Writing Believable Dialogue

One of the most important keys to writing an engaging novel is dialogue.  However, some writers are able to write it well, and some writers have trouble.  Today I thought I would discuss four pitfalls that writers often find themselves and some ways to combat this nasty issue.

Problem #1: Stilted Dialogue

Stilted dialogue is any dialogue that uses tons of adverbs to illustrate feeling or long diatribes where the writer tries too hard to illustrate characterization.  An example would be:

“I don’t want to dance,” she said pensively.  “I just want to stand here.”

“Give me a break,” he huffed angrily.  “I only wanted to hold your hand.”

A way to solve this problem is to remove the adverbs in favor of showing the action through the dialogue or through description removing the “to be” verbs.  The same scene might be written like this:

Everyone danced, their bodies swaying slowly to the beat of “Makin’ Love Out of Nothing at All”.

As Rick reached for her hand, Judy’s face drew down, a perfect scowl.

“I… I just don’t feel like dancing,” she whispered, then said again louder over the din.  “I just don’t feel like dancing.”

Rick’s eyes watered slightly, his hand going to his nose as if to stifle a sneeze.

“I only wanted to hold your hand.”

Problem #2: All Characters Speak Alike

There is something to be said about characterization being expressed through dialogue, but if a writer has not heard the voices of their characters as individual people, each with their own sound and accent, that writer is cheapening the experience of the reader.  The trick to solving this problem is very simple: listen to people talk.  I have always had a talent for hearing and translating a voice onto paper, but this may not come easy for everyone.  I listen to people talk all the time, whether it be on a film, at a play or people with whom I am conversing.  I make mental notes often and sometimes I will use these voices as characters in my novels.  I recently wrote a scene in my novel where two men were talking, one character from South Africa (the first) and the other from New Jersey (the second).  Here is the dialogue of that scene:

“Ag man,” he said, his voice a permanent rasp.  “You gotta stop that bossies behavior in front of that Khaki, bra.   He gonna run you up the yardarm for sure.”

“Don’t worry about me, mack,” I told him.  “That guy’s gonna get what’s for one day.  Mark my words.”

I also look to slang dictionaries to find out what slang words used by particular cultures.  For the South African slang, there is a wonderful website that lists many of the Afrikaans words and phrases used when speaking English.  The same goes for New Jersey slang.  Slang is what makes a character’s voice more believable in most instances, but don’t go overboard.  Moderate the slang based on the education level of the character.

Problem #3: Glib Dialogue

Sure, you wrote that very poetic line of dialogue, but the problem is that people simply do not talk like that.  It’s like listening to Shakespeare.  Everyone knows that the Shakespeare line is wonderful and eloquent, but even people in Shakespeare’s day didn’t spin dialogue in that manner.  As a point of fact, they spoke much like you and I do now.  For example, you may have written a very emotional line like this:

“I love you Caroline.  You are so beautiful and wonderful that I could spend the rest of my life with you.  I wake every morning knowing that I will see your face.  It is like the morning sun.”

Yeah, that was terrible, I know.  The problem with gushing out feelings like this is that it goes against what we know about psychology.  Most people stammer over their words when expressing their feelings.  It would be better like this:

“I’m… Caroline, I love you.  I just don’t know what else to say, but… You’re like the morning sun to me, just more beautiful.”

Problem #4: Familiar Dialogue

One thing that is annoying to a reader are cliche statements or quips that are not timeless.  Remember when we used to say things with the word “much” at the end?  If a person was being rude we might say “Offending much?”  How about the term “0-dark-thirty” or a million other trite quips.  I try to come up with funny quips in my dialogue but then make a rule not to ever use them again in any more dialogue in the novel.  This creates variety and sets certain characters apart from others.  For example, here is a scene from my current WIP where the characters have a light moment in the middle of two violent scenes.  They are discussing things they remember before the global collapse:

“Remember Chic-fil-a?” she said.

“Oh man,” I said, turning to look at her.  “They must have put an addictive chemical in their chicken because it was so good.”

“That stuff was crack,” Clayton said, butting in.  “Oh man!  Remember Five Guys?”

“Oh,” said Amy, her face getting stern.  “It’s a competition then.  I’ve got two words for you: Pei… Wei…”

“That place never had enough seating,” I said, laughing.  “We always had to sit outside during lunch hour.”

“I know what you mean!” shouted Amy a little too loud, catching herself and laughing.

From behind us, out of nowhere:

“Marble.  Slab.  Creamery,” said Mr. Jackson’s deep voice, smoothing his son’s soft black hair as the dark eyed boy sat between his feet.

The dialogue must seem natural.  It must flow as if it were a real conversation.  This takes practice, hard work, and patience.  If you need help, go to a local coffee shop and listen to some old-timers talk to one another.  Take note of the banter, the creative metaphors, the uncomfortable silences.  This will help you to create great dialogue.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

5 thoughts on “Writing Believable Dialogue

  1. I prefer reading fiction with stilted dialogue, and none of your propaganda will ever be able to deter me from writing the same way.

  2. Interesting article. Although personally I hesitate when using colloquial slang that may not be obvious to many readers, for example, Scottish slang. It’s great to say, “I ken what you mean,” which means I know what you mean, but without finding a way to explain that ken means know you may cause a reader to either ignore it altogether or wonder about it. But on the other hand, I find many writers using dialogue that comes straight out of 21st century America, which is odd considering their story is set hundreds of years ago. I call this the genre where, “characters talk like modern Americans all the time.”

  3. Excellent advice and examples, Roger, thank you! I have some phone appointments with my niece over this coming weekend – she and her friends are the same age as my characters in my novel; and I’m going to pick her brain for some tips on how they speak, what they think about, how they act/react in different situations with different people … all that great research stuff! LOL. This is timely for me. ~ Julie 🙂

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