Last Update: 8 August, 2018
What’s the most important thing about writing dialogue in fiction? If it sounds like a conversation you’d hear in the real world, you’ve gone horribly wrong.
Seriously. Next time you’re on a crowded bus or sitting by yourself in a restaurant, listen to two people talking. They’ll…
- speak over each other all the time
- say “um” and “er” a lot
- Fail to finish sentences
- jump from one topic to another (and back again) with no warning.
That’s fine in the real world (we don’t even notice it), but hopeless for dialogue in a novel.
Writing dialogue isn’t about replicating a real-life conversation. It’s about giving an impression of it. And, yes, improving on it.
If fiction is like real life with the dull bits taken out, the same thing is true of fictional conversations. So the role of the writer is to select what’s important and then distil it down to its very essence.
The nine rules below will help you write dazzling dialogue that keeps your readers gripped. And definitely no dull bits!
Rule #1: Dialogue Should Be In Conflict
It’s obvious, really…
Just as a scene about two young lovers spending a perfect day out at the zoo doesn’t constitute a plot (not unless the girl falls in the lion enclosure), so two people chatting about nothing much at all – and not disagreeing, either – doesn’t constitute gripping dialogue.
Pleasant conversations are great in real life. Even if nothing especially interesting gets said, who doesn’t like chewing the fat with a neighbor over the fence or a friend over coffee?
Trouble is, listening in on those conversations would be as exciting as watching laundry dry. So make sure you don’t subject your readers to tedious, yawn-inducing dialogue in your novel.
How do you ramp up the excitement?
Easy. Give the two characters conflicting goals. One of them wants one thing, the other something else. Even if it doesn’t end in a shouting match here and now, the underlying tension will keep the readers turning those pages.
To illustrate that, take a look at this example…
Bill opened the fridge, shifted the milk to see to the back. “How does steak sound?”
“There’s chicken if you prefer,” he said.
“No, steak is fine. With mashed potatoes.”
A perfectly nice conversation, right? The kind we all have everyday. But hopeless for a novel.
Throw some conflict into the mix, though, and the dialogue might look something like this…
Bill opened the fridge, shifted the milk to see to the back. “How does steak sound?”
“We haven’t had steak since last Saturday,” he said.
“I know. And the Saturday before that and the one before that! Don’t you ever fancy something different, Bill?”
Much more interesting. Why? Because the dialogue is in conflict. Jane wants one thing (some adventure in their relationship) and Bill wants something else (to stick to the same old routine).
And when characters have conflicting goals, consequences are sure to follow later in the novel. Or as James N. Frey put it…
When characters have different goals and are intent on achieving them, conflict results. If the stakes are high and both sides are unyielding, you have the makings of high drama.
What about if the characters are happy and have nothing to argue about?
Then feel free to break the rules and include a few lines of “pleasant conversation.”
Just keep it brief.
And try to include at least some sort of tension in the scene – maybe a hint of conflict to come. This will make the current “pleasantness” more poignant. Why? Because we suspect it’s about to be shattered.
For the most part, though, go for tension and disagreement between the characters. The bonus is that writing dialogue is much more fun that way!
Rule #2: Dialogue Should Be There for a Reason
If a passage of dialogue doesn’t meet at least one of these three criteria, it should probably be cut.
i) Dialogue Should Drive the Story Forward
The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story.
How will you know if a passage of dialogue advances the plot? Ask yourself these questions…
Will the story still make sense if the dialogue is removed? If it can be removed without leaving a missing link in the character’s journey towards his or her goal, scrap it.
Does the dialogue increase the suspense for what is to come? If a character says something which causes the reader to worry about the nature or the outcome of an upcoming event, it should stay.
Does the dialogue change the character’s situation, for better or worse? Do they receive some good news which leaves them closer to their goal, or bad news which leaves them further away from it? If so, it’s moving the plot forward.
Does the dialogue shed some light on what the character wants? Anything which makes a character’s goal clearer is good and should remain. As should anything which makes their motives (or why they want to achieve their goal) clearer.
Does it serve to strengthen the character’s resolve, or perhaps weaken it? Are they told something which makes them wish they hadn’t bothered to set out on this quest? Or make them glad that they did? Either one is good.
I’m sure there are plenty of other criteria to use, but they give you the idea.
Bottom line? If a conversation is in some way related to a character’s goals and conflicts, it’s moving the plot forward. But if the characters are talking about nothing important, the dialogue is filler and should probably be removed.
But note (once again) that some “pointless conversation” in a novel is good. After all, you’ve got keep the dialogue authentic. And we all talk about the weather or what we want for dinner.
Keep the chit-chat to a minimum, though. And try to ensure that, if a passage of dialogue starts out being about nothing of any importance, it quickly gets to the point.
Here’s the next way of writing dialogue with a purpose…
ii) Dialogue Should Deepen Characterization
Just as advancing the plot is one way of writing dialogue with purpose, so too is adding to a reader’s understanding of a character’s personality.
So maybe the speaking character tells whoever is listening about a formative event from their childhood. Or about their love for their family pet. Or about their dreams for the future.
These revelations might not affect the plot. They might not be important for the telling of the story at all. Nevertheless, they help to explain the character’s motivation for wanting whatever it is they want.
Doing that helps us to get to know them better (which is never a bad thing). And it also gives us a greater insight into why, precisely, they are chasing their goal.
To illustrate, maybe your protagonist tells another character about his round of golf this morning – how he beat Smith from the office and loved watching him sulk afterwards.
This anecdote doesn’t affect the plot. It’s not relevant to the story at all. But it shows another side to the protagonist – a somewhat ruthless side – that readers may not have known about before and that will be important later on.
iii) Dialogue Should Provide Information
What kind of information? Anything that is crucial to the understanding of the story.
Every novel has plenty of “dry facts” that the reader needs to learn…
- an important moment from the character’s childhood
- a brief history of the town in which the novel is set
- and so on.
Details that are not a part of the story but are nevertheless important for understanding it are known as exposition.
The key to exposition, which always runs the risk of boring the readers (and make them skip ahead), is to present it to them in bite-sized pieces. This makes the potentially dry facts more palatable. And it doesn’t significantly disrupt the forward momentum of the novel.
And guess what? Dialogue is one of the best methods there is for getting information across in a bite-sized way. Heck, if you do it skilfully enough, the readers won’t even know what you’re doing!
I gave an example of this in the article on exposition…
“Two days, maybe three,” said Frank. “I’ve got to be back in London for my daughter’s birthday on Friday.”
“Family man, huh?”
“Two boys and a girl,” he said. “And a wife somewhere in France sleeping with a kid half her age.”
Just beware of characters telling each other things that they already know. So a husband, for example, would never say this to his wife…
The wife will already know that her husband’s sister is called Mary. And that Mary owns a poodle called Florence.
Information like that is there solely for the benefit of the readers, and it therefore makes the dialogue sound horribly stilted. So don’t do it!
And that’s it: three ways to make sure that every line of dialogue you write has a purpose. Next up…
Rule #3: Keep Your Dialogue Concise
If you take just one thing away from this article, let it be this…
To write good dialogue, cut it to the bone, and preferably to the marrow. Never use ten words when five words will do. And if you can get the job done in three words – or even with a simple gesture like a shrug – so much the better.
Why is concision so important? Because it keeps readers reading. The novelist Nigel Watts put it well…
I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along.
Concise dialogue isn’t realistic. In the real world, very few people have the ability to say what they mean without throwing a lot of empty words into the mix. The paradox, though, is that writing dialogue this way will seem realistic. And it will certainly be a lot more gripping for the reader.
Here’s an example of what I mean. First, some overweight dialogue…
“I’m fine, thanks, Mary. And yourself?”
“Oh, I can’t complain,” she said. “Actually, I’m glad I bumped into you. Are you coming to the party tonight?”
“I hope to, Mary. It really depends if I can get off work early.”
“Have you asked your boss?”
“Not yet,” John admitted. “McNulty’s having a bad day, to tell you the truth. His ex-wife called. She wants money again. I’m waiting to pick the right moment.”
“Is there ever a good moment with that man?”
“Sure,” said John. “Catching him somewhere between his third and fourth scotch usually works.”
And here’s the same example after some ruthless pruning…
“If I can get off work.”
“Have you asked?”
“Boss is having a bad day,” he said. “Ex-wife troubles. I’ll pick my moment.”
“Is there ever a good moment with McNulty?”
“Sure. Somewhere between his third and fourth scotch.”
Better, right? But how do you achieve that? Here are a couple of specific things to look out for…
Get rid of most of the chit-chat and social niceties at the start of a conversation. Don’t strip these things out completely, because you still want conversations to sound natural. But dialogue in novels, if it isn’t to bore the reader, needs to cut to the chase a lot quicker than real-life dialogue.
Don’t write in complete, grammatical sentences. How come? Because very few people do, at least in informal conversations. “Do you want to go to the park?” sounds stiff. “Want to go to the park?” is better.
Bottom line? Trust your ear.
Revise your passages of dialogue again and again during the editing phase of the novel writing process. Whittle them down a little more each time until they’re perfect. Then when you don’t think you can edit them any more, go through them one last time and cut out something else!
The only caveat is that some people are more long-winded than others – in the real world and in novels.
If a character likes the sound of his own voice, don’t make him come across as a strong and silent type. Equally, don’t let him ramble on. You merely need to create the impression of long-windedness, by being a little “wordier” than you would otherwise be when writing dialogue.
Rule #4: Good Dialogue Should Flow
Actually, all writing in a novel – prose and dialogue – should flow. When writing dialogue, though, it’s doubly important. The conversations need to read effortlessly and look good on the page. There are three ways to achieve this…
i) Watch How You Use Dialogue Tags
You know what dialogue tags are – he said, she asked and the like.
They’re useful little things. But beware of overusing them. Writing dialogue with a tag after every single line will make it sound like a game of ping-pong, like here…
“Fine,” said Elizabeth. “I hear you’re getting married.”
“That’s right,” said Scott.
“When’s the big day?” asked Elizabeth.
“Next week,” said Scott.
You also need to beware of using too few tags. Why? Because there’s nothing more annoying for a reader than having to count back lines to work out who’s speaking.
Another trick is to stick to simple dialogue tags – like said and asked. Using tags such as exclaimed, interjected or screeched makes the dialogue sound amateurish.
Adverbs make it sound amateurish, too (as in, “Emily said excitedly“). If you want to demonstrate Emily’s excitement, describe her fidgeting in her chair or bouncing on the balls of her feet while she speaks.
ii) Vary the Length of the Lines
One important rule of novel writing is to keep the readers reading.
Boring them is likely to have the opposite effect, which is why it’s so important to make your passages of dialogue flow beautifully.
Here’s why varying the length of the lines matters…
- if Jack says something using half a dozen words
- then Jane replies using a sentence of the same length
- then Jack says something back using another short sentence
…it can all sound a bit same-ish. A better conversation would look like this…
- Jack says something.
- Jane replies using a longer sentence. Maybe a couple of them.
- Jack just shrugs here.
- So Jane says something else, something long again that goes on and on and on…
- Until Jack cuts her short with a quick one-liner.
That’s not a blueprint, of course – just a “top of the head” example of how to shake things up when writing dialogue.
iii) Don’t Have Characters Talk In a Vacuum
It’s very rare for people to talk and do nothing else. Often, they have conversations while cooking the dinner or trying to fix the radiator.
Even when they are “just talking,” they’re usually doing something – drinking coffee, watching the world go by, whatever it may be.
To help your dialogue flow (and keep it authentic), you simply need to mention these everyday, insignificant actions…
- Chopping an onion.
- Taking a sip of coffee.
- Noticing the paperboy cycle by.
Even if two fictional characters are having a conversation while sitting still in a featureless room without windows, they will still cough or scratch or pick threads off their clothes.
Why is it important to break up the dialogue with little snippets of action?
Because having one line of speech, followed by another, then another can sound like ping pong again – even if you do vary the length of each line.
To overcome this problem, simply freeze a passage of dialogue for a few sentences while you…
- Describe the sound of the rain hitting the window.
- Show what one of the characters is thinking.
- Write anything at all except another line of dialogue!
The following example demonstrates all of the key points in writing dialogue that flows. We’ll begin with how not to do it…
“What have you got?” she enquired.
“Not much,” Frank admitted. “I think I could stretch to pasta, though. And there’s cheesecake for dessert.”
“Cheesecake’s my favorite,” Sarah replied.
“Then later I thought we could catch a movie,” Frank said cautiously.
“We could,” Sarah said. “But I’ve got a better idea.”
Here’s the edited version…
“What you got?”
Frank opened the fridge, stood on his tiptoes to search the top shelf. “I could stretch to pasta,” he said. “And there’s cheesecake for dessert.”
“Cheesecake’s my favorite.”
“Then later I thought we could catch a movie.”
“We could,” Sarah said as she poured the Chardonnay. Large glasses. “But I’ve got a better idea.”
Rule #5: Don’t Have Characters All Sound the Same
Every character in a novel is unique. They all look different. They all think and act in their individual ways. And it should be no different with the way they speak.
Having all the characters sound the same is one of those siren-howling signs of an amateur. So you need to work hard at giving each and every character a unique speaking voice.
Make sure that the words a character says are a natural extension of their personality. And achieve that by stepping into their shoes, so to speak, before you try to put words in their mouth.
(Incidentally, an actor will do precisely the same thing before the cameras start rolling.)
Here are four questions to ask yourself when trying to find a distinctive voice for each of the people in your novel…
i) Who Are They?
You will have already developed the characters before starting to write your novel. You’ll know who they are and what makes them tick.
When putting words into the characters’ mouths, you just need to make sure that the dialogue fits their personalities…
- The kindly old lady won’t say anything too mean.
- Her mean neighbor won’t be kind when he opens his mouth.
- The big-head will brag and the joker will have everyone laughing.
- The optimist… well, you get the idea.
ii) What Is Their Personal Vocabulary?
This means making a character’s dialogue fit their background and occupation…
An educated character will have more words (and fancier words) at his or her disposal than a not-so-educated one. A dockworker will probably swear more than a school teacher – and won’t care as much (or know as much) about grammar.
A physics professor will likely throw the odd scientific term into his or her speech. An artist will have plenty of words to describe colors.
Note that it’s perfectly acceptable to use bad grammar and poor word choice when writing dialogue. It won’t reflect badly on your own writer’s voice because it’s understood that it’s the character speaking.
Just don’t go over the top.
If a character’s natural way of speaking is to use a curse word in every sentence, for example, you don’t need to include every single one. The odd expletive here and there will give the reader the idea.
As well as thinking about what they say, also consider how much they say.
So if the leading man is the strong and silent type, keep his lines brief and to the point. If another character is shy, make him speak only when spoken to – and reluctantly even then.
iii) Who Are They Talking To?
In real life, we all speak differently to different people. And it’s no different with a character in a novel.
A tough city cop, for example, will have…
- one way of talking to his colleagues
- another way of talking to his superiors
- and when he’s visiting his grandmother, he’d better watch his mouth!
Of course, all these rules about writing dialogue are there to be broken. So having a character talk in precisely the same way to everyone, no matter what the circumstances demand, could be the key defining trait of a character with poor social skills.
Rule #6: Avoid Writing Dialogue That’s Obvious
Imagine a middle-aged woman sitting at the breakfast table. Her hungover husband walks in, looking like hell. We’ll call them Sarah and David.
Here’s how their dialogue might go…
“Fancy some toast?”
“Couldn’t stomach it,” said David.
Sarah poured him some coffee and asked how last night went.
“Good,” said David. “The part I can remember.”
What’s wrong with that? The dialogue is concise, which is good. It flows nicely – another plus point.
The trouble is, it’s dull and obvious. The characters say precisely what you’d expect two people in this situation to say. But folks don’t usually talk that way in the real world – and in a good novel, they never do. Instead, they…
- rephrase lines to make them fresh and unusual
- throw in some humor or sarcasm
- say the opposite to what they really think
- try to change the subject
- don’t even listen to what the other person says.
That last one is particularly true. Ford Maddox Ford talked about how the speech of one character should never directly answer the speech that went before it…
This is almost invariably the case in real life where few people listen, because they are always preparing their own next speeches.
In short, people rarely have a “straightforward” conversation in the real world – one in which both parties listen to each other, answer each other’s questions directly and say precisely what is on their minds.
Writing dialogue that has the ring of truth to it is all about reflecting this reality.
And so when Sarah asks her husband how he’s feeling, he won’t say “awful.” He’ll say he “feels great” or “just zippity, thanks!” Or he might even ignore her altogether. (Well written dialogue is often about what characters don’t say.)
Here, then, is an improved version of the breakfast table scene…
“Not half as good as I feel,” said David.
“I take it you won’t be having extra syrup on your pancakes.”
No answer, not even a glance.
“Coffee it is, then,” she said and poured him a large one. Black. As she watched her husband sip it and wince, she asked if his watch had packed up again. “Only I could have sworn you promised to be home before midnight.”
David sipped some more coffee, pulled a face. “Is this stuff fresh?”
Rule #7: Give Characters an Agenda
This is related to the last rule, but it’s much broader. The advice above was about taking individual lines of dialogue and making them fresher and more original. This is about altering the way a character approaches an entire conversation.
We all enter into conversations knowing what we want to get out of them. And the way we often achieve this is by broaching a subject obliquely.
If we want to borrow money, say, we won’t say it straight out. We’ll start by asking the listener how business is going (or something similar).
Nevertheless, our agenda will be there. And we’ll eventually steer the conversation to the heart of the matter (or else steer it away from the heart of the matter if our aim is to conceal information).
And it is exactly the same for writing dialogue in a novel. The two characters will both want something, often opposing things…
A wife will want to quiz her husband about the affair she suspects he’s having. But she won’t come out and say it because she isn’t certain yet. Instead, she’ll ask him if he plans to be home late tonight.
The husband, desperate to move this conversation onto safer ground, will start talking about his latest business deal.
Bottom line? When a character wants to know something, or wants to get the other character to do something, don’t have them come right out and say it. Instead, have them approach the topic from an angle.
Similarly, when a character doesn’t want to reveal something, or doesn’t want to be talked into doing something, don’t have them flat-out refuse. Have them change the subject. Or throw the question back at the other character.
(Are there exceptions to that? Absolutely. Sometimes saying something straight is exactly what’s called for. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule.)
Sometimes you can go even further. Instead of having your characters skirt around a topic, before eventually getting to the heart of the matter, have them avoid the topic totally.
A couple in a failing relationship, for example, might argue about what movie to watch tonight. They’ll deliberately avoid what is really on their minds…
What they really believe is that they are two different people and it’s time to head their separate ways.
What they actually fight about is watching the horror movie vs. watching the romantic comedy on Netflix.
Rule #8: Dialogue Can Be “Told,” Not Just “Shown”
I’ve talked elsewhere on this site about showing and telling. All writing in a novel can come in these two flavors, including dialogue…
Shown dialogue is where you write down what the characters say, word for word, and put the speech inside quotation marks.
Told dialogue is where you summarize a conversation using regular prose.
Most of the time, shown dialogue is the variety you want. (Hence the oft-repeated advice: “Show, don’t tell.”) Sometimes, though, telling the reader about a conversation (without writing the dialogue word for word) is better.
Let’s say that a conversation goes on for some time, but only the beginning and end are interesting. The solution is to…
- show the first part of the dialogue
- summarize the boring bit in the middle
- switch back to showing for the final part.
Or maybe a conversation is important but the reader already knows about what the characters are about to discuss…
A man has been out on a fishing trip and saved his friend from drowning. (The reader knows about all that because they’ve just finished reading that exciting scene.)
When the man gets home, his wife asks how the trip went. So he tells her the story.
Readers don’t want to hear the whole story again. But it’s also important that they see the man telling his wife all about it. The solution, therefore, is to write something like this…
“Jesus, Steve, it’s not even five yet!”
He swallowed the whiskey in one go, didn’t bother to wipe his chin.
“You’re scaring me,” she said.
Steve sat down next to her, zapped the dumb quiz show.
“What is it?” she asked.
So he told her. He told her about John tripping on that rope and going straight over the side of the boat. He told her about the terrible stab of the icy water when he jumped in after him.
And so on. What would take many pages to cover by writing regular dialogue (with quotation marks around it) can be neatly reduced to a brief paragraph.
When the paragraph of summary is over, simply return to the “real time” of the scene and continue writing dialogue as normal.
Rule #9: Get the Formatting and Punctuation Right
Last but not least, a look at the nuts and bolts of how to punctuate dialogue properly. Not a very sexy topic – but an important one to get right nonetheless.
The odds are that you’re a keen reader (most novelists are). So you really don’t need me to tell you the mechanics of how to set out dialogue on the page.
But if you’re unsure of the answers to questions like these…
- Single or double quotation marks?
- Dashes or ellipses at the end of a line of dialogue?
… check out my article on punctuating dialogue correctly.
Caveat: Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules
Those, then, are the “rules” of writing dialogue. But rules are meant to be broken occasionally.
If you stick to every piece of advice above, all of the time, you’ll end up with dialogue that’s almost too good. In other words, there’s a danger of going overboard…
Yes, you want to write dialogue that’s original and clever, but not for every single line. Do that and the character will simply sound annoying.
Yes, you want your characters to avoid awkward subjects (or, when they can’t do that, to lie). But not all of the time.
And, yes, you want the dialogue to be there for a reason – to have a purpose. But sometimes it’s okay to talk about the weather or whose turn it is to do the dishes.
How will you know if you’ve gone too far? The same way that you assess all of your writing: Put the scene aside for a day or two and come back to it with fresh eyes.
If you like what you read and the dialogue feels both sharp and natural, it’s fine. But if it strikes you as being a little too clever, it’s maybe crossed the line to being “too good to be true.”
And that’s it for writing dialogue. Here are some related articles worth checking out…
- How to Use Dialogue Tags Like a Pro
- 5 Rules for Punctuating Dialogue
- The Complete Guide to Interior Monologue
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