20 Tips for Better Dialogue

Great dialogue gives life to our stories and the characters who inhabit them. It can break up walls of text, develop characters and relationships, and advance both action and reader knowledge. That’s the good news. 

Poor dialogue feels wooden and plodding, takes up lots of pages without doing much, and generally turns readers off. That’s the bad news. 

Today, we’ll try to keep your writing on the “good news” side of the page with 20 top tips from the pros on how to keep your dialogue sharp, compelling, and on-point.

20 Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Stellar Dialogue

DO Use Dialogue to Develop Voice

None of your friends talk exactly alike. In fact, when two people you know speak very similarly, you notice it and want to find out the story. The same goes for your “friends” in your novel. Different people have different word choice, rhythm, cadence, choice of slang, level of profanity, and dozens of other small verbal tics. You can use these to show more about each character on the page. 

DON’T Be Too Honest

Very, very few real human beings are 100% honest when they speak to other people. Even before we consider how honest we are with ourselves, we have to take into account little white lies, simple politeness, embarrassment or shame, and the myriad other ways people choose to withhold information. Then you have agendas, goals, hidden worries…dialogue is rarely completely honest. 

DO Keep Relationships In Mind

You speak with your children in different ways than you speak with your partner — and you speak with your boss in different ways than everybody else. This isn’t only something readers, who live in the world and watch how people interact differently, expect. It’s a great opportunity to let the subtleties of those relationships shine on the page. You can give a lot of information with a code switch. 

DON’T Keep it Real

Here’s the thing about conversations in real life. Most of them are totally lame. There’s lots of ums and uhs, way too much facile small talk, and a severe shortage of fantastic one-line zingers. The best dialogue in movies and books isn’t like how people talk. It’s like how people wish they talked. Unless social awkwardness is a core trait of a character, that’s how it should be in your books. 

DO Maintain the Right Balance

In every conversation, there’s a ratio or balance of who does the most talking, and who is listened to the most closely. This is another subtle way to make your characters and their relationships more vibrant on the page. There’s a temptation to take turns in dialogue, like a tennis match, but that’s rarely how it should go. Set your balance according to the personality, relationships, stresses, and goals of everybody in the conversation to once again show instead of tell about all of these details. 

DON’T Forget Body Language

There’s a statistic out there, that changes with the different places I read it, about the percentage of communication that comes from word choice versus facial expressions and body language. Spoiler alert: word choice is by far the smallest. It’s easy to overdo this, with the descriptive text outweighing the dialogue and slowing your scene down, but adding it like good spice can add heat to your characters’ conversations. 

DO Give Every Line Meaningful Purpose

Ideally, each line would do at least two things — like advance the story and reveal character, or deliver information about the plot and about the characters’ relationships. If you can’t manage that for every line, each should do at least one story-specific thing. Leave the rambling small talk in the real world where it belongs. 

DON’T Forget the Surroundings

It can be easy to zoom in on the words and let conversations seem to take place in a vacuum, but keeping the surroundings on the page can improve your manuscript in two important ways. First, it sets the scene more clearly and helps your reader better visualize the action. Second, you can use the realities of the setting to alter the dialogue — for example, having to whisper in a library or speak in code because there’s a cop at the next table in the diner. 

DO Use Slang and Expression

When you mean to agree with something or answer in the affirmative, how often do you say “Yes”, as opposed to “Yeah”, “Sure”, “Right on”, “Groovy”, “Yup”, or one of the many other variants we use in our everyday speech? That’s how people talk, and how our characters should speak on the page. And yesssirreebob this is another way to differentiate how different characters speak.

DON’T Write Every Line of Conversation

Treat your dialogue like you should treat your story: get in late, get out early. The preliminary lines and awkward goodbyes aren’t necessary most of the time. Stick to the dialogue that drives the conversation (and thus drives the story). The rest you can leave to your readers’ imagination. That said, if being awkward in conversation is a key part of one character’s personality, it’s okay to occasionally keep conversations long and weird — but just once or twice is usually enough. 

DO Use Action Tags (Sparingly)

An action tag is when you attribute dialogue with a phrase like, “John said, running his hand through his hair”, or “Kim glared at him, grinding her teeth”. This helps set the scene, and can show emotion, motivation, and other factors without telling about it instead. However, they can break up the rhythm of conversation. Use them once in a while, again like chili powder instead of salt. 

DON’T Get Fancy With Attribution

Blame your middle school English teacher for this. About 99% of the time, “said” is perfectly fine. It’s invisible to most readers, meaning their attention will stay on the dialogue where it belongs. Leave the synonyms on that worksheet you had to do in 8th grade. Most of the time it subtracts from what’s happening on the page. 

DO Break it Up With Action

A long dialogue without action is just as bad as a long paragraph without break. Readers want their experience to change every so often. It’s human nature. If you find you’ve written a whole page of dialogue without much else going on, take another look and see what kind of action you can insert to shift the rhythm and keep things interesting. 

DON’T Go Overboard with Name Drop Attribution

In two-person dialogue, you only need to say who said something the first time each speaks. After that, the order of sentences and punctuation on the page keeps the reader oriented. With multiple speakers, you need to do it a little more often, but still less than most of us think. Of course, the real win is when each speaker talks in such a different fashion that the reader never needs attribution to know who’s speaking each line. 

DO Read Some Mystery and Crime Fiction

Although some recent cross-genre trends have blurred the lines, the best dialogue in fiction is still reliably found in the mystery and crime section of your bookstore. Even if it’s not your genre as a writer or a reader, dive into some Elmore Leonard, Joe R. Lansdale, or Lisa Jewell. Look at how they write, pace, and present how people talk to each other — then apply it to the lingo and tone of what you write. 

DON’T Use Dialogue as An Infodump

We all know that readers react poorly to a big wall of text telling them things about the world, situation, or other details of the story. A surprising number of aspiring writers don’t know that they’ll react just as poorly to hiding that big wall of text behind a thin veil of dialogue. These so-called “maid and butler” conversations became cliche because authors in the last century used them as a cheat to avoid the wall of text. Readers are wise to this trick now, so as writers we should avoid it. 

DO Be Careful With Accents and Tics

Accents and verbal tics like a stutter can help a character stand out on the page, but there are two strong reasons to be careful with them. First, they can be very distracting when written and quickly lose the goodwill of your reader. Including them just every once in a while, and trusting your reader to imagine it in the other lines, is usually enough. The other reason is more subtle. If you include a tic associated with a disability, you have to be very careful to do it in a respectful way that doesn’t seem like you’re mocking people with that speech pattern. It’s okay for bad characters to mock it, but not for your writing to do so. 

DON’T Keep Superfluous Words

On your first edit, practice a less is more mindset with your dialogue. Cut out unneeded words, lines, even conversations. You’re going for quality over quantity. Keep the stuff that’s really core to the story, and to showing character motivations, traits, and emotions, but see how much fat you can trim. 

DO Read Your Dialogue Out Loud

After you’ve written the first draft, read all of your dialogue out loud. Anything that doesn’t flow naturally through your mouth probably needs some work. It’s one of the most reliable ways to test your dialogue. This works for non-dialogue passages, too, but is especially important for your spoken parts. 

DON’T Forget the Rule of Three

Generally, people can only speak in three beats of dialogue before they have to pause for breath. It’s a good rule of thumb to follow with your written dialogue, as well. Longer passages feel unnatural because they are rare in real life, and they can lose reader focus on the page. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule — for example an excited child or frightened witness might launch on a long diatribe — but a good place to start as you structure your characters’ conversations. 

Did You Know?

Ever notice how crime and mystery fiction tends to have more dialogue, while sci-fi, fantasy, and horror often have deeper, more voluminous descriptions? Ever wonder why that is?

One story I’ve heard, and believe, is it harkens back to the era of pulp magazines — which is really where the separation of genres began. During those decades, the speculative fiction magazines paid by the word. The crime and mystery magazines paid by the page. 

And thus one of the most compelling rules of genre was born — which is also why you should read some crime and mystery while building up your dialogue chops.