3 Tips for Writing Brilliant Dialogue

by Pamela Hodges | 14 comments

We talk to tell someone we want them to pass the salt. We talk to ask questions, share feelings, and ask for directions when we are lost. We talk to ourselves in our thoughts, and we speak out loud. Dialogue is all around us, every day.

3 Tips for Writing Brilliant Dialogue

In our stories, our characters talk, too. It is not quite as easy to write dialogue for our characters as it is to have conversations in real life. But if you take time to learn how dialogue works and practice writing it, you will be able to write brilliant conversations that sound natural and move your story forward.

3 Tips for Writing Brilliant Dialogue

Today, I will give you three tips about writing dialogue. I am learning these principles from master writers like Robert McKee, Stephen King, and Anne Lamott. Will you come practice them with me?

1. It Reveals Character

Robert McKee, in his book Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen, says,

In a story, writers use dialogue to show what a person wants, to advance the story and to show character.

2. It Sounds Real

Dialogue needs to be believable, to sound like real dialogue, as in actual people talking. To write believable dialogue, start to listen to the conversations around you. As Stephen King says,

Pay attention to how the real people around you behave and then tell the truth about what you see.

I was in the grocery store listening, paying attention to how people talk to each other. A woman was in line at the customer service desk to return an item. The women behind the counter asked, “Still living with your mom?”

The woman replied, “Actually no. She’s been in a nursing home the last three years.”

3. It Doesn't Data-Dump

Dialogue is not to tell backstory:

“Hello, Mary, whom I went to grade school with in 1984, and whom I haven’t seen in six years, because I was in prison for stealing. But I got out recently, and now I have this new job, and I quit smoking. Are you still living with your mom?”

Dialogue is not direct. It talks in subtleties.

As Stephen King says in On Writing,

Good dialogue gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters.

A Few Final Thoughts on Dialogue

Brilliant dialogue reveals nuances about characters. It can hint at deeper meaning and unsaid thoughts or feelings.

Brilliant dialogue sounds like real people talking. People don't always talk in complete sentences.

Brilliant dialogue does not dump backstory. It does move the story forward.

Brilliant dialogue is not easy to write. But writing it is a skill worth practicing. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird,

Do you struggle with any of the tips above? Do you have another tip to add? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Today, it's time for a field trip. Go to the supermarket or a coffee shop and listen to people's conversation. Then, take fifteen minutes to write down a conversation you overheard. What do you notice about the way their real dialogue works?

If you do not want to go listen to other people's conversations, take fifteen minutes to write a scene in which one character wants the other character's sandwich. What do they say to each other?

(But really, I think you will miss out on some wonderful writing research if you do not go out into the world and listen to real people talk.)

When you're done, share your conversation in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers. I look forward to reading your dialogue.

Pamela writes stories about art and creativity to help you become the artist you were meant to be. She would love to meet you at pamelahodges.com.

14 Comments

  1. Festus Nwabueze

    “good morning sir “Edward said to his boss who was standing Close to the window viewing the city.
    “you sent for me Sir”Edward said Feeling nervous has he bite his finger.
    The boss turn around facing Edward has he brought a file out “can you explain why you sent such huge amount to my wife account “. The boss said with a loud voice. “sir she said you gave the approval”. An elegant woman walk in dress in a white gown “talk of the devil and she is here” the boss said gazing at her. “And who is this devil dear” she replied has she perk the boss. “what are you doing Susan” the boss said. Susan grab a sit “can’t I visit my billionaire darling husband” Susan smile. “why did you withdraw such huge amount of money” boss said with a harsh tone. Edward just gaze has the argument between the boss and his wife was like a pitch of high and low tone.

    Reply
    • Lorna Robinson

      Interest story, unwinding here:)

  2. Lorna Robinson

    How is your mother going anyway? she asked her older coffee partner. shes keeps busy, she’s always going some where. Even started going to Milton now. She drives into to Oslow and catches the bus. Wow, I never thought she’d be doing that- does she manage alright. Seems to the other answered. The first time she went the she met her Les, her son and spent the day with him but the next time she just went on her own.
    What are you ordering? I think I’ll have a iced chia what about you? I’ll have one too, but not iced.
    Do you want any thing to eat? yeah… I think Ill have a yo yo mmm… Ill have a ginger bread man… I like ginger. So do yo think she will still want to move down here. Yes, I think so…. Well I found some plans that might suit her. it might be easier to build than find the right house. Oh great idea she doesnt need a big house though.

    Reply
  3. Gary G Little

    “Gonna eat that?”

    “What?”

    “That pickle?”

    “Dunno.”

    “What’s your sandwich?”

    “Peanut butter and grape jelly on white. Yours?”

    “Ham and mustard on whole wheat. Pickle’s gonna taste like crap.”

    “Yeah. Like the pickle though.”

    “Wanna trade sandwiches?”

    “Bag-a-chips?”

    “Sure.”

    Reply
  4. Fabio Salvadori

    “What?”
    “I didn’t know there was chicken in this sandwich”
    “So? Are you vegetarian now?”
    “No but …”
    “But?”
    “I don’t trust chicken in these places”
    “Oh come on. It’s a chicken”
    “Yeah, but I read an article the other day and they say there use all these hormones to make the chickens bigger”
    “Oh shit. So? Are you eating it or not? You’ve been starring at that sandwich for 5 minutes!”
    “Not sure. How’s yours?”
    “Ah, I got it.”
    “What?”
    “You want mine”
    “Hey, I’m just asking if it’s good”
    “I hate when you do this. If you want something you ask for it. Do you want to swap sandwiches? Than, ask for it!”
    “Would you … ”
    “Damn! This is not asking, it’s babbling. I said, ask for it!”
    “Ok,ok. Can we swap our sandwiches?”
    “Hell no. There are mushrooms on yours. I hate mushrooms! But you can buy a new one!”
    “You’re a moron. You know it?”

    Reply
  5. Atiaf Alwazir

    “Oh wow, yours looks so much better than mine,” she motioned to the sandwich in his hands. He shook his index finger at her, and yet she continued to aim for it. “I don’t think so!” he whacked her hand lightly to safeguard his lunch.

    “Come ‘on Mike! I mean look at the avocado oozing out of your sesame baguette. Then look at mine. A plain toast with canned tuna and mayo. I could’ve made this shit myself in my crappy little studio. And.. I wouldn’t have paid $5.99.”

    “I told you to order the same thing,” he took a bite. “But you hate when we order the same thing. Why?”

    “I don’t know,” she shrugged.

    “Seriously. Why does it bother you so much? Do you feel it infringes on your individuality? That it somehow makes you feel like one of us commoners. Like you’re not unique or something?”

    “Oh God. Why do you have to philosophize everything? I just think we should order different things so we could sample the food and know what’s good in every restaurant.”

    “Great idea, but there’s one small problem. You never remember what you had ordered,” he giggled.

    Reply
  6. TerriblyTerrific

    Good article. Thank you.

    Reply
  7. Sefton

    Don had taken the last Cheese Savory. Typical. I went for the Prawn Cocktail. It oozed pink gunk onto my paper plate.

    My action attracted his attention. “Hi Tina, great conference, huh?”

    “It’s OK.”

    Don stood, blocking my path to the Salmon Cucumber and Ham Colselaw options. “Food great too, eh.”

    “Some of it.” This stuff was from Greggs – and it was a well known fact that the Cheese Savory was their best offering. I eyed Don’s plate, and the Cheese Savory, its golden mush plump between two slabs of white bread.

    “What’s up with you, not picked for keynote speaker?” He chuckled at this hilarious observation. He looked at his plate, motioned towards the food, then stopped. “Hey, have you seen Gary?”

    I edged around him, but he stepped into my way. “Gary? No.” Now the last Ham Colselsaw was gone as well – and Don, I saw, had two. He still hadn’t eaten a bite.

    “I think the numpty they picked for keynote was a total-”

    “Are you having that?”

    “What?” He picked up the Cheese Savory and sank his teeth into its rump.

    “Nothing.”

    I pushed past him, heading for Fresh Profiteroles.

    Reply
  8. irene joseph

    “Stop shouting at your sister”, yelled Sharon at her son in the middle of the Burger King Bar, “she’s only asking if can try a bite of your burger.”
    “But mummy she’s got her own.”
    “Stop being so selfish,” Sharon snapped again, taking a big gulp of coffee.
    “Mummy, can I try your chicken burger,” asked her son.
    “No! Eat what’s left of yours.”
    “Just a little bit, mummy,” her son whined.
    “No!” Sharon shouted, “it’s MY burger!”

    Reply
  9. 709writer

    Sonic had just lifted the burger to his mouth when a voice said, “Unhand that burger, you miserable rodent.”

    Lowering the burger, Sonic stared with half-closed eyes at the speaker, Eggman, who’d taken a seat across from Sonic in the restaurant’s booth. Good ol’ Eggy. Always showing up at the worst possible times, always trying to steal Sonic’s grub, and always succeeding…at proving it was possible to live without a brain.

    Sonic pursed his lips as he mulled over Eggman’s order. “Or…what?”

    Eggman whipped out a huge, clunky, rather extremely wimpy-looking gun. Probably another rocket launcher. “Or I’ll blow you clean off the planet.”

    “With what?” Sonic waved the burger around, then eyed the weapon and cocked an eyebrow. “That hunk of junk?”

    “This ‘hunk of junk’ is my mega-capacity, city-leveling, indestructible atomic blaster,” Eggman said.

    Man, this guy had some nerve, butting into Sonic’s lunch time. Sonic shrugged and took a bite of the burger.

    Eggman’s sunglasses bulged way out, but no so far Sonic could see what color his eyes were, of course.

    “I think your blood pressure’s a little too high,” Sonic said, chomping on the burger again. “You need cinnamon, not a cheeseburger.”

    Eggman showed his teeth and cocked the ‘indestructible’ atomic blaster, then took aim at Sonic’s face. “Not another bite, or I’ll vaporize you out of existence.”

    Sonic yawned, and as his mouth opened wide during said yawn, he shoved the rest of the burger in his gob. He proceeded to flash his teeth in a wide grin at Eggman, who by this time had steam spraying from his ears.

    Ol’ Eggy’s finger started to curl around the trigger of the Atomic Rocket Launcher 9000, but before Eggman could fulfill his threat of mindless violence, Sonic shot out his hand and knocked the rocket launcher from Eggman’s grubby little hands.

    Sonic let out a whistle as the weapon soared through the air. After the gun had clonked Eggman on the skull, shoving his head down into the table, Sonic shrugged and said, “Told you cinnamon was better.”

    Reply
  10. Jamie Colban

    “Hey Babe!”
    I looked up from my perusal of the beautiful brie and bacon sandwich before me into a familiar face.
    “Hey back.” I said masking my annoyance at being interrupted with herculean effort. The muscles of my face twitched into a smile as the cheap plastic chair opposite was filled by a creature seemingly made entirely of shopping bags.

    “That looks good.”
    In the gap between a large white New-look bag and its twin from H&M I spied two beady eyes locked onto my sandwich. My hackles rose.
    “It does.” I replied, unconsciously hunching forward protectively over my food.

    The bag creature laughed. It was a tinkling sound of high pitched mirth designed to put me at ease. I wasn’t fooled. I know i’m not funny. I eyed the bag creature suspiciously, expecting at any moment to see a brightly lacquered talon shoot out and snatch my prize.

    “I think i’ll get myself one of those. Would you mind watching my bags?”
    This was it! my chance to be rid of the creature long enough to take a bite of the cheesy, bready goodness that was now long overdue for my stomach. A wise man would have held his silence. A smart man would have said something smooth like,
    “Sure thing, see you in a minute.”

    That’s what a wise, smart man would have done. Suffice it to say that before the creature had managed to extricate herself from all of the bags and stood to leave, my mouth was already forming the words that would doom me.
    “Sorry love, this is the last one.”

    She paused, disappointment etched upon her make-up enhanced features and in that horrible moment I realised what I had done.
    ” They still have a few ham and cheese…” I added lamely but the damage was done.

    With a sigh she plonked herself back amongst her nest of shopping and before I could react, she reached out and just like that a full half of my day’s only solace was gone. I watched as she clutched my bounty in ruby fingernails, watched as she raised it to her crimson lips.

    “Lets share.” The harpy queen said happily taking a bite and making a scrunched up little face of pure ecstasy. Inside, I could feel the rage building. Fury and hunger collided in my empty stomach, ready to race forth and teach this poacher, this insipid food thief just what I thought of her pilfering ways. I opened my mouth. I caught her eye.

    “Yes dear.” I said.

    Reply
  11. Nicole Prescott

    “Must you chew like that”?! “Like what”? Asked Pepper. ” Like a Billy goat “!! Said Salt. ” WHAT! I DO NOT CHEW LIKE A BILLY GOAT “. “Yes you do!!, you smack your lips, you get food all over yourself”!! “So your saying I eat like animal”!? How rude!!! I’m out of here”. “Thank goodness now I can enjoy my food without looking at you eat….. GOAT BOY”!!!!

    Reply
    • Lily

      So funny! Remember to put “.”, “!” and “?” before the last “. It is not correct. Beautiful invention “Billy Goat” and “Goat Boy”! It made me laugh a lot! 🙂

  12. Lily

    – Oh. –
    – What’s up? –
    – I forgot my snack. –
    – Oh. –
    – Carl? My best friend? My kind and funny and beloved best friend? –
    Silence.
    – Sorry bro. Not gonna give ya a piece of mine. –
    – Great. I will die by not eating enough. –
    – But now you’re making me regret… –
    – My goal. –
    – Bitch. –
    – Asian. –
    – Hey! I’m not asian! You little –
    – Sorry, ok? I’m sorry. But you didn’t give me food. –
    Carl looked at the other’s eyes, that beautiful puppy eyes that no one could resist.
    – OK. Just remember to bring yours next time –
    – Thank you, my magical love, you’re always gonna make me not suffer. –
    – We’re not dating. –
    – Yup, I know. Sadly. –
    – Shut up. –

    Reply

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