Guest Post from Debra Johnson: 5 Ways to Improve Your Dialogue

One of the hardest obstacles a writer comes up against is dialogue writing. Like animators trying to imitate human movement, getting the intonation and words exactly right is hard. We are so familiar with speech that any mistake can be jarring and take a reader right out of the story.

Here are five ways that you can improve your dialogue writing:

  1. Listen – The first step to realistic dialogue is listening to real people speak. You may not have noticed exactly how you and your friends talk, but by listening in at the supermarket, on the bus, or in the office you can pick up some common threads. Using your listening skills to pay attention to how real people speak will make your dialogue that much better. Just eliminate the ah’s, uh’s, you know’s and other filler words that are realistic but unnecessary and annoying in dialogue.
  2. Use slang and contractions – Many times a character’s language sounds stilted or fake due to a lack of slang. We use slang all the time. Idioms like an axe to grind, words like cool or neat or on the rocks, and even simple phrases like sure or okay are considered slang but are common in conversation, as are contractions. Don’t sounds more natural than do not. Real people don’t speak like a dictionary, so unless your character has some issue or difference, make sure you include slang and contractions.
  3. Easy on the accents – This does not mean you have to go overboard with slang though. Many times a writer will include a character that is from a particular area or has an accent. The continual inclusion of slang and accent like ain’t, cuz, or bro can get annoying after a while and detract from the story. You can sprinkle slang and accents in to remind readers of the character’s origin, but don’t make it so often that readers get annoyed and stop reading.
  4. Trail off – Real people do not speak in complete sentences. If you aren’t writing a cop giving a report or a medical doctor giving a diagnosis, then don’t expect everyone to speak in full, complete sentences that are clear and precise. Real people trail off, they leave out ideas, and they make you work for your info. Make the readers work to understand as long as you don’t take it too far.
  5. Be clear – One of my pet peeves when it comes to dialogue writing is the fact that many writers don’t make it clear who is speaking. He said and she said are all well and good when there is only one he or she, but when there is a group, the dialogue becomes harder to follow. Don’t be afraid to use characters’ names and be repetitive when it comes to clarifying who is speaking. I would rather read a dozen John saids than try to figure out who is speaking on my own. A good way to identify the speaker without an attribution like he said is to include an action tag. John took a sip of coffee. “Dialogue.” eliminates the need for John said while still making it clear who is speaking.

These are just a few of the suggestions I have for writers looking to improve their dialogue. The point is to make it sound as real as possible. Avoid the information dump and characters that come off sounding rehearsed and boring. Try to add life to your characters with your dialogue and bring readers into your story.

Note from Lillie: For a longer and more detailed post on dialogue, see Creating Fictional Characters, Part 6: Putting the Right Words in Their Mouths.

About the Author:

This guest post is contributed by Debra Johnson, blogger and editor of She welcomes your comments at her email Id: – jdebra84 @

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