Creating Believable Dialogue in Fiction
Some writers (and I’m one of them) will tell you that even though they plotted their novels, their characters ended up taking them in a different direction altogether. What they really mean is that the characters’ dialogue changed the novel’s throughline by shifting characters’ wants and needs, and that shift grew out of the characters’ interactions, alliances, and conflicts.
Dialogue isn’t just people talking together; the truth is, people talking together is infinitely boring. I once knew someone who transcribed wiretaps for the FBI. Sounds like an exciting job, right? As it turns out, not so much. Apparently, once in a while, once in a very great while, an unwary person would say something related to the purpose for the wiretap, something mildly interesting that she could highlight. But for each of those times, she told me, there were hours and hours and hours, which sometimes could amount to four thousand pages, of nothing. People talked, all right. People talking about diapers. People talking about an itch they have, or what they had for dinner last night that gave them heartburn. People talking about the TV show they’re watching. She was fortunate and got transferred into another department before she went completely around the bend, but if you ever want to be grateful about not having a certain job, that one has to make the list.
In any case, it’s certainly not what you want in a book. You don’t want to show characters merely talking. Just because in real life people must have a conversation with the grocery clerk about the price of melons doesn’t mean that particular interaction has to happen in the story. There’s an off-screen option for novelists as well as screenwriters.
Dialogue isn’t merely conversation. What you have to remember is that your characters are, in a sense, just like you. When characters talk, they’re doing it for a reason. That reason may be conscious or unconscious, but it’s always there. Usually it’s because they want something. Again, just like you. (If you think that you don’t want something when you’re engaged in dialogue with someone, think again. Try and remember a recent social situation in which you were “just talking” and you’ll probably be surprised to realize how many hidden wants were happening just under the surface, things you were trying to get from the person you were talking to: approval, congratulations, laughs, sympathy, compassion, protection, encouragement, excitement, thrills, sex, status, a free drink, a friendly smile. Whatever your “want” was in that situation, it will color the way you talk, hold yourself, gesture, etc. All of these need to be caught and captured by the novelist.)
When dialogue gets separated from the wants that motivate it, it’s almost impossible to make it feel authentic. The reason most writers have such a hard time writing dialogue is because what they’re really trying to write isn’t dialogue, but simply talk.
I will say as a cautionary note that it’s equally unhelpful to go too far in the other direction. While your dialogue needs to drive your throughline, you also need to allow for enough normal interactions that it’s clear your character doesn’t exist in a void. But even those can be used to create a sense of the character. Think of the Robert Parker novels about Spencer, for example: everything that he says drives his personality deeper into the reader’s head. If you haven’t read any of them, I strongly recommend that you try at least one: his dialogue is superb.
What dialogue can do (that’s good):
bring characters to life
move readers to tears
advance a throughline
create a subplot
engage, enlighten, entrance
What dialogue can also do (not so good):
make readers howl with laughter (and not in a good way!)
bore them to tears
stop readers in their tracks
What you probably learned
Here’s what Mrs. Grady your third-grade teacher probably taught you when you were learning to write (Mrs. Grady was pretty good at confusing what should happen in the world with what really happens):
• People speak in complete sentences
• Contractions are frowned upon
• People wait their turn to speak
• Dialogues have a back-and-forth rhythm
• Include all the information in dialogue
Whereas here’s what really happens:
• Natural conversation rhythms are irregular
• People interrupt each other
• Information is often left out of conversations
• People use sentence fragments, contractions, and often have lapses of grammar and syntax
Keep dialogue short and simple
We live in the 21st century. In general, people don’t use flowery language or over-long sentences. In general, people get to the point. Here’s a good rule of thumb: Any sentence that takes an extra breath to complete saying is more complex than it should be.
The job of dialogue isn’t to monopolize the conversation or take the plot or the characters hostage. It’s to move the throughline along, and to help the reader understand and relate to the characters’ current needs and wants. Anytime any characters wants to lecture, or explain, or elaborate, cut them short, because the reader certainly will. I have myself and I know other people who have skipped whole paragraphs of dialogue that got too dense. Now wouldn’t it be a pity if a particular plot point hinged on that very piece of dialogue?
So here’s a device you can use: one way to break up a chunk of dialogue that threatens to become a monologue is through some sort of action. I’m personally relieved that smoking is no longer something that most people do, but at the same time I’m professionally horrified, because the device of breaking up a monologue through the ritual of lighting a cigarette is a device I used to use to great effect. It was grand. The character would say something, then shake a cigarette out of the pack. Then they could say something else and put it to their mouth. Maybe even get something else out before they lit it, or another character lit it for them. Then the first inhale-exhale, and something clever or profound or offhand could come out with that first puff of smoke. I loved cigarettes. Now we have to think of other small actions, consistent with and part of the character, that can naturally break up the flow of words.
Keep it natural
There are elements of real speech and real interaction you want to avoid. In real life, for example, people use speech placeholders, words inserted to allow them to think ahead to what they’re going to say next. They say well. They say so.
They also say “um” quite a lot. It’s just the way people talk. Too many of these “ums” can be disconcerting when you’re listening to then, but they’re deadly when you’re reading them. While you may want to slide in an occasional “um” to show a character hesitating, you don’t want a whole dialogue that’s peppered with it. So listen to how people really talk, and then edit out the parts that aren’t going to make for good reading.
The Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Dialogue
Repetition is the fastest way to get readers yawning. And it’s difficult to teach, because it comes in so many different forms. One frequent use of repetition is in direct question-and-answers. Yes, sometimes you want characters to ask and answer questions in a straightforward manner, but not all the time, and in fact not most of the time. And certainly never for an extended period of time.
This is where some books by beginning writers start to sound like lessons for people studying English as a foreign language: “Did you go to the store?” “Yes, I went to the store.” “What time did you go to the store?” “I went to the store at 2:45.”
Then there’s the repetition of ideas. Some writers think they have to hit their readers over the head. One of the things I tell writers in class is to trust the reader. You don’t have to underline everything, and you certainly don’t have to underline in dialogue.
#2 Stilted words/phrases
If you were following the rules set forth by Mrs. Grady (you knew we’d come back to her, didn’t you?), you might write something that sounds like this:
“Good morning, James. It’s nice to see you again.”
“Thank you, Lisa, you as well. How have you been?”
”I’ve been very well lately, thank you, and you?”
Unless you’re writing dialogue in complete sentences for one character in your novel, perhaps to emphasize a cultural difference or a high-class upbringing, very few people really talk that way, or talk that way consistently. What worked for Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice isn’t going to fly with today’s readers.
It’s not a crime to use a complete sentence—”Get away from me, Jim, before I call the police”—but the reality is that opportunities don’t come up very often. Dialogue will flow and read more naturally on the page if you train yourself to write the way you hear people around you speaking.
No matter what it is your character is passionate about—religion, the environment, social justice, politics, and so on—make sure they’re able to convey the essence of their ideas in dialogue and contextualize the rest. And above all, make that passion they’re feeling part of the throughline.
You can know that a character cares about polar bears, but don’t waste readers’ time with a character lamenting how global warming has made polar bears cranky—unless that character is about to be trapped in a cage with an angry polar bear. There have been successful novels with very preachy characters in them—The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son come to mind—but they’re few and far-between and, well, Steinbeck and Wright were trained professionals, and others should not attempt to do this at home.
The best monologues are those written by screenwriters and playwrights. Why? Because there’s no narration in plays or movies: what you see is what you get. They should, however, be used sparingly in written fiction, and then only to make a point. Often monologues happen when we’re having an argument. Challenge yourself to think of times when a monologue is natural and occurs spontaneously and appropriately. If you’re interested, watch Good Will Hunting; some of the best monologues ever are there.
#5 Poor use of speech tags
I say “poor use” as a deadly sin, because after all, you need tags. Dialogue tags, or speech tags, are signposts in your dialogue. They play an important role in any dialogue, but most especially when more than two people are talking, because they show which character is speaking each line. You’ve probably read manuscripts with too few tags in them: you have to stop and go back and count to see who’s saying what! I’ve edited many such manuscripts and there’s a dizzying sense of Who’s On First in them. So speech tags are necessary parts of dialogue.
Having said that, however, you really want to think about frequency and positioning of tags. You don’t want to use them with every piece of dialogue, and you don’t want to always put them in the same place… that leads use back to the first deadly sin, that of repetition.
Each tag generally (unless you’re doing something avant-garde or really want to move things quickly) contains at least one noun or pronoun (Marie, she, Tom, he, they) and a verb that shows how the character is speaking the line (said, whispered, shouted, etc.) Make sure these verbs point to things a person can actually do. If they cannot, then punctuate accordingly. People in real life cannot actually laugh a sentence, though apparently that rule doesn’t hold in the fictional world; remember that if real people can’t do it, then your characters can’t, either. So, for example, here are some options for conveying laughter.
Some other verbs that shouldn’t be speech tags include wept, hissed, nodded, belched, surmised, and others I’m sure you’ve seen. Follow the Golden Rule of Dialogue: if you can’t say it out loud, you can’t say it in print. Try the line and see if it can be hissed or growled or any of the other sounds you want it to do.
Your goal is to keep speech tags from interfering with or distracting from the story. Good speech tags are invisible speech tags, and invisible speech tags are simple speech tags. Try and stick to said and asked, and use others sparingly and for effect.
Speech tag goals:
Identify the speaker
Prevent reader confusion
Make longer sections digestible
Contribute to the throughline (elevate tension, maintain tension, break tension)
Provide opportunities to insert or break tension
Dress your dialogue in action
This is one way to extend a speech tag by creating some action: “All right,” she said and wiped the dusty shelf, or “I don’t think so,” he said, looking guilty.
There’s also a great opportunity here to omit the speech tag altogether and replace it with an action within the scene. (Jane zipped up the bag. “It’s all there.”) But remember how I talked earlier about characters who smoke, and how the whole ritual of lighting a cigarette can break up dialogue? You can do that with other things. They can sip their coffee, or their wine. They can stand up, sit down… in fact there are a lot of devices you can use to create natural breaks in dialogue.
An adverb can make a tag more obvious and remind people there’s a writer in the room. On the other hand, adverbs can be useful as a quick way to indicate a mannerism or emotion, such as “she said quickly,” or “he said coldly.” But for the rest? All the adverbial tags that have characters saying something despairingly, or quizzically, or forcefully…. The list goes on and on, and here’s my response: Using tags to convey the character’s mood is really just lazy writing.
#6 Information dumps
Here’s another deadly sin. Check out the following and see if you an get the drift here.
“As you know, Bob, my brother, Victor, is having an affair with Mitzi and embezzling funds from the charity…”
“All I know is, we’re together, even though your husband, Mark, chose Avon over loving you…”
“If only my father, Stefano, hadn’t been hit last year by that ice cream truck, my brother Victor would never have stolen the money from that fund…”
What I’ve given you here are some very soap-opera examples of what an information dump (also known as “as you know, Bob” or as maid-butler dialogue) looks like. And in fact soap operas are where you’ll find the most of this dialogue, because the soap operas’ storylines really never end, but there’s always an attempt to catch viewers up to what’s happened in the story, and on TV that can only happen through dialogue.
Just remember the beginning: AS YOU KNOW. If they know, then who are you talking to? The reader, of course. It’s weird, it’s awkward, and it will stop the forward momentum of your story faster than a dead fish.
Of course, sometimes it’s more subtle than that. Consider this example: “I have to go to the bank today to ask about a loan. Ever since we bought this house, finances have been so tight that I can barely afford groceries.” If you need the characters to make this clear, then make it work: “I’m so tired of working and working, just for the house!”
Any time that the character isn’t talking to the other character, you’re in dangerous waters. When character is talking to the reader, it breaks down the fourth wall and is a tremendous example of there clearly being a writer in the room.
The job of an adverb is to modify a verb. Sometimes we need to qualify an action and we don't have a direct verb that does the job. So adverbs have their place—so long as we use them sparingly. (Like I just did there, with “sparingly.” Catch that?)
We get in trouble, particularly in speech tags, when we confuse human actions with human intentions. For example, consider a medic working on a battlefield. Saying that the medic cut something quickly or cut it carefully qualifies the action and gives us, as readers, evidence to infer the medic's intent. On the other hand, saying he cut viciously qualifies the intent behind the action and not the action itself.
So you want to resist using adverbs because it's too easy to fall into the trap of qualifying intention (e.g., “he said disdainfully”): it's lazy writing, because characters’ intentions should be conveyed either through dialogue or description.
The exception is for adverbs that qualify the act of speaking. If a character has been speaking at a normal volume so that everyone in the conference room can hear and then turns to a companion and says something to that one person but doesn't whisper, you could use, “he said quietly.”
In that case, you can also add some action if you wanted to avoid the adverb and say, “He turned to Fred and lowered his voice.” The great thing about language is that there’s never just one way to say something, and you should try out several options so that you can get what finally feels right.
How to make it right
I’ve spent a lot of time so far telling you what not to do, and that’s important, but let’s move on and see how to fix what isn’t working in your dialogue.
Think about natural breaks: your character can…
• take a deep breath
• Turn to look at someone/something
• change expression
• move about
• lean against something
• clear her throat
Opportunities for more
Great dialogue doesn’t just provide characters with ways to advance the throughline and reach their goals. It also provides opportunities for action and description. This is something writers simply start getting a feel for. If the dialogue is flowing naturally out of the character’s current needs and wants, there will be natural places to enhance the rest of the story. A character can look up, and perhaps something in the environment catches their attention, so your dialogue punctuation can be a short description… as long as that is natural.
Make your characters sound different
Early on in my writing career I had a mentor who pointed out to me that while I had a diversity of characters in the writing I was doing, they all somehow managed to sound like a white educated upper-middle-class woman. And, of course, because of that, they all sounded alike.
Not only is that not real, it’s incredibly boring.
When you’re making up your character index cards, make sure you include things like mannerisms that can aid your character’s dialogue, and decide how that character, with the specific background you assigned to them, will sound. You should be able to shut your eyes and hear someone read a line and know right away who is speaking, not from the content, but from its expression. This is a skill that develops over time.
It’s important to distinguish vocal styles between characters, and it’s also helpful if the language naturally (and I mean naturally) gives clues to age, gender, race, etc. Consider how the screenwriter in Star Wars created an ancient-sounding alien: “Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever it will dominate your destiny. Luke, when gone am I, the last of the Jedi will you be.” Even if you’ve never heard Yoda’s raspy little Germanic-sounding voice at the movies, you still can hear an ancient-sounding, old-fashioned way of speaking that sounds right for a 600-year old character.
Fixing information dumps
Here’s what to do with those information dumps. And don’t let your client whine that if they can’t do it that way, there’s no other way to get the information across. Challenge them. There always is another way.
A character shouldn’t say something that the character they’re talking to already knows.
If it’s common knowledge, it won’t come up in conversation. If you can preface any piece of dialogue with “As you know, Bob,” it should be rewritten. Characters are people, and people don’t say things that aren’t relevant to the conversation.
We’ve all probably experienced misunderstanding what someone meant in a text or email, or having someone misunderstand what we wrote, because words aren’t always enough to convey tone. This goes for fiction as well. You cannot expect the character’s words to do all the work. You have to be more creative in setting the context of the dialogue you’re writing. If Frank and Jane are already angry with each other and events have built up to their dialogue, the tone will already be clear to the reader. Dialogue can’t stand on its own: it has to spring naturally from the context, the characters, the situation, what has preceded it. If you get all that right, then the reader will understand the tone.
Remember the section on repetition? Consider the following:
“Did you get home at 4:00? That’s when I asked you to be here.”
“I know you asked me to be here. And yes, I got home at 4:00.”
This is an example of a place where the dialogue’s words cannot work alone. So you have a few choices. You can use an adverbial tag and have the second character say, “And yes, I got home at 4:00,” she said sarcastically. That might work. But even better is to build a context around the dialogue. Show the mother’s increasing impatience with her daughter’s sarcasm. By building into the scene and setting it up, you can leave little doubt in reader’s minds as to exactly what tone is being conveyed.
Dialect and accents
There are few things more frustrating than trying to parse together a dialogue that’s been written out phonetically. Many readers simply give up. Multiple apostrophes and odd spellings are visually distracting, and such detailed attention to pronunciation takes the focus off the characters and the story’s throughline.
If your character has a heavy Russian or Scottish accent, just write that they speak with whatever accent they have. Throw in a few regional phrases or words at appropriate places. My protagonist in Asylum and Deadly Jewels is a Canadian woman whose first language is French, though she speaks English with her husband and with her friendly police detective. So I’ve put in just enough French, an occasional word or very short expression, to give the flavor of the language, but I’ve never written “zee” for “the.”
Remember that different languages produce different rhythms of speech and word order; that’s something else you can rely on to convey foreign-ness.
If you produce dialect phonetically it ends up turning your character into a stereotype. Bizarre misspellings and made-up contractions make reading a chore.
Instead, concentrate on making the character sound unique and decide on several conventions to carry your point. One extremely effective example is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. Instead of trying to phonetically reproduce something that will just feel like garbage to the reader, she selected a few conventions to convey the otherness.
Your use of dialect is as much about that audience as it is about the character. Your goal is to give your characters unique voices while still giving your reader an enjoyable and smooth reading experience.
Make it a party
Here’s what I suggest. I believe strongly that anyone’s entire novel should be workshopped. But if for some reason that isn’t an option, or in addition to it, then just try out the dialogue. Invite people over. Include food (people always come for food) and do what playwrights do: have each person be a different character and read the dialogue together, as if acting it out. Don’t give them the whole manuscript, just the dialogue you want to work (otherwise they’ll sit and read). The writer should not be one of the readers, but should listen and take notes. It sounds very different coming from other people.
Dialogue is one of your most important tools as a writer. It will advance your plot, create your characters, and add ambiance to your story. Use it wisely and you’ll people your novel with… realistic people!