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How To Write Great Dialogue

Updated on September 5, 2011

Dialogue's main purpose

Dialogue is the backbone of your story. It 's the framework on which the plot is built. Well crafted dialogue tells the reader who the characters are. If you can give each of your characters individual traits, unique manners of speech, ticks, stutters, speech patterns, or accents, they will stand apart from each other. You will have a cast of interesting multifaceted individuals populating your story. Show emotion and reveal mood through dialogue. Don't tell us Mary was upset, show us through what she says and how she says it.

Aside from giving your story blocks to weave your plot around, dialogue serves to keep the action moving forwards. If the conversation doesn't propel the characters into some new place or a different situation, then it probably isn't necessary to the story.

The third main purpose of dialogue is to keep the reader engaged in the story. It can foreshadow coming events and reveal the motivation behind your characters actions.

Believable dialogue
Believable dialogue

The Do's of dialogue

If you want your dialogue to sparkle, there are several dos and don'ts to consider.

Do use clever banter such as flirting, put-downs, and sarcasm. These are the things that make for memorable characters and allows for great interaction between the players in your story.

Do hint at what's going on. Dance around a bit. Be evasive.  Don't let your characters say exactly what they mean.  Make the reader feel smart.  If the dialogue is well written, they'll figure out what he really means and appreciate the fact that you didn't feel the need to spell it out with 'on the nose' dialogue.

Do tell who your character is through his dialogue by personalizing the way he talks.  As I said above, make your characters individuals by using creative dialogue traits.

Do keep your conversations short. Cut off words. Pause. Leave ending thoughts hanging. Use contractions.  This is how real people talk in the real world.  We use incomplete sentences.  We interupt each other and cut each other off.  We start sentences and don't finish them.  These things will make your dialogue feel real and pull your readers into the story.

Do have your character reveal his own individual view of the world through his dialogue.  How does your character feel about the current situation he's in?  How does he feel about the world around him?  These things can be revealed through the conversations he has with the characters he encounters in the adventure you are sending him on.

Do show the reader your character's unique sense of humor.  Everyone likes clever people.  If you have clever characters, and they reveal this through the way they talk and respond to others in the story, then you will be building memorable characters that your reader cares about.

Great dialogue
Great dialogue

The Don'ts of dialogue

Don't make characters sound the same. Give each one his own individual voice.  I know, I've this is the third time for this, but it is so important to make each character stand apart.  Dialogue is the tool to use to accomplish this.

Don't use cliches. Be original.  Unless you've decided to have your character's unique voice to be that he talks in cliches, don't use them.  Take the time to be interesting and original.  The end result will be well worth the effort.

Don't tell us how your character feels or what he's thinking. Show the reader through what he says or how he says it.  The reader doesn't want the narrator telling him that character A is sad or lonely or in pain.  Use dialogue to reveal these things.  Everything is more interesting if it is discovered via a conversation.

Don't respond to a direct question. Instead, respond with another question or delay a response.  Don't answer that question right away.  Let the character ponder, or deflect the question with another.  Tell us how the character feels about the question and who asked it, by his response or lack of one.

Don't be afraid to add silence.  Silence can be very revealing.  Use it to you advantage.

Last but certainly not least,

Subtext, subtext, subtext!

Characters should rarely say what they mean.  Again this goes back to not using 'on the nose dialogue'.  So much of a character's personality, emotions, and just how he sees himself in the world you have created for him, can be revealed through subtext.

By implementing some of the above elements into your dialogue you will have characters that jump off the page and give the reader an enjoyable ride.


Submit a Comment

  • profile image

    jason gene 6 years ago

    Good info. I'd like to see examples after a piece

    of info is given. This brings the point home much

    faster to your reader..

  • Tesa Adams profile image

    Tesa Adams 8 years ago from Austin, Texas

    Good info that I can definitely put into good use.

  • Sullifax profile image

    Sullifax 8 years ago from Talent, OR

    Nice work. I will try to remember your tips.