I won’t beat about the bush here (although realistic conversation often does) – the best way to write good dialogue is to start by listening to how people speak. Eavesdrop at every opportunity and you will quickly capture the idioms and cadences of conversation. The more you listen, the more you’ll learn, and the seven secrets of writing good dialogue will soon reveal themselves to you, but just for good measure I’ll jot them down below…

  • People often go the long way round if they want to say something important. They sometimes reverse into big discussions, talking about irrelevancies first to break the ice.
  • People often don’t answer one another directly, often because they are pursuing their own train of thought, so some conversations are little more than two monologues which occasionally intersect.
  • People often repeat what they are saying, to emphasise something, or out of anxiety, or perhaps because their memories aren’t that sharp.
  • People sometimes repeat what the person they’re talking to is saying – to show agreement or to demonstrate that they are really listening, really listening, yes.
  • People often have vocal mannerisms, little phrases that crop up again and again: you know, all right, the thing is and although, as a writer, you need to use these sparingly, putting one or two in can make dialogue seem more realistic.
  • You should also be sparing with the use of dialect to establish where a character has come from, and archaisms to convey the period in which they lived, although the occasional hint, a word slipped in here and there, can be extremely evocative. Proceed with caution though.
  • Language stays alive because people are incredibly creative with it and innovations often occur in speech before they make it to the printed page, so expressions and slang can do wonders in bringing your dialogue to life. Oiski Poiski is an exclamation I’ve overheard and subsequently used; is your head in the shed? is another.

What gems have you picked up and made use of?