Write Dialogue that Sounds like Real People

How do you make dialogue sound like real people talking? Here are three rules of thumb:

  1. Focus on the characters’ goals in the scene.
  2. Make their speech sound natural.
  3. Choose words and phrasing unique to each character.

Real conversations are filled with umm’s, aahh’s and polite small talk. Discard these from your dialogue lexicon. Don’t try to reproduce real conversations, which are rambling and often boring. Instead, create vivid interchanges full of conflict.

You want to create a semblance of reality that is more intense than actual reality. But where do you start?

Dialogue flows from a character’s intentions

First of all, your characters in a scene must have goals they want to achieve. When these are clear to you, they’ll begin speaking in your head. Once you have “gone with the flow” and finished the scene, go back over each piece of dialogue with an eye to whether their words display one or more of the following:

  • the character’s efforts to reach a goal in that scene—this moves the story along and “advances the plot”
  • information the reader needs to understand the world, its people, and the speakers
  • the person’s inner character

Discard or change anything that doesn’t meet at least one of these criteria. Insofar as you can, look for opportunities to incorporate two of these aspects within the same speech.

Also, anything designed to give vital information to the reader must also arise from a character’s purpose in that scene. Otherwise, it sounds artificial.

Next, make it sound natural

If people tell you your dialogue is stilted, don’t lose heart. First of all, persist! When you continue practicing a skill, you get better.

Read it aloud to an audience. You’ll catch both run-on sentences and awkward phrasings. If you stumble over a phrase, it’s time to rewrite. If you have to stop and breathe in the middle, it’s too long. Chop it up into smaller pieces.

Oddly enough, reading dialogue aloud in an empty room usually doesn’t help. Your words sound as smooth and eloquent as they did when they flowed out of your brain and onto the computer screen—or onto that blank sheet of paper, if you’re old school!

Another approach is to have someone else read the scene aloud to you. That quickly identifies places where other people stumble over your words or misread them entirely.

Naturalize those exchanges

A few “tricks of the trade” can help you make your character’s words sound more natural.

  • Use contractions like don’t, we’re, you’ve, can’t—unless your character is an android like Data or has other reasons for speaking formally.
  • Use shorter sentences and fragments. Also use simpler sentence constructions of subject/verb/object (see Write Sentences that Flow).
  • Have your characters interrupt each other, especially when they are impatient or passionate about something.

Finally, for your characters to sound like real people, each needs to have his or her own unique voice.

Create different quirks for each character

Some people have an ear for creating distinct qualities in each character’s speech. However, many writers struggle with this, myself included. I gave my first major piece of writing to a friend who was a professor of linquistics, and she said everyone sounded the same.

If you are “tone deaf” to people’s speech patterns, try listening to TV shows like Judge Judy and The First 48, where you can hear real people talking. Capture some of those “ain’ts” and “he like tole me” colloquialisms. Or if you need a different accent, try programs from the BBC.

Here are a few more strategies for coming up with idiosyncratic speech:

  • Word length: How a person talks is part of their background and character. A college professor is likely to use longer words than a high school dropout. And of course, SOME dropouts use long words and SOME professors use short ones—thereby displaying an unusual history or character.
  • Word choice: People use jargon specific to their jobs and culture. They also choose words and arguments likely to persuade the other person to their point of view.
  • Speech idiosyncrasies: Spock is known for one word—fascinating. Bones often said, “I’m a doctor, not a [whatever].” Create a word or phrase that serves as that character’s speech tag.
  • Unusual speech patterns: English word order is subject-verb-object. Yoda—along with more than a few other languages—puts the verb at the end. “Pleased you will be.”
  • Slang: Teenagers use slang that is different from the old folks. If your stories are set on a world different from Earth—or in a different culture—you’ll need to use or create slang that reflects the specific backgrounds of your characters.
  • Swear words: Everyone swears differently too. There are bathroom cusswords, sexual cusswords, god and damnation cusswords, and “creative” cusswords like s-o-b. And of course, a few people don’t curse at all while others swear like sailors.

You don’t have to juggle all those aspects to write natural dialogue. The key is finding the core of how a specific character’s speech is unique to him or herself—and then use that consistently.

If all else fails, TRANSLATE!

Trying to master all these strategies simultaneously can be daunting! The important thing when writing is to Let Those Words Flow from your mind and spirit onto the page. Otherwise, you wind up with a bad case of Writer’s Block.

So go ahead and write the dialogue as you would say it if you were the character. Use slang, misspellings, colloquialisms, clichés, whatever. Just let it all flow on to the page.

Then, go back through your scene, one character at a time, and “translate” their words into their own personal dialect. (You did create some patterns, idiosyncrasies, slang and cusswords for each character, right?) If it’s a Spock-like character, sprinkle the “fascinating” word here and there. If a Doc McCoy character doesn’t know something, that becomes an “I’m a doctor, not a psychic” speech. Or for a Yoda character, the verbs to the end you must all move.

Just remember, where distinctive speech is concerned, “less is more”. Don’t make it hard for your readers to understand what your characters are saying. Like a strong spice, you only need a smidgeon to create a unique flavor for each character.

Learn more about natural-sounding dialogue

Writing Natural Dialogue, by Gloria Kempton. Her goal is to “break down the process of writing dialogue so it becomes more natural for writers, as natural as breathing and talking.” She believes that writing dialogue becomes easy once we get inside the character’s skin, which is also easy because all the characters in a story come from inside us.

How to Write Dialogue like a Pro, review by Judy Croome of webinar by Elizabeth Sims. Ms Sims’ 90-minute webinar covers topics like how to generate dialogue, dialogue techniques, and crafting dialogue to fit your characters. Croome describes and comments on the usefulness of this webinar, which is available on the Writer’s Digest website.

25 Things You Should Know About Dialogue, by Chuck Wendig. Be warned: profanity is sprinkled throughout this tongue-in-cheek set of tips about what makes dialogue good, bad, or ugly. He has an entire series of 25 Things You Should Know About … various aspects of writing.

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