Hello, writer, and welcome back to The Novel Series, a multi-part blog post series about writing novels and other forms of fiction. I’ll be posting at least one, if not two, blogs from this series every month until it’s complete.
Catch up and read the previous posts:
- Part I: How Long Should Your Manuscript Be?
- Part II: How Long Should Chapters & Scenes Be?
- Part III: How to Choose a POV for Your Novel
Or, click here to see the full series.
// Why Dialogue is Important
Dialogue, or the things your characters say, is an important part of your fictional stories. Whether your characters are communicating with their friends, their enemies, or a crowd of people, dialogue can convey so many different emotions and plot points.
Unnatural dialogue is the quickest way to pull a reader out of your story and make them say, “Nope, I don’t believe this. How strange!”
Unnatural dialogue, though, will come in different forms based on whatever genre and characters you’re writing. For example, if you’re writing a 45-year-old soccer mom from 2019 suburbia, she probably doesn’t speak very formally. Likewise, if you’re writing the dialogue of an emperor from a fantasy world set in the 1800s, their dialogue will probably sound more formal!
It’s important not only to consider the character’s unique voice as a person, but their setting (including time period), their educational background, to whom they’re speaking, and the exact scene they’re in. All of these factors impact what is going to sound “natural.”
There are, however, some tricks you can use to make your dialogue sound more natural!
// Writing Natural Dialogue
The quickest way to make your dialogue sound more natural is to speak it out loud to yourself. Listen to exactly how it sounds. Do you want it to sound casual but it comes out awkward based on the words you chose? Should your character be rambling but instead, you have them speaking in short sentences? Listening to how your dialogue actually sounds is an easy and effective way to find what needs to be rewritten.
Contractions are (probably) your friend when it comes to dialogue. Contractions were even used in Old English, so don’t worry–they’ve been around for a LONG time and are completely natural in dialogue. Contractions were out of favor in formal writing for a long time–and still are–but fiction isn’t formal!
Sure, there may be situations or characters who don’t use contractions, but nothing pulls me out of a story faster than seeing everything spelled out all the time. Use your best judgment, but don’t be afraid to use those contractions in dialogue.
You should also interrupt dialogue with pauses, breaks, and actions. Most of the time, when we speak out loud to other people, our language doesn’t come out as smoothly as we hope. Interjecting these into your dialogue helps not only visually break up the dialogue but also makes it sound more realistic.
That doesn’t mean you should have everyone constantly tripping over their words or being interrupted, but sprinkle it in to add interest, backstory, and action.
// Balancing Action and Dialogue
Speaking of action, there should be a balance between your dialogue and your character’s actions and reactions.
While it’s realistic to include reactions to conversations, you probably don’t want to interrupt dialogue after every sentence. That might be okay if the characters are fighting and bickering, but don’t interrupt the flow of dialogue to add unnecessary action.
That being said, you also don’t want too much dialogue without any interruptions! (I know, I know, everything in writing is contradictory and there are no rules to follow.) But think about it: you wouldn’t want to read a giant wall of dialogue with absolutely no action or exposition interrupting it. The only time that’s probably realistic is during a speech.
Trust your gut when it comes to balancing action and dialogue in your fiction. This is where reading out loud or having someone else read it out loud comes in handy again. It’s an ideal strategy to hear the flow of your prose. And if reading out loud isn’t an option, ask a critique partner or beta reader for their opinion.
// Fixing Unrealistic Dialogue
It’s one thing to read a blog and say, “Sure, I can read out loud and look for awkward pacing,” and it’s another thing to actually go out there and fix it!
Let’s look at a few examples of unrealistic and unnatural dialogue and how to fix them.
Example #1: Let’s say this first example belongs to a 21-year-old woman in 2019. She’s arguing with her younger brother.
Bad: “No, I shall not allow that. That is a dumb idea. You will not do that.”
It technically sounds like a fight. She’s telling her little brother that his idea is dumb and that she’s going to try to stop him. But read it out loud. How awkward and stilted! Is that how you’d talk to your sibling in 2019? Probably not.
“Shall” doesn’t really fit the demographic of the character, and the single sentences with no contractions doesn’t sound like a real person speaking.
Better: “No, I won’t allow that. That’s a dumb idea. You won’t do it.”
It’s getting better, but it’s still not great. Try combining some sentences and changing the language.
Best: “That’s such a dumb idea! I won’t let you go through with it.”
Example #2: This second example belongs to a king in a fantasy world that’s based on the 1800s. He’s having a conversation with the princess.
Bad: “That’s not a bad idea,” the king said. “You would make an excellent spy in my enemy’s court.” He stroked his beard in thought. “Perhaps I can arrange something.”
The actual speech isn’t awful in this one, but interjecting single bits of action in between single sentences is just awkward. It doesn’t flow well. Try combining some of the action.
Better: “That’s not a bad idea,” the king said, stroking his beard in thought. “You would make an excellent spy in my enemy’s court. Perhaps I can arrange something.”
That’s a lot smoother! You could even add some more exposition (or narrative) in between the bits of dialogue, or you could add more action that describes one of the characters.
Also better: “That’s not a bad idea,” the king said, stroking his beard in thought. He gazed down at his daughter, who stood at the steps to his dais, and smiled. She looked so much like her mother with her jaw set, shoulders back, and chest puffed out slightly, and the old king’s heart ached at the sight. “You would make an excellent spy in my enemy’s court. Perhaps I can arrange something.”
As you can see, dialogue isn’t hard to fix, but it’s so easy to make it awkward! With just a few adjustments and tweaks, you can have your dialogue sounding more realistic in no time.
// More on Dialogue
Writing realistic dialogue is important, true, but don’t forget to punctuate properly!
If you still aren’t sure how your dialogue sounds after implementing the advice in this blog, or if you want more help with your writing, contact me to discuss editing and coaching services.
And if you’re so inclined, you can also join my Facebook group for writers, the Between the Lines Writer’s Nook.