Writing Good Dialogue

How do we go about writing good dialogue?

1. Professor James McKinley says, “To write…dialogue well, you must first know what the scene’s about, both in itself and as part of the work’s whole scheme, so that you can think and feel for and through the characters. Then you’re ready to write the words.” In other words, Plot + Character = Dialogue.

2. Dialogue should conform to the character of the speaker, sound natural in the circumstances, and should be significant to the story as a whole.

The best way to learn to write natural-sounding dialogue is to listen to the patterns of your own and others’ speech under various circumstances. How do you sound when you’re mad at someone you love? When you’re mad at someone you don’t know? How do people on the news sound when they’re talking about something they’ve thought about a lot? When they’re talking about something shocking or wonderful that’s just happened? I was once secretary to four men: I would type letters for each of them and take them in for signatures: One would say, “Put it on the desk.” One would say, “That’s fine. Thanks.” One would say, “Thank you! How nice! Aren’t you kind!” And one would say, “What took you so long?”

3. Remember that characters are talking to each other, not to the reader. Don’t have them tell each other things they already know, unless they do it in a natural way (listing grievances in the course of an argument, for example).

Make sure that they react to each other. Henry James is scary, he does this so well; everything any one character says is like a set of pebbles that sends different ripples through each other character in the scene. Remember that every scene is to some extent different to each character, because each character is the main character in his or her own mind. Each character is the main character in the story of his or her own life.

4. Leave out the small talk. Unless you’re trying to show that a conversation is boring, don’t put in all the conventions, fillers, social formalities and ritual exchanges. Go to the heart of the conversation.

5. Conversations aren’t always orderly and logical. Breaking off in mid-sentence, rambling, jumping from one topic to a topic only related by association can indicate character, intimacy between speakers, or intense emotion.

6. Sometimes dialogue is really two or more monologues running at the same time. Ed McBain was good at showing us different characters pursuing different lines of the story, then sitting over coffee together. One says, “There was another knifing in the park last night” and the man he’s talking to says, “Would you hit your mother with a raw fish if you’d had a bad day at the office?” That can be really funny, or really effective, depending on what echoes you set up within these disconnected conversations; if the reader knows that the serial killer is the man with the bad temper – you set the reader’s teeth on edge, willing the two to make the connection.

Plot + Character = Dialogue

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Practice your dialogue.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Writing Good Dialogue

  1. Jane

    November 12, 2012 at 1:03pm

    Wow. Awesome post. Great points, well stated. Good job!

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 14, 2012 at 8:54am

      Right, Morgan! Although sometimes you have to WRITE the scene before you know what it’s about, and the first through edit is the time to get ruthless. 🙂

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  2. roger

    November 14, 2012 at 6:41am

    Do you find stories just formulate sort of naturally?

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 14, 2012 at 8:56am

      No, Roger, usually not. That happens for some writers, but stories are usually very difficult for me to plot and/or shape. There are SO many ways a story COULD go! Do they formulate naturally for you? If so, I’m a little bit envious of that. lol!

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  3. roger

    November 15, 2012 at 1:17am

    Do they formulate naturally for you? It would seem so. I have not written a story at length to really determine whether or not it comes naturally. The true litmus test would be for me to write a novel. I gather my mind would change.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 15, 2012 at 10:39am

      Roger, short stories are as hard as novels, in their own way. It just depends on how much of the story you want to tell. 🙂

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