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Writing Dialogue That Pops off the Page

14:00 EST - Nov 18, 2020

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Kate and Jenn are editors on Reedsy. To work with them on your next book, reach out to them through the Reedsy profiles.

Note: this transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Kate Angelella: I'm Kate. I started off at Simon & Schuster in New York City editing children's books. And now I'm working full time as a freelancer. I specialize in middle grade, YA, and literary fiction. Jenn Bailey is my friend and colleague and an award-winning author and a fabulous freelance editor herself. 

We're here to talk to you about dialogue. We're going to be chatting today about some of the do's and don'ts. To illustrate our points, we'll also be sharing some short clips from the new Apple TV series Ted Lasso

I have seen it all the way through, about 50 times now, and it's fabulous. It was developed, most notably by showrunner Bill Lawrence, creator of Scrubs, and actor Jason Sudeikis. They just get everything right, particularly in dialogue. So we're going to be showing some examples of awesome dialogue from Ted Lasso today. 

Getting it right with realistic dialogue 

Kate: The first thing we're going to be tackling today is how to write dialogue that's realistic, but not too realistic.

My husband used to work in a law office, and part of his job was reading court transcripts — which is one of the coolest things I've ever heard. He came home from his first day and he said, "Yeah, that wasn't fun at all. That was the most boring thing ever." This is a great example of how real life doesn't necessarily mimic the dialogue that we need to show in our novels, our short stories, our scripts. 

In real life, people ramble and there are a lot of preludes and sidebars. There are lots of starts and stops, and it can be hard to follow. If we were to write a transcript of how people actually talk in real life, it would be super boring and hard to follow.

[Case in point: this transcript was edited to make it easier to follow.]

Doing away with small talk  

Kate: We need to refine how we look at dialogue. We need to pare it down and make sure every word on the page counts.  So our first point is about avoiding small talk. 

Have you ever read a run of dialogue that's like, 

"How are you?” 

“Good. How are you?” 

“How's your mom?” 

“My mom's fine. How's your family?" 

Nobody's interested. I've written dialogue like this. We've all done it. It's a true to life exchange, sure, but it doesn't move the story forward on the page.

What we want to do is make sure that every word of dialogue moves the story forward and reveals something about the characters speaking. To that end, are we suggesting you ignore the fact that characters come into contact with each other and there's no introduction between them at all? We're definitely not — not at all.

Ted Lasso is a show about a chronically optimistic American football coach brought to the UK to coach soccer, a sport he has never coached before. This first clip shows you how to do introductions in a way that avoids small talk, moves the story forward, and reveals character in a perfect way.

Clip from Ted Lasso, Season 1, Episode 1 — "Pilot"

Nathan, the kit manager, is leading Ted Lasso and Coach Beard down a corridor at the football (soccer) club. They are both pulling suitcases.

Ted: Hey, what's your name, by the way?

Nathan and Ted stop to face each other

Nathan: Me?

Ted: Yeah.

Nathan: No one ever asked my name.

Nathan seems confused. The men stand in awkward silence.

Ted: I mean, whenever you're ready.

Nathan: It's Nathan.

Ted: (laughs) Oh God, I love that name. Hey, love your hotdogs.

Nathan: (laughs) Yeah. No, I know.

Ted: Good, good. Y'all got Nathan's hot dogs here?

Nathan: No.

Ted: Okay.

Nathan walks on

Ted: (to Coach Beard) I love this kid. Love him.

Nathan walks up to the Team owner’s office

Nathan: I'll introduce you. (knocking on the open door) Hey, Boss. 

Inside the office, Rebecca Welton, an imposing blonde woman is in discussion with a middle-aged man with a mole-like demeanor. Rebecca turns to look at Nathan, who backs out of the office before scarpering away.

Ted and Coach Beard appear from either side of the door frame.

Ted: Hey, how are you all doing? I'm Ted Lasso, your new coach. You must be Ms. Welton.

Rebecca shakes Ted’s hand.

Rebecca: Oh please, call me Rebecca. Ms. Welton's my father.

Ted: If that's a joke, I love it. If not, I cannot wait to unpack that with you. Now, this here is Coach Beard.

Rebecca: It is so good to finally meet you both face to face. (She points at the middle-aged man she was speaking with) Higgins, this is Higgins, our current director of communications. 

Higgins: Current?

Rebecca: Could you take Coach Beard and get him his housing information? You know, anything they need.

Ted: WiFi password, wet wipes.

Coach Beard: Humidifier, way ahead of you coach.

Ted: Thank you.

Higgins leads Coach Beard out of the office

Rebecca: (To Ted) Take a seat.

Kate: So what I love about this dialogue is that it is literally an introduction between a lot of people but it does away with the small talk. It dispenses with that in favor of really revealing dialogue. 

One of the first things is that Ted asks for Nathan’s name. Nathan is in charge of getting water and folding laundry and has a lower status than Ted. So when Ted asks who he is, he doesn't just answer with his name right away. He says, "Oh, nobody ever asks my name." And Ted says, "Okay, I'm waiting."

Jenn Bailey: I love that part. Things are being revealed in what isn't being said at that moment too, from Nathan’s lengthy pause. In this introduction, we're finding out: 

  • who has the power; and 
  • who's going to have the power. 

What you don't see before this is a scene where Ted Lasso and Coach Beard show up there on the pitch, and they're rubbing the grass. And Nathan runs out and yells at them and tells them to get off the grass. In that moment, Nathan's got the power. Then they tell him who they are: "Well, we're the coaches." And suddenly Nathan goes into a very different mode. 

Then when Ted asks for his name and Nathan says, “Nobody ever asks for it,” you can tell that he’s thinking, "So you're not going to ask for it either — because I'm nobody." So we've already had this power dynamic shift. Then when we get to the boss, Rebecca, Nathan can't even speak and he takes off. So there's a lot going on that's not being said. 

This dialogue and the hesitancy reveals what Nathan thinks about himself and what he thinks about his position in this organization. Even though he's willing to play host, as soon as he shows up in the presence of Rebecca, he's out of there.

Kate: It's a nice way of subverting expectations, too. Why tune into a show when you know exactly what's going to happen? Why read a novel when you can predict what the dialogue's going to look like? You have your expectations of what you’re going to get from dialogue in an introduction — but you want to get more than that. 

Making your dialogue do the work 

Kate: There was not an ounce of fat on that dialogue. Every single thing that was said was revealing, down to the jokes about WiFi passwords and how Coach Beard deadpans “wet wipes” and “humidifier.” We pretty much know what kind of guy Ted Lasso is from those. It is not going to be easy going in — and he's got his own hang-ups – but he's very positive. 

And then we get a great deal of information about Rebecca in a very short space as well. Did you catch that single word in her introduction of Higgins? “The current Director of Communications,” and Higgins just echoes that “current.” It tells us a lot about their dynamic as well. We know from her dialogue alone that she's an intimidating, poised person that maybe has a razor-sharp edge we should be a little bit afraid of?

Jenn: Nathan definitely is.

Dialogue in novels vs scripts 

Kate: So, there’s a question I had imagined that somebody would ask: isn't dialogue different in movies than it is in books? 

Absolutely. For one thing, you're not required to put in scene balance, which is action and physicality and internal. But I think we can learn a great deal about dialogue from studying dramatic literature like scripts because the dialogue has to do so much more work in a script. 

I really don't think that there's anything here that doesn't also apply to novel writing. It is different, but the points we're making right now apply to novel writing as well.

Jenn: It’s also important to think about what wasn't said because that’s relevant for books too. 

In this scene where Ted asks Nathan "Well, what's your name?" and is met with silence it’s played out on screen with the character’s physical reactions. But in the novel, you would fill it with your character waiting patiently wondering why this guy wouldn't say his name. Was he in witness protection? Was he dead? And you fill that space. What was this lovely, lengthy pause on the screen, you're filling with interiority. That's how it works in a book.

Caring for your characters in dialogue: Goals

Kate: I think that something that is true across the board about dialogue is that you have to give your characters goals. We have conversations because we want something. We have an agenda. And the person that we're talking to may or may not have a similar agenda. But in writing some of the most interesting dialogue comes from giving two characters opposite goals. The important part is making sure that we know why this conversation has been initiated. 

So for example, if I were to go to my boyfriend's home for the holidays and it's my first time meeting his parents and I compliment the decor of the house, it doesn't necessarily mean that I am enjoying the decor of the house. I'm probably trying to get on his mother's good side or his father's good side. I'm probably trying to win them over. I'm trying to show that I am a person with manners and present myself in a positive light.

The subtext of dialogue is really important too because dialogue that's super-straightforward is not that fun for a reader. The reader likes to be a part of figuring things out and solving the mystery of what's going on in the scene, what's going on in the book. Sometimes it's just a single word choice that makes all the difference. So we're going to take a look at the second clip from Ted Lasso and try to understand what the characters’ goals are. All you need to really know here is that Ted has just brought Rebecca some cookies and she's taken a bite and fallen in love with them.

Clip from Ted Lasso, Season 1, Episode 2 — "Biscuits"

Rebecca and Ted are in Rebecca’s office. Rebecca is sitting at her desk and Ted is leaning over, offering shortbread biscuits out of a delicate pink box. She tentatively takes a bite and she is transformed. These biscuits are delicious.

Rebecca: Where did you get these?

Ted: I'm glad you like them. You know what? I'll start bringing these to you every morning, call it biscuits with the boss.

Rebecca: That really isn't necessary.

Ted: Okay, well mark this down as the first time we disagree then. Actually no, second time. Tea is horrible. (gesturing to the tea station in Rebecca’s office) Absolute garbage water. Why y’all do that, hey, we can't really be good partners unless we get to know each other. Right?

Rebecca: Ted?

Ted: We’re gonna start simple real easy, real easy one. (sitting down) Why don't we do first concert, best concert. You go ahead and go first. Go. 

Rebecca is caught off-guard. 

Rebecca: Spice Girls. The Spice Girls.

Ted: Same answer for both? Oh, I love that. First concert? Well, I mean, come on — it was the gambler himself, Mr. Kenny Rogers, (starts singing “The Gambler”)

Rebecca: Coach Lasso…

Ted sings over her: “You gotta know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em. Know when to walk away. Know when to…” He points at Rebecca to finish the line —

Rebecca: (cont’d) —stop. Ted, I'm sorry. "Biscuits with the boss" is not something that I have time for this morning or ever. (packs up the biscuits and hands them back to Ted)

Ted: I hear you boss, loud and clear. 

He gets up to leave.

Rebecca: There we go.

Ted: Okay.

Rebecca: You're going to show up tomorrow with biscuits, aren't you?

Ted: Oh, come on now, I would not bet on that. I mean, unless you want to win a buttload of money!

He laughs and hi-fives a tree mural on Rebecca’s wall on his way out.

Kate: In this clip, we're witnessing a conversation seemingly about concert experiences and cookies. But in reality, the characters' goals are very clear: 

  • Rebecca is trying to get Ted to leave her office; and 
  • Ted is doing the best that he can to get to know his boss and try to stay longer. 

Jenn: Think about the lyrics of the song he sings. “You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them”. He is telegraphing to her: I get it. You don't want me here. I know when to fold them and I know when to walk away. And then he gives her the last word. 

He is telling her without telling her, I will respect your boundaries but I'm going to be pushing because The Gambler says it’s the thing you’ve got to do. So this is another example of dialogue choices lifting a lot of weight and doing many different things for the scene and for your characters.

Reveal the character of the character (not of the author)

Jenn: This is something that I have a particular issue with: when you’re reading something that’s supposed to be from the character — but the author takes over. We’re all authors here. I know I am at least one of the characters in my book (if not all of them). But that doesn't mean I get to be me in those places.

I grew up on Robert B. Parker's Spencer series. Spencer’s a hard-bitten detective who lives in Boston. They were very dialogue-driven, to the point where they often read like a script.

Later in Robert B. Parker's career, someone, for some reason said, "You know what you should do, Bob? You should write YA."

Why not? That was when YA was really starting to sell. So he said sure. He took his character Spencer —that 40-year-old Boston detective with a lot of life experience and pain — and he made him 16. But he didn't make him a 16-year-old. He kept him that 40-year-old with all of his knowledge, and all of his depth of perspective and everything. 

So he wrote a YA and it was disappointing. It was because he was not writing the character that the book needed. He was Robert B. Parker, the author,  showing off all of his chops and all of his clever witticisms and all of his deep understanding of human nature.

If you have a precocious character, then they need to be precocious all the time. You can't have your four-year-old in the picture book suddenly be able to explain the theory of relativity unless you have them as this genius in the beginning. 

So you have to watch out that we, as authors, don't step in and take over what we've set up as our character's abilities and their goals and their understanding of life. 

Making your characters sound distinct 

Kate: I would say as well that each character has to sound distinct on the page. I had a writing instructor once who said that your character should sound so distinct that even without a dialogue tag, we know who's speaking on the page. 

Avoiding information dumps 

Kate: A big challenge is getting across information in dialogue without making it feel like it's the author's main agenda. To sound natural, it has to come from a place of authenticity. As an editor, you can always tell there’s going to be an info dump when a piece of dialogue begins with, “as you know”. It’s a way of saying, "Yeah, we know that the characters in the scene already know this and probably wouldn't really be talking about it. The author needs you to know this information so they intrude into the character’s dialogue to force the issue.

Jenn: It’s tempting to do this in science fiction and fantasy because we've just built this amazing world and we want the reader to know all about it. But if it's not unique and interesting and relevant to your characters it shouldn’t come out in dialogue.

Kate: It has to advance the plot, and not just the reader's understanding of the story. So this final clip of Ted Lasso is just that. We get information about the captain of the team from the love interest. It's done in an authentic way that feels like a real scene that could play out in real life.

Clip from Ted Lasso, Season 1, Episode 6 — "Two Aces"

Close up of a pair of athletic shoes walking slowly on a treadmill. A pair of high heels come into frame, also on a treadmill. We see that it’s Keeley, a young strawberry blonde woman who has come to speak with Roy, a dark-haired man in his 30s wearing football strip. He is reading a book as he walks.

Keeley: It's love weather we've been having, don't you think? I love this time of year, the smell of fresh leaves. 

Roy: What’s happening? (looking up from his book)

Keeley: I was just pretending the two of us were on a walk. 

Roy: I'm having a read. (holding up his book)

Keeley: I've been doing a lot of reading myself actually recently. I read this mad story about a kid who grew up in South London, and he got sent off to play as a child in Sunderland of all places. And he later was forced to rap his own verse in a charity single which was called “Winner, Winner Football Dinner”.

Roy: That was for world hunger. 

Keeley: And I believe it was the cure.

Roy silently chuckles.

Roy: How do you know this anyway? What are you doing now? Stalking me?

Keeley: No. I'm reading all players' bios. Rebecca has got me in to help with the team's PR.

Roy: Leave me out of it. I'm not one of your show ponies.

Keeley: You wear a number. You trot around while people clap. I wouldn't be too high and mighty about it. Later, Roy. 

She leaves.

Jenn: That scene is just done so efficiently. We need to understand where Roy has come from and instead of having Roy explain it all to us, we get it in this playful, very real way through Keeley revealing that she’s read his bio. 

Another thing I find interesting is what we know about Keeley before this: she's basically been a footballer's girl for the longest time. Roy thinks maybe she's got her eyes set on him but she sets him straight by saying, "Rebecca's got me doing this, I now have a job. You're a show pony." I love that. It gives them balance in what they both now bring to the club as employees.

I also love the so obviously awkward chit chat at the beginning. 

Scene Balance 

Kate: In a novel, I would call this scene balance. You'd notice that these characters are not just sitting in a room across the table from each other having this conversation, quipping back and forth. They're moving, they're walking; Roy is training, he is doing his job. There are details that you would include in a novel too about the fact that Keeley is wearing high heels on the treadmill. 

All of this serves to develop the characters and make us feel anchored to the scene and less stagnant. It’s easy to fall into the trap of back and forth dialogues that have no real action or physical purpose. 

The same goes for internal monologues. You want them to be just enough that they don't detract from the dialogue, but give us insight where insight is needed into our character's mindset.

Editing Pet Peeves 

Kate: The final act of this conversation is to talk about some of the little editor pet peeves that we encounter in manuscripts that cross our desks.

Overuse of characters’ names

Jenn: My first big pet peeve is calling characters by their name. 

We saw an example of this done well in the first clip but normally, when we’re in close conversation with people we already know, we never really say each other's names, unless we're trying to make a point. So when names are being used in dialogue, they should be used for a very clear purpose.

In the first clip, Nathan shares his name, then Ted repeats it. Ted is employing the well-known technique of repeating someone's name to help you remember it. This makes it a natural instance of where a character might use a name in dialogue. 

Be careful not to overdo it, though, with dialogue like, “Hey, brother, my brother William. William, remember how when we were young?” 

Distracting dialogue tags 

Kate: My biggest pet peeve is dialogue tags that are different every time.

I would say 90%-to-95% of your dialogue tags should be he said, she said, they said or they asked, she asked — said or asked being the key thing. It's the writing version of white noise. The reader can filter it out and focus on what’s being said.

Distracting with varying dialogue tags suggests weakness in the dialogue itself.

Writing in dialect across a whole book

Jenn: I will admit, another one of mine is people who write dialects. When we read, we're actually hearing those voices in our head. If you have dialect in the dialogue, you’re forcing people to stop, to hesitate, to try to say a thing the way you as the author want it said. So you as the author need to get off the page.

If you must use a dialect, do so sparingly, come up with one or two words. If you want to make every T sound into a D sound, you have to do that in every word that has this sound change appears in. It becomes very difficult to write and it becomes very difficult for the reader to follow. 

Stay out of physically writing the dialect. You can define it but go with a very light hand.

Kate: I have heard from other editors that they like to encourage people to put in dialect at the beginning, to get a feel for the way it sounds on the page, and then allow that to be the reader's guideline.

Jenn: I would find that hard because, in the beginning, I'm trying to get to know this person. I advise people who insist on having a dialect to make it very light, but it can come out harder when they're angry for example, so attach an emotion to it. Once again, we're serving a second purpose with the dialogue.

Kate: I think if it's a defining attribute of the character then it's fine. But I think it mustn't be overdone. I think when it becomes a point of distraction, that's when you're losing your reader.

Unbalanced dialogue  

Kate: My final pet peeve is dialogue without balance. This is when there's nothing anchoring us to the page where it's just dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include a run of dialogue without dialogue tags, which can be really effective when it’s clear enough who’s talking.

You can use actions before or after bits of dialogue to replace dialogue tags and break things up. 

Jenn: Another way you can do it is by giving your characters a verbal tic. For example, you might have one character who always starts off “Well…” But if you do give a character a verbal tic, make sure they're the only one who uses it unless you have another character do it for effect, for instance in a mocking tone.

Kate: I agree. I was recently watching a TV show with superb dialogue, and one of the characters turned a phrase in a really unique way and I loved it. And I thought, "Oh, that's a cool facet of this character." Then I started to notice it throughout the series with different characters, and I realized that was the author’s affectation intruding on the dialogue which totally took me out of the story.

So I agree, give your characters their own unique ways of speaking. But make sure that it is just that character that gets those specific things. 

Ted Lasso was developed by Brendan Hunt, Joe Kelly, Bill Lawrence, and Jason Sudeikis. "Pilot" teleplay by Jason Sudeikis & Bill Lawrence, "Biscuits" story by Brendan Hunt & Jason Sudeikis, teleplay by Joe Kelly, "Two Aces" written by Bill Wrubel.

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