Writing Dialogue – Tips

By Jordan Dane

I’ve always loved writing dialogue. It’s the backbone to a scene for me. When I had my day job and had to sneak off to write during my lunch hour, I first fashioned the scene with dialogue, using it as a framework for the other layers. I wrote the lines like a screenplay. I usually only had time to draft a scene or two that I would work on once I got home.

The next layer would be the body language and how the scene would move between the lines, to add the nuance of the people being together to add more context. I’d also layer in setting. And the last thing I would add was internal narrative to give color to my characters. I called this method, BUILDING AN ONION FROM THE INSIDE OUT and it’s part of my FOR WRITERS resources page – the post on START WITH A BANG, IT’S ALL ABOUT PACE. I developed a sparse style that had a beginning, middle and close to each scene that usually ended with a foreshadowing or memorable image between the characters to add an element of pace. But the backbone to all of this was DIALOGUE.

Regardless whether dialogue comes easily to you or is a challenge to write, it is an essential element to a scene and a book. Internal dialogue adds color and voice to your work. And the dialogue between the characters can make each one distinctive and add rich context to the world you are building. An excellent example of memorable world building and dialogue that adds depth is Elmore Leonard.

If you have recommendations on other authors who have stood out in your mind for memorable dialogue, I would love to hear your thoughts. But here are a few four tips to start with:


1.) Make it Short & Sweet – Long, rambling dialogue can lose the reader. It’s my belief that the human eye needs the relief of the white page, otherwise you run the risk of losing the punch and pace. If you have one character with a long diatribe, I would suggest finding ways to break it up with discussion from other characters or action to give it pace and flow.

2.) Make it Real – Listen to real chatter between two people. They may use slang, contractions, or fragmented sentences. Too much slang can date the book or alienate a certain audience, so be careful not to pepper too much into your book, but learn what makes dialogue sound real by listening to others. Certain phrases, pauses, body language interludes can add depth here. Another way to listen to dialogue is focusing on the radio, the banter between DJs for example.

3.) Be Willing to Break Grammar Rules – Sticking strictly to proper grammar and the King’s English can make dialogue sound stilted and formal. Some characters demand real rule breaking, yet you may have one that is educated and proper. Seeing the contrast from that kind of character to a street kid, for example, can make the dialogue interesting, but the name of the game is to make each voice distinctive and interesting. It’s funny that I usually write dialogue without contractions, but have to go back and add them later. Not sure why that is, but it’s one of my edit reviews, to make sure the dialogue flows and sounds real.

4.) Read it aloud – I can’t stress how important I think this is. Read your dialogue aloud. If you stumble on certain words, change them. Make them roll off the tongue. You won’t regret taking the time and it will help with finding those pesky typos too.

1.) Start a new line when a new character comes on the scene. I also like to drop down lines to give more white space for the reader’s eye. So try not to embed dialogue within a paragraph of narrative.

2.) Keep tags simple but clear. With too many lines strung together, the reader can lose track of who said what. But if there is only one man and one woman, there’s no need to use their first names over and over. The generic ‘he’ or ‘she’ said will suffice. And overuse of adverbs and too many repeats of body language/movements can stick out to irritate an alert reader. For example, instead of a simple ‘he said,’ an author might make the mistake of using ‘Joe chortled mockingly.’ (Oy, the overwriting and too much repetition can wear on a reader. The basic use of ‘he said’ becomes part of the background white noise and not a distraction that could pull the reader from the story.)

3.) Pepper in a name once in a while, to remind the reader who is talking. After pages of ‘he said,’ they could forget who was speaking, especially if it’s two people of the same gender. Then, using first names becomes more important. Or use a generic description of the character to break up the pattern of first names, something like ‘the detective said.’

If you have any tips on writing dialogue and what works for you, or authors who write noteworthy dialogue, please share your thoughts with your fellow TKZers.

23 thoughts on “Writing Dialogue – Tips

  1. Good and timely tips, Jordan. When I teach dialogue I always tell them it’s the fastest way to improve a MS…or sink it. If an agent or editor sees good, crisp, differentiated dialogue, they gain confidence in the writer. These tips will help a great deal.

    I very much track with you about writing dialogue as a “framework.” It’s a great way to get characters almost “improvising” a scene, finding the real hot spot.

    Good stuff.

  2. Thanks, Jim. I stumbled upon my method because of lunch time constraints & because I had to squeeze in my writing time anywhere I could. But in hindsight, I taught myself to visualize the scene & hear those voices & see the action as if I were eavesdropping.

    I also instinctively learned about “layering,” a term I wasn’t familiar with until years later. All of this technique I picked up on because of my reading. It’s so important to read & love the genre you want to write.

    Thanks for your sage advice, Jim.

  3. I love writing dialogue and it’s something my writing partners regularly compliment me about, so I assume I am pretty good at it. I can thank being a motor-mouth and coming from a family with an extremely sarcastic sense of humor for that.

    One of the best tips I’ve read on using tags was to use body language or stage direction in place of “he said” whenever possible. You can’t replace them all, of course, but it’s a great way to break up the “talking heads” feeling.

    I’m still experimenting with finding a balance between talking and stage direction. Like you, I like to write dialogue in the first pass, and then layer in the other elements, but I find if I am not careful, the scene still feels like two people talking at each other. I try to think of new and interesting stage direction instead of having characters constantly fiddling with items in their pockets and walking across the room.

    *cough* More ideas on stage direction would be a great post for the TKZ.

    Thanks for the wonderful post, Jordan, and the awesome “For Writers” section you have.

  4. Great tips, Jordan. I want to add to your tip #4 with a #4a. If possible, let someone else read your dialogue aloud to you. My wife often does this for me. Hearing the character’s words without having to read them lets you concentrate on other issues. And if your reading partner stumbles, you know some future reader might, too.

  5. Excellent, timely post. I write dialogue in exactly the same way Jordan. Hearing your description of the same process I use was a real boost to my confidence. Thank you.

    Some additional tips:
    * You can use natural elements from the location where the conversation is happening to break-up or connect the dialogue. Examples:
    ** In a kitchen scene, use the beep of a microwave to stop a conversation thread before it dies, or to cut off a blustery talker. This provides additional opportunities to break up the dialogue when one character removes something from the microwave (Ow, hot!) moves it to the counter (klunk, scrape), etc. Opportunities to incorporate multiple senses too.
    ** In a walk-along-the-road, you could mention a bird tweeting in the tree. Then mention the bird following the walker to subconsciously connect different threads of dialogue. Or have a car horn end a sentence short.
    * All stage direction should be short and fluid. Write all the beats down separately (Microwave ding. Move to counter. Silverware from the drawer, etc.) then weave them into your dialogue, one beat per line of *that* character generally is good. Spread them out. The fewer words and details the better if you only want to create atmosphere and prevent the dialogue from becoming rote or dull.
    * My final piece of advice: As a last step, perform separate read-throughs for each character. Read *only* that character’s dialogue to make sure it sounds consistent with everything else they say. Then you can differentiate how each of your characters talk. Matt Bird of the Cockeyed Caravan has the wonderful suggestion of giving each of your characters a unique metaphor family to determine their default voice: Dan Rather’s is rural Texas.

  6. I love this method. It sounds like something that could work for me. I enjoy dialogue quite a bit, enough of it goes on in my head as it is. It would at least get the chatter out and onto the page, and I can worry about making sense of it later! 🙂

  7. Thanks for the tips, Jordan. Like you, I love writing dialogue. I love it so much I find myself wondering why I don’t write stage plays since they’re so talky. Crafting scenes, describing stuff as it relates to the story, etc. rocks my boat too much, I guess.

  8. Hey Elizabeth–I can really relate to your family. Soooo familiar.

    I love your reference to stage direction. I’m of the school to minimize tags in general. Your idea to have a balance is great. It can add voice too. Love it.

    I only insert stage direction type lines, like:

    “What the hell is your problem?” She cocked her hip and glared as if her eyes were weapons.

  9. Great suggestion, Joe. One of our local writers group here in San Antonio, the San Antonio Writers Guild (SAWG), makes a practice of others reading an author’s work for critique at their weekly sessions. I totally agree that having someone else read your work is a great idea.

  10. OMG, Daniel. I love your comment. I’ve used setting to accentuate the pauses and conflicts in the dialogue with two people at odds with each other.

    Man, GREAT points and examples.

    In one scene I was particularly fond of, a woman who had lost her mother and father (and now risked losing the man she loved) sat at her dinner table in the home she’d inherited from her dead parents. She stares at the wine stains on a lace table cloth, hears the ticking family clock during the strained silence between them, and in her final argument with him before he storms out, she feels the eyes of her family staring at her from their framed portraits.

    Thank you, thank you for your comment and examples, Daniel.

    In my YA book – In the Arms of Stone Angels – I use imagery and setting to trigger flashback memories of my teen girl. This is the way memory works anyway. So when she sees a color, it reminds of her something in her past with a boy. Smell is another great memory trigger.

    Wow. You’ve nailed this. Thanks.

  11. Hey Diane–I can relate to the voices in your head, because I hear them in mine too. HA! That’s a good thing. I really believe that if you can actually hear them, you can nurture them into a great scene.

  12. Hey Charmaine–That’s the way I feel about understanding the structure of screenplays. After you get into it, you can appreciate the similarities.

    I know James Scott Bell comes from that background and has writing craft books on the subject. I also have a reference to the 9-Act Screenplay structure on my FOR WRITERS page where you can see the similarities to the Hero’s journey plotting framework. Understanding and exploring new things like this can only make you a better writer.

    Great comment.

  13. Jordan –

    I value TKZ primarily for the discussions relating to the “how to” of writing. Another great post. Thank you

  14. Oy…I’ve been so busy at the ‘big-boy job’ lately that I’ve not been here much you guys seem to have hit on some very good points all in a row lately. Dialogue is my favourite, both when writing and when narrating. When writing I feel like I’m having the conversation instead of creating the conversation. When narrating, well let’s just say that I love playing all the parts and well done dialogue, a la Gilstrap and Bell for instance, has made my kids come knocking on my studio door to find out if I’m alright from either the tension or the laughter.

    Dialogue makes the characters.

  15. Thanks, Basil. I was talking to a thriller author friend of mine, telling him about self-publishing in audio. I gave him your name for narrator. How are you at accents?

  16. Why thank you Jordan. As far as accents go I can imitate almost any if I’ve got a sample.

    Vell, my Cherman ees faehly gut, ant maee LRRussian hes coust a few to start blehbering at me as eef ayee nyew vwat dhey weer seying.

    Ah kin do suthern pertie wayul, dependin’ on the rejyun.

    And my British has been mistaken for native once or twice…even once in Manchester…nowu-ah-meen, yeh.

  17. Awesome post. I love dialogue and peppering it with bits of humor. I’m not above cadging a short quip from a show or movie from years ago.

    One of my favs, “However, I believe in leadership by lack of example.”

    Care to guess my source?

    My only micro-tip. When a character has a foreign accent. Instead of trying to throw in too much phonetic stuff, eliminate all contractions. First, when you learn a language, you learn it formally, without patois. Second, it makes it just a bit awkward to read and throws off the cadence. It registers as an accent. Second, throw in a foreign language swear word or quip. Translation is seldom needed, context carries it.

    Love good dialogue!

  18. Great stuff, Terri. Thanks for contributing. One of my favorite laugh out loud reads came in a Robert Crais book. Elvis Cole had been on surveillance and while he was eating (the guy loves to eat while he’s on stake out), a neighbor walked his Chihuahua to his front lawn and proceeded to pinch a loaf. He decribed how the dog strained and moved while he did his business. And the next line was – You see some ugly things in my line of work.

    I was at the airport waiting for departure and I snorted a laugh and had to call my husband to read him the scene.

    Crais has some great one liners and a real feel for Elvis and Joe.

    You’re quote line sounds like something Richard Dean Anderson’s character would have said on Stargate. HA!

    I also loved your suggestions regarding foreign accents. My upcoming book in Dec has a British uncle and his nephew. The nephew is more American-ized, but the uncle was fun to pepper in the stilted more formal POV with unique expressions from his generation. I could hear the uncle in my head and grew to love him. Sometimes watching movies with foreign accents can help get your head wrapped around a character.

    Happy writing!

  19. Love the post, love the idea of using dialogue as a framework. I do the exact same thing. I get a clearer picture in my mind if I go sit somewhere, close my eyes, and just write the dialog as I see it. The scene gets etched into my mind and later when I’m adding the extra layers it becomes easier to recall that body language and scenery.

  20. I know, right? Thanks, Ash. When you can see the lines by themselves, you can make sure they are really saying meaty things with sharp insights. Adding too much introspection can become a crutch that can leave dialogue sounding trite and unnecessary, which is the last thing it should be. Dialogue jumpstarts the creative process so the author can make character motivation deeper and more meaningful. I gain insights because of this process. Thanks for your comment, from a kindred spirit.

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