Writing Real Dialogue in Fiction

Greetings, SE’ers! Beem Weeks here with you again. Today, I am going to share my thoughts on character dialogue in fiction. 

Confused young couple discussing about domestic bills at home

Dialogue. It can make or break a story. Dialogue is the lines your characters speak aloud in a written story. They differ from the narrative voice in that even the peripheral characters are given a voice through dialogue. The narrative voice is telling your story, but your characters, if they are to become real to readers, must speak. And they must be authentic when speaking.

For the most part, the narrator will usually be a consistent voice. But your characters are each different. Some may be sweet and kind and full of empathy, while others might be indifferent, aloof, apathetic to the struggles of those around him or her. Still others might be hardboiled and angry—or just plain mean. A bully and his or her victim are going to sound radically different from one another when speaking. These dialogue voices let readers know, not just who it is that is speaking, they also tell us a lot about the personality of each character.

I can’t stress it enough: Dialogue is vitally important to forming your characters. If the first line of dialogue we hear from Frankie Jerome is, “Listen, jerk, if you don’t back away from my car, I’m gonna bust you in the mouth,” we can be pretty sure Frank is not a man to be messed with. He sounds tough, and maybe even a bit aggressive. We know he’s likely to be a fighter rather than a guy who would walk away from a confrontation. Now, if we’re then told by the narrator that Frank is saying this to a nun, well, we get an even darker picture of the man.

The way we speak in our everyday interactions is really a personality trait. Our speech tells listeners if we’re introverted or extroverted. It reveals our place of origin: the southern U. S. or England or India. It can also alert others that maybe we’re angry or scared or sad or depressed or happy. Capturing tone is important in dialogue. Emotion is conveyed through our speech.

Writing lines for your characters is not always an easy task—though it doesn’t have to be difficult, either. In real life, people speak in ways that may seem impossible to capture on paper. Consider the varying dialects within the same languages. British English has its own patterns and words that differ from American English or the Aussie brand of the language. (And that’s not even counting the varying dialects within the same country. A chap from Liverpool will speak with a different sort of accent than a fellow from Birmingham.) A skillful writer should be able to illustrate that, of the three characters conversing in the opening scene of chapter seven, two are from England while the third is from Australia—without mentioning this every time they speak. 

If the writer can hear those voices in his/her head, they should be able to drop little vocal hints within the written dialogue that give life to the characters and to the stories they tell. But it’s not always easy. Sprinkling a lisp or a stutter into your character’s speech can seem daunting—though it need not be.

Dialogue is probably my favorite part of writing fiction. These are words and accents—and even speech impediments—that give personality to characters that did not exist until I put pen to paper and gave them meaning, reason, and life.

So here’s my advice to any writer who might be struggling with dialogue issues: Just write what you hear. Listen to voices on the street or those being spoken inside your head; read works by other authors; study films with rich dialogue and strong acting performances. That little extra effort will usually show up in the finished product. The great thing about language is it’s all around us in so many differing forms. We just need to be attentive.

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65 thoughts on “Writing Real Dialogue in Fiction

  1. This is very helpful right now. I’m working on a book and I struggle a bit with the dialogue because I’m not sure what words to use after one of my characters finishes what they have to say. I’m also trying to pass from a character to another without actually announcing the switch so I’m trying to write it in a way that my readers will know for sure who spoke just by the way the words were used. Anyways…long comment short…thank you for this! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said. If you have dialogue that doesn’t match the character or is weak, the story suffers. Imagine thinking one way about a character based on dialogue and finding out that you are wrong based on narrative later in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Writing Real Dialogue in Fiction – Nelsapy

  4. I love writing dialogue. So much that I have to be careful that I don’t make my stories dialogue heavy. I like what you said about being able to tell where a character is from without telling readers multiple times. As you said, listening is a great way to capture ideas.

    Dialect is tricky. If a writer overdoes it, they can lose readers. I tried to read a story earlier this year that had so much dialect that I couldn’t understand what the characters were saying. The book went in my DNF file which is a shame because it was a good story. I only wish the author had used plainer English.

    Great post, Beem!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know where you’re coming from, Joan. Dialect is something to use sparingly, as an added flavor. I am currently editing another writer’s work that overdoes dialect to the point where it gets distracting. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. HI Beem, dialogue is the part of writing I find the hardest. I think it’s because of how I think compared to other people. My colleagues will tell me they only understand a part (25% is the norm) of what I say. I write like I think and then I have to try and de-riddle it. It’s difficult for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Excellent post today, Beem. When dialogue flows naturally and with the inflection of the character, it adds so much to the story. Authentic dialog always lingers with me. I love when an author takes the time to make me hear the character in my head. Plus, as you said, it can be used to relay much about personality as well. As an author it’s fun t write those different voices, and as a reader it’s rewarding to digest them!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. A great post & topic, Beem! Thank you so much for sharing this! I think dialogue is my favorite part of fiction too. One can easily get lost in the conversation of characters.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post, Beem. Dialogue is powerful and has such a huge impact on pace too. Occasionally I’ll read a book where the narrator is telling me what everyone said and it’s such a missed opportunity. Dialogue is a huge opportunity to “show, don’t tell.” Thanks for sharing!

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    • I would also add that narration can be artfully utilized to convey important plot information and/or backstory without having to resort to clunky dialogue. I frequently have characters speaking in “shorthand” to one another, and I will use a quick digression in the conversation to summarily fill the reader in via the narration. That helps me avoid lines like, “James hasn’t been right ever since his father died in that car accident last Christmas Eve.” I read a lot of bad dialogue like that!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. You are so right in that dialogue is super important in telling a story. I can hear the characters’ voices in my head and try to transfer that to paper. One thing I’ve had to learn about writing dialogue is that sentence structure goes out the window. None of us speak in complete sentences and our characters shouldn’t either, although it breaks every grammar rule in the books. Great topic, Beem! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great post, Beem. You’re an exceptional writer and one of the reasons is your ability to capture everyday settings through conversation. These last years, I’ve realized that the books I’m most drawn to are those that bring me into the lives/minds/hearts of the characters through dialogue. It’s an amazing skill and I’ve much to learn. Thank you for underscoring the importance of natural dialogue.

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  11. I also love to write dialogue. It’s fun to reveal character through the things they say and the way they say them. When I was in college, I accidentally used incorrect grammar in dialogue in one of my fiction classes. (I say accidentally because it was a commonly spoken phrase in Western Pennsylvania, and not even my K-12 English teachers ever corrected it, so I thought it was right.) During peer review, a classmate called me out on it in front of everyone. My professor stopped him mid-critique to say she thought it was a brilliant way to show the reader where the character was from without saying she was from Western PA. I didn’t admit it was an error (which I still to this day feel a little guilty about). I was relieved and humiliated, but it’s a lesson I never forgot. Dialogue can reveal so much more than what the character wants to say.

    I’m glad you brought up the topic, as (based on your writing) you could teach professional workshops on it. Great post, Beem.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Fascinating story, Staci. Using phrases common to a particular region or group adds flavor and color to that character. There aren’t any errors where characters speak. It’s who they are and where they come from. It makes them real. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Pingback: Writing Real Dialogue in Fiction | Legends of Windemere

  13. I wish I had read your post a long time ago, Beem… as I came to the importance of dialogue very late in my writing life. For some reason, I thought their thoughts were more important. I still do, but at least they get to talk to each other now…

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Some good advice here, Beem. I find dialogue can make or break a character and storyline. The small nuances of certain words and phrases in local dialects are part of a characters makeup. Researching a local dialect creates a great opportunity to get out and people watch, one of my favourite things about being a writer.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. Dialogue is my favorite part of writing, too – and I have no idea where it comes from.

    I give the characters a general idea of what, and in what order, and they talk to each other. Then, when I look at the dialogue afterward, it is exactly a if I were transcribing a speech. It happened. It is eerie when it turns into recorded history.

    Liked by 5 people

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