On Writing Realistic Dialogue

Photo credit: kattebelletje on Flickr
Dialogue is a tricky thing to master. Trying to write speech in a way that mimics the way we speak isn't something that comes naturally—like just about everything writing-related, it takes a lot of practice and a lot of reading to get a good feel for it.

I've written some do's and don't's for writing realistic dialogue in the past, so I won't reiterate all of that, exactly, but I think there's still more to be said for writing dialogue that doesn't fall flat, so here are five more points to think about:

  1. Language is always evolving. I recently took a Linguistics class (such a good decision, writing-wise), and the number one lesson repeated throughout the semester was this: language is always changing. This is really important to consider, especially if you write YA, because teens are huge drivers of language change and it changes *so* quickly. Slang that was popular just five years ago is already falling out of favor: teens don't say really "(epic) fail" or "pwned" anymore, for example. It's your responsibility, as a writer, to keep up to date with the way language is changing, especially if you write for teens.

  2. Think carefully about each of your characters. How much education do they have? What regional dialect are they a part of (remember: everyone has an accent)? Do they swear a lot (or at all)? Are they likely to speak formally or informally? Do they tend towards long or short sentences? All of these factors and more will play into how they speak, and it's up to you to make sure each character has their own distinctive speech style.

    When writing Beyond the Red, this was something I had to think about a lot, given that my two main characters come from very different backgrounds and levels of education. It wouldn't make sense for Sepharon (alien) royalty to speak the same way a guy who was raised by human nomads did. Culture, education, and even personality should all be considered when differentiating the way your characters speak.

  3. Not all conversations are straightforward. Real-life conversations can be very complicated and nuanced. People frequently don't say exactly what's on their minds—we speak through subtext, we use tone and body language to add meaning to our words, we answer questions with questions or silence, and we change topics or end conversations when we don't want to talk about something. Consider:

    "I told him we'd go to the afterparty," Leah said.
    Bree laughed. "Of course you did."

    "I told him we'd go to the afterparty," Leah said.
    Bree rolled her eyes. "Of course you did."

    Same exact words in both of these conversations, but I don't need to explain how Bree's body language completely changes what she's saying.

  4. Don't omit contractions needlessly. 9/10 times when I read dialogue that feels stilted, this is part of the problem. People speak with contractions all the time—without them, we sound like robots at best, and laughable at worst. Even if you're writing historical or a formal character, you do not want to omit every single contraction: your characters will only sound stiff and unnatural.

  5. Many teens swear. While not all teens swear, writing teen characters who deliberately don't swear (oh, fiddlesticks!) can often sound contrived. If your teen character doesn't swear, it's okay...but make sure you aren't censoring just because—and definitely make sure your teen isn't surrounded by other teens who magically don't swear either. It's honestly just not very realistic—and teens will notice.

These are just a couple points on writing realistic dialogue, but now I want to hear from you. What tips do you have for writing speech that doesn't sound stilted? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
How do you write realistic dialogue? @Ava_Jae shares five tips to consider. (Click to tweet
Struggling to write realistic dialogue? @Ava_Jae shares five tips you may want to implement. #writetip (Click to tweet)

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