Writing Believable Dialogue – 3. Purpose and Realism

Dialogue, much like prose or poetry, tends to be personal to each writer. While some like to use dialogueheavy scenes through their stories, other use a sparse mix of dialogue and description sometimes even omitting dialogue altogether. Whatever choice you make dialogue is important so how do you make it realistic rather than awkward and stilted. How do you get the rhythm right?


dialogue (Photo credit: paloetic)

Speech is not always grammatically correct and may not even be in full sentences but dialogue is not speech, it is a representation of the character’s speech and so does not need to be quite as chaotic as speech. A quick tip is to consider your character’s responses to events and to ask yourself would someone really react this way. If you’ve ever watched a film or TV programme and thought as if someone would say that, then you already understand this concept.

For example, imagine you have a character, Jamie, that’s very shy and has trouble talking to girls. He wants to ask someone out but his confident best friend, Tommy is taking over and dominating the conversation between him and the girl he likes. When the girl goes to the bathroom what do think would be the most realistic conversation? Well the answer depends on the plot and what route you want to go. Here are some options:

1. Least Realistic Dialogue.

“Why do you do that Tommy? You come in and show off and all the girls like you because you’re so good-looking and I can barely talk to them and I think I’m in love with this girl even though I’ve just met her.”

This response is unlikely because most people don’t tell every single thought and feeling at every opportunity. Similarly he’s unlikely to give long streams of emotional information out in a single piece of dialogue unless it’s an argument or emotional scene.

2. Most Realistic Dialogue.

Example 1.

“She’s fit isn’t she?
“She’s okay. Not as nice as that girl in that film the other night.”

Example 2.

“How much is it for a burger in here?
“I don’t know. Don’t you love the hamburger relish they use though?”

The problem with very realistic dialogue is that it distracts from the plot. It’s often a diversion that has little or no relevance to the story. It can work in some instances but in some stories it is just a diversion which can make it harder for the reader and yourself to get back to the reason for the scene – to introduce Jamie’s problem at talking to women, development of the love interest and highlighting how different Jamie and Tommy are in terms of confidence.

3. Balanced Dialogue – Purpose and Realism.

Example 1.

“She’s really hot,” said Tommy, grinning.
Jamie took a sip of his drink. Of course, Tommy would get to her first. He always did.
“She’s alright.”
“You must be kidding!”
“What about that other girl you where with then?”

This is just one example of dialogue that shows Jamie’s feelings in the prose, while keeping the dialogue more interactive and realistic. The characters are responding to the situation rather than chatting excessively about anything and everything. If you wanted to make it to take it in a different direction you could have them talk about something else:

Example 2.

Do you want to go and get something to eat after?” asked Tommy.
“Yeah, I’m starving.”
“We should ask Katy along.”
Jamie stared into his glass, watching the reddish-black liquid inside doing circles.
“Um, yeah.”

Again this is more balanced. The prose adds hints of feelings and thoughts, the slight hesitation of `um’ adds an element of shyness and much more meaning can be implied behind this conversation. In this moment, not too much is given away but some things are becoming clear, i.e. Jamie’s shyness and that Tommy likes Katy.The conversation is still relevant but the seemingly off-topic point about going for something to eat later is integral to progression of the plot. All examples are the same scene and the same characters but the differences in dialogue make them all very different.

Overall dialogue is always going to be a personal choice, just beware of very unnatural dialogue that seems to give too much away at once. Always consider just what the character would really say but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should talk exactly like someone would in real life. After all fiction usually has a plot to follow and therefore is not as random as everyday conversation. Having noted that don’t forget that this can work for some writers – Quentin Tarantino excels at doing just this.


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