At one of my early critique sessions, the leader told me I had a “tin ear for dialogue.”
I’m not complaining. I asked for honest feedback. I appreciated the blunt delivery. I knew not to waste time honing dialogue skills built on weak fundamentals, I needed to start from scratch.
I started studying. That’s where I suggest you start, too.
How to Study Natural Dialogue
Of course, you can read books that teach writing dialogue, but I urge you to learn some other fundamentals first. Before you can write dialogue that sounds natural, you need to understand how people talk.
Learn Natural Dialogue by Eavesdropping
Several members of my critique team recommended eavesdropping as a way to learn dialogue. Since I spend a lot of time traveling, I started eavesdropping on public conversations at airports, in restaurants, and on planes. Instead of listening to what they said, I listened to how people talked and took notes.
When I eavesdropped, I listened for distinctive styles and patterns. Then, when I heard something interesting, I’d capture its flavor.
Study Books to Learn Natural Dialogue
Pull out your favorite books. There is a good chance that the dialogue was a crucial ingredient in engaging your interest. So find your favorite sections and study the dialogue.
Don’t just look at the words spoken. Instead, study how the dialogue flows, especially the back and forth between characters. Take time to appreciate how the writer uses dialogue to build characters and move the story forward.
Study Dialogue in Movies
Movies are another great place to find good dialogue to study. Watch your favorites with an eye on the dialogue.
Pause the movie and picture the dialogue in words. Then, take a favorite scene and write the dialogue, including tags and action beats.
Tips for Writing Natural Dialogue
Real Dialogue Isn’t Straightforward
One of the biggest lessons I learned is that conversation is disorderly.
People interrupt one another.
It’s not unusual for a speaker to be interrupted. The interruption may be external to the conversation, but often, the speaker is interrupted by a participant in the conversation. For example:
“Johnny, I told you—”
“He hit me first!”
Sentences are often left unfinished.
Sentences are left incomplete for several reasons. Sometimes the speaker gets distracted. Other times, they get lost in their thoughts. An example:
The women sat side-by-side in the airport terminal, scrolling throught their phones. Mary looked up and said, “Don’t let me forget to…” A tall man, dressed in a uniform, winked at her as he passed by. She smiled.
April caught the non-verbal exchange. “Are you flirting with our pilot?”
Many conversations are non-linear.
I discovered that conversations don’t follow a straight arrow. Instead, the flow often moves from one topic to another. For example:
“What’s the weather supposed to be next week?”
“Hot, I think.”
“Jack is taking me to the ball park Tuesday night.”
“Lucky you! George leaves for his golf trip with his buddies on Tuesday.”
“How long will he be gone?”
“Too long — and when he gets back he’s always tired and needs a few days to recover.
Questions Often Are Not Directly Answered
I found the questions to be most interesting. Quite often, questions didn’t receive a direct answer.
Some Questions Get Ignored
I was surprised by the number of times questions didn’t get answered. Sometimes, the conversation got interrupted. But often, the other person chose not to answer.
“I had a spectular time with Jake last Friday. We stopped at a sports bar after the game.” She noticed Jackie staring out the window. “Oh, you had a date with Charlie. How did that go?”
Jackie shook her head and looked down.
“I’m so sorry. What happened?”
Sometimes Questions Get Answered with Questions
Answering questions with a question is a technique people use to take control of the conversation. This often happens in confrontational situations. But for some people, it’s a personality trait. An example:
“Why did you do that?”
Often People Answer a Different Question
When people don’t want to answer the question, they will often answer a different question than the one asked. Here’s an example:
“How was your trip to Disney World?”
“The Harry Potter rides at Universal Studios were unbelievable.”
Occasionally People Evade Questions by Changing the Subject
Another way people avoid answering a question is to change the subject. For example:
As she backed down the driveway, Emily wandered and took out a sapling. She stopped and adjusted the steering wheel before continuing. “Don’t worry. I’ve got this,” she said as she overcorrected her overcorrection.
The woman’s eyes grew wide. “Do you know how to drive?”
As she neared the street, Emily asked, “Which way?”
People Have Unique Patterns of Speech
The patterns of speech detailed above are general rules. But, each person has their eccentricities in the way they talk. So, to bring your characters to life, you need to capture their unique speaking patterns in your dialogue.
I found eavesdropping to be especially useful for capturing character traits. I keep a notebook of speech patterns that I use when brainstorming new characters for my stories.
Dialogue in Creative Writing Is Different than Real Speech
While dialogue needs to sound natural, there’s an essential distinction between dialogue and everyday conversation. Dialogue is conversation with the boring parts removed.
In his book, Conflict, Action & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing), William Noble says, “Dialogue is a special kind of conversation; it’s a conversation with drama!” Mr. Noble instructs that there are only two reasons for writers to include dialogue.
- It must contribute to telling the story. In other words, it needs to move the story forward.
- Use it to develop characters.
In other words, if your dialogue doesn’t advance the story or develop your characters, remove it. Good dialogue achieves both.
How to Tell If Your Dialogue Is Natural
In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says, “When dialogue is right, we know. When it’s wrong, we also know – it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument.”
So that’s the test. Read your dialogue out loud and listen. You’ll know if it sounds genuine — or not.
The first step in learning to natural dialogue is to grasp normal speech patterns. If your conversations are straightforward or your characters answer every question with direct answers, it won’t sound natural. But if you incorporate the ideas above, you’ll have your dialogue sounding like regular conversations.
Once you have dialogue that sounds natural, be sure to check our article How to Write Engaging Dialogue. Also, formatting dialogue can be tricky, so be sure to read our article on How to Format Dialogue (with Examples)
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the books mentioned in this article, please click on the links below.
(Full disclosure: If you do so, I earn a commission. Thank you.)
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