Writing Realistic Dialogue

What the heck is realistic dialogue, and why should you care? This week, Finn Burnett dropped in to answer both questions (and a whole lot more).

The purpose of dialogue is to convey information, show relationships, reveal character, and advance your story. Sound easy? Think again. Take, for instance the following dialogue:

“I can’t do this homework,” Sue screamed.

“You can do it,” Tagan cajoled.

“I don’t know how,” Sue retorted.

“You’ll figure it out,” Jannice chimed in.

“She’s just nervous,” Kate soothed.

“I hope she figures it out,” Lori cried.

How does it make you feel? Does it feel…real? Does it feel natural? Why?

Consider the dialogue tags: screamed, cajoled, retorted, chimed, soothed, and cried. Alone, they’re powerful, they convey information, reveal character and possibly advance the story. But they can also become unneccessary and distracting. (Also, chances are your readers may be glacing right over them.)

Now, consider this minor change:

“I can’t do this homework,” Sue screamed.

“You can do it,” Tagan said.

“I don’t know how,” Sue said.

“You’ll figure it out,” said Jannice.

“She’s just nervous,” Kate said.

“I hope she figures it out,” said Lori.

Not sure which you prefer? Then, welcome to the SAID debate. Some people argue the only dialogue tags you need are “said” and “asked” because both are easily ignore, allowing your reader to focus all of that delicious attention on what’s being said. While others contend we do not simply say or ask. We scream, cajole, retort, chime, soothe, and cry.

Read both examples and decide which is right for your story, keeping in mind the suggestions about dialogue: it should convey information, show relationships, reveal character, and advance the story.

If you’re still unsure, air on the side of clarity & simplicity.

But what about those long blocks of juicy dialogue?

Do you have a character who likes to drone on and on (and on)? Break it up, already! Keep things moving (and interesting) for your readers by breaking up long monologues with action, describing the setting, or a little bit of the old back & forth:

    Natalia waved across the room. “Hey, Finn.”

    Finn waved back as Natalia threaded through the crowd. That rascal was getting ready to steal her carrot cake, without a doubt. Finn shoved the last giant bite in her mouth and smiled. Cream cheese frosting oozed from between her lips.

    Natalia stopped short. “I was going to ask for a bite of that.”

    “Oh, really?” Finn choked through the mouthful. “I’m sorry.”

When in doubt, read it out (loud). Sometimes reading your dialogue out loud is all that you need to identify what works, what doesn’t, and what sounds natural. It’s okay to let your characters trail off, change the subject, be self-conscious and unsure. Even though they’re fictional, they’re still only human (unless you’re writing sci-fi/fantasy, in which case… feel free to swap out the word “human”).

What are your biggest dialogue pet peeves? Got a question for our instructors? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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