Start by listening
The best way to start a conversation is by listening to one. Or for a better word eavesdropping. You know the thing you used to get in trouble for as a kid. Listen to what people are talking about. I find the train or bus a great place to eavesdrop. You can move around from seat to seat and hear different conversations. Are they speaking in complete sentences? Do they finish each other’s sentences or perhaps they talk over one another? Rarely is correct grammar used. Write it like it sounds, not like it is being read from a script. The more you practice writing dialogue the better you will become at it.
Always read aloud what you have written. This will be a good test to see how your dialogue flows. Are there bumps? Does it sound like you are speaking or reading a speech? If your character uses long formal sentences, it will sound fake. No-one speaks in complete sentences.
Don’t tie yourself up in knots about making it perfect. Conversations are not perfect! Listen to your characters. What do they have to say? How do they speak? Any accents or speech impediments???
Allow your characters to speak their mind and have your pen handy when they do. Rarely do people get right to the point often they detour off topic, eventually they end up where they left off. It’s a part of life unless they are reading from a report. You might just discover something new about your character.
Keep it simple
Don’t let your characters say everything they know, keep it simple. Sometimes a single word can say volumes. You don’t have to reveal all your character has to say in one sentence. Allow your readers to fill in the blanks. Don’t spell everything out for them.
We all come from different walks of life, the same as your characters do. Allow their ‘slang’ to come out it will tell your readers a lot about your characters. If they speak in ain’t, gotta, ya’ll and my bad, then let them. Even curse words can have a place, depending on the age you are writing for. People speak like that in everyday life. It’s not your job to correct your characters grammar. In fact, doing so will alter your character’s personality and your point may be lost. Let them shine even with their flaws.
Don’t go overboard with too much broken English. It can leave your confused reader scratching their head. Readers don’t want to read too many apostrophes or misspelled words. An occasional word in the characters voice should tell your reader who is speaking.
Make it clear
It’s very important that your readers can follow who is speaking at any given time. If the page is heavy with dialogue its ok to throw in a he said or she said. This can help to break up the conversation and keep your reader from confusion. Always remember when the speakers change start a new paragraph.
Always remember your readers are just that…readers. Unless you have written a script your content will be read, not spoken. If your character is a stutterer or you wish to pause remember you’ll need to write it. Another way to show a pause is break up your speech eg. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said watching the children enjoying their afternoon in the park, ‘how much more I can take’.
Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret.Matthew Arnold