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Die-aloguing: 5 Ways to Get Stilted Dialogue in Shape

One of the most common frustrations of authors during edits is dialogue. The s-word (stilted) rings in our ears as we return to the first three chapters to figure out how to make the talk sound, like, well, talk.

Although dialogue gives the illusion of real conversation (writers make sure to cut out unnecessary "umms" and "ers"), we still have to find ways to make it realistic. Even though these aren't 100 percent foolproof, these can at least help your character to sound like she isn't a brainwashed character on a 1950s sitcom. Another good resource is this blog post found on IlluminateYA by Alyssa Roat.

1. Read Plays

Pull out the old copy of Our Town you haven't read since high school. Dust off The Importance of Being Ernest. And, heaven help you, yes, even consult that copy of Hamlet you swore you'd never read after the last week of AP Literature.


Playwrights live in the world of dialogue. Characters speaking with one another drives the plot of any play. Even in one-man shows, the actors must sound realistic in order to earn the sympathy of the audience.

2. Read Out Loud

Or, at least, have Word or Google Docs read it back to you. Warning, the robot voice does struggle with any words that you made up.

If you write to younger audiences, test out the book on your children.

3. Better Yet, Have Someone Read It Back to You

Whenever I write a play I want to perform, I have a group sit in a circle and do a test reading. It helps me identify phrases which catch their tongues or things that sounded funnier in my head but came out as awkward in the workshop.

The same works for novel writing. Have someone read a passage which is predominantly dialogue. This also doubles as good copy editing help because they'll often catch grammar snags along with dialogue ones.

4. Write Down Phrases You Hear People Say

My friends keep a quote-book (a book of quotes) to keep track of all the ridiculous things people say. I can always tell when they read a quote from Alyssa versus Ellen because both of them have a distinct way of talking.

People operate similarly. A police chief should have different jargon than a medical doctor.

5. Have An Interview With Your Characters

Simply pull out a sheet of paper and ask them questions.

  • Harper, why do you hate people so much?

  • Danny, what's it like to be a vegetarian and a teen?

  • Cortex, why are you in a relationship with Tamora?

It may take a few minutes, but you'll be surprised at how much they begin to speak. Listen to them. Get their voice in your head and then transfer it to that Word doc.

Obviously, these aren't comprehensive, but I know I can always use help on dialogue. What are some methods you've found that have worked to make your dialogue sound realistic?

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