Secrets To Writing Believable Dialogue: so it actually sounds like people talking | Elizabeth Bezant | Skillshare

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Secrets To Writing Believable Dialogue: so it actually sounds like people talking

teacher avatar Elizabeth Bezant, Writer and Writing Coach

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Why You Need Dialogue


    • 3.

      Speech Tags


    • 4.

      Dialogue On The Page


    • 5.

      Dialogue Exercises


    • 6.

      Writing Project


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About This Class

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that dialogue has a huge impact on the quality of your writing. An excellent story can be completely ruined if the dialogue it contains is second rate - not something you really want, especially if you’d like your work published.

But the crazy thing is that, in most cases, all it takes to write good dialogue is… believe it or not… some basic rules and the use of a few simple techniques. It really is as easy as that.

That’s why I put together this course, to share what I’ve learned over the years. There’s also a short writing project at the end that will enable you to see just how much you’ve learned from this course and how much your dialogue writing has improved.

PLUS, I’ve also created these Pack of Prompts especially to back up all you learn in this course.

Looking for books to help you with your writing?  Check out my Amazon page.

Meet Your Teacher

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Elizabeth Bezant

Writer and Writing Coach



Hi, my name’s Elizabeth Bezant and I’m an internationally-published, freelance writer and writing coach, currently house-sitting full-time across Australia.

For the past two decades, or so, I’ve had a wonderful time inspiring and informing writers (in person, in print and online).

Over the years I’ve had a diverse range of articles, stories, columns and educational features published in countless magazines, anthologies and newspapers across the world. The ones I’m proudest of were included in: Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Living Abroad, and Grace magazines; America’s Chicken Soup for the Soul, Chocolate for the Woman’s Soul, and&n... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: Love it or hate it, there is no denying that a good story needs good dialogue, and a good story with bad dialogue often becomes a bad story. Not something you want to do, especially if you want your work published. Believe me, after twenty odd years as is a freelance writer and almost as long as a writing coach, this is something that has become very evident to me. And yet, believe it or not, all it takes to write good dialogue, in most cases, is knowing a few techniques and skills. It really is as simple as that, just knowing a few things, which is why I'm doing this course so that I can share with you what I've learned over the years. So sign up for this course and I will teach you all those things. Plus, at the end of the course, there is a writing project that will help you reinforce these skills, plus prove to yourself what you have learned 2. Why You Need Dialogue: Hi and welcome to my video on dialogue. And let's face it, some people love it, some people hate it, but regardless of how you feel about it, all stories need dialogue in some form or another. Sorry. Why? Amongst other reason, dialogue or speech makes your stories and characters more realistic. It adds energy to your writing and breaks up long predictable lines on the page, making everything easier to read. Obviously, if you're writing a story in first-person or it's autobiographical, a lot of what you're writing is dialogue anyway, because the story is written in your voice and it's as if you're personally telling a story to your reader. Therefore, the percentage of text against dialogue is different and the page layout is different, but it doesn't mean that you shouldn't include specific conversation to add energy and realism anyway. The significance of dialogue should never be underestimated. For that reason, I would recommend that around 1/4 to 1/3 of every story you write is your character or characters speaking. Yep, that right, 1/4 to 1/3. Again, I apologize to the people who don't like writing dialogue, but that's the way it goes. It's important to remember that strong, realistic dialogue will dramatically improve a story. While awkward, clunky dialogue will, without a doubt, make a good story bad. So, if you're not comfortable with dialogue, please practice. Consider doing your own research on practice. For example, listen to other people talking. Now I'm definitely not recommending eavesdropping, but if possible, listen to other people having conversations. You could do this by watching discussions in movies or listening to radio plays or even just sitting quietly in a group whose conversation you're involved with but just not talk. As you do listen to the word choices, the sentence structure and the emphasis. Watch the body language. In fact, listen and take note of the whole event if possible, but especially be aware of how we rarely talk in the way we would expect to see conversation written on the page. Cliches, contractions, abbreviations, lazy responses and bad manners, are everywhere. We rarely speak proper, good English like we would write on a page. So what are the benefits of dialogue? Obviously, if you've got to include it there must be benefits. Well, when it comes to the benefits of dialogue, let's start at the beginning with how dialogue makes stories and characters more realistic. Speech shows a lot about a person, perhaps more than most of us realize, and when I say a lot, I mean more than just a person's accent, indicating where they come from. There's also their sentence structure, their word choices, whether they use cliches or not, how they interact with others in conversation. And that's just for starters. But the great thing is that you can show all these things through what your character says and how they say it, and totally avoid the need to state the information or describe their characteristics, immediately making your writing more realistic and less heavy. For example, what would you assume if two people phoned you and the first one said, G'day mate, Does your lawn need a mow? While the second one said, Good afternoon Sir, I was wondering if you were by any chance looking to employ a gardener? Both of them are basically asking you the same question, but their choice of words says a whole lot more about their education, lifestyle, and possibly even their fees. Consider also the assumptions you make when you meet a person and hear them for the first time. But I have say there is so much more than just the words when it comes to dialogue. Secondly, dialogue breaks up the page. How it does it is an interesting one. As writers, we don't always think about what are words are going to look like on the printed page. However, as a reader, many of us consciously, or subconsciously, do. Take a moment to think about what it would be like if you had to pick between two stories, they might both be on the same topic or similar topic and written both by writers you like . But what if one of the writers has covered every page with words from margin to margin and top to bottom, while the other one has a variety of different length paragraphs and different length lines weaving across the page, leaving blank paper on the page all over the place? Which of the stories would you find more appealing? Chances are, if you're like most people, you'd pick the second. Why? because it looks easier, less confronting and you assume, or most of us assume, that it would be more fun to read. Therefore, as writers, maybe layout is something we should consider more, because whether you're writing is inviting or not is probably almost as important as whether a reader likes your style of writing or not. In fact, to be honest, I personally think the former has a definite impact on the latter. There's no doubt that white space on the page makes a story look easier to read. For many people that's important for a variety of reasons, regardless of their age, lifestyle, interests and education, which makes it something essential for us to consider, especially if we're planning to self publish. 3. Speech Tags: Well, let's now spend a couple of minutes covering speech tags. You know those wonderful little 'he said, she said' bits the clutter up dialogue and clarify who's saying what. Now providing you don't have too many characters and your paragraphs aren't too cluttered, it shouldn't be necessary to put a speech tag in more often than every four or five paragraphs. Believe me, it's a well-honed skill to make it clear to the reader who's speaking without distracting them with the repetition of too many tags or forcing them to go back over the previous paragraphs and saying, 'Now he said that, so she said that. Then he said that, so she must have said that'. I'm sure you've read stories like that. I think we probably all have. As I said, it's a finely tuned skill. But once you know the process and the techniques, it becomes a lot simpler. One way to lessen the use of tags toe have how people speak differently is to have people speak differently? Imagine you're relating a conversation between a Somerset yokel and a London banker. Their word choices are going to be different, as well they're annunciation, sentence structure, and who knows what else. These differences alone should be enough for you to indicate who's saying what without needing a single speech tag. There's also the option of using the occasional action to show who's speaking. For example, if you have a few lines of dialogue together rather than interspersing a 'Fred said,' in the middle of them, you could add a 'Fred paused and sipped his wine'. After all, we know that the speech around the action must be Fred's, because if it wasn't it would be in a new paragraph. So what kind of speech tags were to use well rather than the standard, 'he said, she said'? A lot of people like to use phrases like 'he retorted,' or 'she snapped,' 'he exclaimed,' and so on. And, in essence, there's nothing wrong with these. There never has been and probably never will be. A lot of people use them, however, by using them, you're putting yourself in a position where you're writing isn't quite as smooth as it might be. At some time in the past, sadly I don't know when, it was proven than when a person's brain sees the word 'said' it doesn't actually read the word 'said'. It's simply absorbs it. In doing so, the brain knows the information in the speech tag, who actually spoke, but it doesn't interrupt the actual dialogue to read it. It's almost as if it's absorbed by osmosis. In so doing, the dialogue being read off the page becomes more like a real conversation, and less like a written conversation, because in real life, none of us actually said, 'he said, she said,' We simply know who's speaking by whose mouth is moving. However, when anything other than 'said' is used as in 'replied,' 'divulged,' 'uttered,' for example. Then the flow of conversation has to be broken while the brain reads and accepts the information. It's a bit like those posters that can be seen from time to time or ads where the sheet of paper is taken up entirely with line after line of words. And while the first and last letter of every word is correct, the letters in between them are all swapped and muddled, and despite this, most of us can still read the poster perfectly because our brain automatically transposes and reorders the letters so that we can instantly know what the poster is meant to say. The brain does some amazing things and absorbing 'said' is just one of them. The other reasons I would recommend for only using said in most cases are that every other descriptive words you could use to replace it has a slightly different meaning. And if you use the wrong descriptive word, your reader will pause for a second, jarred, and your story's lost some of its impact and realism, which in turn can lead to the reader becoming less engrossed in your story. Which, of course, is something none of us want to risk doing any more than necessary. Secondly, with 'said,' there's less chance of leaving the reader with the feeling of repetition if you use it five times in a page - which I'm sure most of us would. Where was if you used 'commented' that many times there's the possibility that its use will again jar the reader. Again it comes down to the word simply being absorbed and not being consciously read. Simply put, dialogue is smoother to read when 'said' is used in the speech tag. If you do use other speech tags instead of 'said' and are now swearing at me for messing things up, again, I'm sorry. But if you were using them to help show the behavior, mood of your characters, don't forget. you can show these traits by adding in action instead. In fact, in all honesty, it should be possible to show that your character is retaliating, for example, by his or her behavior, word choices, or tone of voice, or the look on their face. You shouldn't need to use anything other than 'said', and when done well, the descriptions around the dialogue will also add depth and realism to your character. Of course, you may simply be sitting there shaking your head and disagree with me entirely. But just bear what I've said in mind. You may choose not to follow me on this piece of advice, which is fine, I can live with that. But before you do, have a quick look at some of your favorite novels and writers, you might also want to have a look at people when they're talking and note what it is that indicates the their mood at the time. We absorb so much subconsciously, both in books and life, that as writers we really need to be aware of what's going on. 4. Dialogue On The Page: OK, now let's look at dialogue on the page and all the rules that go with how you go about putting dialogue on the page. After all, it does a wonderful job at making reading easier because it breaks up the text on each page and adds white space . This is because every time a person speaks you need to start a new sentence. Also, always remember that dialogue deserves a sentence of its own. Don't hide it away in the middle of the sentence. It needs to go in the beginning of a sentence. This way it will give more impact and emphasis, therefore adding energy, flow and interest to your story. These are all important things to have. So rather than saying, 'As they sat it the lights, Jim leaned out of the window and said, 'Move.' I might try, 'Move it, mate,' Tim said as he leaned out the window, and energetically pointed at the green light.' Then when a different person speech, you don't just start a new sentence, you also start a new line. A new person speaking justifies starting a new paragraph. For all the reasons above this is why dialogue leaves you with so many shorter paragraphs and lines and hence the white space on the page, which is a good thing for many reasons. Remember, then, that a new person speaking means starting a new sentence and a new paragraph, However, just to clarify one mistake I often see with new writers, this doesn't mean splitting a sentence to put the dialogue on the next line. On writing something like 'Lucinda stumbled into the room, looked up and said,' then you start a new paragraph with 'What are you staring at?' In this case, other options would be something like 'Lucinda stumbled into the room.' Then you could start a new paragraph with 'What are you looking at? she said, looking up.' Or 'What are you looking at? Lucinda said as she staggered into the room,' which is probably my favorite option. The rule here is not only can you play with words and your sentence structure to fit whatever you want and to fit the rules, but keep your dialogue all together at the start of a sentence and put each person speech in a new paragraph. I mean in your first draft it might not work that way, but as you progress and go through second and third drafts, there's no difficulty and reordering your sentences and restructuring them so that they work more smoothly. And here's another topic that I often have problems with with the new writers when they get a bit confused and that's inverted commas. One of the many rules that has changed over the years, along with a few pieces of punctuation, is inverted commas. And in fact, it also gives away our age in many cases because they've changed so much and, unless we're up to date, it looks wrong on the page and we look out of date. So inverted commas or speech marks... When a lot of us went to school, we were taught that speech goes in double inverted commerce and thoughts go in single inverted commas. Well, this has changed. Speech now usually goes in single inverted commas and thought, or inner dialogue, well, goes in nothing unless you choose to put it in or them in italics, which isn't that common either. Single inverted commas also used to be encouraged when you wanted to emphasize something. This, too, is outdated with capitals, bold text italics taken their place. The choice of which you use is yours unless you're following publishers' specific guidelines . The reason for the change? Well, I'm not really sure. But the most common thinking is that because pressing the SHIFT key and the inverted comma at the same time on the keyboard to get your double inverted commas is just a bit more work than we really want to do. The other thought relates to considering how much ink a printer would use or save in a novel . if he only had put single inverted commas around speech as opposed to doubles and so on, Admit it, these reasons sound just irrational enough to be true anyway. For whatever reason, it is speeches now, normally single inverted commas, unless requested otherwise. So just think of the energy and the ink you'll save at home. Try also, if possible, to emphasize thought all the bits you want to emphasize by using appropriate words, punctuation and descriptions around them and negate the need entirely for italics and capitals. 5. Dialogue Exercises: Having covered all those important bits on dialogue, let's move on to dialogue exercises. If you're struggling with your dialogue here are a few ideas that might help you become more comfortable with it, while at the same time also helping you improve your skill. 1) Once you've written your dialogue in a story, read it aloud, then ask yourself, 'If I was a character in my story would I really say that?' What we think people say is rarely what they actually say. Contractions are a big difference. Do we really go into the Bakers, for example, and say, 'I would like a wholemeal loaf, please.' At the very least, most of us would use the contraction. 'I'd' rather than 'I would', and it's the same with can't, won't, isn't, I'll and so on. So ask yourself, are you reading what you would really say? If necessary consider recording yourself reading the text, then play it back and ask yourself if it sounds authentic. You might have a few variations in your talking style from your character, but it will at least give you an idea of whether you're on track or not. Second exercise - Listen to some conversations. It's a great way to get an ear for how people speak. Again, I'm really not recommending you go and eavesdrop, but if you can find a way to listen to conversations without encroaching on other people's privacy, try it out. It really is worth the effort. 3) You might want to consider listening to conversations where you can't see people speaking. If you find yourself in a situation where you can, perhaps on the train or the bus or in a coffee booth or at the movies, listen to the conversation and then see if you can imagine what the person looks like before you see them. What age do you think they are? How would they dress? How would they be sitting? What kind of behavior would they be displaying? Remember? A lot can be told from the way a person speaks, so play a game with yourself and see what you can tell from the way they speak. 4) Ask friends to go through the dialogue in your story as if it were a play, and as she realism ask yourself, Does this work? Would I believe it? What would make it better? Is there anything that lets it down? Listening to your work in this detached way enables you to hear exactly what you put on the page, because often as writers, the words and the story we put on the page aren't always exactly what we thought we'd put there. If you haven't got friends who are willing to read your work or you aren't quite ready to share it, why not get yourself a copy of the movie Shirley Valentine. The scene where she has a deep discussion with her kitchen wall is one of my favorite and one that's always worth reenacting with your script to find the strength and depth of your writing. Well, there you go, dialogue, so important it needs to be 1/4 to 1/3 of your story. Therefore, if you're not happy or confident with it, it's time to practice and have fun with it and stick with it until you're confident 6. Writing Project: How did you go? Was the stuff there you learned? Do you think you're writing will be improved by your dialogue being improved. Hopefully you will. And, just to prove the point, here is this course's writing project. What I'm going to do is I'm going to give you a writing prompt, the first few words for one story, and then you go off and you write her story to follow on from those words. The story itself only has to be around 200 words. Although I ask if it is longer that you only post the first 200 words, most computer word processing packages do tell you your word count, so that would make it easier. - And don't forget here that what this course went over, about the percentage that does need to be dialogue so that you actually get to practice and play with all the ideas that have been discussed. So the sentence to get you started is on the screen. Now pause the video if you need to so that you can write it down and get it correct. But as you can see, it is, 'You didn't, did you? Not really?' Hopefully that'll help you come up with an interesting story. So there you go. There is the writing project. I would love you to post it when its written, then come back and see if you can make comments on other people's stories or if they've made comments on yours. Just to have fun playing with words and dialogue, which, of course, is what this course is about. If you found the course helpful, please feel free to leave a review. That would be wonderful. If you would like to know more about what I do, please have a look at my bio here on the site and it will tell you about the places that I have courses and information. Well, there you go. Thank you for doing the course. I hope it helped. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. Bye.