The secret to writing great dialogue lies in being a good listener, not a good talker.
However, before your characters can speak, they need a history.
The foundation of writing dialogue starts with knowing your characters inside and out. Do they have an accent? What part of the country or world do they come from? Are they educated? What’s their economic background? All of those aspects define how your characters will speak once their mouths open.
Character development is crucial, but the second most important tool is listening. When you’re out, listen to people. Zip your mouth and open your ears. Close your eyes if necessary, hearing only the words. You’d be surprised how much you learn about diction and cadence.
Now, you have your characters’ base and some real-life research. It’s time to let them loose.
On first pass: Allow your dialogue to be on-the-nose, meaning let it be far too accurate and pointed for it to be natural. It’s just a first draft so don’t worry about perfection. You need to get something on the page to mold.
Second pass: Trim out as much as possible. Less is more. If you carefully look at your written dialogue, you’ll see some might be repetitive, especially in a back-and-forth conversation between characters. Cut. Cut. Cut.
Third pass: Say it out loud. See if it feels natural. People rarely speak in complete sentences so don’t force your characters to. Remember your characters’ backstory and use slang if appropriate. Make sure the words written are ones true to your characters heritage and life experience.
Fourth pass: Be certain each character sounds different. If you use their backstory and pay attention to detail, they’ll all have a unique voice.
When you have your story complete, the best test is a reading by a group of people. If you can assign each person a character, you’ll instantly see the mistakes and how to fix them. But, you need to listen.
Natural dialogue can make or break a story. It’s crucial to making your characters believable. If you don’t keep them real, you’ll lose your audience, distracting the reader from the story.
The next time you watch a movie, close your eyes and just listen. If it’s a great film, the missing visuals won’t detract from the storytelling. It’s the best test I know of a story’s quality. Don’t watch it, hear it.
Listen to your characters and let them speak for themselves. Trust them.