If your writing bores you, it’ll put your reader to sleep.
And unfortunately, your first reader will be an agent or an editor.
Your job is to make every word count—the only way to keep your reader riveted until the end, which is no small task.
Riveting dialogue is your friend because it can accomplish so many things:
- It breaks up narrative summary.
- It differentiates characters (through dialect and word choice).
- It moves the story, showing without telling.
But writing dialogue well is not easy. If your dialogue is bloated or obvious or telling, readers won’t stay with you long.
How to Write Effective Dialogue in 6 Steps
- Cut to the Bone
- Reveal Backstory
- Reveal Character
- Be Subtle
- Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
- Create a “Make My Day” Moment
How to Write Dialogue: Step 1. Cut to the Bone
Unless you’re including them to reveal a character as a brainiac or a blowhard, omit needless words from dialogue.
Obviously, you wouldn’t render a conversation the way a court transcript includes repetition and even um, ah, uh, etc.
See how much you can chop while virtually communicating the same point. It’s more the way real people talk anyway.
“What do you want to do
this Sunday? I thought wWe could go to the amusement park.”
“I was thinking about renting a rowboat,” Vladimir said.
“On one of the lakes.”
Vladimir, that sounds wonderful! I’ve never gone rowing before.”
That doesn’t mean all your dialogue has to be choppy—just cut the dead wood.
You’ll be surprised by how much power it adds.
How to Write Dialogue Step 2. Reveal Backstory
Layering in backstory via dialogue helps keep your reader engaged.
Hinting at some incident introduces a setup that demands a payoff.
As they headed toward the house, Janet whispered, “Can we not bring up Cincinnati?”
Maggie shot her a double take. “Believe me, I don’t want that any more than you do.”
“Good,” Janet said. “I mean—”
“Can we not talk about it, please?”
What normal reader wouldn’t assume they will talk about it and stay with the story until they do?
As the story progresses, reveal more and more about your protagonist’s past.
This offers setups that should engage your reader, and it allows you to avoid relying on cliched flashbacks.
How to Write Dialogue Step 3. Reveal Character
Your reader learns a lot about your characters through dialogue.
You don’t have to TELL us they’re sarcastic, witty, narcissistic, kind, or anything else.
You can SHOW us by how they interact and by what they say.
How to Write Dialogue Step 4. Be Subtle
Dialogue offers a number of ways to powerfully understate things.
Here are three:
1. Subtext—where people say other than what they mean.
Cindy falls in love with the slightly older boy next door, who sees her as just a little sister type.
When she gets to high school, Tommy is already captain of the football team, dating the head cheerleader, and largely ignoring Cindy.
Tommy leaves for college and word soon gets back to Cindy during her senior year of high school that he and his girlfriend have broken up.
So when he comes home after his freshman year of college and is changing a tire on his car, Cindy just happens to walk outside. She strikes up a conversation with Tommy, and he looks up, stunned. Who is this beauty—little Cindy from next door?
She says, “Making a change, are you?”
Tommy looks at the tire and back at her and says, “Yeah, I actually am making a change.”
Cindy says, “Well, I’ve heard that rotating can be a good thing.”
And he says, “Yeah, I’ve heard that too.”
That’s subtext. They’re not saying what they really mean. They’re not really talking about changing the tire, are they?
2. Sidestepping—when a character responds to a question by ignoring it.
Instead, he offers a whole new perspective.
In the movie Patch Adams, the late Robin Williams played a brilliant young doctor who believes the Old Testament adage that “laughter is the best medicine.”
In the children’s cancer ward he wears an inflated surgical glove on his head, making him look like a rooster. He wears bedpans for shoes and stomps about, flapping his arms and squawking.
The children find it hilarious, but hospital directors consider it undignified and demand he stop.
Patch is trying to make one girl in particular—a hospital volunteer—laugh. But while everyone else thinks he’s funny, she never cracks a smile.
Finally, Patch leaves the hospital to open a clinic in the country. Imagine his surprise when that humorless young lady appears to help him set up.
At one point, she goes outside to rest, so Patch follows and sits opposite her. He says, “I’ve got to ask. Everybody thinks I’m hysterical, but you. I’ve tried everything. Why don’t you ever think anything I say is funny?”
After several seconds, she says, “Men have liked me all my life…all my life…” And we realize by the way she says it, she was abused as a child.
Suddenly, we understand what this girl is all about. She doesn’t trust men, and she doesn’t laugh, because life isn’t funny.
She had not really answered his question. Her problem had nothing to do with him or his humor.
Finally, Patch realizes that some things aren’t funny. Some things you just don’t make fun of.
It’s a great turnaround in the story. And an example of sidestep dialogue.
Silence truly can be golden.
Many, including Abraham Lincoln, have been credited with the line: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
One of the toughest things to learn as a writer is to avoid filling silent gaps.
Just like we shouldn’t tell what’s not happening in a story, neither do we need to write that someone didn’t respond or didn’t answer.
If you don’t say they did, the reader will know they didn’t.
“Well, John,” Linda said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”
John set his jaw and stared out the window.
“I’m waiting,” she said.
He lit a cigarette.
Linda shook her head. “I swear, John, honestly.”
Too many writers feel the need to write here, “But he refused to say anything,” or “But he never responded.”
Don’t! We know, we get it—and it’s loud, effective, silent dialogue.
Saying nothing, John is actually saying everything.
How to Write Dialogue Step 5. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
One way to be certain your dialogue flows is to read it aloud or even act it out.
Anything that doesn’t sound right won’t read right either, so rewrite it until it does.
How to Write Dialogue Step 6. Create a “Make My Day” Moment
Certain iconic lines of dialogue have become as legendary as the films and books they originate from:
- “Frankly my dear…”
- “There’s no place like home.”
- “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
- “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
- “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
- “Go ahead, make my day.”
- “May the force be with you.”
- “Houston, we have a problem.”
- “Run, Forrest, run!”
- “You had me at hello.”
Most writers—even bestselling novelists—never create such an unforgettable line of dialogue. But striving to create one is worth the effort.
Ironically, iconic dialogue should fit so seamlessly it doesn’t draw attention to itself until fans begin quoting it.
How to Format Dialogue
1. Use Dialogue Tags
Attribution tags—he said, she said, etc.—are usually all you need to indicate who’s speaking, so resist the urge to get creative.
Teachers who urge you to find alternatives are usually unpublished and believe agents and editors will be impressed.
Trust me, they won’t be.
Avoid mannerisms of attribution. People say things. They don’t wheeze, gasp, sigh, laugh, grunt, or snort them.
They might do any of those things while saying them, which might be worth mentioning, but the emphasis should be on what is said, and readers just need to know who is saying it.
Keep it simple. All those other descriptors turn the spotlight on an intrusive writer.
Sometimes people whisper or shout or mumble, but let their choice of words indicate they’re grumbling, etc.
If it’s important that they sigh or laugh, separate that action from the dialogue.
Jim sighed. “I can’t take this anymore.”
Not: Jim sighed, “I can’t take this anymore.”
Though you read them in school readers and classic fiction, attribution tags such as replied, retorted, exclaimed, and declared have become clichéd and archaic.
You’ll still see them occasionally, but I suggest avoiding them.
Often no attribution is needed.
Use dialogue tags only when the reader wouldn’t otherwise know who’s speaking.
Not a said, an asked, anything.
I made clear through action who was speaking, and not one reader, even my editor, noticed.
Jordan shook his head and sighed. “I’ve had it.”
Real people rarely do this, and it often seems planted only to avoid a dialogue tag. Fictional dialogue should sound real.
Don’t start your dialogue attribution tag with said.
…said Joe or …said Mary reads like a children’s book. Substitute he and she for the names and that will make it obvious: …said he or said she just doesn’t sound right.
Rather, end with said for the most natural sound: …Joe said or …Mary said.
Resist the urge to explain, and give the reader credit.
The amateur writer often writes something like this:
“I’m beat,” exclaimed John tiredly.
Besides telling and not showing—violating a cardinal rule of writing—it uses the archaic exclaimed for said, misplaces that before the name rather than after, and adds the redundant tiredly (explaining something that needs no explanation).
The pro would write:
John dropped onto the couch. “I’m beat.”
That shows rather than tells, and the action (dropped onto the couch) tells who’s speaking.
2. How to Punctuate Dialogue
Few things expose a beginner like incorrect punctuation, especially in dialogue.
Agents and editors justifiably wonder if you read dialogue, let alone whether you can write it, if you write something like: “I don’t know.” she said. Or, “What do you think?” He said.
To avoid common mistakes:
- When dialogue ends with a question or exclamation mark, the dialogue tag following the quotation marks should be lowercase: “I’m glad you’re here!” she said.
- When one character’s dialogue extends to more than one paragraph, start each subsequent paragraph with a double quotation mark, and place your closing double quotation mark only at the end of the final paragraph.
- Place punctuation inside the quotation marks, the dialogue tag outside: “John was just here asking about you,” Bill said.
- Put the attribution after the first clause of a compound sentence: “Not tonight,” he said, “not in this weather.”
- Action before dialogue requires a separate sentence: Anna shook her head. “I can’t believe she’s gone!”
- Quoting within a quote requires single quotation marks: “Lucy, Mom specifically said, ‘Do not cut your bangs,’ and you did it anyway!”
- When action or attribution interrupts dialogue, use lowercase as dialogue resumes: “That,” she said, “hurt bad.”
3. Every New Speaker Requires a New Paragraph
Here’s how I handled a conversation between Brady, one of my lead characters, and his attorney, in my novel Riven:
Ravinia sat shaking her head and telling him all the reasons it would never fly. Rules, regulations, protocol, procedure, no exceptions, and the list went on and on. “I’m not going to pursue this for you, Brady.”
“Yes, you are. I can tell.”
“You can’t tell it by me. Have you been listening? It’s impossible…”
“But you’ll try.”
Ravinia rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“Sure you would. You know everything, and you’ve been working inside the system a long time.”
“I’d be laughed out of here,” she said.
“Just tell me you’ll try.”
“Brady, really, be serious. Think this through. Can you imagine the warden going for this? Huh-uh. No way.”
“I like your idea of starting with the warden,” he said.
“I said no such thing.”
“Start at the top; go right to the man.” …
“Brady, don’t ask me to do this.”
Additional Dialogue Examples
Example #1 – If you’re old enough to remember the original Twilight Zone (hosted by Rod Serling) or Dragnet (starring and narrated by Jack Webb), you know how dialogue set the tone for their shows.
Serling was sometimes whimsical, sometimes mysterious, but always provocative. “Consider one middle-aged adult, lost in space and time…”
Jack Webb, as L.A. police detective Sergeant Joe Friday, was always deadly serious and monotone. “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Example #2 – Contrast those with the dialogue between Tom and his Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.
“There! I mighta thought of that closet. What you been doing in there?”
“Nothing! Look at your hands. And look at your mouth. What IS that truck?”
“I don’t know, aunt.”
“Well, I know. It’s jam—that’s what it is. Forty times I’ve said if you didn’t let that jam alone I’d skin you. Hand me that switch.”
The switch hovered in the air—the peril was desperate—
“My! Look behind you, aunt!”
The old lady whirled round and snatched her skirts out of danger. The lad fled on the instant, scrambled up the highboard fence, and disappeared over it.
Such dialogue sets the tone for the entire story and clearly differentiates characters.
Example #3 – In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain delineates between the Southern white boy and Jim, the runaway slave, by hinting at their respective accents.
Twain doesn’t need to tell who’s speaking, yet the reader never confuses the two.
“Jim, did y’all ever see a king?”
Y’all is the only word in that sentence that implies a Southern accent, but it’s enough.
“I sho enough did.”
“You liar, Jim. You never seen no king.”
“I seen foh kings in a deck of cards.”
Huck’s grammar and Jim’s sho and foh are the only hints of their dialects.
Too much phonetic spelling would have slowed the reading.
Example #4 – Good dialogue can condense a character’s backstory:
A woman in a restaurant whispers to her lunchmate, “You know who that is over there, don’t you?”
The other says, “No, who?”
“That’s just it. She’s had so much work done, you don’t recognize her. That’s Betty Lou Herman.”
“Yeah, she’s had her nose done, her cheeks lifted, and a hair transplant.”
“She’s going into politics.”
“Seriously, that’s really her?”
In that brief exchange, backstory is layered in, showing where there would otherwise have been too much narrative summary in the form of telling.
Example #5 – Allow readers to experience the enjoyment of having a story naturally emerge rather than spelling out every detail.
Instead of writing clunky dialogue like this:
“Just because you’re in this hospital because you were nearly killed in that wreck when Bill was driving, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t forgive him.”
“What are you going to do about Bill? He feels terrible.”
“He ought to.”
“Well, has he visited?”
“He wouldn’t dare.”
What actually happened, and why, can emerge in further realistic dialogue as the story progresses. If you were walking past a hospital room and heard this conversation, they wouldn’t be spelling the whole thing out like the first example did. In a normal conversation between two characters — not there only to dump information on the reader — you’d have to deduce what’s going on.
That’s part of the fun of being a reader — participating in the experience.
Example #6 – In real life, we repeat ourselves for emphasis, but that should be trimmed from written dialogue.
Instead of a wordy exchange like this:
“Well, this may be one of my craziest mistakes ever.”
“Why is that, Pa?”
“This may be my craziest mistake ever.”
The words are virtually the same, in the same order, but there are fewer of them, rendering the sentences more powerful.
The Cardinal Sin of Dialogue
No shortcuts will turn you into a bestselling author, but writers often ask me for that Yoda-esque bit of wisdom “you’d give me if you could tell me only one thing…”
So here it is: avoid on-the-nose dialogue.
It’s not magic, but if you can get a handle on this amateur writing pitfall, you’ll instantly have a leg up on your competition.
On-the-nose may sound like a positive thing — which it would be if related to marksmanship or academics, but for our purposes it’s a term coined by Hollywood producers and scriptwriters for prose that mirrors real life without advancing the story. It’s one of the most common mistakes I see in otherwise good writing. Even the pros often fall into it.
Paige’s phone chirped, telling her she had a call. She slid her bag off her shoulder, opened it, pulled out her cell, hit the Accept Call button, and put it to her ear.
“This is Paige,” she said.
She recognized her fiancé’s voice. “Jim, darling! Hello!”
“Where are you, Babe?”
“Just got to the parking garage.”
“No more problems with the car then?”
“Oh, the guy at the gas station said he thinks it needs a wheel alignment.”
“Good. We still on for tonight?”
“Looking forward to it, Sweetie.”
“Did you hear about Alyson?”
“No, what about her?”
Here’s the way that scene should be rendered:
Paige’s phone chirped. It was her fiancé, Jim, and he told her something about one of their best friends that made her forget where she was.
“Cancer?” she whispered, barely able to speak. “I didn’t even know Alyson was sick. Did you?”
Trust me, not a single reader will wonder how she knew the caller was Jim. Does anyone need to be told that:
- the chirp told her she had a call?
- her phone is in her purse?
- her purse is over her shoulder?
- she has to open it to get her phone?
- she has to push a button to take a call?
- one needs to put the phone to her ear to hear and to speak?
- she identifies herself to the caller?
Those who love you might also love that kind of writing, praising you for describing every real life detail of answering a cell phone.
It shows you can exactly mirror real life. Good for you. Don’t beat yourself up over it; we’ve all done it. Just quit it. :) Leave it to the amateurs.
Separate yourself from your competition by recognizing and deleting minutiae like that.
Dig deep. Go past the surface. Mine your emotions, your mind and heart and soul.
Remember what it felt like when you got news like that about someone you deeply cared about, and take the reader with you on the journey you promised them when they picked up your story. Let them hear Paige’s response: “Jim, let me give you a raincheck on tonight. I need to see her.”
Apply to your own dialogue the principles and tools I’ve outlined here, and I believe you’ll immediately see a compelling difference in your own prose.