March 25 – 31: “How do you add realism to your dialogue?”

This week, we talk dialogue. ITW Members Mick Sims, Neil Plakcy, Alan L. Moss, Erin HartBarbara Taylor SisselOwen Fitzstephen and J.H. Bográn ponder the question, “How do you add realism to your dialogue?”


Alan L. Moss is a unique and emerging voice in the thriller genre. His writing draws upon Ph. D. research capabilities and many years in Washington D.C. as a federal Chief Economist, Congressional Fellow in the U.S. Senate, and Adjunct Instructor at the University of Virginia’s Northern Virginia Center. In 2002, he put his government career aside and moved to the Jersey Shore to pursue his writing. His published novels spin sophisticated tales of conspiracy, love, sex, and subterfuge. After years of politics and bureaucracy, Alan has found the freedom of writing fiction an intoxicating and satisfying calling.

Neil Plakcy is the author of the Mahu Investigations, about openly gay Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, as well as the Have Body, Will Guard adventure romance series and the Golden Retriever Mysteries. He is an assistant professor of English at Broward College in South Florida, and former president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

Erin Hart’s archaeological crime novels are set in the mysterious Irish bogs. HAUNTED GROUND (2003), was shortlisted for Anthony and Agatha awards; LAKE OF SORROWS (2004) was a Minnesota Book Award finalist; FALSE MERMAID (2010) made ALA/Booklist’s Top Ten Crime Novels of 2010. THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN will be published in March 2013.

Len Maynard & Mick Sims, Maynard Sims, are authors of six novels, four novellas eight collections. DARK OF THE SUN is their first non-supernatural thriller, but not their last. It has its own website. It features a hero who is quite happy with his lot in life in the Bahamas. Then people start getting killed, and his life is turned upside down and he is dragged into an underworld of intrigue and danger.

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator. You can find him on Twitter @JHBogran, Facebook and Blogger.

Owen Fitzstephen is the author of numerous novels as well as a middle-grade trilogy, THE MISADVENTURES OF EDGAR AND ALLAN POE. Additionally, he is co-author of the non-fiction book, THE WAY OF BASEBALL, FINDING STILLNESS AT 95 MPH. He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A. and Chapman University. He lives with his wife Julie in southern California.

Barbara Taylor Sissel is the author of three indie novels. EVIDENCE OF LIFE is her national print debut. The mother of two sons, Barbara lives near Houston, Texas.



  1. For me the key to writing natural sounding dialogue is eavesdropping. It’s difficult when I first begin a novel. I don’t know the characters very well, but over pages and hours of writing, I watch them and listen to them, and finally, I’m able to capture their habits of speech, how they phrase things. How they get angry, how they laugh and cry. Sometimes I get lucky and a character springs from my imagination who is so vivid in both their mannerisms and speech, I can just write down what they say. It’s like taking dictation. But that’s rare. Usually, I have to listen to them for a while before they become so familiar, and once they do, sometimes, when I’m out shopping or just doing some gardening or whatever, I’ll catch myself dialoguing with them in my head, wondering what they would have to say about some subject I have on my mind. It’s kind of weird, the way they will feel so alive to me, as if they’re real people.

  2. How do you add realism to your dialogue lines?

    To make it real, dialogue must be consistent with who are characters are and the situations in which we have placed them. They may be lying, honest, or deceptive. It doesn’t matter as long as what they say reflects their personality and situation.

    Three of the devices I use to convince the reader that what the character is saying is realistic are pace of speech, physical activity, and setting. A young man in crisis sits for the first time with a psychiatrist. The doctor asks him “What’s going on?” Rather than responding, the patient sits, recalling how his lover lost her life in a luxury yacht sunk by planted explosives. The slow, interrupted pace of his dialogue reflects his suffering.

    As the conversation is joined, the man’s body testifies to the tension in the air. His hands are folded with fingers involuntarily flexing open and closed. Rather than looking the psychiatrist in the eye, he stares at the floor, avoiding intimate contact with a stranger. Suddenly, tears well up in his eyes and run down his face.

    The dialogue is set up by setting details. We can easily imagine the appearance of a psychiatrist’s office. But it’s the details revealed that convince us of this particular office and the conversation it hosts: carpet especially thick, providing a soft almost spongy resistance; a picture on the wall of a yacht skimming across the sea (not a particularly welcome sight).

  3. The most compelling dialogue comes from characters who are concerned less with the mere exchange of information and more with putting forward their own personal or professional agendas (with varying degrees of subtlety or self-awareness). These agendas may or may not be “hidden” ones. They may not be solely self-serving. Indeed, conflicting agendas arise even in friendly, cooperative exchanges. And neither must they necessarily be expressed in manners demanding, critical, or in any way melodramatic. Nonetheless, compelling dialogue always expresses some strategy towards that which a character wants or believes she needs (for good or ill). It is, therefore, purposeful…not merely expository. Such dialogue serves not only to forward the plot but also to expose aspects of the character of which even he or she may not be fully aware, all accomplished with the character’s own rhythm, vernacular, and tone, and bounded by the rhythm and tone of the particular exchange. Is this asking a lot?

    Yes and no.

    Like many techniques of good writing it is difficult to accomplish. And yet we practice just such agenda-driven subtleties in the best conversations in our own daily lives.

  4. One thing we have done in the past is read the story out loud to one another. That way any clunkiness can be eliminated. Listening to the spoken lines adds to the rhythm of the dialogue and helps get it as realistic as possible.
    I suppose it depends on what type of book is being written. With thrillers the intention is to have the dialogue as realistic as possible. With some other genres it might not be as important. Historically accurate for example, might matter more.
    With thrillers one way to add realism is to ensure that each character has their own way of speaking. Phrases, words, that are pertinent to them. it is important that each character’s dialogue is consistent and that again is one way to add realism. Listen to people speak in your daily lives and most have favourite speech patterns they are probably not even aware of. If you get that right with your characters realism follows.
    I often “speak” the words aloud in my head while I write the dialogue. I try to get a realistic rhythm to each line. Dialogue is two way – character speaking to one another – and so it is vital the dialogue bounces off each other. One character speaks and the response is important; how it is phrased then dictates the next line for the character they are speaking with.
    I will sometimes try and base the dialogue on real people I know. Hearing them in my head helps set out the dialogue I then write and attribute to each character.

  5. One of the issues I often find with dialogue is the lack of contractions. Real people speak that way — words like didn’t, hadn’t, don’t and can’t. You can have ONE character who speaks without contractions; it’s a useful way to distinguish his/her speech. But when characters regularly don’t use them, their dialogue sounds stilted.

    I write one series with a lot of French-speaking characters, whose dialogue is shown in English, with the occasional French word thrown in for color. In those cases I find it useful (because I can speak French) to think about what the character would say in that language, then translate to English. The sentence patterns and rhythms are different, and I think it gives some flavor to the dialogue as well.

  6. I read out loud, too, Mick, to myself and to my critique partners–we read pages aloud at our meetings and critique each other’s work that way–and it’s amazing how awkward it can sound sometimes.

  7. Barbara,
    I’m trying my hand at some screenplays from our novels and apart from being a very different writing experience from novels the dialogue is also different.
    Try reading aloud, as obviously and actor would do, and it soon pulls you up short when it sounds like stilted wooden …etc.
    I love reading aloud – as opposed to performing readings which are quite another matter. Even prose can get a rhythm going if done well.

  8. Mick, I love reading aloud, too, and being read to … or oral storytelling in general. I think I would love to have lived back in the days when folks had a habit of whiling away evenings telling the old stories, especially if they were odd or mythic. In fall, for accompaniment, maybe there would be only the sound of the fire crackling, or outside in summer, a cricket’s song might slide along on the breath of an evening breeze. I think it’s a shame we don’t do story like that much anymore. I know by the time I send a ms off to my editor, I’ve read the entire thing aloud, if only to myself, often more than once, until I get the cadence right, whether it’s dialogue or narrative, because I absolutely agree with you that prose can get a wonderful rhythm, but I don’t think you can know if it’s wonderful unless you read it out loud. (My, what a long sentence! Sorry!!)

  9. Count me in to the group the “Reading out loud” technique.

    To the surprise, sometimes annoyance, of people passing me by on the street, I’ve found myself enacting my character’s dialog lines to see if they sound natural. I’ve always said authors are the only people who can publicly accept hearing voices in their heads and not get committed to a head hospital for it.

    The dialogs must also reflect the personality of the character, not only in the contractions, but also in the language use. It is an opportunity to make distinctions in our characters. A person from the Alabama would speak the same way as a Bostonian, or a Londoner would distinguish from a Scottish.

    Then again, a problem with trying to intentionally use broken English to signify a non-native speaker is the darn processor’s grammar check that keep telling you there’s something wrong with it.

    Has anybody else come to loath those red or green underline in the manuscripts?

  10. J.H., I’ve often had to go into the properties for the file and disable the spelling and grammar check because those underlines are so distracting, especially when it comes to dialogue, dialect, or foreign words.

    I have to say that I counsel my writing students to read their work out loud, but don’t often practice what I preach. Reading out loud just takes so much time!

  11. And being English – and from the UK – but writing for US publishers – as I do with my novels (but not short stories) I find I have to sometimes write what I want my people to say, and then re-think, and often re-read aloud, to get a US slant on it.

    Not just the different words we use for things, but I have found that often US and UK sentences have different a cadence or rythm from one another. I’ve had reviewers tell me my writing is “too correct” whatever that means to them. I think they are trying to convey that my grammar and syntax is too formal, but of the hundreds of stories I read when editing Enigmatic Tales and Darkness Rising I found the best stories all had correct grammar – whether from US, UK or all over.

    My short stories are often ghost stories, and very often written in the M R James tradition, so correctness, meaning a certain stilted approach to the modern eye (and ear) is intended. My novels are all modern day and so the dialogue has to reflect that – even if my characters often ignore the correct use of grammar and English as it was meant to be used.

  12. I agree wholeheartedly that reading aloud is essential to creating realistic dialogue. Working as an on-air theater critic for radio helped me a lot in hearing what works and what doesn’t. And every once in a while as I’m composing a scene, I think about the poor person who’s going to have to read my work aloud for the audiobook! I also think working as a theater critic and going to hundreds of plays helped hone my ear for dialogue. It’s still a challenge to make people seem real, and every line of conversation in my books is rewritten and massaged many times—many more times than descriptive passages, for example.

    Like some others here, I write stories set in another country — Ireland, in my case, and I have to work hard to make sure the people in my stories sound authentically Irish, with the idiomatic expressions, suggested accent and Irish usage, cuss words, and even words in Irish language. My husband is from Ireland, so I’ll often read passages of dialogue aloud to him and ask if that’s the way he’d say it, or if he’s heard people speaking that way. I’ve received many e-mails from people questioning my inclusion of certain profanity and vulgarity, but without those words, the dialogue doesn’t sound authentically Irish to me. It depends upon the character: one of my policemen regularly punctuates his speech with the f-word; the cop who appears in the next novel never cusses once. Their voices are completely different, and I have to be true to who they are as characters.

    I thought Alan’s comments about setting the scene with what is unsaid is vitally important to making dialogue realistic. When I’m teaching about dialogue, we talk as much about what is NOT being said in a particular scene as what’s actually being spoken aloud. People don’t really know how to communicate directly with one another, and much of writing dialogue centers on the physical details that suggest the subtext of a conversation.

    I was a huge fan of the HBO series “In Treatment” for its fascinating use of dialogue. Gabriel Byrne plays a psychologist in the series, and each half-hour episode focused on a therapy session with a particular patient. What became clear to me from the (excellent) writing was that most people really have no idea what’s going on with them, emotionally, and that’s something vitally important to convey in dialogue, particularly in a crime writing, I think. Dialogue is the way we get to explore motivation, emotional states, human interaction at its most basic.

    Like dialogue in a play, fictional conversation has to be slightly heightened, raised above the level of everyday speech, but it has to sound real as well, so that’s the challenge!

  13. Erin reminds me that I watch Hawaii Five-O to listen to the dialogue, as well as Dog the Bounty Hunter (which is set in Hawaii, and shows you what real low-life people speak like!)

  14. Like a few others here, I watch television with the intention of listening for realistic dialogue, but I have to confess, it’s a lot of ID TV, 48 Hours and Dateline! I also think Southland for crime dialogue is very well written, very gritty. Erin, I so agree with you that the emotional connection with the reader of fiction is forged through dialogue more than in any other way.

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