10 Tips for Writing Dialogues Like a Pro – Learning From Real People

Writing novels isn’t easy. If you think it is then you are either a run-away inmate of some mad asylum or a delusional passer-by who thinks writing is something people do when they have a lot of time to waste.

Well, there are many aspects of writing that are hard but dialogue writing can at times be the hardest of them all. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:-

Paul: So Jack, I see that the light has turned red on the traffic post.

Jack: Yes Paul, it has been placed there so that traffic can flow without accidents. Isn’t that a marvelous idea?

Paul: Yes Jack, indeed it is. In fact I have learnt in my twenty years of driving a car that you should always…

… okay, I think that was torture enough. That there, my friends, was an example of an information dump (well, in a more dramatic way…). New writers are always prone to committing this big mistake while writing dialogues in their amateurishness (is that a word, I think it is). But no sane person in real life speaks like that. (Don’t tell me that you do, because if that’s true then you might be Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s milder cousin.)

Anyway, writing dialogues is an art. It needs a keen ear for realism and a knack for witticism that adds a punch to every line (not that your character should make witty remarks if her mother just died…).

So here are ten things that must be kept in mind while writing dialogues:-

1. Real people are random.

Take me for example. There I am sitting in orthodontics lab one day, bending wires to sharpen my skills at being a dentist, and suddenly I look up and ask my friend this: “Do you know what black holes are?”

And the other instance when I suddenly said while drawing a carious lesion: “Word of the day – fiberoptics.” (Engineering during oral pathology? Say what, was my friend’s reaction.) Yup, can’t get randomer than that (or madder…).

2. Real people bicker.

If you have a sibling at home then you may know this firsthand. As for me – I bicker all the time, with my sister, with my mom, with my good-friend, with my not-so-good friend and sometimes even with random strangers. Humans are a nasty lot who like to fight, raarrr!

“Mom, thinks it’s cute. We ask: what’s so cute in war?” 

3. Real people do not give long monologues.

And we are not counting professors in this. They aren’t real anyway! But real people, the real real people, will never give long monologues about anything, even if it’s about their hometown, or family or kids. We have limited capacity in our lungs after all and a trachea that dries up very quick!

4. Real people sometimes don’t hear you.

Yup, happens to me every day (because I am irritating) and must have happened to you too (because everyone is irritating; don’t deny unless you are an alien species).

And it’s a fine prospect for launching conflict in any tale.

Just imagine: a woman has been nagging her man for a while now and he isn’t listening and suddenly she asks him a question. He fails to reply and *BAM* the next thing you know she is packing his bags because he is being thrown out of their house (Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai and its nostalgic memories for the Indian readers).

“Television: Gathering punchlines was never so much fun!”

5. Real people refuse to repeat.

Ever said a joke that was totally hilarious but your audience failed to hear it? Well, what do you do? Repeat it and take the fun out of the joke? Or stay tight-lipped and say: “Well, you missed your chance at a good laugh. Better luck next time.”

But contrarily if you do make the character repeat her lines you can always add the punch of anger into it to show impatience at having to repeat something vital, which the other person should have listened to in the first place!

6. Real people don’t always reply.

If they did then rhetorical questions would go out of the window. But apart from this, you seriously think an emotionally cold person would answer probing questions from her psychologist in the first meet? Or a teenager answer his mom when he just had a huge fight with her?

7. Real people use nicknames.

Yup, they do and we all know it. You might hate it when your mom calls you “moon pie” in front of your classmates (making you the punchline hero for the next two weeks) but that never stops her from doing it anyway. And haven’t we all been called sweetheart one time or the other.

8. Real people cuss.

The frequency varies from person to person and situation to situation but we all swear every once in a while. In fact the trend now is that if you can cuss like a pig then you must be the coolest thing in the entire universe (yeah, right!).

So don’t forget to make Johnny from the coal mines say: “These feckwits dine on our hardwork and then shit us out when we grow old.”

9. Real people exaggerate.

And I shall tell you my story again. If there ever was a great exaggerator then it would be me. In fact this is how I described the sensation of wearing a saree: “I feel like a big scratchy pimple, I itch all over!”

…and lastly

10. Real people don’t reveal how they are feeling completely.

And how do we deduce the unspoken bits? By reading body language, of course. So don’t forget to add those essential tags to your dialogues that show the readers how Elsie is wringing her hand while she is stammering through a conversation with her father, or how Leonard is patting his pockets unconsciously to check on his recent earnings at the cards table.

“Confused or constipated?”

But that doesn’t mean you can go ahead and write:

“Hello, my name is Ron,” said Ron.

“Nice to meet you. I am Sally.” said Sally.

Too redundant if you ask me.

I could go on because people have a lot more tics than just these but I seem to have exceeded my personal word limit… to hell with it, here’s a bonus point:-

11. Real people talk when no one’s around.

So you thought dialogue only comes into the picture when at least two people are there in the scene, did you? Sorry to break the bubble but I for one have a penchant for standing before the mirror and saying how marvelous I look. Or at other times practice the speech I would make if ever I decided to ask a guy out. (Yeah, I am progressive, so sue me!).

And there you go, 11 points at the price of 10. I am rather generous you know 😛 .

Do you have any observations about real people you would like to share? How do you write dialogues? Do you study people in airports and train stations while you wait? Do share your thoughts in the comments’ section below. I love it when you do.

So that’s it for today. I hope these pointers helped. If you need more you can always ask me. Till the next time, ciao.

-Ria

P.S. If you liked my writing style or love The Spyglassviewer, then do consider signing up for free email updates or subscribing to our RSS feed. For more info check the right sidebar near the top. Thank you.

P.P.S I have finally begun building the story world for my novel. And it really isn’t all that boring after all. I guess, I was just too lazy to begin the groundwork. Will continue on this line of thought on Sunday…

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9 thoughts on “10 Tips for Writing Dialogues Like a Pro – Learning From Real People

  1. I think number six is especially powerful. I first noticed good examples of two people talking to one another, but about different things, because neither was listening, in an Elmore Leonard book. I can’t think of another writer who does dialogue better. Each time I read one of his books, I take away something that makes me understand the art a little bit more.

    Good post. “I may just read it again,” he said while eying the muffins on the table. The post would have to wait.

  2. Pingback: How and Who matters more than What « M. Q. Allen

  3. Nicely said. When I’m critiquing other peoples’ work, I do notice stiff, awkward dialog a lot. One thing that pops up over and over is people not using no or few contractions at all in their characters’ speech. Sometimes this is done intentionally because they want to make the person sound educated or formal or something. Well, as a professor (and we actually are real people 😉 ), I can say education has nothing to do with contraction use, or even the use of colloquial slang or swear words–though I don’t swear in a professional environment or in front of my students. Professors also talk in broken sentences and trail off at the end of sentences sometimes (though if I do in front of my class, I can guarantee a student will ask me to repeat what I just said). And at the end of a class where I had to talk for an hour straight, I’m hoarse like anyone else would be.

    With my own writing, I’ve noticed that the average paragraph length for dialog heavy passages in my own writing are shorter (two sentences and some change) than the average sentence length in my narrative heavy passages. And even in narrative, I tend to prefer shorter paragraphs.

    Anyways, thanks for the article.

    • Wow. I got a professor to actually comment? 🙂 Good points you have brought up there. In fact I get hoarse in under fifteen minutes of continuous talking and so it seems rather weird to me when characters drone on and on for what seems like hours without even a water break. And yes, we need shorter sentences and paragraphs if we wish to hold readers’ attention these days. What with short attention span and all people don’t even read blog posts which aren’t punched with bullets.

  4. Pingback: 10 Tips for Writing Dialogues Like a Pro – Learning From Real People « JOSEPH HENRY GAINES

  5. This is of great help and it does make a lot of sense, I always think the further dialogue gets from real, the less interesting it gets. I’m not particularly a writer myself, but have been writing short screenplays and these tips are very applicable. It makes me glad to read these now and realize most of them were taken into account during my writing process, even though I only just read this. Guess I’ve been a good observer all this time. Still, it’s nice to see these so well put. Well done!
    Regards.

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