In audio drama (or, fiction podcasts), dialogue is your most significant way of developing characters and relationships. And no pressure, but it can make or break the listening experience for many audience members. When dialogue feels forced or unnatural, even the best plot and sound design are going to take a hit. So, if you want to make your dialogue sound more natural, keep these tips in mind as you write.
Listen to Real People Talk
Dialogue is an illusion. You’re not writing the total sum of what your characters are saying. Instead, you’re getting just enough to move the story forward, coming in just for the important parts and leaving out the filler. If you were to write exactly how people talk, you’d find your dialogue overloaded with filler words (like um, uh, and restarts) and trailing into territory unrelated to your story.
That said, you need to listen to how real people talk if you want your illusion to ring true. Go to a public place and take in the conversations happening around you. Listen to recordings of actual conversations. How do people’s voices overlap as the conversation gets more intense? How does someone’s voice and speech patterns change when they’re drunk or angry? The more speech you hear, the more comfortable you’ll be writing these little details into your dialogue.
It’s very important that you don’t just listen to other audio dramas or TV shows to improve your dialogue. These are all stylized interpretations of how people talk, as they should be. If you pull your dialogue directly from them, then yours will be an adaptation on a take. Instead, synthesize these influences with the real-life conversations you hear around you to achieve a more natural flow.
Consider Your Characters
One common issue in writing dialogue is uniformity among the characters. So many things impact how a person speaks. Where are they from? How old are they? What kind of upbringing did they have? Your job is to find out what makes them sound unique. An elderly working-class man from Boston is going to talk much differently from a wealthy young person in Silicon Valley, and that’s even before your plot influences their conversation.
The last thing you want is to have everyone sound the same, trading interchangeable, pithy quips. You’ve spent so much time developing your characters to be their own people; take the time to give them a unique voice as well.
Dialogue Shouldn’t Be Used for Everything
One common writing mistake is dumping your exposition into the dialogue. Jokes like, “As you know, Bob…” and “This gun that I have in my right hand is loaded,” have been around for years to demonstrate how writers try and fail to create a scene through their dialogue.
Dropping clangers like this rip your listener out of the story. Thankfully, you have a few options to help you avoid it. This is your sound design’s time to shine. Use your sound design, not your dialogue, to make it clear that your character does, in fact, have a gun in his hand. If your show doesn’t have heavy sound design, character reactions and interjections can fill in the blanks without requiring them to describe the scene out loud. Harsh instructions and fearful cries alongside non-verbal indicators will lead your listeners to the conclusion you’re looking for.
Meanwhile, if you're going to use your dialogue to tell backstory, dispense it slowly. Your characters aren’t going to sit around telling each other things they already know. But what if they’re telling the newcomer to the group? Or character interactions throughout the narrative require your main characters to reveal important aspects of their backstory in order to move the plot forward. Devices like these can help you get in the information you need without resorting to overstuffed monologues.
Read It Out Loud
Finally, before anyone else reads your dialogue, read it out loud to yourself. Hearing and feeling yourself speaking your words out loud will help you pick up on flaws that weren’t obvious on the page. This can feel awkward, but it’s a step I never skip in my own work. If you’re having trouble keeping track of character voices as you read out loud, this is a great opportunity to ask for help, something all writers are experts at. Work with a trusted friend and read it together. Not only will this help you hear the words out loud, but adding another set of eyes and ears can help you find even more ways to improve your dialogue.
When your story is entirely audio, your dialogue plays a major part in keeping listeners invested. Make sure that you’re putting the same care into it that you’re putting into other parts of the show. You want your characters to feel as real as possible, and authentic-sounding dialogue will only add to that sense of connection between character and audience.
Amanda McCormack is an independent author and podcaster who focuses on paranormal fantasy, as well as the culture and folklore of New England. You can find her work at EnfieldArts.com.