How to Write Realistic Dialogue for Literary Eavesdroppers
When you write realistic dialogue, your readers experience the unparalleled delight of eavesdropping.
I mean, let’s be honest with ourselves: eavesdropping is fun. It offers a deliciously intriguing and thrillingly forbidden peek into the lives of strangers. And reading allows us to indulge in this wicked little pastime without all the pesky guilt and moral compromise.
At least, it does if the author knows how to write dialogue that feels true to life.
If you’re not sure how to make that happen—or if you’ve already been told your dialogue feels a little manufactured—don’t lose hope. Anyone can spin fictional conversations that feel like the real thing. All it takes is a deeper awareness of how human beings communicate in real life.
You’re about to learn everything you need to know to write realistic dialogue. You’ll pick up a ton of new strategies for designing character voices that feel authentic and discover tips for crafting your dialogue to serve your narrative.
But first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what “realistic” even means.
What is Realistic Dialogue and Why Do We Care?
When we talk about realistic dialogue, we’re talking about dialogue that sounds like an actual person speaking in real life.
This is something you don’t have to worry about when you’re describing setting or actions. Sure, your narrator’s voice can be casual and conversational. But it can also be formal, lyrical, or a bit too elegant to sound like something that would naturally pour forth from the average person’s mouth.
So if we get to play with extraordinary voices in narration, why does dialogue need to be realistic?
Because your characters are what make your remarkable story feel real. To help your reader engage with your novel on an emotional level, you need to give them characters that feel human (or at least human-adjacent).
When your dialogue feels fake, stilted, or stylized, your reader feels like they’re not reading about real people anymore.
Now, that’s not to say your dialogue has to be boring. Real people do have extraordinary voices and say fascinating things. In fact, the more you draw from real conversations, the more interesting your characters’ voices will be.
On that note…
Techniques for Writing Realistic Dialogue
Here are a handful of mostly easy ways to master the art of realistic dialogue.
Listen to Real Conversations
Perk those ears up and start noticing how people talk. Eavesdrop at the coffee shop. Pay close attention to the way your loved ones communicate. Listen to yourself.
As you do, note things like:
- How do different people indicate they’re angry, anxious, or afraid? What phrases do they use? How direct are they?
- Do certain people talk in shorter, more direct sentences? Who seems to talk in run-ons? Do these tendencies reflect their personalities?
- How do people ask for what they want?
- What about rejecting what they don’t want? What does that sound like?
- Do you hear any fun or interesting phrases? Any speech habits? (I once had a roommate who ended every third sentence with “and stuff and everything.” I’m hanging onto that for the right character.)
- How do people check in to make sure they’re being heard? (Phrases like “...you know?” and “Does that make sense?” are big ones.)
- Do you hear any fun new phrases or regional slang you can use in your story?
Start noticing these things actively. Soon it will become a habit. And that’s great, because the best way to write realistic dialogue is to immerse yourself in actual human voices.
Give Each Character a Distinct Voice
You can probably recognize every person in your inner circle by their voice alone. Not just how they sound, but the way they speak. The words they use, the rhythm of their speech, any interesting dialect, habits, or commonly used phrases… it all works together to create one distinctive voice.
Aim to do the same thing with your characters. Write them so that it’s clear who’s speaking even without dialogue tags.
You can find more tips for developing your characters’ voices here.
Where we come from influences the way we speak. This includes things like:
- Accent and dialect
- Taboos (Are there any words or phrases your characters would never use?)
- Values (Is there anything your character would say frequently as an expression of their values, such as expressing thanks to a higher power or compassion for others?)
Look closely at each character’s cultural, regional, and social influences. Consider how old they are and what time period they live in.
Use these details to craft an authentic voice. This may require doing some additional research to ensure you’re not leaning on stereotypes or your own assumptions. You may even want to consult a sensitivity reader.
Let the Fragments Happen
Very few people exclusively speak in full, grammatically correct sentences.
We fumble our grammar or deliberately ignore grammar rules for the sake of simplicity. We spurt out sentence fragments as an afterthought, like: “I went to the gym last night. Leg day.”
And often, big emotions get us fragmenting all over the place. “I was humiliated! Just standing there, this giant idiot… pudding everywhere! What would you have done?”
We also end our sentences with prepositions and use neanderthal sounds like “ugh” and “uh-uh” and “meh” like they’re real words. And we almost always favor contractions (“I’m” instead of “I am.”)
In short, realistic dialogue is abbreviated, dressed down, and even messy. That doesn’t mean your dialogue should be unclear or deliberately riddled with poor grammar. But don’t be afraid to let your characters choose easy communication over pretty sentences.
Embrace the “Um”... But Not Too Tightly
On a similar note, let your characters search for words, interrupt each other, and hesitate to say what they really mean. Don’t shy away from an “um,” an “er,” or even the occasional unfinished sentence.
But also don’t use these devices constantly. And always make sure you have a reason for doing it.
What does that “um” say about your character’s emotional state or goals in this conversation? What’s the subtext behind that unfinished sentence? Is the subtext clear to the reader?
There are cliché clichés like “he stared daggers” and “you could hear a pin drop.”
Then there are dialogue clichés—those lines you’ve read a million times.
“You just don’t get it, do you?”
“At least it can’t get any worse.”
“You never told me.” / “You never asked.”
In fact, that last one is a perfect example of a cliché gone wrong. It’s so ingrained in us that “You never asked” is an automatic mic drop, it gets used when it doesn’t make sense. “You never told me Bob cannibalized your family.” “You never asked.”
Why would anyone ask that?
Aside from being overused and boring, lines like these show up so many times in books and movies that we associate them with books and movies. Not with real life.
When your antagonist says, “Try me,” your reader isn’t going to get the chills. They’re going to remember all the cheesy tough guys who’ve said that same line before and they’ll see your villain as another generic meanie.
Don’t Be Too Direct
Dialogue can be a highly effective tool for establishing relationships and revealing a character’s feelings.
The hard part is doing these things without making your characters the most emotionally forthright people on the planet.
Human communication is complicated. Expressing our desires, emotions, or secrets requires a level of vulnerability that we, quite frankly, aren’t cool with.
So we say other things that are way less productive but still revealing.
“You hurt me.” becomes “Could you please just take out the trash like I asked?”
“I miss you.” becomes “Just calling to let you know your dentist sent a cleaning reminder to the house. Wanted to know if I should hang onto it for you.”
Of course, some of your characters will be more open than others. And it’s satisfying to let even your most opaque characters crack—to put them in a position where holding back becomes more painful than letting it all spill out. Your job is to know when to let them be direct…
…and recognizing how it sounds when people don’t say what they mean.
Make Sure Your Character Would Actually Say That
You probably know that dialogue is a great place to drop new information, reveal backstory, and move the plot forward. Unless divulging those details means the character has to say something they wouldn’t normally say.
Like when a character says out loud to themselves, “It’s May third. My birthday.”
As a general rule, you want to avoid having a character explain something their conversation partner already knows. Like:
“I think I just have abandonment issues because you and I had such a hard childhood. Mom and Dad cared more about their parties than us. As the older sister, you practically raised me. Neither of us ever knew the stability of having real, invested parents.”
“Turns out I have abandonment issues. I guess because, you know…”
Lydia nodded. “Mom and Dad.”
“It seriously never occurred to me that it might’ve, like, affected me. That they were never there. That they cared more about their parties, their friends, feeling important. I mean, I had you. You gave me stability. Why would I need them?”
The second version provides the same background information in addition to more clarity about the character’s emotional state and relationships. And it sounds like a real conversation, not a bunch of exposition shoved between quotation marks.
Read It Out Loud
Now, I recommend reading all your work out loud during the editing process. It’s a great way to check for pacing, flow, and even catch the typos your eyes keep skimming over. But reading aloud is an especially effective tactic for making sure you’ve written realistic dialogue.
Clunky, contrived, or clichéd lines are much easier to catch with your ears than with your eyes. And if reading your dialogue feels unnatural, that probably means it is unnatural.
Bonus tip: You can use the Read to Me function on Dabble for this. I’d still recommend reading your dialogue out loud yourself as well. But being able to experience your writing purely as a listener will also help you pick up on imperfections you might have missed otherwise.
When to Dial Down the Realism
Having said all this, there are two exceptions to the rule of realistic dialogue.
First, leave out the filler stuff that is very real but also very boring. Skip the hellos and goodbyes in phone calls. Don’t make your readers watch while your characters discuss where they’re going to meet for lunch.
Second, don’t keep it so real that the dialogue becomes confusing or annoying to read.
I’m talking about “um”s and “uh”s in every line. Frequent pauses. A ton of half-finished thoughts. Characters who constantly interrupt themselves to start the same sentence over, newly edited. (Me. That’s me.)
To be fair, some writers (named David Mamet) can make this kind of hyper-realistic dialogue work. But if you’re new to this and still mastering the skill of dialogue, put a light polish on your realism so you don’t drive your readers crazy.
And I can tell you right now, if I ever write that character who says “and stuff and everything,” the fictional person will say it a little less frequently than my roommate did, because every third sentence would feel like a lot on the page.
Bonus Tips for Building Characterization and Story Through Dialogue
Now you know exactly what it takes to write realistic dialogue. Great! The next step is making sure all that authentic-sounding back-and-forth still serves your story.
Give All Dialogue a Purpose
As you write a section of dialogue, ask yourself what it’s doing to move the story forward.
- Reveal something new about the characters?
- Heighten the conflict?
- Challenge a character to confront a weakness or move beyond their comfort zone?
- Demonstrate the lengths a character will go to in order to achieve their goal?
- Show a character at odds with their fears?
- Reveal backstory or internal conflict?
- Clarify the situation?
When you know what the purpose of this conversation is (and it can have multiple purposes), write the dialogue to meet those goals. Skip anything that feels extraneous.
Make Dialogue a “Show, Don’t Tell” Tool
You’ve probably heard the advice to “show, don’t tell.” This simply means that you want to draw the reader into the world of your story and help them experience it rather than learn about it.
Dialogue is an excellent tool for showing rather than telling because it allows your reader to “hear” your characters’ voices. Instead of telling them that tensions are high or your protagonist is terrified, you’re showing them how those abstract experiences are playing out in concrete terms.
As you do the tricky work of writing emotionally engaging scenes, ask yourself, “Is there anything my character could say that would show where they are in their arc? Is there an opportunity to build tension through realistic dialogue?”
Use Dialogue to Reveal Backstory
Careful now. This is how a lot of writers fall into the trap of writing dialogue that reads like exposition. But if you can learn to divulge your character’s history through well-crafted dialogue, you’ll be able to avoid a lot of clunky infodumping.
In order for expository dialogue to work, you need to give the speaker:
- A reason for sharing this bit of backstory
- An attitude, opinion, or feeling about this history
Here’s a passage from Seven Days in June in which Khalil, an author, is gossiping about a more successful author, Shane.
“Overrated,” pronounced Khalil. “I was supposed to interview him for Vibe once. He kept me waiting in a West Hollywood Starbucks for four hours, then showed up, rambled about a turtle for ten minutes, and ghosted. The story got killed, of course. Clown.”
This backstory establishes Shane’s reputation and history as a messy, unreliable literary celebrity. But the way Khalil tells the story also reveals his own resentment and envy.
And of course, it makes sense that he would tell this story at the moment; Shane has just upstaged Khalil and every other author in the room by making a surprise appearance.
Use Dialogue to Clarify Relationships
Conveniently enough, the example I just shared is also an example of how to clarify relationships through dialogue.
But you don’t need backstory to make tension or affection between characters clear. A person’s tone will tell you a lot about their feelings regarding another character.
“Look at the vision that just walked through the door!” is a very different greeting from “Oh. You’re here.”
The content of a conversation also reveals something about the level of trust and openness between your characters.
Do these people act like their true selves around one another? Or do they seem to put on an entirely different personality? Are they comfortable cracking jokes in the middle of a fight? Are they capable of fighting with each other? Or do they swallow their anger?
This information tells your reader quite a bit.
Use Dialogue to Build Tension
Finally, dialogue is an excellent tension-building tool. It’s not just that you can use realistic dialogue to write chilling threats and harrowing arguments. You can also use dialogue to drive home the idea that certain things aren’t being said.
Does your character have a chance to divulge a secret but opt for a lie instead? Do they abandon the plan to confess their feelings and just ask about the weather? Do they hint that their conversation partner would see things differently if they knew the whole story?
Even painfully awkward exchanges can help build suspense, like this one between the love interests in Seven Days in June:
“Can you meet…”
“Do you wanna…”
“Sorry, you go.”
Ugh. Rough stuff.
I know it’s rough because I’ve had that conversation. We all have. We can see ourselves in the maddening, exhilarating mess of emotionally charged conversations.
And that is the entire point of realistic dialogue.
Let Dabble Help You Keep It Real
Combined with well-developed characters and a thoughtfully structured plot, realistic dialogue ensures a compelling and memorable read. And Dabble can help you nail it.
You can find tons of other articles on character, plotting, and more in DabbleU. Check out our free ebook, Let’s Write a Book, for a clear and comprehensive guide to planning, writing, and polishing a novel.
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