How to Write Dialogue That Works

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how to write dialogueDoes the dialogue you write bore you?

If it does, 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 as a writer is to make every word count. That’s the best way to keep your reader riveted until the final page—no small task.

Knowing how to write compelling dialogue starts right there—making every word count.

Readers love dialogue for many reasons:

● It breaks up intimidating blocks of copy containing a lot of narrative summary.

● It differentiates (through dialect and word choice) and reveals characters.

● Done well, it can move the story along without author intrusion.

But, as you have likely discovered, writing great dialogue is hard. If yours is bloated or in any other way uninteresting, readers won’t stay with you long.

So how about we leave them no choice?

3 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 every needless word.

Obviously, you wouldn’t render a conversation the way a court transcript includes repetition and even um, ah, uh, etc. But further, see how much you can chop without losing the point. Like this:

“What do you want to do this Sunday? I thought We could go to the amusement park.”

“I was thinking about renting a rowboat on one of the lakes.”

“Oh, 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 out the dead wood to keep to the point. You’ll be surprised by how much power it adds to your prose.

2. Reveal Backstory

Sprinkling 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.

Example:

As they emerged from the car and 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 will stay with the story until then?

As the story moves along, you can continue to reveal more and more about your protagonist’s past and have your story come full circle.

This technique accomplishes two things at once: 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 describe them as sarcastic, witty, narcissistic, kind, or anything else. The reader will know from how they interact with others and their choice of words.

Avoid the Cardinal Sin of Dialogue

The last thing you want is to be guilty of on-the-nose writing, especially in dialogue. Rather, cut and reveal, and you’ll immediately see the difference. And so will your reader.

In the comments, ask any questions regarding how to write dialogue.

Related Posts:

How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps

How to Write a Short Story That Captivates Your Reader

How to Write a Memoir: A 3-Step Guide

 

  • Glenda

    So, even if a real person speaks in a certain, say lengthy way and you want to emulate that in a character…it’s better to cut dialogue? A friend recently told me a story involving southern ladies who “Take until Midnight to finish a sentence.”

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Correct! And that’s the way to communicate it to the reader. Sure, you can emulate a person slow to get to her point, maybe in the first dependent clause, but then say in essence what your friend said. Rambling talkers bore people, so don’t let them bore your reader. Maybe something like this:

      “I’ve been wanting to tell you all about this,” Blanche began, signalling one of her interminable yarns, “and I’m glad I finally have the time.”

      She may have had the time, but I didn’t. Still I forced myself to listen as she [and here you summarize it so your readers doesn’t suffer]…

      • Love this example. Good question and good answer. Thank you!

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Thanks, Laura. :)

      • Wesley G Vaughn

        I’ve seen that method used, and it works.

  • How do you handle dialogue when writing a first-person interview? Since the focus is on the other person, are there any special rules? (Hint hint for a lesson on interviewing!:)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Interviews are by definition first-person. But if you mean your subject’s relaying of a conversation, if can go like this:

      That was when I knew I might have something worth producing, when Jeremy told me. He said, “Bob, if I were you, I’d even risk going into debt to get this to the public.”

      I said, “But if that’s true, should I have to? Couldn’t I find someone who’d want to buy it from me?”

      Bob said, “Sure, that’s the ideal, but I’m saying, short of that…”

    • Glenda

      Maybe something like, The Five Best Interviewing Techniques? :)

      • I know of only one effective interviewing technique, but it has lots of elements, including using the right equipment, etc. I’d probably lean toward that.

        • Glenda

          One effective interviewing technique. Intriguing. Would that be putting people at ease? (A review of Chapter 2 of Writing for the Soul). Even if I guessed wrong, what is your secret of putting people at ease?

          A lesson in interviewing. Yes, please! :)

  • Rebecca Hricko

    This seems to be more of the same rule to keep it short and sweet, which should make the lesson easier for me to remember… I hope! Thank you, this is very helpful.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Oh, no, not short. Tight. Big difference. I don’t care if a book is 2,000 pages, or some bit of dialogue is more than a paragraph, provided it’s tight. No needless words.

      In fact, if a book is tight and good, it’s never long enough. (And the opposite is also true.) :)

      • Rebecca Hricko

        Point taken, thank you for the clarification :)

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Of course I knew what you meant. :)

  • Laura Drumb

    You made the following statement but I don’t understand it. Can you clarify it for me? “The last thing you want is to be guilty of on-the-nose writing, especially in dialogue. Rather, cut and reveal, and you’ll immediately see the difference. And so will your reader.”

    Thanks so much, great info!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      ‘Cut’ referred to point 1, ‘Reveal’ to point 2, and if you click on the phrase on-the-nose in the blog, it’ll take you to a post I wrote on that subject. Sorry I didn’t make that clearer and hope you find it helpful. Thanks for your kind comment too, Laura.

  • Wesley G Vaughn

    “so your readers doesn’t suffer”
    We edit so the reader doesn’t suffer if she or he is hyper-conscious of grammar.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks for catching that typo, Wesley. Fixed: ‘reader’ singular.

      And what we’re editing in the case of that example is overlong dialogue so the reader doesn’t get bored. If we leave bad grammar in–unless it’s part of a character’s makeup–we’re not going to sell our manuscripts anyway.

      • Wesley G Vaughn

        You’re welcome.
        And, “Gotcha! ” I get tired of oversaid “said.”

  • Karen Crider

    Thanks for the article. I love dialogue. I like it punchy and full of humor and depth. It’s like saying, I like chocolate chips in my cookies. I need that flavor, without them it just another cookie. Dialogue adds flavor to whatever you are writing. I have just finished my first screen play of 107 pages of dialogue. It was fun. It was challenging and I loved it. But the editing is endless. I love that too.But I am amazed at how a writer can write something, have fun with it, only to realize a week later, it needs even more editing.. Dialogue is my favorite. BTW, did you get my dialogue concerning my account? I had some dialogue concerning it, when I was told I needed to email you. Thanks.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Not sure, Karen. Did you write me at wecare@JerryJenkins.com? If so, someone on the team will try to solve it. If you don’t hear back soon, let me know here.

  • Michele Partain

    How do you get a feeling for a particular style of dialogue? e.g. if a teenager is speaking, and I’m currently not around any teenagers, is there a way to get a quick immersion in the way one would speak today? Ten years ago my sons made fun of some of my word choices, so I know some words would not be authentic coming from a teen’s mouth…

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That’s the problem, Michele. Any dialogue you write for a teenager could be dated the next week or so after you’ve written it. I would advise not trying to mimic it but rather say that the kid was nearly unintelligible with his slang and a newly-minted words. Then, when you do quote him, stick to the point of the dialogue, maybe represent him as a lazy talker, and the reader will assume what you’ve said.

      Perhaps something like:

      “I dunno. Don’t care. Jes’ tell me what you want me to do.”

  • Judy Peterman Blackburn

    Hi Jerry,
    Thank you for another great post. Dialogue has been a hard one for me, but I’m learning to do it better. I go back through my stories and see a lot of “that” and “was” in the story and take them out as much as I can. :)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good, Judy, thanks!

  • Joy McLaughlin

    Jerry, I’m new to your community. I’m so blessed by your willingness to share your knowledge and wisdom. I’m in the middle of my first novel and only wish I’d found you sooner, but that’s what editing is all about, right? Blessings to you!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Exactly, Joy. Good to have you with us!

      • Joy McLaughlin

        Thanks!

  • John Tucker

    I often wonder how often to say, … He said. I’m now working on another fiction book and doing my best to cut down on He said, She said. If it’s obvious to the reader which character is talking, I don’t think I have to say He said. I can let the conversation flow for a while before I have to let the reader know who said what. Is this true for dialogue?

    • It is, John. We want to lean toward ‘said’ over anything else, but toward nothing whenever possible. There are several ways to avoid any dialogue attribution.

      1–Describe an action first, then put the line of dialogue on the same line. Mary dropped onto the couch. “What a day!”

      2–Have the characters call each other by name, but not so much more than in real life that it sounds phony. Jim sighed. You as whipped as I am, John?”

      “You can say that again.”

      3–Make sure the characters’ speech patterns are distinct. “I’d sure as heck like to borrow this here book, ma’am.”

      “Certainly, sir.”

      “What kinda penalty if I git ‘er back late?”

      “We’re authorized to level a fine of 25 cents per day.”

      John, I once experimented with writing an entire novel without one bit of dialogue attribution. It’s called The Last Operative and no one noticed–not an editor, not a reviewer, not a reader. http://amzn.to/2oePt5B
      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2d254bdafa660621df343cf6bd171d1bd9c8755fbb3eba0f6deca8c7332147a7.jpg

      • John Tucker

        Thanks for the great information. You have a knack at helping us see into our writing to make it clearer, succincter, and powerful. You rock!

  • Sabrina Iskembaeva

    Hallo Jerry,
    I am new to your community and just wanted to say thank you for your effort!
    I am only playing with the idea of writing a book someday. Maybe, I never will. But I find your advices to be very helpful

  • Caroline Sciriha

    Thanks for this post. Dialogue can be tricky. I find differentiating between characters in terms of speech rhythm difficult. If you have a set of characters with similar backgrounds, how can you make them sound distinct? I’d like to mention another point if I may – I’m ok with using he/she said, but he/she asked often sounds wrong and I avoid it by using an action beat. Is it just me?!

    • Let me take the second issue first: I haven’t used ‘asked’ in years. Why would you ever need to? ‘Asked’ following a question mark is redundant, so I use ‘said’ there too, if I need any attribution.

      As for characters with similar backgrounds speaking alike, I haven’t found that even in real life. I am one of four males born within 11 years (the older three of us within three years), and we were all raised in the same house by the same parents. While a couple of us sound alike–tone-wise–on the phone, each of the four of us has a distinct voice because of speed, inflection, and word choice. One of my brothers has been described as me with no governor. He simply more plain spoken than I. Where I am diplomatic, he’s blunt.

      He would have said, “Jerry’s been described as me with a governor. He worries about what people think; I don’t.”

      I think there are all kinds of ways differentiate between even people of like backgrounds, though I agree it takes a little more creativity.

  • Adam Muly

    Hey Mr. Jenkins, I really enjoy reading your articles! I am seventeen, and I am currently writing my first novel. I have somewhat of a hard time with dialogue. Have you ever felt obligated to have a character speak, but you do not have anything you want/need them to say? If so what do you suggest I do?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Adam. When you feel obligated to have a character speak, but there’s nothing demanded by the story, get over the obligation. :) If they have nothing to add, maybe they shouldn’t even be present in the scene. That’s one problem of overpopulating a scene, feeling like you need something for everyone to do or say to justify their presence. Always think reader-first and make every word count.

      • Adam Muly

        Thank you!

  • I make a habit of reading my dialogue aloud. As I do, I ask myself, “Do people really talk this way? If I overheard this conversation, would I suspect it was scripted?” I discover a lot of weak dialogue this way.

    • That’s always an eyeopener, isn’t it? First drafts of conversations are almost always guilty of the ‘scripted’ tag.

  • This is awesome advice. I learned one tip (trick?) that I’ve used, but I think I might overuse it, you know? To set up a thought (inside dialogue) precede it with an action: She held her head, resting her arms on the desk. Will I ever get this article finished? she thought.

    Does this work for verbal dialogue? Have you heard of this trick before?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I have, Rachel, and just like an action before quoting dialogue, it’s a way of having the character express something without having to attribute it (she said, she thought, etc.). You always want to avoid over-explaining stuff you’ve already made clear (like the fact that she’s thinking). And also watch logical sequence. Don’t we rest our ELBOWS on the desk, and THEN
      hold our head?

      So for yours, I would render it this way:

      She leaned her elbows on the desk and held her head. Will I ever get this article finished?

  • Sheri Boles

    Hi Jerry. Got a question. How important is historical accuracy in a work of fiction? I didn’t really do a lot of research for my manuscript, I just sat down and WROTE. Now I’m starting to question myself. Eek!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Very important for the sake of credibility and believability. The part you make up doesn’t have to be researched, of course. But if your setting, details, customs, manners, speech patterns, lifestyles, etc., are anachronistic (out of time, like, say, rock music in the 1940s) or illogical, the fictional construct falls apart.

      What are you questioning in your own manuscript?

      • Sheri Boles

        My manuscript is set in the 12th century. I made a reference to Shakespeare, but I realized later he wasn’t born until th 16th century. It flowed so well in the story, But it’s historically inaccurate. Now I need to re-write that area. Thanks.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          That’s exactly the kind of thing research is for, Sheri. I once read a manuscript by a writer who set the story in caveman days and said the main character came running from the great hunt and into the cave like the 4 o’clock express out of Philly.

          • Sheri Boles

            Wow, that fast? Lol! The guy must have been a time traveler. I don’t think Shakespeare was, so I’ll be removing him from my manuscript. Thanks for the help! :-)

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this and learned so much. I’m guessing one of the reasons your dialogue works is because you brought us into it as well as only giving us what was necessary. We didn’t hear about it, we were there. And I always love that. Speaking of dialogue, I absolutely loved your interview with Jeff Goins. Again, it felt like we were there too, but we didn’t need to add anything. And when you shared about being there for your kids. I smiled big.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Anne. The idea of making the readers feel as if they are “there” is a matter of putting the good stuff on stage, not merely recounted after the fact by characters who WERE there.

      • Jerry, you say we should take out anything excess. So are you opposed to us talking like the person would talk, when they do put in fluff and everything else??

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          No, you want to represent how they talk, so the first time you quote them you might use a little more than later, just to establish that. But if they bore other characters (and that’s their identity), you don’t want to risk them also boring the reader. Just like if you told me about a friend of yours who doesn’t know how to quit talking and goes on and on and follows rabbit trails that lead nowhere, if you then repeated everything they said, you’d bore me too. What we do in real life is to say something like, “I got trapped by George who spent five minutes telling me how he almost ran out of gas. Thought I was gonna die before I could interrupt him to tell him I was late.”

          So in a novel, when that character is on stage, establish the problem, but for the sake of the reader, keep things moving. Something like this:

          As usual, George looked like he couldn’t wait to break into the conversation, and Julie knew once he got started he wouldn’t likely notice that everyone else was either rolling their eyes or looking for a chance to slip way.

          “I mean, the gas gauge was bottomed out and that little light was flickering. I didn’t think I’d make it to the gas station!”

          “Oh, no!” Mary said, apparently unaware of the unwritten rule to not encourage George. “But you made it!”

          “I did,” he said, “but when I was sitting at the last stop light, I thought I could feel the car shimmy, you know, like they do when they’re about to peter out. Well…”

          By now others we backing away…

          Then, later in the story, if/when he reappears, just a brief mention will remind the reader that he’s the verbose one. It can be as subtle as, “…and Julie panicked when she saw George headed her way. She simply didn’t have time for him just then, so she went on the offensive. Before he could begin one of his endless stories, she said, ‘George! Glad you’re here! Could you make sure no one parks in the driveway so the caterer can get in? I have to run to the kitchen.”

          • Once again in Jerry-like fashion you showed us how. Thank you. And I’d go on and on, but I don’t want you to refer to me as another George, which, by the way is funny because my brother is George and George as well. :)

  • Matthew Landadio

    I have a question. Is it bad if I changed point of view in a series? I don’t mean character-wise. I mean like, what if my first book was a third person view book. Could the sequel be a POV?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Sure, readers might get a kick out of it. I assume it would be the same lead character, so they would go from reading about him to hearing directly from him. You could even move to a first-person narrative from another character (like Watson in Sherlock Holmes), as long as it best serves the reader and the story.

      • Matthew Landadio

        okay, thank you!

  • Lindsey Christine Kesel

    Hi Jerry, I was just curious to see an example of “on-the-nose writing” vs. cut and revealing through dialogue…

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      http://bit.ly/1boPgVI
      There you go; hope it helps.

      • Lindsey Christine Kesel

        This is so valuable, thank you Jerry!

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Thanks, Lindsey!

  • Jamie Jenkins

    Thanks for this post, Jerry! I can’t think of any questions at this time, but all the info is great. I’ll be applying it to my writing.

  • Karen F

    When including a phone conversation in dialogue, is it ok to use italics to set off the “other” end of the conversation with your character?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      You can, but I would just treat it as a normal conversation, as if they were in each other’s presence.

      • Karen F

        Thanks for such prompt answer!