Learning how to write dialogue can be one of the trickiest parts of humanizing your characters. Let’s take a look at some surefire tips guaranteed to bring your characters to life.
Learn to Listen
The foundation of realistic dialogue lies in your ability to listen. Observe how people around you speak, their mannerisms, their tone, and the unspoken nuances of communication. Listening is the first step to creating characters who speak naturally. Take note of odd turns of phrase or interesting diction you encounter and apply it to your characters. This will make them more human.
Vary Your Voices
Each character in your story should have a distinct voice. Their dialogue should reflect their personality, background, and motivations. Spend time developing your characters to ensure their words align with who they are. Where are they from, or where did they grow up? What do they do for a living? What is social status? How old are they? All these things will affect their manner of speaking.
You Don’t Say
People rarely say exactly what’s on their minds. In real life, much of the communication happens beneath the surface. Mastering subtext in your dialogue can add depth and intrigue to your characters’ interactions. Describe what your characters are doing with their hands or their eyes while they speak (or while they’re not speaking). Are any emotions visible on their face? How are they reacting to the environment around them?
Actions Speak Louder
Instead of having characters explicitly state their feelings, show those emotions through their words and actions. This invites readers to engage more deeply with the story. Have your angry character clench her fists or grit or teeth. Your sorrowful character can sniff or choke back a tear.
Brevity Is the Soul of Wit
Real conversations often involve small talk, but in fiction, every line should serve a purpose. Trim unnecessary words and ensure your dialogue is as concise as possible. Every rule has exceptions, of course, so if excessive small talk or grandiose verbosity is part of your character’s identity, then it needs to stay in.
A Brief Interruption
Interrupted dialogue can make a conversation feel more lifelike. Use interruptions strategically to simulate the ebb and flow of natural conversation. In real life, we talk over each other all the time, and even though it’s not the most polite—
“Don’t overuse dialogue tags,” he interrupted, “especially generic ones.”
While dialogue tags like “he said” or “she asked” are necessary to indicate the speaker, don’t overuse them. Readers can often identify the speaker through the dialogue itself. Mix direct quotes and indirect speech to vary the rhythm of your dialogue. You may find it profitable to replace unnecessary dialogue tags with brief descriptions of the character’s actions or reactions.
Don’t forget the power of silence. In real life, pauses can carry a heavy weight. Use them to build tension or emphasize a character’s internal conflict. Use careful prose descriptions to regulate the passage of time for your reader. Sometimes, learning how to write dialogue means learning how to write silences.
Contextualize Your Conversation
Dialogue should be influenced by the situation and context. How a character speaks at a funeral will differ from how they speak at a party. How they speak in private may be very different from how they speak in public. Their dialogue will even vary depending on whom they’re speaking with. Be mindful of these nuances.
If you’re having trouble nailing a particular conversation, try acting it out yourself. You’ll gain a better sense of how the dialogue should unfold, and a better sense of how your conversation would flow in a realistic, natural situation.
Study renowned authors who excel in crafting dialogue. Analyze how they bring their characters to life through conversation. Analyze the rhythm and flow, and how they use punctuation to illustrate pauses and conversational quirks.
Learning how to write dialogue is a skill that improves with practice. Revise, refine, and keep honing your craft. It’s about capturing the essence of real communication and infusing it with purpose and depth.
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