When two or more characters are engaged in conversation, you have a dialogue. Writing realistic dialogue is the sleight of hand magic of storytelling. Factual information wrapped in a false sense of reality, with one demand that cannot be ignored: it must move the story.
Realistic dialogue doesn’t answer questions
That’s right. Talk “off the nose” instead of “on the nose”. People don’t respond to every little thing directly, they talk around things, they use sarcasm, exaggeration and manipulation. Here’s the golden rule: no speech of one character can ever answer the speech that goes before it. In other words, questions and answers do not follow one another. Some questions are never answered, some questions are answered late. Dialogue is never a matter of declarations or examinations. They are uneven, sometimes unresponsive, often cluttered with comments and cut-offs. They provide a glimpse at information as well as the character of each person involved and their relationships.
After every line of dialogue, consider the ways all involved/present character could respond to it. Of course you don’t have to use them all, or even any of them. Mapping out your options lets you discover the best ways for characters to express and reveal themselves.
“Are you thirsty?” asked John.“Are you thirsty?” asked John.
“Yes, thanks.” answered Jane.“No. I thrive on dehydration.” answered Jane.
Pointers for realistic dialogue
- Make your speeches short. Avoid long sentences.
- People love to talk and will seldom give another person the chance to just go on and on. People interrupt each other constantly.
- Instead of directly answering a question, have your character check his answer, not know the answer or ask another for the answer. This keeps the dialogue lively and keeps other players involved.
- Instead of answering with a statement of what was done, answer with why it was done. Or the other way around.
- Have your character ignore the question and answer the question he feels is the real question.
- If you must answer the question directly, do so in different words than used by the questioner.
Quick tips for the written spoken word
Tip 1: the occasional profanity
"What happened to you, Josh?"
"Christ, what the hell happened to you?"
Tip 2: informal language
"A man attempted to rob me."
"This guy came up to me and told me to give him all my money"
Tip 3: contradictions
"I do not owe you any money."
"No way man, in your dreams."
Tip 4: Dropped letters
"He is rolling in cash, you know?
"He's rollin' in cash, ya know?
This is usually indicative of an uneducated person speaking.
Tip 5: Referring to people by name
"John, what did you think of last night's game?"
In reality people rarely refer to the other by name. This is only done when the attention of the other person has to be attracted or when it is otherwise unclear who the speaker is referring to.
Tip 6: Relaying a story in a story
When a person is retelling something that happened between him and someone else, the other speaker is often merely quoted. People tend to elaborate on what they said themselves, how they meant it and how the other was interpreted.
Tip 7: know what to leave out
There are many things people say in real life that would make reading a story or novel tedious and exhaustive. Constant repetitions, vagueness of speech (i.e. “I’m like, no way!”), dropping of letters etc. are only used when needed for effect.
Tip 8: everybody has their own voice
Nobody speaks exactly the same way as another. Assign clearly distinctive voices to your characters to avoid them becoming interchangeable. You can also achieve this by including catch phrases.
First golden rule: One thought at a time and keep the lines short.
Second golden rule: Three sentences without notifying the reader by some device, is a speech and of importance.
Eriksson, P. S. (1987) Shut up! He Explained
Cleaver, J. (2002) Immediate Fiction.
Reeves, C. (2012) Scriptshadow Secrets.