Writing Realistic Dialogue: How Real is Too Real?

If you struggle with writing dialogue, you’re definitely not alone. As a big part of characterization, dialogue can be the difference between whether a reader loves or hates your characters. Dialogue that’s not broken up by action can be confusing, but too many dialogue tags can bog down your writing. Plus, people tend to talk differently than they write. Should you include slang or speech tics? Do the rules of avoiding adverbs and passive voice apply to dialogue, too? Writing dialogue is high-stakes and there aren’t many hard and fast rules. But there are tips and tricks to make sure your writing shines.

The only immutable rule for dialogue is punctuation. There are tons of resources floating around the Internet for complicated punctuation, and occasionally rules will differ depending on where you are or what style guide you’re using, so if you need more information, check out Grammar Girl or Grammarly or some other trusted grammar site.

The basic rule is that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.

“Punctuate dialogue like this,” she said. “Dialogue tags are always preceded by a comma and lower-cased.”
“But what about dialogue actions?” he asked, scratching his head.
“Actions are their own sentence and should be started with a capital letter.” She nodded for emphasis. “And don’t forget, every speaker gets a new paragraph.”
“Oh, right!” He now understood the basics of how to punctuate dialogue.

There are, of course, exceptions, like em dashes or question marks that are part of the sentence but not part of the dialogue, but the majority of your dialogue will look like that. It may not seem important to learn, but you never want a reader to pass on your brilliant content because you never took the time to learn the proper grammar. Now, to the hard part.

Should I use dialogue tags other than said?

The internet is very emphatic that said is dead. You can find list after list of synonyms to use instead of said, but if you pay any attention to them, your writing will be the worse for it. Said isn’t dead. Said simply cues a reader into who’s talking. The word isn’t actually read in any kind of comprehensible way, it’s simply recognized, catalogued, and then ignored.

When you start using superfluous dialogue tags like declared or argued or answered or ejaculated, the reader has to stop and comprehend that word, slowing your pacing and interrupting the flow of your words. Sometimes you intend to do that, which is fine. Used sparingly, these tags can lend strength to your writing. Used frequently, you’ll have lazy, clunky prose.

Yes, lazy. Because using dialogue tags instead of actions or speech to convey scene is a sure sign of telling instead of showing. It is robbing the reader of imagination and shoving in their face how the words are supposed to be read, without doing the work of actually imbuing the dialogue with emotion and depth. People are complicated, and to reduce your characters to shouting or bragging or explaining is doing them—and your readers—a disservice.

People say um and like all the time. That makes it realistic, right?

No. No, it doesn’t. When people say they want realistic dialogue, they mean that they want it to sound as if it’s something a real person would say. They don’t mean they want every filler word and grammar mistake and meandering sentence and self-interruption that might be present in a real life conversation.

As a writer, you’re not transcribing dialogue, you’re crafting it. When you imagine to yourself what you’re going to say to someone, you don’t imagine it with three grammar mistakes and six pauses filled with um and four backtracking, run-on sentences. You imagine yourself speaking effectively. In your mind, you say exactly what you mean to say, with perfectly placed pauses and naturally flawless emphasis. It hardly ever comes out like that, but most people get past your actual words to what you’re trying to say. Think back to the last conversation you had. Can you remember how many times the person said like or stopped a sentence halfway through? Could you say what grammar mistakes they made while making their point? The answer is probably no.

If you tuned in to every speech tic and filler word in everyday conversation, you would lose your mind.

At the end of the day, your written dialogue is being read. It’s not a real conversation, it’s true conversation. It’s what a real conversation would be in an ideal world. Including every filler word and grammar quirk a natural conversation would have will make your dialogue exhausting to read, and most readers will put your work down before they’ve even figured out what the characters are trying to say.

The exception to this is when you want to get across emotion or characterization in dialogue. Someone who’s nervous will have more perceptible um’s and well’s. Someone who’s unsure will noticeably start and stop sentences without finishing them. Different dictions involve different grammar mistakes, and that can serve as characterization. The goal of dialogue is not to be as realistic as possible, it’s to create characters who are as real as possible.

But most writing rules don’t apply to dialogue because people don’t think about that kind of thing when they talk, right?

Yes and no. The “rules” of writing don’t exist to cramp your style, they exist to guide you toward writing that’s not painful to read. When you read something abysmal, you might not be able to point to the fact that it was bad because the overabundance of adverbs led to a style that was all telling and no showing or the constant passive voice made the prose repetitive and boring. But you will notice that it’s not fun to read. Writing rules are there to keep you from making readers cringe and quit reading.

With that in mind, no, most people don’t think to avoid adverbs when they speak. But an overabundance of adverbs in your dialogue will have the same effect on a reader that an overabundance of adverbs anywhere else would have. Dialogue or not, your words are being read and bad writing is bad writing.

Purposely writing a character who breaks writing rules, though, can be effective characterization. Having a character put very in every other sentence can cue a reader that the character is pretentious or uncreative. But ignoring the rules just because “people don’t talk like that” is going to make your writing unreadable. The goal of writing is always intentionality.

If I’m not supposed to write authentic dialogue, how will it ever sound like a realistic character?

Characters described as “real” aren’t referred to that way because their words come out sounding as if they were recorded. They’re real because they feel like someone you might meet. They have flaws and redeeming characteristics. They say things they don’t mean and occasionally stretch the truth. They argue and they avoid conflict. They make jokes, some of which inevitably fall flat or offend someone. They say real, authentic, human things.

Our minds are constantly interpreting reality, and what we hear in most conversations is not the words themselves, but what’s being said. We hear unique turns of phrase and interesting ideas, funny jokes and unexpected answers. We hear what people mean, and we hear when what they say doesn’t line up with that. Readers don’t want perfect accuracy, they want perfect truth.

Writing good dialogue is one of the trickiest parts of writing, but it’s also one of the most important. Bad dialogue can kill a good plot, and good dialogue can make your characters pop off the page. So listen to conversations and write down interesting snippets. Pay attention to how different people construct sentences and respond to situations. But most of all, focus on writing real characters. Real dialogue will follow.