How to Write Good Dialogue

Well-written dialogue doesn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, it quietly goes about its business, revealing truth and ferrying the plot toward its conclusion.

Bad dialogue, on the other hand, stands out like a man wearing a clown costume to a funeral. (Unless it’s a clown funeral. Then it’s like a man not wearing a clown costume to a funeral.)

But for all its invisibility, good dialogue does a lot of heavy lifting. Besides giving voice to your characters, dialogue frequently puts legs on that “show, don’t tell” axiom.

For a rare few writers, writing dialogue is as natural as breathing. It’s second nature to them. But for many others, writing good dialogue is one part chore, two parts challenge. For them, dialogue is an unrepentant thief of patience during the revision process.

For those who are in this latter category, I offer the following tips. As with pretty much every other bit of writing advice that exists, there are always exceptions. For example, you can use intentionally stilted or awkward dialogue to help shape a unique character. Maybe the creepy guy who’s stalking the protagonist never uses contractions. (This would certainly enhance his creepiness.) Maybe the daughter of the rich oil baron talks as if quoting lines from a bad romance novel because that’s all she ever read in her sheltered life. But even in those cases, it takes a deft writing hand to craft appropriate dialogue that fits both character and context. It’s not as simple as writing badly.

But I digress. On to the dialogue tips:

Simplify Attributions – As much as possible, just use “said” and “asked” and their variations in dialogue scenes. Or use nothing at all when the context makes it unquestionably clear who’s talking. People who bark, spit, grunt, or burp their words need to see a doctor. Or a veterinarian. Clever attributions can divert attention from the dialogue to the attribution itself. You don’t want this to happen. “Trust me,” he puked.

Don’t Be a Puppet Master – In real life, people bring assumptions and prior knowledge to a conversation. This is also true for your fictional characters. Don’t force dialogue through your characters’ throats because you need to tell the reader something. If the information wouldn’t naturally be revealed in the context of the conversation, find another way to deliver it. Your characters aren’t puppets; they’re people. Treat them as such.

Maintain Believable Pacing – Most conversations aren’t like a game of ping-pong, despite how convenient it would be to use ping-pong as a visual metaphor. Unlike ping-pong, the back and forth of conversation is uneven, sometimes dominated by one party, sometimes rapid-fire, sometimes languid. Context should always determine who’s talking and what they’re saying. There is a rhythm to good dialogue, but it’s rarely something you can set  your metronome to. Don’t force characters to speak just because you’re uncomfortable with their silence. Always let the moment decide its own pacing.

Avoid Long Monologues - I know. One of your characters is a blowhard. He likes the sound of his voice and this is important to the character development or plot. Let him have his way. But don’t make a habit out of long speeches unless the story requires it. Dialogue usually requires two people. And while one may say little while the other says a lot (see pacing, above), giving characters pages of monological diatribes risks boring the reader. And in my experience, long-winded monologues are frequently evidence of a kind of laziness on the part of the writer. Rather than revealing important information contextually and through creative “show, don’t tell” opportunities, they make their characters dump it on the page for them (see puppet note above).

Kill (Most) Adverbs – Do I need to say it again? Only use adverbs when they actually add something to the dialogue. If it’s clear the character is upset and yelling, you don’t need to add that she’s yelling “loudly.” Yelling is, without further qualification, loud. That said, you might actually find use for adverbs in the dialogue itself. Real people use them in conversation (though not as much as you might think). That’s fine. Just don’t staple them willy-nilly to all your attributions.

Use Contractions – Unless you’re writing a period piece or a novel that otherwise demands the stiff-upper-lippedness of contraction-free speech,  please use them without apology. They just sound more natural. This, by the way, holds true not only for dialogue, but also for the rest of your narrative. If you want to challenge this advice, that’s fine. Please have your well-thought-out reasoning notarized by at least three editors who agree with you before presenting it to me. Thanks.

Don’t Give Readers Whiplash – “A lot of newbie authors,” he began, turning to look her mascara-streaked face, “suffer from this malady.” He looked down. “They break up a single piece of dialogue,” he continued, “with so many little ‘asides’ that the reader gets whiplash.” He looked up into her eyes again. “Do you know what I mean?”

There’s a time and place for action in the middle of dialogue, and when done right, that action can greatly enhance a scene. A well-timed look or touch can speak volumes. Just don’t use action to distraction.

Use Dialects Sparingly – Some of the best novels ever written are packed with well-defined characters who speak with dialects that by their very nature reveal a certain level of education or perhaps a country (or region) of origin. Characters with unique or easily-recognizable dialects can add a great deal to a story. However, crafting believable characters with any sort of dialect is no easy task. In part, this is because the dialect you see with your eyes (on the page) has a much different “feel” than a dialect you hear with your ears. In some cases, dialect can detract rather than enhance a story. If your character’s speech is hard to understand (and this isn’t due to an intentional plot point), consider dialing back on dialect. And whenever you do use it, just be sure you’re consistent both to the way such a person would speak in real life, and from scene to scene in the story itself. Otherwise your characters will sound like Kevin Costner in…well…any movie where he attempts an accent.

What other dialogue tips do you have? Share them in the comments. Meanwhile…

“Happy writing,” he said.

33 thoughts on “How to Write Good Dialogue

    1. I like to think of myself as the Hamburger Helper of writing advice. Wait, no I don’t. Unless we’re talking about the Bacon Cheeseburger flavor. Then yeah, that’s who I am.

      1. You did really well in this post. I enjoyed it. I’m not much of a reader but I’m working on it and this post both helped me and truly entertaining. You must write some fantastic books. You have great personality and really know how to get readers to relate. I will take these tips and remember them for by works. Thank you and again great job. ^.^

  1. Saucily she cried, “Woah!” because she was a spunky brunette, “that was was some very good and helpful advice,” as she stomped her be-Ugged but dainty foot she also burst forth, “and free to boot,” to make her point.

    Am I getting it?

    1. If by “it” you mean the grand prize for Opposite Day, then absolutely…not. [See what I did there? I said “not” because it’s opposite day, but that means you actually did win the prize. It’s not a monetary prize, though. Just a fleeting satisfaction that will disappear like tears in the rain.]

  2. Great advice. As a reader, most of the aforementioned mistakes cause me to make two assumptions about the writer: 1) That he or she is being lazy. 2) That he or she assumes the reader is not smart enough to understand the storyline. Both are extremely frustrating.

    1. Or what about 3) The writer is from an alternate universe where authors are paid by the adverb and awarded literary prizes for the most creative dialogue tags, and she hasn’t yet gotten used to our ways.

  3. Steve,

    Well done. I wrote a similar article recently on my blog. We share a lot of the same pointers. Although you cover several I missed, like: using contractions and avoiding long monologues.

    I’m going to update my post to add a link to this article.

    Oh, and our blogs look similar because we use the same theme from Elegant Themes. Nice choice!

  4. I just finished Gerald Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals,” and I like the way he wrote dialogue. He made each character’s way of speaking recognizable (not through dialect, just “speech mannerisms,” I suppose). This enabled him to drop the “he said” / “she said” in conversations between multiple family members, and this lead to some pretty entertaining effects.

  5. There’s nothing more revealing than a character’s own words and the mannerisms they use. These show the reader where the character is mentally in the moment despite their background and history with other.

  6. One aspect of dialogue that I try to swing clear of is what I call “Hi-hello dialogue.” Writers are often told to make dialogue natural and real, but our regular daily encounters with people are full of mindless chatter that, while a point of connection in real life, does not make for good reading.

  7. I thought I’d try writing a novel, but had trouble with my dialogue. So I googled it and got a load of information that was about as much use as a cactus up the nose, but your article really helped. I was having writers block, but I think I may be able to finish it now. Thanks

  8. “FANTASTIC POST!” the newbie said.

    “Hope you find it useful,” Steve P said.

    “Gosh! I wish I found it sooner,” she said.

  9. Great article! Thanks a bunch.

    Question for you: if two characters are having a conservation, is is okay to keep going back and forth without the actions and asides? What is the acceptable length to do that? (Three sentences, two pages, etc?)

    Example:
    “Hi!”
    “Hello. Are you aware that you’re being followed by a purple fire breathing dog?”
    “Really? Oh turd. He’s back again?”
    “Yeah. I think your neighbour needs a sturdier dog cage.”

    Or should there be a few “He said”s, “She said”s, and some thoughts thrown in?

    1. You don’t have to attribute every little bit of dialogue with “he said” or “she said.” The rule I tend to follow is – use as few of these as possible. As long as it’s clear who’s talking, readers won’t mind. But sometimes you have to throw something in there to remind them if there’s a long stretch of back-and-forth. Have a beta reader or two review the dialogue and if they get lost, it needs help. If not, it’s just dandy.

  10. I reached out and touched the red swelling on his cheek with my fingertips. “Where did you get that bruise?”
    “I fell” he says. He diverts his eyes from mine and shrugs his shoulders.
    “Liar” i say. I pull his face back towards mine, his eyes are watery now. “You have been fighting again.”
    “No I-”
    “Stop lying to me, i can tell by that look on your face” i shout cutting him off. “And you have been drinking”
    His face collapses. “I’m sorry Natasha, i won’t do it again”
    I have had enough of his lies, his drinking and his underground fighting. Every weekend i am on edge wondering when the police are going to knock at my door and tell me that he is dead, or worse, that he has killed someone. When i met him i had never loved another person this way, he made me feel like i would die if he was not touching me but, now… now he makes me want to kill myself to escape him.
    “No” i say. I push him hard away from me. “Get out of my house and never come back”

  11. Did i get it right? Or horribly horribly wrong?
    Until reading your advice, i hadnt considered my use of abriviations in my dialogue but now, i think i will go over my novel once more and check
    thank you…….

  12. Thanks Steve for the advice. Writing dialogue is something I struggle with, it will sound good in my head, but once on paper it doesn’t flow well at all.

  13. In my mountainous ego, I consider myself one of the few people that can do natural, modern dialogue well (probably because I talk too much). I love reading articles like this, for ever tuning my skill, ’cause Lord knows I need tuning. So, props on writing these things, ND, because you help a lot of people.

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