Whether you’re writing a short story, a novel, a play, or even a narrative poem, you’re likely to include some dialogue at some point. Dialogue is the spoken portions of the story, the “he said, she said,” and if done well, it can add a lot of depth to your characters. Writing believable and realistic dialogue isn’t exactly easy: a lot of writing doesn’t translate very well into speech, because people speak differently than they read. Here’s some tips to help you improve your skills at writing realistic dialogue:
Listen to People
My mother always told me I shouldn’t eavesdrop on people’s conversations. I’m glad I never took her advice. Whenever you’re out and about, open your ears and listen to the people around you. Figure out which syllables they pronounce and which ones they don’t. Listen to what slang words they use and where, and how comfortable they are with using them. Listen to the stops and pauses and the various non-word sounds — “um, ah, err, hmm” — they make. Note to yourself how the way someone speaks influences your view of them. Do they use big words inappropriately as a way of trying to make themselves sound more intelligent? Do they speak quickly, running their words together, or do they speak more slowly?
Read Your Writing Out Loud
After you’ve written a bit of dialogue, try to read it out loud to yourself. Often, writing doesn’t translate into speech as well as we’d like. Notice where you need to stop reading to take a breath. Most people are lazy speakers and tend to avoid excess formality. They put contractions in where they can and are prone to leaving out words. Read your dialogue out loud, or get a friend to read it along with you, so you can identify what sounds right and what doesn’t. Trust your ear.
A Note on Time Periods
If you’re writing in a different time period, consider ways you can manipulate dialogue to fit the period. Avoid anachronisms: no one in the Victorian era is going to use slang like “That’s cool.” If you’re writing in a particular time period, try to find books written in that era to get a grasp on the type of vocabulary common among people of the time, or watch movies set in that era. Consider also the differences in speaking between classes of citizens. Gentry and clergy will have a different way of speaking than lay people, and the difference will be more pronounced the further back your piece is set.
Have you ever watched a movie and heard an actor doing a really poor job of imitating a Southern or British accent? Writing a dialect is something like that. It can be tempting to replace the G at the end of every gerund with an apostrophe in an attempt to simulate a southern drawl, but use this sparingly, and consider the characters and setting of your work. If a piece takes place in Ireland, it isn’t necessary to try to emulate the Irish dialect and accent: the reader will assume that Irish people speak in an Irish accent, and trying to beat your reader over the head with it will just be distracting.
However, if your piece is set in Russia and one of your characters is an Irishman, then you can draw attention to his dialect as a way of making that character stand out. Again, consider your character and your setting, and use your own discretion.
Practice Practice Practice
As with any writing, realistic dialogue takes practice. The more you practice with dialogue, the more realistic and believable your dialogue will be. Have other people read your dialogue and ask their opinion on whether it’s written well or not and revise accordingly.