Writing Believable Dialogue 

 Copyright Judy Bagshaw - All Rights Reserved



One of the early lessons any writer learns, or needs to, is to show instead of tell. It’s important to draw the reader into the story and make them a participant rather than a passive observer. One of the best ways to do this is to write scenes with dialogue, making the moments immediate and real for the reader.  


And it’s important to make your dialogue real and believable. Nothing will lose a reader faster then stilted, phony exchanges between characters. It smacks of amateur writing. So how does one achieve reality in dialogue? 


Quite simply, a writer needs to learn to listen. When out and about in daily life, stay atune to the people around you. Listen to the various cadences in the speech patterns of people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, social stations, jobs.  


Take note of how people conduct their conversations. You will find that people normally talk over each other, talk in fragments and interject. They use slang and exclamations, infuse their chats with laughter. Some are aggressive and loud, others soft and hesitant. Some have heavy accents or use unusual structure in their language. As a writer, your challenge is how to capture these differences on the page. 


Naturally, writers cannot write dialogue as it is in real life. Real life dialogue is full of boring, social exchanges that often go nowhere. Literary dialogue needs to sound natural when you read it, but is, in reality, a compressed form of real speech which serves to move the story forward in some way. 


Some of the ways to achieve this are as follows: 

  • Use contractions to create an informal feel to the words. Compare these:

    “I do not think that you are right.” 
    “I don’t think you’re right.” 

The first sentence seems quite formal and stilted. The second  reads as much more natural speech.  

However, if your character is, for example, an uptight academic, or someone unfamiliar with English etc., then perhaps avoiding contractions would more clearly capture their voice.

  • Use sentence fragments. We often speak in bits and pieces in real life. Used judiciously in a passage of dialogue this device can add realism. 
  • Use simpler language. Avoid pompous, ten dollar words (unless the character is pompous). Natural speech is less formal. Your dialogue should reflect this. But avoid excess use of things like ‘um’, ‘uh huh’, ‘er’ etc.
  • Make sure your characters have reasons for dialogue. Don’t try to forcibly insert facts or backgrounds in speeches.
  • Avoid writing in dialect. Quite simply, long passages of dialect is hard to read and exhausting for your audience. You can capture the flavour of dialect through careful word choice, speech rhythms and grammar.
  • Use punctuation skillfully to aid the rhythm of real speech. This could be as simple as using a comma between two related sentences instead of a period. Or something like this: “Stop. Right. There.”  By putting a period between each word in the sentence, it makes it ‘sound’ as if the character is being particularly emphatic.
  • Have your characters interrupt each other occasionally--Or have a character’s speech trail off…(Remember to use only three dots for an ellipses.) 


Keep dialogue tags simple. This is not the time to haul out the thesaurus and find twenty-seven different ways to say ‘said’. As a rule of thumb, stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’, as your tags. These are words that become invisible to the reader, whereas passages full of ‘he interjected’, ‘she replied’, ‘he reasoned’, ‘she cajoled’, pull the reader out of the story, and at some point become almost comical, if not irritating. 


When two characters are talking over a long passage, it’s possible to eliminate dialogue tags altogether once you’ve established who is speaking and in what order. Or tags can be replaced by a piece of action. It’s much more visual to write, “I’m leaving.” She pushed the chair aside and strode from the room., than, “I’m leaving,” she said.  

And avoid passive –ing verbs, and excessive adverbs. Show us he is walking angrily through his actions and his words.  


After you have your dialogue written, test it by reading it aloud. The ear catches what the eye misses. By employing some of these techniques, you too can write believable dialogue. Your characters, and your readers, will thank you. 





About the Author: Judy Bagshaw has been published since 2000. Writing romance featuring full-figured heroines, her publishing credits include several novels, a collection of short stories, and short stories in multiple anthologies. She was also part of the writing team for the Ginn Reading Series, and Reaching Readers Series, used in many elementary schools. Retired from teaching, she writes full-time from her home in  Ontario , Canada. Visit Judy's website:




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