3 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue--From Jane Austen.
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3 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue—From Jane Austen

Holly Tri (Imperative Editing and Services) uses Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to provide 3 tips for writing realistic dialogue.

 

By Holly Tri

Writing realistic dialogue is a key element to successful fiction. Done right, nothing reveals the natures and relationships of your characters more honestly than dialogue: it is where your characters get to speak for themselves.

Nothing ruins a book faster than poor dialogue. Maybe it’s too flowery or redundant, or maybe it’s cold or completely unintelligible. Whatever the reason, you feel your heart sink every time the characters speak.

With regards to dialogue, readers crave realism. Books are our escape, and we want to believe in them.

The key for me has been learning techniques from one of literature’s masters of writing realistic dialogue, Jane Austen. This brief conversation, from Pride and Prejudice, between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy—undertaken while they’re dancing at a ball, no less—will set you on the right track.

“That is exactly what I should have supposed of you,” said Elizabeth.

“You begin to comprehend me, do you?” cried he, turning towards her.

“Oh! yes—I understand you perfectly.”

“I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful.”

“That is as it happens. It does not necessarily follow that deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours.”

1. Keep Attributions Simple (and Avoid Adverbs)

Notice how simply Austen attributes the dialogue to the character speaking in the excerpt above. First she says, plainly, “Elizabeth said,” and then just, “cried he,” for Mr. Darcy (we already know who Elizabeth is speaking to, so it isn’t necessary to use his name). After that, three more lines of dialogue follow without specific attribution, and it works because the reader already knows who’s talking. This allows for a quick back and forth between the characters, heightening the wit and keeping the reader’s attention.

In addition, Austen doesn’t use adverbs (words that describe verbs) to embellish her dialogue. She lets the dialogue speak for itself. It’s not, “Elizabeth said wittily”—her words are witty without the author having to tell the reader so. And using Mr. Darcy “cried” says quite enough about the state of his reaction. Adding any other description would have been overkill. Austen leaves the interpretation to the reader’s imagination.

Go to that piece of conversation that’s been bothering you. Now remove the adverbs (I know you used them). Try also changing all attributions to “said” (or removing them completely), only leaving verbs such as “cried” where absolutely necessary. How’s the dialogue sounding now?

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2. Avoid the Name

How would this dialogue have sounded if Elizabeth and Darcy continually used each other’s names?

“That is exactly what I should have supposed of you, Mr. Darcy,” said Elizabeth.

“You begin to comprehend me, do you, Elizabeth?” cried he, turning towards her.

“Oh! yes—I understand you perfectly, Mr. Darcy.”

Do you say someone’s name every time you speak to them? Probably not. I imagine there are people who do so, but it’s not common, and definitely not conducive to realistic dialogue. This is a mistake beginning writers make often, but luckily, it’s easy to fix:

Go back to that same piece of dialogue you revised earlier. If any of the characters speak the name of the character he or she is talking to, remove the name. Now reread it aloud. How does it sound? Better?

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3. Tell the Truth

If the dialogue is realistic, it should reveal truth about both the characters and the scene.

First, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are dancing, so short snippets of dialogue are all they’re able to manage as they weave around the dance floor. Long monologues wouldn’t be appropriate in this circumstance.

Second, both characters are well-read members of British gentry, and this can be clearly gleaned from their witty exchange. There’s no vulgar language or direct insults, and their vocabulary fits their social class.

Finally, from this small exchange, we can infer their relationship. Darcy frets slightly at having his character read so easily by the woman he (hesitantly) is falling in love with, while Elizabeth, who has no love lost for Darcy, playfully teases her adversary.

“I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful.” [Mr. Darcy]

“That is as it happens. It does not necessarily follow that deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours.” [Elisabeth]

“I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful.” [Mr. Darcy]

“That is as it happens. It does not necessarily follow that deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours.” [Elisabeth]

This application isn’t as easy as the previous two, but read through the dialogue you’ve been making changes to again and write yourself a list of what you learn from the conversation. Does it fit the scene? If you read only that conversation, will you learn at least something about the characters and their relationship? Is what you learn true to the story? If not, consider rewriting or (heaven forbid, I know) removing the conversation completely.

Expand this exercise to your entire work and you’ll be on your way to writing realistic dialogue too.

Looking for a free sample edit from Imperative Editing and Services? Contact the founder here.


About the Author

Holly-1

Holly Tri is the owner and founder of Imperative Editing & Services. For more than a decade she has worked one-on-one with writers to copy edit their work and produce a professional product. Holly has a master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing from Goddard College and is a published fiction author. Originally from Northern Minnesota, she now finds herself enjoying the rain forests and Pacific beaches of western Oregon.


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5 comments on “3 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue—From Jane Austen

  1. I love this! It made me smile and is so informative. Thank you.

  2. Personally love Jane Austen and have read all her books. She has a fundamental insight in how human beings think and react. Her dialogue reflects that and is still relevant for life today.

  3. Interesting post. I don’t write fiction, so I don’t create dialogue. but I interview loads of people, and always try and capture their personalities in getting them to say words that reflect that.

  4. Great tips for budding writers. So many emotions can be felt from words so as you have stated it is important we use them appropriately. Readers want to visualise characters and picture each scene and the words used help to create this.

  5. Absolutely love how well written this article is. Informative, good flow and easy to read. Plus, motivating to read my own work and make adjustments.

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