This blog post can also be downloaded as a PDF guide here.
Dialogue is a wonderful and effective way of breaking up long narrative, especially long descriptive chunks. It acts like fingers snapping—a signal to re-capture the reader’s attention and bring them back to the room. As readers, we naturally find long pieces of narration harder to focus on than dialogue, so you can help your reader by adding in some easy-on-the-eyes (and brain) dialogue to keep them focused on the scene.
NATURAL dialogue simply refers to the way that people speak when they’re comfortable. It’s the words, phrases, and styles we use naturally.
When we talk about the way that someone speaks, it’s important to realize that this changes depending on the region, culture, age, etc. of the person. It can also change within the same person, depending on the external circumstances. People speak differently when they’re with work colleagues, for example, than they do with their siblings. Or, if someone moves away, they can gradually start to adopt local dialect or inflection of their new home, only to revert back to their native speech patters when conversing with someone from their birth place.
This isn’t a straightforward concept. What’s natural for me may not be natural for you. When I talk about writing natural dialogue, I do not mean for every character to speak exactly the same. Nope. That would be boring, frankly. Your characters should be unique, and the way we express ourselves verbally is a huge part of their identity and personality.
There is no one set of rules for what constitutes natural dialogue. Trying to force a universal standard actually leads to the elimination of cultural differences and can end up elevating one culture (likely: white) over other ones as the standard.
It’s really important that this distinction is clear. This post isn’t meant to dictate how your characters speak. However, there are tips and techniques you can use when writing dialogue that’ll allow your characters to speak naturally…whatever “naturally” means to them.
Tips for Writing Natural Dialogue
The following guidelines are meant to guide your characters’ speech; however, above all: Only enforce these if they work for your characters. They do not replace local dialect, cultural customs, or speech patterns affected by medical conditions.
- Read everything you write out loud. Does it sound natural? One of the things I see over and over with my writers is an overuse of name references. Think about how often we actually refer to the person we are speaking with by name. In most cases, it’s not as often as we think when we write.
- Account for natural pauses. People often take breaks when speaking, and it’s rare for one person to talk at length without some kind of interruption or action accompanying the words. Rather than letting person A say all the things and then person B say all their things, aim for a back and forth that mirrors a natural conversation.
- Allow for others to react. Unless it’s a lecture/teaching environment, people don’t often let others talk at length without interjecting with their own thoughts.
- Recognize that people’s speech patterns vary depending on who they are speaking with, what emotions they may be feeling (we tend to have looser tongues when angry, for example), and other external and environmental circumstances. Your character doesn’t need to exhibit identical speech patterns for every situation.
- Take extra care if you wish to write a dialect, if it is your own natural dialect. If you are writing a dialect that isn’t your own, reconsider—you risk offending others if done poorly or incorrectly. Always ask, regardless of your familiarity with the dialect: Is this needed? Can readers understand it? Will it distract from the story? Even if your character has a unique regional accent, you are not obligated to mimic that in dialogue. You can include certain words and phrases, but otherwise write it as you would other dialogue to ease readability.
- In many cases, you can swap out formal speak for informal speak. We tend to write more formally than we speak. Here are a few things to consider for writing casual speech:
- USE CONTRACTIONS when culturally appropriate. It’s common for people to say “I’m” for “I am,” for example.
- USE SENTENCE FRAGMENTS when responding to questions. A natural response to being asked “How are you?” is “Fine” or “Could be better.” Yes, you could write “I’m fine” or “I could be better,” and there’s nothing wrong with that—adding the odd sentence fragment will just enhance the overall naturalness of your speech.
- DON’T IGNORE CASUAL SPEAK. It’s fine to throw the odd slang or even (gasp!) profanity (if appropriate) to make your characters sound more human. Consider a situation where someone hits their thumb with a hammer—are they likely to say “Oh, that hurts”? (I’m guessing not so much.) Emotions allow for casual speak, and casual speak allows a writer to enhance the emotion.
- USE THE BEST SMALL WORDS. Unless your character is someone who speaks using an inner thesaurus, it’s best to stay simple in your speech. Remember that when we speak, we do so usually without thinking through the exact words we use—unlike with writing, where we can try out different words and play with our language. And because we often speak before too much thought, we grab what is familiar to us. So, it’s fine to use “mad” over “irate” or “walk” over “saunter/stroll.”
- Humans are complex creatures. Often, we won’t say what we mean, directly. We may need others to pull it out of us. Use that ambuguity when crafting realistic dialogue, but don’t overuse this technique as it could lead to reader frustration.
How to Not be Too Natural
While taking all of these tips into consideration, always keep in mind how what you’re writing reads. The number one consideration is always readability. Even if you write down a conversation you recorded word for word for accuracy in the natural-sounding department, if your reader cannot understand it, it won’t add to your story. In that case, your dialogue will distract from your story, when it should always enhance your story. So, keep these tips in mind when crafting your dialogue.
- While a real conversation has back and forth between multiple speakers, always be sure that the flow is easy to follow. If you have characters interjecting/interrupting, add dialogue tags so the reader can follow. Also be mindful of how many times you can ask your reader to switch focus from one character to another before getting frustrated. Take a business meeting, for example, where an idea is pitched and eight people jump in, talking over each other, to give their feedback. As annoying as that would be in real person (and it is), it’s even more so on the page.
- Allow for more dramatic pauses than what usually happens. Think about an argument you had with a loved one. Replay that in your mind. Chances are, most of what was said was done so without too much thinking. Especially heated arguments. Insults are thrown; defences are raised. Excuses given. We want others to hear OUR side and hear it FAST. We don’t allow much time for reflection (that tends to come after tempers have lowered). Sometimes it’s fine to write these types of arguments out, but also keep in mind how you can add to the emotion by taking time to pause and reflect. How does person A’s words make person B feel? You can add in reflection, reaction, and even action items like picking up an item and stroking it or some mundane task that gives your character something to do and the reader a resting point.
- Humans are messy speakers. We change thoughts half way through a sentence, we add in a lot of filler words (I’m looking at you, “ums,” “ahs”), we use words incorrectly, we trail off when distracted… In this way, written dialogue should be cleaner than natural dialogue while still sounding natural. Sounds simple, right?
- Just as humans can be messy, we can also be boring. We spend a lot of our speaking time on small talk, which serves a purpose of connection when speaking to someone, but, frankly, is not that exciting to read about. People who know each other spend a lot of time talking day-to-day logistics that, while important in real life, again isn’t that exciting on the page.
Using Dialogue Tags Naturally
Dialogue tags are tools you can use to help demonstrate emotion, when needed. The caveat here is when needed. In most cases, a simple “said” suffices. Other frequently used dialogue tags include “asked,” “replied,” and “stated.”
You can get more creative, and there are a whole bunch of possibilities (e.g., quip, gasp, blurt, pipes, shouts, screams, whispers, stutters, splutters…the list really does go on and on). Be careful not to overuse these often-overused dialogue tags. Think how irritating it would be to read a conversation, where every single tag was different.
“How dare you!” she screamed.
“I did what I had to do!” he shouted back.
“I don’t even know you anymore,” she hissed.
“That makes two of us,” he whispered.
“What are you going to do now?” she blurted.
When you use fancier-than-necessary dialogue tags, what you’re doing is drawing attention away from the words that are being said to the tag itself. The tag should support the words, not draw focus from them.
Other Tips for Using Dialogue Tags
- When writing a conversation between two characters, you do not always need to include dialogue tags. Write in a few so the reader doesn’t mix up who is saying what, but after that, you can let more of a ping-pong, back and forth style unfold. This method will not work if there are more than two characters involved.
- Considering adding in pieces of narrative to the dialogue tags to slow down the pace of the dialogue.
“Good dialogue is not real speech—it’s the illusion of real speech.”Ernest Hemingway