Creating Good Dialogue: People Watch

Updated on March 29, 2018
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

There is a common misconception when it comes to writing dialogue. Too many people see it as only words that are spoken. They think it is all talk. Dialogue can be more than just words on a page or voices that carry to your ear. Many times it is how words are delivered and even the body language. Dialogue is the whole package of the verbal and non-verbal communication.

With all the factors involved in good dialogue, a good tip for you is to people watch.

Be Observant

You cannot learn more than what you can as you watch other people. It’s the best education you can have when it comes to constructing dialogue scenes in your writing. Watch how people talk. Don’t just listen. Watch carefully. Pay close attention to what they do and how they do it.

How does the teen answer a nagging parent? Does he roll his eyes or huff? A girl will react different from a boy. They can even act different depending on what exact age they are.

How does the teen talk on the phone to his different friends? He might act differently to one compared to another. How he interacts with a girl can be way different than how he talks to a guy on the phone. Watch how his body moves as he talks or his facial expressions.

How does the husband talk about his job both on good days and bad days? He might have a habit when he is agitated that he doesn't have when his day went good.

How does the senior citizen talk about their health problems? A few I know touch the parts of their body they are complaining about as in rubbing their hands or patting their stomach. They might sigh.

What words do they use? It might be more slang or a mix of different languages. It can also vary based on what part of the country you are from or even which part of the city you grew up in.

How do they stand or sit while they speak or are spoken to? What is their body language?

What is tone and how does it change with the topic or the people they are talking to? When people are excited, their speech might become faster and less distinguishable. Watch how their voice changes as they talk.

Do you see that certain phrases or tones set people off? Some phrases can really get people angry or upset. Notice not only who is speaking but also who is being spoken to.

In my house, there are five people, including myself. There is a man in his mid-forties, a woman in her mid-sixties, a sixteen year old boy, and a nearly thirteen year old girl. Each of them has a different way of talking. Besides being individual people, they are all at different points in their lives as well as different genders. They each can give me great dialogue material.

The point is not to stay within your own little world. We tend to stay in our own bubble and care only about what is directly influencing us. That limits our exposure which in turn can limit our development of characters.

Take Notes

I can’t emphasize enough about taking notes. You might think you’ll remember everything, but very few people have such good memories. Jotting down notes helps a great deal in the long run. You'll keep records of small tidbits of information that might not feel that important, but you'll forget within the hour. As you observe those around you, there are probably a million and one things your senses are gathering. That is information overload. Take notes to help you out.

Keep a small notebook with you at all times and of course a pen or pencil. In a pinch, you can use your smartphone. Always be ready to take notes to reference at a later date when you need to.

As you are sitting in the airport, note the type of people around you. Are they saying unique phrases? Write them down. Maybe it is a word or phrase you are unfamiliar with. Write it down and look it up later. It will help you keep your characters realistic.

Notice the Scene

How people talk can also be affected by the scene. Where they are, who is with them, and the events going on around them are huge contributors to the dialogue. For example:

If two people are in the library, how will they talk? More than likely they will whisper. How does that sound? How is their body language different when they whisper. Maybe they aren’t whispering? What is happening different now?

Nothing in a story stands alone. Everything affects everything around it. Dialogue affects action and plot. Scene affects dialogue, action, and characters as well as plot. Everything goes hand in hand.

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