Don’t write dialogue in perfect, grammatical English. No one really speaks like that, except perhaps English professors. Make your characters talk on the page the way you hear them in your head.

A good exercise is to carry a small notebook with you everywhere you go and eavesdrop a bit on everyday conversations around you. Pay attention to the cadence of casual speech. Make note of colloquialisms and phrases that catch your ear.

But don’t try to record everything that actually passes in a real-life conversation. If your character answers the phone, the reader doesn’t need to hear all the little pleasantries that people generally exchange, and she doesn’t need to hear the sign-off, either. Cut to the meat, to the heart of the information in your dialogue.

Read the following two sections of dialogue. Which one keeps your attention and moves the story along better?

Sample 1

Tanya picked up the squalling phone. “Hello?”
“Hey, Tanya, it’s Mike.”
“Hey, Mike. How are you?”
“I’m good. And you?”
“The same, I guess. I was just reading a book. What’s up?”
Mike paused. “Umm…I was wondering if you had any plans for this evening…”
“No, I don’t. Why? Did you wanna do something?” Tanya switched the phone to her other ear.
“Well…I was thinking maybe we could go out or something.”
“Where did you have in mind?”
“Oh, I dunno, maybe Ricky’s for dinner and then a movie?”
Tanya groaned inwardly. “What movie would you want to see? Nothing testosterone-driven, I hope.”
“Whatever you wanna see is fine with me, I guess.”
“Well, we can start with dinner and then see what’s playing tonight and go from there.”
“Yeah, that’ll work. Pick you up at 6:00?”
“Sure, that’s fine. See you then, Mike.”
“Okay, bye.”

Sample 2

Tanya picked up the phone, guessing it would be Mike. “Hey, stranger.”
“How did you know it was me?”
“Lucky guess. What’s up?”
“If you don’t have plans, I was thinking dinner at Ricky’s tonight, and maybe a movie?”
“Hmmm…as long as it’s not a testosterone-driven action flick, I’m in.”
Mike laughed. “No, we can see whatever you want. I’m open to anything.”
“Okay, pick me up at 6:00 and we’ll play it by ear after dinner.”
“Okay. See you then!” He hung up.

Be careful with dialogue tags (the narrative pieces that provide clues to who is speaking). Sometimes less is more, and this is generally true with dialogue tags. You want the tags to disappear into the background, so try to stick with “he said, she said” type tags. In order not to have too many repetitive tags, though, vary them with some action on the speaker’s part, such as I’ve used above (Tanya switched the phone to her other ear, Mike laughed).

If you have trouble with dialogue, have someone read it out loud to you, or use the text to speech feature of your software. You’ll begin to hear where it’s awkward, where the reader stumbles or falters, where the movement of the story lags because there’s too much inane chatter between your characters.

Exercise 1

Your protagonist is in an elevator with the person he or she despises the most in the world. Write the scene using only dialogue.

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