—(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)—
Authors often ask about how to write dialogue that sounds real. BookWorks founder and veteran editor, Betty Kelly Sargent, offers some advice in her latest column.
I’m new to writing fiction and I’m having trouble coming up with believable dialogue. Any tips on how to write dialogue?
Learning how to write dialogue is essential if you want to attract the attention of an agent or an editor, (and it goes without saying that stilted dialogue will repel readers) so it’s well worth putting in the time necessary to make yours great. Here’s what I’d suggest.
Eavesdrop on Real Life Dialogue
First, learn to listen. Listen to yourself when you chat with your kids, or your husband or your pharmacist. Listen in on the conversations going on around you—in restaurants, standing in line for a movie, on the crosstown bus. Pay attention to cadences, and the rhythm of language, and when you hear an intriguing phrase or speech pattern, jot it down in the note pad you carry with you all the time. The more you develop your ear for language, the better your dialogue will be.
Second, know your characters well and make sure the way they speak reflects their background. Try to keep what they say, short, clear, and necessary to the plot development.
Third, study the dialogue in some of your favorite novels, and reread some of the masters like Eudora Welty, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steven King, Elmore Leonard, and Julian Barnes. Notice how what one character says to another reveals her vulnerability, her underlying motives and moves the story forward.
Read Aloud and Trust Your Ear
Then read your dialogue out loud. “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it,” as Elmore Leonard says in his Ten Rules of Writing. And one more important tip from Elmore Leonard, “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”