Can you alter dialogue (speech in short stories and novels) by adding artificial elements, so it sounds more authentic? That sounds like an oxymoron. However …

Consider this recording:

Caller: “Jo? Got a minute? I got a letter from Carl today – where is it, I had it right here a minute ago. Blast. Who put that coffee there? Oh god, another disaster – yeah, here it is… he wants you to switch your presentation from Friday to Sunday.”

Me: “Sorry. who is this?”

Caller: “Oh. I’m sorry. I’m always doing that, I’m so sorry. It’s June Undrill calling about the conference in Rotorua. Carl Horn asked me to check with you about switching your speech…”

That’s the way real people talk. All jumbled up sometimes. But if you put that into a story it wouldn’t read well. In fact, it’s dead boring. Imagine something that really stirs the heart. Like the wind and roar from a A380 taking off over your head at full thrust. Or the thunderous noise and spray from the tailrace of a hydro dam when the sluice gates are opened.

Those events might have commonalities to real nature events, such as a tornado’s dance or a serve of surf smashing a shoreline’s rocks. But they aren’t natural events. Both the jet taking off and the directed dam release are highly contrived and artificial.

“In art, the completely natural seldom works” says Nancy Kress who has written seven novels and dialogue for over 300 characters. “Instead, nature is refined, pruned, trained, heightened, considered and rehearsed. A ‘perfect’ football move, for example, has been planned, tested, refined, then practised and practised and practised, so on the day it looks spontaneously natural…

Good dialogue is artificially concise…

Kress says that nearly all normal people repeat themselves, interrupt themselves, start a conversation midway and wonder why no one understands them. They stutter, stammer, use an inexact word then spend four sentences explaining what they really meant.

But if you put this on a page, the speaker will sound boring, scatter-brained or under great stress. (Check out the conversation of Miss Bates in Jane Austen’s Emma.) If you intend your characters to sound like normal, got-it-together people, you’ll need to edit the raw stuff to make it read like coherent, reasonably concise and interesting conversation.

“In real life” says Kress “people develop their own shorthand way of speaking and both parties fully understand the grunts, sentence fragments and hand gestures. So a jumbled conversation can be completely satisfactory. It’s only when it hits the page that it looks so unnatural. Edited dialogue is not natural. It is more informative, concise and detailed than natural speech. Spoken speech is like a first draft. If we had the opportunity, we’d tidy it up before committing it to paper. Like this:

Caller: “Brian? I’m June Undrill, calling about the Toastmasters conference in Rotorua. D’you have a minute?

Me: “Hello June. Sure.’

Caller: “I got a letter from Carl Horn today and he wants you to switch your presentation from Friday to Sunday.”

Me: “That’s fine with me. I’ll just check my diary. Yeah, that’s OK.”

Caller: “Oh good. I’ll tell Carl. It’s at the same time, by the way.”

Notice how the conversation is more productive, but still sounds natural. Don’t go to the other extreme. You don’t want dialogue so unnatural and contrived that a reader rejects it as implausible. Beware the stilted voice who never uses contractions like I’m, you’ll, that’s, where’s etc. This is the way we all speak in normal conversations.

Beware the voice of authority who says “I do not think, even when you take the financial advantages into account, that Jim’s entrepreneurial venture is viable in this economic climate.”

A real person would say “Well, I don’t think Jim’s new idea will work at the moment.”

Beware the too informative walking encyclopaedia: “As you know, Ray, we were very poor back in the fifties when dad took on that Air Force contract from Wigram repairing boots for the K Force troops in Korea to keep us kids in school at Xavier College.”

Sure, great authors like Somerset Maugham use dialogue to slip information to the reader, but with a lighter touch than this. Beware the too concise conversation or your character will sound like Sylvester Stallone or Marlon Brando, where a few grunts or snatched phrases suffice. “Hey bud. Gimme a light, huh.”

Good dialogue is emotional

According to Allan Pease, 70% of all communication is body language or nonverbal. A sentence like ‘I didn’t know he stole the money’ can have six different meanings, depending on the voice inflection and the stress on a single word. You need to convey the tone or the stressed word in some way.

“In fiction” says Kress “dialogue doesn’t have the support of nonverbal clues. You can write them in, such as hand gestures, tone of voice or where the character is looking while speaking.

Edit authenticity into your dialogue

You may need to increase the emotional level of the words to bring out their meaning. This is because there is a lot of subtext in human communication—gestures and tone that convey meaning in ways other than actual speech. If you were writing a play, you could say “Tom was a good man.” The actor’s voice would provide the emotional overtone – anger, resignation, irony etc.

But in fictional writing, you might need to heighten the dialogue: ‘Tom was a good man. Damn it. He was such a good man!” The repeated words, mild swearing and the exclamation all make it clear that a good man is now dead. You might also heighten the dialogue with a combination of nonverbal clues to convey the emotion.

“Tom was a good man” Stan said softly. He fumbled with a cigarette. Lit it. “Damn it. He was such a good man!” The cigarette tumbled from his slack fingers as his arm dropped to his side. His gaze slowly drifted out the window and the rug smouldered at his feet. Here the dialogue adds layers of emotion to the words spoken.

Good dialogue is individual

“Good dialogue characterises” says Kress. In real life, much routine communication is generic. We use the same words to order a steak or to complement our favourite footballer: “Oh, well done.” But in fiction even routine dialogue can be used to differentiate characters and make them come across as individuals.

“All you ‘ave to do is go out to the shed … where they pile up them empty crates.” That’s the voice  of Rose, the cockney barmaid in
As The Crow Flies. Whereas the major says …

“It’s not as if my portfolio is that impressive. My capital is bound up in land. Has been for generations.” There’s no mistaking who these two characters are when they speak. “Beware overdoing this character­ speak” warns Kress. “Even the most eccentric character occasionally says ‘What time is it?’ or ‘Pass the salt’. But if whole sections of a character’s dialogue could be switched to another speaker, you haven’t done an effective job of using language to individualise your characters.

“Give each character a personality, a diction, a rhythm and a slant on the world.” That’s the key to good dialogue.

Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustment of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin and crossings of legs.

—Jerome Stern

In summary:

The most effective dialogue is…


Concise without being artificial.


Informative without being implausible.


Informative without being implausible.


Emotional and individual without becoming a parody.

How do you learn to do this?

Step 1: Listen to the ways people speak around you.

Step 1: Listen to the ways people speak around you.

Step 3: Write lots of dialogue yourself. Just for practice.

Writing effective dialogue is a balancing act. You don’t get good without doing a lot of it.

Reproduced for Educational Purposes