Writing Believable Dialogue – 2. Style Choices

There are many different ways to write your dialogue when writing fiction but which will work best for your story? Mostly this is a choice of personal writing style but there are some common types you’ll come across.

A Nautical Argument

Image via Wikipedia

Some writers aim to keep their dialogue as realistic as possible, using pauses and dialogue which mimics real speech, almost like a script but this, like everything in writing, has its ups and downs. While it is good to try to write natural-sounding dialogue, fiction is not real life and the purpose of dialogue in a sceneis usually very specific. The trick is to try and balance this. Too realistic can include too much while too contrived can reduce the overall effect of your scene.

For example: Brendan and his girlfriend are fugitives in a sci-fi novel, who are having an argument. You want the argument to seem realistic and to also reveal a secret but you also want the scene to be emotionally charged. There are (at least) 3 ways to do this:

1. The Contrived/Forced Way (not recommended) – You write the scene and during the course of the argument the girlfriend spills a secret she has been hiding in a long, detailed sentence that just happens to detail everything the reader needs to know. This is the less subtle way of revealing the secret.


Image via Wikipedia

Example 1

Why did you do it? Why?” he screamed.
“Because if I hadn’t they would have arrested you. The magistrate knows where we are and blackmailed me into doing this errand for him or else he would take us in and send us to the outer colonies.

Style Pitfalls – This may seem the easiest and most natural way to write plot and dialogue but this is often too noticeable.

Think of a film where the dialogue seems very unnatural. How many times have you watched a film and thought that no one would ever talk that way? The same goes for dialogue. Think about what people would really react like. Do the same for your dialogue.

2. Extreme Realism – This version uses the revelation of the secret as a last thought, spending a great deal of time on showing the ins and outs of the argument and highlighting absolutely everything, including pauses, false starts in conversation and pronunciations.

Example 2

English: freestyle snowboarding
Image via Wikipedia

Why did you dooooo it?” he screamed.
“Teeeeell meee whyyyy!”
“[pause]Err, ohh – uh.”
“You! You…!”

Style Pitfalls – This is great for characterization and realism but it draws away from one of the main focusses of the scene which is the secret. Add to that all the conversational features and this can be very difficult to pull off in that your reader’s attention may drift. The reader may not find it easy to read conversational features and may switch off too early to get into the plot. This really depends on the type of fiction you are writing and the way you want to present your character but take care not to overdo it.

3. Balanced approach – This version has the best of both worlds. It tries to keep the argument realistic and yet still leads up to scene focal point which is the revelation of the secret. This can be done by removing the extra conversational features and revealing the secret in parts. People rarely reveal a secret all in one long speech, though I suppose it could happen.

Example 3

Heated Argument

Heated Argument (Photo credit: kurichan+)

Why did you do it?” he screamed.
“Tell me why!”
“Because I had to!”
She turned away, lowering her voice.
“Because the magistrate told me to.”

There are of course many variations of the way in which this conversation can be presented. You can change almost everything, the place, the characters, the way in which it is revealed but whichever way you will do it, try to balance whatever effects you use. The aim is to try to sound realistic but keep on track with the plot too. Whichever style of dialogue you use will change how your reader follows the scene so always consider whether a person would really say what you are writing. There is always some room for poetic licence with dialogue but try to keep it balanced.

13 thoughts on “Writing Believable Dialogue – 2. Style Choices

  1. Thanks for this post. This is something I give much attention to. One thing; I want the dialogue to be understood. In order to do that the reader may have to do some work with their imagination. I don’t want the reader to read and reread the dialogue trying to make sense of it. I want the reader’s eyes to keep moving.
    I hate going over and over dialogue.

    • I know exactly what you mean! There’s nothing worse than rereading dialogue and having to figure it out. I want the reader to get into the scene and to understand the dialogue rather than just trying to work it out.

  2. Good points! Something else you want to watch out for is dialect. While novels in the past might have heavily used spelling to portray dialect, doing so is a big no-no in modern literature.

    Thanks for the link!

  3. Great post. I am twelve chapters into my novel now, and I am happy to report that you would consider all of my dialogue as being “balanced.” Thank goodness, because I really didn’t want to go back and rewrite it all! Haha!

  4. Great post. I think I fall under the balanced way, a bit of both. For me, it is challenging when you have three or more characters in a scene, all participating in the conversation. It can get hard, as each one has its own personality and style.

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