Good, natural dialogue tells us a lot about characters: who they are, where they come from, their class, age and even their profession.  So let’s see how we can write the talk:

  1. 1.Get the slang and style right. We can hazard a guess that a character who calls people ‘old chap’ and likes a ‘chota peg’  before dinner went to public school and served in the Indian Army; we would bet money that someone who says ‘I’m taking diversity issues on board’ works in education or social work.

2.  Eaves-drop. Keep a notebook and jot down overheard remarks and snatches of conversation (just don’t get caught doing it!) This is especially useful with ‘teen-speak’. I recently heard a kid on the bus saying, ’I ain’t never gonna give him nuffink no more.’ The triple negative!  However, don’t over-use slang for your young characters as it dates very quickly: a few ‘innits’ will suggest a hoodie; a well-placed ‘whatever’, a sulky schoolgirl; a ‘Soooh NOT cool’, a media babe.
3.  Remember we don’t spell things out in conversation: we say,Give me that,’ not “Kindly pass me the bottle of water you have in front of you on the desk,’ We don’t want to replicate all the umming, erring and repetition that makes up real speech; we have to cheat and create the illusion of it.
4. Natural dialogue has rhythm so read it out loud or record it and play it back. (Remember Chandler’s Dictaphone?) This isn’t a bad practice in general – read your work out; it helps you spot chimes, repetition, ‘clunky-ness’.
5. A character’s thoughts need to reflect their voice and attitude too.  Inner monologues may have a confiding, conversational tone and  employ the character’s vocabulary and mannerisms.
6.   Dialogue should not be ‘too on the nose’ as we say in script-writing; use sub-text. People rarely say what they mean. For example, the young undergraduate, returning home for Sunday lunch, who announces his vegetarianism to his parents is really saying, as he pushes away the roast beef, ’I’m an independent adult now with my own opinions. I don’t need you!’
7. Dialogue should illicit a reaction from your reader and have ‘emotional truth.’
8. It should reveal change and new developments between the speakers as well as their dynamic.
9. It should move the story on; provide information or exposition of plot.
10. The narrative supporting the dialogue can enhance it by judicious use of actions, gestures and descriptive phrases. You can put ‘he said’, for example, in different places to break up a speech and create a pause. You can make a character take a sip of tea at a crucial moment to create tension as we wait for what is said next.
Ardella Jones