Writing Believable Dialogue: When Do Characters Sound “Real”?


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Writing dialogue presents many challenges, chief among them the question of how to make your characters’ conversations ring true. You want your reader to remain engaged in your story, and nothing will throw them out quite as quickly as a bit of dialogue that seems wooden or stilted, or, worse yet, boring. It’s one thing if your reader starts skimming your descriptions of the setting (no, you don’t want them to do this, either, but it’s the lesser of the evils) and another entirely if they give up on the character bits. One they skim a conversation or two, chances are you’ve lost them for good.

But what makes a character sound real? Often writers make the mistake of approaching dialogue like a form of transcription. They sit in a coffee shop and eavesdrop on the tables around them, then mimic the speech patterns they’ve overheard, including all the verbal ticks that human beings exhibit when they’re sitting around chatting. This practice tends to produce dialogue riddled with written-out pauses, indicated by ellipses or dashes, as well as verbal space holders, such as “like” and “um” and “uh.” But when was the last time you read a novel that copied this real-life practice? Including these non-words wastes valuable real estate in your novel, they don’t add to the story, and they actually get to be annoying to read. In a real-life setting, we tend not to notice each other’s verbal ticks unless they’re unusual or extremely frequent. We’re used to them and our ears and our brain conspire to dismiss them entirely. When reading, however, we become hyper aware of them very quickly.

Another real-life verbal pattern that gets left out of written dialogue is small talk. I’m not saying there isn’t any chit-chat whatsoever, but what there is tends to be pared down, used very sparingly, and it should prove some sort of point about your characters — discomfort with the situation, strangers who don’t know what to talk about — rather than simply starting off a scene. Just because two people meeting for lunch might start their conversation with “hi” and a couple of sentences about the weather before getting down to business discussions or the latest juicy gossip, doesn’t mean your characters should as well.

So what can you take away from your coffee-shop eavesdropping sessions? Plenty of things. Pay attention to body language. How do different people hold themselves during a conversation, and what do you think it means? Do they lean in, meet the other person’s eye? Do they keep their eyes down on the table, fiddle with the sugar packets? How do they behave if there are more than two people sitting together? Can you determine their dynamic? All of these clues are great things to note about your characters between lines of dialogue, and can often help you establish who’s speaking without getting into the repetitive “he said/she said” attributions.

Pay attention to tone and volume. Listen to see if they say each other’s names. Writers frequently have characters start a line of dialogue by saying the other person’s name, but in real life, we rarely do this, especially if there are only two people speaking. If you’ve established a scene between two characters — no one else around — why would they keep addressing each other by name? What does it serve?

When it comes time to write your dialogue, there are a number of things you can pay attention to in order to make it flow and seem realistic — meaning that a reader believes that a human being might have said those words.

  • Develop a voice for each of your major characters. This involves considering who they are, what sort of background they have, and the vocabulary that might go along with their personality, career, and lifestyle. If you have them use a very notable word or expression — something that stands out and is memorable for the readers — make sure that becomes their thing. Don’t let your other characters use the same distinctive terms or phrases unless there’s a reason — echoing to poke fun, a child repeating after them, etc.
  • Avoid long, intellectual-sounding words unless there’s a specific reason to include them. If you have a couple of scientists discussing their work, you can get away with including some technical terms, but those same scientists chatting about what they did over the weekend will sound far more like your average human being talking about their off time and use the associated vocabulary.
  • Vary your sentence lengths, but keep them mostly on the shorter side. If you have a very wordy character, it’s okay to let them run on occasionally, but dialogue in novels tends to work better when you actually let everyone speak, maintaining a back-and-forth. Again, there are exceptions based on situation and character — someone’s shy, or getting chewed out — but broken up dialogue sounds more realistic and is easier to read. Keep long speeches and rambling sentences to a minimum unless your story specifically calls for a monologue, lecture, etc. (And if it does, be sure to break it up a bit with mentions of action/reactions/surroundings, etc.)
  • Read your dialogue out loud. This is important. I recommend reading all your work out loud at some point — it’s a fabulous way to catch missing words, half-edited bits, repetition, etc. — but it’s especially vital with dialogue. If you can’t say the sentence yourself, can you expect your character to say it? As you speak, ask yourself if you can imagine a real person saying those words.

The key to writing realistic dialogue is not to copy the way people speak in real life, but to write dialogue you could believe a person said. Real-life dialogue is boring, riddled with broken sentences, space-fillers, back tracking, and dropped subjects. If you sift through the average one-hour conversation, you might find twenty minutes or so of interesting information, with the rest divided between mindless murmurs, random tangents, and repetition. We excuse it in real life, but we don’t expect it in our fiction. A scene of dialogue is like any other scene in your novel; make it advance the action and add to your characterizations. It needs to pull its weight from start to finish.

Friday Links


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Happy Friday, everyone! I hope you had a good week and that your weekend is shaping up to be even better. It’s been pretty busy around these parts, but I’ve still managed to pull together a few links to entertain you and, I hope, give you some writing ideas. Time to ramp up that creativity! Enjoy, and happy writing.

Alan Moore Finishes Million-Word Novel Jerusalem – For the record, this is ridiculously long, and he can only get away with this (possibly) because he’s Alan Moore. Do not attempt this until you are super successful and famous.

How to Stop Putting Things Off and Make Yourself Get to Work – Having a little procrastination problem? Everyone does at some point. Here are some tips to work around it.

The Piebrary – This clever blogger is combining a love of literature with a love of baking. She posts delicious-looking dessert recipes every other week, tied in with books she’s read, including a brief explanation of the connection.

When Writing Well Is Part of the Problem – Novelist Elliott Holt reflects on a lesson in letting go and being a bit less “perfect” in her writing.

The gorgeous handwriting and book-crammed office of Laird Hunt – The author of Neverhome, out this month, allowed his publisher, Little, Brown, to share photos and thoughts regarding his writing space.

Happy Book Day!


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Happy book release day to Nalini Singh, whose brand new contemporary romance, ROCK ADDICTION, the first title in her Rock Kiss series, is available electronically today! Books are downloading for Amazon Kindle, iBooks, and Kobo. Nook has been loaded and is still populating the site, which means it’s not coming up in the search engine yet but you can access it directly here.

The special introductory e-book price will last for a week, so be sure to check it out now! For those of you looking to add ROCK ADDICTION to your shelves, trade paperback books are available for preorder and will release on Thursday the 11th.

If you love ROCK ADDICTION and the world it’s set in, be sure to check out ROCK COURTSHIP, the first novella in the Rock Kiss series, which comes out September 30th.

Happy International Literacy Day!


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Writers would be nowhere without readers. I firmly believe that, after food, clean water, and a roof over your head, the ability to read is the most important thing a human being can possess. No matter what your walk of life, if you can read, you have the ability to gather information, to make your way in this world, and to learn whatever else you need to know. If you can read, you can acquire new skills, entertain yourself, and learn about the experiences of other people. Reading serves as a foundation for your future knowledge.

So take a moment today to celebration your own literacy. Read on your lunch hour. Read to a child. Donate a few dollars to your local library or an organization that helps adults gain reading skills. Or check out one of these literacy projects for inspiration. Happy reading!

Friday Links


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TGIF! It’s been a short week here, thanks to the Labor Day holiday, but definitely jam-packed nonetheless. Still plenty to do before I click over to weekend mode, but of course I wanted to drop by with some fun links to help you all start your weekends right.

September always makes me think of heading back to school. Call it years of indoctrination at a most impressionable age. Regardless, I itch for shiny new school supplies and a big bag of new books. But it’s also a great time to think of what you want to accomplish with the rest of the year in terms of your writing goals. The last stretch, so to speak. Before you know it, we’ll be racing into the holiday season, so take an hour or so in the next few days to look at 2014 so far, your writing goals and accomplishments, and determine where you want to go from here.

This week’s links are the usual mash-up, but I hope you find them helpful and that some of them inspire you to recommit to your writing goals in the months ahead. Wishing you all a wonderful weekend. Enjoy!

Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter Launch Literary Podcast – Podcasts are a great way to get writing tips, and these gentlemen are sure to be handing out some excellent ones.

The Unseen or the Unspoken: Some Notes on Absence in Fiction – Sometimes what you don’t say provides as much detail as what you do.

To Be More Creative, Question What You Know – Stepping outside your sphere of knowledge can inspire you.

297 Flabby Words and Phrases that Rob Your Writing of All Its Power – Great for writers looking to tighten up their prose and eliminate redundancies, in particular.

Novel Writing Tips: The 8 Laws of Foreshadowing – Not every project requires foreshadowing, but here are some things to keep in mind for the ones that do.


Happy Book Day!


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In Bed with a RogueHappy book release day to Samantha Grace, whose second Rival Rogues romance, IN BED WITH A ROGUE, hits stores today!

He’s the Talk of the Town

The whole town is tittering about Baron Sebastian Thorne having been jilted at the altar. Every move he makes ends up in the gossip columns. Tired of being the butt of everyone’s jokes, Sebastian vows to restore his family’s reputation no matter what it takes.

She’s the Toast of the Ton

Feted by the crème of society, the beautiful widow Lady Prestwick is a vision of all that is proper. But Helena is no angel, and when Sebastian uncovers her dark secret, he’s quick to press his advantage. In order to keep her hard-won good name, Helen will have to make a deal with the devil. But she’s got some tricks up her sleeves to keep this notorious rogue on his toes…

Plus, Samantha’s throwing a Facebook Party today, Samantha Grace’s Soiree, until 10pm ET. She’ll be hosting guest authors, posting teasers and Q&As, and giving out fun prizes, so be sure to drop by and say hello!


Friday Links


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Happy Friday, and for those of you in the US, happy Labor Day weekend! It’s already pretty quiet in my neck of the woods, and I know a lot of editors have already headed out, if the out-of-office messages that started creeping up Wednesday are any indication. It’s the last gasp of summer, at least from a work perspective, and everyone’s making the most of it.

My plans include some actual work, likely tomorrow, depending on how much I can power through today, followed by a BBQ with friends and a stack of personal reading. I might even read out on my balcony if I can muster the energy to sweep the darn thing. Whatever you have on the schedule, I wish you a wonderful weekend, and I hope you manage to squeeze in some reading and/or writing time.

But first, I have links to share! Some reading suggestions in here, in case your weekend plans involve a beach or pool, a lounge chair, and a shady umbrella. Enjoy!

21 of the Best British Sci-Fi Writers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of – Chances are you actually have heard of most of these, especially if you read within the genre already, but it’s still a great list and I hope it inspires you to check out some new books.

Opportunities for Writers: September and October – A list of contests and calls for work with September/October deadlines.

An Interview with Elissa Schappell – A wonderful interview excerpt where Schappell talks about all the hats she wears (editor, reviewer, writer) and how on earth she gets so much done. (Complete interview in issue 15 of Slice.)

How to Stop Putting Things Off and Make Yourself Get to Work – We all procrastinate on some level. Some great tips on how to get on with it already.

25 Must-Read Books for Fall – If you’re looking to get a jump on your fall to-read list, here’s a great starting point. Nice diverse set of titles.

Writing What You Know vs. Knowing What You Write


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One of the most common pieces of advice handed down to writers — particularly those just starting out — is “write what you know.” It’s not bad advice on its own, but it frequently gets a bad rap. People are quick to point out how limiting such a rule can be, particularly for anyone intent on writing science fiction or fantasy stories. How many writers, after all, truly know what it’s like to rocket across the galaxy in a space ship? Who has personal experience fighting off a dragon? Even with more mainstream fiction, you can see the problem. Must you wait for your spouse to die before you can write about a character experiencing such a loss?

For me, the difficulty comes not with the advice itself but in the literal interpretation. Of course you don’t need to limit your writing to your personal experiences, or to subjects  on which you’re already an expert. Focus on what you find interesting or compelling, or what has you curious, and then get to know about that subject. Fill in the blanks in your knowledge so you can do the subject justice when you sit down to write. Or, if it’s a topic that requires you to flex your imagination, make sure you research around the subject’s fringes so your imaginings feel authentic. Tolkien’s Middle Earth may be populated by imagined people and creatures, but it feels real because he applied familiar details to the world they inhabit; he described the nature and the geography, created maps to trace the Fellowship’s journey, and used his knowledge and interest in linguistics to invent entire languages for the different races. So, read up on some astronauts and their experiences with space travel. Learn about various lizards and birds and dinosaurs and see what facts about their anatomy might apply to your dragon.

When it comes to writing about what you know, emotions can be similar across different experiences. Just because you’ve never lost a spouse, doesn’t mean you haven’t lost someone you loved — a parent or grandparent, maybe a close friend. You can read accounts from people who have suffered the death of a significant other, but you can also empathize on a different level over the general loss of a loved one. How did it feel? What were your reactions? Can you imagine the differences and the similarities between your experience and the one you’re crafting for your character?

Writing is a creative endeavor, and by its very nature requires you to create as you go. If you limit yourself to writing only about the current contents of your brain, you will do yourself — and your readers — a disservice. The key is to use your own knowledge as a jumping off point. Tap into your experiences and emotions and mine those for your work, of course, but don’t discount the ideas that stem from what you wish to learn, from the fleeting thoughts that require you do some digging. Expanding your world is half the fun of writing, so stay open to inspiration and the opportunity to discover something new. If you don’t know about your subject when the idea first sparks, you will by the time you finish your final draft.

Friday Links


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Another tense week here in the U.S. My weekend plans include brunch and books and manuscripts. Er… not in that order. I fully intend to unplug from the internet and the news, however, because it’s mostly just depressing me. Maybe I’ll peek occasionally, so I’m not completely out of the loop, but other than that… just no. It all makes me want to bang people’s heads together. So much irrational cruelty and needless violence. Somewhere on my shelves there must be a book that will remind me that human beings do good things, too. Because the other option, apparently, is to watch celebrities pour ice over their heads (for an admittedly good cause) and that’s getting old.

But first, I have links! There’s a pretty diverse group this week, so I hope there’s something to appeal to everyone. May you be inspired to some creative greatness this weekend, or at the very least find an excellent read. Enjoy!

Finding My Voice in Fantasy – Author and Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman discusses how he made the leap from “literary” writing to fantasy.

Why We Must Strive for Diversity in SF/F – Author David Mack talks about his own work and his reaction to readers criticizing his diverse characters.

Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing – A great look at some of the practical aspects of a writing career that should possibly get addressed as part of a writer’s education.

Surreal Worlds Digitally Painted by Gediminas Pranckevicius – Amazing art work that looks like it should serve to inspire some fantastic fiction. (For those of you looking for a prompt.)

Why We Need Independent Bookstores More Than Ever – The director of a smaller publisher weighs in on the book-selling wars.

When to Cut that Scene – Some good tips on how to revise with an eye toward editing out the fluff — no matter how much you might love it.

Learn to Write a Synopsis: This Week!


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I posted about this a few weeks ago, but I wanted to repost for anyone who might have missed it or who might be on the fence about whether they want to sign up.

Last year I taught a webinar through Writer’s Digest on how to break down the sometimes daunting task of writing a synopsis, whether you need a short one to serve as a blurb for your query letter or something more substantial to send to an agent or editor on request. It went very well and I still have people query me or come up to me at conferences, mentioning that they took the course and found it helpful. So, I’m happy to say I’ll be teaching the class again, Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis: Construct Your Ultimate Sales Tool, on Thursday, August 21, 2014, at 1pm ET. Even if you can’t make it live, please keep reading to learn why you might still wish to register.

The class airs live online via a PowerPoint presentation, with me calling in to teach, and everyone attending able to type in questions as we go, which I then answer at the end of the session. The class gets recorded, so attendees receive the presentation with my narration and all the Q&A material afterwards. In addition, the course includes a synopsis critique. Attendees have a couple of weeks following the class to take everything they’ve learned and apply it to writing or revising their own synopsis, which they can then send to me for feedback.

Please note that while you can purchase the course materials after the fact, only writers who register for the live class on August 21st will be eligible for the critique. You don’t need to actually attend live if your schedule conflicts, but you should register ahead anyway if you want a chance to submit your synopsis for some comments. I’m looking forward to helping more people tackle the synopsis hurdle, and I hope a few of you will join me!


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