Writing How-To: Realistic Dialog, Pt. 1

Tuesday, May 4, 2010
I’m not trying to say I’m da shizzle when it comes to writing dialog (yes, dialog is an acceptable spelling of dialogue). But I’ve been complimented enough on my realistic dialog that I decided it should be a blog post topic. I’ll cover this over several parts, because I couldn’t just sit down and pinpoint any one trick I use to accomplish what I do. It’s a natural part of my writing process.

One of the most common things I see when dialog goes wrong is it truly feels like the author never spoke the dialog aloud. They just wrote the dialog and that was it. How people talk and “book speaking” sometimes differ, but you can blend the two in a realistic way to accomplish what you want.

Here are a few of the starting points that we’ll build upon over the next few writing how-to posts. As with any writing “rules,” yes, there are exceptions. However, as with most writing rules, most newbie writers should not attempt to “break” the rules until they know how to do it properly FIRST.



1. Do not over-tag your dialog. Blend action, context, dialog tags, and narrative to balance.

2. Do not go heavy on the dialog and ignore action, narrative, etc. A section of all dialog is as boring as all narrative.

3. SPEAK your dialog. Do your characters really talk like that in real life? I’ve seen male characters in romance books say stuff I’ve never heard a man say in real life. Seriously. If you don’t believe me, have someone read your dialog back to you, out loud. If they don’t laugh their way through it, and you don’t rip the manuscript from their hands halfway through it, then you’re probably on the right track.

4. “Written” dialog might look right, but remember what you read and what is “real” can be two different beasts.

5. Use contractions. People speak, in real life, using contractions. Not using contractions in dialog, unless you do it deliberately for a specific purpose, makes the dialog sound VERY stilted, formal, and unnatural. Exceptions to this rule: using a formal (do not instead of don’t, for example) for emphasis; a character that doesn’t speak the native language fluently and speaks in a formal manner because of that. (I used this technique in Fierce Radiance, where my two male heroes, one alien and one human who’d lived with the alien for decades, speak very formal English, while the human heroine doesn’t. Also, flashbacks to the human male, before he came to live with the alien, his English is less formal then.)

6. Use character names in dialog sparingly. In real life, we don’t constantly say the name of the person we’re talking to. This is a common error used by writers to avoid using dialog tags, but the effect is the exact opposite—unnatural dialog.

7. Large swaths of unbroken dialog (or internal monologue) used as narrative/exposition should be avoided except in very specific cases: a character is recounting backstory necessary to the plot; a character is “monologuing” to other characters (think the villain in The Incredibles, or Alan Shore delivering a closing argument in an episode of Boston Legal).

8. Avoid lots of slang or dialect. Peppered SPARINGLY for effect is okay. Entire swaths (or worse, the whole book) written in a dialect is just…annoying. Many editors will auto-reject books written like this, or demand a rewrite out of the gate. I personally will not buy a book if I see overwritten dialect in the sample. For a good example of effective dialect use, read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. She peppers just enough Scottish dialect into the dialog to give you the effect without being annoying.

9. Don’t substitute dialog for action tags/narrative. Having a character tell everyone else they’re going to do something is still telling, not showing. Yes, sometimes it’s okay to have a character do that, but you do NOT avoid the show versus tell problem by doing it that way, and unfortunately, I’ve seen too many newbie writers who think that’s an easy answer to the issue.

10. Do your characters all “sound” the same? People speak differently. Listen to the people around you, hear how they talk. Speech patterns vary based on where a person is from. “Proper” grammar in dialog can be thrown out the window. You can use fragments and improper speaking if that’s how your character talks. People do not talk like they graduated from Oxford, unless of course they graduated from Oxford. Someone who survived the school of hard knocks will talk differently than someone raised in a sheltered, pampered lifestyle. A teenager of today will talk differently than a teenager of twenty or thirty years ago.

11. Don't have characters spend a lot of time talking to themselves unless they're crazy. :) Use narrative to fill in the blanks.

12. Avoid semi-colons in dialect. If you need a semi-colon, you can almost always use a period in its place, or tweak the sentence to avoid it.

13. Use ellipses and em-dashes SPARINGLY. Not to mention properly. Ellipses (...) denote a trailing off of speech. (Bad thing for a romance Alpha hero to do a lot. Makes him sound weak.) Em-dashes denote interruptions. If your manuscript looks like Morse code, GET RID OF THEM. Usually, you can use a period instead of an ellipse or em-dash.

14. AVOID EXCLAMATION MARKS! If you've used them, chances are, you used too many of them. Remember, exclamation marks denote shouting or screaming or an exclamation. Context will usually show the emotion without needing to resort to using this crutch.



There are more, but those are the biggies I’ve personally seen abused the most. Over the next few posts, I’ll give you examples and fixes to help you give your dialog a realistic “sound.”

5 reader comments:

  1. Stacey said...:

    Excellent advice as always, Lesli!

  1. Thanks, Stacey! Glad you found it helpful. :)

  1. Kelley said...:

    Great advice on dialog. The one thing I try to remember is the dialog should sound natural and should fit the character. Watching well-written television shows are very helpful for learning how to write dialog. I also agree that too much dialect is annoying. You find this more in classic novels like Rob Roy. I couldn't follow the Scottish accent and it drove me nuts.

    kelleyheckart.com

  1. I love the advice about getting someone to read it out loud without laughing. Just don't get your husband to do it, they always laugh for some reason. Grrr.

  1. Kelley - I've actually avoided novels where I read an excerpt and lots of dialog was in dialect. Bad on the editors for letting it go through, too. If it's too much of a pain to read, I won't waste my time reading it.

    Eve - Husbands can be annoying that way sometimes. *LOL*