Dialog! It has to be realistic. Develop a keen ear -- whether you’re visiting a bookstore, a barbershop, or an opera house. Listen to how people talk in real life, then put those words, cadences, and exclamations into your characters’ mouths. Even if your writing isn’t the most polished, you’ll enjoy it if people come up to you and say, “The way your characters sound, I hear people talk like that all the time!” Or there’s the even more personal, “I love your main character -- he sounds just like my baby brother!”
But don’t get too realistic.
Why not? Because your readers will think you’re illiterate.
Listen to how you and your friends talk sometime. You’ll be surprised how often you say things like, “Um,” “Uh,” “Y’know,” or even less recognizable sounds. Or watch people being interviewed on TV, and you’ll hear them sounding just as dumb. When I recorded myself doing some public speaking, I was surprised how often I started a paragraph with the word “Now.” I wasn’t using it as a time word. I had trained myself to never say “Um” or “Uh,” so I subconsciously took a real word and used it in a nonsensical way. Does anyone want to read dialog that realistic?
But an essential piece of realism is truncated dialog. In real life people say things like: “So, you’re going . . . ?” “Uh, yeah, but I got that thing.” “Right. So, about seven?” With just a little more detail, that dialog would make sense and also sound realistic to the reader.
I heard an outstanding example on a TV show, where a character could have said, “Oh yeah? That’s the pot calling the kettle black.” Instead, she said, “Oh yeah? Pot, kettle.” It was completely understandable.
Or there was the British pilot in the WWII movie Saints and Soldiers who contemplated leaving a French home during a snowstorm. He knew he would probably freeze to death, but he had important information on a German advance that would blindside the Allies. He muttered to himself something like, “It’s better than sitting here all warm and . . . .” Then he went outside.
In my vampire parody, a sister is reaming her brother for not believing in vampires because he hasn’t seen them himself.
Olivia: Have you ever seen your own brain?
Jeremy: What I’m saying is --
Olivia: And so I think that’s proof you don’t have one.
Notice how she cuts through the logical steps and gets right to the insult.
So strive for a level of realism that makes the reader think your dialog is 100% realistic. Never actually achieve that level, or your readers will go back to watching dumb people on TV.