My manuscript is written first-person. And for a large slice of it, that character is alone.
When I got to portions that actually called for dialogue, my muscles would tense up. Every. Word. Must. Be. Perfect. Perfectly. Placed. Perfect.
But I realized there was a problem as I was typing my first back-and-forths. People don’t deliver lines. They talk.
Every writer has different methods for creating fantasy and tethering it to just enough reality to bring the reader along. Dialogue is a great means to that end. It has to be real.
When I write dialogue, I say it out loud. I act it out. “Call and response” with myself. If I trip over the phrasing or my ears start to bleed, I know I’ve done something wrong. You have to ask, would this person use this word? Would they react that way?
Especially when writing first-person, don’t get locked into what you know you want your voice to say. You have to be a listener. You have to listen to what the other character says back to you and respond accordingly. Say the line out loud, then listen to the response.
This method serves me in other areas than just dialogue. I act out a lot of what happens in my scenes. If I was on a security camera, people would think me crazy. I put the laptop down, crouch, peer up and down, rub my hands on the ground, stand up and turn to see something behind me.
I went outside the other night, found a rock and flung it into the park across the street, noting how it felt leaving my hand and how the moonlight hit it as it plunged toward the ground.
Then I sit back down and write it, how someone would actually move and how their senses respond.
For me, the best fiction puts real people in unreal circumstances. If your characters aren’t real, the world you’ve created crumbles.