Many writers struggle with creating believable dialogue. They write beautiful, flowing, complete sentences that are like poetry. But no one talks like that.
Or they take on the persona of a Harvard professor explaining his actions to a group of wide-eyed freshmen. That works in college, but not in fiction.
Here are a few tips beyond the standard ones (read it aloud to see what it sounds like, etc.) that you’ll find on a lot of writing sites.
Match your character’s mood.
If your character is in a bad mood, have them speak in short, terse sentences. When a teenager’s mom reminds him for the eighth time to take out the trash two hours after his girlfriend dumped him, his response would not be: “Okay, mom. I’ll take the trash out now. Would you please quit bugging me? I’ve had a really bad day.”
His response would be: “Okay, mom! Get off my back.” Then he would stomp downstairs and slam the door on the way outside, muttering under his breath the entire time.
If your character’s a single woman in her thirties who just got asked out by the new office hunk, she might experience a case of diarrhea of the mouth. Feel free to have her speak in a run-on sentence that goes on like a Pink Floyd album cut.
Drop the names
How many times do you refer to someone by their name when you’re having a conversation with them, especially your spouse or significant other or a close friend? Rarely, if ever. Think of it. When is the last time you actually called your spouse or significant other by his/her name? I go days and weeks sometimes without calling my wife by name.
Whenever she calls me by name, it stands out so much I immediately assume I’ve done something wrong. (“Are you ever going to take the trash out again, Todd?”)
Yet many writers feel compelled to remind us–often–who their character is speaking with, as in the below example.
Darrell sat across from Hannah and bit into his cheeseburger. “Hannah, I’ve got a great idea.”
“What’s that, Darrell?”
“I was thinking maybe we could go to a movie tomorrow night. The new Star Wars is at the multi-plex. I’m sure you’d love it, Hannah.”
Hannah finished her large Coke. “I’d love to go, Darrell. That sounds like a great idea.”
Drop the names and just let the dialogue flow.
Let’s look at the scene above, without the names.
Darrell sat across from Hannah and bit into his cheeseburger. “I’ve got a great idea.”
Hannah arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Let’s go to a movie tomorrow night. The new Star Wars film is at the multi-plex. You’d love it.”
“That sounds great.”
Ditch the pronouns
When writing in first person, you’ll have a lot of sentences that start with I. See if you can ditch a lot of them in dialogue.
Michael took a deep breath as Fred approached his van. “I sure hope he doesn’t expect an apology.”
Michael took a deep breath as Fred approached his van. “Sure hope he doesn’t expect an apology.”
I think the second option is more realistic and reads better, to boot.
It’s imperative you speak in fragments.
Two other keys to realistic dialogue are using fragments and imperative sentences. See the examples below.
Sentence fragment: Hannah grabbed a menu and two glasses of water and rushed over.
Anise ignored the menus. “Grilled cheese and fries for Maddy and a chicken salad for me.”
Complete sentence: Hannah grabbed a menu and two glasses of water and rushed over.
Anise ignored the menus. “Maddy will have a grilled cheese and fries, and I’ll take a chicken salad.”
Which of those two options sounds more realistic? The first, by far.
Imperative sentences also read better.
Imperative sentence: Michael slid out from underneath the sink and looked at Alice. “Call a plumber. I can’t fix this one.”
Complete sentence: Michael slid out from underneath the sink and looked at Alice. “You’ll have to call a plumber. I can’t fix this one.”
Which sounds better? Personally, I like the first option. I believe it is more representative of how people speak to one another.
Consider the relationship between the characters
You also have to account for the relationship between the two characters. If they are partners, friends or family, they would be more comfortable using informal language.
If the exchange is between two strangers or a boss and an employee, the second option might be better. In those circumstances, they would be more likely to use grammatically correct language. So you have to remember to tailor the language with the relationship as well.