Making Dialogue Feel Real


I read a book recently, The Settlers, by Jason Gurley, that had fantastic dialogue. I wrote about it in my review. It was powerful and, more importantly, made me feel like it was REAL dialogue. Have you ever read a book in which the dialogue fell flat? Maybe like the words spoken between characters just didn’t seem right? Heck, maybe you’ve written some pretty bad dialogue yourself; I know I have.

When I’m reading a book, I love the dialogue. That’s what makes me feel involved in the process. With conversation, it opens up the characters to one another. As readers, we are gods. We’re omnipotent observers because we get to read the back stories. We know the characters thoughts. The other characters don’t know these things, so when the dialogue comes along, the characters are letting out the secrets that we already know. You know how hard it is to keep a secret!

I’ve said that the hardest thing for me has been character development. I think I have a decent handle on that now, but the second hardest thing for me is dialogue. In my opinion, dialogue is a very important part of character development, if for no other reason than it is what makes them seem real. I mean, Ian Fleming could have filled our heads with great backdrops, stories, and thoughts of James Bond, but it really is the suave way that Bond talks to others (particularly the women) that make us love him. Unless your story is going to be set up based around the life of a mime, then you have to practice your dialogue skills. It certainly took a good bit of practice for me.

Assuming that you already know and understand the rules of punctuation surrounding dialogue (no small feat if you are new to it or are not an avid reader), you have to have a certain flow. I almost don’t know how to explain it. Coming from an academic, research based writing background, my dialogue flow was rough. Contractions were so non-existent in my head that I didn’t know where the apostrophe button was. Unless you are writing a Commander Data or Spoke fan fic, you really need to know where it is. People usually don’t talk in proper English. We are all about some contractions.

Making the dialogue real is important, but you know it can go overboard. Very rarely can an author go full on slang and get away with it. Mark Twain could manage it, but I certainly can’t. Could you imagine reading a book base on characters from Boston or How about southern Louisiana in which the author tried to get every word phonetically correct? You can throw most accents and slang out the window, especially if you are new at writing fiction (like me).

Most of the time, dialogue can’t simply be the spoken words (I know that it pretty much the definition though). What you put around the spoken words is just as important. Conversations between real people usually are accompanied by some kind of hand or head movement. Real conversations are also filled with thought in the heads of the participants. That has to be shown through the dialogue. Here is a brief snipet of dialogue that I just wrote for two of the characters in my new book, but completely stripped down and flow inept:

“I still have not opened the Bible you gave me,” said Benjamin. Pastor Raymond had given it to him a few months ago.

“I did not ask if you had,” said Raymond.

“I know, but I did not want you to get your hopes up,” said Benjamin.

“You will open it when and if you are ready,” said Raymond. “Rushing faith is an easy way to turn people away from God.”

Now, to me, that is about as ugly as it gets. Let’s look at what I really wrote:

“I still haven’t opened the Bible you gave me,” said Benjamin. Pastor Raymond had given it to him three months prior, probably hoping that Benjamin would gain a better understanding of faith.

“I didn’t ask if you had,” replied Raymond.

“I know,” said Benjamin, “but I didn’t want you to get your hopes up.” Benjamin smiled a little, hoping he could keep the pastor’s patience in check. He knew he didn’t have to worry about it, though. Pastor Raymond was the most patient person he knew.

“You’ll open it up when and if you’re ready,” said Raymond. “Rushing faith is an easy way to turn people away from God.”

Mechanically, everything that could be contracted is. That’s just how we talk. We’re not writing a research paper, we’re writing fiction. Also new to the second part it the filler between the characters speaking to one another. It tells you that they are not simply robots, but people that are having their own individual thoughts and feelings. In real conversation, this is stuff we do. We think about what the other person it saying and we wonder what they are thinking. Often what we are thinking is not what we say, and that has to be shown to the reader in fiction dialogue. If you want your audience to connect with the characters, you have to make them real. OH! Yes, I was hoping I could circle this back around to character development and there it is (I’m feeling a bit like the Doctor today thanks to my new sonic screwdriver).

New fiction writers, like myself, often rely on too little dialogue because it scares them. Sure, descriptions of the scenes are nice, and who doesn’t love to take a trip into a character’s past via flashbacks? But dialogue is where it’s at. I like to think of all the words in the book as parts of speech, with the dialogue being the action verbs. It adds the excitement and ups the tempo. Everything else is important, just not as much.

What do you think about dialogue? If you disagree, please let me know. On this blog, I just write things down regardless of whether or not it is right. Do you have your own way of making dialogue work? Put some of your own dialogue in the comments!


4 thoughts on “Making Dialogue Feel Real

  1. Dialogue makes it real, Allen, though i wouldn’t write in my own dialect as it was spoken a hundred years ago! You just wouldn’t understand it! The accent is still strong today, but people don’t phrase things like they used to. Regional accents prevail, but the words themselves constantly evolve, thank God! For example:

    “Can you kick a ball against a wall and burst it with your head?” translated into Potteries dialect here in Stoke-on-Trent becomes:
    “Cost kick a bow agen a wo an bost eet with yer yed?”

    Another favourite of mine regarding an old coin called a half crown:

    “Can you lend me a half crown?”
    “No, i can’t.”
    “Why can’t you?”
    “You wouldn’t if you could, would you?”

    Suddenly becomes, in Potteries slang:

    “Cost lend us aif a crine?”
    “No, ar cossner.”
    “Way cossner?”
    “They’t wussner if thee cust, wust?”

    Baffling, isn’t it? But interesting!
    I hope you managed to read it okay, Allen, lol.

    1. That is fantastic! I had to read it very slowly and then read it again. Could you imagine your audience if you wrote a book with that dialect? I find it fascinating because one of the things I taught when I was a teacher was the evolution of dialects, particularly in your region.

  2. Pingback: Beta Read: Fantasy Fails with Flat Dialogue - Day 45 | Angela D'Ambrosio Writing, thoughts and other stuffAngela D'Ambrosio Writing, thoughts and other stuff

  3. I always get annoyed with books that have too little dialogue. I see this a lot in older work — even great stuff like HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu tales seem more like journal entries than anything else because of the dearth of dialogue. In my last book, the passage I selected for the inside front cover blurb consists of almost but the two main characters talking:

    “So what kind of character do you want?” Mercy asked.

    “I don’t know.” Bernard inspected the options. “What’s a rogue?”

    “A rogue is like a thief.”

    “What, you mean they go around robbing people?”

    “Well, sort of, but not like a mugger. More like, you know, Robin Hood or Ali Baba.”

    “Mmm. What are you?”

    “I’m an elf sorceress.”

    “Of course you are. I’ll be a human rogue. Male. Good.”

    “Good? You can’t be good.”

    “Why not?”

    “You’re a rogue.”


    “So you’re a thief. You burglarize castles. You waylay people and take their stuff. Does that sound like good behavior to you?”

    “You just said rogues weren’t muggers.”

    “It doesn’t take any skill to be a mugger. All it takes is a weapon. Rogues are like, like, like gymnasts. Acrobats who steal. Cat burglars. They jump around, they run along tightropes, they climb up walls.” She had no idea if this particular game actually presented rogues that way, but she was getting a little impatient. “Trust me, you’ll love being a rogue.”

    “Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe I should be a scout. What would a scout do?”

    “Help old ladies across the street. Oh, come on. Live dangerously.” Before he could protest further, she had made him a neutral male rogue. The computer then prompted her for the character’s name.

    She gave Bernard a sidelong glance.

    “Can’t I just call him Bernard?” he said. “Maybe humans in that world just have regular names.”

    “Regular names are boring. Ambrosia the Sorceress is not going to pal around with someone named Bernard.”

    “Well, I can’t think of a name,” he said, sounding cross.

    “Fine, I’ll make one up for you.” She typed Brannoc and accepted the character; the screen went black for a moment, then returned to Ambrosia standing alone and motionless in the forest, as if she’d started down the path and then forgotten where she wanted to go.

    “Where’s my character?” Bernard asked.

    “He’s probably sitting around somewhere complaining about his name and wondering if he should have become a scout,” Mercy said.

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