Writing novels with believable dialogue

Writing Novels with Believable Dialogue

Writing novels with believable dialogue should be easy for authors, but it is harder than many imagine. This guide should help get it right.

Unless you are dumb or living on a desert island, you talk all the time, but it would be a mistake to write realistic speech in your novel. You may feel you are articulate, but most of our conversations consist of grunts, nods, and strange utterances easily translated in context by those who know us, but meaningless outside those parameters.

Uh huh,” accompanied by a raising of eyebrows may mean something completely different than “Uh huh,” accompanied by a nodding or shaking of our head, and the conversations we have every day are a world away from the literary oratory we imagine. Our every-day conversations are often mundane, and if written down would be excruciatingly boring to read.

Writing novels with believable dialogue generally only has three purposes for authors.

Firstly, it must move the story on. There is no room in a novel for the general chit-chat you talk about in real life. Your dialogue is there for a purpose. Primarily you are telling a story, so the dialogue must add something meaningful to the story and move the story forwards.

Secondly, it must provide some additional information. If you were sat around a table with a group of friends, you would not say to the person next to you, “I’m sitting at the table.” You wouldn’t need to say it, because they know that already. You don’t tell people what they already know. You tell them what they don’t know. It’s the same in your novel. The dialogue must provide information the reader doesn’t already know.

Here is another example of telling readers what they already know. “Are you sitting down?” he asked. The words ‘he asked’ are not needed because the question mark already tells the reader he was asking a question. By adding a question mark and adding the words ‘he asked’, you are unnecessarily telling the reader the same thing twice.

Thirdly, dialogue always teaches us about the character of the person doing the talking. Describing a person is all well and good, but it’s only when they open their mouths that you discover what sort of a person they really are. Are they kind or cruel, are they right-wing or left-wing, are they amusing or pathetic? None of those things can be determined externally. Their appearance may give some indication of character, but final confirmation, or denial, only comes from their conversation.

When writing novels with believable dialogue, it’s important to remember people speak differently. Young people may have a different vocabulary to older people, and different occupations may use different words too. These differences may be essential to differentiate between characters, and you should be able to tell which character is speaking solely from the well written dialogue of each person. However, it is also possible to have too much realism.

Let’s take some dialogue between a couple of Scottish people as an example. I’ve lived in Glasgow, and a drunken Glaswegian is almost impossible to understand until you get used to the accent. I’ve also lived in the north of Scotland where the accent is even broader. Writing a book full of realistic Scottish dialogue would make it almost impossible to read.

When Diana Gabaldon wrote Outlander, the Scottish characters would have spoken in a broad Scottish dialogue almost impossible for modern readers to understand. If she had made the conversations authentic, nobody would have been able to follow what was being said, and most readers would have put the book down long before they finished reading. Instead, she used a few well-chosen words and phrases to emphasized the Scottishness of her characters whilst keeping the remainder easy to read. Using Scottish words such as laird (lord), ‘twas (it was), canna (cannot), and dinnae (did not), she brought the Scottishness of her characters to life, whilst the rest of the sentence was written in modern English. Readers immediately understood the dialect words in context, without having to translate every sentence into modern English (or more correctly into modern Scottish).

You will find this system in many books when writing novels with believable dialogue where characters speak English in a dialect, in slang, or in a foreign accent. In England, and I’m sure in many other places in the world where English is spoken, different words are used for the same thing. For example, I call a passage at the side or back of a house, a passage. My wife is English, but calls a passage at the side of a house, a ginnel (she’s from Lancashire if anyone’s interested). To her, a passage is a ginnel. To me, a passage is a passage, or even an alley.

The same will be true in whatever country you live. Things common in the north will have different names in south, and things common in the west will have different names in the East. I once lived in the north of Scotland in an area where there were several small fishing villages along the coast. The villages may have only been a few miles apart, but locals could tell which village someone came from by the way they spoke. Words common in one village were uncommon in the next village, and they immediately knew who were locals and who were foreigners (foreigners in their context were people from the next village).

If you have a white character from New Orleans, they will use a few different words to a white character from California. It shouldn’t be overdone, but one or two of those words or phrases will be enough for reader to tell the difference.

It is generally recognised the phrases ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ become invisible to readers, but this too can be overdone. Here is an example of dialogue between a couple where things have been overdone.

“Have you been to the cinema?” he said.
“Yes, I’ve been to the cinema. I’ve just got back,” she said.
“What film did you see?” he said.
“I saw the latest blockbuster. I went with Tim,” she said.
“You went with Tim?” he said.
“Yes, I went with Tim. So what?” she said.

The only reason for the she said, he said tags, is to remind your reader who is speaking. If readers can work that out for themselves, then the tags are not necessary. Like the above excerpt, they can become boring and distracting. Here’s the same conversation with fewer tags.

Have you been to the cinema?” he said.
“Yes, I’ve been to the cinema. I’ve just got back,” she said.
“What film did you see?”
“I saw the latest blockbuster. I went with Tim.”
“You went with Tim?”
“Yes,” she said. “I went with Tim. So what?”

The above dialogue contains half the tags of the initial dialogue, but it remains just as obvious who is speaking each line.

There is a temptation to add descriptive words on the end of speech, but generally this should be avoided as it detracts from the words being spoken. Here is an example.

“Don’t laugh at me,” he shouted.
“I’m not laughing,” she grinned.
“You bloody well are,” he snapped back.

Much better in this instance to separate the behaviour from the speech itself.

Michael became angry and didn’t see the joke. “Don’t laugh at me,” he said.

“I’m not laughing.” Even as she spoke, Susan struggled unsuccessfully to control her laughter.

“You bloody well are,” he said.

Dialogue has a few rules, and perhaps one of the most confusing is whether to use single or double speech marks. Most test books claim the UK English convention is to use single speech marks, and the US convention is to use double speech marks. Personally, I have found most editors don’t care which you use as long as you are consistent and don’t change systems half-way through your novel. Also personally, I prefer to always use double quotes for direct speech. It helps differentiate between speech marks and an apostrophe. Take the following as an example.

‘Harry’s writing isn’t always clear. You can’t always tell where his dialogue ends.’

“Harry’s writing isn’t always clear. You can’t always tell where his dialogue ends.”

To me, and it is a personal choice, but I prefer the second option.

Dialogue may be direct, and written within speech marks as above, but dialogue may also be indirect as it is below.

Bill said Harry’s writing wasn’t always clear.

There may also be inner dialogue or thoughts.

Harry’s writing isn’t always clear, thought Bill.

Thoughts are dialogue that never reach your mouth and are never actually spoken, so they are usually written without speech marks. However, there are no hard and fast rules about thoughts. Adding ‘he thought’ or ‘she thought’ is often enough to differentiate between speech and thoughts. Some writers prefer to write thoughts in italics, some write speech in double marks and thoughts in single ones. The only rule is to be consistent. Your readers need to know whether something was said or only thought, so whatever method you use, you need to maintain the same method throughout your story.

Another rule for dialogue is that every time a new person speaks, their dialogue needs to start on a new line. That applies even if the person speaks one word. For example, the following dialogue is wrong:

“Did it?” he asked. “Yes. It did,” she replied.

The above dialogue should be written with each person’s speech on a new line. The following dialogue is correct:

“Did it?” he asked.
“Yes, it did,” she replied.

It’s important to realise the new line rule only applies to new people talking. If the same person is still speaking, there is no need to start a new line. Both the following lines are correct.

“Did it?” he asked. “Did it really?”

“Yes.” His doubt annoyed her. “It really did.”

Some writers get confused about where to place punctuation within speech, so here are some examples.

1. “Stop it,” he said.
2. “Stop it.” He moved away.
3. “Stop it, and don’t do that again.”
4. Stop it,” he said, “and don’t do that again.”
5. Stop it,” he said. “Don’t do that again.”

In the first example, there is only one sentence, half of which is speech and half non-speech. The speech ends with a comma inside the closing speech marks, the next phrase starts with a non-capital, and the whole sentence ends with a stop.

In the second example, there are two sentences, a speech sentence and a non-speech sentence. The speech sentence ends in a full stop inside the closing speech marks.

In the third example, there is only one sentence. It ends with a full stop inside the closing speech marks.

In the fourth example there is only one sentence, but with two sections of speech split with a section of non-speech. The first section of speech ends with a comma inside the final speech mark. The second section of speech ends with a full stop inside the final speech mark.

The fifth example is similar to the previous one, but comprises of two sentences. The first sentence is similar to the sentence in example one. The second sentence is all speech, and ends with a full stop immediately inside the closing speech mark.

What you should have noticed about the above examples, is that all punctuation relating to the speech, is inside the speech marks. If the speech asks a question or makes an exclamation, the question mark or exclamation mark goes inside the speech marks even if the sentence continues. Both the following are correct.

“Are you going to stop writing dialogue?” He stopped typing.

Are you going to stop writing dialogue?” he said before walking off and making himself a coffee. Writing novels with believable dialogue had made him thirsty.

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