Tips for Writing Dialogue that Captivates Readers
Some of the most memorable book quotes are bits of dialogue. Take this line by Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings: “Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched . . . like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” Even when it’s not making characters an instant icon, effective dialogue is one of the best ways for writers to flesh out their cast and make them feel real to readers. After all, words are how we communicate, make friends, and argue in real life.
Dialogue in a book is essential to moving a story forward, as it’s the easiest way to transfer information from person to person. However, dialogue is also a way to amplify conflict (are your characters fighting, or hiding secrets?) and bolster characterization, since the way people talk can reveal a lot about their backgrounds and personalities.
Because of how important and multifaceted dialogue is, writing it well can be a challenge. If you’re hoping to improve the dialogue in your story, here are five tips for writing great dialogue that's unique, memorable, and keeps readers turning pages.
Five Tips to Write Better Dialogue
1. Keep a notebook of dialogue examples
If you want to learn how to write believable, natural dialogue, then what better teacher is there than actual humans talking around you? Who among us hasn’t been stopped in their tracks by something funny or unusual they’ve overheard? When that happens, you should write down these interesting lines, or habits that real people use when speaking, as inspiration for later. Make sure to keep a small journal or note on your phone handy for such occasions.
This same tip applies to compelling dialogue you read or hear in a movie. If you come across something that catches your ear, jot it down so you can study the line later and learn why it works.
2. Use dialogue to reveal character
You can discover a lot about someone based on the way they talk. Within seconds, you might learn that they’re extroverted, very frank, or from a different part of the country. Likewise, readers should be able to experience that with your characters; the way they speak should say a lot about their background, personality, and even their importance to the story.
Take this exchange in The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, for example. Look at what each line reveals about the two characters—Lyra and Lord Asriel—who are interacting for the first time in the book:
“Lyra! What the hell are you doing?”
“Let go of me and I’ll tell you!”
“I’ll break your arm first. How dare you come in here?”
“I’ve just saved your life!”
“What did you say?”
“That wine is poisoned. I saw the Master put some powder in it.”
From this brief exchange, you get a taste of these characters’ temperaments. Lyra is scrappy, brave, and cares about her uncle’s wellbeing—but she also tends to get into places she’s not supposed to be. Lord Asriel is aggressive and unkind toward those smaller than him and expects young girls to follow social conventions (like not sneaking into places they’re not supposed to be). This conversation is also how Lord Asriel finds out he’s the target of an assassination attempt—which signifies to readers that he must be important. That’s a lot to glean from a mere six lines of dialogue!
When writing dialogue in your own book, don’t just use it to relay information—let it speak volumes about who your characters are, their relationships with each other, and their role in the story.
3. Make each character’s dialogue different
Have you ever read a long conversation between characters without getting confused about who was speaking because everyone had such a unique voice? Behold the magic of well-written dialogue!
To accomplish this yourself, add noticeable variations between each of your characters’ speech patterns. For example, one character could insist on always using perfect grammar, while another tends to say as little as possible. Dialogic differences could also include what characters tend to focus on. Perhaps one character likens everything to swordplay.
Pro tip: Author Dhonielle Clayton keeps notes on each of her character’s personal lexicons (vocabulary, idiosyncrasies, catchphrases, etc.) before she begins writing. This helps her to envision each character uniquely when bringing them to life. While you don’t have to do anything that extensive, you should be mindful about making everyone in your book speak in recognizably distinctive ways.
If you choose to use accents to differentiate between people, take care that you don’t rely on stereotypes or racist caricatures. You should also beware of dialogue clichés, like relegating one of your characters to being the “Watson” of the group, asking all the “why” or “how” questions needed to move the plot along.
4. Keep conversations short and productive
Sometimes letting two characters hash something out for pages can be fun, and help you discover new things. However, those kinds of writing exercises shouldn’t always end up in your book. In reality, you want to make sure you intersperse dialogue with action and cut out extraneous fluff. Otherwise, conversations will drag on for too long, and you’ll lose your readers’ interest.
Start by trimming out pointless small talk and distracting interjections like “um” or “ah.” Then let your characters get right to the point. When they do speak, make sure their lines are accomplishing more than one thing at a time (e.g. characterization, foreshadowing, progressing romance, etc.).
Here’s a great example of concise dialogue naturally interspersed with action from With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo:
“Chugga, chugga, choo-choo train!” she says. I look at ‘Buela with a raised eyebrow.
“They read a book in daycare about trains. Mamá Clara says that Emma was very interested.”
I nod at Babygirl as she garbles out a summary of the choo-choo trains book. At least, I assume that’s what she’s telling me.
“Don’t you have a doctor’s appointment?” I ask ‘Buela when Babygirl is finished. “I thought I would find you running out the door. What’s it for again?”
‘Buela dusts off the family photos on the mantel. “My appointment got pushed back fifteen minutes, so I have a bit of time.”
Notice how all of these lines get right to the point and give the reader glimpses into the relationships between the characters. Rather than dragging on, the dialogue is well-edited and productive.
5. Use dialogue tags wisely
One other thing that Acevedo does well in the example above is to be smart about how many dialogue tags she uses, and how she uses them. When overdone, dialogue tags can quickly become redundant and even comical, like in the following sentences:
“Stop right there!” she shouted.
“Where are you going?” he demanded.
Readers can guess the tone or volume of these lines without the help of tags. More often than not, using “said” works just fine. While descriptive tags can be necessary to show who is talking, and sometimes shed light on a conversation (e.g. “she said without meeting my eyes”), they can also distract readers, or make them feel condescended to. When trying to decide whether to use words like “said,” as opposed to words like “retorted,” or “hypothesized,” ask yourself if your readers will be able to visualize the conversation without any hand-holding.
In short, when you’re giving your characters things to say, don’t give them too much direction. Let the dialogue, and characters, speak for themselves!