Robotic dialogue made naturalistic (tip 35) 1

Does your dialogue sound stilted and robotic? Do you want it to sound more naturalistic? More like spoken English? Robotic dialogue is a common problem, but it can be easily sorted.


Does your dialogue sound stilted and robotic? Do you want it to sound more naturalistic? More like spoken English? Robotic dialogue is a common problem, but it can be easily sorted. Please consider this example.
— What is the soup and curry like today, Declan?
— Well, the soup is pretty c@#!ish and to be honest the curry is pretty c@#!ish too.
— Oh, I see. Well the thing I was wondering about, Declan, was your singing. You see, I remember hearing you sing at the Christmas party and I thought you were excellent. I wondered if you are currently singing with a group or anything like that. And if not, would you like to be in a group?
— I do not even remember singing at the Christmas party. Nobody told me I did that and I cannot remember because I was completely locked. I think I had drunk about twenty rum and blacks. I do remember that that girl Frances, from the Toys, was all over me even though she is actually already married, the dirty b@#!h. I would be chuffed to join your group, ta, so long as you are definitely serious.

That dialogue contains colloquial words from the Dublin vernacular – locked and chuffed and words like that – but it still sounds stilted and formal. Here’s how to sort it.

First, use contractions: unless your character is speaking especially formally or is emphasising a point, write ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’; write ‘can’t’ instead of cannot; and write ‘you’re’ instead of ‘you are.’

Second, write short speeches. In informal conversations, a speaker rarely speaks for long without someone else interjecting, even if the interjection is only to say ‘Yeah’ or ‘dead right’ or ‘really?’

And third, that last example is a reminder that in conversation we ask lots of questions, you know? D’you know what I mean? Like, even if they’re rhetorical, we ask a lot of questions, don’t we?

The dialogue we looked at before was adapted from Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Commitments. Here’s how he really writes it:

— What’s the soup like? he asked.
— C#!@ish.
— As usual, wha’.
There wasn’t an answer.
— What’s the curry like?
— C@!#ish.
— I’d say yeh did Honours English in school, did yeh?
Declan Cuffe stared across at Jimmy while he sent his cigarette to the side of his mouth. — You startin’ somethin’? he said.
— Ah, cop on, said Jimmy. — I was only messin’. He shoved the bowl away and then slid the plate nearer to him. — You were righ’ abou’ the soup. He searched the chicken curry. — Tell us anyway. Are yeh in a group these days?
— Am I wha’?
— In a group.
— Doin’ wha’?
— Singin’.
— Me! Singin’? F@#! off, will yeh.
— I heard yeh singin’, said Jimmy. — You were f!@#in’ great.
— When did you hear me singin’?
— Christmas.
— Did I sing? At the dinner dance?
— Yeah.
— F*#!, said Declan Cuffe. — No one told me.
— You were deadly.
— I was f@#!in’ locked, said Declan Cuffe. — Rum an’ blacks, yeh know.
Jimmy nodded. — I was locked meself.
— I must have had abou’ twenty o’ them. Your woman, Frances, from the Toys, yeh know her? She was all over me.
— Dirty b@#!*. She’s f*@#in’ married.
— I sang then?
— Yeah. It was great.
— I was f!@#in’ locked.
— D’yeh want to be in a group?
— Singin’?
— Yeah.
— Are yeh serious?
— Yeah.
— Okay. Serious now?
— Yeah.
— Okay.
While we might first notice the colloquial register Doyle’s characters speak in, what makes it feel so natural is the use of contractions, the short speeches, and the number of questions. In this short extract there are 17 questions and the average speech length is just 4.57 words.

So if you’re struggling to make your dialogue sound natural, aim for a question every three lines of dialogue and aim for an average speech length of seven words or under.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The photograph used in the thumbnail for this video is by Alexandre Dulaunoy. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: http://www.foo.be/photoblog/

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