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Top 10 Tips to Write Engaging Story Dialogue
by Samantha Stone

Dialogue isn't just speech written on the page; that's a transcript. Real conversation on the page often looks unintelligible. That's just how people speak, with constant do-overs and restarts. When you write dialogue, leave all that out.

Capture the essence of real-sounding dialogue with more than just the words. Use the character's personality and nuances to add realism to their words.

How do you make characters sound different and not sound like you? Use the following 10 tips to create better dialogue that sounds like real speech.

1. Real Versus Real-Sounding

Don't confuse real conversation with good dialogue. Real conversations and speaking is filled with “uh”, “um”, “you know, like”, and “oh, hey, yeah, hey...” types of speech. These can be added to flavor dialogue, but they should not be the bulk of 'real speak', even if that is what we say in real life on a daily basis. Take out the dribble we all use and leave only the plot-moving and emotional dialogue on the page.

2. Dialect and Accent

Depending on where your story takes place, study the dialect or accent for that location. Use the slant of words to recreate the sounds – don't spell them phonetically. Regional dialects and accents can sound flat or broad, have a drawling or languid tone, or have some letter sounds ignored or slurred.

3. Speed and Volume

Use the speed of how a character talks to give them individuality. This might seem impossible to put on the page, but note how the character speaks. Is it rapid-fire? Breathlessly? Rushed? Or slow, reserved, or excruciatingly monotone or thoughtful? Maybe a character has a soft voice, or a nasally sound, or a 'whisper' of 100 decibels. While every character will have a variety of deliveries, establish a norm for characters so that you can deviate from that to show excitement, concern, or alarm.

4. An Earful

Listen to how people talk in real life and remember the momentum and tones used. Listen to how a teacher or instructor, minister or lecturer, child and teenager speak. Each has a different delivery depending on their meaning and urgency and different emphasis on certain words.

5. Listening

Along with 'real talk', listen to conversations for varied subject matter. Pick out what isn't needed in the conversation and what is essential to move the speaker's point. The difference here is what you glean to make into dialogue. Not every word spoken needs to make it to the page for realistic dialogue.

6. Without the Sound

Characters speak without words as well. Try watching a movie to see how the dialogue follows (or doesn't follow in some cases of lying or bad acting) the actor's movements. Use body language to enhance a character's dialogue.

7. Conveying Information

Dialogue can also impart information the reader needs to know, but it needn't look obvious. Sprinkle in the necessary details in natural ways, not as lumps of paragraph-heavy narration by the character. Read it aloud if a passage seems telling and not conversational.

8. Speech Mannerisms

Use sentence length and speech patterns to help identify the character through dialogue. This can be long or short sentences, omission of contractions, halting speech delivery, stuttering, and others. Use word choice, too, such as identifiers. Maybe a character says “you know” or “huh” a lot. Sprinkle these in, but don't tag every sentence.

9. Vary Speaking Styles

Don't let all your characters sound the same. The professor in your story isn't going to sound like the bartender at Sudsy Tavern. Consider your character's background such as location for most of their life, nationality, and education when creating their speech norms. Give them inflections and small trademarks in dialogue. Read their dialogue aloud and see how you sound.

10. Read it Aloud

Read parts of tricky dialogue spots aloud to hear the problem areas. Use a few different voices to read two or more characters speaking together. You should automatically fall into a 'tone' for each of them after a few pages.

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