The simplest way to make dialogue realistic is to invest time listening to how people really talk. Tune in at a baseball game or concert. Eavesdrop on the booth behind you in a restaurant. Listen to children chatting at the bus stop. What you'll notice is that people don't give a summary of events because the person they're talking to already knows the situation and remembers what's happened to this point. Also (although there are exceptions) people seldom say exactly what they mean. How often have you heard a real person say something like: "I'm being extra particular about ordering my meal from the waiter because I want you to think I'm in control when actually I'm really nervous about being out with you for the first time." That may be an extreme example, but on TV last night, I heard this line of dialogue: "You are a bad woman because ..." I cringed for that writer.
Beyond listening to real people talk, WATCH how they interact. Listen for what isn't being said. This observation can spark ideas about what characters do when they want to avoid communicating. Do they fidget? Dive into their smart phones to play Sudoku? Actions say more than words about how your character interacts with others; they show rather than tell the reader about the scene's undercurrents.
Sometimes, just listening to real people isn't enough. Writing believable dialogue in historical fiction is a challenge. The writer teeters on a tight rope between evoking a sense of the period and being unintelligible to modern readers. If you're writing period dialogue, look at books written around that time, or for the 1920s on, movies. Note words and sentence patterns that convey a sense of the time while still being understandable to modern readers. Arm yourself with a good etymology dictionary to avoid anachronisms, but use your own discretion too about a word sounding right for the historical period. Even when you're right and the word is of the time period, if a reader wonders about it, then you've pulled them out of the story. An example is the word "bouncer." It's been around since the mid-1800s, but if I read it in a story set during the Civil War, will I wonder?
Dialogue is an indispensable building block for constructing scenes. Using these tips can result in characters that interact in engaging, believable ways, so that readers keep turning the pages to find out what your characters will say (and do) next.
This post originally appeared in Laurinda Wallace's SimplyLife blog.