When I first began writing, I had a terrible time with realistic dialogue. How can I make my characters believable by using modern-day slang, but also avoid having them sound like idiots? I tried writing ‘by the book’. I tried writing ‘outside the box’. Nothing really seemed to work. Granted, I was young (like, really young), but it still aggravated me and kept my writing in limbo. So, I began to read articles written by successful authors.
1.) Keep the Slang to a Minimum
If your reader has to stop and mull over a single sentence, trying to deceiver its meaning like your teachers forced you to do back in high school, then you need to rethink your writing style. Don’t get me wrong, slang is great. It helps define your story and make it unique. Just don’t go overboard. No one wants to relive the horrors of translating Shakespearean verses word by word, right? Keep it simple. If you use a word or saying that’s unique to the setting of your book, then have another character immediately explain it.
A quick example:
- “I used to be quite the lady-killer back in the day.”
- “You murdered women?!”
- “No, you stupid kid! I mean I used to be popular with women.”
Everyday sayings we use without a second-thought may be gibberish in other countries. If your book is translated to another language, then your reader will be left totally confused. “Why is the sweet grandpa now a serial murderer? I thought this was a romance!”
#2 Keep it Casual
Have you read the dictionary lately? No? Me neither.
It’s okay to shorten your dialogue, in other words. If your friend asks you where your boyfriend disappeared to, chances are you won’t answer with a, “He is over there”. Nowadays, we say, “Yeah, he’s over there”.
It’s also acceptable to leave out a word or two, as long as the sentence still makes sense. Asking the host of the party where the drinks are has changed from “It’s over there” to “Over there” or simple “There”. The meaning is the same, just much more casual and relaxed.
#3 Keep Emotions in Mind
Someone being interrogated by police isn’t going to be perfectly articulate. Nervousness causes stuttering, hesitating, ticks, and so on. For example:
- “Where were you yesterday afternoon?”
- “I was, uh…at my sister’s house.”
- “Who else was there?”
- “Just, you know, some friends…”
See the difference in characters? The detective is obviously at ease, but the suspect is so nervous that he’s stuttering and mumbling. You don’t have to explicitly come out and say “John was nervous”. Show it through his own voice.
Sarcasm can be difficult to portray in writing. There are two ways that I’ve found to make sure your reader realizes that the conversation is indeed sarcastic.
The writer can add a few words:
- “I was thinking of maybe going to Paris for our summer vacation. What d’you think?”
- “What can excellent idea! It’s not like we need to eat while we’re there or anything.”
- Oblivious to the jab, he continued, “Yeah, we can stop by the Eiffel Tower or maybe the art museum that Emily told us about…”
Or the characters themselves can point out the sarcasm:
- “I’m not angry at all!”
- “Ha. Yeah, right.”
- “I’m serious. I’m not angry.”