Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 16, 2011

Dialogue Tips

Dialogue is more than a conversation between two or more people.  It is essential to writing fiction. It is what helps bring a character to life, so it must do more than duplicate real speech.  Dialogue has to be interesting, help move the story and convey emotions.

1. Good dialogue is not weighed down by exposition

When the dialogue is carrying exposition and trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of very unnatural and unwieldy things. Exposition and dialogue only mesh when one character genuinely doesn’t know what the other character is telling them and it’s natural for them to explain at the moment they’re explaining it. You’re reader will know if you try to dump in information.

2. Good dialogue need to builds toward something.

Dialogue should be used to reveal character.  If it doesn’t it will bore your reader. A good conversation is an escalation. If things stay even or neutral, the dialogue will feel empty.
People just talk, but the characters in a novel always have to do more.

3. Good dialogue evokes the way people actually talk in real life, but a good writer will leave out the boring parts.

In real life our conversations wander around all over the place, and a transcribed real life conversation is a meandering mess of free association and stutters. In a novel, a good conversation is focused and has a point. Cut to the chase.

Use regional dialect, slang, sparingly.  A hint of flavor is enough.

4. Good dialogue reveals personality, and characters only very rarely say precisely what they are thinking.

People are usually not very articulate. Despite all the words at our disposal, we rarely convey exactly what we mean at key moments. We misunderstand, overemphasize, under emphasize, and even when we know what we want to say we spend a whole lot of time trying to describe what we feel.  Our conversations tend to go astray. So when two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they feel and think, it doesn’t seem real.

Characters who say exactly what they mean are generic. Characters who talk around their emotions and objectives are much more interesting. The way in which characters express their feelings and how they articulate what they’re feeling is one of the most important ways of revealing character. Are they reserved? Boisterous? Do they bluster? Hold back?

5. Good dialogue goes easy on the exclamations and exhortations.

When a character overuses “Ugh’s” they can easily sound impatient. Overuse exclamations and your characters will exhaust the reader with their excitability.

6. Good dialogue is boosted by dialogue tags, gestures, and action, so the reader can easily follow who is saying what.

He said, She said is the standard dialog tag.  The reader barely notices these tags.

Look for ways to add meaningful gestures and actions to reduce the number of dialogue tags.
The key with gestures and actions is not to simply use them to break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to make them meaningful.

7. Good dialogue is unexpected.

The best dialogue counters our expectations and surprises us.

So listen to how people talk and pay attention to what they talk about, especially if you are writing children’s books.  Make sure your characters use words they would really use.  Example: If your character is a librarian, she probably would not use slang.  Try to achieve the tone you want for your characters without stereotypes, profanity, and slang.  But remember no two people talk alike, so try to give your characters a verbal as well as a physical distinctiveness. Do they use a certain turn of phrase? A slang word? A swear word? Do they stutter or um and ah? Are they pompous or verbose?

When revising try reading just the dialogue in your text, looking for any lines that could be cut.  Put a pencil over a line and read. Is that line needed?  If not, cut. Of course, one of the best ways to work on your dialogue is to read it aloud, so you can hear the rhythm of the sentences.

Do you have anything to add?  Any techniques you use to help make your dialogue better?  We’d love to hear.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Thank you for this useful and enlightening article! I personally find writing dialogue pretty difficult. With the help of your tips, I’m hoping to write some fresh and interesting dialogue very soon…


    • Gemma,

      That would make me very happy if I have helped in some small way.



  2. Good post. Added it to my “blogs to read” for my “Writing for Children” class. thanks!


    • Carol,

      I hope it helps someone in your class.



  3. Informative blog. Thanks


    • Henya,

      Thanks for being a regular visitor. Hope the winter treated you kindly. How’s the writing going?



  4. Gemma told me of this sight. Reading just a little of it…I should send her flowers.
    I am a new subscriber. Thank you from all the dialogue challenged writers such as myself.



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