One of the things I’ve heard many times in writing classes is that people have a hard time making their dialogue sound real and their characters sound different. I’ve had these problems myself as well, falling into one pattern of speech or making my characters sound too much like me. Here are a few ways to improve how you write and revise dialogue.
Analyze how people around you talk
What makes the way your best friend talks different from the way your mother talks? You’ve probably met a stranger that spoke with a very different rhythm from most people you know. You’ve also probably met someone from a different part of the world who uses phrases that you don’t use. And your best friend probably uses some phrase all the time, but you’ve never noticed because you’re around them a lot. What do you hear them saying a lot that other people don’t say? How do the different people in your life talk differently? This is the first step in understanding the different ways your characters talk.
Who are your characters talking to?
You’ve probably noticed throughout your life that people change the way they talk depending on who they’re speaking with. Your mother might be condescending when she talks to her children, but she might not talk to her coworkers that way. And if she talks to her coworkers that way as well, that tells a lot about the kind of person she is. Maybe your best friend uses a lot of slang when they talk to you, but when they talk to someone they don’t know they use “proper” language. Your characters are going to do this too. They won’t always approach conversation the same way with every person they encounter.
Consider dialect and grammar
Real people don’t always use proper grammar. Neither will your characters. Some people have certain dialects depending on their regions. The same is true of your characters. Sometimes it is worth it to throw these tidbits into your dialogue. Be careful, though, as too much inclusion of a character’s dialect or speech tic can be distracting and confusing to a reader. Often you can include this information in one line of dialogue and never mention it again or only include it a precious few times throughout your entire story. Other, less-distracting ways of showing these differences are through word-choice. For example, some people say “pop” and some people say “soda.” Some people call all forms of pop and soda “coke.” Simple differences like this can do a lot in making sure your character’s dialogue is unique. If you are writing a fantasy novel, you’ll need to think about how different regions have different word-choice and other language barriers.
It is very tempting to use “he whispered” or “she replied” when writing dialogue, especially since we see this so often in many published novels. However, the form “he said” is really just a tag for which character is talking. In a two-way conversation, the “he said” tag will get entirely skipped over if your dialogue is doing its job – if you character’s dialogue is unique and recognizable. As such, you should eliminate any “whispered, replied, asked, shouted” where you can. Replies and questions in particular are obvious – the reader knows that a character is asking a question or replying to a statement made by another character. It’s unnecessary to tell the reader this. (If your character is asking a question and that’s not clear to the reader, you may need to work on your dialogue there.) In the case of shouting or whispering or any other speech verbs, you should first try to make the way your character is speaking obvious through the words they are saying. This is not always easy to do and takes a lot of practice, but it will improve the quality and realism of your dialogue in the long run.
Line up your dialogue
If you are worried that two of your characters sound too similar, pluck the dialogue from your story – leave all description and dialogue tags out. Read only what is within your quotations, what your characters are saying. Can you tell which character is talking? Does the dialogue sound like it’s running together? Could it all be said by one person? It helps to read the dialogue out loud when you do this. It might also help you to have someone else read it and ask the same questions. This can also aid you with the point I discussed previously. Does the dialogue inform the timbre or tone of voice of your characters? Can you tell what they are feeling with how they are speaking and what they are saying? Depending on your answers to these questions, you may need to go back and revise your dialogue.
Direct and indirect conversation
Sometimes you’ll find that people don’t always converse directly. What I mean by this is that sometimes a person will say one thing and the other person will reply with a seemingly unrelated statement. This all depends on who the person is, what the conversation is about, how they feel, whether or not they are trying to avoid a topic, etc. Your characters will sometimes encounter these situations. Maybe they are asked a question, and, instead of answering, they change the topic. Maybe they answer the question but without much detail. Maybe they answer the question with as much detail as they can. Ask yourself what kind of person your character is and consider those questions. When would this character not answer a question? How would they avoid a topic? When would they be brutally honest? Think of the dialogue between two characters as a game – how they play determines the overall tone of the conversation, whether your characters are fighting, flirting, venting, making idle conversation, etc. Just like a game, sometimes one character is going to have the upper-hand. Not all conversations are balanced – there will be times when one of your characters is dominating a conversation. And remember that how your characters play is going to be different for each character. No two characters will respond to a situation in the same way. This is key when writing realistic, distinct dialogue.