How to write dialogue in fiction

Dialogue in the novel: tricks, tools and examples

Speech gives life to stories. It breaks up long pages of action and description.

Getting speech right is an art but, fortunately, there are a few easy rules to follow. Those rules will turn your dialogue from something that might feel static, heavy and unlifelike into something that shines off the page.

Better still, dialogue should be fun to write, so don’t worry if we talk about ‘rules’. We’re not here to kill the fun. We’re here to increase it.

“Ready?” she asked.

“You bet. Let’s dive right in.”

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Dialogue rule 1: keep it tight

One of the biggest rules in dialogue is: no spare parts. No unnecessary words. Nothing to excess.

That’s true in all writing, of course, but it has a particular acuteness (I don’t know why) when it comes to dialogue.

If you include an unnecessary sentence or two in a passage of description – well, it’s best to avoid that, of course, but, aside from registering a minor and temporary slowing, most readers won’t notice or care.

Do the same in a block of dialogue, and your characters will seem to be speechifying rather than speaking. It’ll feel to a modern reader like you want to turn the clock back to Victorian England.

So don’t do it!

Keep it spare. Allow gaps in the communication and let the readers fill in the blanks. It’s like you’re not even giving the readers 100% of what they want. You’re giving them 80% and letting them figure out the rest.

Take this, for instance, from Ian Rankin’s fourteenth Rebus crime novel, A Question of Blood. The detective, John Rebus, is phoned up at night by his colleague:

… “Your friend, the one you were visiting that night you bumped into me …” She was on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors.

“Andy?” he said. ‘Andy Callis?”

“Can you describe him?”

Rebus froze. “What’s happened?”

“Look, it might not be him …”

“Where are you?”

“Describe him for me … that way you’re not headed all the way out here for nothing.”

That’s great isn’t it? Immediate. Vivid. Edgy. Communicative.

But look at what isn’t said. Here’s the same passage again, but with my comments in square brackets alongside the text:

… “Your friend, the one you were visiting that night you bumped into me …” She was on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors.

[Your friend: she doesn’t even give a name or give anything but the baresr little hint of who she’s speaking about. And ‘on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors’. That’s two sentences rammed together with a comma. It’s so clipped you’ve even lost the period and the second ‘she’.]

“Andy?” he said. ‘Andy Callis?”

[Notice that this is exactly the way we speak. He could just have said “Andy Callis”, but in fact we often take two bites at getting the full name, like this. That broken, repetitive quality mimics exactly the way we speak . . . or at least the way we think we speak!]

“Can you describe him?”

[Uh-oh. The way she jumps straight from getting the name to this request indicates that something bad has happened. A lesser writer would have this character say, ‘Look, something bad has happened and I’m worried. So can you describe him?’ This clipped, ultra-brief way of writing the dialogue achieves the same effect, but (a) shows the speaker’s urgency and anxiety – she’s just rushing straight to the thing on her mind, (b) uses the gap to indicate the same thing as would have been (less well) achieved by a wordier, more direct approach, and (c) by forcing the reader to fill in that gap, you’re actually making the reader engage with intensity. This is the reader as co-writer – and that means super-engaged.]

Rebus froze. “What’s happened?”

[Again: you can’t convey the same thing with fewer words. Again, the shimmering anxiety about what has still not been said has extra force precisely because of the clipped style.]

“Look, it might not be him …”

[A brilliantly oblique way of indicating, “But I’m frigging terrified that it is.” Oblique is good. Clipped is good.]

“Where are you?”

[A non-sequitur, but totally consistent with the way people think and talk.]

“Describe him for me … that way you’re not headed all the way out here for nothing.”

Just as he hasn’t responded to what she had just said, now it’s her turn to ignore him. Again, it’s the absences that make this bit of dialogue live. Just imagine how flaccid this same bit would be if she had said, “Let’s not get into where I am right now. Look, it’s important that you describe him for me . . .”]

In short:

Gaps are good. They make the reader work, and a ton of emotion and inference swirls in the gaps.

Want to achieve the same effect? Copy Rankin. Keep it tight.

Dialogue rule 2: Watch those beats

Oftener than not, great story moments hinge on character exchanges,that have dialogue at their heart.  Even very short dialogue can help drive a plot, showing more about your characters and what’s happening than longer descriptions can.

(How come? It’s the thing we just talked about: how very spare dialogue makes the reader work hard to figure out what’s going on, and there’s an intensity of energy released as a result.)

But right now, I want to focus on the way that dialogue needs to create its own emotional beats. So that the action of the scene and the dialogue being spoken becomes the one same thing.

Here’s how screenwriting guru Robert McKee puts it:

Dialogue is not [real-life] conversation. … Dialogue [in writing] … must have direction. Each exchange of dialogue must turn the beats of the scene … yet it must sound like talk.

This excerpt from Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs is a beautiful example of exactly that. It’s  short as heck, but just see what happens.

As before, I’ll give you the dialogue itself, then the same thing again with my notes on it:

“The significance of the chrysalis is change. Worm into butterfly, or moth. Billy thinks he wants to change. … You’re very close, Clarice, to the way you’re going to catch him, do you realize that?”

“No, Dr Lecter.”

“Good. Then you won’t mind telling me what happened to you after your father’s death.”

Starling looked at the scarred top of the school desk.

“I don’t imagine the answer’s in your papers, Clarice.”

Here Hannibal holds power, despite being behind bars. He establishes control, and Clarice can’t push back, even as he pushes her. We see her hesitancy, Hannibal’s power. (And in such few words! Can you even imagine trying to do as much as this without the power of dialogue to aid you? I seriously doubt if you could.)

But again, here’s what’s happening in detail

“The significance of the chrysalis is change. Worm into butterfly, or moth. Billy thinks he wants to change. … You’re very close, Clarice, to the way you’re going to catch him, do you realize that?”

[Beat 1: Invoking the chrysalis and moth here is almost magical language. it’s like Hannibal is the magician, the Prospero figure. Look too at the switch of tack in the middle of this snippet. First he’s talking about Billy wanting to change – then about Clarice’s ability to find him. Even that change of tack emphasises his power: he’s the one calling the shots here; she’s always running to keep up.]

“No, Dr Lecter.”

[Beat 2: Clarice sounds controlled, formal. That’s not so interesting yet . . . but it helps define her starting point in this conversation, so we can see the gap between this and where she ends up.]

“Good. Then you won’t mind telling me what happened to you after your father’s death.”

[Beat 3: Another whole jump in the dialogue. We weren’t expecting this, and we’re already feeling the electricity in the question. How will Clarice react? Will she stay formal and controlled?]

Starling looked at the scarred top of the school desk.

[Beat 4: Nope! She’s still controlled, just about, but we can see this question has duanted her. She can’t even answer it! Can’t even look at the person she’s talking to.]

“I don’t imagine the answer’s in your papers, Clarice.”

[Beat 5: And Lecter immediately calls attention to her reaction, thereby emphasising that he’s observed at and knows what it means.]

Overall, you can see that not one single element of this dialogue leaves the emotional balance unaltered. Every line of dialogue alters the emotional landscape in some way. That’s why it feels so intense & engaging.

Want to achieve the same effect? Just check your own dialogue, line by line. Do you feel that emotional movement there all the time? If not, just delete anything unecessary until you feel the intensity and emotional movement increase.

Dialogue Rule 3: Keep it oblique

One more point, which sits kind of parallel to the bits we’ve talked about already.

It’s this.

If you want to create some terrible dialogue, you’d probably come up with something like this:

“Hey Judy.”

“Hey, Brett.”

“You OK?”

“Yeah, not bad. What do you say? Maybe play some tennis later?”

“Tennis? I’m not sure about that. I think it’s going to rain.”

Tell me honestly: were you not just about ready to scream there? If that dialogue had continued like that for much longer, you probably would have done.

And the reason is simple. It was direct, not oblique.

So direct dialogue is where person X says something or asks a question, and person Y answers in the most logical, direct way.

We hate that! As readers, we hate it.

Oblique dialogue is where people never quite answer each other in a straight way. Where a question doesn’t get a straightforward response. Where random connections are made. Where we never quite know where things are going.

As readers, we love that. It’s dialogue to die for.

And if you want to see oblique dialogue in action, here’s a snippet from Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. (We don’t usually reference films so much on this blog, but there’s an obvious exception when it comes to talking about dialogue.) So here goes. This is the young Mark Zuckerberg talking with a lawyer:

Lawyer: “Let me re-phrase this. You sent my clients sixteen emails. In the first fifteen, you didn’t raise any concerns.”

MZ: ‘Was that a question?’

L: “In the sixteenth email you raised concerns about the site’s functionality. Were you leading them on for 6 weeks?”

MZ: ‘No.’

L: “Then why didn’t you raise any of these concerns before?”

MZ: ‘It’s raining.’

L: “I’m sorry?”

MZ: ‘It just started raining.’

L: “Mr. Zuckerberg do I have your full attention?”

MZ: ‘No.’

L: “Do you think I deserve it?”

MZ: ‘What?’

L: “Do you think I deserve your full attention?”

I won’t discuss that in any detail, because the technique really leaps out at you. It’s particularly visible here, because the lawyer wants and expects to have a direct conversation. (I ask a question about X, you give me a reply that deals with X. I ask a question about Y, and …) Zuckerberg here is playing a totally different game, and it keeps throwing the lawyer off track – and entertaining the viewer/reader too.

Want to achieve the same effect? Just keep your dialogue not quite joined up. People should drop in random things, go off at tangents, talk in non-sequiturs, respond to an emotional implication not the thing that’s directly on the page – or anything. Just keep it broken. Keep it exciting!

Dialogue rule 4: reveal character dynamics and emotion

Let’s take a look here at Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower as another example.

Protagonist Charlie, a high school freshman, learns his long-time crush, Sam, may like him back, after all. Here’s how that dialogue goes:

“Okay, Charlie … I’ll make this easy. When that whole thing with Craig was over, what did you think?”

… “Well, I thought a lot of things. But mostly, I thought your being sad was much more important to me than Craig not being your boyfriend anymore. And if it meant that I would never get to think of you that way, as long as you were happy, it was okay.” …

… “I can’t feel that. It’s sweet and everything, but it’s like you’re not even there sometimes. It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder? What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things.”

“Like what?” …

“I don’t know. Like take their hands when the slow song comes up for a change. Or be the one who asks someone for a date.”

The words sound human.

Sam and Charlie are tentative, exploratory – and whilst words do the job of ‘turning’ a scene, both receiving new information, driving action on – we also see their dynamic.

And so we connect to them.

We see Charlie’s reactive nature, checking with Sam what she wants him to do. Sam throws out ideas, but it’s clear she wants him to be doing this thinking, not her, subverting Charlie’s idea of passive selflessness as love.

The dialogue shows us the characters, as clearly as anything else in the whole book. Shows us their differences, their tentativeness, their longing.

Want to achieve the same effect? Understand your characters as fully as you can. The more you can do this, the more naturally you’ll write dialogue that’s right for them. You can get tips on knowing your characters here.

A few last dialogue rules

If you struggle with writing dialogue, read plays or screenplays for inspiration. Read Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen. Anything by Elmore Leonard is great. Ditto Raymond Chandler or Donna Tartt.

Some last tips:

  • Keep speeches short. If a speech runs for more than three sentences or so, it (usually) risks being too long.
  • Ensure characters speak in their own voice. And make sure your characters don’t sound the same as each other.
  • Add intrigue. Add slang and banter. Lace character chats with foreshadowing. You needn’t be writing a thriller to do this.
  • Get in late and out early. Don’t bother with small talk. Decide the point of each interaction, begin with it as late as possible, ending as soon as your point is made.
  • Interruption is good. So are characters pursuing their own thought processes and not quite engaging with the other.

And if you found his helpful, you might want to think about taking our complete 17 hour How To Write course. That course is quite expensive if you want to purchase it outright, but you can get unlimited access by taking out a simple cancel-any-time membership to Jericho Writers. Learn more or Sign up. We’d love it if you joined us!

Edit easy, edit fast

Redraft your manuscript like a pro, with this easy guide.