogue consistent for your characters is key to establishing them as realistic. The way a character speaks says a lot about them and what they’re like. Many writers tend to use em dashes for this reason.
“It’s not like I’m against the idea, but have you ever considered not—?”
Em dashes present the idea of cutting a thought off in exchange for something else. Dashes are also used to mark stuttering, while excessive commas can show many short pauses, and ellipses illustrate longer pauses in thought, etc.
While there’s no single, solid way to write dialogue, these tips will surely help you improve narratives and build realistic characters. The Publishing Lab is available to read your work and help point you in the right direction, so feel free to stop by and start your own dialogue with us!