Writing Realistic Dialogue (or Not) by Jo Cotterill

I love dialogue. I love writing dialogue more than any other part of writing. Dialogue makes characters come alive; gives them identity. I quite like narrative and action, and I thoroughly DISLIKE writing description (my editors are always begging me: ‘But what does her bedroom LOOK like? Does this character have long hair?’ and I try not to reply, ‘It’s a BEDROOM, what more matters? And I have no idea what her hair is like!’) but I loooove dialogue.

I think my passion for speech comes partly from my previous career as an actor. Scripts are ALL dialogue (apart from the stage directions), so you don’t get bogged down in anything other than what people are actually saying to each other. But writing dialogue can be hard too. How many times have you read a book in which you’ve thought, ‘That doesn’t sound right. No one would really say that’? Dialogue in books has to SOUND realistic without actually BEING realistic. Think about it. How many boring conversations have you had where you spend about ten minutes not quite finishing your sentences? Like…

‘So, there was something we needed to…oh, while I think of it, did you get my text about tomorrow? Because you can ignore it now, cos we’re not doing that. I don’t know what we are doing, but…hang on, do you still have that pass for the park? Oh – no, it’s supposed to rain I think, maybe I’d better check…’

See? Dull, dull, dull. And yet, so very true. We talk a LOT in our lives, and about ninety-five percent* of it is really boring. If you filled a book with that, no one would read it.

So in a book, you have to get your characters telling each other important information: how they feel, what the plan is, why they’re suddenly locked in a cupboard – without making it sound like they’re some kind of story-robot, churning out stuff for the reader to know.

How can you do this? Practice. If you’re having trouble making your characters sound realistic, try reading the dialogue out loud. I’ve done this with my own books. Once you’re actually SAYING the words, you realise they feel odd that way, and you get a better idea of the way someone WOULD say it. Try writing the scene as a script, and get a friend or two to read the other character(s). Words in your head sound completely different when someone ELSE is saying them in real life.

Don’t let your characters get to the point too quickly, either. There’s a temptation to have a character walk into a scene and say, ‘Hi everyone. I’m really sad today because my cat just died.’ But people don’t just blurt stuff out like that. Sometimes there’s a whole other conversation that has to take place before the REAL point is made. You can use this in dialogue to help build tension. Let’s say two characters are talking enthusiastically about their pets and then a third character joins them. Characters A and B don’t notice that character C is a bit quiet, and they talk about the funny things their pets do. And then suddenly character C starts to cry (or maybe tries to leave) and then A and B realise there’s something going on and ask what the matter is. THEN we get to the blurting out bit.


Here are five scenes you could try writing, to practise dialogue skills.

1. Two best friends meeting. One of them has to tell the other that he/she is moving 200 miles away with family

2. 12-year-old boy is told by his parents that they’re splitting up

3. Big sister admits to little sister that she’s terrified of taking part in the drama production

4. Boy is pressured into doing a scary stunt by other boys

5. A group of girls are planning a birthday surprise for one of their friends but then she turns up unexpectedly and they have to try to keep everything a secret while reassuring her that it’s nothing bad!

Good luck! And if you like my ideas, you could check out some of my books: the Sweet Hearts series, or my latest Looking at the Stars. And do pop across to my blog at jocotterill.com and leave me a comment – I love hearing from readers!

*I made that up. But it’s probably true.

(Note from LSW - once you've read Jo's incredibly helpful blog, why not click on the 'comment' box below and write her a message or ask a question? It's not very often you get to chat to a real children's author!)