How to Write Dialogue: 5 Tips for Writing Great Dialogue

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We’ve all read novels where the witty banter between characters is a joy to witness, or where a character surprises us every time they speak. But we’ve also read ones where conversations drag on and on, or where all the characters’ voices sound alike.

No one wants to read the second type, let alone write dialogue like it. But how do you ensure your dialogue stands out? This post will give you five tips for writing great dialogue that will keep your reader eager for more.

Writing Better Dialogue

Ideally, effective dialogue serves three primary purposes: it distinguishes your characters from one another, tells us more about their personalities, and drives the plot forward. Once you get a feel for your characters’ voices, their dialogue will take your book further than any exposition. The following techniques can help you find a distinctive voice that will bring your character to life:

Add emotion through characters’ word choice

The characters' words are just as important as the dialogue tags, if not more so. For example, someone angry might use curse words, scared may hesitate, or excited could stutter or repeat themselves.

Here are a few lines of dialogue from Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Jason has returned to his own universe from a parallel one and is speaking with his son about the man who took over his identity:

“This other version of me…you liked him?”

“He’s not my father.”

“I know, but did you—?”

“He’s not my father.”

With nothing but Jason’s words and the pauses between them, you know immediately that Jason is scared his son preferred the alternate version of him over himself. And when his son answers with four simple words, then repeats them verbatim, you don’t need any more dialogue than that to hear his reassurance that no one can ever take his dad’s place.

Think about your character’s preferred subject matter

We all interact differently depending on what we’re talking about. For example, when it’s something we’re excited about, we instantly open up. But when that conversation shifts to something that bores us, our minds might start wandering, and our engagement will drop off.

Here’s an example from Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit:

“I don’t believe that’s actually the issue there,” Jainan said. It was diffident, but it was an actual interruption—the first real one Kiem had ever heard him make. Kiem paid closer attention. “I think it was shown that the stabilizer seeding there in fact failed owing to fluctuations in the environmental radiation.”

“Well that’s—hm.” Professor Audel peered at him. “You’re not J. Erenlith who published that thesis on regoliths, are you?”

“I—” Jainan stopped, flustered. “I—that was a long time ago.”

As you can tell from Kiem’s reaction, he’s used to Jainan being quiet and unsure of himself. However, when the conversation turns to something Jainan excels in, he opens up for the first time. Afterward, he retreats back into uncertainty.

Your characters are the same—certain things excite them, while others make them clam up. These distinctions will round out their personalities and keep the dialogue compelling.


Remember your character’s goals

Any time your dialogue is feeling aimless or flat, try reminding us of your character’s goals: How is this particular conversation helping, or hindering, their bigger picture? While most characters aren’t bent on every conversation serving their own ends, each dialogue in the book should either support the character’s overall arc or drive the plot forward.

Look at this passage from Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief:

“But you still want to go,” I said, amazed. “You really think you’ll be the one to find Pan?”

“I have to believe that, Percy,” said Grover. “I have to believe Pan can still be awakened.”

I stared at the orange haze of the sky and tried to understand how Grover could pursue a dream that seemed so hopeless. Then again, was I any better?

“How are we going to get into the Underworld?” I asked him. “I mean, what chance do we have against a god?”

After Grover relates his personal goal, the author neatly ties it back to Percy’s overall goal of sneaking into the Underworld and taking a lightning bolt from Hades. Not only does it keep the story on track, but it also engages the reader by reminding them of the characters’ stakes.


Make it unpredictable

As your conversation flows, it’s easy to fall into responses you’d expect, especially if you’re just writing dialogue in a transitional scene between the main character and a minor one. But try to think beyond the first replies that come to mind. Even a line or two during an otherwise banal conversation can bring that minor character to life.

In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Memory, Miles returns home and has a brief interaction with a new guard:

“Good afternoon, Lieutenant Vorkosigan,” the young man said. “They brought your valise a couple hours ago. I scanned it and everything; it’s ready to go in.”

“Thank you, Corporal.” Miles returned his salute. “Been any excitement around here lately?”

“Not really, sir. About the most action we’ve had was the night a feral cat got past the scanner beams and ran into the tanglefield. She apparently thought she was about to be killed and eaten.”

Miles’s eye took in a sandwich wrapper on the floor, shoved against a far wall, and a small saucer of milk. “And, er…was she? Killed, I mean.”

“Oh, no, sir. Fortunately.”

It would have been easy for the author to write some small talk - just a simple exchange of pleasantries between the two characters here, since neither the guard nor cat play a significant part, but by coming up with an unpredictable response from the guard instead, she instantly made a minor character more interesting and memorable.


Avoid on-the-nose dialogue by using subtext

Often, people don’t say exactly what they’re thinking. Maybe they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, maybe the moment isn’t right, or maybe they need time to process something. But that doesn’t mean their strong emotions are absent from their dialogue. As you write a scene, find ways to let subtext color the dialogue without the character speaking directly about what’s bothering them.

Take this passage from Angie Thomas’s On the Come Up, when Bri is out with a friend she has a crush on and he unexpectedly brings a date along:

“Bri recorded her first song the other day,” Malik says. “She played it for everyone on the bus this morning.”

“Ooh, I wanna hear it,” says Shana.

Had she been on the bus this morning, I would’ve had no problem letting her hear it. Now? Now is different. “Maybe another time.”

“Aww, come on, Bri,” says Malik. “Everybody heard it but me. You’re gonna have me feeling some kinda way.”

I’m already feeling some kinda way. “It’s not that good.”

Although Bri was looking forward to playing Malik her song, with Shana there, her responses become blunt and terse, and she even insults her own song by saying it’s not good. This goes much further in showing us her character and making the dialogue believable than if she’d flat-out said she didn’t want Shana there.


Dialogue often makes up a huge part of the novel. Stimulating conversations are a fantastic place to add important plot points and crucial character development. Writing dialogue with these strategies will allow you to have fascinating and unique conversations that readers will look forward to in every chapter!

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