People like to talk, and if you listen to some everyday conversations you will hear some common patterns: lots of “like” and “um”, pointless repetition, interjections of completely unrelated topics, and unfinished or incomplete sentences. This is all fine in real life but would never work in your writing—and this is the core of why capturing dialogue that feels authentic but completes its purpose is so difficult. Whether you are writing your memoir or a fictional novel, these tips will help your dialogue flow and feel more finished.
1. Cut Out the Day-to-Day
All dialogue must move the story forward, therefore there is no room for meaningless words. If the story or characterization would be the same without that section of dialogue, just cut it out. It should provide information to either the reader or the character, it should show who the characters are and what their relationships to each other are like, or it should reveal something about the character’s goals or journey. Every word should do some work, so edit for pleasantries that don’t show anything or routine parts of dialogue, like the character simply saying, “Hello,” when picking up the phone or asking to speak to someone.
2. Don’t Forget the Action
We don’t simply stop moving when we speak, so neither should your characters. This is vital to maintaining the dialogue’s flow and avoiding stale, meaningless conversations that are hard to analyze. Text without context is tricky to interpret after all, so give your readers some hints at your character’s emotional state with some small actions: casually sipping coffee, nervously pouring a drink with shaking hands, looking away while lying, or rubbing her temples in frustration.
3. Watch Your Tags
There is nothing more annoying than reading an endless repetition of, “he said,” and, “she said”. If you set up your characters well enough, readers should be able to tell who is speaking by what they say, how they say it, and what they do while they speak. This means you can simply take out those direct tags and let your reader effortlessly take in a more authentic conversation.
4. Beware of Artificial Explanation
Remember who your characters are and what they already know. You would never have a brother say to his sister, “Mom, whose name is Martha, is going to the nursing home to visit Grandma, like she does at this time every week.” The sister would already know this information, so it sounds stiff and is a wasted opportunity to provide truly valuable description. Instead, imbed the information into dialogue so that readers can put it together on their own.
Writing dialogue that sounds smooth instead of stilted may seem daunting, but when it is done well it can elevate your writing in ways few other elements can. It is worth spending some more time shaping your characters’ words to truly give the impression of true-to-life language with all of its wonderful nuance and subtleties.