If the dialogue you write bores you, it’ll put your reader to sleep.
And unfortunately, your first reader will be an agent or an editor. You can’t slip anything boring past them.
Your job is to make every word count. That’s the way to keep your reader riveted until the final page—no small task.
Making every word count is how to write compelling dialogue.
Readers love dialogue because:
- It breaks up intimidating blocks of narrative summary.
- It differentiates (through dialect and word choice) and reveals characters.
- Done well, it can move the story without author intrusion.
But, as you have likely discovered, writing great dialogue is hard. If yours is bloated or obvious or telling or is in any other way uninteresting, readers won’t stay with you long.
So how about we leave them no choice?
6 Tips to Writing Effective Dialogue
1. Cut to the Bone
Unless you need to reveal a character as a brainiac or a blowhard pretending to be one, omit needless words.
Obviously, you wouldn’t render a conversation the way a court transcript includes repetition and even um, ah, uh, etc.
But even beyond that, see how much you can chop without losing the point.
“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 short and choppy—just that you’ll cut the dead wood to keep to the point.
You’ll be surprised by how much power it adds to your prose.
2. Reveal Backstory
Layering in backstory through dialogue is another way to keep your reader turning pages.
Hinting at some incident for the first time is an automatic setup that demands a payoff.
As they headed toward the house, Janet whispered, “Can we not have a repeat of Cincinnati?”
Jeanie 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 at some point and stay with the story until they do?
As the story progresses, you can reveal more and more about your protagonist’s past and have your story come full circle.
This accomplishes two things: it offers a setup that should intrigue the reader, and it helps you avoid flashbacks.
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.
4. Be Subtle
Dialogue can accomplish a number of tasks.
Here are three:
1. Subtext—where people say other than what they mean.
This can be fun.
My friend Dr. Dennis E. Hensley sold a short story to a general-market magazine years ago about a girl named Cindy who falls in love with the slightly older boy next door, who sees her as just a little sister type.
When they get to high school, Tommy is the big man on campus, captain of the football team, dating the head cheerleader, and pretty much ignoring Cindy. She’s just his younger neighbor and friend.
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 I 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 without answering it.
Instead, what the character says is so profound and unexpected that it offers a whole new understanding of what’s going on.
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.”
He goes into the children’s cancer ward of a hospital wearing 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 Adams 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. What is it with you? Why don’t you ever think anything I say is funny?”
After several seconds of silence, 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.
The way she responded did not answer 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. Sometimes, you need to quit cracking jokes and just listen.
It’s a great turnaround in the story. And an example of sidestep dialogue.
The old truism that silence can be golden rings true for our last technique.
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.”
Now, 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.
The reader knows because John is saying nothing, and yet saying everything. Silence is golden.
5. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
One way to be certain your dialogue flows is to read it aloud or even act it out.
Doc Hensley uses this method, and when his children were little, they found it amusing.
They would invite friends over, stand outside his closed door, and listen as he acted out his scenes.
He’d say, “I know you stole the loot!” And then he’d jump into a chair and respond, “I didn’t do it! I’m innocent!”
His kids’ friends would say, “Who’s your dad arguing with?” And his daughter would say, “It’s just him.”
Anything that doesn’t sound right won’t read right either, so rewrite it until it does.
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 a worthy effort.
Ironically, it should fit so seamlessly it doesn’t draw attention to itself until fans begin quoting it.
How to Use Dialogue Tags to Identify Speakers
Dialogue attribution tags—he said, she said, etc.—indicate who is speaking.
Resist the urge to get creative here. Said is almost always your best choice.
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 use of reply, retort, exclaim, and declare have become clichéd and archaic.
You’ll still see them occasionally, but I suggest not using them.
Often no attribution is needed.
Use dialogue tags only when the reader wouldn’t otherwise know who’s speaking.
I once wrote an entire novel, The Last Operative, without attributing a single line of dialogue. Not a said, an asked, anything.
I made clear through action who was speaking, and not one reader, even my editor, noticed.
A common error is characters addressing each other by name too often.
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. Rather, end 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.
Use said after the name for the best 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.
The pro would write:
John dropped onto the couch. “I’m beat.”
That shows rather than tells, and because John’s action has been described, we don’t need an attribution tag to know he’s speaking.
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:
- Start a new paragraph for each speaker
- 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,” Jim said.
- The attribution tag goes after the first clause of a compound sentence: “Not tonight,” he said, “not in this weather.”
- 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.
- Action before dialogue takes 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.”
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.”
Contrast those with the dialogue between Tom and his Aunt Polly in Tom Sawyer.
If you’re anything like me, you were laughing from page 1.
“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.
Great dialogue can set the tone for your entire story and also differentiate characters, as we discussed earlier.
Doc Hensley likes to cite how in Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain delineates between Huck the Southern white boy and Jim the runaway slave by just hinting at their respective accents.
Twain doesn’t use tags to tell who’s speaking, yet the reader never confuses the two.
Huck says, “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.
Jim says, “I sho enough did.”
Huck says, “You liar, Jim. You never seen no king.”
Jim says, “I seen foh kings in a deck of cards.”
Huck’s bad grammar and Jim’s sho and foh are the only hints of their dialects.
Contrived phonetic spelling would slow the reading, but look what Twain accomplished with simple choices.
The Cardinal Sin of Dialogue
The last thing you want is to produce on-the-nose dialogue.
Apply to your own work those principles and the tools I’ve outlined here, and I believe you’ll immediately see a huge difference. So will your reader.
In the Comments, ask me any questions regarding how to write dialogue.