You crack up at the dialogue on the page, and your siblings stare at you like you’re crazy.
You can’t even stop to blink because you need to read what the protagonist says to the villain.
You gasp. You shake your head. You miss the call to set the table.
I wish I could write dialogue like that, you think.
But when you try to write conversations between your beloved characters, it seems stilted. Forced. Unrealistic.
You know a good story needs good dialogue. But how can you move the plot along without making things seem forced? And how do you explore the relationships and personalities of your characters without boring the reader?
Dialogue is essential. But not always easy.
Keep reading to discover how to write good dialogue that is concise, reveals emotions, and keeps readers engaged.
How To Write Good Dialogue In 10 Simple Steps
1. Give Your Character Purpose
Oftentimes, you’ll need to bring out some piece of information that the reader needs to know–and maybe the protagonist too. But info-dumping isn’t great in narration–or in dialogue.
The key to avoiding forced conversation is to give the character a motive.
Ask why they are revealing the news that they’re revealing. Maybe they’re being extra informative because they want a promotion. Or because they want to earn the trust of people they actually hate. Or perhaps they’re forced to tell because if they don’t, they’ll die.
This is relevant even if your character isn’t being used to disclose information. If you need a character to approach your protagonist, give him a reason, even if it’s just because he needs to ask if your protagonist knows where to find the baggage claim at the airport.
Showing your character’s motive makes readers able to empathize with them more. Not only do your characters become more understandable, but their motives will also display their personality and backstory.
Consider this example from “Star Wars V”:
Han is about to be frozen in carbonite. Maybe even die.
“I love you,” Leia blurts.
Leia isn’t the type of princess that would say straight out that she loves Han. No, but she eventually admits it because she’s afraid she might never get the chance to say it to him again.
2. Cut the Fluff
Writing concisely is important in many things. Sadly, you can’t quite escape it even in dialogue.
Greetings especially seem to be toughies. In an attempt to write realistically, writers feel the need to write every word in a conversation. While these are often important in real life, greetings waste precious space–and readers know it.
You can avoid including unnecessary “fluff” by shortening it in narration or by skipping straight to the meat of the conversation.
Grant stepped inside. “Hello, dear Fred! How are you?”
“I’m doing well, Mr. Grant.”
He sighed as he walked into the living room. “Same here. I’ve been enjoying the many delights of my steam spears … did you know mine can outdistance those of your uncle?”
Fred grinned. “Yes, Bob is still quite gloomy about it.”
“Yes. But why did I come? Oh–oh yes, it was to talk to you about Martin.” Grant grew serious. “You see, I’ve discovered some more about his history with the Necklace…”
You’ll be better off like this:
Grant stepped inside. They exchanged greetings and Fred led him into the living room. After some banter about smoke rings, Grant grew serious. “Fred, I’ve discovered more about Martin’s history with the Necklace.”
Putting the more important dialogue in quotation marks signifies its importance. And by leaving the rest in narration, you’ll prevent readers from skimming over the less relevant part of the conversation and accidentally missing the crucial stuff.
While you don’t want to be abrupt, it might be wiser to cut unnecessary bulk down to a couple sentences for the story’s sake (and for poor Frodo’s). By beginning the scene late and leaving it early, you’ll convey important information to the reader while also staying concise.
3. Develop Unique Voices for Your Characters
Characters should be sympathetic, flawed, relatable, and … unique. One way to make them stand out from others is through the way they speak.
Consider these questions when your characters start to talk:
- Do they have an accent? (ex. missy vs. ma’am)
- Are there certain words/phrases they repeat? (ex. aye vs. oy vs. yes)
- What is their enthusiasm level? While this may vary, certain characters are generally more spirited than others. This may affect their sentence or paragraph length and punctuation. (Think Anne of Green Gables versus Marilla.)
- Consider their background and their intelligence level on different subjects. How would they use technical terms or local slang?
Keep in mind that some of your characters may be more distinct by how they talk and others through the way they walk or something similar. And your genre might affect your flexibility; a fantasy tale might include all sorts of odd language, while a historical one could be confined to a certain time period’s jargon.
How you speak can be a big part of your first impression on someone. But for characters, the way they talk can influence everything from personality to backstory.
4. Hint at Hidden Meanings
Among other things, Jane Austen is famous for her understatement in narration. But narration isn’t the only place that words can be interpreted in different ways.
You guessed it … dialogue can be too.
After all, people don’t always say what they mean in real life, right? Many times, characters (and people) will say things directly contradictory to what they feel or intend to say. This often occurs when they feel intense emotions and are trying to hide it.
Have you ever felt like you were going to cry but forced a smile in public? This is similar to the motives that will affect the way a character talks.
And I don’t just mean obvious sarcasm, though that has its place. But there are also points that you can get across to the reader in subtext without having the character say it outright. For instance:
“Ella, how was the ball?” Grandmother asked me.
I bit my lip. “It was…really fun.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“I, um, danced.”
“With whom? Did people admire the enchanted dress?”
“With the gentlemen. I’m a little tired, Grandma. Can I go to my room now?”
What happened at the ball? Wouldn’t you think it was more than just “really fun”? While this passage doesn’t say exactly what occurred, it piques the reader’s curiosity and prepares them for the revelation that Ella is close to tears over losing her favorite slipper.
Having hidden meanings in your dialogue often gets your point across more naturally than having your character say it straightforwardly.
And once they realize there is meaning behind the obvious, your readers will become more invested in what your characters say, and it will force them to pay closer attention to the story.
5. Display Relationships
On any given day, you might compliment your friends, annoy your siblings, and obey your parents. But you might not be so willing to annoy your friends and obey your siblings.
You interact differently with different people, and a lot of this depends on your relationship with them. Naturally, characters do too.
The way a person talks signifies a lot of things, among them being relationships. What kinds of clues can you gather from the example below?
Ryn (cracks the door): I’m sorry, I’m not available–
Tae (sticks her foot in the opening): Where do you get the sage?
Ryn: Please go away.
These girls probably don’t get along very well. Ryn seems unfriendly, or at least unwilling to talk at the moment, but Tae is unafraid and persistent. Both of them are verging on rudeness, both are undaunted by the other. How different it would have been if Ryn had greeted Tae with, “Good morning, ma’am,” or “Go find someone else to rob.”
So keep the way your characters see each other in mind as they talk together. Here are five questions to ask yourself:
- What type of relationship do these people share? (ex. mentor-mentee, casual friends)
- Who is older/younger, or are these people the same age?
- What is their history? How do they know each other?
- Who is the more capable/knowledgeable/powerful?
- How do these people feel toward each other? (ex. affection, respect, scorn)
- How/when do they interact? (ex. once a week at work, every day at school)
The circumstances of your characters’ relationships with each other affects how they interact with each other, and consequently, what they say and how they say it.
6. Convey Tension
How often have you thought that someone was mad at you because they spoke with short, clipped sentences?
Whether they actually were or not, you can pick up a handy tool here for writing conversations. Play with the length of your character’s sentences and see how you can display the level of tension there is in the scene.
And not just the length of your sentences–make use of that end mark punctuation and wording.
Mattie: Jenna, can you please come to the beach with me?
Jenna: Sure! I’ve run out of books to read anyway. When do you want to leave?
Mattie: Jenna, can you please come to the beach with me?
Jenna: Fine. When do you need to leave?
Just by tweaking the length and language, you as a writer can effectively convey the tension (or lack thereof) in a scene.
This is similar to displaying relationships, since each is affected by the ways your characters feel towards each other.
7. Portray the Setting and Time Period
You never read about Laura Ingalls asking Mary if it wasn’t her turn to ride in the chariot, or about Cleopatra squealing over her new sewing machine. Because that’s ridiculous, right?
Two things: setting–and time period.
Whether it’s contemporary fantasy, ancient historical, or futuristic sci-fi, accurately and vividly portraying the surroundings your characters find themselves in is crucial.
Okay, cool … but this is dialogue we’re talking about here, right? Aren’t the setting and time period supposed to be revealed in narration?
Maybe. But the way characters talk and which items they refer to in their speech are some important ways you can key the reader in to the setting. Re-read the first paragraph in this section if you need more convincing.
Here are some fundamental aspects of time period and setting you’ll want to keep in mind:
- Technology – from weapons to children’s toys, how sophisticated is the machinery in your story? What kinds of devices will your characters be familiar with, refer to, or compare other things to?
- Titles – Is it Czar or Emperor, mister or master?
- Dialect – Some words are special to a certain region or time period.
Remember–the circumstances of your story aren’t just for narration. Dialogue (and, consequently, the vocabulary in it) plays a big part.
8. Use Dialogue Tags Wisely
While dialogue tags aren’t part of the dialogue itself, they are almost always seen with dialogue and notably affect the way readers interpret what your characters say.
First off, what is a dialogue tag? This is simply a phrase that tells the reader who is saying the words and how they are saying it. The dialogue tags below are in bold:
“Jenna, come see!” Mattie exclaimed.
“Sis, I’m slightly busy,” I murmured.
There are three aspects of a dialogue tag that you should consider:
The first one is relatively self-explanatory. Tags can be put at either end of the dialogue, as well as in the middle. Take advantage of this! And sometimes, especially if only one or two people are talking, you don’t need to include tags at all.
Write the verb well. In the example above, I used the verb exclaimed. But how might a different verb affect the feeling of the scene? However, be careful not to overdo it on the vibrancy. Tags have the power to add a lot into the way your reader will imagine the character talking. But be careful: it will seem fake if every sentence is accompanied by a scream or sob.
Thirdly, include movement. What is the speaker doing while they are talking? Are they looking somewhere to avoid eye contact? Are they speaking between sword thrusts? Sobs? Mouthfuls of food?
“Jenna, come see!” Mattie beckoned me over.
I grunted as I dug out another section of moat. “Sis, I’m slightly busy.”
You can add extra spice to your dialogue just by brightening its dialogue tags with varied placement, vivid verbs, and significant character movement.
9. Reveal Information
A lot about this subject has been covered in previous points, like displaying relationships and portraying settings. But what about backstory? If a reader realizes the writer is just using a character’s mouth to dump a load of information on them, their attention will probably stray.
The key to revealing information while still engaging readers is to make them want to know the information first.
For example, what’s wrong with this snippet of conversation?
“Did you know, Mattie, this is the most fun I have had in all of 2020, which is the year of the coronavirus.” Jenna smiled up at me.
“Yes, I agree, Jenna.” I nodded. “I am glad that we do not have to wear a mask over our nose and mouth and around our ears while we dig with these two shovels, which have purple handles.”
You’re probably cringing right now. But why is this piece so bad? The reader is shown the time period, and the tags don’t feel repetitive.
But it’s so choppy! It sounds so unrealistic! You might even be saying, There are info-dumps left and right!
Where are the contractions? The slang? Another thing to note is that while some information is shown better through dialogue, other stuff (like the purple-handled shovels) might be better off in the narration.
“Didja know, Mattie? This is the most fun I’ve had in all of 2020.” Jenna smiled up at me, then sighed. “COVID … ick.”
“Me too.” I grabbed one of the purple-handled shovels and started digging with vigor. “At least we don’t have to wear a mask at the beach.”
In the snippet above, Jenna’s third sentence answers the question the second sentence implies: why did digging at the beach surpass the fun of the whole year? And Mattie’s reply sheds light on the reason Jenna didn’t like COVID so much.
So have your character say something that makes the reader ask a question. By the time you give them the information, your reader will be leaning forward to hear–er, read–the answer.
10. Express Emotion
If you watched people talking, you’d probably be able to tell how they were feeling. Their word choice, tone, and body language all come together to express their emotions.
Knowing someone’s emotions is crucial to interpreting their words correctly.
So pay attention to your word choice. Is it ‘okay’ or ‘fine’? Do they say, ‘nuh-uh’ or ‘no way, Jose’? Especially in written conversation, phrasing and wordage is key.
Now, tone is something you’d put in the tags. Did she say it coolly or warmly? Did he snap the words or coo them? Keep your character’s tone in mind, particularly when readers need to read between the lines for hidden meanings or tension.
Action tags come in real handy when you need to use body language to express emotion. You can depict not only posture, but also facial expressions, and other odd things like what they’re doing with their hands or where they’re looking. Two of your characters might say “Yes, ma’am” when told to clean their rooms, but perhaps one slumps and stalks off while another glances up distractedly from a book.
How To Test Your Own Dialogue
Sometimes nothing beats direct critiques on your specific piece. Here are a few tips for testing to see if your own dialogue is crucial, clear, and compelling:
Read it out loud. If something is off or can be rephrased better, your ears might pick it up better than your eyes.
Ask your writing group or a writer friend. Or even a non-writing friend! Having others read your work is a great way to discover the way your readers would respond to a conversation you’ve written.
Finally, read dialogue written by other authors. Pick your favorite story and scrutinize all that stuff within quotation marks. Ask yourself why they chose the words they did, how they used dialogue tags, and how they revealed information. Apply what you learned to your own piece.
Starting Your Journey
Dialogue is essential. But not always easy. Thankfully, you now know how to write good dialogue.
I’ve developed a checklist for you to use while you write your own dialogue. It includes tips and prompts on everything we’ve covered here, from giving your dialogue purpose to conveying tension to expressing emotion.
By the end of it, your dialogue will be fresher and stronger, portraying the conversations in your story both clearly and vividly.
Click the image below to download your freebie!