How do you write good dialog for your novel or story?
Dialogue means writing down the way that people speak and
communicate. Dialogue does several things in writing:
- it gives the reader information
- it adds depth to the characters
- it makes the story more interesting
Dialogue can be tricky to write well. The best way to learn how
to create believable dialogue is to be observant - listen to
conversations, pay attention to how people speak, and jot down
interesting remarks you overhear. Notice body language and facial
expressions, too. Writers are always eavesdropping to get dialogue
My whole life, I've been a great eavesdropper! - George V. Higgins
When writing dialogue, stay away from all those synonyms for
"said" - the idea is to keep the reader inside the story, and
reading a lot of "he spat," "she expostulated," or "intoned the old
man" just jars the reader right out and makes them aware of the
mechanics behind the story instead. Also, resist the temptation to
add adverbs - "he said bitingly," "she sobbed heartbrokenly," -
show any emotion in the way the characters speak, not in adverbs.
And just use the word "said." It's short, everyone knows what it
means, and the reader can skim right over it without breaking
concentration. Look at these two examples and see which one seems
smoother to you:
"Well, Bob," the scientist sneered bitingly," as you know, the
experiment was a success, thus rendering you completely invisible,
as you requested."
"But," Bob whined in an annoying voice, "I've read all about
this sort of thing. You did something wrong!" "
Nonsense," the scientist scoffed. "What am I going to do
Bob queried worriedly. "You didn't tell me even I wouldn't be
able to see myself!"
"I don't see the need for panic, Bob," the scientist raised one
eyebrow, but never looked up from his computer screen. He continued
to rappidly enter data into the report. "I did explain the
invisibility experiment to you quite thorougly. I'm certain we
discussed this ... little problem. You didn't seem very concerned
before we started, though I did mention that you might have
"You don't understand!" Bob's footsteps tapped from one end of
the lab to the other as he paced. "This never happened in any of
the books I read! None of the superheroes ever had this
"I hardly think that comic books are a sound basis for
scientific experimentation, Bob. You're going to have to come to
grips with it, that's all."
"But what am I going to do? I was only supposed to be invisible
to other people! You didn't tell me I would't be able to see myself
Notice, also, that in the second example, I did not need to
write "Bob said" or "the scientist said" every single time. If you
note the actions of the speaker, then the "he said" is implied, and
the reader can figure out who said what. Also, if the speaker calls
the other character by name, it's obvious who is speaking, so you
don't have to note it. You do need to note the speaker periodically
- about every third line or so - in order to make certain the
reader doesn't get confused. But you do not have to do it each
time. In normal, back-and-forth conversation, the reader will be
able to follow along most of the time without any problem.
Real conversation doesn't translate into believable dialogue.
Listen to people talk, but shortcut what they've said when you
write by cutting out 85 percent of the words they use. - Cynthia
Follow the rules you learned for grammar, though. Double
quotation marks for dialogue, with single quotes for anything the
speaker is quoting another speaker within his/her speech.
"You'll never believe it," Rachel whispered, "but Stan actually
said 'Stick it' to his horrible boss the other day!"
Notice that the comma or other punctuation goes inside the
quotation marks, not outside. You can add other descriptions
besides the dialogue into your chapters. In fact, showing some
action is a good way to indicate the character's emotion and
Each character needs to have an individual way of speaking, too.
This is where your observations come in handy. Does your character
use big words and speak in educated sentences, or does he grunt out
broken fragments using short words? A Harvard graduate will speak
and gesture quite differently from a high-school dropout who drives
a taxicab. Watch out for stereotypes, however - some taxicab
drivers are PhD students or closet intellectuals!
Writing Dialogue with More Than Two Speakers
Many scenes in your story will involve more than just two people
talking. There's no problem adding more speakers - just be sure
that you are very clear about who is talking on each line. You'll
probably want to sprinkle a few more "Bill said," and "Alice said,"
indicators into the section so that the reader doesn't get lost,
but otherwise, it's exactly the same as writing a conversation
between two characters.
Here's how to make a good character dialogue:
- Have a good idea already in your mind what the characters are
going to talk about, and what they're going to say in general.
Until you become a more experienced writer, you won't be able to
"turn the characters loose" because you won't really "know" them as
if they're real people. Experienced writers just have a part in
their outline that says "Character X and Character Y talk about the
problem" and they know the characters well enough to be able to
just start writing it.
- Stay away from the fancy words -- avoid the temptation to use
things like "she exclaimed," "he ejaculated," "the red-headed giant
hissed," or anything besides "he said" or "she said!" The reader
basically ignores the word "said," and your dialogue will flow
along just fine if you stick to using that. When the reader comes
up against some flowery term, it jerks them out of the flow and
interrupts the story inside their head.
- Make it plain who's talking. You don't even have to use "he
said" or "she said" every time! People will go back and forth, with
one paragraph being one character, and the next the other
character. So long as you put in some description that makes it
plain who's talking, the reader can keep up without you having to
put in "he said" after each line.
- Give each character their own way of speaking. People talk
differently -- some use big words, some use small ones. Some use
dialect and slang and some don't. Let the character's dialogue be
part of your description of that character and show the readers
what sort of person they are.
Here's a good example to show you what I mean -- you'll notice
that I've done everything I suggested above (except plan it out in
advance, because I'm using two characters that I "know" very well
inside my head!)
Jess closed the door and slouched against the wall. "That man is
going to drive me crazy!"
Kye sprawled onto the sofa. "I dunno. Kirkham's not that bad.
He's just a little ...."
"Obsessed. That's what he is. I'm going to murder him."
"No, you ain't. What you're gonna do is ignore him. Let him run
around like a squirrel in a trap worrying about how the job's gonna
work out. You and me will stay calm and get it done."
Jess ran a hand through his hair. "Can I at least rough him up a