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Writing Natural Dialogue In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

Writing convincing, natural dialogue can be a challenge for novelists. Personally, I love writing dialogue. It’s partly where characters come to life. I have mine blathering on at great length in my first drafts. In the subsequent drafts I pare back, delete, fuss and fiddle, trying to get the dialogue to seem as natural as possible.

Most conversations take place while someone is doing something else: driving, walking or whatever. To sit down and have a coherent one-to-one conversation and to stay on topic is unnatural for people. Yet writers have characters do it all the time.

Combining action and dialogue gives a more natural feel and prevents the story from collapsing into strings of conversations held together by the odd bit of exposition. If you pay attention to conversations around you it soon become clear that people circle around, stumble, pause and generally bumble through conversations like toddlers in a play pen.

A fun exercise which can heighten your awareness of natural conversation is to unobtrusively record family or friends – nobody who will get cross with you and smash your digital recorder – having a conversation and then transcribe it, or use speech to text if you have it. Edit the conversation down to a couple of lines which capture the feeling and subject. It’s quite a surprise to discover how much rubbish people speak on a daily basis.

It’s also a valuable exercise for detecting the dynamic between speakers or within a group. What is left unsaid, is thinly veiled, hints at an underlying agenda or is obviously an attack or an alliance, should all be considered when writing dialogue, because, for all their talk, people often don’t mean what they say.

It can be far more realistic and intriguing for readers, who often know more than the characters do about a situation, for the dialogue to be indirect and subtle. Dialogue is a great vehicle for showing character. You just have pay close attention to how you write it.


Phillipa Fioretti’s author website:

Phillipa Fioretti’s bio page


The Book of LoveThe Fragment of Dreams     Savage TideA Distant LandHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dialogue is fun to edit, to ‘fuss and fiddle’ over, as you say. Sometimes I can’t turn dialogue off, and instead of going to sleep, I have to turn on the light and scribble down more of the conversation. Stop the voices!

    August 26, 2013
  2. It gets a bit like that, Susan! I have conversations with a digital recorder. It’s a really weird look, but it seems to free up the dialogue centre in my brain. I can sleep and function better after a good imaginary conversation.

    August 27, 2013
  3. donaldmcmiken #

    Talking to your recorder is a bit spooky, but I did enjoy your piece. Think it surprises everyone when they write, just how far away from real speech written dialogue is. I haven’t tried the recorder method — yet!

    August 30, 2013
  4. It is a spooky look, Donald, particularly as I like to do it while walking my dog in local bushland. Other users of the tracks keep their distance, ha!

    August 30, 2013

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