Dialogue can make or break your work of fiction.
If your characters engage in unrealistic or unconvincing dialogue, it can shatter the spell for your readers and spoil their enjoyment.
On the other hand, when done well, dialogue can make readers feel as if your story is straight out of real life.
Want to learn how to write natural dialogue?
Why does natural-sounding dialogue matter in fiction?
Dialogue in storytelling is not just about characters speaking; it’s an essential tool that gives life to your characters and drives the narrative.
Natural-sounding dialogue creates an immersive experience for readers, making characters feel real and relatable.
It unveils character traits, relationships, motivations, and emotions, adding depth and dimension to the story.
Ultimately, authentic dialogue establishes believability and fosters an intimate connection between readers and characters.
What are the most common mistakes in making dialogue sound natural?
Despite its significance, crafting authentic dialogue can be challenging for many writers.
Some common pitfalls include overly formal language, excessive exposition, under-differentiated character voices, and an unrealistic rhythm of speech.
These issues can make dialogue feel stilted and disrupt the readers’ immersion in the story.
This article aims to equip you with the understanding and tools to avoid these common mistakes and write compelling, natural-sounding dialogue.
Why you should observe and understand real-life conversations
To write natural dialogue, it’s crucial to draw inspiration from real-life conversations.
Observe how people talk in various contexts—family dinners, coffee shops, workplaces, or social gatherings. Notice the ebb and flow of conversation, the interjections, the interruptions, and the often unfinished sentences.
Conversations are seldom perfectly structured or entirely logical; they deviate, digress and sometimes leave thoughts hanging in the air.
Incorporating these elements can significantly enhance the realism of your written dialogue.
Why it matters to notice everyone has a unique pattern of speech
Every individual has a unique way of expressing themselves, and this uniqueness should extend to your characters.
Pay attention to speech patterns, including sentence structure, the choice of words, pacing, and rhythm. Some people are more eloquent, while others may speak in short, clipped sentences.
Some may have a more expansive vocabulary, others may stick to basic words.
Reflecting these variations in your characters’ dialogue can add depth and authenticity.
How to recognize the influence of culture and environment on dialogue
One useful model to keep in mind is ‘CCE’ – context, culture, and environment.
Here’s how those three factors impact dialogue.
Context: Dialogue changes depending on situations and emotions. A character will talk differently when angry or relaxed.
Culture: Cultural background influences language use, idioms, expressions, and manners of speaking.
Environment: The surroundings and the immediate situation also influence how characters might speak.
Defining character traits and how they influence dialogue
Each character you write is a unique individual, and their dialogue should reflect their personality.
An introverted character might speak less and listen more, a nervous character might ramble, an assertive one might dominate conversations.
Their profession, educational background, and interests will also influence their vocabulary and topics of conversation.
Identifying your characters’ traits and letting them inform their dialogue can enhance their distinctiveness and believability.
How to use unique vocabulary and speech patterns for different characters
Differentiating your characters’ voices goes beyond their personality traits.
Consider giving each character a unique speech pattern and vocabulary.
For instance, an older character might use dated phrases or a more formal speech pattern, while a teenager might use current slang.
A character with a scientific background might use technical jargon, while a poet character might speak more metaphorically.
This differentiation aids in character development and makes dialogues more engaging.
How character backgrounds impact speech and dialogue
Here are some factors to consider when making your characters’ dialogue as natural as possible.
Socioeconomic Status: This can influence vocabulary, accent, and even the grammatical structure of dialogue.
Education: A highly educated character might use complex sentences and sophisticated vocabulary.
Geographic Location: This could influence dialect, accent, and colloquial terms used by the character.
Profession: Different professions have their unique jargon, which can be reflected in a character’s dialogue.
Age: This can influence the level of formality, slang usage, and references in a character’s speech.
Show don’t tell: how to use dialogue to reveal character and plot
In well-written dialogue, what the characters say, and how they say it, can reveal a lot about their personalities, relationships, and the unfolding plot.
Rather than using narration to tell the reader about a character’s emotions or intentions, dialogue can show these elements indirectly.
For example, a character’s nervousness can be revealed through hesitant speech, repetition, or fumbling for words, without explicitly stating that they’re nervous.
Also, dialogue can reveal key plot points in a subtle, yet impactful way, enhancing the reader’s engagement with the story.
How to use subtext to make characters say one thing but mean another
A character might say, “Sure, go ahead, have fun at the party,” but the underlying resentment in their tone suggests they’re not genuinely happy.
In a tense situation, a character might deflect with humor: “Well, that’s one way to make an impression,” instead of admitting fear or concern.
A character might respond with a simple “I see,” while their silence suggests deep disappointment or disapproval.
How to use contractions and colloquialisms to make dialogue natural
Let’s take a quick look at a few more important factors.
Contractions: Instead of “I cannot,” use “I can’t”; instead of “It is,” use “it’s.”
Interruptions: Use dashes or ellipses to show characters cutting each other off or trailing off.
Informal Language: Slang, colloquialisms, and abbreviations can make dialogue more relatable and realistic.
How to consider the pacing and rhythm of the conversation
Just as in real life, the pacing and rhythm of the dialogue in your writing should reflect the situation and emotion at hand.
In tense, action-packed scenes, dialogue is often rapid and clipped, keeping readers on edge.
In contrast, more reflective, calm scenes may allow for longer, flowing dialogue.
Remember that the rhythm of dialogue can be an effective tool to influence the reader’s pace and experience of your narrative.
Overuse of names and direct address
One common mistake in dialogue writing is the excessive use of characters’ names or direct addresses.
In reality, people rarely use names unless they’re trying to get someone’s attention or make a point. Repeatedly mentioning names in dialogue can come off as unnatural and distracting.
Pay attention to this in your writing and only use names or direct address when it adds to the realism or emphasis in the conversation.
How to avoid overly formal or ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue
Real people don’t always say exactly what they mean or feel, nor do they always use formal, grammatically perfect language.
Yet, in writing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue or overly formal language.
Aim for dialogue that mimics real speech, with its imperfections, indirectness, and subtleties.
This will add to the authenticity and relatability of your characters.
Why you should step away from excess exposition through dialogue
Avoid using dialogue as a tool for dumping information on your readers.
Long-winded monologues outlining backstory, complex plot points, or character description rarely sound natural.
Instead, find creative ways to weave necessary information into the narrative or break it up into smaller, digestible dialogue exchanges.
How to read dialogue aloud to check for natural flow
An effective technique for refining dialogue is to read it aloud.
Hearing the dialogue can help you catch awkward phrasing, repetitive language, or anything that doesn’t sound like natural speech.
Listen for rhythm and flow. If something doesn’t sound quite right or is hard to say, it might need revising.
Why you should get feedback from other writers or a writing group
Another set of eyes, or ears in this case, can provide invaluable feedback on your dialogue.
Other writers or members of a writing group can help identify where your dialogue shines and where it may fall flat.
They can point out areas of confusion, repetition, or lack of authenticity.
Use this feedback to revise and enhance your dialogue.
How to use editing and multiple drafts for better natural dialogue
Here are three key editing tips to help you improve the dialogue you have written.
1. Revision is Key: Rarely does perfect dialogue come out in the first draft. Be open to revising multiple times.
2. Be Willing to Cut: If a piece of dialogue doesn’t advance the plot or reveal character, consider cutting it.
3. Don’t Be Too Clever: If a witty line confuses more than it adds, opt for clarity.
Dialogue practice exercises and prompts
Here are some quick writing exercises to help you get hands-on with your dialogue skills:
1. Write a dialogue between two characters with opposing views on a controversial topic.
2. Rewrite a dull or informative conversation to include subtext.
3. Create a dialogue-only scene where a secret is revealed.
4. Write a conversation where the power dynamics between characters shift.
5. Try writing a dialogue where each line is a question.
See which ones benefit your writing the most!
How to analyze dialogue in renowned books
Sometimes the best way to get better at an element of writing is by studying the masters.
Here are some worthy of your attention when it comes to improving your dialogue abilities.
- Study how Harper Lee uses dialogue to reveal character in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
- Explore how J.K. Rowling differentiates character voices in the “Harry Potter” series.
- Analyze the use of dialect in Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
- Look at how George R.R. Martin uses dialogue for world-building in “Game of Thrones.”
- Examine the subtext in the dialogue of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
Writing natural dialogue is both an art and a science, requiring keen observation, empathy, and practice.
The more you write and revise, the more you hone this critical skill.
Each conversation you craft brings your characters and your story one step closer to resonating with your readers.
Go on, give life to your characters one dialogue at a time.