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How to Write Natural and Authentic Dialogue Between Characters


Good dialogue can make or break your story. Readers will lose interest in your story if dialogue feels forced or unrealistic. If your dialogue is engaging, you can really bring your characters to life inside readers' minds. Keep reading for eleven tips for writing genuine and authentic dialogue.

Know your characters

The best dialogue writers know their characters intimately, so they know the way each character thinks, speaks, and feels. They know the kind of words each character would use and which words the character would never say in conversation. If you do not yet fully know your characters and their speech patterns, consider assigning friends or family members' conversational styles to your characters. If the character becomes more fleshed out through your writing process, you can adapt the dialogue as you write and edit. It is essential that you keep your characters' voices consistent throughout the story, so if you learn things about how your character speaks as you write, make sure you go back and edit the entire work with consistency in mind.

Listen to conversations

Listen to the people around you at the grocery store, in restaurants, or when you're sitting at the park. As you listen, consider each person's speaking style and whether it is a style you want to assign to one of your characters. As you observe actual conversations in your everyday life, try to emulate them in your writing.

Use contractions

One of the dialogue mistakes I see most frequently as an editor is not using contractions in dialogue. Unless you are writing dialogue for Grover on Sesame Street (the loveable blue furry monster who rarely uses contractions), include contractions in your dialogue. A huggable blue monster is probably the only person/character who can get away with not using contractions and still sound realistic and adorable. People speak informally, especially to their friends and loved ones, so most people use contractions instead of the formal version of the words. Not using contractions is one of the easiest ways to make your dialogue sound stilted and forced. Not using contractions is a mistake that occurs when writers don't listen and try to emulate the conversational patterns around them.

Pay attention to your dialogue tags

Including dialogue tags like "he said" or "she said" are often essential, but it will quickly become repetitive if you use the same tags after every single sentence. Read through your exchanges and remove dialogue tags in any place where readers can clearly identify who is speaking. Mary Pope Osborne, who writes the Magic Treehouse series, is excellent at capturing the voices of characters in dialogue, but she tends to overuse basic dialogue tags. Perhaps Osborne overuses simple dialogue tags because she writes for elementary-aged children, but even new readers can distinguish between speakers if dialogue is written well. When I read Osborne's books aloud to my children, I often omitted or edited the dialogue tags because it became so mundane and repetitive the way it was written. Read this passage from Osborne's first book, Dinosaurs Before Dark, and consider how you would change the dialogue tags or remove them altogether:

"No one's going to believe our story," said Jack.
"So, let's not tell anyone," said Annie.
"Dad won't believe it," said Jack.
"He'll say it was a dream," said Annie.
"Mom won't believe it," said Jack.
"She'll say it was pretend," (sic)
"My teacher won't believe it," said Jack.
"She'll say you're nuts," said Annie.
"We better not tell anyone," said Jack.
"I already said that," said Annie.

Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne

If you feel strongly that dialogue tags are essential for each line, switch up placement of the dialogue tag so it doesn't feel monotonous to your reader. Consider placing dialogue tags at the beginning of the line or even breaking the statement in half and inserting the dialogue tag in the middle. If you look at the above passage, notice that I've added (sic) at the end of the sixth line, because it is incorrect as written. It looks as if Osborne intended to include another dialogue tag after the quote but forgot. The missing dialogue tag is not necessary, because readers can infer that Annie is speaking based on the rhythm of the dialogue and the fact that this statement is on a new line, which indicates that the speaker changed. However, Osborne needed to change that comma to a period since it is the end of Annie's statement and the end of the line.

Now, consider this dialogue from The Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling. Like Osborne, Rowling is also quite popular with elementary-aged readers, yet she has mastered the art of conveying the speaker without having to identify it in every line:

"You're right, Harry," said Hermione in a small voice.
"I'll use the invisibility cloak," said Harry. "It's just lucky I got it back."
"But will it cover all three of us?" said Ron.
"All –– all three of us?"
"Oh, come off it, you don't think we'd let you go alone?"
"Of course not," said Hermione briskly.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling

Rowling established a rapport among her characters and gave them each distinct speaking styles, so readers could easily identify who is speaking, even when three characters are in a conversation.

While the word "said" is useful for framing most of your dialogue, consider using other descriptive words instead of "said" when you want to convey more emotion or additional information. There are plenty of guides on the internet with charts to help you choose the correct word for your situation, but I like words such as offered, whispered, asked, or scoffed because they add expression to your dialogue.

Use dialogue to advance the story or to convey information about characters

Dialogue is a great way to reveal information about your characters and their relationships, personal beliefs, and worldviews. Therefore, when you write dialogue, try to stay away from tedious exchanges. Instead, include dialogue that reveals how a character feels about another character or that conveys other imperative information that will move your story forward. When done right, revealing information through dialogue can create excitement and engagement within your readers.

Read your dialogue out loud

Reading your written dialogue out loud will help you ensure that it sounds natural. If it feels awkward as you're reading it, change it. Reading it aloud will help you identify if you have overused a word or a particular dialogue tag. Once you've changed it, read it aloud again, and keep repeating the process until it feels natural and realistic.

Consider speech patterns, personality styles, and the relationships between the speakers

Many people interrupt their friends or loved ones when they're excited about a topic. Most people don't always speak in complete sentences, so it will feel unrealistic if your characters only speak in grammatically correct complete sentences. Also, consider the relationship between the speakers. Most of us speak slightly differently to our parents than to our friends, no matter how old we are.

Decide if your characters have frequently used phrases

Listen to how your friends speak, and notice if they have certain phrases that they tend to use a lot. Think of J.K. Rowling's iconic character Ron Weasley: Anytime readers see the phrase Are you mental? we know that Ron Weasley is speaking, because Rowling established it as one of Ron's signature phrases. Decide whether your characters have certain catchphrases or words that they use frequently. If your character does have a catchphrase or signature phrase, make sure not to overuse the phrase. People's personalities often come out through the way they speak, so a well-chosen phrase can be a great way to help readers know your character.

Use proper punctuation

This one might seem obvious, but improper punctuation is one of the most frequent mistakes I see when writers attempt dialogue. When writing dialogue, you must start a new line each time the speaker changes. This signals to the reader that a new person is speaking. Review dialogue punctuation rules to ensure that you are punctuating correctly, and do not use a period inside the quotation mark if you include a dialogue tag after the sentence.

Remember that conversations do not occur in a vacuum

Dialogue isn't just about the information within quotation marks. Make sure to include visual cues that show where the conversation is taking place and how characters react to each other's statements. Consider including essential tidbits such as location, characters' facial expressions and physical stances, and other indications of their attitudes.

Edit conversations

In real life, conversations meander and get boring, but your readers do not want you to replicate that in your writing. Readers do not expect you to share every tedious word your characters speak to each other, so make sure to omit any dialogue that does not advance your plot.

Now go write some dialogue! I hope these eleven tips inspire you to write natural and authentic dialogue between your characters.

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