My critique group recently told me they feel like the dialogue in my stories is letting my writing down. They say it's stilted and doesn't feel realistic. Do you have any tips on how to write dialogue that feels natural and smooth?
I think the best tool for writing natural sounding dialogue is to read your scenes aloud. You'll hear when it doesn't ring true. People are often sloppy when they speak and use a lot of contractions and slang terms, so if you write dialogue using formal written English, it won't feel realistic.
Using too many dialogue tags, especially things other than "said" can also make your dialogue feel unrealistic and stilted. Save expressive tags like "yelled", "whispered", "howled" or anything else for moments when they are really needed. The rest of the time, "said" is fine.
And don't even use "said" too often. A lot of the time you can indicate who is speaking in a scene through action instead of using a tag.
"I'm going now," Jim said.
Sally didn't look at him. "So go, then."
When there are only two people speaking in a scene, there is no need to break up the flow of dialogue with any tags - they can just converse. I suggest throwing a bit of action in every few lines to keep the reader grounded in who is talking and to keep the scene from reading like a script.
And remember. Dialogue shouldn't be used to provide exposition. It should drive the story forward, always, give valuable character insights and needs to fit the character speaking it. Everyone has slightly different ways of talking, and one way to make your characters distinct is through their dialogue. Maybe one of your characters has a favourite word they use often or incorrectly. Maybe one doesn't ever swear and has silly phrases she uses instead of profanity.
Dialogue is fun and incredibly important to make your characters sing off the page. So have fun with it!