Crafting Realistic Dialog

I’ve never set out to instruct other writers on their craft. I worked as a writing tutor in university, helping other students become better writers (or just craft better essays), and through that experience, I learned that teaching was not for me.

But recently, I’ve been trying to find new ways to make writing a consistent thing which I can use to pay some bills and it seems like sharing my tools and tricks–and, I hesitate to say, expertise–with the masses of aspiring authors is a valid path toward that goal.

To that end, I offer you my thoughts on dialog.

I hate writing dialog. Let’s get that out of the way before we go any further. I love writing action scenes–fight scenes, sex scenes, doesn’t matter as long as it’s moving–but dialog bores me to tears.

Dialog is also one of the things about my writing on which I receive the most compliments. That it is so realistic and believable. That it is engaging and entertaining.

So, in order to share how I write dialog that elicits that kind of praise, I have to take a step back and figure out what really goes into a conversation.

Perhaps it stems from my own real life experiences.

I am not a small talk kind of girl. As an NFJ personality type with ADHD, I am far more interested in the mysteries of the universe than the mundanity of idle chit-chat. Got a story to tell? Jump in with both feet. Preface with, “Girrrrrrrl, you won’t BELIEVE what happened to me today,” and swim for the bottom.

And that comes through in my writing as well.

One of the most common bits of advice given on the topic of writing dialog is to skip the pleasantries. Yes, ten minutes of hello, hello, how are you, I am well, how are you is real life but it’s B O R I N G. Just typing it out was boring, imagine finding it within the pages of what should be a riveting page-turner.*

Instead, start conversations in the middle.

Seeing the caller ID name flash on my screen, I slid the green dot to the right and lifted the phone to my ear.
Sam started talking, almost before the call had fully connected. “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to pull his still-beating heart out through his nose with a coat hanger.”
“I gather the conversation went well?”

Another aspect of my dialog is I don’t always give readers what they are expecting. The expected answer to “how are you today?” is “fine, thank you.” So? Don’t do that.

Sheila rounded the corner of the island counter to find Jamie seated on the floor, legs crossed beneath his body, licking peanut butter from a spoon. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Have you ever considered the ramifications regarding the size differences between gummy bears and gummy worms? The gummy universe must be a terrifying place.”
“For the bears, anyway,” Sheila replied, grabbing a spoon of her own and joining Jamie on the floor.

Answering a question with a question is a good way to draw out the conversation without drawing out the conversation. Answering a question with a question means neither person is going to get an answer to their own question, at least, not right away.

There is probably a lot more I could say but the truth is, I don’t really know how to tell you to write dialog the way I write dialog. Like I said before, it is one of my least favorite things about writing. But I think my best advice is grab a couple of close friends and a bottle of cheap wine and go sit under the stars. Then pay attention to how you talk to each other when you don’t have to muck around with niceties and small talk. Because I honestly think that’s where a lot of this comes from.


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