Speak your Mind: How to Write Realistic Dialogue

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Alright gang, so for the last month, we have been working on how to develop our characters.

I hope that by now, you all know your characters inside and out.

On to the next step!

New and amateur (i.e. unestablished) writers tend to move their stories forward with dialogue.

This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that you should pay special attention to the way that you craft your dialogue.

You want your characters’ conversations to feel natural and realistic.

For a new writer this can be a tall order.

So this article will discuss the biggest stumbling blocks that other writers make so you can avoid these pitfalls before you start.

Here are some of the biggest mistakes that writers make when creating their dialogue

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Mistake 1.) Using dialogue for exposition

Exposition is a comprehensive description or explanation.

In writing this refers to bombarding you audience with knowledge. More often than not, this knowledge is crucial to the reader’s understanding of a character or story.

However, when you information-dump using dialogue, it makes the conversation seem rigid, stilted and unnatural.

Using dialogue for exposition also tends to give your reader the feeling that you are only adding that scene to your story for their benefit, which makes the conversation feel pointless in the grand scheme of your story.

For example:

In the hit t.v show Mr. Robot, Elliot is made to drink this weird concoction to help alleviate his symptoms of morphine withdrawal.

We discover this by hearing the other character tell Elliot about the drink. But then a few minutes later, he makes the off-handed comment that Elliot had drank 3 glasses of this concoction already and needed to drink 3 more to be functional.

Why is this weird? Because the scene implied that he was explaining to Elliot what the drink was for, after already forcing him to drink it two other times.

That explanation about the drink was obviously just for the audience. It pulls you out of the scene, breaks the 4th wall, and reminds you that you are watching a t.v. show.

Mistake 2.) Writing dialogue like a script

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I see this in almost every manuscript that I evaluate and/or edit.

Two people are having a conversation in the story, and the writers simply separates each moment that the characters speak with a new line and an indent.

And that’s all.

You can avoid this by using dialogue tags (that is the “he said,” “she said” aspects of dialogue).

I spoke of this briefly in my “Tell a Good Story” article.

Dialogue tags can help you further set the scene and give your reader context for how each character is feeling or what they may be thinking.

Think about how things are when you talk to people. You want them to be engaged with you right? Their facial expressions and body language help you discern how much they are paying attention to your words and how they feel about what you are saying.

You don’t want to talk to someone who gives you a blank stare, right?

It’s uncomfortable right?

Well that’s how your readers feel when they just get the words that are being spoken and nothing else.

Take it from me, it gets very hard to anchor yourself to a story when all you are reading are the words that each character is saying.

Give your audience something to help them engage with the dialogue. Let them see a facial expression here or there. Let them hear the tone of the speaker. Let them see the reaction of the other characters.

But remember: choose your words carefully.

“I said” gives a very different impression than “I whimpered” or “I shrieked” or “I yelled.”

Mistake 3.) Ignoring the creation of individual character voices

You don’t want all of your characters to sound the same.

Think about it. Take a look through your character sheets.

Each of your characters is different right?

So, it is only natural for them to speak differently too.

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And I don’t necessarily mean drastic difference like a different language or strong accents (though if that interests you see “How to Write Accents and Dialects Tip 6”).

People have different ways of speaking: different tones, different turns of phrase, different “favorite words” etc.

Your characters (to a certain extent) should be distinguishable by the way that they speak.

Again, to a certain extent. Everything in moderation.

Mistake 4.) Not being consistent

One particular example comes to mind when I talk about inconsistency in dialogue: The Perfect Culture: The Search for Paradise in a Monty Python Perspective by Brent Robins.

Without giving too much away about the story, it is a travel narrative that is written in the POV (point of view) of the protagonist.

The work almost reads like a diary, and has a distinctive voice.

The problem, was the actual dialogue. When the protagonist would speak, it did not feel at all like the character whose inner narrative we had just been experiencing.

It was a jarring shift, that pulled me from the narrative every time that character spoke.

You want to make sure that your character feels the same to the reader when he/she speaks.

Even if you want to highlight the difference between how a character speaks versus how he/she think, your dialogue should still at least be reminiscent of the inner dialogue that we read.

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1.) Your dialogue is a part of your character’s personality.

2.) Your characters are people, so they should talk like people.

3.) Your dialogue is more than just the words that are spoken.

4.) Have fun!

Happy Writing!

Image by Tanya Patxot

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