If you’re a fiction writer, you’re always looking for ways to improve your craft. There are so many aspects to focus on — what kind of detail to include, how to develop your characters, how to implement setups and payoffs, how to write believable dialogue — and the list goes on as far as you care to take it.

How to Write Dialogue That Dazzles Your Readers

According to James Scott Bell, the fastest way to improve any manuscript is by learning to write dazzling dialogue. Nothing grabs and holds reader attention like well-written dialogue, but how do you do it?

6 Strategies for Writing Dialogue That Dazzles

There are a lot of pitfalls to watch out for when it comes to using dialogue in your writing. Whether you’ve given this a lot of thought, or none at all, the subject bears exploring. Let’s take a look at six hazards to be wary of, and what you can do about them to make your dialogue more engaging.

1. Beware of starting off with dialogue

Let me share an example from my own life. I love The Story Grid book and podcast. For about a year, I took Shawn and Tim with me each day on my morning commute.

During one episode, Tim mentioned that he enjoyed reading a book, Lexicon, by Max Barry, and the way he described it fascinated me. I checked out a copy from the library and dove in. After about a page and a half, I would have dived back out if Tim hadn’t recommended it so highly.

It begins with line after line of cryptic dialogue from characters the reader knows nothing about, with no setting and no context. Okay, I’m fine with that. For a while.

But this continued for three and a half pages and went from intriguing, to frustrating, to irritating. I had no sense of where the story was going, no feel for who these characters were, and no reason to care.

I grew dangerously close to quitting. It was only because of Tim that I persevered. I actually ended up liking the book so much I bought my own copy, and the audiobook, as well. But it was a near thing.

What to do about it

Starting your story with dialogue is a perfectly viable option. But, if you choose to begin your story with dialogue you must:

Make it intriguing. Like this example from Your Better Half, by K.W. Oxnard:

“I’ve misplaced my soul,” you tell me.

“Men are always losing things.” I laugh. “Look under your bed, or behind the pickles in the refrigerator. Do you remember what you were wearing when you had it last?”

Don’t take it too far. Go ahead and grab reader attention with interesting dialogue up front. But don’t wait too long to back it up with setting, character, stakes, and a reason to care.

2. Beware the data dump

Dialogue is a great way to deliver information that the reader needs to know. But don’t let them catch you feeding it to them. Do it clumsily and you’re doomed.

Do not write dialogue such as this:

“Hello, my dear wife. I’m so happy we’ve been married these last 25 years.”

“Oh! So am I. We are so fortunate to have three lovely children, too. One who became a doctor and lives in Orange County, one who married the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, and one who …”

You get the idea.

What to do about it

In his book How To Write Dazzling Dialogue, James Scott Bell says that the first and most important lesson is to be clear on every character’s agenda in a scene, and pit the agendas against each other. “No matter how small or large the objectives, if they are in conflict, the dialogue will work.”

Robert McKee calls it “exposition as ammunition.” By this, he means using conflict in dialogue to reveal information the reader needs to know. Here’s an example, contrasting straight exposition with the use of ammunition.

Exposition:

Sally found the documents, buried at the back of Bill’s desk drawer. She pored over them once, and then again, to make sure she understood the tricky legalese. She was stunned. Bill had purchased a house, without discussing it with her or giving her any say in the matter.  He was such a domineering control freak.

Ammunition:

As Bill swallowed the last bite of his cake and laid the fork across his plate, Sally placed the document in front of him.

“When were you planning to tell me about this?”

Bill scanned the page, the vein in his forehead rising like a worm under the skin. “You shouldn’t snoop through my things, Sally.”

“I shouldn’t have to snoop to find something like this. It affects both of us, Bill.”

His hand clenched on the napkin, big knuckles going white. “I wanted to surprise you.”

“Well, I’m not surprised, Bill. This is what you always do. You steamroll ahead with whatever you want. Did it really not occur to you that buying a house is a decision we should have made together?”

Which do you think makes the stronger presentation?

3. Beware wandering

Have you ever eavesdropped on the conversations around you? (Joe definitely has.) For us writers, they’re a great illustration of what to do AND what not to do.

You want to make your dialogue sound like something real people would say, but real people ramble and say boring things. You must do the opposite.

The dialogue you write must earn its place in your story. It has to work, driving the story forward and accomplishing a vital role. Every word has to count. Cut the fluff.

What to do about it

Going back to James Scott Bell’s book on dialogue, he says that dialogue must perform one or more of these critical functions, or it’s just taking up space:

  1. Reveal story information
  2. Reveal character
  3. Set the tone
  4. Set the scene
  5. Reveal theme

Make sure every dialogue you include in your story has a reason for being there. Keep it active, concise, on purpose.

4. Beware the nose

Don’t say everything exactly as it is, up-front and straightforward. That’s called “on the nose.”

On the nose is lackluster writing, and a waste of a good opportunity to build suspense and raise story questions.

What to do about it

I’ll use an example from Jeffery Deaver’s story, Triangle. Deaver could have written it like this:

“Maybe I’ll go to Baltimore.”

“You mean to visit my friend, Doug?”

“Yes, I don’t really want to go, but I know it would please you, so I’ll do it.”

“It would please me tremendously. Yes, by all means, go to Baltimore.”

Instead, he wrote it this way:

“Maybe I’ll go to Baltimore.”

“You mean …” She looked at him. “To see …”

“Doug,” he answered.

“Really?” Mo Anderson asked and looked carefully at her fingernails, which she was painting bright red. He didn’t like the color but he didn’t say anything about it. She wouldn’t listen to him anyway.

“I think it’d be fun,” he continued.

“Oh, it would be,” she said quickly. “Doug’s a fun guy.”

Deaver wove subtext under the words to raise questions in the reader’s mind, and you should do the same. People are rarely so open as to say what they really mean. They choose their words to accomplish a purpose, sometimes casually, but often with great care.

And remember to give your characters opposing agendas. This makes subtext so much easier.

Don’t let your dialogues get stale and predictable, either. Let your characters speak, but try shaking it up now and then. Throw in something from left field and see how they deal with it.

I find that if I have a scene goal that involves revelatory information, I sometimes get a great result from spinning the conversation in an unexpected direction and letting my characters figure out how to arrive at the goal.

5. Beware of said bookisms

The modern trend is to use “said” as your only attribution in dialogue. He said, she said. And I agree that in most cases, “said” is the best choice. Certainly, I cringe when reading lines of dialogue such as these:

“I’m so sad,” she emoted.

“Let me explain the difference,” he pontificated.

“I’m getting out of here!” he ejaculated.

These are called said bookisms, or just saidisms, because there are actually books dedicated to words you could use in place of “said.”

The worst problem with saidisms is that they’re distracting. They pull the reader out of the story and remind them that they’re reading.

“Said” is virtually invisible. The reader doesn’t notice it and glides right over it, staying securely fastened in the story.

Another issue with saidisms is that writers sometimes use them as a crutch. Make the character’s words speak for themselves, rather than falling back on the attribution.

What to do about it

I prefer to mix up my delivery by often using action beats, rather than dialogue tags. That’s when you give your character something to do as they say their lines that makes it clear who is speaking and adds bits of information for the reader.

Here’s an example:

Brenda opened the letter and flattened it on the table, pointing to the signature at the bottom of the page. “Can you believe who wrote this?”

No said, or asked, or expostulated necessary. The reader knows Brenda is speaking.

When you need to use a tag, go with “said” as your default, and use the other options sparingly. There are times when something else might be appropriate. For a good article on the subject, read Joanna Bourne’s When To Use Saidisms.

6. Beware of bad formatting

Dialogue stands out on the page, surrounded by a lot of white space. That’s good. White space is your friend.

But it also points the spotlight on the words you’ve written, and if you haven’t used the proper punctuations in your dialogue, there’s no place for it to hide. Editors hate it, readers hate it, and any writer who wants to hone their craft should hate it.

A couple of months ago, I had an editor tell me I almost lost the sale on one of my stories because I’d neglected to remove the space between the paragraphs. “It made your dialogue read so slow. You almost lost me. But when I realized what the problem was, and took out the extra spaces, it flowed beautifully. I’ll buy your story.”

Formatting is a big deal, folks. Pay attention.

What to do about it

Learn the proper way to format dialogue. A good resource is this lesson in dialogue punctuation, right here on The Write Practice.

Make Your Dialogue Sing

Knowing how to write dialogue that engages the reader and holds her interest is one of the most valuable skills you can develop. Invest some time and effort here. James Scott Bell asserts that dialogue is the fastest way to assess the skill of a writer of fiction.

Don’t let it be the issue that’s holding you back.

How do you feel about your skill level when it comes to writing dialogue? Are you willing to invest what it takes to get better?  Tell us what you think in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Take a look at a piece you’ve written that contains dialogue. Assess the dialogue in terms of the pitfalls discussed in the article. When you’ve found a section of the dialogue that could use some improvement, apply and practice the techniques suggested.

If you don’t have a piece of writing that applies, try writing a dialogue between an eleven-year-old boy and the ice cream man. The boy wants a chocolate cone, but they’re sold out, so the ice cream man tries to sell him something else instead. Don’t forget to pit their agendas against each other.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Joslyn Chase
Joslyn Chase
Joslyn Chase's most recent book, The Tower, is a story of nail-biting suspense and the triumph of love in the aftermath of World War II. What Leads A Man To Murder, her collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com. Joslyn loves traveling, teaching, and playing the piano.