I’ve written about dialogue before, but I wanted to expand on it a bit to include some additional tips.
As I’ve noted, one of the best ways to learn how to write realistic dialogue in your fiction is to listen to conversations. Sitting in a restaurant, standing in line at the store, sitting in a classroom or waiting room, all great places to listen to the conversations going on around you. And I don’t mean listening for the juicy tidbits. What I mean is listen to the inflections, the way the conversation ebbs and flows, how the participants talk over each other or interrupt one another, the slang, the dialect. It’s the nuances of conversation you need to pay attention to.
Adding to that, there are other things to pay attention to, like body language and facial expressions. In my opinion, too many authors have their characters talking, but nothing else happens. It’s like two cardboard cutouts having a conversation. Even if the dialogue is well written, having them talk without any movement seems weird.
Think about it…when you talk to people, do the two of you simply stand face to face and speak without moving? You don’t, do you? You scratch your nose, or glance over at someone walking by. You raise your eyebrows, adjust your weight on your feet, twirl a pencil between your fingers, or tap your foot. We never sit or stand perfectly still, especially when we’re interacting with someone. We fidget, we get distracted, we’re shocked or humored or bored.
Here are two examples for comparison:
“Hi,” he said. “How’re you doing today?”
“I’m fine,” she replied. “A little annoyed. Bobby didn’t want to get out of bed this morning.”
“I have two little ones of my own. I understand completely.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you had kids,” she said. “How old are they?”
“Hi,” he said, looking up from the newspaper on the table. “How’re you doing today?”
“I’m fine,” she pulled a chair back from the table and sat down. “A little annoyed. Bobby didn’t want to get out of bed this morning.”
He rolled his eyes. “I have two little ones of my own. I understand completely.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you had kids,” she said as she straightened the napkin and silverware. “How old are they?”
Do you see what I mean about how these little movements can make a positive difference in a written conversation? In the first example it’s just two talking heads. All we have is the dialogue they’re speaking and that makes it tough to discern any additional meaning or subtext to what they’re saying. But in the second example we have movement. The man in the conversation rolls his eyes as in, “I understand”, when referring to having children. The woman shows some of her personality by straightening the napkin and silverware on the table. Is she avoiding looking him in the eyes? Is she a neat freak that has to have everything just so? Is she masking annoyance?
You can see how these little personal touches can not only add more realism to a conversation, but it also add more context to the overall story. Not everything is conveyed in simple words. The way a character moves, sits, talks, interacts with other characters, it all adds more richness to the story.
The next time you’re out in public somewhere – eating out, hanging with friends, or simply browsing in a store or sitting in a waiting room – listen to the conversations around you. Focus on the way people interact, how they stand, walk, what they do with their hands, and the expressions on their faces. Catalog it in your mental filing cabinet for later reference. I promise you, doing this will help you to write realistic and interesting dialogue. And maybe pick up on some of the juicy gossip I mentioned earlier.