writing dialogue

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Dialogue (with Examples)

What’s your favorite line of dialogue? 

Let’s stick with movies, because that’s a vocabulary we can all agree on. And if you want to learn to write great dialogue, well written movies are a great place to start. So what is it, your favorite line? 

Don’t think too hard on it, favorite lines can change all the time. A week ago it might have been different, same for a week from now, but right now I’m thinking a lot about Tarantino while outlining a book I’ll be writing with Johnny, so my present favorite line is: 

“Say ‘what’ again. Say ‘what’ again, I dare you, I double dare you motherfucker, say what one more Goddamn time!”

It’s from Pulp Fiction. Jules and Vincent have busted into the room and taken charge. We see the swelling crescendo of the hitman’s rage, a man we were just getting to know a few moments before when he was gabbing about the nature of foot rubs with his partner in an impossibly casual exchange. 

Let’s discuss that line and give it some context. 

I was seventeen when Pulp Fiction came out. I saw it with my friend Jimmy. He’d been already, and it was already at the Super Saver Cinema Seven by the time he got me to go. The movie hooked me immediately, but that line was transcendent. I was seeing something I’d never seen before, and as the mood swells I remember leaning forward in my seat as the Say what line matches the fire in Samuel Jackson’s. Pure intensity, and he delivered Tarantino’s dialogue like the dude was spitting Shakespeare, a defining moment of cinema, set up with Say what and ending when Jules says:

“Ezekiel 25:17: The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and god will, shepherds the weak through the Valley of Darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the lord when I lay my vengeance upon me.”

I love the Say what line so much because it perfectly sets up the Ezekiel one. We see so much manic danger in Jules when he double dares the idiot kid to say what just one more time, we’re both terrified and eager to see what he might do next. But great as that moment is, as a piece of dialogue it gets even better. 

Great dialogue doesn’t just sound cool in the moment, it resonates with the story itself. The Ezekiel line would have been memorable by itself, but it gets epic by the end of the movie (but not the narrative, because Pulp Fiction) when Jules and Vincent are at the diner. There’s a robbery, and Jules has just surrendered his wallet. To the new bad guy he says: 

“I’m not giving you that money. I’m buying something from you. Wanna know what I’m buyin’ Ringo? Your life. I’m givin’ you that money so I don’t have to kill your ass. You read the Bible? There’s a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. ‘The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon you.’ Now … I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, that meant your ass. You’d be dead right now. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice.

See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”

Critics call Tarantino long-winded. That’s fair, he is. But his dialogue is also brilliant, and always intentional. The way those three lines have a beginning, middle, and an end of their own is rather remarkable. Without the original Say what the next two can’t carry the weight. So at least for today, that’s my favorite line. 

So how about yours? Still don’t know? 

Would you like a list to get your brain going? Dialogue doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are ten incredibly enduring lines of dialogue that are all far simpler than Tarantino’s complexity. 

  1. Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
  2. I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.
  3. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
  4. Nobody puts Baby in a corner.
  5. The stuff dreams are made of. 
  6. Go ahead, make my day.
  7. Show me the money!
  8. Here’s Johnny!
  9. I’ll be back.
  10. Rosebud.

This is an essential element to most well-told stories. More than just about anything else in your narrative dialogue reveals personality, emotions, and actions. It’s one of the best mechanisms for showing rather than telling the reader who the characters in your story actually are. 

Dialogue not only defines your characters in a way that helps your readers understand them, it also offers an easier way to connect. From either the storytelling or the consumption side, few people disagree on its importance, but some authors either don’t want to admit to the difficulty of this particular skill, or are in denial and don’t yet realize how much work their dialogue needs. 

Why is dialogue so difficult? 

The thing that snags most writers, especially in the beginning when they’re still learning their craft, is the constant attempt to make their dialogue sound “natural.” But a story should never read like a transcript. That takes your reader out of the narrative rather than inviting them to live inside it. 

Good dialogue is real…but not too real. 

It’s a fine line. Unrealistic dialogue (the kinds of things no sane person would ever say) clangs on the ear far worse than bad prose. But at the same time, some writers try so hard to make their dialogue “real” that they tip too far in the other direction. Real life is seldom exciting. If Marvel wanted maximal authenticity, Spiderman would be a weirdo with a suit. We’d also see him shopping for gum, doing his homework, calling his credit card company to reverse a fraudulent charge, and waiting in line to get his parking validated. The whole reason we like and create fiction is because we want something above normal ― something that touches the miraculous when all is said and done. 

When crafting your dialogue, keep in mind that the same idea applies. Real dialogue is insufferable. Try going to a coffee shop and eavesdropping on the people next to you. If you recorded their conversation and then transcribed literally everything they said, you’d want to slit your wrists in minutes. Not only do real people fill real speech with all sorts of verbal garbage (like, you know?, hmm, right?); they also talk in dead ends and often with zero purpose. 

Some people talk to hear themselves talk. Some do it to fill dead air. Even when people are on-point and discussing something of interest, the interesting stuff is rarely delivered succinctly or articulated in a way you’d feel comfortable putting on a page. Real people ramble, hem and haw, stop their sentences halfway through before resetting, get interrupted by phone notifications and often abandon their topics. 

On the other end of the spectrum, many writers create dialogue that’s so terribly unrealistic, it yanks the reader right out of the story because they just don’t buy what’s going on. 

  • Real people don’t speak in catch phrases. 
  • Real people don’t make grandstand proclamations, spouting off for pages at a time about some cause or philosophical victory that’s somehow in the offing. 
  • Real people don’t declare things to whoever they’re talking to that that other person already knows. 

Have you ever been hanging out with a friend, and your friend says, “Hey, remember how we’re best friends and used to go to school together?” Have you ever been talking to your spouse and said, “I’m going home to our four children now?”

Unfortunately, there’s no easy secret to finding the line between “unrealistic” and “too realistic.” The skill of writing dialogue is honed by exposure (some listening in public, but mainly to good fiction in all forms) and practice.

But I can, of course, offer some guidelines. 

Dialogue is a deeper part of the storytelling art, and all of the storytellers at Sterling & Stone handle it differently. This topic is less learned than understood. Once we agree on what’s important, how we tackle getting our dialogue to sing becomes an individual process for each of us. 

Our agreed upon tenants are the foundation of this ultimate guide. 

Here are the 16 understandings we believe in most. 

1. Use dialogue to reveal character

Great dialogue moves readers without being on the nose … unless that’s what’s required by the scene. Verbal exchanges are an exciting opportunity to show your audience who your characters are, but it’s never going to be as straightforward on the page as it is in your head. 

Actions speak louder than words. Dialogue should never be just about what a character says, it should be about what they do, or refuse to say in front of others. People rarely share exactly what they are thinking. Whether a person is declarative or silent, the reader can learn how characters feel about each other, what they think of the plans or the story’s assorted problems.

There are a few ways to reveal character through dialogue, but the best place to start is in differentiating your cast. You don’t speak the same way around everyone. Language varies dependent on audience. Treat every one of your characters with the same level of individuality. Ever since you were a child you’ve probably communicated differently with one parent than you did with the other. Siblings, friends, acquaintances, clients, employees, partners in business or at home — your life has a dialect, and the same is true for your characters. 

The important thing is to stay consistent with your character’s style and voice. Particulars can and should as you move a character from one conversation to another, but always with intention and only by degrees. Understand your character well enough to know how they would behave not only in any given situation, but with the person they’re sharing the situation with. 

The most important part of revealing character through dialogue is to never have your character say exactly what he or she means. Humans communicate in layers. If two people enter an air conditioned building together and one of them says, “It’s really cold in here,” they might be thinking She has a sweater and a jacket. I’m only wearing a T-shirt. 

Make your characters real by keeping them at least a layer away from the most obvious truth. Our character and structure expert, Bonnie, is remarkable at finding creative hacks to mine the core components of story. I’ve never done what I’m about to suggest, but she blew us all away when she mentioned this idea in one of our meetings. It sounds like an amazing way to teach yourself about subtext. 

Bonnie suggested that new writers looking to learn about the nuances of dialogue should invest the time in writing the same scene over and over, each time stripping layers to make the conversation sound increasingly human. Let’s say Samantha and Liam are going to dinner. He’s about to meet her friends for the first time and it’s important to Samantha that he make a good impression. He’s a great guy, and funny. He loves to make her laugh. But her friends are super judgmental. Liam can be playful later. Right now she really wants him to win them over. 

Example One

“You can’t wear that to dinner,” Samantha said. 

Liam looked down at his shirt then back up at his girlfriend with a grin. “Why not?” 

“Because it says Who FARTED? and has all these big rips and brown stains.” 

“Those are there on purpose.” 

“I get the joke. But you’re meeting my friends for the first time and it’s important to me that you make a great impression.” 

“The shirt is funny.” Liam giggled to prove it.

“It’s twelve-year old humor and you can do better. But even if it was funny, this is your first chance to make a great impression. I want my friends to know that you are a great guy and that you’re funny. I love how much you love to make me laugh, and I love laughing at your jokes. But all of my friends are judgmental, especially Alicia. I shouldn’t care what they think, but I do. Because even though I don’t like it, a surprising amount of my self-worth comes from my friends’ opinions of me.” 

“I understand how you feel, because I also get much of my self-worth from my friends’ opinions. I hear you and will change shirts immediately.” 

Example Two

“You can’t wear that to dinner,” Samantha said. 

Liam looked down at his shirt then back up at his girlfriend with a grin. “Why not?” 

“We’re eating at a nice place.” 

“No way. Any restaurant with loaded skins on the menu is not a ‘nice place.’ The shirt stays, it presents a valid question.” 

“Are you planning on farting all through dinner?” 

Liam laughed. “No, but someone is always farting in a restaurant.” 

“You know, you look like Liam Hemsworth in that blue polo I bought you.” 

He shook his head. “That never works. We have the same name. The similarities end there.” 

“You have the same color eyes.” 

Liam rolled his baby blues. “What does it matter what I wear to dinner?” 

“You’re meeting my friends for the first time.” 

“So do you want me to pretend to be someone I’m not?” 

“Not exactly. I just want you to win them over first.” 

“What if they don’t like me? Does that mean you won’t like me as much?” 

“I hate that it’s true,” Samantha said with a boiling gut, “but probably?” 

“Why do you care what your friends think? Aren’t we happy?” 

“We are happy. I guess I’ve just known them all for a really long time and I can’t imagine my life without them. So if they don’t like you, then it’s almost as if they don’t like me. So maybe I’ll have to choose between you and them. That might destroy me.” 

Liam nodded. “I get it. Same for me and the guys, though they’re nowhere near as important to me. Blue polo it is.” 

Example 3

“Is that what you’re wearing to dinner?” 

“Someone is always farting in a restaurant.” Liam grinned. “It’s a valid question.” 

“Do you need to wear it like a sandwich board?” 

“Is it turning you on?” Liam grinned and moved closer to his girlfriend. 

“Stop it.” Samantha inched away and gave his shirt a second, longer look. 

“What, now it’s not funny? You’re the one who bought it for me.” 

“We’re going to dinner.” 

“Exactly.” Liam smiled. “You know Bailey’s has that No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service sign in the window. But if you want me to go bare-chested, we can try our luck.” 

“Really, what are you wearing to dinner?” 

“I was going to wear this. What would you like me to wear?” 

“Something without stains and rips.” 

“Those came with the shirt.” 

“I didn’t miss the punchline,” Samantha said, chewing her bottom lip. “Can you please be serious?”

Liam made his face like the Joker and said, “Why so serious?” When Samantha didn’t smile he added, “I thought you liked it when I made you laugh.”

“We’re going to dinner.” 

“You said that. Do you really mean we’re going to dinner with your friends?” 

“You’ve never met them.” 

“They’ll know about the Who Farted? shirt eventually.” Liam laughed. 

Samantha tried to smile but the effort made her frown. “Come on, you know Alicia.” 

“Actually, I don’t. That’s what tonight is supposed to be for.” 

“You’ve heard the stories.” 

“So she has an opinion about everyone and everything,” Liam said, the first hint of irritation entering his voice. “Is there some sort of script I’m supposed to follow? Or that you maybe want to tell me about?” 

“More like best practices. Not wearing a Who Farted? shirt to dinner feels like it could be unsaid.” 

“You laughed the last time.” 

“Aren’t you the one who said the thing about comedy is that it gets less funny each time?” Samantha asked.

“So your friends won’t like me if I wear this shirt … that’s what you’re saying.” 

“No, Liam. I’m saying you have a chance to make a good impression, and that it’s fair for me to ask you to try.” 

“To make you look good, you mean.” 

“To make yourself look good.” 

“In front of your friends. It’s fine, Samantha, I get it. Jake and Alicia could probably share a LiveLyfe account and people wouldn’t even know it wasn’t one person if they never posted photos.” 

“You sound mad.” 

Liam shook his head. “I’m not mad at all. Just didn’t realize this was that kind of dinner.” 

“That’s not fair. It’s not that kind of dinner.” 

“Okay,” Liam smiled. “I’ll be back in a minute. How does my blue polo sound?” 

This could keep going, with every fresh attempt showing us more about Samantha and Liam while telling us less. By the third round Samantha is starting the exchange with a question instead of a statement. Feelings bubble beneath the surface. The couple is still playful. but we can see some underlying issues. Toward the end, when it’s time to get real, they deflect and make the exchange about Jake and Alicia instead, before Liam finishes with a dig and a concession. When we see Samantha and Liam at dinner, this situation informs the tension. 

Another source of constant tension, once you have a stronger feel for subtext, is the next belief on our list.

2. People seldom say what they truly mean

This is especially true when the stakes are in any way emotional. If two people are on a date, one won’t say he’s nervous while the other expresses optimism but confesses she’s been hurt before. If a pair of office rivals argue over use of the coffee machine, chances are they’re actually talking about something beyond the coffee machine, like the power balance between them, or something one did to the other six weeks ago that the first person hasn’t forgiven. 

An insecure character will either avoid conversation or attempt to dominate it in petty, paper-thin ways. If the relationship between two characters is contentious, chances are that one will snap at the other for seemingly no reason and derail the conversation through questions like, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

You can use dialogue as an alternative for exposition, but unless you’re writing a commander giving a battle report or a boss giving weekly rundown, dialogue should never provide exposition. If you want the fact that two people hate each other to reveal itself through dialogue, don’t have one person say to the other, “Remember how I hate you?” 

3. Let your characters talk (real conversations rarely stay on topic), then CUT

Sure, Tarantino writes superb dialogue, but he says that his great lines are born from brutal editing. He’ll get his characters in a figurative room, then get them to spill their guts while he listens. In practice, this means writing pages upon pages of chatter, and allowing the exchange to go wherever it’s supposed to before filtering most of it out to leave only the conversational cream. Real-world conversations seldom stay on topic. Adding tangents like Tarantino does might feel indulgent, but it’s also why his characters resonate. 

If you don’t know what we mean by “tangent,” look up the scene from True Romance wherein a partygoer, played by Tarantino, gives a sermon on why Top Gun is secretly about Iceman trying to recruit Maverick into “the gay way” or the fantastic monologue about Superman at the end of Kill Bill Volume II. 

After all that writing, Tarantino eventually finds himself with way too much dialogue. He trims the crap and keeps the best parts. He lets his characters talk about whatever they want, and go wherever their conversation insists on taking them, then he edits it down to the gems. 

Tarantino has a deep understanding of character and story, so he can color outside the lines. The Hollywood trash heap is piled high with imitators. He is intentionally making something larger than life and understands that: 

4. Characters don’t talk like real people

Some of the worst dialogue we’ve ever worked with came from writers who were trying to make their writing sound “natural.” Filled with umms, ahhhs, and other such discourse markers that are a part of every human conversation yet always sound amateur on the page. 

Writers might feel the relentless pursuit of crafting organic sounding dialogue because they believe it will bond their characters to an audience. Make them feel more real and relatable. But dialogue doesn’t work like that. I was sixteen when the movie Malice came out, and paying more attention to the words onscreen than I ever had before. I was blown away by Alec Baldwin’s speech toward the end of that film: 

“I have an M.D. from Harvard, I am board certified in cardio-thoracic medicine and trauma surgery, I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea. So I ask you: When someone goes into that chapel and they fall on their knees and they pray to God that their wife doesn’t miscarry, or that their daughter doesn’t bleed to death, or that their mother doesn’t suffer acute neural trauma from post-operative shock, who do you think they’re praying to? Now, go ahead and read your Bible, Dennis, and you go to your church, and, with any luck, you might win the annual raffle. But if you’re looking for God, he was in operating room number two on November 17th, and he doesn’t like to be second guessed. You ask me if I have a God complex. Let me tell you something: I am God.”

That’s a remarkable moment, but it’s not naturalistic dialogue so much as beautifully written theater. 

Dialogue is designed to deliver specific information — reactions, emotions, and subtext — to keep the story moving forward. You should never be as concerned about your characters sounding “real” as you are “interesting or fun to listen to.” When we like a character we automatically believe their dialogue more. 

5. All dialogue should always have a reason for being there

If your dialogue doesn’t drive the story forward, there’s a good chance it should be cut. 

Yes, we just told you it was a good idea to let your characters talk for a long time to see what they’re going to say, but the second part of that tip is equally important. Mine the gems and cut everything else.

But what constitutes a gem? A great line isn’t one necessarily clever or memorable, although that helps. A great line must serve the story before your ego. 

If what you’ve written will still make sense with the line removed then the line isn’t essential, and if it isn’t essential, you should be asking yourself if it really belongs in your story. If it doesn’t increase the suspense or cause the audience aggravation or worry, you should be second-guessing its inclusion. 

Does your dialogue change a character’s situation for better or worse, inching them closer or further away from their goal? Does it clarify or shroud their motives? Maybe strengthen or weaken their resolve?

Pointless conversation can lead to some of the most memorable or meaningful exchanges, as long as you at least secretly have a point. It’s a great way to hint at backstory, which is something great dialogue knows how to do. 

6. Use backstory intelligently

Dialogue is one of the sharpest tools when it comes to weaving backstory into your book, but only when it’s executed well. Done poorly, backstory feels forced and artificial, erecting a barrier between your audience and their best experience. 

Backstory should come in fragments, unless a flashback or light shined on prior events somehow alters the narrative in some way. But most of the time, exposition delivered in any sort of a dump will lead to an inferior reader experience.

Yes, backstory can be key to a well-told story, but it doesn’t have to be front and center, and must be done well. Subtext is everything. If you’ve ever had a character start a sentence with something like, “As you know …” before delivering something the character knows that the audience doesn’t, you’re cheating. 

Let’s say a character has been in jail before. Maybe they’re on probation and about to do something dangerous that could land them back in prison. As the author of this story, you want to make sure your reader understands the risk. Makes sense, but an explicit reminder of the character’s time in prison is less naturalistic and not nearly as effective as something simple like, “I guess you don’t like sleeping in your own bed.” 

If the fact that one character has been in prison before and the other doesn’t want to talk about it, or pretend that situation doesn’t exist. Maybe the reluctance comes from the formerly incarcerated herself. Either way, why not confront the situation? Even if you do it through subtext, conflict is a constant driver of story. 

7. Lean into conflict

If you have a scene with two characters eating dinner, telling one another how much they’re in love, then taking a romantic walk in the moonlight, there better be something hiding in the shadows. 

Audiences need conflict, because conflict lies at the core of every story. That needs to show up in your dialogue. You probably don’t want a lot of conflict in your everyday exchanges, but if you introduce that same philosophy to your storytelling, you’ll end up boring your audience. 

If you give your characters conflicting goals then at the very least there should be a quiet contrast to the exchange. An underlying tension that will keep the narrative moving. 

“Is that what you’re wearing to dinner?” 

“Someone is always farting in a restaurant.” Liam grinned. “It’s a valid question.” 

“Do you need to wear it like a sandwich board?” 

“Is it turning you on?” Liam grinned and moved closer to his girlfriend. 

“Stop it.” Samantha inched away and ~gave his shirt a second, longer look. 

Samantha is trying to avoid conflict when the scene starts, but we can see the tension escalating as she inches away from Liam. 

“What, now it’s not funny? You’re the one who bought it for me.” 

“We’re going to dinner.” 

“Exactly.” Liam smiled. “You know Bailey’s has that No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service sign in the window. But if you want me to go bare-chested, we can try our luck.” 

Liam is trying to soothe the conflict before it gets out of hand. 

“Really, what are you wearing to dinner?” 

“I was going to wear this. What would you like me to wear?” 

“Something without stains and rips.” 

“Those came with the shirt.” 

“I didn’t miss the punchline,” Samantha said, chewing her bottom lip. “Can you please be serious?”

Liam made his face like the Joker and said, “Why so serious?” When Samantha didn’t smile he added, “I thought you liked it when I made you laugh.”

“We’re going to dinner.” 

Samantha doesn’t want him to change the subject and is trying to reset the exchange. Liam keeps swatting her attempts away. Once he realizes there’s no way out of the conversation, he fires a passive aggressive volley. 

“You said that. Do you really mean we’re going to dinner with your friends?”

“You’ve never met them.” 

“They’ll know about the Who Farted? shirt eventually.” Liam laughed. 

Samantha tried to smile but the effort made her frown. “Come on, you know Alicia.” 

“Actually, I don’t. That’s what tonight is supposed to be for.” 

“You’ve heard the stories.” 

“So she has an opinion about everyone and everything,” Liam said, the first hint of irritation entering his voice. “Is there some sort of script I’m supposed to follow? Or that you maybe want to tell me about?” 

Tension is rising. We can picture Liam breathing harder, and slightly faster. 

“More like best practices. Not wearing a Who Farted? shirt to dinner feels like it could be unsaid.” 

“You laughed the last time.” 

“Aren’t you the one who said the thing about comedy is that it gets less funny each time?” Samantha asked.

“So your friends won’t like me if I wear this shirt … that’s what you’re saying.” 

“No, Liam. I’m saying you have a chance to make a good impression, and that it’s fair for me to ask you to try.” 

“To make you look good, you mean.” 

“To make yourself look good.” 

“In front of your friends. It’s fine, Samantha, I get it. Jake and Alicia could probably share a LiveLyfe account and people wouldn’t even know it wasn’t one person if they never posted photos.” 

“You sound mad.” 

Liam shook his head. “I’m not mad at all. Just didn’t realize this was that kind of dinner.” 

“That’s not fair. It’s not that kind of dinner.” 

“Okay,” Liam smiled. “I’ll be back in a minute. How does my blue polo sound?”

The argument climaxes here, but you can see how this could have turned south. Even a small amount of conflict can dramatically improve a scene. But never be afraid to: 

9. Make your characters argue

Arguments are dialogue with an edge. Once you get the hang of it, dialogue can be a ton of fun. But it’s limited by what’s being discussed. Since we’re talking about fiction and not reality, all conversations should be interesting or informative in some way.

Getting your characters into arguments is a great way to heighten narrative emotion and because of their heightened states, and drive them into some edgy or even irrational behaviors. 

Characters who are enraged, depressive, or all worked up will lower their guards in ways they wouldn’t if they were on an even keel. The truth tends to come out in emotional scenes, often naked and unvarnished. 

All that stuff about characters rarely saying what they mean goes out the window once the emotions are charged. We’ve talked about raised walls, heavy subtext, and characters obfuscating the truth. But things change when characters are volatile, and the truth-hiding that happens during an argument is a shadow of its usual self. 

When people are arguing, they seldom let each other finish. In an argument, there’s a rush to be right at all costs. In other emotional states, the higher personal stakes make problems feel more urgent, and hence characters won’t always finish sentences because the others in the scene are butting in with solutions, criticisms, blame, or just about anything else. 

Some writers fill arguments with long diatribes, but that’s both unrealistic and a mistake. Diatribes are self-indulgent and can be tedious to read, resulting in long quotes and even longer paragraphs. The rat-a-tat-tat of a realistic argument is breezier to read and far more exciting to follow. Worse, diatribes don’t happen in real life ― not if the person being argued at is in the room. Unless your character is arguing from the stage in front of a well-behaved audience, he’s not going to finish his ten-minute rant uninterrupted. Or, for that matter, one-minute.

Look at a clock and wait while sixty seconds pass. A minute sounds like a flicker, but in the heat of battle it’s an eternity. Can you imagine witnessing an argument where one combatant was allowed to speak for that long without their opponent jabbing back?

We fill our arguments with short sentences, rapid exchanges, and constant interruptions. We cut people off, leaving their statements unfinished while the other person grabs for their turn. We insert petty snipes that don’t strictly pertain to what’s being argued and feel more like personal attacks. In the heat of an out-of-control argument, it’s perfectly acceptable for one person to insult another’s wardrobe for no reason or mock a speech impediment. 

Arguments can easily turn into action scenes. Volatile characters will break or hurl things, throw tantrums like children. At the very least, “action” should extend to body language and facial expressions, shifting positions and hard gazes. People don’t argue with only their mouths. 

The same truths apply to any emotional scene: Never forget action and especially body language. Sad characters don’t simply speak. The cadence and pitch of their voices change. They look down, averting eyes. Their shoulders round. They slump. Angry characters stare and present their bodies full-frontal, as if begging for an attack. Infatuated or in-love characters touch, cast small glances, and engage in tiny, fascinating cues you can even look up online: “flirting behavior by gender,” perhaps, because men behave differently than women. Romantic characters soften their voices. They think adoring, warped thoughts about the person they’re in love with. Angry characters too, but in the case of anger, it’s as if a magnifying glass has been put over all the other person’s flaws and insignificant peeves, all their positive attributes and actions deleted. 

When writing arguments, keep in mind that only a small portion of what’s being said comes from dialogue ― though if you enjoy biting exchanges, arguments are your time to shine. Most of what’s said comes from nonverbal cues: tone, body language, personal space given or taken away, and so on.  

A great argument is the opposite of this next thing that you always want to avoid. 

10. Eliminate small talk

As with any other form of dialogue, you should only have small talk with purpose. Everything said should be relevant to the story. Last night’s dinner only matters if it was late, or poisoned, or in some other way plays into the plot. 

If your character is engaging in small talk because he or she is nervous, uncomfortable, or strategically buying time, that’s an acceptable use of this overused device. But if your character is jawing on about the weather, asking about a pet without any relevance, or working to humanize their cast through verbal banality, this is likely to fall flat. There is a beat between your reader not caring about a given conversation and losing engagement with the story. A master craftsman can command a reader’s attention with even the most trivial of exchanges, but if you’re still learning I strongly suggest you stay away from such experimentation. 

An easy way to avoid small talk is to consider how the characters are related before you get them talking. 

11. Use dialogue to reveal relationships

Good dialogue establishes relationships, great dialogue gives them a heartbeat. 

Terrible dialogue will tell you how two characters are related by flat-out saying it. “Look Martha, I’ve known you for seven years now, ever since our sons were in kindergarten together.” 

Good dialogue will reveal that relationship in a more natural way. “The boys aren’t in kinder anymore. There’s no more running to tell Mrs. Parker.” 

Great dialogue hints at something more. “It’s not like the boys are still in kinder. Can you imagine another Walrus Incident?” 

That last one is an indirect and rather subtle example of the next entry on this list. 

12. Show, don’t tell

You’ll notice there is a lot of overlap with several of these understandings. And show, don’t tell is everywhere. From subtext to body language, arguments, backstories, and all the things left unsaid, this principle should remain omnipresent in your writing. 

Unless you are telling for a reason, your default should be show. Yes, this criterion is everywhere, but its importance commands an entry of its own anyway. 

13. Find your rhythm

Most songs have a predictable verse, chorus, verse structure. Without that stupid-simple framework, even the catchiest songs would fail to capture significant attention. Vary the rhythm to make your dialogue more resonant and more memorable, while also keeping it easier to read. 

There are two key pieces to rhythm, attribution and tags. 

“It really annoys me that we were promised jetpacks in the future and yet, still no jetpacks,” Jason said. 

Jason said is the tag and the attribution. 

You can also declare, state, gesture, mumble, proclaim, trumpet, gasped, or anything else among the countless options. Be careful. Your fourth grade teacher might have tried to convince you that said was dead like mine did. But it isn’t, and your writing should be invisible, which means not shining a harsh light on every exchange. 

The attribution is the “who said it” part of your dialogue. Attributions are speed bumps that keep your reader from racing through the volley. A slower pace keeps them from being as engaged in your dialogue as you want them to be. So ideally, you should have as few of these as possible.

Give your reader a front row seat to everything that’s happening in the story, and make the experience glide. You can’t just ignore tags and attributes because you’re a genius and your reader will know what you mean, nor do you want to assign tags and attributes for every conversational volley. 

Here is the exchange with Samantha and Liam again, with reasons why each decision was made: 

“Is that what ““““`you’re weari`ng to dinner?” 

“Someone is always farting in a restaurant.” Liam grinned. “It’s a valid question.” 

“Do you need to wear it like a sandwich board?” 

“Is it turning you on?” L““`iam moved closer to his girlfriend. 

Samantha doesn’t need identification because there are only two people in the scene, and Liam speaks next. We did need to identify him, but we did it with action. That reveals character. We know Liam is entering the room in a good mood. Samantha doesn’t need attribution because she answers, followed by another character moment for Liam. 

“Stop it.” Samantha inched away and gave his shirt a second, longer look. 

“What, now it’s not funny? You’re the one who bought it for me.” 

“We’re going to dinner.” 

“Exactly.” Liam smiled. “You know Bailey’s has that No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service sign in the window. But if you want me to go bare-chested, we can try our luck.” 

“Really, what are you wearing to dinner?” 

“I was going to wear this. What would you like me to wear?” 

“Something without stains and rips.” 

“Those came with the shirt.” 

“I didn’t miss the punchline,” Samantha said, chewing her bottom lip. “Can you please be serious about this?”

We start out with Samantha inching away from Liam, which is a direct reaction to his last tag. Again we used action rather than a simple said, while keeping the scene moving. An or rather than an and. We keep this trend going with Liam smiling. We have four lines without attribution after that, which is why we hear Samantha speaking, and see her chewing her bottom lip. That choice is rhythmic. No one had simply said something in a while, and she needed to start getting annoyed with Liam. 

Most of the time you don’t need a tag to identify your speaker. Readers either already know, or you can imply it in some other way. There is another element to rhythm, but it deserves an entry of its own. 

14. Give each of your characters a unique way of speaking

You don’t know anyone who talks exactly like you, and even if there was someone you wanted to mimic, there is a one-hundred percent chance of you failing to perfectly match it. Everyone has patterns to their speech, favorite phrases or words, and individual ways of communicating that act as constant reminders of who we are. 

Word choice and sentence structure are the primary ways to differentiate between characters varying styles of verbal communication. Does the person in your story speak in short sentences, as if their thoughts have been clipped? Or do they speak eloquently and deliver their thoughts with a diamond-sharp perspective? Regardless of the attribution discussed above, a reader should be able to identify any speaker in your story simply by how they are talking. 

Similar is necessary, the same is not. Peer groups have common patterns and vocabulary, as do families, workmates, or any other huddled collective. Your character should fit in while standing out. 

Personal vocabulary should fit their history and present environment. An educated character will naturally use bigger words, and more of them, unless she’s trying not to. What does it say about a character with a rich vocabulary who articulates herself poorly in person, even though we know how rich her inner monologues can be? 

A chef will think in terms of food and associated terms. How about a doctor, an actor, or an artist? 

Know who your characters are, and who they are talking to at any given time. No equation is the same. A father who is a lawyer will talk one way to his wife and another way to his daughter. The daughter is getting bespoke versions of each parents: the person Daddy is only with her, and the person Mommy is when only her baby girl is around. 

A character might curse every other word, except for the scene where he’s sharing tea with his grandma. Or maybe he’s like my uncle and lives with no filter. Either way we learn something about him. 

15. Read your dialogue out loud

I’m lucky enough to have married someone who will patiently sit while I read my work out loud to her. This makes it easier and more rewarding to do, but even if I didn’t have such a loving wife it would be worth reading the words to myself. You can catch awkward phrasing and typos while also tightening passages throughout your draft, but a read-aloud is most important when it comes to dialogue. 

Your reader will imagine the characters speaking, so you need to get your dialogue right. As you go through the draft, ask yourself the following: 

  • Does this sound the way real people talk? 
  • Are the word choices and speaking style unique to each character? 
  • Is there rhythm in my sentence length, structure, tags and attribution? 
  • Have I fumbled over any particular words, sentences, paragraphs or passages?
  • Extra important: Does my dialogue move the story forward? 
  • Does my grammar support what my characters are trying to communicate? 
  • Was anything in about the dialogue confusing? 
  • Are the exchanges fun to read?

Reading your dialogue out loud will improve the finished work a hundred percent of the time. 

16. Give your characters an agenda.

No one in your story should ever do anything without a specific reason. An agenda in this context means more than “what the character is going to do” or even “what they want.” We’re talking about the entire way they frame and deal with a conversation. 

Samantha wants for Liam to dress nice, so that her friends will like him, because her self-worth is tied up in their opinions of her and losing their respect will make her feel unsafe. 

Liam wants to be himself, so that he’ll know for sure that Samantha will love him no matter what, because she is even more important to him than his friends. 

Knowing your characters agenda ahead of time will give scenes a stronger sense of subtext, which will make it easier for your reader to bond with them and whatever they are going through. 

17. Give your characters something to do

If the people in your story are standing around in the middle of nowhere then they better be in a place like the Construct from The Matrix. If they’re doing nothing, we need to see restraints, a disability, or anything that turns their paralysis into part of the story. 

People are usually in motion, even if they’re sitting. An older couple sharing a porch and some silence is still doing something. They might be drinking coffee, tea, or lemonade. But at the very least they’re watching the world go by. Make their observations part of the scene. 

Seemingly insignificant actions lend reality to your story. Just make sure you don’t over animate every line. Beginning writers will articulate every motion. Avoid this. Less is always more, and only make your characters move if it supports your rhythm, drives the narrative, or in some way establishes character. 

Keep your characters walking or cooking or fixing the floorboards. That way they can note birds in the trees — in their heads or out loud — chop a clove of garlic, or get their rough hands on some old wood. 

If your character is getting interrogated in a featureless room, she could still pick at her clothing, revealing her nerves to both the reader and her interrogator on the page. 

Making the in-between moments feel natural will afford you the creative space to focus on your dialogue. Improvement in one will feed the other will always feed the other. The more tricks you have at your disposal, the better your dialogue will be. This last one works great. 

18. Enter the conversation late

Great dialogue is like a real conversation, except with all the boring or irrelevant bits trimmed to enhance the experience. None of the small talk at the beginning of an exchange between strangers or old friends, and none of the discourse markers (umms and ahhhs) that fill most conversations. 

No one wants to read that, so a great way to avoid having to write it is to enter the conversation late. You’ll bore your reader by telling them something they already know. This is the sin of amateur dialogue. A well crafted scene might appear to start slow, but if so it’s likely only for mood. 

To pull Tarantino into yet another example, the beginning of Inglorious Basterds gives us one of the most brilliant uses of pacing and dialogue in cinema. It’s maybe fifteen minutes, and each of them is tense. The scene breaks much of the advice on this page. It’s slow, and starts with pleasantries, but even though we see the antagonist arrive while our (temporary) hero is chopping wood, there are years of war and a German occupation to serve as subtext. 

Enter the conversation late, and if it makes sense leave early. Do whatever it takes to keep your reader glued to your story. 

Before we leave you to sharpen your dialogue, we’d like to cover basic paragraphing, because simple as it is this still seems to trip up a lot of beginning writers, then go over a few of the most commonly made mistakes. 

How to Paragraph

This is natural enough for most writers that you might not need the advice at all. Even if you do this simple primer is probably enough to take care of you once and for good. 

  • Make sure every speaker gets a new paragraph. Every time it was Samantha’s turn in their conversation we dropped down to a new line. And the same was true for Liam. Even if the statement or response is a single word like No, it still gets its own paragraph. 
  • Every paragraph is indented. If you’re writing fiction, it should absolutely not look like the words on this page. This is nonfiction formatting, specifically designed to be read online, with lots of white space between non-indented paragraphs. 
  • Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, unless you’re across the pond in the UK, then you leave the punctuation outside of the quotes. You already know to be careful with monologues, but if you’re going to blaze ahead with them anyway, you can keep your paragraphs going without closing the quotes until your character has finished talking. 
  • Use single quotes if the speaker is quoting someone while they are talking: Liam said, “I thought you liked this shirt on me. The last time you said, ‘that shirt always makes me laugh,’ so how am I supposed to know that you think it’s stupid now?” 

There are rules to paragraphing, though a lot of it plays into the rhythm you’re establishing for your cast and the story you’re wanting to tell. 

But what about my mistakes? 

Excellent question …

I’ve covered the 16 most important understandings when it comes to crafting quality dialogue, but I’d like to take a moment to flip that on its head and help you to steer clear of the most obvious mistakes. 

Much of this is covered above, but here it’s framed as blunders to avoid instead of best practices to follow. Please do everything you can to avoid the following 10 mistakes: 

  • Too much chit-chat. Eliminate pleasantries and unnecessary exchanges that waste the reader’s time. 
  • Telling instead of showing. Readers don’t care as much about what they “hear” as what they “see.” 
  • Repetitive use of names. Be especially careful in romance. People don’t constantly use first names in real life, so doing that in your story reminds your reader that she isn’t really there. 
  • Over-animating exchanges. Veteran writers have confidence in their dialogue while amateurs fill it with unnecessary actions, tags, and attributions to remind the reader that there’s a writer behind it all. 
  • Stating or restating the obvious. Trust your reader. Tell them only what they need to know, when they need to know it, and never more than they need. 
  • Tired or clichéd dialogue. You should always find at least a couple of these moments if you read your work aloud. Cut them without mercy. 
  • Disregarding dialogue entirely. Some writers eschew dialogue as much as they can because it’s more difficult to write. This decision almost always weakens the story. 
  • Poor word choices. Like Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Craft your word choice with care. 
  • Lack of rhythm. The more you write, the better your rhythm will get. But never stop paying attention.
  • Too many similar characters. Again, reading your work out loud will help to differentiate your cast. 

But never forget that rules are meant to be broken …

Yes, you’ve just read a really long page full of understandings about dialogue. 

But they are not rules, and even if they were, rules are meant to be broken. Find any one of your favorite books right now. Odds are that at least some of these rules have been shattered like a porcelain plate on a tile floor. 

If you were to follow all the rules on this page like a blueprint without deviation, your work would probably be boring. You want to stand out and maybe even aim for iconic, but you can’t do that with every line or it will sound like you’re trying too hard and there won’t be enough depth for your readers to connect with. 

You can break the rules, but never your purpose. Always remember that dialogue is there for a reason, and that reason should always fuel your dialogue.