What It Means to Write Realistic Dialogue

Samsun Knight

If you’re writing a scene with dialogue, it can be tempting to have the conversation follow a very logical flow, what writer Samsun Knight describes as a “call and response” method. But that’s usually a mistake. When people talk to each other, they rarely answer each others questions directly, and non sequiturs are common. Knight says:

In reality, nobody ever talks to anyone else. What speech actually achieves is a communication between one person and that person’s idea of the other. Most of the time there is no difference, no discernible difference, between such verisimilitude and the truth. But the best dialogue will manifest this disparity in subtle, slender ways. It will show how, in speaking, we fail to speak.

Read more about Knight’s insights into realistic dialogue in the latest Glimmer Train bulletin.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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I avidly follow your customarily helpful articles, filled with useful, practical information. But this particular one on “writing realistic dialogue” is disappointing. It seeks to set arbitrarily constraining guidelines that rule out notably superior and highly successful writers. This may be due to an unstated genera problem of some sort — that you have in mind one type of writing while I deal most routinely with another. Two quick examples (who both excelled at writing dialogue): David Mamet and Noel Coward. If either one of these two extremely different writers, who nonetheless worked in the same field (theater), were to… Read more »

Robin Mizell

I liked Knight’s piece and didn’t interpret it as being prescriptive. When a writer makes the reader work a bit to interpret literary fiction, the result can be more gratifying to some types of readers while alienating others. As a reader, I prefer not to be spoon-fed, but I’m sure my taste isn’t mainstream. I often wish it were.


Knight says right things. It’s pretty hard to write a realistic dialogue and make everything natural.