How to Write Engaging Dialogue
15:00 EST - Jan 25, 2023
Adina Edelman is a book editor for small publishing companies and indie authors. She has worked on over 80 books at various levels of editing and in various genres, and she now specializes in memoir, self-help, and fiction.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Whatever genre you're writing, there will always be dialogue. If it's a business book, you will hopefully be putting in some anecdotes and stories. It will be prevalent in memoir, and of course, in fiction. So let’s dive right in.
Why is dialogue so awesome?
The first answer to this question is a little bit psychological.
Readers like white space
If you are looking at a page in a book and it's just full of text — there's just a huge block of text — it's less engaging and harder to go through.
That's often when readers will start skimming, especially if there's a lot of description or if a character is taking a really long time to think through their thoughts. They'll start skimming to the next white space on the page. This can be a paragraph break; it could be a chapter break. But most likely, this next white space is going to be dialogue.
In dialogue, we start a new line when a different character is speaking. So there just tends to be more white space on the page when there’s dialogue. It's easier to read, it's more engaging — so take advantage of that. What you don't want is a reader skimming to the next piece of dialogue hoping to get re-engaged with the story, only to find, “Oh, this isn't interesting either.” That would not be so great.
Reveals character quickly and realistically
Dialogue is also really helpful because it reveals character quickly and realistically. It can be difficult to show a character's personality in exposition. Whereas in dialogue, how a character reacts to other people and situations — and the words that they use — is a really great quick way of revealing character.
Allows for the best lines
Most lines that are quoted from books will often be from the dialogue. If you think of all the lines that are quoted from movies, all of that is dialogue, right? Anyone who really loves dialogue will most likely love scriptwriting and screenplays because they’re mainly all dialogue.
It’s important to understand the potential that dialogue has — you’ll want to get it right to really engage your reader.
The purpose of dialogue
So the purpose of dialogue is going to be either revealing character or propelling your plot forward.
Every single line of your dialogue must fall into one of these two categories. I don't use absolutes very often, but I'm staying here that every single line of your dialogue must either reveal character or propel your plot forward.
You may be showing your characters’ internal thoughts through their dialogue, you're showing how they're interacting with other people, their personality, and how they deal with conflict.
Avoid small talk
Then with propelling the plot forward: you know, it can't be smalltalk about the weather. You want to be including information that is important to the story. It’s just like how you want to make sure that every scene is contributing to the plot and advancing it forward — as opposed to being something that could easily be cut without losing anything
Again, that's why small talk should be avoided. Coming back to this idea of absolutes, I could say “never talk about the weather,” but maybe your character is a meteorologist, and that's just gonna come up in their dialogue. Or if your plot center centers around the conflict of man versus nature, and there's a tornado and — the weather is gonna be talked about.
In general, if you have several lines of characters speaking for the sake of having words on the page, you’ll want to take a closer look and see if that's really needed — what else is important?
A lot of what I'm going to say might be more helpful once you’ve finished your book and you're self-editing it. Once you've finished it and you're gonna go back through it, which hopefully you're gonna do before sending it to other people.
When you're sitting down and writing your dialogue, you’ll want to ask yourself, what does each character want in this scene? In every scene, there is going to be some sort of want and need that the character is aiming for. It could just be that they want to spend time with another person, or they're trying to communicate an idea and make themselves understood. It could be that they're trying to get information.
There are many wants or needs that could arise for a character in a given scene. When you’re sitting down to start that dialogue, just ask yourself, what is my character trying to get in this scene? And that's really going to help create purposeful dialogue that is engaging and realistic.
Character voice in dialogue
So how do we make dialogue unique to a character? There is a book by Oliver Sachs called Seeing Voices, and it's about the world of the deaf. It's really a beautiful book and if anyone enjoys non-fiction, I highly recommend it. But this idea of seeing voices is what we're trying to capture in dialogue.
We're trying to mimic the sound that we hear — but with our eyes. We want readers to hear the dialogue with their eyes. How do we do that? There are three main ways.
In order to know what kind of words your character would use, you have to know your character:
- What age are they?
- What's their personality?
- Are they an introvert or are they an extrovert?
- What's their profession?
- Will they use similes or metaphors that relate to their interests and hobbies?
Intelligence is gonna play a part in the vocabulary. Their religion, their culture. All of these choices will impact their dialogue and make it more unique to their character.
A really great example of this is in Harry Potter where Hermione would always says, “Oh, Harry,” where Ron might say, “Sorry, mate.” You wouldn't ever hear Hermione say, “sorry, mate.” She never uses that language.
And that's specific to her character. It's little word choices that make a difference in bringing your characters to life. So I would definitely encourage you to try to pinpoint what words your character is more likely to use.
Syntax and rhythm
Each person has their own way of speaking. If you overhear someone in the store and as they're talking, you'll notice that there’s a rhythm to their speech — the length of their sentences, how many fragments they're using, whether they use more filler words. This is different for each person, and that's something that you can capitalize on and build on in your dialogue to make sure that your characters sound unique and realistic.
Using punctuation is a really good way to manipulate this rhythm in your dialogue. If your character is really excited about everything, they might use a lot of exclamation points! If your character is more unsure, they might end a lot of sentences with a question mark.
You can really change up the tone of your character just by using punctuation, especially with em-dashes. That's the really long dash (—) as opposed to the short hyphen (-). If a character tends to cut themselves off or change direction because they’re unsure of what they're saying, they’ll often just—
And then there are characters who are always trailing off, and there are ellipses (...) for that purpose.
I would caution against the use of ellipses. Readers can get frustrated when you have a lot of ellipses on a page. It just gets very boring… and tiring… because they're gonna pause with every ellipse. That's what it connotes. There is a trailing off… there is a pause… and if they keep having to pause, readers are going to lose interest.
So, you know, definitely used with moderation, but using punctuation to manipulate your rhythm and the syntax of the dialogue is, is really, really a great way to do it.
Shelby Bach has a series called The Ever Afters. I'm gonna be quoting a lot of middle-grade fiction because I really enjoy reading that as well as writing and editing it. So Shelby Lock has a character who often will use the expression, “Oh my gumdrops!” As soon as we read that phrase, we know it's that character talking — because no one else says that. It's a quirk of that character.
If your character tends to use big words incorrectly, that's another type of quirk. In Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart series, the main character uses similes and metaphors a lot. Very extravagantly — and often sometimes nonsensically. And whenever they come up in dialogue, you know that it's him talking. That's a quirk of his character.
So once you really get a feel for your character, you're going to know how are they’ll speak to other people. And it's also important to realize that people react differently in different situations, and they're going to speak differently to different people.
Your character will speak differently to their mother than they would to their child. There's just a different way of communicating. And so that doesn't make them an inconsistent character. It makes them consistently inconsistent. If they are angry, they're going to be going to talk in a different way than if they're happy.
That's just how people are: How does my character speak normally and how would that change if I put them in this other scenario?
Dialogue tags and action beats
Okay, so dialogue tags and action beats are sort of like the basics of dialogue. A dialogue tag is something that shows who's speaking and in what way.
“I’m hungry,” I said.
This tells the reader who’s speaking. If I were to go:
“I’m hungry,” I said mournfully.
That’s letting the reader know how this is being said.
Note that dialogue tags are always paired with a comma. It’s probably the top mistake that I see when editing books. Instead of using dialogue tags, you can use an action beat, which is a short description of an action.
“I'm hungry.” I open the fridge.
It shows what a character's doing, but it can also be a thought or an emotion that shows you the character's mood or intention. So it would be:
“I'm hungry.” I thought about what we might have in the fridge.
Maybe not a very compelling sentence, but you get the idea. it doesn't have to be a physical action — just a short description accompanying the dialogue.
I love action beats because they not only tell us who's speaking — which is the purpose of a dialogue tag — but it also tells us what they're doing as they speak. You don't want what I call “dialogue in white space.” Part of the awesomeness of dialogue is that we have that white space — it's more attractive to the eye. But if it’s to the point where you have no idea what the characters are doing — and you can't picture the scene — then it’s not engaging, and it’s not as interesting. Those action beats can tell us what the character is doing as they speak and between sentences as the other person is speaking.
Your goal is to create a balance of these tags, action beats, and then that silence, that, that continuous dialogue with no interruptions.
It's not that you're looking to always put tags and action beats in. You’ll only want to use them when they're needed, right? If it's unclear who the speaker is, if you can't picture what the character is doing, that's when you’ll want to include a tag or an action beat. Otherwise, you can have what I call ‘silence,’ ironically, where it's just the dialogue.
It's just a person speaking, you don't need anything else there. Really fluid dialogue is very just enjoyable to read through. So here's an example of what can be called a tag overload.
“What's for dinner?” Ryan asked.
“Whatever dad's making," his mother said. “I have PTA tonight.”
“Oh, right,” Ryan said. “I forgot.”
“Sixty parents signed up,” his mother said. “It's gonna be fun.”
“Good luck,” Ryan said.
“Thanks. Make sure my dad doesn't burn down the house,” she called.
This dialogue is not very stimulating for a couple reasons. One of them is that we have a dialogue tag on every single line and that slows it down. You have to like keep pausing to see, oh yeah, she said that. And then he said that. Not only is it unnecessary, but it just makes it very repetitive — especially as we have the word ‘said’ four times in a row. (We'll talk about that tag shortly). But you know, it's definitely not necessary in every single line.
I would totally cut the dialogue tag on this first one and put an action beat just to show this isn't the beginning of a scene. What's Ryan doing? As he's saying this, is he putting his bag down? Is he walking to the kitchen where his mother is?
When I originally wrote this example, I actually put in action beats, and then I took them out so you would see what it's like when we have no idea what the characters are doing. I had the mother pulling on her coat, I had her walking out the door so you have a feel of what’s happening. Because people do things as they speak and we want to mimic that.
A really good example of when it's done well would be from The Squire's Tale by Gerald Morris. This is a fantastic series. It's one of my favorite. Morris does a really good job with realistic creative dialogue. That's just a joy to read.
Terrence saw a gleaming coat of mail hung with solid metal plates. “Cor, sir! Are you a knight?”
The man grinned. “Not yet, but I plan to be. If the king sees fit.”
“Which King?” Terrence asked.
“King Arthur, lad. The true king.”
Terrence gaped at him. “Is that where you're going, sir? To King Arthur?”
“No, I'm going to a scabby hermitage to let a scrubby brat cook my dinner. Lead the way, boy.”
One thing that's great about this scene is that balance of tags, action beats, and what I call ‘silence’.
This first line has an action beat, another action beat with “the man grinned.” “Terence asked” is the first dialogue tag. Then we have just the dialogue, and then another action beat as “Terrence gaped at him.” And then, again, silence: just the line of dialogue. It just shows you don't need something in every single line.
This dialogue is so great because it fulfills both purposes of dialogue. We see it reveals character: we see Terrence's awe and naiveté at the beginning. He doesn't know which king — he's just in awe of this knighthood. And then the other man: we get a feel for his more witty responses as well his goal to become a knight — informing our plot. It's gonna be a major plot point. So just this dialogue checks off all the boxes. It's a really great example.
As you go through your dialogue when you're self-editing, just check where your action beat are. Where your dialogue tags are. Is it needed here? Can I take something away here? Or would that bring a lack of clarity to the reader? These are all just good things to keep in mind as you're going through your dialogue.
There is a large debate over the word 'said'. There is a spectrum on one end are people who always say, you said, and on the other end is people who never write, he said. Like with most things it's gonna be somewhere in the middle.
“Said” vs other tags
I just wanna explain the reason why ‘said’ should be used a lot of the time. It’s because it is like an invisible dialogue tag. As you're reading dialogue, ‘said’ just marks who’s speaking and then the reader can move on. It's unobtrusive. It does not call attention to itself and therefore is very, very useful in dialogue that can just flow.
This is opposed to words that are larger that would make the reader pause over them and just go, “Oh, that's a big word.”
‘Said’ as well as ‘asked’ are just very unobtrusive and great to just plop into your dialogue to tell the reader, hey, this is who spoke.
‘Said’ is like salt. If you sprinkle it into the dialogue, it enhances the overall flavor of the scene. And the reader doesn't notice it. But if you put in too much, then the reader's gonna be like, oh my goodness, this is so salty. Like we saw before, if you have four ‘saids’ in a row, it's gonna be really obvious, and that will detract from the dialogue.
Usually, I would say 60 to 70% of your dialogue tags should be the word ‘said’ — just because of its power to not draw attention to itself. Again, I don't like absolutes. I wouldn't say that it always must be that amount. It will be different depending on your genre, depending on your amount of dialogue, all that kind of thing.
But if you doubt which tag to use, definitely fall back on ‘said.’
Other tags are perfect for when you need to tell the reader how a line is said. Again, we're trying to capture sound in words. And so the best way to do that in this dialogue is to tell us, “he murmured.” Then we know, oh, that's how that line was said. We can now hear it.
I have a list of words you want to be careful with. I say ‘careful’ and not that you should never use them.
Declared, ventured, replied, acknowledged, elaborated, commented, mentioned, interjected, pronounced, etc.
Most of these words, when they're used, are just repetitive. All they're doing is telling us something we already know. Like in the example:
“Give me the papers now!” she demanded.
That line itself — “Give me the papers now!” — is clearly a demand. What I would love to see there instead is something I don't know. What is she doing as she speaks? How is she speaking? Is she speaking in a low voice or in a high-pitch shaky one?
Tell me something I don't know. That's what's gonna make the dialogue interesting and realistic instead of words that are just repetitive and tell us things that we could have guessed from the dialogue itself.
Adverbs in dialogue
Adverbs are another area where people often say, “never use adverbs.”
Again, adverbs have a time and a place. The time that they should not be used is when there's no point to them — when they're not adding anything that we don't already know.
“I hate this!” she shouted angrily.
“I hate this” and “she shouted” are very clear indicators that she's angry and, therefore, that adverb is adding absolutely nothing to that line. It can be taken out. And that's when you might have:
“I hate this!” she shouted.
You can also replace it with an action beat.
“I hate this.” She had tears in her eyes.
Or you could do replace it with an adverb that does tell you something new.
“I hate this,” she said quietly.
Because “I hate this” is often said in a louder voice, if she says this quietly, it's more intriguing. It's more interesting. It's telling us something we would not have expected.
Another good example would be:
“I love it,” I said dully.
“I love it” is often said in a more warm, excited way. So if they're saying it dully, then you know there's something new that we would not have expected.
So whenever you're using your dialogue tags — whenever you're thinking of putting an adverb attached to your dialogue tag — just ask yourself, does this add something new that the reader would not have picked up on their own? Or can I take it out?
Okay. A few more common mistakes.
This is dialogue that sounds like your characters are from the 1800s. It comes up quite frequently, which is surprising, especially seeing the way people talk on social media and with texting these days is much more informal.
And yet when people are writing stories, they tend to sort of veer into a lack of contractions and using full sentences. And it can just feel very formal and old. Obviously, if you're writing a book set in the 1800s, then great — go for it then! But if you're writing in the modern day, then it might not work so well.
So as opposed to:
“Good morning, did you happen to bring in the paper?”
You might just say:
“Morning, did you get the paper?”
And as you can see, it's also shorter — which brings us to the next common mistake of dialogue.
When I see authors write dialogue, there are usually many words that can be cut because, again, we are trying to capture how people talk as opposed to how they write. Of course, this is hard because we are writing how people are talking.
There are often so many words that you can pare down — phrases that you can just cut altogether. So, for example:
“I would like to order the dinner box with a large fries with extra salt sprinkled on. I'd also like a diet Coke.”
As opposed to:
“I'd like a dinner box with large fries, extra salt, please. And a Diet Coke.”
You could even take off the please if your character isn't so polite. Make sure that your dialogue is as concise, short, and clear as possible — and then you are good to go.
I also want to note that this applies to both children and adults. It's funny, because I do see dialogue from children that is very formal — more formal than adults actually speak.
If you pay attention to your next conversation with someone: we just don’t speak in full sentences. Usually, our vocabulary is not super elevated. It's usually just more normal. Of course, an eight-year-old will speak differently than an 85-year-old. Especially if that 85-year-old has a Ph.D. in neurobiology or something — their language will be different for sure. Their word choice will be different — just keep in mind that both children and adults in this day and age generally have more informal speech.
The last common mistake I wanna talk about (before we head into more things that you should do) is the monologue.
This does come up a lot. It can happen when characters are ranting or have a lot to say. One reason to avoid this is that it's not so realistic.
Let's say someone is ranting at you, right? They’re probably using hand motions. Their voice is changing at different times. They might be walking around or doing something. Assuming that there is another person in the room — which would make it a dialogue — the other person is going to be giving cues. They're gonna be responding. There will at least be body language if they're not responding at all — that's for sure.
Another reason to avoid monologues is that they're not engaging. Like we said before, a dialogue is so awesome because we have that nice white space, it's much easier to flow through and read. If the reader is faced with a huge chunk of text that a character is delivering, it won't be as engaging, no matter how lovely the language is.
So it's very helpful to break it up with action beats and responses from the other person (which we'll see next). So here's an example:
I slammed my box down on the table. “He fired me! He actually fired me! I gave him that ad campaign idea that brought in hundreds of customers, and now he's throwing me away because I started sharing my opinions! Perfectly good opinions, I might add! Well, you know what? I'm gonna start my own agency, and that jerk is gonna regret getting rid of me.”
Here's the fixed version:
I slammed my box down on the table. “I can't believe he fired me!”
“Yeah, I thought John liked you,” Sam said.
“Apparently not.” I moved to the freezer and pulled out a tub of cookie dough ice cream. “My ad campaign idea brought in hundreds of customers and now he throws me away just cuz I started sharing my opinions. Well, you know what? I'm starting my own agency. That jerk is gonna regret firing me!”
I stabbed my spoon into the ice cream with finality.
The two main things I added here was action beats.
I did trim the dialogue a bit and I also added this line from Sam to show that there is another person and that they’re speaking to the other person. So turning your monologue into a dialogue can make it more engaging.
And see if there's anything you can trim down. Any lines you can cut. People tend to get repetitive when they are upset. While you do wanna capture some of that, it's not always necessary. You’ll definitely notice if your book has any just long stretches where the character is just speaking.
So what do you do if your character actually is giving a long speech? It could be that they're telling a story. I would still urge you to occasionally add a dialogue tag or an action beat. Start a new paragraph so that it's easier on the eyes — so that the reader can still picture what's going on as they're reading this.
In general, try to avoid just long stretches of a monologue when it's supposed to be a dialogue.
Dialogue in action
I love action scenes. I love writing them. I love reading them and editing them. They're so fun. Much more fast-paced, much more interesting.
For some reason, many writers try to put in a lot of dialogue in their action scenes. The basic reason why this doesn't work is that it's simply unrealistic when someone is fighting either hand-to-hand or with weapons. There isn't really time for talking. There certainly won’t be long drawn-out discussions about why someone did what.
And so if you do need to include any sort of dialogue, try to keep it really, really short and to the point. And if you do need to include a long stretch, then try to place it before or maybe after the fight, assuming that both people are still alive.
There will be some dialogue before they fight, before they get out the weapons and start fighting. Here's an example of what you don't want to do.
Their blades met with great force.
“I never wanted this, brother," the Evil Overlord gasped.
“You asked for it when you became evil,” shouted Brian, and struck again.
“You never understood me.” The Evil Overlord lunged and Brian side-stepped.
“Mother bragged that you had all the potential, but you were never even interested in world domination.”
One reason this doesn't work (beyond the fact that it's unrealistic) is whenever we have the dialogue, the characters sort of freeze in my mind.
It's like they're swinging and they're like, “oh wait, let me say something,” and then keep fighting. That breaks up the flow of the action. That's the opposite of what we want in an action scene — which should be fast-paced and interesting.
Even though in a normal scene, dialogue might speed things up, in an action scene, it could actually slow things down. So that's something to keep in mind when you're writing any type of fight scene.
Emotion in dialogue
It's very hard to write emotion. It's something that a lot of writers have difficulty with. They tend to veer toward drama or even melodrama in order to convey what the character's feeling.
In dialogue, it's very difficult. If your character is feeling grief, but how do you convey that in words? So here's an example that's not so realistic.
“I can't believe it,” Laura sobbed. “I can't believe she's really gone.
Iris swept away a tear. “I know. It feels like my heart is breaking.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever heard someone “it feels like my heart is breaking.” It's definitely a cliche that pops up often. And the way that I changed it too is:
“I can't believe it.” Laura took in a shuttering breath. She's really gone.
Iris couldn't speak; her throat was too tight. She reached over and took her sister's hand.
One of the most important things that I changed is the fact that Iris does not respond at all. And this is really something to think about when you're writing emotional dialogue — especially with sadness.
Let's say in an argument, a person is so angry that they cannot speak. Sometimes it's better to just have an action beat. Sometimes it's just better to have exposition than to include a response that wouldn't necessarily be realistic. You know, we can all relate to this idea of the throat being too tight to get words out — and just reaching over and just taking her hand as opposed to saying, “it feels like my heart is breaking.”
So just cut down the dialogue and do your best to show the emotion through action. And maybe even paring down the dialogue and really seeing if this person would even say anything here.
“I'm really sad right now.”
Most people don't exactly say how we're feeling and what we're thinking. Instead, we might say, “I really need a drink.” There's going to be that there's a different language that is said, and that is really what subtext is, which is what we're gonna talk about next.
For those who aren't so familiar with subtext, it is the layer beneath what’s being said. It's reading between the lines — a layer of depth beneath the story. You have to infer what the subject is and what the message and meaning is because the author is not going to be telling it to you straight out.
And it relates to the idea of showing and telling but, really, subtext is much deeper than that. Through subtext, you can relate the theme of a story; you can relate tone. It's really helpful in dialogue because you're able to convey emotion and thought without having the character say exactly what they mean.
So subtext is not talked about a lot in the writing world, and I think that's because it is an upper-level skill. It is hard to talk about, let alone write. And you really have to know your story, know your characters, know your theme in order to be able to create co to create subtext in a story.
Here is an example that I really enjoy using to show subtext in a story. This is from Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. It's a really beautiful book. Highly recommend reading it just to understand how to create subtext in a story. And this scene really captures that as well.
So, some background. The book deals with the theme of homelessness and poverty. And when writing that for children, you have to be very careful and sensitive. Katherine Applegate definitely did a wonderful job using subtext to convey these ideas.
My dad put some dishes in the sink. His back was turned to me. “I'm really sorry about soccer camp, Jacks. Just couldn't swing it.”
“No biggie, I said quickly. “I'm kind of growing out of soccer.”
“Yeah,” my dad said softly. “That happens.”
I highlighted the hints of subtext that you can see in the scene. The first, “his back was turned to me.” If someone's back is to you, you know they're unable to face you. There is a lack of communication there. There is a feeling of discomfort. And so we already know from the start, his father is not happy about this. Just getting at this line is probably gonna be uncomfortable for him.
And then the fact that the son, responds quickly — he's very quick to reassure his parent. So that parent-child dynamic has really been reversed. This is a theme that we see in the book where Jacks is often trying to be the adult. Trying to just be a grownup and handle all the adversity. The dialogue is revealing character.
The fact that he says kind of, “I'm kind of growing out of soccer.” We know that he doesn't really feel this way. He's actually lying, which is another thing that comes up — he often lies to make things better when in the long run, that doesn't work out well.
And so that ties into both his character arc and the theme of the story. And then finally: “Yeah,” my dad said softly. I love, I love this. There are two adverbs, but they are used well. Softly, you know, it's the opposite of loud and confident. He is unsure. He is probably feeling guilty. He doesn't have the money for his son to have a good time. It's showing that there is, you know, discomfort. That's the scene. And so this is just a really beautiful example of subtext in the scene.
Once you've written your dialogue and you have a good solid draft ready, then you can go back into it and say, “how can I make this dialogue more in-depth and add a layer beneath it that really ties into the character arc and to the story.”
And with that, we are done.