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On the broadest overall level, readers of novels, novellas, short stories, films, television shows, and live theater seek compelling stories, three-dimensional characters, and textured worldbuilding. Yet these three tenets are only the start of a writer’s obligations to a reader or viewer.
In order to tell stories at the highest level, an author must master the art of writing realistic dialogue. Writers use dialogue that replicates the cadences heard in the real world to create a sense of realism. From small talk to statements of intent, many a great book is built on great dialogue. Here is an overview of everything you need to improve your dialogue writing skills in your own work.
3 Reasons Realistic Dialogue Is Important
Good dialogue performs all sorts of functions in fiction writing. It defines your characters’ voices, establishes their speech patterns, reveals key information without being needlessly expository, and exposes the inner emotions that make characters tick. Here are three ways realistic dialogue enriches your story:
- Realistic dialogue shows character growth. A reader can track character development by the way a character’s speech pattern changes over the course of a book.
- Realistic dialogue establishes a setting. Beyond mere characterization, effective dialogue can clarify the time period of your story. After all, an old man in the antebellum South would speak quite differently than a mob boss’s best friend in twentieth century New York City.
- Realistic dialogue reveals a character’s personality. Authors use lines of dialogue to reveal a character’s personality because different characters talk in different ways. For instance, an archetypal football coach might speak in short, terse sentences peppered with exclamation points and quotations from famous war generals. By contrast, a nebbish lover with a broken heart might drone on endlessly to his therapist, speaking in run-on sentences that circle around his true motivations. When an author can reveal character traits through dialogue, it cuts down on exposition and makes a story flow briskly.
Overcoming the Challenge of Writing Realistic Dialogue
The first time you sit down to attempt your own novel writing, you may find it quite difficult to replicate the patterns of normal speech. This can be compounded by the concurrent challenges of finding your own voice as a narrator and telling a great story overall. But as you craft the voices of your main character, antagonist, and supporting characters, take comfort in the fact that such work is rarely easy. The fact is, even bestselling authors and time-tested screenwriters can get stuck on how a particular character says a particular line of dialogue. If you find that writing fiction packed with great dialogue is hard work, take comfort that you’re in some very good company.
4 Tips on Writing Realistic Dialogue From R.L. Stine
R.L. Stine is one of the most recognized authors of children’s horror novels alive today. He’s been called “the Stephen King of children’s literature” and has penned more than 300 books for kids. Dialogue is the primary storytelling device R.L. Stine uses, and he estimates that it comprises about two-thirds of his books. Here are his writing tips for how to add realistic dialogue to your own writing:
- Let dialogue tell the story. It’s better to show your characters’ personalities (and fears) through what they say to one another, rather than describe how they are feeling.
- Make your dialogue work toward your overall goals. Each conversation in your book should reveal something about the characters or something about the plot. The last thing you want is for your readers to feel like something isn’t necessary and to skip over it.
- Write dialogue that stands the test of time. It’s important to make your writing as timeless as possible so that it doesn’t become dated. You need to make your characters talk like real people, but you also want to avoid modern slang.
- Draw inspiration from your own favorite authors. There are two ways to discover your own writing style. One is to just start writing and see what kind of language you naturally use. The other is to identify an author you admire and model your writing after them at first. Emulating others can help you develop a style of your own.
7 Tips From David Baldacci on How to Write Realistic Dialogue
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David Baldacci has written 38 adult novels and seven children’s books, which have collectively sold more than 130 million copies. As an author of thrillers and mysteries, David Baldacci prides himself on writing pithy dialogue that gets to the point while mimicking the rhythms of real life conversation. Here’s how he does it:
- Understand the emotional context. Before writing dialogue, make sure you know your character’s current emotional situation. An angry character from one chapter might still be angry in the next one—or has something happened to soften them up? Imagine you are that character, and try to feel what they have just been through. What are they thinking? Planning? What will their response be to the next obstacle in the story? You don’t have to go easy on your characters—push them to their limits—but you should strive for continuity in describing their behavior.
- Know your specific plot goals for the scene. Are you trying to convey some information or have your character recover from a brush with danger? Whatever it is, write it down as a bullet point, and make sure you keep that the focus of your scene as you construct the character’s dialogue.
- Compress your dialogue. You should keep dialogue economical in the same way you do with your prose. Unless your character is naturally verbose, tighten up their language, conveying only the information that will deepen the character or move the story forward.
- Study people. Writing authentic dialogue means understanding who your characters are. If you know them well enough, you’ll know how they speak and what kind of reactions they’ll have to things. David recommends going into the world and consciously listening to the way people talk in various circumstances; once you’ve done this, practice duplicating what you’ve heard by writing it on the page. Pay attention to the world around you and it can serve as a wonderful writing tool. At first, it will probably take a lot of revising to do this well, but as you get a feel for your characters, it should become natural.
- Read your dialogue on the page. Read over what you’ve written and keep going back to it, editing it as you need. Practice reading it out loud. Most importantly, be sure that it sounds like your characters. Ask yourself: Is this really how they speak? Would they really say these things in this moment?
- Use technical language in moderation. Every character in your novel will have their own way of speaking, but when that language gets technical—when your characters talk in shorthand about a specialized field (weaponry, legal or medical terminology, computer coding, investment banking, etc.)—you may wind up confusing your reader. A good rule of thumb is that if you had to research the way your character speaks, then chances are your reader will have to learn it, too. At the same time, you don’t want to have to explain everything—not only is it tedious, but it can slow your momentum.
- Avoid info dumping. Beginning writers tend to drop large chunks of information onto the page all at once. This is called info dumping, and not only does it bore readers, but it stops the momentum cold. You want to make your information feel natural and interesting. You can avoid the dreaded info dump by having your characters discover information in the course of a conversation. If that feels overly expository, let them discover information via action.
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