Say what? — Writing believable dialogue

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, good dialogue is essential to the success of your work. Either the dialogue will draw the reader into the scene, or it will bore the reader—and as a result, she may choose to close your book without finishing it.

Know that good dialogue in books does not correlate to real-life speech. When you stop in the grocery store to have a few words with a neighbor the conversation is usually small talk. It doesn’t have to mean much except that you value the person enough to spend a few minutes chatting. But in fiction (and in non-fiction), dialogue exists to enhance characterization, support the mood, convey emotion, and control the pace of the story.

The first rule of dialogue is to avoid dialogue ping-pong. People don’t speak logically, and sometimes it’s more effective to answer a statement or a question with a question.

The following examples illustrate dialogue ping-pong and interesting pull-you-into-the-story dialogue:

Suzanne slipped into the seat across from Angela. The cool vinyl chilled her thighs as she scooted to the middle of the booth.

“Thanks for joining me, Suzanne.”

“You’re welcome. How have you been?”

“I’ve been fine, thank you. And you?”

“I’ve been better, thanks.”

Angela picked up the red menu. “What are you going to order?”

“I’ve heard the turkey sandwich is delicious.”

***

Suzanne slipped into the seat across from Angela. The cool vinyl chilled her thighs as she scooted to the middle of the booth.

“Thanks for joining me, Suzanna.”

“Did I have a choice?”

Angela slid the menu across the Formica table and flipped it open. “It was an absolute stroke of luck that I ran into Crystal at the flea market last weekend. If not, I would have never heard about your situation.”

Suzanne gazed down at the greasy menu. “I may just order tea.”

“I’ve heard the gazpacho is delicious.” Angela cocked her head. “And like revenge, it’s a dish best served cold.”

Good dialogue develops and establishes characters. Characters need to speak differently from one another. Give your characters a verbal tic—“Ya, know.” Have one character refer to dad as Dad and another call him Pops. Consider that characters may have different vocabularies with different people. A polished lawyer will speak one way in court, but when he goes home to the bayou, he’d speak differently.

Dialogue describes conflict, setting, and characters. Rather than writing, Angela was the kind of woman you couldn’t trust, have one of your characters say, “Look out for Angela. That girl will stab you in the back and then accuse you of carrying a concealed weapon.” Also consider that what is not said in dialogue is just as important as what is said.

Dialogue can control the pace of the story. To speed up the story, use short sentences with few action beats. This will give you a lot of white space on the page and create a feeling of fast motion. To slow down the pace of a story, put action beats, thoughts, or description into the story.

Avoid using dialogue as an information dump“Edward, I know you’re sensitive about people questioning your motives because of that incident that happened to you in high school when the principal misunderstood why you were leaving the campus early.”

Dialogue is more than a way to express your character’s words—it’s a way to express the world you’re inviting your readers to enter. And as long as you can write good dialogue, your chances of being published will increase!

I don’t pretend to be a dialogue know-it-all, so please share some of your tips and advice on writing good dialogue. Don’t be shy, what are they?

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This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , , , by Megan DiMaria. Bookmark the permalink.

About Megan DiMaria

Megan DiMaria is an author and speaker who loves to encourage others as they journey through life’s demands and delights. Her two published novels, Searching for Spice and Out of Her Hands, tap into the dreams and desires of everyday women. In addition to writing contemporary women’s fiction, Megan has been a radio and television reporter, a Web content editor, a copywriter, and a contributing writer for newspapers and magazines. She and her husband live in suburban Denver, but they often travel back to their roots in Long Island, NY to visit family and get their fill of delicious Italian food.

58 thoughts on “Say what? — Writing believable dialogue

  1. Wow, Megan, thanks for this fantastic post–especially the example of ping pong dialogue. I’d never heard that label before so I would’ve been lost. You’re right, it doesn’t draw the reader in whatsoever. Snore! As a non-fiction writer, I don’t write too much dialogue, but I’m filing these helpful tips for future use. Thanks again!

    • I also write non-fiction, and I’ve discovered that many techniques used in fiction transfer to non-fiction. I hope these tips are also helpful to non-fiction writers who include dialogue in their books.

  2. What I read all the time in “tips to writers” is just as you said – dialogue in books is not the same as real life. When I read that sort of boring dialogue in a book I doubt the use of the conversation because it drags the story down. All dialogue scenes have to move the story forward in some way. Even though in real life we may spend several moments talking about how we are, how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other, asking for a menu, and la-dee-dah, the reader doesn’t have to read all that stuff. We have to get to the point and move the story to more interesting places.
    GREAT blog, Megan. Thank you.

  3. I’ve been told in general that I have good dialogue, so it’s a little difficult for me to look for ways to make it even better. I do know that some people have said my characters’ voices blend sometimes, so I need to work on that. I’ll also look for ping-pong stuff! Good post: gives me stuff to think about.

  4. I encountered difficulty in establishing good dialogue in my first chapter which left the character flat and no real way to understand this person who has a personal dilemma. Thanks for the advice about ping-ponging and to use the dialogue to establish conflict and move the story on. I’ll be re-writing with a different slant with dialogue as the key ingredient.

  5. Megan, thank you for these great tips! I also find that I enjoy writing dialogue most when characters surprise one another, whether in a good or bad way. If my characters are surprising one another, they are keeping my attention as a reader.Your confrontational example in the diner scene above is a great case study in how these characters are throwing one another off balance. But it works just as well in a playful or vulnerable scene. When a character confesses a thought that is *truly* unusual–not just love or attraction but something downright odd–we all sit up and take notice, just as we do when someone we know in real life violates the unspoken rules of typical conversation. I also sometimes mingle two strong emotions in a dialogue scene to keep it away from cliche. In fact, I had to email a scene to a couple of friends recently because I had brought together two such radically different situations for characters, emotionally, that I had to get several opinions to see if it would fly. They all agreed that it worked, which was fortunate as I had only two days left before my deadline. 🙂

  6. Wait … what about Suzanna and Angela? I don’t trust that Angela.
    Excellent post, Meghan. Your point about dialogue controlling the pace of the story–so true.
    Writing tips that I’ve learned along the way:
    1. Read dialogue out loud.
    2. Have my husband read dialogue to make sure my guys sound like guys.
    3. I never put “he asked” or “she asked” after a dialogue sentence with a question mark. Redundant. (And that may be an editor’s pet peeve, but you asked.)

  7. I actually wrote a really long post on dialogue yesterday, so this caught my eye.
    While I think it’s true that dialogue in books doesn’t correlate directly to how people speak, I do still think the best way to learn how to write convincing dialogue is to listen to how people speak. In that respect, I think that it’s fair to say that effective dialogue is how people talk with the boring bits left out. 🙂 (For the most part — I’ve seen some great dialogue that used the “boring bits” to set a scene.)
    Dialogue can be one of the best ways to develop a character, especially if you use dialect and those tics you mentioned as a way to express aspects of a character that might leave a reader wondering if you just said, “Jack spoke with a thick Scottish brogue.” It involves some research and a lot of listening to pluck out the parts of speech that communicate that to the reader without burying them in something they can’t understand.
    I know some writers don’t like to phonetically render dialectical words, but that can be very effective as well as contribute to the credibility of characters.
    One tip that I have taken to heart is the use of the word “said.” When I was in high school, my writing teacher had me keep a copy of about a gazillion variations of speech attribution — which I now ignore. I try not to use dialogue attribution at all if it’s obvious who the speaker is, and I try to make dialogue strong enough that the use of adverbs and synonyms for “said” aren’t even necessary. I find that excessive use of those conventions detracts from the dialogue itself. To use an example from Stephen King’s “On Writing:”
    “Put down that gun, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.
    “Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.
    “You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.

    • Great advice! I’ve actually “borrowed” some dialogue from co-workers to use in one of my novels. Real life dialogue can be intriguing. I love that you took one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock quotes and applied it to dialogue: “A good story is life with the dull parts taken out.”

      Thanks for sharing!

  8. Great post, Megan!

    This musician/music teacher loves to hear just about anything–including people talk. I would write an entire novel in dialogue, if I could get away with it. 🙂 I never care what color the curtains are or what the hero looks like; let’s have my characters talk and do things, please. But then I have to go back through and add aspects visual people expect and need for the story. And since most people are visual, it’s important for me to do that.

    Here’s how non-visual I am: posters fall off the wall in my music classroom and I don’t notice or care until my students tell me. Honestly! It’s like some visual tic I have, so you can imagine how difficult it is for me to write scenery. (Ironically, though, I adore clothing. Go figure.)

    Okay, I’m off to listen to the morning…and my students sing. 🙂

    • I admire your passion, Gwen. I often imagine my novels as movies, and I think that helps me create moving dialogue and scenes.

      Your falling-poster story made me laugh. Thanks for the chuckle.

    • While I don’t know that a novel entirely of dialogue would work, I think it depends on the story whether you could get away with a majority of it being dialogue. I wrote my novelette Kingdumb Meiser almost entirely in dialogue. I worried it was one of my weaker stories since it had minimal description and a very minor plot arc. But people enjoyed it for what it was and I realized that adding those things would have taken away from my point of the story: the characters’ verbal interaction. I think your method is a good approach so you can get a mixture.

      • Your novel sounds interesting. I don’t know if I could write a novel with mostly dialogue because I love the pretty words that provide context to the setting.

  9. I write non-fiction so I don’t have as much opportunity to write dialogue, but this will be most helpful when I do. You give some great pointers and share helpful examples. Thank you!

  10. Honestly I think the example dialogue is awesome. It makes it easy to see two totally different characters and how they interact. I really want to take that back with me to my own writing. Thanks so much for this post.

  11. Normal conversations generally proceed according to a broad script that we all learn as we‟re growing up. In writing parlance, this is referred to as the “A B C D” of dialogue. Part A consists of social niceties. This is when people say hello, ask how one another are doing, make small-talk about sports or gardening or whatever it may be. Part A segues into parts B and C, which contain the meat of the conversation. This is where the participants discuss more substantive matters. Finally, the conversation winds down with some additional social niceties to avoid the appearance of breaking off abruptly. People say “Well, I have to be going,” or “Take it easy,” or “See you later,” or whatever it might be.
    That‟s how dialogue pacing works in real life. But you‟re writing a novel, and novels are not real life. Novels should give the feeling of real life, but strangely enough, to do that they cannot actually reflect real life directly. The reason is that parts A and D are boring. Nobody wants to read that. The reason is because we all know, from our life-long experience with talking to people, that A and D have no substance to them. They‟re filler. As readers, we want to get to the good part, B and C. That‟s where things that might actually affect the plot are going to be discussed. So to sustain the pacing in your dialogue scenes, it‟s important to cut to the chase as quickly as you can. Summarize part A with one quick sentence, then get straight into part B.

  12. First time writer here. However, I recognize excellent information when I see it. Thanks Megan.

  13. I write my best dialog when I copy from actual conversations…not the mundane parts, but the snappy parts I could never make up. I have a stockpile of labeled interviews and recorded conversations I made on busses, believe or not, that help me do this, and I also draw from family dialog, the kind that sometimes rambles, but is emphatic and involved. Dialog brings so much spice, particularly arguments. An argument in progress can make a great beginning!

  14. i love dialogue!! One thing I learned during my first feedback session from our super smart agent, Rachelle, is that less is more. Less description. Less explaining to the reader what they probably already know…it was a real challenge to tighten my writing and create a story that flowed seamlessly from one sentence into the next. Every word counts. Dialogue really can make or break your story. It should reveal the essence of your characters. Let them say the unexpected. Hint at secrets. Sometimes let them start to speak and then clam up…ooo, this is fun! I need to go write now, ha! 🙂

  15. Dialogue makes me nervous! I am always thankful for a good post to help bolster my confidence. Thanks for the great tips, Megan. I’m a fairly new writer, and I hadn’t really thought about dialogue showing more about my characters, but that makes sense. I appreciate how you shared specific examples showing good/yawn dialogue. Thanks for your tips!

  16. James Scott Bell’s advice in a class I took with him once was: Dialogue is War.

    If the speakers don’t at least have a hidden agenda that they’re NOT talking about, then they’d better have some unhidden agendas that they’re willing to discuss. 🙂

  17. Good advice. One thing I like to do throughout is create pauses with “he/she” said and actions, rather than just places those after the sentence: For example: “Here is a task I’m sure you won’t want to dawdle at,” Killian said, gesturing toward the horse manure that covered the floor. “Now, get to it.”

    As one person mention, sometimes “See you later,” kind of statements can bog down the story, but sometimes you do need to get the point that something was said without saying it. In that case, I might briefly summarize. For example, “She asked if they had any family they might like to stay with that they could call. The kids all immediately thought of their grandmother. She told them they would see what they could do, and hoped the woman would be willing to take them.”

  18. Hi Megan!
    Great examples. Thank you so much! Like Gwen I could write an entire novel i dialogue.One of the hardest issues I had to learn along the way while writing my Regency novels was that today’s reader doesn’t really want to read dialogue the way it was spoken during the time period. In the early years of my writing I was criticized for being to stiff in my dialogue. I thought I was supposed to be true to the time period. Well if you want to bore your readers to tears don’t use contractions in speech. 🙂 I was getting the very proper speech of the time period mixed up with accuracy of the time period. But I’ve found that I can have one character speak very proper English for effect, for characterization. But if everyone speaks the same stilted proper English it’s hard to distinguish one character from another. That was so hard to get through to me. Now it’s second nature.

  19. GREAT tips, Megan. I especially agree that what is NOT said is often just as important as what is. And to always give a feel of subtext in dialogue. People don’t often say exactly what they feel, so we should take this into consideration when using dialogue. Also…I love using dialogue to enhance the conflict/tension in the story.

  20. I am so grateful that you posted this. I am working on my first novel and have read other blogs and everyone seems to have a different opinion on it. My “Hero” in my novel has gone through college, earned his degrees and is quite intelligent, but is also very down to earth. He would rather say, “Yep” over “Yes” It’s just his personality.
    My other complaint would have to be Microsoft Word when it puts that little green squiggly line under a sentence and then tells me, fragmented, consider revising, and I’m thinking to myself, “But that’s what they said in the conversation in my head”
    To me dialogue does have to reflect the personalities of your characters. It’s what makes them more believable and real to the reader.

    Thank you once again for posting.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Karen. Like most writers eventually you’ll learn not to worry about Word’s squiggly lines. They want to keep us in the box, but dialogue or narrative does not always follow traditional rules.

  21. Thank you so much for your post. I had never heard of the ping pong thing. I will go back and check my own dialogue and see where I am. Thank you again I learn so much from you guys.

  22. Such great tips, Megan! We are friends with a couple who are screen writers and film producers. They actually TAKE NOTES when we’re together socially, because they like the snappy dialogue that occurs. My difficulty (though I do LOVE writing dialogue!) is that so far, too many of my characters sound alike, and unfortunately, they share my voice. It’s been really difficult for me to create characters who don’t speak like I do. I’m working on it, though!!!! Thank you.

    • I keep a small notebook in my purse to copy down snippets of conversation or an interesting street sign or unusual name or anything that strikes my fancy. Keep writing, Katy!

  23. Thanks for the post, Megan. Very succinct info about dialogue.

    One reason I stopped reading a novel recently was the dialogue. The info dump was done in long monologues. I didn’t need all that information and it slowed the story. My advice on dialogue: Weave in the info in small doses, and don’t force a character to say something just because you want the reader to know it.

  24. Simply to say look and talk with every one in love and affection then all programs get over and gives peace of mind and good surrounding ….

  25. Pingback: Can We Talk? Writing Effective Dialog « Writing on the sidewalk

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