How to Write Good Dialogue that Impresses Your Readers

Did you know Plato, the philosopher, was the first to use the word “dialogue”? At the time, Plato used the term to describe dialectical works created by Socrates. For Socrates, dialogue was a way to express his philosophical thoughts and convert them into writing form. 

In contrast, today we use the term to describe written or spoken communication between two or more characters, and you can use it to tell plot information, show your character’s personality, and reveal the setting of your story. But how does it work?

Most of the time, you will find the characters say what they mean out loud as if they were people in real-life conversations. Still, there are some differences between real-life conversation and dialogue. And yes, we want our dialogue to sound natural and realistic, but not all the things you say out loud are relevant or necessary in a story. When writing a story, the dialogue needs to represent something. Take, for example, small talk. It’s essential in real life, but is it important in a story? There’s no need for it! Pointless conversation bores the reader and makes the narrative longer, but not for good reasons.

For that same reason, in this article, we will let you know what dialogue is, how to use it in your story, and the best way to do it. Ready to make memorable dialogue that impresses your readers? Let’s get started!

What is dialogue?

In a literary context, dialogue is the communication between two or more characters in a play, book, or movie. Easy enough, right? Most of the time (really, most of the time, unless we’re talking about silent films), if a form of media has characters interacting with each other, it has dialogue. 

Why should you care about dialogue in your story?

By now, you understand that dialogue is what makes the characters in your story interact with each other. However, there is much more to that, and how your characters talk with each other can work as a tool for different things inside of it. Some purposes of dialogue include:

Give information

Through conversation, your characters obtain relevant information to advance the plot or initiate a conflict. Depending on your book genre, you can also use the lack of communication between characters to create confrontation. 

For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy book, it’s common for the main characters to learn information through other characters. Similarly, this is true in those fantasy stories with narrative archetypes like The Hero’s Journey. For example, maybe your hero gets to know different people while on an adventure, and said characters give information through their words. Your hero will use the information to advance on their quest.

Reveal your characters’ personality traits

The most exciting part about making a character is to throw them into your story and make them react to the world around them. If you’re like me, you like to spend hours crafting every detail about a character (yes, it’s crucial to know if they prefer chocolate ice cream over strawberry one, even if the reader will not know that. Just kidding). But, if you imagine a character whose personality starts when you write them, that’s fine too.

Still, your characters need a voice, and you achieve that through dialogue. It is essential to give a voice to each character. As in real life, each person has their own quirks and a way of talking to others. It’s easier to imagine your characters as someone you know, perhaps an actor or a friend. Do they move their hands when they talk? Do they speak slowly or quickly? 

For example, a shy boy might be reluctant to speak, so he barely does or does it only when necessary. On the contrary, an extrovert who likes to be a team leader will speak more clearly, with confidence and security. Do you see the difference? Your reader might not know their personalities, but they will soon find out! Remember, show, don’t tell.

Set the time and place of the story

A great deal of this is something that you will achieve through narration, but as always, the dialogue also comes in handy if you need to use it too. The language, including the words most commonly used, can change through the years. Namely, if you’re writing in the historical genre, the characters will talk according to the time they find themselves, and as an author, you must look up how people behaved in that time.

However, even if the dialogue can hint to the reader as to where the characters are, it needs to go hand in hand with narration because otherwise, you would be exposing the reader to too much information.

For example:

“What is this place?” Jane asks.

Nick looks around before answering her. “I don’t know. This basement remains closed most of the time.”

It’s a clear example and a specific one. Jane and Nick are in a basement. Since it remains closed most of the time, or at least that’s what Nick says, it wouldn’t be a surprise that the basement is dirty, perhaps filled with mold or mice crawling around on the floor. It’s your duty as an author to explain those things to the reader!

Reveal your characters’ emotions and motivations

You have to be careful with this one. Most of the time, you will benefit from your characters showing their emotions instead of outright telling them. Don’t tell me Jane is sad, and instead, explain to me that she can’t see because her tears are clouding her vision or she’s crying so hard that she cannot breathe. (I get it! Those examples are cliché, but I want you to understand the point). And okay, maybe Jane likes to express her emotions and tells another character she is sad. That’s valid too, but do not make it your only point of reference and use description too.

Example 1:

“I can’t believe you did this to me,” Nick said. “I’m sad.”

Example 2:

Nick took a deep breath. An uncomfortable feeling had settled in his chest; his eyes burned, and he felt a lump in his throat. “I can’t believe you did this to me.”

In both of those, you could say Nick is facing some revelation. However, the dialogue alone doesn’t let us know what Nick means. Is he angry? Sad? Is he disappointed? That’s where the author uses the description to assign an emotion to the dialogue.

In brief, while way more straightforward, dialogue is a way you can let the reader know how your character feels.

Reveal your characters’ background

We all hate information dumps. If you’re writing a book and the first paragraph is the narrator describing your main character’s sad childhood, then it’s not going to work. I get it, you’re excited, and you want the reader to see how incredible and unique your story is. Yet, you don’t need to tell your reader all they need to know about your characters from the start. Instead, you can let your reader learn the info gradually, and a way to do it is through dialogue.

For instance:

As she walked, Jane kicked a stone that lay in the road.

“Do you think your mother will attend your concert?” she asked.

Nick shook his head. “My mother is busy with work,” he sighed. “She says Ed can come, but it’s not the same.”

“You mean your stepbrother?”

Nick shrugged. “I know, it’s terrible.”

With dialogue alone, we can extract several things from this example. One is that Nick plays an instrument. Two, his mother is busy and doesn’t pay much attention to him. And three, Nick has a stepbrother! Analyzing the excerpt further, we can see part of Nick’s personality, who either doesn’t mind that his mother doesn’t come to his concerts or is used to it.

Ways to Make Better Dialogue

Making better dialogue can be difficult at first, but soon you will get the hang of it. Here are some tips to make better dialogue:

Watch the people around you

Without turning yourself into a stalker, a good idea is to watch your friends. How do they act in public? You will soon realize that everyone has a different voice, and I don’t necessarily mean the tone but how people decide to express their thoughts and ideas when interacting. Do they make long pauses? Do they have mannerisms while talking? To make your characters’ dialogue realistic, take a look around you! You might be surprised to realize that everyone has their way of speaking.

Use “said”

I’m sure you have seen infographics proclaiming that “said is dead” and proceeding to give you a long (very long) list of the most extravagant and weird synonyms ever. I appreciate the creativity, but most of those verbs take the reader away from the book because what do you mean by “cautioned” or “thundered”? Believe it or not, the reader won’t notice if you repeat the same word as long as it is after a dialogue tag.

For that same reason, we need dialogue tags that don’t disturb the reader’s cadence. If the reader stops their lecture to look up what your words mean, you’re not doing a good job! If you use other dialogue tags, do it with moderation. Some safe alternatives are: talked, shared, announced, or discussed.

Avoid small talk

I talked a bit about this at the beginning of the article, and the thing is, your characters do not need to be greeting each other and talking about things that don’t make the plot move forward. Yes, dialogue is like real life, but don’t bore the reader! Alfred Hitchcock once said: “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.” Even if he said that referring to movies, it also applies to literature. 

Give your characters hidden motives

That is, your character won’t always mean what they say, and we can summarize this in one word: subtext. The subtext is everything that you won’t scream directly at your reader. Instead, you will let them know through clues, whether it is a past action or body language.

For example:

Nick was watching television when his mother came down the stairs with a determined stride. “How was yesterday’s test?”

Nick swallowed hard before speaking. “Excellent,” he said, avoiding looking in her direction.

“Are you sure?”

Nick nodded several times, even though suddenly his palms were sweating. “Everything went well.”

You don’t need to be a genius to realize that Nick is, at worst, probably lying and, at best, getting nervous about being questioned. Did he say everything went well? Yes, but did he mean it? That’s what subtext means.

Then, giving your characters hidden motives is a way to create tension and conflict between them. We, as authors, need confrontation to make the plot move forward. Without conflict it would be hard to make a story interesting.

Add actions

Action beats are descriptions you can add between dialogue, like movements, expressions, and thoughts. They are helpful since you can avoid repeating the word “said” and they also make your characters’ dialogue more dynamic. Just as you would with a dialogue tag, the action beats go in the same paragraph as the dialogue to indicate which character is speaking.

Example:

Jane paced back and forth, impatient. “Do you think your mom noticed?”

Nick ran through the scene in his mind, and when he looked at Jane, she had a look of tragedy on her face. Nick sighed. “I’m not sure. Besides, I don’t think I did that badly either.”

Don’t info dump

There is always a time and place for your characters to reveal something to the reader. Can you do it while your characters are having a daily conversation? Not likely. Take a look at this example:

“Do you have plans for today?” asked Nick.

Jane sighed. “Yes. I have to go out with my brother. You know that since my mother died two years ago, we’ve both been pretty much left alone, and we try to visit each other every weekend.”

I’m sure you see how unnatural it is for Jane to dump that much information on Nick. Besides, since Nick is Jane’s friend, shouldn’t Nick know all of that? The dialogue is unnatural not only because it’s info dumping but because Jane doesn’t need to tell Nick what he supposedly already knows.

Conclusion

Giving my characters a specific voice is one of my favorite parts of writing. Still, every day I’m learning ways to improve my dialogue, and one of the best ways to do that is by reading.

In addition to the above tips for making better dialogue, never forget one of the most important. Read aloud and edit. It may seem like trite or repeated advice, but trust me, it’s for a good reason! Reading aloud your writing, not just your dialogue, is a way to see if everything you’ve written makes sense or if you need to make corresponding revisions to make it look better.

And as a bonus, here’s an unconventional tip: if you have a favorite series or movie, I invite you to read the script of an episode. You’ll realize how the characters communicate with each other, and you’ll see how complicated it can be to make realistic dialogues! So, don’t get discouraged. Remember, if you’re not failing, you’re not learning.

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Happy writing, fellow writers!

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