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Making sure dialog is believable and flows well
MB Mulhall
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 9:14 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 80

I find the best way to make sure my dialog flows well is to read it out loud.  Sometimes I'll even record myself and listen to it back.

As far as making it believable, I normally hear character voices in my head but sometimes I have beta readers tell me that the dialog seems too mature for my characters. That always irks me because I think characters can use bigger words and older phrases without coming off as "old" but if enough people comment on it, I'll re-word it.

How do you guys make sure your dialog flows and is believable for your characters?

Ellie Isis
Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 12:34 AM
Joined: 3/4/2011
Posts: 58

I also hear voices in my head . . . that doesn't sound good, does it? But it's true. Sometimes, if I hit a sticky line of dialogue, I'll read out loud. When I write different characters, I sometimes close my eyes and try to immerse myself in each one's personality. What would he say in response to that? Which profanity would that one use? And so forth. If I can't come up with something that works, I'll toss it to my husband or another crit partner. The one issue I sometimes run up against is tossing too much higher level vocabulary into a less-educated character's mouth, but I usually catch that in revisions.
MB Mulhall
Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 3:21 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 80

I worry my character's "Voice" is too similar to other characters so I often us slang and attitude to try and differentiate them.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 5:22 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

As I've mentioned before, its cheesy to say, but a TV show completely changed my viewpoint of doing dialog.

Have you ever heard your words, read aloud? You should. Read it aloud. Read into a microphone, play it back. Have some friends on conference call, have them read the dialouge as characters, as if it were a script.

Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011 5:46 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 102

I also hear voices in my head, I just transcribe what they say.

I do read my dialogue aloud, which helps me figure out if the dialogue is natural, but doesn't help me figure out if the voices are too similar. I have to have someone else read the dialogue to me before I can determine that.
Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011 8:32 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 24

I'm a hundred percent with each one of these responses:

I read it aloud. Or, if reading out loud is a no-go, I'll mouth the words. I also try keeping the syntax short and simple - nothing too over-the-top.

And just as you said: I use attitude! Mannerisms help or slang...I throw it all in.

I must also say: I'm a big fan of incomplete sentences. Or fragment sentences. I mean, it's how we really speak, right?
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011 10:56 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

I've had so much of my writing slammed as being fragmentary before. My response? I'm writing it as if I'm talking to you. Consider it dialogue. This is how I REALLY speak, and if you have a problem with that, suck it.
Posted: Friday, April 1, 2011 9:18 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 226

I write with a lot of fragments, too, as part of my voice. Sometimes I can edit to make it a comma instead of a full stop, but only when there isn't enough variety in sentence structure.

Most of my dialogue is "given" to me while my characters act out the scene in my head. I hear them talking and transcribe what they say. I've been told my dialogue is a strength and I think that it's because I see the scene in motion.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Saturday, April 2, 2011 2:24 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 376

I try to be sparing with fragments, except in dialogue.

In dialogue, it really depends on the character.

I've had compliments on my dialogue, with one really funny exception: sections that were taken word-for-word from real conversations have been panned as being 'contrived and unrealisitc'.


When it comes to reading it out loud, I have one *serious* problem. I dont SOUND like my characters. My voice is wrong. I really do hear them in my head, and when I read them, they don't sound right.
Danielle Poiesz
Posted: Saturday, April 2, 2011 5:59 PM
Reading aloud is definitely one of the best ways to tell if your dialogue sounds natural. You also, of course, have to bear in mind each specific character--just because Sally would say something a certain way, doesn't mean Joe would, etc.

Using sentence fragments are definitely a tricky tactic. While it does sounds natural at times, too many fragments will make your character look unintelligent and incapable of speaking like a normal person. It will also irritate your editor (hehe! trust me ). Fragments are something to use very sparingly--only use them when you really NEED to, when the sentence won't come across properly without it. If you can make it a complete sentence and have it still sound realistic for your character, I'm one to encourage that.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Sunday, April 3, 2011 11:05 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

robert, I've had that too! I transcribed a recorded phone conversation and posted it to some friends, asking if it was funny, and i was told, dude, its contrived, no one talks that way. (the one person who knew the other person involved realized what it was and loved it, but everyone else...)

Although I can understand why. You know how in musicals, people regularly break out into song? This friend and I regularly break out into straight man funny man comedy routines.
CY Reid
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 12:54 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 51

The event that shaped how I wrote dialogue was sitting down one day to watch Kevin Smith do a Q&A session. During his rambles about the film industry and the various humorous anecdotes for which he is so well known, he started talking about the way in which he wrote dialogue. He wanted to write the sort of conversations that he had with his friends, so people could identify with the realistic manner in which they spoke.

I read to myself, and I read to my girlfriend, and it helps me identify issues with flow and pacing, but it especially helps me form good dialogue. I don't like writing melodramatic conversations that sound like they're taking place on a Soho stage - I prefer writing dialogue that sounds like two people having a chat, and so far people seem to really enjoy that approach

I don't think it's -exactly- like having a real conversation, though; I find if I think back to conversations I have had, they're generally aimless and just shooting the breeze rather than constructive and with purpose (establishing characters, backstory, new events, new directions for the protagonist and the rest of the cast). I tend to use slang and verbal mannerisms to differentiate between characters, and I find that works really well with my approach as I often find myself filling a page or two with a stream of conversation with little to no description save for the relevant bits that come together to frame the exchange in the mind of the reader (and my own, as well).

With regards to Alexander's comment on the way he speaks in real life and its impact on the dialogue he writes, I find an error I have to side-step a lot is writing dialogue that is assuredly not similar to the way in which I talk on a day-to-day basis. It's all too easy, when writing colloquially and conversationally, to make the mistake of having every character sound like you, so I find that taking the "but it's the way I talk" approach tends to fall flat when I'm writing dialogue for an old woman, or an army general, as I'd like to think we sound fairly different. I suppose it depends on how similar your characters are to you, as I know everyone puts some degree of themselves into their writing. Do any of you find that you struggle with separating the "you-talk" from the "character-talk"?
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 10:31 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

That is a good point, but yes, the words being used have to be proper to THAT character. I was more referring to people that debase the way I post on forums and such.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 1:37 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 376

@CY - I actually find I have the reverse problem. The more I write a character, the more I start picking up their verbal tics.

Anyone else find that happening?
Michael L Martin Jr
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 3:02 PM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 22

@Robert - Me. I pick up my character's verbal tics, but I don't consider it a problem. It helps me write my characters better.

I find that when I'm trying too hard to make characters sound a certain way, it's because I don't know them well enough. The more time I spend with a character the more they establish their own personality.

Most of my characters start out sounding the way that I make them to sound, but over the period of writing/reworking a draft they grow and develop and begin sounding the way that they are supposed to sound. Sometimes it's not what I initially intended, but still perfect.

Instead of me pulling the authorial strings and speaking through my character, the character speaks through me in their own voice like I'm channeling a spirit from beyond. Which sounds really weird as I type it. lol But I guess it goes along with the whole "voices in my head" thing some of you mentioned.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Saturday, May 14, 2011 12:35 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 376

@Michael - I am *right* there with you. I've given fictional people space in my head, and I'm not always certain I like what they've done with the place.

One example is Tenly from XLI. When I started writing her, she was near-amoral and near-immortal, and I was writing her that way. Midway through the book, I'd realized it was all an act. By the second book in the series, she's actually begun to trust enough to be distinctly angry, sad, happy, and even petulant. The thing is, she's not nearly as 'pure' anything as I originally envisioned her.

An even *bigger* example is Mary from Crowbar Girl. Originally she was supposed to be a complete butt monkey, the type of person where everyone cheered when she got her comeuppance. VERY quickly she became a tragic dupe rather than a self-righteous one. Worst of all, she *realized* she was a dupe and thought of herself as a self-righteous dupe. By the time I wrote the really awful scenes, I didn't want to write them any more, but... not writing them would have made the entire thing weaker.
Posted: Friday, December 2, 2011 11:44 AM
Joined: 12/1/2011
Posts: 35

I wanted to resurrect this topic because it came up in another thread (do you "cast" your characters) and the complaint many editors will give is that the dialogue is unrealistic or, at least, unconvincing. 

I am an obsessive listener and observer.  I spend a lot of time listening to other people speak and noting the physical mannerisims that accompany their words and tone.  I am discreet, though when I first started dating my wife she thought I was being rude.  Since then, she has gotten used to my leaning in certain directions, even taking quick notes when we are in public and I see or hear something I find interesting.  As I give that habit all the credit when an editor reads something of mine as tells me that the dialogue is spot-on and believable.  If you want to write solid, convincing dialogue don't listen to your own voice, listen to everyone else's!!
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, January 16, 2012 12:37 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

puremagic, that is an excellent idea. I've actually done that accidentally before, on a bus ride. Was writing while a woman was having a loud conversation behind me, and her vocal styles ended up drifting into my writing.

Posted: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 9:29 AM
Joined: 1/31/2016
Posts: 30

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