I really wish there was a simple formula that led to instantly brilliant dialogue. But there’s not.
There are, however, a few tips I can give you that will help improve your dialogue.
Watch the Details
When it comes to dialogue, it’s the small things that make the difference between believable and fake. So pay attention to everything. Word choice, sentence type, timing; everything. It’s important to think about whether or not your character would react in a given way, but it’s just as important to make sure he would say the words you’re putting in his mouth. For example, if you’ve got a highly educated and refined character using overly casual or slang language, it won’t feel real at all and the reader will loose his connection with the story.
Control the Timing
There is a natural rhythm and flow to conversation. If you want the dialogue in your writing to feel genuine, you have to find ways to capture that flow. There a couple of ways to do that.
First, avoid long monologues. How often have you been in a conversation where each speaker droned on for five minutes at a time before anyone else spoke up? That’s not how a real conversation goes. People interrupt each other, they lose their train of thought, strange sounds cut into the conversation. So break it up, make it real.
Second, use beats. Beats are the little bits of writing in between the dialogue. Their most basic purpose is to identify the speaker (i.e., “he said,” “she said,”), but they can also add rhythm when used correctly. Beats can be used to insert small actions in the midst of conversation, such as what a character is doing with his hands, or what his facial expression looks like. Used skillfully, beats break up dialogue in natural places, giving your reader room to breathe and appreciate what’s going on in the scene.
Remember Who Knows What
In general, dialogue is a good place to reveal your backstory. It’s certainly far better than lengthy narrations that fill the reader in on everything (you think) they need to know. But be careful not to get carried away. For your dialogue to be believable, your characters must only say things that need to be said. What this means is, if all of the characters in a scene are familiar with the backstory, whether it’s a certain character’s past, the history of the world, or something else, there’s no reason for one of the characters to explain that backstory. Think of it this way, if you and I both know what happened at the party last weekend because we were there together, I’m not going to tell you all about what happened at the party last weekend. Because you already know. So remember who knows what and don’t force your characters to listen to information they don’t need to hear just so you can show the readers. Reveal information naturally and your dialogue will be more natural.
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” If so, toss it out of your brain right now because it’s a gigantic pile of steaming feces. Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. If you practice the wrong thing, you won’t get better, you’ll just beat that incorrect pattern into your head.
Lots of practice is essential to writing good dialogue, but you need to make sure you’re actually practicing good dialogue. So reach out to friends, whether they’re writers or not, and get them to read your conversations. Ask if they feel natural or forced. Ask if they feel a connection with the characters. After you’ve gotten feedback from some non-writer friends, you might want to have some more experienced eyes look at your work. If you know a writer or two, great. If not, check out Scribophile for a great online community where you can get your work critiqued.
Now go and write some great dialogue!