9 Tricks to Make Your Dialogue More Organic
When I was in second grade, my teacher told my parents, “I don’t know what to do about Rob. He talks like an adult. The other children don’t understand him.” In an attempt to remedy that issue, I paid attention to the way everyone else spoke, struggling to gain a sense of how “normal people” talked.
As a result, when I turned to the keyboard, my dialogue was imbued with this same sense of organic speech. Today, I consider dialogue my greatest strength. (If you’re skeptical of my self-proclaimed talents, read this piece and decide for yourself.)
To the point: Here are some of the observations I’ve made over the years about “natural dialogue.” By implementing these nine human quirks when writing dialogue, you can give your dialogue a wonderfully organic feel.
1. Maintaining Multiple Threads of Dialogue
“Okay, but I don’t want to leave off this decision. This is important to me.”
“Yeah, really, I do understand. Hey, have you seen my black socks? I can’t find them anywhere.”
Regardless of what’s being discussed, it’s entirely normal for participants in a conversation to maintain multiple threads of dialogue. They can simultaneously be talking about the meaning of the life, what they had for lunch on Tuesday, and how stressed they are about homework—and none of this is seen as a contradiction. The tendency to hold together more than one topic of discussion, returning to each subject in turns (braiding the topics of conversation), is especially prominent when characters are involved in action.
2. Mishearing People
“Am I a lion? Well, I don’t think of myself as a lion. But you might as well. I have a mighty roar.”
Firefly is one of my favorite series for demonstrating dialogue because it so often contains the quirks of real-life speech. One quirk that I love, and that I don’t see nearly enough in written dialogue, is the tendency to mishear people. This happens in real life all the time. Think back to the last time you didn’t hear someone properly, then asked them to repeat themselves or nodded along anyway. Think of the last time you asked someone a question but they clearly misheard you and answered a different question. How did you handle that? How would your character handle that?
3. Doing Things
“So, Jake. How do you, uh … meditate?”
He stabbed a potato with his fork. “You breathe,” he said, and then he popped the potato in his mouth.
I laughed. “And?”
He raised his pointer finger to indicate he was chewing. His eyes played mischievously as he took his precious time in finishing his mouthful. [...] He swallowed. “Nope, that’s it. Just breathe. Don’t move. Don’t think. Just breathe.”
It’s very rare that people stand rigid and stare at one another as they speak. In fact, since speaking occupies only our mouths, it’s more than common that we continue on other tasks while we talk. What were you doing the last time you had a long conversation? Did you organize your desk? Did you let your eyes wander around the room? Were you enjoying a pint? Were you landscaping your yard?
There are countless potential “doings” that create a frame for our “sayings.” Known to some as “talking head devices,” these contextual frames allow us to write more than two disembodied heads in endless dialogue. Just as important, the combination of action and speech more accurately reflects the world we live in.
4. Getting Sidetracked
“Yeah, I went and saw it last night with Molly and Derek.”
“It’s a pretty good movie, right? I really liked—wait, Molly and Derek? They’re not, like, dating, are they?”
“Yeah, didn’t you know? They started dating, like, a month ago. There was this huge drama with Jason when they first started going out.”
“Shit, I imagine. Shit. Well, yeah, anyway, like I was saying, I really liked the movie.”
Even in cases where the conversation is driving toward particular points, it’s common for people to get sidetracked by new information, stories, disruptions, or what’s happening outside of the dialogue. Even when the new topic or story is irrelevant to the story, allow your characters to get sidetracked. How we get distracted is often just as telling as what we are trying to say.
5. Using Body Language
I took a deep breath in. “Look, I just don’t like you hanging out with him.”
She folded her arms as her jaw clenched tight. Her eyes stayed unblinkingly on me. “Yeah?”
I broke my eyes away from her gaze. “Yeah.” I shrugged. “I don’t know why, okay? It just gives me a bad feeling.”
It’s wise to recall that as little as seven percent of our communication comes from the words we choose. The remainder comes from a combination of tone of voice, context, and body language. Often, the body language used expresses more than the words themselves.
Removing the body language from the example above, can you guess at the emotions of the speakers? Now replace the dialogue with gibberish. Does the body language still express the emotion of the interaction? Never underestimate body language as a communicative tool.
6. Fragmenting Our Sentences
“I don’t know. It’s just, it’s like we were best friends. For such a long time. And then you meet her. Hey, I like her, okay? She’s great. And great for you. That’s pretty obvious. But I don’t hang out with you anymore. Like, ever.”
As writers, we have long been taught to write only complete sentences. Unfortunately, this can bleed over into our dialogue, where it makes it sound as if each character is deeply eloquent and confident in what they intend to say. The truth is, speaking to people is not a science: it’s an art. We typically don’t know how our sentences will end until they’ve ended. We often realize that we meant to say more, and so tack on extra details in short fragments.
Fragment your spoken sentences, and pay attention to the rhythm of each character’s speech; a pattern of fragmenting sentences into specific sizes can help you establish a character’s voice in subtle yet powerful ways.
“It’s more than just our history. It’s that—well, look, I’m not saying that everything I’m talking about is totally rational. I know I can get pretty emotional on stuff like this. I’ve gotten—but, do you blame me, man? She and I—I know it was four years ago—but she and I were more than just an item. We were married, man.”
Let me emphasize this again: Speaking is not a science—it’s an art. As a result, we often make wrong moves, misstep, or otherwise screw up. We have to abandon our sentences in the middle, take sudden and sharp turns in subject-matter, or otherwise find cause to interrupt the very thing we were originally trying to say.
8. Uncertainty of Facts
“It was sometime in last October. She and I had broken up two, maybe three weeks earlier. And then I saw her there.”
Have you watched the TV show Lie to Me? There’s an episode where our dearly beloved lie expert interviews a pilot who’s crashed his plane. As he discusses the events, he has trouble remembering the details of his story. The head of the airline company figures this means he’s lying. The opposite turns out to be true. When we’re speaking naturally, rather than rehearsing a constructed story, we tend to be uncertain about facts.
Let your characters be less than certain about details. Imprecision works wonders.
9. Getting Lost in Awkward Silences
“Sorry, Sam, but I just don’t like green eggs and ham,” I said.
“Oh.” He gritted his teeth, looking at me for a few seconds before he looked down at the table. He fiddled with his watch, then let his fingers trail along the wooden grain of the tabletop. I took a long, gulping sip of my milk. He squinted back up at me. “Would you like them on a train?” he asked.
We’ve all experience awkward silences, but those silences are generally omitted in writing. They can certainly be intimidating! As the author, you have to show the discomfort of the pause without boring your readers. But you can really flesh out characters by showing where the conversation breaks down, demonstrating how comfortable or uncomfortable characters are in sharing a silence, and illustrating how characters occupy their hands and minds when words fail them.
The major takeaways from these tips: People don’t speak perfectly. They stumble, fragment, and lose track of conversations. They mishear each other. They take forever in getting to the point. By using these quirks of human speech, you can create both a powerful sense of organic speech, fleshing out your characters and illuminating the way they relate to one another, all in the course of your dialogue.
Like these tips? Great. I’ve got another batch coming in the not-so-distant future. Have your own tips to share? Take advantage of the comments, below.