Lessons to Practice #14: Nailing True-to-Life Dialogue

Hello! Did you know that I recently became a member of the Denton Writers’ Critique Group? I was fortunate enough to stumble across the group’s website in late January, and I attended my first meeting that very same night. My writing craft has never been stronger or more fully supported than now, and I graciously want to thank all of my fellow writers for creating such a fun, inviting, and thoughtful space where we all get to share our prose while giving and receiving excellent feedback. Please swing by our website to catch up and learn the latest!


Digging into Discourse

In writing, it can be very tricky to create authentic dialogue. The witty quips, poignant colloquialisms, and natural ebb and flow of a conversation between two people usually feel anything but natural when we first start writing them. Why is it so difficult for many of us to make our characters sound like feeling and thinking individuals? Let’s explore some reasons as to why we might struggle.

  1. Writing dialogue requires a conscious consideration of real-world conversations. Those can be difficult to recollect unless we’re actually in the middle of one.
  2. Oftentimes, we forget to close our eyes and imagine talking with someone we know, especially while we’re seated in front of our computer and eager to churn out 2,000 words in two hours.
  3. For fantasy, Dystopian, and magical realism works, it can be trickier to envision how people might interact with one another. This is especially true if you’re creating your own language and dialects. 
  4. We don’t fully grasp the theme of our work. As a result, our characters say things that are amiss, awkward, or just don’t advance the plot in any meaningful way.
  5. We don’t make our characters say things that help the reader understand who they truly are.

For each of these aforementioned roadblocks, there is a solution!

  1. Capture your own discussions. Consider recording your friend on Snapchat as they make that funny joke at the bar, then go back home and rewatch it. You can also keep a journal and insert snippets of conversations that you had that day with your wife, boyfriend, best friend, or hairdresser. When did you laugh? Feel moved or intrigued by something they said? These moments are golden opportunities for better understanding what makes a great conversation tick!
  2. Before you sit down for your daily writing session, close your eyes and remember the last meaningful talk you had with someone. Write down as much as you can remember, then read it out loud. Heck, you can even act it out! Notice how your cadence and tone changes to signify shifts in your mood or train of thought.
  3. With more elaborate works of fiction, be sure to create a primer for your story’s unique language(s). What are the colloquialisms? Do the people in your fantasy or Dystopian world have a different rate of speech? Accents? Unique facial expressions that go with their language? Write all these facets down and revisit your primer every single day.
  4. Get a firm understanding of your story’s themes. Create a thematic bubble chart like the one I borrowed from Paula Munier’s book, Plot Perfect, and explained in my Lessons to Practice #5: Mapping out Subplots. Here’s the example that I created for myself from that earlier blog post:

Personal Theme Chart

By creating this chart, you’ll have a clearer picture of the topics you really care about — and those you should be inserting into your own stories. Do you want to hit on justice and family ties? Then add them to the center of your thematic bubble chart. Care a great deal about God? Then create a list of the things in your own life that connect you to your higher power.

5. Make every single sentence your characters say meaningful! Just by reading their lines, we should be able to understand whether they’re compassionate or ruthless, trustworthy or deceptive, self-aware or blind to their own pitfalls.

Case Study: Heat

Heat is perhaps Michael Mann’s greatest film to date. Released in 1995, Heat has been the subject of dozens of critical reviews and film studies, and for good reason. It’s a brooding, electric, and relentless crime noir thriller. As you might expect, it’s also replete with memorable lines and performances, especially by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Here is a brief excerpt from one of the most talked-about scenes in the entire film:

Vincent Hanna: What are you, a monk?

Neil McCauley: I have a woman.

Vincent Hanna: What do you tell her?

Neil McCauley: I tell her I’m a salesman.

Vincent Hanna: So then, if you spot me coming around that corner… you just gonna walk out on this woman? Not say goodbye?

Neil McCauley: That’s the discipline.

Vincent Hanna: That’s pretty vacant, you know.

Neil McCauley: Yeah, it is what it is. It’s that or we both better go do something else, pal.

Vincent Hanna: I don’t know how to do anything else.

Neil McCauley: Neither do I.

Vincent Hanna: I don’t much want to either.

Neil McCauley: Neither do I.

This brilliant exchange between Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna is gripping because it feels real. These are two men on opposite sides of the law, setting aside their differences for one night to have a straightforward exchange in a diner. Every single sentence they utter also reflects who they are. Vincent, though overly dedicated to the police force, still somewhat believes in intimacy and settling down with the right woman. Neil, on the other hand, is ready to cut all ties at the drop of a hat. That’s his credo as a master thief, and the only one he swears to live by until the day he dies.

Thanks for reading! How do you create dialogue so that it feels real and compelling to you? Do you have any tricks you use? Comment below and let me know!


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