How to Write Dialogue That Captivates Your Reader
If your writing annoys you, it will exhaust your reader.
Sadly, your first reader will be an agency or an editor.
Your duty is to make every word count because that is the only way to keep your reader interested until the end, which is no easy task. That’s why people hire book publishing agent and ghostwriters.
A compelling conversation is your best friend because it can achieve so many things:
It distinguishes the narrative summary.
It distinguishes characters (through dialect and word choice).
It propels the plot along by showing rather than telling.
However, writing good dialogue is difficult. Readers will abandon you if your dialogue is bloated, apparent, or telling.
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
Take out words from dialogue that aren’t needed unless you want to make a character seem smart or mean.
Obviously, you wouldn’t write a conversation the way a court transcript does, with lots of repetition and “huh, ah, uh, and so on.”
See how much you can cut while still expressing the same message. It’s more like how genuine people speak.
“What do you want to do this Sunday?” I suggested that we go to an amusement park.
“I was considering renting a rowboat,” Vladimir explained. “It was one of the lakes.”
“Oh, Vladimir, that sounds awesome! I’ve never rowed before.”
That doesn’t mean your language has to be choppy; simply remove the dead wood.
It will amaze you with how much strength it adds.
How to Write Dialogue Step 2. Reveal Backstory
Adding backstory through dialogue keeps your reader interested.
The mention of an incident sets up a situation that necessitates a reward.
“Can we not bring up Cincinnati?” Janet asked as they approached the house.
Maggie did a double take. “Believe me, I’m not interested in that any more than you are.”
“All right,” Janet said. “I mean—”
“Can we please avoid discussing it?”
What rational reader wouldn’t expect them to discuss it and stick with the novel until they did?
Reveal more and more about your protagonist’s backstory as the story unfolds.
This gives you situations that should interest your reader and keeps you from using the same old memories.
How to Write Dialogue, Step 3: Reveal Character
Through dialogue, your audience discovers a lot about your characters.
You don’t have to tell us if they’re snarky, funny, egotistical, compassionate, or anything else.
You can tell us by their interactions and what they say.
How to Write Dialogue, Step 4: Be Subtle
Dialogue provides numerous opportunities to grossly exaggerate facts.
Here are three examples:
- Subtext: Where people say something other than what they mean.
Cindy falls for the somewhat older boy next door, who regards her as the little sister type.
By the time Cindy gets to high school, Tommy is already the captain of the football team, dates the head cheerleader, and doesn’t care at all about Cindy.
Tommy departs for college, and Cindy learns during her senior year of high school that he and his girlfriend have broken up.
As a result, when Johnny returns home after his freshman year of college and is changing a tyre on his car, Cindy has the chance to walk outside. She strikes up a discussion with Tommy, who looks up, taken aback. Who is this lovely lady, Cindy, from next door?
“Are you making a difference?” she asks.
“Yeah, I’m actually making a change,” Tommy adds, looking at the tyre and back at her.
“Well, I’ve heard that rotating can be beneficial,” Cindy responds.
“Yeah, I’ve heard it too,” he says. That’s what subtext is. They are not saying what they truly believe. They’re not actually discussing tire replacement, are they?
- Sidestepping: When a character responds to a question by ignoring it.
Instead, he provides an entirely different perspective.
The late Robin Williams portrayed a clever young doctor in the film Patch Adams who believed the Old Testament proverb that “laughter is the best medicine.”
He wears an inflatable surgical glove on his head in the children’s cancer hospital, making him look like a rooster. He walks around in bedpan shoes, squawking and waving his arms.
The kids think it’s hilarious, but hospital administrators think it’s disrespectful and order him to stop.
Patch is attempting to make one particular girl laugh—a hospital volunteer. But, even though everyone else finds him amusing, she never smiles.
Patch eventually leaves the hospital to build a clinic in the country. Imagine his astonishment when that sour-faced young lady emerges to assist him in setting up.
Patch follows her outside to sit opposite her when she walks outside to rest. “I’ve got to ask,” he says. Except for you, everyone thinks I’m crazy. I’ve tried it all. “Why don’t you ever find anything I say amusing?”
“Men have always admired me,” she begins within a few moments. And we can tell from the way she says it that she was abused as a youngster.
We suddenly realize what this chick is all about. She doesn’t believe in guys and doesn’t laugh since life isn’t humorous.
She hadn’t truly responded to his query. Her issue had nothing to do with him or his sense of humor.
Patch finally discovers that certain things aren’t amusing. Some things are simply not to be mocked.
It’s a fantastic turn of events in the story. As well as an example of sidestepping discourse.
Silence can actually be precious.
“Better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to talk and erase all doubt,” many have said, including Abraham Lincoln.
Avoiding quiet pauses is one of the most difficult things to learn as a writer.
Just as we shouldn’t write what isn’t happening in a novel, we shouldn’t write that someone didn’t respond or didn’t answer.
The reader will know they didn’t if you don’t mention they did.
“So, John, whatever have you got to offer for own selves? Linda asked.
John clenched his teeth and glanced out the window.
“I’m waiting,” she explained.
He smoked a cigarette. Linda’s head shook. “I swear, John, I swear.” “But he refused to say anything,” or “But he never answered,” too many writers feel compelled to write here.
Don’t! We understand—and it’s a loud, effective, silent communication.
John is expressing everything while saying nothing.
How to Write Dialogue, Step 5: Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
Reading your script aloud or acting it out is one way to ensure that it glides.
Anything that does not sound correct will also not read right, so edit it till it does.
How to Write Dialogue Step 6. Create a “Make My Day”
Moment certain classic lines of dialogue have become as famous as the movies and literature from which they were derived:
- “To be honest, my dear…
- “There’s nothing like home.”
- “We’re no longer in Kansas.”
- “To mine elder brother George, the wealthiest guy in city.”
- “What we’re dealing with here is a failure to communicate.”
- “Go ahead, brighten my day.”
- “May the power of the force be with you.”
- “We have an issue, Houston.”
- “Forrest, Forrest, run!”
- “You had me from the start.”
Most writers, even those who write best-selling books, never come up with such a memorable passage of dialogue. However, attempting to develop one is worthwhile.
Ironically, a famous phrase should blend in so well that it doesn’t stand out until fans start repeating it.
How to Format Dialogue
- Use dialogue tags.
Attribution tags—he said, she said, and so on—are usually enough to show who is speaking, so resist the impulse to get inventive.
Most teachers who tell you to look for other options have never been published and think that agents and editors will be happy.
They won’t be, believe me.
Avoid attributing tendencies. People say various things. They do not cough, gasp, sigh, chuckle, grunt, or snort.
They may do any of these things while saying them, which is noteworthy, but the emphasis should be on what is said, and readers just need to know who is saying it.
Maintain simplicity. All of the other criteria point to an invasive writer.
People will sometimes whisper, shout, or mumble, but their choice of words will suggest that they are discontent, etc.
Separate the action from the discourse if it’s vital that they sigh or laugh.
Jim exhaled a sigh. “I can’t take it any longer.”
“I can’t take this anymore,” Jim moaned.
Despite their use in school reading and classic literature, attribution markers like “answered,” “retorted,” “yelled,” and “proclaimed” have become overused and outdated.
You’ll encounter them now and then, but I recommend avoiding them.
Often, no credit is required.
Use dialogue tags only when the reader would not know who is speaking otherwise.
I wrote a whole book called “The Last Operative” once, but not a single line of dialogue was credited to me.
Nothing was said or asked.
I made it plain who was speaking through action, yet no one noticed, not even my editor.
Jordan sighed and shook his head. “I’m done with it.”
Another typical mistake is for characters to address one another by name too frequently.
Real individuals rarely do this, and it frequently appears to be planted solely to avoid a dialogue tag. The conversation in a story should sound natural.
You should not begin your dialogue attribution tag with “said.”
It reads like something out of a children’s book, said Joe, or Mary. To see what I mean, substitute he and she for the names: he said or she said just doesn’t sound right.
Rather, for the most natural sound, end with “Joe said” or “Mary said.”
Resist the impulse to explain, and credit the reader.
The inexperienced writer frequently writes something like this: “I’m beat,” John tiredly remarked.
Aside from telling instead of showing, which is a basic writing rule, it uses the old-fashioned word “yelled” for “said,” puts “that” before the name instead of after it, and adds the word “tiredly” to explain something that doesn’t need to be explained.
The professional would write: John slid onto the couch. “I’m exhausted.”
That shows, not tells, and the action (getting thrown on the couch) shows who is talking.
- How to Punctuate Dialogue
Few things reveal a novice more than poor punctuation, particularly in dialogue.
Agents and editors are right to worry if you can even read dialogue, let alone write it, if you write anything like, “I don’t know,” she remarked. Alternatively, “What do you think?” He stated.
To avoid typical blunders:
- When a dialogue segment ends with a question mark or exclamation mark, the dialogue tag that comes after the quote marks should be in lowercase letters: “I’m so glad you’re here!” she said.
- When one character’s dialogue spans more than one paragraph, use a double quotation mark to begin each consecutive paragraph and a closing double quotation mark only at the conclusion of the final paragraph.
- Put the quote marks inside the quotation marks and the conversation tag outside: “John was just here wondering about you,” Bill explained.
- After the first clause of a compound sentence, add the attribution: “Not tonight, not in this weather,” he said.
- A separate sentence is required for action before dialogue. Anna raised her head. “I can’t believe she’s already gone!”
- Single quotation marks are required for quoting within a quote. “Lucy, Mom expressly said, “Do not trim your bangs,” and you did it anyway!”
- When an action or attribution breaks a conversation, use lowercase as the conversation resumes: “That wounded a lot,” she said.
- Every New Speaker Requires a New Paragraph
In my work, riven, here’s how I addressed a discussion between Brady, one of my main characters, and his attorney:
Ravinia shook her head and told him all the reasons why it would never fly. There were laws, rules, procedures, methods, no exclusions, and so on. “I’m not going to look into it for you, Brady.”
“You are, indeed.” I’m sure of it.”
“You can’t tell by looking at me.” Have you been paying attention? “It’s not possible.”
“But you’re going to try.”
Ravinia sighed and rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“Of course, you would.” “You know everything and have spent a long time working within the system.”
“I’d be laughed out,” she said.
“Just tell me you’ll give it a shot.”
“Brady, please be serious.” Consider this carefully. Can you imagine the warden pursuing this? Huh-uh. No way.”
“I admire your approach of beginning with the warden,” he added.
“I never said anything like that.”
“Begin at the top and work your way down to the man.”
“Don’t ask me to do this, Brady.”
Additional Dialogue Examples
If you recall the first Twilight Zone (hosted by Rod Serling) or Dragnet (featured and spoken by Jack Webb), you know how important language was in setting the tone for their shows.
Serling was humorous at times, mysterious at others, but always challenging. “Think about one middle-aged adult who is lost in space and time.”
As L.A. police detective Sergeant Joe Friday, Jack Webb was always completely serious and monotonous. “Simply the facts, ma’am,”
Compare it to Mark Twain’s exchange between Tom and his aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
“There! I might have considered that closet. “What have you been up to in there?”
“Nothing! Take a look at your hands. And take a look at your mouth. “What exactly is that truck?”
“I’m not sure, aunt.”
“Well, I’m aware.” That’s what it is: jam. I’ve told you forty times that if you didn’t leave that jam alone, I’d skin you. “Give me that switch.”
The switch hung in the air—the danger was imminent—”My! “Aunt, look behind you!”
The old lady spun around and pulled her skirts away from danger. The lad bolted on the spur of the moment, scrambling up the highboard fence and disappearing over it.
This kind of talk sets the tone for the whole play and makes it easy to tell who is who.
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain distinguishes between the Southern white child and Jim, the escaped slave, by implying their accents.
Twain does not need to specify who is speaking, and the reader is never confused.
“Jim, have you ever seen a king?”
The only word in that statement that suggests a Southern accent is “y’all,” but it suffices.
“I suppose enough was done.”
“You’re a liar, Jim,” says the man who’s never seen a king.
“I saw a deck of cards with four kings.”
The only indications of their languages are Huck’s grammar and Jim’s sho and foh.
Too much phonetic spelling would have slowed the reading.
A character’s backstory can be condensed through good dialogue.
“You know who that is over there, don’t you?” a woman in a restaurant says to her lunch companion.
“No, who?” says the other.
“That’s exactly it.” She’s been so busy that you don’t recognise her. “Betty Lou Herman is the name.”
“She underwent a nose job, cheek lifts, and a hair transplantation.”
“She’s entering politics.”
“Are you sure that’s her?”
Backstory is built in within that brief discussion, demonstrating where there would have been far too much dramatic recap in the manner of giving.
Allows readers to appreciate the pleasure of watching a story develop naturally rather than having every detail explained.
Rather than creating clumsy speech 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.”
“How about Bill?” “He’s in a bad mood.”
“Has he paid a visit?”
“He’d never do it.”
What happened and why can be revealed in a more realistic conversation as the story unfolds. If you were passing by a hospital room and overheard this talk, they would not be spelling everything out like in the first scenario. You’d have to determine what’s going on in a normal conversation between two characters who aren’t just there to dump information on the reader.
Engaging in the experience is part of the fun of being a reader.
We replicate ourselves in everyday life for intensity, but this should be avoided in written communication.
Instead of a long-winded exchange like this: “Well, this may be one of my craziest errors ever.”
“How come, Pa?”
“This could be my most insane error ever.”
The words are almost identical and in the same order, but there are fewer of them, making the sentences more forceful.
Dialogue’s Cardinal Sin
There are no shortcuts to becoming a best-selling author, but I’m often asked for that Yoda-esque nugget of advice: “You’d offer me if you could just tell me one thing…”
So here you have it: Avoid clichéd dialogue.
It’s hardly magic, but if you can avoid this amateurish writing error, you’ll have an instant advantage over your competition.
On-the-nose may sound like a good thing if used in marksmanship or academics, but for our purposes, it’s a term developed by Hollywood producers and scriptwriters to describe prose that reflects real reality without moving the plot along. It’s one of the most common errors I encounter in otherwise excellent writing. Even professionals are prone to it.
As an example: Paige’s phone chirped, alerting her to a phone call. She moved her bag off her shoulder, opened it, took out her phone, pressed the Accept Call button, and held it up to her ear.
“My name is Paige,” she introduced herself.
“Good day, Paige.”
She remembered the voice of her fiancé. “Darling Jim!” “Hello!”
“Babe, where are you?”
“I just arrived at the parking garage.”
“Are there any other issues with the car?”
“Oh, a petrol pump employee said it needed repair work.”
“Good. “Do we still have plans for tonight?”
“I’m excited for it, sweetie.”
“Have you heard anything about Alyson?”
“No, but how about her?”
How to Write More Believable Dialogue
Here’s the way that scene should be rendered:
Paige’s phone rang. It was her fiancé, Jim, who told her a story about one of their best friends that caused her to lose track of where she was.
“Cancer?” she mumbled, struggling to speak. “I had no idea Alyson was unwell. Didn’t you?”
No one, believe me, will ask how she knew the caller was Jim. Is it necessary to remind anyone?
- What did the chirp mean when it said she had a call?
- Is her phone in her purse?
- Is her purse slung over her shoulder?
- Is she supposed to open it to get her phone?
- She has to press a button to answer the phone?
- Is it necessary to place the phone to one’s ear in order to hear and speak?
- She answers the phone and introduces herself to the caller.
People who love you may also love your writing and tell you how well you describe what it’s like to answer a cell phone in real life.
It demonstrates your ability to accurately mimic real life. That’s fantastic. Don’t be too hard on yourself; we’ve all done it. Just stop. 🙂 Let the amateurs handle it. Differentiate yourself from the market by detecting and eliminating minor details like this. Go deep. Continue past the surface. Mine your emotions, thoughts, heart, and soul. Remember how you felt when you got such bad news about someone you cared about, and take the reader on the journey you promised them when they picked up your narrative. “Jim, graciously take a rain check for tonight,” Paige remarked. I needed to see her. ”
If you use the techniques and skills I’ve talked about here to write your own dialogue, I think you’ll see an improvement in your writing right away.