Columns > Published on August 2nd, 2018

10 Tips to Help You Write Believable Dialogue

I think dialogue can make or break a novel. If a narrative has a decent plot, but the characters all sound the same or the author gives someone a six-page soliloquy in a vain attempt at disguising an info dump, I start to tune out. Similarly, sometimes I’m reading a novella with a somewhat pedestrian storyline, but then the dialogue kicks in and it crackles, makes me laugh, and allows me to get to know the characters better. When that happens, the book is saved, somehow redeemed in my eyes, and I start recommending it. As a non-native speaker, I always pay a lot of attention to the way people speak, and I like to think that has helped me write somewhat decent dialogue. There are also other tricks I use in my attempts to nail dialogue. Maybe they will help a newbie writer out there, or remind an old pro of some things that could make him or her keep things fresh. In any case, here are some tips on how to write believable dialogue.

1. Remember that not everyone talks the same way

Sometimes I read a book and realize I could pull out lines by each character and wouldn’t be able to identify who said what. I’m not saying that you need to write a dozen unique speech patters for your book to be good, but at least one or two of your main characters should sound like a real person, and real people all speak differently. Some people use the same words time and time again. Some people curse a lot (what’s up, fuckers!?). Some people love to beat around the bush. Study the speech patters of those around you and you’ll soon begin to notice these things. Putting them into your work is one of the best things you can do when it comes to creating unique voices.

We all want to know what your characters are feeling, but if the character is constantly telling us how s/he feels, we stop caring.

2. People interrupt each other all the time

If you’ve ever had a conversation in real life, you know that people interrupt each other all the time. We interrupt each other because we want to emphatically agree or disagree, because we remember something, because we have something to add, because we feel attacked by something that was said…the list goes on and on. When I’m reading a novel full of dialogue where no one interrupts anybody, suspension of disbelief goes out the window. I understand that this happens because we write one interlocutor at a time, but you can have them do whatever you want in your brain. The voices in my head interrupt each other all the time. The ones in your book should do the same at least once in a while.

3. Dialogues are not the place for info dumps or expository buffets

You've read it before: a character starts talking about her past or a plan and suddenly you’re on the third page of “dialogue.” That, my friends, is not dialogue; that’s a damn monologue, and it only works if you’re writing a one-actor piece for theater. If that’s not the case, then you need to cut that stuff out. Even professors who love to hear their own voice take a break once in a while. Your characters should do the same.

4. Feelings can be conveyed through actions and descriptions

“I’m scared. No, I’m really, really scared. I’m so damn scared I think I’m gonna pass out. I just crapped my pants. I’m afraid, man. I’m frightened. Terrified. Petrified. Frozen by fear.” No! Please cut that out. Work around it. We all want to know what your characters are feeling, but if the character is constantly telling us how s/he feels, we stop caring.

5. Leave the 80s action movie badass lines where they belong

I’ve been in many fights. Adrenaline pumps. You get scared. You think about what’s about to go down, how to protect yourself, how to inflict the maximum amount of damage in the shortest amount of time. Then something happens and violence explodes. After, you go home and nurse your wounds. You know what never happens? No one says super cool badass/tough guy shit. I mean, during the fight there is screaming sometimes. It mostly comes from the person winning the fight and goes something like this: “WHAT NOW, BITCH? WHAT’S UP NOW? HUH? FUCK YOU!” That’s as eloquent as it gets. I wish I could say one time, right before a fight, I looked a dude in the eyes and said “Out here, due process is my fists,” or that some bro came at me and I said “I have came here to drink beer and kick ass . . . and I’m all out of beer.” Sadly, I’d be lying if I said that. If your character drops a line like that, you lost me.

6. Listen to people

No, seriously, talk to people in the streets, at work, on the bus, wherever. Listen to people and pay attention. If you read Sam Pink’s Witch Piss, you’ll realize he listens to people. You should do the same. People have catchphrases and favorite words to fill empty air and little things they add to their responses and words they mispronounce. Pick all of that up and put it in your toolbox. Leave it there until the time comes to use it. Honestly, there’s nothing worse that reading awful crime fiction written by someone who’s never talked to the kind of person they’re writing about. That’s why we have so many unnecessary N-words in crime. I remember talking about NBA star Steph Curry with a friend of mine at the gym and he said to me “N-word, that N-word ruined the game for me, N-word.” Now, here’s the thing: that’s not the way he usually talks. That’s also not how your characters should talk.

7. Read like your life depended on it, because the lives of your characters do

Read Joe R. Lansdale. The man has a knack for dialogue. Read Laird Barron. Read Sam Pink and Brian Allen Carr and Toni Morrison and Elmore Leonard and Laura Lee Bahr and…just read. Read all the time. Read and pay attention to great dialogue. When you find it, study why it works, why it drew you in.

8. Keep it short and simple

Well, if you’re writing a novel in which two top scholars are having a debate over a controversial research paper one of them published, then fine, have a blast. If not, then we don’t need dialogue to be seven paragraphs followed by nine paragraphs followed by a seven-page response. Get them talking about the issue at hand, say what you want them to say, and move on.

9. We already know they said it

“Hi,” he said.
“Hello,” she said.
“How are you?” he said.
“Okay,” she said.

Ah, just cut those tags out. Leave one here or there where you think the readers will need it, but adding it to every line of dialogue makes most people want to hurl your book across the room. Oh, and while we’re at it, keep it at “said” if you need to use dialogue tags. If you start with the enthused, grunted, uttered, verbalized, shouted, and proclaimed, we eventually end up with stuff like “he whispered loudly,” and then anger ensues.

10. Read your stuff to yourself

You’ve heard this before. I used to be lazy and would wing it at readings. But I quickly learned how obvious it is when your stuff doesn’t flow, especially when you’re screaming it at an audience. Read your work as you’re writing it and fix accordingly. If you need to get it all out, then finish for the day and then read it aloud. If you wouldn’t say something in conversation and have never met anyone who would, then it doesn’t belong in your dialogue. Kill those darlings with the quickness.

Hope that helps! If you have any pointers you’d like to share, sound off in the comments. Happy writing.

About the author

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. Y

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