Tips for writing realistic (but not "too realistic") dialogue

I thought this was an interesting article.

I admittedly find myself learning towards the more “realistic, but as a result a bit garbled” dialogue. I don’t like it when characters break into perfect speeches. It just seems fake to me. When writing, I read dialogue aloud, and I know how people talk. There are pauses, uh’s, tangents, etc., and it’s my natural inclination to try to capture all of that. I visualize my characters talking like in a sit-com or a movie, but in those the “uhs” are less distracting, and with voice infliction, small facial movements, etc., the actors can really add a lot to the delivery and timing of what they said.

However, I realize that when relying only on the written word, some realism must be sacrificed. I know I use ellipsis too often, and that it looks awkward when there are too many in a scene, so I’m trying to cut down on that. I’m trying to find new ways to indicate pauses. Perhaps using actions to end sentences or to replace them entirely. I just want to make sure whatever universe I write in is not entirely inhabited by incredibly articulate people. Not everyone forms perfectly timed and perfectly formed sentences when they talk.

Other tips in this article that I liked were using actions to punch up and break up dialogue during a conversation, as well as frequently avoiding adverbs to hopefully avoid overly antagonizing your readers as they excitedly skim from page to page. (Grab a Harry Potter book, any of them, and read two-three pages. Count the adverbs.)

I do hate using “said” after a sentence though. I don’t know why I hate it. I wonder if I used that technique even ten times in 170,000 words of CCH Part 1. Probably not.

How do others navigate the “realistic/authentic versus too realistic/jumbled” issue? Any tricks you’d like to share?


Well, my way of producing dialogue is not accepted by something like 80% of this community, probably.
When I have dialogue scenes, the characters’ sentences are short. Because, let’s face it, no one says five huge sentences in a row in normal circumstances. Same happens with my narrative, but I am one to focus in story rather than narrative and dialogue.
But yeah, my dialogues still have “uhm” and sometimes “…” to indicate pauses in the character’s speech.

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By setting books in the late 1800s…no, I’m joking. (Mostly.)

There are some really excellent dialogue tips and samples in The Emotion Thesaurus, a reference which I highly recommend. I do find it a bit American/Western centred, but it is still very useful and clear. I particularly like that they’ve used the same passages of dialogue and rewritten them a few ways, to illustrate the effects of various techniques.

If you click on their ‘read a sample’ portion, there are several dialogue passages on the first few pages. Much like the article, the Emotions Thesaurus writers discuss the balance of conveying emotion through action and using description in dialogue passages, to avoid either the constant ‘said’ or the temptation to get adverbial.

One piece of advice I particularly liked in The Emotions Thesaurus discussed how characters ‘shouldn’t jump from placidity to depression in a matter of seconds’. Emotions are a process, and giving a reader clues to the process follows the wonderful guideline of ‘show, don’t tell’.

I do think audience is a key factor, as well. People speak very differently in different regions and countries, and a single person changes speech patterns depending on the situation and the other people present. Dialogue that sounds normal and correct in one setting—say, the streets of Watts in Los Angeles, where I used to work—would be very odd to hear from three linguistics professors having coffee together. People use different phrases for speaking to their grandmum and speaking to their friends.

@Eric_Moser In the article you shared, I love their suggestion of reading dialogue aloud. I like to recommend, when I’m editing, that authors read their dialogue and prose out loud. It’s easier to hear the cadences that way. The rhythms of prose and dialogue are so important. Otherwise, it’s like someone playing a well-known song but not quite getting it right. Uncanny valley effect, only audibly instead of visually.

I’ve also seen suggestions to write down people’s natural dialogue and then read over it to see how it looks when actually in print. That exercise has helped me bridge the gap between spoken and printed dialogue.


Heh…he he…You have never met my significant other’s family. They never let silence lay in a room if there’s some way they can fill the silence with the sound of their own voice. And, if there’s someone present that might try getting a word in edge-wise…good luck! (Family get togethers are such a cacophony of people trying to talk over eachother…I have no idea how/if anyone hears each other.)

I think that the dialog (in terms of how much a person talks, at least) really depends on the individual and/or (maybe) their culture. Some people are pretty quiet and keep their sentences short and to the point. Some people abhor silence and will extend a story that could probably be told in 30 seconds into a 30 minute epic. Since people are different, characters should be too.


I think the #1 tips should be the "create balance between dialogue vs. narration"
As longform fiction tolerates low-dialogue, you can adopt the realistic style dialogue often.

However, novels, especially CYOA, is known for its interactivity. Allowing the readers to take a seat, immerse themselves inside the story, and do a role-playing. Thus, IMO it’s fine if the dialogues is not that realistic.

By I mean unrealistic is probably like this:
“Uh, Eh… Ahem. Okay, ok, you can stop it now” the major stuttered.

P.S. : I think I just confounded realistic and formal :confused:

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I’m not a pro writer by any definition, but this is generally how I recommend people write - read your writing back to yourself out loud. Drop in a comma when you pause for breath, drop in a dash when you pause for longer, if you run out of steam before a sentence finished, your sentence finished and needs a rephrase, if you get tongue-tied you need a rephrase.

You also catch a bunch of grammar mistakes that way too :smiley:

Edit: Reading a few of the other posts now I’ll also note that I feel that many content consumers are far too analytical of the content they consume and miss the content for the details.

I think going too natural can cause problems in making dialogues too weak or long-winded (especially in CoGs where you want to avoid making the reader scroll down for miles.)

For example, the following might be a good representation of a real conversation:

But written, it’s terrible. There’s a lot of redundancy and it undermines the impact of the last line, which is the real point of this conversation.

Boil it down to:

Always keep in mind what information you’re trying to get across in the scene (and that doesn’t need to come across just in what the characters say - how they say it and what they do while they’re saying it can be important too.)


I think you bring up an very important consideration w/r/t CS games. A lot of people (most) read CS games on their phones. 1) You have less real estate to play with, without it feeling drawn out. 2) You also want to keep readers engaged as players. Ergo, it sometimes necessary to condense things a little more than a non-interactive novel might.


Idiolect, sociolect, dialect, accent, filler, slang, register, manner. There we go, you’re set. Everyone forgets about a lot of these when writing dialogue.


Accents can be difficult to get across. Writing it out phonetically can get annoying - think of ze French character 'oo talks like zeez (coughJKRowlingcough).

Ew, yeah. But still, it’s a very important part of writing! And J.K Rowling isn’t so intrusive writing Hagrid as West Country.

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Yeah…But when, even for good writers, every successful attempt at phonetically representing an accent is matched by a really bad one, it can be daunting to try to represent accents. Especially accents that one hasn’t lived around. (Rowling lived in France for years and still gave us the Delacours…)

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Interesting article! I would like to think I follow a lot of these already (or so I flatter myself?), though I do have to go back and trim down my adverbs on occasion. :sweat_smile:

Like you, I definitely have to read it out loud to myself! Best way to catch whether something sounds authentic to me. If not, it’s an automatic rewrite. And I put stutters, false starts, mid-sentence interruptions, etc. just like a normal person would, but usually to emphasize stress, fear, or confusion and hopefully not too much! And I use “says” or “said,” but not too many in a row. I like to intersperse it with other words, as well.

Overall, a lot of good things to keep in mind, but still plenty of room for expression and different tastes.

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You don’t have to do an accent entirely phonetically to imprint an accent in the brain. Let’s take Hagrid, who I like:

“Just Ollivanders left now – only place fer wands, Ollivanders, and yeh gotta have the best wand.”

The bolded bit is entirely colloquial. I know because I do it, even though the Black Country is pretty far from the West Country. “It’s a good idea to go there, it is, because it’s got great food”, “she’ll make an amazing mum, she will, with how much she loves kids”. Even if you removed the phonetic accent, there would still be a noticeable hint there.

This self-repeating affirmation thing, I mean, it’s technically dialect, but only a few places do it, and it does put in your mind immediately an accent. When you write Black Country dialect or Cornish it’s basically entirely phonetic, because there’s no other written way to write a lot of the colloquialisms and slang, especially the “saft arse, you’m is” type. “Yeh” is not that intrusive, but it’s definitely Somerset.


Yes! Hagrid works, I think partly, because she took a less is more approach in the phonetics and did better in showing through sentence patterns.

I think especially in displaying a foreign accent, a good way could be to think of the way they might say things a bit differently than a native speaker. Like the French person probably isn’t going to pepper their speech with oui and non, but they might end a sentence with ‘no?’, where an English person would say ‘isn’t it?’

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I think the problem is that Americans reading the Philosopher’s Stone (they called it the Sorcerer’s Stone because they thought American children would be too dumbfounded by philosopher lmao) for the first time without having seen the movies might have no idea what a West Country accent sounds like!

Which is why some people might feel pressured to do a phonetic accent, or else just have the narrative tell you what accent they have which is boring. I like Hagrid’s accent because it’s just phonetic enough for you to get where he comes from, but not enough as to be unreadable or annoying.

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I remember once seeing something that described someone as having a ‘Southern British’ accent. Seriously :disappointed: Like, are we talking Kent or Cornwall there, mate?

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Britain also includes Wales, so a South Welsh accent? I hate it when people write “British accent” and actually mean R.P. kill me

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RP and Cockney: the only two accents in the whole of Britain.

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And the Cockney is 30 years out of date. The only time that ever an overblown antiquated Cockney accent was justified was in Dragon Quest VIII (the original PS2, fight me if you own the phone or 3DS version), where everyone had overblown phonetic accents and it was something entirely made fun of and played for good humour.

That was fun. That was really fun. Growing up on a game where I heard people like me talk, not just standard Americans or fake Brits. Hearing something where the accents matched the background and sounded natural, and were colourful and diverse. I still love that game to this day. 100%ed it, you know, three times over. Great funny game. Reminds me a bit of @Fiogan’s Beastie Watch, same humour. I prefer V though for story.

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