Writing Believable Dialogue – 1. Less is More


Dialogue that sounds unnatural can alter the entire tone of a story and the reader’s perception of your characters. Most people have watched films or read books where the character says something that seems unrealistic.

Writing dialogue for the first time can be tricky. There’s a tendency for beginners to write dialogue in a way that over-explains, revealing everything through the words of their characters instead of their prose.

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This is an easy trap to fall into. Sometimes it happens without you even being aware of it. It’s only when you or someone else reads it back that they realise anything is amiss. Dialogue, although it does differ from speech in that it is more coherent and structured, needs to have some resemblance to real conversation if it’s to be believable.

Here’s a few quick examples:

“Thirty years ago, I was working as a housemaid in Kent and I met this young gentleman who…”

This sentence may be fine if the account of this character’s history is the focus of the scene or book but if the scene is someone asking a close family member where they picked up a beautiful painting of Kent they may reply like this:

“That? I got that when I worked in Kent thirty years ago. Some gentleman gave it to me.”

See how much more natural the second one is. There’s more character to it. That’s what dialogue does, it shows character. How someone speaks in your novel or story relates to who they are.

The other extreme of this is when dialogue becomes excessively like speech, written exactly as it would be said.

Tha-? I got tha- when I wurked in Kint thiree yirs agow.”

This version has more character and accent but the accent has taken over what the person is saying. I have to admit that I find versions of accents in text barely readable even when it’s supposed to mimic that of my own. You may still choose to do this but be aware that this is harder to read and may not get across what you want it to.

It’s also useful to consider that writing in this way can be taken as offensive by the people whose accent is being portrayed.

Communication

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My own Lancashire accent is far stronger to others than it is to me and to see it written in such a way can be seem too stereotypical. It’s worth remembering that in the character’s mind they will not hear an accent and to keep this to a minimum unless it is the focus of the scene (i.e. a scene about miscommunication between two people from different parts of their country).

If in this same scene the character has something to hide she may reply more like this:

“The painting? It’s nothing.”

Whereas if she is angry that she is being questioned about it and feels that the questioner is being rude she may express the sentence differently again. The point is that dialogue changes according to the character and situation. Try to make it natural without drawing excessive attention to it (if that is not your intention). If you still want to show a bit of an accent you can do this by using word order, sentence structure and slang (in moderation).

“Where’s she gone to now? Out on the landing?”

Β (Landing is used to mean hallway in my local town.)

If you want to add more of an accent you could write:

“Where’s she gone to now? Out on the landin’?”

This is still quite easy to read except for the use of landing. The point is that the extra accented part doesn’t dominate the whole sentence.

Think of what the characters want to say and what they don’t say (which is often a lot more interesting than what they choose to share) and think of who they are. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the situation?
  • How would that character really react?
  • Does the dialogue sound realistic?
  • How would you really expect people you know to react in this situations?

What is the relationship between the characters communicating? I.e. Boss and employee, two friends gossiping, formal or informal?

Remember that you may not consider all of these when you are writing. As always, trust your judgement in what is right for that particular story and particular character.

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11 thoughts on “Writing Believable Dialogue – 1. Less is More

  1. Writing Dialogue is one of those things I have always LOVED. When I was a High School teacher I used to encourage my students to read screenplays and theatre scripts for examples of how dialogue should be used in your story.

    What is a script but pure dialogue?

    As always, I enjoy what you have to say!

  2. In a novel I tend to look for some dialogue. If there isn’t any, I suspect that I may find too many long and stilted passages. I definitely think it makes for better reading if I find some dialogue. Monologues can sometimes come across as stilted. but dialogues usually aren’t. In real life you sometimes find characters with stilted speech. If you want to depict characters like that, of course you’d have to show it in their speech. But then you have to be careful not to overdo it, right? —
    I am not very good with understanding or writing accents. I saw recently an Australian play. It was set in the fifties. Some characters spoke with a very broad Australian accent. Occasionally I found this very hard to understand. However the way they spoke makes the characters very believable and not stilted at all. I like your blogs. They are very stimulating. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Pingback: Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part IVa: Dialogue « sundancepress

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