Writing Natural Dialogue

 

 We know why we need dialogue. It is more engaging for the reader than pages full of description. It advances the plot. And, used well, it reveals a lot about the characters in our story and their relationships with each other. But the truth is, dialogue just doesn’t come naturally to many writers. Conversations end up feeling unnatural and stilted. What can we do to improve it?

 Firstly, the funny thing about writing natural sounding dialogue is that we actually need to cut out a lot of the dead wood that surrounds real life conversations. For example, imagine you’re in a coffee shop. You’re likely to hear two people greet each other something like this:

‘Hi.’

‘Oh, Hi Emma.’

‘How are you?’

‘Fine thanks. How are you?’

‘Oh, you know, hanging in there.’

‘Is everything okay?’

 This may be how people actually talk to each other, but do you see a problem? It’s as dull as ditchwater! In your writing, dialogue should be snappy:

‘Hi Emma! How are you?’

‘Oh, you know, hanging in there.’

‘Is everything okay?’

 We’ve cut out the unnecessary stuff and got to the point of the conversation in three lines instead of six. 

 Second, as much as possible, convey emotion with punctuation, instead of adjectives and adverbs. Let’s go back to our coffee shop conversation: 

‘Is everything okay?’

‘I suppose so,’ sighed Emma dejectedly.

‘No it isn’t. What’s wrong? demanded Jill.

 Occasional description after dialogue is fine, but add too much in and your audience will be taken out of the conversation. Let’s try again:

‘Is everything okay?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘No it isn’t! What’s wrong?’

 In this latter example, Jill’s reaction to Emma’s answer tells us everything we need to know about the way Emma said it. And the exclamation point after Jill’s ‘no it isn’t’ reveals Jill’s tone without having to put ‘demanded.’

 Of course, sometimes we need to put little reminders in of who is speaking. But often a lot less than we think we do! Trust your audience. If two people are conversing and the lines alternate between each of them, the reader will automatically follow it. We don’t need to do this:

‘No it isn’t. What’s wrong? demanded Jill.

‘I broke up with Terry today,’ answered Emma.

‘Really? Why?’ asked Jill.

‘I think he’s been having an affair,’ replied Emma.

 Change it to this:

‘No it isn’t! What’s wrong?’

‘I broke up with Terry today,’ 

‘Really? Why?’ 

‘I think he’s been having an affair.’ 

 Are you having any trouble following who’s saying what? Or is it obvious from the layout and from the content of each speech?

 Fourthly, remember to add in some actions. But, when you do, be careful that they are an integral part of the scene. We make gestures, fiddle, fidget etc as we talk, not separately. Avoid this:

‘I think he’s been having an affair.’ 

Jill looked down. ‘Do you know who with?’

‘Not for sure.’ 

‘Could be someone he works with,’ suggested Jill. She began to refold her napkin.

Emma nodded. ‘Possibly.’

 Try this instead:

‘I think he’s been having an affair.’ 

‘Do you know who with?’ asked Jill, looking down at her hands.

‘Not for sure.’ 

Jill started refolding her napkin. ‘Could be someone he works with,’ she suggested.

‘Possibly,’ Emma nodded.

 Do you see how much better that flows? Of course, the actions are also telling us something! Let’s put the story together and see how it ends:

‘Hi Emma! How are you?’

‘Oh, you know, hanging in there.’

’Is everything okay?’

‘I suppose so.’

’No it isn’t! What’s wrong?’

‘I broke up with Terry today,’ 

‘Really? Why?’ 

‘I think he’s been having an affair.’ 

‘Do you know who with?’ asked Jill, looking down at her hands.

‘Not for sure.’ 

Jill started refolding her napkin. ‘Could be someone he works with,’ she suggested.

‘Possibly,’ Emma nodded. ‘I do know one thing though. Whoever it is has long red hair.’ Her eyes rested accusingly on Jill’s ginger locks.

 Whoa, I did not see that coming when I first started this post! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it! Please feel free to comment any thoughts. You can read more from me by signing up to my newsletter.

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