Saturday, July 27, 2013

8 Tips For Writing Great Dialogue

If you're a fiction writer, great dialogue can transform your prose from bland to sublime. But it can take a lot of work to make your characters sound natural. Here are some tips from the trenches ...

1. Focus on voice
Read the dialogue out loud and listen to your characters. If their voices aren't distinct, go back and revise, keeping in mind that each character has his or her own vocabulary and verbal tics, dictated by personality, age, education level, attitude, etc.

2. Know what to leave out
In real life, conversations are filled with pauses, repetition, interruptions, interjections and all sorts of stalling tactics that may have no place in your fiction. Dialogue that reads like a transcript will leave readers cold, no matter how authentic it is.

3. Say good-bye to hellos
Don't get bogged down in greetings between your characters. Yes, in real life people say hello, how are you, nice to meet you, etc., but you will drag down your prose if you include these in your fiction. 

4. Include indirect responses
Nothing livens dialogue like having your characters respond to questions with indirect answers. For example, consider this perfectly fine exchange:
"I brought it there," he said. "The ... the lady. She asked me to."
"The small woman in a hat?"
"Yes, that's her."
          But notice how much more life it has when the question is answered indirectly:
"I brought it there," he said. "The ... the lady. She asked me to."
"The small woman in a hat?"
His eyes went wide. "You seen her?"

5. Dialectic spellin' ain't gettin' ya nowhere
Don't make the mistake of thinking dialectic spelling adds to the authenticity of your dialogue. In fact, it pulls the reader out of the story, as he or she struggles to decode the words. It slows down the experience and makes the reader more conscious of the author's presence. Instead, focus on word choice to make the point about your character's accent.

6. Don't use synonyms for "said"
Stephen King has noted that "said" is an invisible word to readers. That is, we barely notice it. But if you substitute it with one of the dozens of synonyms, such as stated, declared, intoned, exclaimed, remarked, replied, uttered, muttered, etc., your prose will sound stilted and overwritten.

7. Omit tags when possible
When only two characters are involved in the conversation, you can often omit the dialogue tags entirely.  However, don't go more than four lines without giving the reader a clue as to who's speaking.

If multiple characters are involved in a scene, you have to give some indication of who's speaking for each line of dialogue. However, you  don't have to tag every line. A bit of action can serve as a cue.  Example:

            “I mean, you can’t move in period.”
            He laughed. “Okay, I get it. I won’t pressure you about the garage anymore. At least for now.” He snapped his fingers at the waiter. “Can we see menus, please?”

8. Don't put exposition in dialogue
 If you're tempted to use dialogue to fill the reader in on backstory, ask yourself if a person would  actually say that. If not, put the exposition into the narrative, where it belongs. For instance, see if this sounds believable to you:

"Katie, the last time we saw each other you still had your arm in a cast from that terrible car accident you were in. Are you feeling better?"

Here's a possible rewrite:

She shook his hand and he was impressed by her grip. The last time they saw each other she was still in a cast, recovering from the car accident. "You look great," he said.

Do you have any special tips for writers who want to give their dialogue an extra edge? If so, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks!
Ellen Meister is the author of four novels, including FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER, which is in stores now. She teaches creative writing at Hofstra University Continuing Education and runs a Facebook page for fans of Dorothy Parker. For more information, visit Ellen's website at


  1. What a great list of tips. I'm saving it for later reference.

  2. So glad you found it useful, Margay!

  3. #5! Soooo #5! I twitch every time I read dialect.

    But really, your first tip is one of my favorites. It's one of the things I do in edits. I strip out all the narrative and just read the dialogue as if it's a play to see if it flows well and makes sense.

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