Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #4: Writing Believable Dialogue

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Readers love dialogue. Why? Because it breaks up the monotony of big ol’ chunks of text. Personally, when I see pages and pages of sprawling paragraphs, it gives me flashbacks of reading horrible college textbooks.

But dialogue is fun! When we read it our eyes zip across the text. And everyone knows about that tiny bit of (huge) satisfaction readers get from turning pages. Dialogue gets you to the page turn so much faster!

“But isn’t dialogue about other, more important things, like character development?” – says everyone reading this blog.

Okay, okay, okay. In all seriousness, there are lots of great things about dialogue, but it’s easy to lose all of those great things if your dialogue doesn’t ring true. So today I’m giving you my best dialogue writing tips and tricks.

This was my absolutely most requested topic so I really hope it puts some of your questions to rest!

Characters Who Sound the Same

One of the most common issues with dialogue is all of the characters sounding the same. If the five-year-old sounds like the police chief who sounds like the ninety-year-old widow, you’ve got a problem.

Usually this problem is more common in writers who struggle to immerse themselves in some or all of their characters. If you can’t think how the character thinks and feel what the character feels, you’re going to have to put a lot more legwork into creating natural-sounding dialogue.

Another reason your characters might all sound the same is that you’re falling back on cliche or “stock” dialogue (more on that later) rather than truly thinking about what would be said in the situation.

No matter what the reason, here is a quick assignment to help you give each character their own unique way of speaking.

How to Make Your Characters Sound Different

Make a list of all the characters who do a significant amount of speaking in your novel. If there is too many to list, just pick as many as you feel able to handle right now.

Consider the following and how it might influence your character’s speech:

  • Upbringing: Was this character allowed to freely express their emotions in their childhood? Were they from a loud and outspoken family or a quiet one? Were they put down for saying something stupid or encouraged to ask questions? All of these things can affect the way people express themselves.
  • Education: Does this character have a college education? A high school education? Did they drop out of grade school? Education level has a huge impact on our word choices.
  • Career: What does/did this character do for a living? An engineer is going to have a very different set of vocabulary than a dentist. Furthermore, people often use analogies related to their work. A railroad worker might describe his emotions as “rumbling down the tracks.”
  • Worldview: Is this character a pessimist or an optimist? When things get rough, are they going to emphasize or downplay their obstacles? A pessimist might say, “I cut my goddamn finger!” while an optimist might say, “It’s just a little scrape.”
  • Age/Generation: When was this character raised? Someone born in the 40s isn’t going to use the same slang as someone born in 2000. And if they do try to use modern slang, they’ll probably get it wrong.

You may want to write down some example lines of dialogue for each of these elements for each of your characters and keep them handy in a document (or in Scrivener or on flashcards or whatever). Then you can refer to this “dialogue guide” often as you attempt to draw distinctions between various characters’ speech.

Another tip: When you’re ready to rewrite, edit all of one character’s dialogue at one time (and don’t touch the narration or the other characters’ dialogue) to make sure that you stay in that character’s head space and only their head space. This will make sticking to their voice a whole lot easier.

Dialogue Mistakes

There are a handful of very common dialogue mistakes that detract from the dialogue’s believability. There are a variety of forms these mistakes might take, but they all have one thing in common: the character is not speaking in a way that is authentic.

Usually this is because the writer is using the character as their mouthpiece rather than letting the character speak for him or herself. It might also be because the writer is too fixated on thinking like a writer and the dialogue they create is unnatural, too formal, or contrived.

Let’s look at some forms in which inauthentic dialogue might manifest.

“As you know, Bob…”

Telling (rather than showing) in dialogue can be effective when the reader doesn’t notice it (when it feels authentic and is in the character’s own voice), but often telling or info dumping through dialogue is so horribly, painfully apparent that it’s laughable.

“As you know, Bob, we always go out to brunch with your overbearing aunt on Sunday mornings. Ever since you lost your job and she bailed you out with that giant loan.”

If someone actually said this to Bob, can you imagine what he would be thinking? Um…yeah…I do know…why are you telling me? It’s weird. It’s awkward. It doesn’t work, and it certainly doesn’t sound authentic.

But sometimes “As you know, Bob” dialogue is not quite so apparent. Like in this example:

“I have to go to the bank today to ask about a loan. Ever since we bought this house, finances have just been so tight that I can barely afford groceries.”

Now, we can assume that this a conversation between spouses and that they are both already aware of their financial situation. So the wording just has a strangeness about it. Consider a much more natural approach:

“I’m going to go to the bank today to get that loan we talked about. I just can’t stand this. I couldn’t even buy milk yesterday. Sometimes I really wonder if this house is worth all this.”

In this second approach, the reader is far less aware of the fact that they’re being given back story.

Stilted Speech

For some reason, some writers tend to write speech like their characters are from ye olden days.

I think, in part, this comes from some myth that contractions (can’t, don’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t) are bad. The truth is, dialogue without contractions just sounds bizarre.

“I would not go over to John’s house after school because I could not find my school paper. Is that not right, Lisa?”  < This is not how people talk.

Embrace contractions. Use them often. They’re a wonderful way to make speech feel more natural.

A lack of slang, curse words, and colloquialisms is another thing that can make speech feel stilted. Overly formal sentence construction can also be a problem:

“Will you please hand me the salt shaker.” is not as natural (for most people) as something like: “Hand me the salt shaker, please.” or “Gimme that salt shaker, would ya?”

Cliche Dialogue

The last thing I want to talk about today is cliche dialogue, which can seriously impair your dialogue’s believability. Just because people say it in the movies, doesn’t mean it sounds even remotely normal.

Here are some of the biggest cliches to watch out for:

  • “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
  • “Don’t die on me!”
  • “I have a bad feeling about this.”
  • “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”
  • “Are you sitting down?”
  • “So, we meet again.”
  • “Is this some kind of sick joke?”
  • “You’ll never get away with this.”
  • “How hard can it be?”
  • “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
  • “It’s quiet. Too quiet.”
  • “If I’m not back in ten minutes…”
  • “Tell my wife I love her.”
  • “You say that like it’s bad thing.”
  • “I was born ready.”

Lines like these have been used so many times that even using them as a joke seems like a cliche. Weeding cliches out of your dialogue can vastly improve believability.

Homework: Strengthen Your Dialogue

If you’ve done the first part of the homework above (to develop unique sounding dialogue for each of your characters) and you still have time to devote to Novel Boot Camp (go you!), then start working your way through your manuscript’s dialogue.

One of the most important things you can do is to say your dialogue out loud! If you’re not too shy, give your dialogue to two or more friends or family members and ask them to act it out. You will immediately sense places that seem awkward or unnatural. If your “actors” stumble over the speech or change it unconsciously (such as adding contractions), that’s also a good sign it isn’t natural.

Replace clunky, unnatural, or plain dialogue with stronger, unique dialogue. Especially focus on your first page because we’ll be having a critique next week (cue the cheering!).

Punctuating Dialogue

While you’re digging through your manuscript to improve your dialogue, go ahead and spend some time learning to punctuate it correctly.

Dialogue punctuation may seem like a small thing, but imagine a whole novel full of errors (it’s enough to make an editor shake in fear). Besides, punctuation errors just look unprofessional.

So do yourself a favor and run on over to my post: How to Punctuate Dialogue

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

12 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #4: Writing Believable Dialogue

  1. Julie Griffith says:

    First, thanks for putting so much time and effort into this, especially on a holiday. We appreciate it. Great advice, especially the part about reading dialogue out loud. It may feel weird, but it works! Also, good point about having the character speak like someone their age would. Of course there are precocious children that speak like adults, but it bothers me when otherwise normal teens in novels use words, phrases, and references that no teenager would use. I read a novel by a certain best-selling author who did this and it was very distracting. I’ve always been told that dialogue is my strong point. It’s my favorite part of writing. Often it’s the first thing write in a chapter, then I go back and fill in the rest. Too bad my dialogue may be the only thing I do well! Hopefully this bootcamp will help me work out the other parts. Oh, and the only line of dialogue on my first page is a stream of obscenities. That should be interesting in the critique. Haha.

  2. Linda Vernon says:

    “say everyone reading this blog” HA! I love the idea of getting other people to act out your dialogue. What a great idea. And editing just one character to stay in character. This is such a valuable series!! (Please bear with the two punctuation marks, I haven’t clicked over to the punctuation link yet 😉

  3. jennfs10 says:

    Reading dialogue aloud has always been a great way to hear if your characters sound authentic. Sometimes it takes several read throughs to not only get it to sound genuine, but also the flow.

    I really like the bulleted list of how to make your characters sound different. I don’t explicitly outline a character’s history like that, but it certainly helps with not only writing dialogue for that character, but characterization as well.

    (PS-I love Scrivner!)

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Yes, it’s a good list for characterization too. Often weak dialogue is just a symptom of weak characterization as a whole. I’m glad you liked the list!

  4. Justyna says:

    “cue the cheering” – Love it, made me laugh 🙂 – looking forward to it. I actually do read my dialogues out loud with my husbands help, it is very helpful. Unfortunately punctuation is my worst nightmare! The rules in english are so much different from my native language that I just can’t get it, it never feels right to me. The tip about editing only one character’s voice at once is great, I would never come up with it on my own – thank you!

  5. gillianstkevern says:

    Wow, Ellen.

    After Lecture 2 I started revising my opening. Going through it, I kept coming back to my scene descriptions and asides. How much of this was necessary? Cue lecture 3, Info-dumping! Meanwhile, one of my critique partners said while she enjoyed my dialogue, she couldn’t identify my main characters voice — and while I debated requesting a topic on establishing strong voice for a future lecture, here you are, with a lecture on dialogue.

    I am really impressed with how well you know the needs of your audience! Your timing is perfect. I printed out my first chapter yesterday, and I am going to work through it, paying special attention to dialogue and how I present info. I’ve already cut a couple of unnecessary paragraphs and am feeling good about it!

  6. ccfordwords says:

    Great post. I am still working on adding contractions into my dialogue. Also I never really thought about all the influences of their individual dialogue. My CP recommended saying it out loud as well––there goes editing in Starbucks! But it’s much easier to hear the flow if you are saying it. I died laughing while reading the cliched dialogue, but I’m sure there is some hidden within my MS. Thanks for all the time and advice.

  7. Eliza says:

    That was great fun. I just interviewed my characters and we had a great chat. I have been trying to make sure they have a unique voice, but it really helped to sit and write out some sample dialogue, not part of the story (actually, a bit of backstory for my own benefit) and get to know them better. I’m looking forward to editing their dialogue.

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