Dialogue is a crucial component of almost every novel and short story, but it’s rarely taught. Author Ayn Rand says, ‘The best, most natural dialogue is usually written as if the writer is listening to dictation. You might get stuck on any particular point and have to question yourself; but normally, dialogue writes itself.’ If you overthink dialogue, it’s very unlikely to sound realistic. You want to get the characters’ voices so loud in your head that you’re struggling to keep up with their conversation. But it’s normal when you’re revising to realise that certain dialogue in your first draft is flat, over-the-top or unrealistic. So, how do you edit dialogue without losing its ‘natural’ quality?
Each character in your novel should have a distinctive voice. The dialogue should enable the reader to hear them and get to know them. Author Stephen King says, ‘It’s dialogue that gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters.’ You know you’ve nailed this when you can write a chunk of dialogue without any speech tags but the reader knows who’s talking!
Author Katie Khan says, ‘When I’m considering how to write my dialogue, I like to ponder what two characters might call the same thing: a living room versus a lounge, a sofa versus a settee. This is all impacted by where they grew up (in the UK: north or south?), their social class (a peculiarly British obsession), their parents and childhood, and more.’ Dialogue also needs to be true to the character’s age. This goes beyond word choices and into the way things are phrased. A teenager in 2023 wouldn’t say, ‘What do you say, shall we hop in an Uber?’ He’d say, ‘Shall we just Uber there?’ His grandmother wouldn’t reply, ‘Sure, I’ll check the wait for a taxi.’ She’d reply, ‘Yes, that sounds good. How about you check the availability on your mobile phone?’ You need to pay attention to the vocabulary, phrasing, rhythm and tone of each sentence.
‘The dialogue should enable the reader to hear the characters and get to know them. You know you’ve nailed this when you can write a chunk of dialogue without any speech tags but the reader knows who’s talking!’
If your dialogue seems a bit flat, it might be that you’re trying too hard to make it realistic. Conversations in novels should sound realistic but they should have a lot less blabbering on than ones in real life! They might be realistic as the most interesting conversations you’ve ever had.
By simply cutting out the small-talk, tangents and repetition, you’ll emphasise the engaging parts of the dialogue and it will read with a lot more life.
Janie picked up the phone.
Hiya, is that Janie? It’s Rob.’
hi Rob. Yes, it is. How are you?’ ‘Not too bad thanks. And yourself?’ ‘Yeah, well thanks. I saw Thomas last week actually, and he said you’re off the crutches.’
Oh, you saw Thomas? Yeah, feels good to be on my feet. Those crutches were a nightmare That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about, sort of .’ ‘Oh right.’ ‘Yeah, it’s – well, the accident. I guess you heard a bit about it. Bu t the truth is it wasn’t an accident, not exactly.’
‘What do you mean?
Gosh, I’m so sorry. I thought it was just that you had a fall.’
It’s complicated, but, er, I was round Grant’s place and we got into a bit of an argument. All a bit silly to start with and then … not so silly .’
Some of you will have the opposite problem and feel that your dialogue sounds a bit cheesy, too much like fiction rather than a representation of real life. E.g.:
‘Janie, Janie,’ Grant says, ‘he’s lying to you. I have better things to do with my time than throw sad little Rob down the bloody stairs.’
‘You’re the liar. I don’t believe a word you say.’
In these instances, I would think more about your character’s unique voice and way of seeing things. Let’s say Grant is an up-himself academic in his thirties. Janie is a meek pharmacist approaching sixty.
‘Look, Janie,’ Grant says, ‘I know you’re close with Rob, but that doesn’t mean you can trust everything he says. I’ve got two deadlines at Cambridge and I’m completing that proposal. I don’t have the time to go throwing plumbers down the stairs.’
‘But you have to see it from my perspective. I mean, why would I believe you over him?’
Here, I’ve added some specificity and made the characters a tad less direct, but the dialogue still leaves you with the same impression of what’s going on in the story.
‘Your dialogue might sound cheesy if your characters say exactly what they’re thinking all the time. Beginner novelists often write dialogue like this when they haven’t learnt to trust the reader to read between the lines.’
Your dialogue might also sound cheesy if your characters say exactly what they’re thinking all the time. Beginner novelists often write dialogue like this when they haven’t learnt to trust the reader to read between the lines.
Screenwriter Robert Towne says, ‘Good dialogue illuminates what people are not saying.’ See the difference between these two paragraphs:
‘Okay, okay, I’ll tell you everything,’ Grant says. ‘Look, I never meant to hurt Rob. I just wanted to show him that I was serious, that I wasn’t gonna stand for him interfering with my sister. He kept riling me up and I just went to give him a little shove but his shoe caught on something and he fell down the stairs. I didn’t mean to do it … or, I didn’t to start with at least.’
‘Okay, okay,’ Grant says, then he takes a deep breath. ‘Look, I never meant to hurt him. I just wanted to show him that I was serious, that I wasn’t gonna stand for it. Just went to give him a little shove but his shoe caught on something. I didn’t mean to ….’ His eyes lose focus and when he speaks again his voice is flat. ‘I hadn’t planned to do anything.’
The second paragraph reveals that Grant pushed Rob down the stairs without saying it. It also reveals that he did do it on purpose, but more subtly than the first version. It’s more believable because people always speak with a measure of avoidance and especially when they’ve done something wrong.
Dialogue can be a great place to convey story information to the reader, but this needs to be done subtly. Another screenwriter, Tom Rickman, says, ‘Dialogue works the least well when it’s telling you what’s going on.’ If the line of dialogue sounds like it’s being spoken for the reader’s benefit, rather than the listening characters’, it won’t be convincing.
‘Bitterness can just grow and grow inside you,’ Grant said. ‘I needed someone to blame for what happened to my sister. That’s why I did this. I’m sorry.’
It’s not believable for Grant to be this self-aware, so it reads like the author trying to get across his motivation. In the next example, I’ve toned down the dialogue and added some body language so the reader can interpret what he’s feeling. I’ve replaced telling with showing.
‘My sister deserved so much better than what happened with Jason,’ Grant said. He looked up and Rob saw a flicker of light enter his bitter grey eyes. ‘I’m sorry things got so weird between us.’
If you’ve received feedback that your dialogue isn’t realistic and nothing else in this post connects, you might just need to get in there and mess it up a bit. People don’t speak in neat sentences. The dialogue should include stumbles and corrections, intensifiers and softeners, contractions, slang, etc.
‘People don’t speak in neat sentences. The dialogue should include stumbles and corrections, intensifiers and softeners, contractions, slang, etc.’
‘I am glad you are feeling safe now,’ Jeanie said. ‘It was more of a worry when Grant had not confessed, but now you can move on.’
‘I’m just so glad you’re feeling safe now,’ Jeanie said. ‘It was just – I was so worried when Grant kept denying it, but now I feel like you can really move on, you know?’
Just make sure you don’t overdo it and make the dialogue too frustrating a read. Literary Agent Anna Davis says, ‘The trick to writing great dialogue in fiction is to make your characters’ speech carry the ring and rhythm of real-life conversations without actually trying to recreate them verbatim, complete with all the er’s, um’s, repetition and waffle…’
I hope this post will prove helpful as you edit your own dialogue. If you’d like a professional pair of eyes on your manuscript, you can find information on what we offer here.