How to Write Dialog That Sounds like Real Speech

Today editor Linda Clare tackles further pitfalls of dialog in our look at Fatal Flaw # 8: Flawed Dialog Construction. If you missed last week’s introductory post, read it here.

“Dialog takes pains to appear totally realistic without being so at all, for it is very much the product of conscious craft.”

—Oakley Hall

Writing realistic dialog is a challenge for fiction writers. Seems like it shouldn’t be. Talking is a natural, daily activity in our lives, something we often do without much forethought. So why is dialog sometimes the hardest thing to construct well in our stories?

New writers often attempt to reproduce actual conversations, only to find that this real dialog don’t work as fictional dialog. What’s going on?

Seasoned writers know that in writing, dialog sounds like real speech—but it isn’t. While some writers have a natural “ear” for good dialog, others must learn the principles of writing dialog. Although dialog writing guidelines include everything from knowing that punctuation usually goes inside the quotation marks to the admonition not to make characters sound like English butlers, let’s look at three easy ways you can craft better dialog.

Build Characters and Surprise

Ever hear feedback along the lines of “All the characters sound alike” or “they all sound like you”? One of the main ways readers imagine characters is through what the characters say and the way they say it.

When you create characters, pay attention to speech patterns, cadences, and slang use. A twelve-year-old doesn’t speak like his grandpa. Men and women often have different and recognizable speech. Educated vs. noneducated, modern vs. historical, foreign vs. domestic—these particulars and more will influence how your character speaks.

As you craft lines of dialog, you are also building character. If the character is dishonest, the dialog might take on words of avoidance or embellishment. If your character is naïve, she’ll speak a lot differently than someone more experienced. What your character says and doesn’t say will present readers with clues to personality, fears, desires, and motives.

Dialog also helps build surprise in story. If readers aren’t sure what your character will say next, tension increases. Rising tension is almost always critical to maintain readers’ interest. If a character asks another a question, for instance, instead of having the other character simply answer yes or no, you can build tension by crafting an unexpected answer.

A classic example might be, “Who’s there?” Instead of a simple, “It’s me,” your question might be followed by “Who wants to know?” The second response gives the character saying it an attitude, which is more interesting than the obvious answer. By crafting surprising dialog, your character builds tension and character depth at the same time.

The Rule of Three for Dialog

About ten years ago in my college writing classes, I started to see a lot of speeches, talking heads, and the like in student work. Three is always a good number, so I introduced The Rule of Three for dialog. (For my other “Rules of Three,” read this post, and this one.)

When you are learning to write dialog, this “rule” may help keep the speeches and talking heads to a minimum. This Rule of Three states that whenever a character speaks three lines (sentences) of dialog, switch to 1) the other speaker, 2) a beat of action, emotion or inner thought or 3) a brief narrative. Following this model, after every three exchanges of words (e.g.: Are so. Am not. Are so.), switch to action, inner thought/emotion or narrative, including description or flashback.

Use Beats or Tags?

Finally, the debate still rages over whether the dialog attribution is dead. Attributions are also known as “speech tags,” as they identify the speaker, ideally with “said.” Beginners soon learn to avoid creative tags (he expostulated, he exclaimed, she observed) and “ly” emotions that tell instead of show (“she said anxiously”). But how can you get a more complete picture of how a line is spoken?

Beats (sentences) of action, inner thought, or emotion placed next to the dialog can substitute for both the attribution as well as the emotion/thought.

My personal opinion is that using “he said” isn’t going to get a writer banished to outer darkness. The said is generally invisible to readers anyway. Yet dialog relies heavily on rhythm and pace. If you use the same placement and length of a beat again and again, it can turn singsong. The occasional said might help keep a scene going quickly if it’s interspersed with beats.

It’s up to you to choose an attribution or a beat, but variety tends to help any work of fiction. Just be sure to avoid those clunky tags that are formal or end in “ly.”

Now let’s look at Before and After examples:

Before:

Hannah pedaled faster. She had to reach Bob before the storm hit. As she neared the shop where her neighbor, Bob McGregor, tinkered on old cars, she braked and let her bike fall to the dirt. “Mr. McGregor, we must make haste! You will be engulfed by the rising floodwaters! Please, please, Bob, answer the door. I beg of you, we must be on our way. Now!” she exclaimed as she pounded on the shop’s door.

“Get your automobile so that we may flee! Have you not heard of the impending flood? Why do you not heed the warnings?” Hannah said in urgency. “Mother informed me that the storm is almost upon us! It is only a matter of minutes before your shop will be completely underwater. The meteorologist forecast that the river will crest this hour.”

Bob McGregor opened the door and shuffled out into bright sunshine. “All right, all right, I am answering the door. Who’s out there? What is all cacophony?” Bob said grouchily. “The meteorologist is the only occupation I am aware of where one gets compensated for being incorrect,” he lectured. Predicting the weather is not a science,” he continued. “And I do not believe anyone can successfully predict where the winds and currents will rise up. Why, back in my day, we did not require a professional to tell us what my grandmother’s rheumatic knees predicted. And she was ever correct,” Bob orated.

Hannah pulled Bob’s arm. “This time you are incorrect,” she said breathlessly. “Mother stated that we need to travel upon the river road.”

“Traverse the river road?” Bob asked in confusion and alarm. “How could it be? My knees are perfectly fine. Besides, I am in the midst of remodeling my workbench.”

“It is expedient,” she blurted out.

“You are an impertinent young girl,” came Bob’s dry answer.

“I only desire to remain a living, breathing female.” Hannah’s voice was strained.

After:

Hannah pedaled faster. She had to reach Bob before the storm hit. As she neared the shop where her neighbor, Bob McGregor, tinkered on old cars, she braked and let her bike fall to the dirt.

“Mr. McGregor, hurry!” She pounded on the shop’s door. “Pull the car out!” Hannah’s heart pounded in her ears. “Ma says the storm’s coming!” She closed her eyes. Would old Bob put up a fight?

Bob McGregor opened the door and shuffled out into bright sunshine. “What’s all this racket?” His scowl made Hannah’s heart sink. “Dang weatherman’s the job I know where you get paid for being wrong.” He wagged a finger under Hannah’s nose.

Hannah pulled Bob’s arm. “This time it’s for real,” she said. “Mother told me we need to take the river road.”

Bob’s eyes widened. “The river road?”

“It’s fastest.” She didn’t add that Bob was possibly the slowest old dude on the planet.

Bob crossed his arms and didn’t budge. “You’re awful bossy for a young girl.”

Hannah pulled him along. She couldn’t waste another minute arguing with the old coot. “I just want to be a living girl,” she said.

In the first example, Hannah’s dialog sounds like the minutes from a boring city council meeting. No young person would say these types of things. Even the adult, Bob, takes on a very formal tone. This lessens each character’s distinction for readers.

There’s no surprise here, either. Both have the same tone—boring. Both characters ignore The Rule of Three, and there’s a mix of ridiculous attributions as well as telling “ly” words.

In the After rewrite, each character says more age-appropriate things. I eliminated the silly attributions, substituting beats of action or inner thought/emotion. I used the Rule of Three to whittle deadwood from the conversation, thereby speeding up the pace.

Use these ideas to help you create dialog that sounds like real speech—but isn’t.

Your Turn:

What is the most difficult aspect of crafting dialog for you? Can you think of places in your own work where different ways of speaking/thinking, substituting beats for attributions and/or employing The Rule of Three might help?

Remember the “rule” is only a guideline, meant to help you develop your own rhythm and style in crafting dialog. What are some of your favorite tips for writing dialog?

5 Responses to “How to Write Dialog That Sounds like Real Speech”

  1. Harald Johnson August 13, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    Very good post. Thanks! My models for good dialogue: Elmore Leonard. Stephen King. Hilary Mantel isn’t bad, either! 🙂 And Nelson DeMille, who likes to use a lot of “action breaks.”

    One issue I’m dealing with in my historical fiction WIP is a bit complex and wonder if either of you have thoughts… I have both 16th century Europeans and Native Americans conversing, both with their peers and also with the “foreigners.” And the EUs speak different languages. On top of that, all characters are speaking English in the text, although the occasional original/native word is used for flavor. And I have vast gaps in culture, technological achievement, ages (of course), and the fact that one group (Native Americans) has no written language!

    I know it’s a general question, but any thoughts on how to manage this alphabet soup? Maybe other posts or sites discussing this? Thanks for any leads or thoughts.

    • cslakin August 13, 2015 at 10:13 am #

      I comment a lot on this issue in my critiques. Whether like your situation, or aliens meeting from different worlds, you have to ask: How are they really communicating? You are in someone’s POV in the scene, so you would show what they say, what they hear (do they hear essentially confusing gibberish because they don’t know another’s language?), and what they understand is being communicated, either verbally or through body language.

      Another thing I notice is when two people, for example, are speaking the same language. Let’s say it’s Spanish, although the book is in English and most of the characters speak English. It doesn’t make sense to drop in Spanish words into a conversation that is supposedly in Spanish, right? You might have a pet name that is used. For instance, a character might say (speaking Spanish but the scene is written in English for an English-speaking audience): “Oh, querido, you know I love you.”

      If you have characters speaking to one another and they have different native languages, you might throw in a foreign word here and there when a character is not sure how to translate: “I am going to the tienda at the end of town. Do you want to come?” So think about who your POV character is, what he speaks, what languages/words he knows, then show the communication in the way he deals with it.

      Hope this helps!

      • Harald Johnson August 13, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

        Great reply, Susanne. Thanks. Above is basically what I’m doing, using an “over-time ramp up” from sign language, pointing, and simple words to more complex language skills during the course of the story. One challenge is to avoid the cliched “Me go now, Kemosabe” with first-contact native americans, but it’s hard getting around simple words and present tense at the start. Anyway, hope I haven’t diverted this thread. Thanks again.

  2. Lisa Womble August 13, 2015 at 5:46 pm #

    My WIP is set in the inner-city. This is a work of creative non-fiction I’m gearing towards a cross-over audience (those who want to know the details of my main character’s involvement in street life, and those who want to read of his transformation out of a life of crime). The dialogue that rings true contains urban slang. For example, “You were flossing’ hard in that new BMW.” Or, “How’d you get me messed up in this jawn?” My issue is whether to try to define the lingo or let context help the reader understand it. I suppose there’s a third option – to clean it up. But that doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t want the reader to get tripped up over the slang, but I also don’t want to break the flow of the dialogue by inserting unnatural explanations. Anyone want to weigh in?

    • Linda S Clare August 24, 2015 at 10:07 am #

      Hi Lisa,
      Sorry for my late reply. I think in terms of dialect, (slang is considered a type of dialect) your first priority has to be the reader. Is your audience liable to be teens who’ll “get” the slang? Or is the typical reader older, wiser? I don’t know if a crossover audience is going to be able to embrace the lingo as well as you hope. Like rap music, it seems folks either love it or hate it. Also, slang changes very quickly and what looks modern and hip now will seem passe or even not understood in a few years. I think the middle ground might be a scattering of words to flavor the speech of these people–like Susanne’s comment about foreign words and phrases. Just as reading Irish dialect might be painful for readers unless it’s just a word/phrase here and there, too much urban slang might tempt readers to finish reading another day. Just my opinion.
      Keep writing!
      Linda

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