Top Tip 5

How to write convincing dialogue

This Top Tip is abridged from How to be a Fantastic Writer

Writing convincing dialogue is not easy, but it is a useful skill to develop and it can be used to develop your characters, move the plot along and introduce background material.

Do not try to make dialogue the same as real speech. People talk with pauses, with ums and ahs, with back-tracking, false starts and repetitions and with fragments of sentences. Putting all these things into written dialogue makes it hard to follow.

However, it is useful to use some of the characteristics of speech. Take a look at this example:

‘So have you cleaned all the tack?’
‘I meant to, but … well, you know … I did mean to, honest.’
‘It cost a lot of money.’
‘What, the saddle? So, who cares?’

This uses:

  • Short forms e.g. ‘I’ll’ rather than ‘I will’, ‘I’ve’ rather than ‘I have’. 
  • Incomplete sentences e.g. ‘What, the saddle?’
  • Occasional false starts and repetitions, but not as much as in real speech e.g. ‘I meant to, but … well, you know … I did mean to, honest.’
  • Slang terms, which can be useful to give a sense of the age and character of the speaker e.g. ‘So’ ‘you know’

Careful use of some of these features can give a sense of realism. Remember that in real life conversations are carried out for various purposes such as social chat, getting ponies ready for an event, helping to find that lost hoof pick.

In a story, the characters are shown talking to each other, but the real purpose of their dialogue is to communicate with the reader.

Different ways of representing speech

Direct Speech is when you use the exact words, usually in speech marks:
‘I wasn’t here last week,’ she insisted.

Indirect Speech is where you report what the character said, rather than the exact words:
She insisted she had not been there the previous week.

Free Indirect Speech is somewhere between Direct Speech and Indirect Speech. The words spoken are reported, but in a way that makes it closer to the speaking voice:
Of course she hadn’t been there last week.

How to make your dialogue believable

Unrealistic dialogue can spoil a good tale. It’s hard to enjoy a story when the speech is stilted as though the characters are reading from scripts.

Here are some practical ways to make your dialogue believable:

Use short forms and incomplete sentences, to create a realistic effect. 

Which of these is better?

‘What’s that?’
‘Oh, just a letter,’ he said.

‘What’s that?’
‘Oh, I have just received a letter,’ he said. 

The first one is more believable. The second one is an odd way for someone to speak.

Start without any narrative at all

Write the dialogue on its own without any narrative. Then add in the narrative detail. You often need far less narrative than you expect.

Remember who your characters are

Would they say this? Would they use this particular vocabulary? Is this right for the age/group/background of this character?

Speech tags

Be careful with ‘reporting’ verbs (words like ‘said,’ or ‘shouted’ that are used with dialogue). You will rarely need more than ‘said’, ‘answered’ and possibly one like ‘shouted’ to suggest volume.

Reading aloud

When you have written a stretch of dialogue, read it out loud. Does it sound convincing?

Top tip 2: How to get started

Top tip 3: Be your own critic

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