Writing Believable Dialogue
Copyright Judy Bagshaw - All Rights
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
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
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
“I don’t think you’re
The first sentence seems
quite formal and stilted. The second reads as much more
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’
- Make sure your
characters have reasons for dialogue. Don’t try to forcibly insert facts or backgrounds in
- 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
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.
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