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Writer’s Craft # 121 Realistic dialogue

May 13, 2013

Sonnet O’Dell
Sonnet was born at the John Radcliffe in Oxford and spent the first six years of her life living in the town of Abingdon close to both her grandparents and most of the rest of her family. She moved after that to Cornwall for three years and then to Devon for another three before moving to where she has lived for the last fourteen or so years. Sonnet now lives in Worcester, Worcestershire, famous for Lea & Perrin’s Sauce and as the site for the last battle of the Civil War. Sonnet has had a passion for the written word from a very young age and enjoys nothing more than to read a good book. The worlds created by words.


I always think the best way to have believable dialogue is to sit in a crowded room and listen to how people talk. To make a character sound real, they have to talk like a real person. You have to learn to ignore some of the little wavy lines that will appear under your words when typing.

There are certain things that make dialogue more realistic. Most people don’t speak in complete sentences all the time and they don’t use perfect English. Human beings use slang, we drop letters, and we have regional accents. Try to include all of these foibles when writing your dialogue. The internet is a never ending tool for this. You can google and find whole dictionaries dedicated to the differences in a common language. The Urban Dictionary is a site in particular, which records and defines slang terms. People call the same object different things, find these words and use them in your writing.

Dialogue can be used to define the class of a person before you know anything else about them. A man for instance on a busy railway station in Victorian London greets another with “’ello guvnor.” You can hear two things immediately from this sentence, that the man himself is probably working class and the person he is addressing is probably viewed to be of a higher status that him. He wouldn’t say for instance “Good evening my fine fellow.” Well, he might, if he were taking the mickey but that is something that would be conveyed in the prose after his speech.

Talking is a fundamental tool in conveying information, emotion and personality in writing. If it feels stiff to you then it will probably sound stiff to your readers.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2013 6:32 am

    Thanks for the interesting post and for the link to The Urban Dictionary, Sonnet! I blogged on this topic last year, too, covering a few related issues. You can find my post at http://egoboo-wa.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/writing-in-dialect-accent-or-register.html

    There are some useful relevant articles on the Oxford Dictionary site, too, that writers might find interesting. If you go to http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/ you can check out the list of categories in the r.h. margin.

  2. May 13, 2013 6:38 am

    Thanks for the interesting post and for the link to The Urban Dictionary, Sonnet! I blogged on this topic last year, too, covering a few related issues. You can find my post at http://egoboo-wa.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/writing-in-dialect-accent-or-register.html

    There are some useful relevant articles on the Oxford Dictionary site as well, which writers might find interesting. If you go to http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/ you can check out the list of categories in the r.h. margin.

  3. Kirath permalink
    May 13, 2013 7:12 am

    This is so very spot-on. Somewhat related, this is the thing that always bugs me about commercials that are supposed to take the form of two people having a conversation. One person asks a basic question and is answered with the full brand name and title of a product as well as a slew of unnecessary product information in a manner which no Human I have ever met actually speaks.

  4. May 13, 2013 9:57 am

    I think writers should be careful about striking a balance here. 100% realistic dialogue is incredibly difficult to decipher when written down. Vernacular dialogue can seem comical if singled out for a single character. After all, who pronounces ‘says’ correctly? Don’t we all use vernacular? Are all your characters going to use ‘sez’ all the time?

    The experience of reading dialogue is inherently different from experiencing it first-hand, no matter how well crafted. I’m going to borrow someone else’s advice here: aim at a point halfway between ‘flat dialogue’ and ‘100% realistic dialogue’ and you will probably get something that sounds about right.

    Saying that, the advice given in the first line of this blog post is bang on. Doesn’t matter whether you write literary or genre, go sit in a cafe or other public place and eavesdrop. It’s a miracle we manage to understand each other at all! Then use sparingly.

  5. May 13, 2013 10:35 am

    There is some good advice here, but I think one needs to be careful with realistic dialogue. I read “Treasure Island” aloud to my son and all the pirate dialects were really difficult over the long haul.

  6. May 13, 2013 10:43 am

    I love that watching other people is a legitimate writerly skill! Using it as a starting place for dialogue is great, but judicious editing is needed. Can you imagine a YA novel where the characters talk like teenagers really do? Perish the thought!

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