Writing Dialogue

Most writing conferences have sessions that provide instruction in writing strong dialogue. Presenters for these sessions emphasize the importance of dialogue being realistic, age appropriate, fitting for the time, and succinct. That so many sessions are devoted to this topic suggests that writing realistic dialogue is a challenging task. I found this to be true.    

Realistic Dialogue
Conversations that writers overhear and in which they participate provide information that is useful when constructing realistic dialogue for their stories. Writers need to listen for language patterns used by groups of people in various circumstances around them. They also need to research in order to learn about language patterns from other times and locations.

Age Appropriate Dialogue
By mimicking those with whom they interact, children develop unique sentence patterns and words. A child who hears adults using contractions such as “don’t” and “can’t” might invent the contraction, “willn’t,” and say such things as, “No, I willn’t.” and “He willn’t share.” This is appropriate for a three-year-old. As children mature, their language patterns and vocabulary become more complex and standardized.

A family of characters in one of my winter reads includes an eight-year-old girl. In one scene, the mother carried this young girl on her back. I pictured a rather small third-grader. In an apparent attempt to include details via dialogue, the author repeatedly wrote improbable dialogue for this child. At one point, while speaking to her mother, the child said, “There is no more pressing circumstances for a woman in the home, than in an uncivilized place like this.” I contend that even a precocious eight-year-old child would not make such a statement.

Teenagers have always used unique phrases. “Whatever” would fit appropriately into dialogue written for a teen living in 2014. Partial sentences and the question, “Huh?” would also make current teenage dialogue believable.

Adult dialogue needs to be based on the sentence structure, grammar, and unique words common to the area where the story takes place. If “ain’t” is a word commonly used in the area, then it is acceptable to use this word in dialogue.

My brother writes a continuing series in which the characters are from a specific area and by-gone era. The dialogue and narration are distinctive with relationship to grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, and language. As a writer in the 2000’s, it no doubt requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail in order to be consistent. As a dedicated writer, he is consistent.

Dialogue Fitting for the Time
Catch phrases, slang, and sayings are invisibly stamped with a time. In the fifties we said such things as “she had a cow,” “I dig it,” “don’t go ape,” “I’m steamed,” and “neat-o.” We creamed our dads’ cars and wrote KILROY WAS HERE on walls and sidewalks. Today’s teen-agers say things like “cool,” “whatever,” “get real,” “my bad,” “well, duh,” and “yeah, right” (plus many other things I wouldn't want to write here). They drive parents’ land yachts and write on Facebook walls. It’s important for writers to study culture related to the times in which their stories take place and to include only time-appropriate sayings in the dialogue.

Businesses and institutions use specialized languages (jargon) unique to their trades or professions. These languages also change over time. Writers need to research thoroughly before using jargon in dialogue.

When a familiar word or phase from a television program or commercial is used in dialogue, it is the responsibility of the writer to insure that the referenced word or phrase was aired before the time of the story. Even some best-selling authors have been required to add disclaimers to their novels because they failed to fact check.

Succinct Dialogue
Writers who are good listeners discover that most dialogue is succinct. Occasionally people relate things in great detail and refuse to allow anyone to interrupt. Their favorite connector words are “and-a,” “but-a,” “you know,” “then-a,” “um-a,” and “well now.” This is monologue, not dialogue. Unless depicting an annoying person who relates everything in unnecessary, tedious detail, succinct dialogue should be the norm.

I believe that good writers are always good listeners. Go out and listen.

Happy Writing!

(Bro's blog link - his stories are posted on Thursdays.)


  1. I've not seen Kilroy in a long time! Good to note that he is still around.
    The "consistency" you reference forces me to write a piece, then read it over, making amendments, on a more or less daily basis for about two weeks before i am ready to post. Such a lot of effort for such small potatoes. Perhaps I overthink it.

    1. Vanilla, the attention you to give to detail is what makes your readers faithful followers of your stories. It is worth the time and effort!