Dialogue should flow through your story like a river that has seamlessly carved its way through a forest. Like the river, it should be complex and varied, with more going on beneath its surface than your readers might realize. So how do you write complex yet realistic dialogue? You put a lot of time, thought and effort into the process.
Did your parents teach you that it’s impolite to listen to other people’s conversations? Congratulations, that rule does not apply to writers. It’s time to put on your spy cap and start taking note of other people’s conversations. Write down what bits of speech stick out to you after the following:
- Visiting a restaurant
- Chatting with the cashier at the grocery store
- Your teen complains about his or her day at school
Keep note of how often people interrupt one another or abandon one train of thought for another. You can also try recording your surroundings next time you are out getting coffee if you have trouble remembering speech patterns. It’s generally legal to record in public, but keep in mind that some people might take offense.
Your voice is one of your best editing tools. The human brain often overlooks small errors—like repeated or misspelled words—in favor of more complex tasks, such as discerning the overall meaning of a text. This means that just reading over your written dialogue isn’t enough.
Instead, read your dialogue out loud. How does it sound? Do all the characters sound the same or do their words come across as flat and robotic? Or do they all carry their own unique voices? Reading out loud will give you the insight you need to make changes as necessary.
Or ditch them altogether. Your dialogue tags should clarify who is talking, and they are definitely necessary—just not all the time. Your readers are smart and can figure out who is speaking even if a conversation is not punctuated by endless tags of “said,” “replied” and “asked.”
Don’t be afraid to switch things up a little as well. Sometimes characters shout! Or they may weep, laugh and scoff. If you’re not sure how to find the right balance between all these dialogue tags, revisit your favorite books and take notes on how the author used them.
You want your characters to be realistic, fully formed people. This doesn’t mean you have to put every last “ugh,” “ah” or “um” into your story. Be choosy with your character’s words. Sometimes less really is more.
Dialogue can make or break a reader’s immersion in your story. This is why crafting realistic dialogue is so important. As a writer, it is your job to make sure you have all the available tools at your disposal to create a world your readers can fully sink into.