One Simple Trick to Make Modern Dialogue Sound More Realistic

When practicing English, my ESL students will ask questions like this:

“You like monkeys?”

By inflection, I understand the student is asking a question and I hesitate to correct them. The hesitation comes because this is the way modern speakers ask questions. ESL students struggle to understand the importance of the word “do”. It sounds like a load of “do-do” to them.

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself with this lame joke, but the word droppings extend to other words like helping verbs and subjects.

Look at the following:

“I am going to the store. Do you want to come with me?”

 “Going to the store. Want to come?”

 The second one drops a ton of words. And it sounds realistic.

At least it does for modern dialogue.

Word dropping doesn’t work if you’re writing a Victorian era drama or an epic fantasy.

Also, you may want to vary the amount of word dropping you do from character to character. Some people simply have more formal speech patterns.

And, to answer the first question in this post, yes, I do like monkeys.

How to Avoid Writing Melodramatic Dialogue

In last week’s post, we worked through a piece of dialogue between Jack and Jill.

We moved that bit of dialogue from unrealistic and tensionless to realistic and tensionless to realistic and tension-filled. Today, let’s mess it up and make that combo UNrealistic and tension-filled (As much as that is possible).

Here’s where we left the dialogue last week:

Jack: I can’t find the pail of water.

 Jill: I didn’t move it.

Now let’s mess it up:

Jack: You’re always moving stuff around. I’m tired of your busy-body ways and I feel suffocated by it. Where did you put that stupid pail of water?

 Jill: You’re an oaf and don’t appreciate me. I didn’t move the pail of water.

Ridiculous, yes?

Melodramatic dialogue spells out the reason for tension in the scene.

Real people don’t spell out their issues and often don’t even know all the underlying reasons for their conflict.

Ever had a problem with someone and didn’t know why? I know I have.

Sometimes it takes serious soul searching to even figure out why you don’t get along with someone. I’ve discovered I had issues with someone because he or she reminds me of someone in my past who hurt me.

People are complex creatures. Allow your characters to be just as complex.

Let your reader deduce all the underlying issues between characters. Your fiction will be better for it.

The Number One Rule for Writing Good Dialogue

I teach English as a Second Language one evening a week. Communicating with someone of limited language skills proves difficult. Cultural differences make it even harder.

When the students ask questions, I ask myself “What is this person getting at?”

But the ugly truth is we all ask ourselves that same question subconsciously when talking to friends, spouses, and coworkers.

Rather than answering people directly, we try to figure out what the other person is really trying to say.

That brings us to the number one rule for writing good dialogue:

Avoid clear and direct communication between your characters.

This piece of advice will guide you through almost all fiction regardless of genre or time period.

It also makes your dialogue both 1) realistic and 2) tension-filled.

Let’s work through an example of bad dialogue to understand this better.

Jack: Where’s the pail of water?

 Jill: It’s in the barn.

 Ok, this may sound like a realistic conversation on the surface, but if it went on with Jack asking questions and Jill answering them directly, it would sound stilted and fake.

But how do we make this better? Let’s start by changing Jack’s part.

Jack: I can’t find the pail of water.

 Jill: It’s in the barn.

Here, Jill understands Jack’s statement as an implied question and answers it. This is a little better. Jill subconsciously asked herself “What is Jack getting at?” and her answer was “Jack is asking me where the pail of water is”. The conversation is more realistic now, but it still isn’t quite tension-filled yet.

Let’s take our rule of avoiding direct and clear conversation and add an extra layer to Jill’s response.

Jack: I can’t find the pail of water.

Jill: I didn’t move it.

Jill asks herself “What is Jack getting at?” and understands the implied question and then also assumes an accusation: “What did you do with the pail of water?”

We don’t know what has gone on with Jack and Jill before this piece of dialogue, but we are intrigued. Clearly, they have issues we are unaware of.

This dialogue is both realistic and interesting.

You’ve likely even been part of or at least witnessed a conversation that went down much like the one above.

Communication between people is difficult even if you both speak the same language and are both from the same cultural background.

Show this difficulty through your characters.

And please be patient with people in your real life this week as you seek to communicate with them better.