April 30 – May 6: ” How do you add realism to your dialogue?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW members Mariah Fredericks, Chris Malburg, Sanjida Kay, Ann Simas and Judy Penz Sheluk discuss dialogue, answering the question: How do you add realism to your dialogue? You *really* won’t want to miss this! Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along.

Judy Penz Sheluk is the author of two mystery series: The Glass Dolphin Mysteries (THE HANGED MAN’S NOOSE and A HOLE IN ONE) and The Marketville Mysteries (SKELETONS IN THE ATTIC). Her short crime fiction appears is several collections. In addition to ITW, Judy is member of Sisters in Crime, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves on the Board of Directors as the Regional Representative for Toronto/Southern Ontario.


Ann Simas lives in Oregon, but she is a Colorado girl at heart, having grown up in the Rocky Mountains. An avid word-lover since childhood, she penned her first fiction “book” in high school. The author of 21 novels, one novella, and one short-story collection, she particularly likes to write a mix of mystery/thriller/suspense, with a love story and paranormal or supernatural elements. In addition to being a three-time Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Finalist, Ann is also an award-winning watercolorist and budding photographer who enjoys needlework and gardening in her spare time.


Sanjida Kay is the author of three psychological thrillers, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child and My Mother’s Secret, published by Corvus Books. Bone by Bone was long listed for the CWA Steel Dagger Award,  nominated as one of the best crime and thriller books of 2016 by The Guardian newspaper. Her thrillers are available on Audible as audiobooks. Sanjida lives in Bristol, England, with her husband and her daughter



Chris Malburg is a widely published author, with over 4 million words published in 22 popular business books and four novels. Simon & Schuster, Putnam, Wiley and McGraw Hill all publish Chris’ work, which is consumed in most western countries. After classes at Stanford Writers School, Chris began the fun side of his career. He has crossed the chasm into fiction with the fourth installment in his Enforcement Division series. Chris is known for his meticulous research of the material presented in his books. MAN OF HONOR is an example. While preparing this book, Chris took the same aircraft accident investigation courses at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering that the NTSB and FAA accident investigators take.


Mariah Fredericks was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives today with her family. She is a graduate of Vassar College with a BA in history. She has written several novels for young adults; her novel Crunch Time was nominated for an Edgar in 2007. A Death of No Importance is her first mystery for adults.


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  1. Writing dialog is easy. Writing realistic dialog, now that’s tough. If you listen to the way people talk, and then try to write it, their conversation sounds odd, stilted, and boring. There are lots of ah’s, ya’ knows, and other mannerisms that don’t’ need to become part of your dialog. The art in writing dialog is to impart the necessary information in an interesting way that moves your book forward.
    The dialog sequences in my most recent cyber warfare thriller, Man of Honor, are usually brief. They take place in the midst of action. Questions asked by one character are sometimes answered with something completely unrelated but that reveals more of the relationship between the two apart from the action surrounding them.
    In my current project, Barbara Anne’s Slider (a rescue novel about the aftermath from an active shooter event at a Florida high school) I quickly deepen my reader’s engagement in the principal characters by transitioning from dialog about what they’re doing to who these characters really are. At the deepest point of this dialog I have one character understand that the other is a brilliant genius, a major league prospect, or a real SOB. Whatever it is, now—thru dialog—readers know and appreciate something about these two that they didn’t know before. These revelations come only in the major scenes—that’s what makes them major.
    Being a rescue book, Slider, deals with a lot of moral outrage and deep, changing values in the characters. Realistic dialog furthers that need when two characters talk about a given plan of action. One objects, pointing out how it could go south and injure someone. The back and forth of attack and defense of the contemplated action pulls readers into the moral dilemma these characters face. They begin to understand just where their moral compass is pointed. It becomes less dialog about a decision and more meaningful dialog about how they want to live their lives and the kind of people they want to become.
    I like dialog. I use it often to drive story and reveal who the characters are. To me, it’s so much more interesting than just having the author’s summary of events.

    1. Chris, how do you handle technical language in dialogue? I assume professionals would use shorthand or not bother to explain to dummy readers like me what this or that cyber program thingy is. But of course, the reader does have to understand it on some level, no?

  2. I think realism comes from the language/word choice each character uses which gives them their own personality and makes them identifiable. eg the chatterbox, the snippy one, the friendly one, the complainer, the it’s like oh my god teenager like etc etc

    1. So true, Elisabeth! In my latest thriller, My Mother’s Secret, I have a teenage girl who swears quite a lot. She also uses archaic phrases, such as ‘On God’s green earth’; i.e., ‘there’s no way onGod’s green earth I’m wearing that dress.’ I like the juxtaposition of a young person using something so quaint and making it new – and you know right away who is speaking and have an insight into their character.

      1. “On God’s green earth”—I love that. You always want to be authentic but not to point where everyone sounds the same. It’s a tricky balance because day to day conversation isn’t always that colorful. But it’s so great to have a character who loves language and is generous with it. And kids do have their own linguistic flourishes.

        1. I consult my grandson for “hot” kid jargon before I insert it into dialogue. He also keeps me abreast of what’s currently popular in games. I always find it amusing when words I knew as a kid come back around again. Some, such as “cool,” I like. Others, such as “sick” for describing something awesome, not so much.

          1. Being an Aussie I have a couple of fantastic phrases up my sleeve just waiting for the right character. Country people have the best ones.
            Luckily I’m writing small town rural suspense at the moment.

          2. Hi Ann & Elizabeth,

            You’re both so savvy regarding realistic dialog. Slightly off point here but something I’m doing in my latest thriller, Barbara Anne’s Slider, is to use a pat phrase several times thruout the book and said by different characters. My phrase is, “A high school English teacher did that?” It takes on various and different meanings depending on who says it and in what context. The last line of the book will be, “Yeah, a high school English teach did that.” Thanks for your comments! –Chris

    2. Hi Elizabeth,

      Excellent points you made. Giving each character individual speech characteristics goes a long way in identifying them without the need to constantly add, “John said,” at the end of their speeches.

      1. I agree, Chris, and also with Ann – it’s a lot easier to read if you usually put say / said (or nothing if it’s clear who is speaking) rather than trying to dream up ways to introduce speech, Sanjida stated with obvious relish.

      1. An Aussie phrase? We took my old Dad to visit a friend who runs a vineyard. The bloke told us he’d got some old oak barrels from a well known winery. He said “I was amazed I got them out of him. He’s famous for being tight. He’s only given two things away in his life–one was a boomerang and the other was a homing pigeon.”

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

    Are you afraid of writing dialogue? For you, is it as bad as sitting in the dentist’s chair? Do you cringe when you self-edit and your dialogue sounds stilted? Would you rather jump off a really tall cliff than write dialogue? When you read it aloud, does it sound like a second grader wrote it?

    For me, dialogue is what moves the story. Nothing is worse than glancing ahead in a book and, paragraph after paragraph with no dialogue. I’ve found myself skipping pages just to get back to the dialogue. The thing about dialogue is that it has to mean something. You can’t just use it as filler. And that gets back to my assertion that dialogue moves the story along. How, you ask? By making it real.

    I love writing dialogue. I let my characters speak like ordinary people speak. That means they may not always be grammatically correct, sometimes they’ll cuss, and sometimes they’ll say things that are completely outrageous. (Please note, that doesn’t mean I use loads of useless words in my dialogue, such as ah, uh, like, that, um, etc.). Regardless, the conversation in which they’re engaged is moving the story along. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s moving the plot along, although that’s often the case, but rather that it’s providing insight to the character(s), or the surroundings, or even the weather, which could be relevant.

    I think Elmore Leonard had a good plan for writing dialogue: Drop the tags. Make it perfectly obvious who’s talking, and if you do use tags, keep it simple with “said.” I find I often have too many “saids” in my first draft, and I take out as many as I can in the editing process, keeping in mind the rule of show, don’t tell.

    For example, not this (which also overuses adverbs):
    “I can’t do it,” she said sarcastically.
    “Yes, you can,” he replied even more ferociously.

    But this:
    She narrowed her eyes on him. “I can’t do it.”
    He responded with a glare. “Yes, you can.”

    Another thing I learned many years ago—it’s too confusing for readers to deal with more than one character who has an Irish brogue or a Southern accent, drops gs, talks in clichés, uses nonstop idioms, has horrible grammar, drops the F-bomb nonstop, or (fill in the blank). I have an Australian character in one of my mystery series. I mention once per book that’s he Australian, usually by having him speak some jargon that is strictly Aussie, and after that, I leave it to the reader to remember that he has an Australian accent.

    One other thing, make sure your dialogue is accurate. By that I mean, don’t have a character say, “Man, I could really smell the cordite in the room when I walked in,” when the use of cordite was discontinued at the close of World War II. To be accurate, you would say, “Man, I could really smell the gunpowder in the room when I walked in.” There are plenty of books written by law enforcement experts to help guide you in both police jargon and procedures. Take advantage of them, rather than guessing or assuming you’re right about something. Or better yet, ask a cop, or an FBI agent, or a forensics expert—you get what I’m saying. These people are always willing to help out a writer.

    Make every word in dialogue count. Read it over and over again, to yourself or out loud, until it sounds like a real person is uttering it, because to the reader, that character is real, and it’s up to you to make sure of that.

  4. Woman: I’m leaving you.
    Man: Who is he?

    When I’m thinking about dialogue, I always try and keep this snippet in mind, created by Steven Pinker. The dialogue doesn’t make sense logically – but we know exactly what’s happening because we read in what each person is thinking about the other.

    So when I write dialogue, I try and make sure it’s not obvious and is more elliptical, the way we might actually speak to one another because we are making assumptions about what the other person is thinking and feeling.

    I try and capture how people talk: it’s not in nice neat sentences that read grammatically correctly. Equally, to add in all the ums, and likes and you knows would be most irritating. Dialogue is a tidied-up version of how people speak. It’s not recorded conversation, it’s a realistic artifice.

    I also think about the person speaking and their character: how do they talk – abruptly, eloquently; are they young, old; do they have an accent; are there any words they like to use? And most importantly, what emotion do I want them to convey?

    1. Sometimes I find myself leaving off part of a piece of dialogue, because I feel it’s not only implied, but understood by the reader. For instance, “Got any tomatoes?” rather than “Have you got any tomatoes?” As Sanjida said, it may not be grammatically correct, but it is the way people speak.

      1. Hi Ann,

        I too often truncate the grammar parts of dialog. It just sounds more like how people talk–especially when having a casual conversation. Problem is (see?) I also write for several magazines. I seem to have adopted that casual style when writing for them. It’s driving my editors crazy. One finally wrote me a note asking if I thot I was chatting with my neighbor over the fence about BBQ. Have to watch that. Nice comment! –Chris

        1. Chris, I sometimes fill in the beginning of a sentence when I’m editing, but if it works the way it is, and I haven’t over done the incomplete sentence thing, I leave it as-is.

  5. Eavesdropping! Whether I’m walking around in a mall, sitting in a coffee shop, or golfing, I listen to how people talk to each other. Do so, and you’ll quickly realize that very few people speak in perfectly grammatically precise sentences — forget your inner editor, and don’t discount the power of sentence fragments in dialogue (but don’t overdue them either).
    Keep the “saids” to a minimum — but do not try to replace them (she enthused, he trilled etc.). As readers, we have learned to ignore “said” where a replacement will pull us out of the story. Find ways to get around “said” while showing who is doing the talking, all the while painting the scene — Sarah plucked the pimento out of her olive with a toothpick and placed it neatly on a napkin, before downing her martini and pushing her glass towards the bartender. “I’ll have another.” VS “I’ll have another,” Sarah said.

    1. Eavesdropping is a brilliant way of picking up characters. Especially these days when people walk about yelling into their phones. The one sided snippets can be hilarious.

      Once in a dress shop I overhead two older women discussing a third absent friend. One said ‘She’s not well.’ The other replied ‘It’s her legs, you know. They go right up to her knees.’

      I got that into a short story once but I reckon it could do with another whirl.

        1. so true, Ann, and not just hand-painted. In Northern Ontario, there are all kinds of road signs like, “Old Church Rd.”, “Post Office Road.” That’s the name of the streets! I love that.

      1. You’re so right Elisabeth (and my best friend is Elisabeth with an “s”! You cannot make up the stuff you overhear. And it adds authenticity to dialogue. I love your story, too funny.

      2. That’s hilarious! In my next thriller (out this Thursday!!) I needed a fun bit of overheard dialogue and as I couldn’t think of anything funny (hey, I write thrillers!) I borrowed a conversation I overheard my friend saying to another woman: ‘They’ve had to give up the zoo!’

        1. I have a German writer friend who speaks absolutely perfect English ( and French) but she gets some colloquialisms a little bit wrong sometimes. She said when relating some story about getting a surprise’I almost fainted on the dot.’

          I’ve written a few down because that kind of thing is handy for foreign characters. One thing I think people often get wrong in writing dialogue for foreigners is the grammar. Speakers tend to stick to the sentence structure of their native language which is often different to English. It helps if you have a little bit of some other languages.

          1. That’s great advice, Elsabeth. I’m currently writing a thriller with Italians speaking English and I’m trying to capture how they might speak. Something I notice English as a foreign-language speakers do is to get the preposition wrong (the, a) or put them in when it’s not necessary. But I am having fun with colloquialisms. Raining the cat and dog.

            Thank you Judy!

          2. Sanjida, Dad had an apple orchard and sold at the shed door. One of the regular customers was an elderly Italian and his wife and he would ask “‘Ave you any happlies?”

            The h is often problematic for the Italians and French speaking English. Mind you I’ve learned Italian, French, German and a tiny bit of Mandarin and Arabic (traveller style for the last two but I tried). It’s not easy to get by in a foreign language!!

          3. Sanjida, it just happens I’m Italian. I speak a little and I’ve heard a lot since growing up. If you need a second pair of eyes on your Italian speakers, I’d be happy to give you some input. Ciao!

  6. People talk about different ways of learning, how you experience the world. Visual, kinetic…I’m completely aural. (Okay, that sounds odd…) But I am. I had a ton of speech therapy as a child and was that kid who “talked funny” for years. So I listened way more than I spoke.

    I write first-person and every book starts with the character speaking to me. If a character can’t jump in and start talking with the other characters, I know I don’t have the character yet. As you all have noted, you should know who’s speaking, almost without identification. In A Death of No Importance, I have to be fairly careful about dialog, as it’s set in New York in 1910. So it has to represent both the character and the time. I try to check the origin of any slang and questionable word.

    For example, I was going through edits on the second book in the series and I noticed one character referred to another as a “big shot.” I thought, Wait a minute, and double checked. Right for the character, wrong for the era. Big shot didn’t come into casual use until the 20s and the rise of gangster pop culture.

    However, I used to write YA and I will say going back in time is easier!

    1. It is really important when you’re writing a character in another time period to use the vernacular of that time. In my Chloe’s Spirit book, Chloe lives in a house with a ghost from the early 20th century. I spent some time checking out popular jargon from that period, because even though Mary now “resides” in the 21st century, she’s still a product of life a century earlier.

      1. Newspapers of the day are also a great way to pick up the tone of an era. And of course, novels and letters from the time, which can break you out “period speak.” When you read someone like Edith Wharton, you see people are freer in their language than you might think.

    2. Gangster pop culture sounds like it could be ready for a return, Mariah! It’s very true; on the other hand, I don’t want to date my work by making the dialogue so ‘sick’ and ‘en fleque’ a) no one older than 15 will understand it and b) it’ll sound odd next year. A fine balance, whether one is writing contemporary or historical fiction!

  7. I love writing kid dialogue. I’ve tackled children from age 3 to age 12 in my books. For the younger ones, mispronunciation comes into play. For the older ones, there’s always current jargon in the mix. It’s been a while since my kids were young, but there are certain commonalities in little ones, like Rs being pronounced like Ws, a word being mistaken for another word (grapes vs. grace, honeybirds vs. hummingbirds), or childish efforts to repeat profanities (seet vs. s**t). I also think it’s important to let dogs speak in books. In HERE AND GONE, released this week, my protagonist has her first dog, a golden retriever puppy, who has a lot of personality. He speaks in puppy yips, smiles, and tail-wags, all of which are his method of communication. Dialogue has many different paths!

  8. I’d like to thank International Thriller Writers for giving me the opportunity to discuss Realism in Dialogue. It’s been an interesting discussion.

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