10 Tips For Writing Better Dialogue
Learning how to write impactful dialogue can take your writing from good to great. Once you've woven together your plot and characters, and developed an immersive setting, dialogue is the next thing on the list of things to focus on. In this post, I'm sharing my top 10 tips to help you write stronger dialogue. I've also included examples from popular novels to bring these tips to life, too.
10 Tips For Writing Better Dialogue
#1. Make sure your dialogue serves a bigger purpose.
The first tip I have for you is to make sure your dialogue serves a purpose in the story. And really, your dialogue should do one of these five things—it should either reveal character, establish context, highlight your theme, set the tone, or advance the plot.
Essentially, you just want to make sure your dialogue is serving a bigger purpose in the story—because otherwise, it’s just there taking up space.
Check out this example from Fable by Adrienne Young:
“Where are the others?” I asked, flicking a copper into the air and throwing my belt into the skiff.
He caught it, dropping it into the purse hanging from the mast. “Still working the traders.”
“What are you going to do with all of that copper, Fable?” Koy asked, tying off the line.
I watched the rope pull around the callused skin that covered his hand. “What copper?”
He looked amused, a sliver of teeth showing between his lips. I know you’re trading all that pyre you’re finding. But I can’t figure out what you’re planning to do with the coin. Buy a boat? Start an operation with the traders?”
“I haven’t been finding much pyre.” I shrugged, twirling a piece of my hair around my finger. The strands were the color of tarnished copper in the sunlight. “No more than usual.”
This excerpt is doing two main things—it’s establishing the context of the scene and it’s revealing something about Koy’s character. So, from this, we can already gather Fable doesn’t love being alone with Koy and she’s not happy he’s asking about her copper. It also hints at the central conflict of the story that has to do with Fable making her way and holdin gher own in the gem trade.
So, that’s tip number one. Make sure your dialogue serves a bigger purpose in the scene and in your story so it’s not just sitting there taking up space.
#2. Think of dialogue as something active vs. passive.
The second tip I have for you is to think of your dialogue as action rather than exposition. This tip will prevent you from writing soggy, inert dialogue that doesn’t serve a bigger purpose in your story.
It also makes you get in your character’s head and it reminds you that your characters are speaking because they want to further their own agenda.
And this is why it’s so, so important to do character work before you start writing—because if you don’t know your character’s goals, motivations, and that inner obstacle they need to overcome, then it’s going to be really hard to write meaningful dialogue, right?
Check out this example from The Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros:
“You’re sending her to die!” a familiar voice thunders through the general’s thick wooden door, and I gasp. There’s only one woman on the Continent foolish enough to raise her voice to the general, but she’s supposed to be on the border with the Eastern Wing. Mira.
There’s a muffled response from the office, and I reach for the door handle.
“She doesn’t stand a chance,” Mira shouts as I force the heavy door open and the weight of my pack shifts forward, nearly taking me down.
So, in this excerpt, it’s clear that Mira doesn’t want her sister, Violet, to join the Riders Quadrant. She’s not passive in this dialogue—she’s actively trying to get her mom (who is the general) to change her mind and to let Violet enter the Scribe’s Quadrant instead.
Now, you might be wondering… What if my character likes small talk? Or what if my character is really just killing time in a scene? I get asked these questions a lot, and it makes sense because there will be scenes where your characters need to engage in small talk or kill time.
But in this scenario, make sure you know WHY they're doing it. Why is your character killing time? Why is your character engaging in small talk? For example, if your character is nervous or hiding something or avoiding someone, then the small talk they’re engaging in is helping them further their agenda of mitigating their discomfort.
And that wraps up tip number two—to think of your dialogue as action vs. exposition, or to think of your dialogue as needing to be active, rather than passive.
#3. Get clear on each character's goal and motivation within the scene (and the overarching story).
The third tip I have for you is to really understand each character’s goal and motivation within each one of your scenes (and within your overarching story, of course).
Great dialogue will add to the sense of movement within each one of your scenes because it helps take your characters closer to or father from accomplishing their goals.
Check out this example from Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree:
“I hear you own the old livery on Redstone. That true?” asked Viv.
Ansom allowed that he did.
“I’m looking to buy,” she said. “And have a feeling you might be looking to sell.”
Ansom seemed surprised, but only briefly. His gaze sharpened, and while he might not have had a head for business, Viv was pretty sure he had one for haggling.
“Maybe,” he rumbled. “But that’s some prime real estate. Prime! I’ve had offers before, but most of ‘em don’t see past the place to really appreciate the value of the location. That is to say, they underbid.”
At this point, the tavernkeep swapped his tankard for a fresh one, and Ansom visibly warmed to his subject.
“Oh, yes, so many embarrassing offers. I have to warn you, I know what that lot is worth, and I can’t see myself selling to anyone but a serious businessman. Er… businesswoman,” he amended.
In this excerpt, it’s super clear what each character wants, right? Viv wants to buy the building that Ansom owns, and Ansom wants to get as much money as he can from Viv for the sale. And because they have goals that kind of oppose each other, we see some really nice conflict developing in their dialogue.
So, that’s tip number three, you’ll want to really understand your character’s goals and motivations within each scene and within your overarching story.
#4. Weave conflict and tension throughout your dialogue.
Tip number four is to make sure your dialogue is rich with conflict in tension. This is one of the fastest ways to improve dialogue in any given scene—you want to look for opportunities to amp up the internal and/or external conflict within the dialogue.
Because think about it this way… The dullest exchanges are between two people who are on the same wavelength with nothing gripping to talk about.
I see this in the drafts I edit all the time—there will be characters sitting down to eat or drink coffee and when I asked the author what their intention for the scene is, they’ll say something like they just wanted to show a normal evening with the character’s family. And although that may be well intended, if there’s no conflict, it’s probably not going to be that interesting for readers.
So, within each scene, make sure you understand each character's agenda—and then look for areas of conflict to dig into. And here’s the thing…
Great dialogue starts to develop before you even start writing.
It starts when you create a cast of characters who differ from each other so there is always the possibility of conflict or tension. So, make sure you do the work to flesh out your characters beforehand.
Check out this example from The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab:
“All things have names,” she says. “Names have purpose. Names have power.” She tips her glass his way. “You know that, or else you wouldn’t have stolen mine.”
A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth, wolfish, amused. “If it is true,” he says, “that names have power, then why would I hand you mind?”
“Because I must call you something, to your face and in my head. And right now I only have curses.”
The darkness does not seem to care. “Call me whatever you like, it makes no difference. What did you call the stranger in your journals? The man after whom you fashioned me?”
“You fashioned yourself to mock me, and I would rather you take any other form.”
“You see violence in every gesture,” he muses, running a thumb over his glass. “I fashioned myself to suit you. To put you at ease.”
Anger rises in her chest. “You have ruined the one thing I still had.”
“How sad, that you had only dreams.”
In this excerpt, there’s definitely conflict and tension, right? If you’re familiar with this story, this is probably one of the most memorable scenes—and I’d argue it’s super memorable because of the conflict and tension between these two characters, and it’s a great exmaple of how you can make a “sitting down for a meal” scene really impactful.
So, that’s tip number four—make sure your dialogue is rich with conflict and tension.
#5. Make sure your dialogue sounds right for your genre and tone.
The fifth tip I have for you is to make sure your dialogue sounds right for your genre, age range, and tone. Dialogue should evoke the overall tone or mood of your story, and it should also help highlight your genre and speak to your target age range (when possible). For example, horror novels will have tighter, darker dialogue than contemporary romance novels. That just makes sense, right?
Check out this example from The Duke and I by Julia Quinn:
A look of amusement crossed Simon’s features. “I take it, then, that during my time abroad you have become something of an eligible gentleman?”
“Not out of any aspirations to the role on my part, I assure you. If it were up to me, I’d avoid society functions like the plague. But my sister made her bow last year, and I’m forced to escort her from time to time.”
In this excerpt, it’s super obvious what kind of story we’re reading—and I’d say it’s even obvious that this is a historical romance, right? So, that’s tip number five. Make sure your dialogue reflects your genre and age range as well as the tone and mood you’re going for.
#6. Give each character a unique voice and vocabulary.
Readers can learn a lot about your characters through how they speak to others. So, when crafting your dialogue, consider things like each character's:
Worldview - What does your character value? Why? What do they worry about or fear? What do they hope for? What kind of misguided beliefs do they have? Or internal baggage that impacts their day-to-day life? Do they have any biases?
Vocabulary - What is your character's educational background? What words would someone with that background use (or not use)? Where is that character from? Are there any words specific to that region?
Syntax - When a character doesn't speak English as their first language, syntax (the order of their words) is the best way to show this.
Peer Groups - Groups that band together around a specialty or hobby have phrases they use that other people wouldn't. These can help you add authenticity to your characters and story.
Check out this example from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:
Hagrid looked as if he was about to explode.
“DURSLEY!” he boomed.
Uncle Vernon, who had gone very pale, whispered something that sounded like “Mimblewimble.” Hagrid stared wildly at Harry.
“But yeh must know about yer mum and dad,” he said. “I mean, they’re famous. You’re famous.”
“What? My — my mum and dad weren’t famous, were they?”
“Yeh don’ know… yeh don’ know…” Hagrid ran his fingers through his hair, fixing Harry with a bewildered stare.
“Yeh don’ know what yeh are?” he said finally.
In this excerpt, there’s no mistaking who is speaking when, right? The way Hagrid speaks is so memorable and it shows readers a lot about where he came from, what he values, and things like that.
So, that’s tip number six—make sure each character’s voice and vocabulary is unique (and makes sense given their background, goals, worldview, etc.).
#7. Curate your dialogue and show readers only what they need to know within a scene.
Tip number seven is to curate your dialogue. And what I mean by this is that your dialogue should not reflect real-life speech. Instead, it should suggest real speech, but everything you include must be purposeful. Curate and show only what your readers need to know in any given scene.
Check out this example from Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo:
“What is wrong with you?” I whispered furiously.
“Nothing,” he said, surprised. “I feel great.”
“But how can you be so… so jaunty?”
“Jaunty? I’ve never been jaunty. I hope to never be jaunty.”
“Well, then what’s all this,” I asked, waving a hand at him. “You look like you’re on your way to a really good dinner instead of possible death and dismemberment.”
Mal laughed. “You worry too much. The King’s sent a whole group of Grisha pyros to cover the skiffs, and even a few of those creepy Heartrenders. We have our rifles,” he said, patting the one on his back. “We’ll be fine.”
“A rifle won’t make much difference if there’s a bad attack.”
In this excerpt, there’s a lot that could be included if the author was indulgent with their dialogue. But instead, it’s a quick conversation between two friends that helps establish the stakes and show the difference between these two characters and how they’re interpreting what’s about to happen.
So, that’s tip number seven—you’ll want to make sure to curate your dialogue and to only show what’s relevant and necessary in any given scene.
#8. Keep your dialogue short and to the point.
Tip number eight is to keep your dialogue short and to the point. Unless there's a reason for a character to be running off at the mouth, dialogue is usually best when compressed.
Check out these two examples are from A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness:
“Finished?” Sean asked when I reached the call desk.
“Not quite. I’d like to reserve the top three for Monday.”
“And the fourth?”
“I”m done with it,” I blurted, pushing the manuscripts toward him. “You can send it back to the stacks.”
In this excerpt, you’ll notice the dialogue is nice and tight and to the point. But every now and then, you will need to include a longer piece of dialogue. And in that scenario, you’ll just want to make sure you break it up with action or interiority and things like that.
Here’s another example from A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness:
“I found your article on the color symbolism of alchemical transformation fascinating, and your work on Robert Boyle’s approach to the problems of expansion and contraction was quite persuasive,” Clairmont continued smoothly, as if he were used to being the only active participant in a conversation. “I’ve not yet finished your latest book on alchemical apprenticeship and education, but I’m enjoying it a great deal.”
In this excerpt, the author has broken up Matthew Clairmont’s dialogue with some of Diana’s interiority—or her subjective interpretations of Matthew’s behavior. This helps hold the readers' interest.
So, that’s tip number eight. Keep your dialogue short and to the point. But if you do need to include a longer piece of dialogue, break it up with action and interiority and things like that.
#9. Aim for your dialogue to do more than one thing—and always aim to include subtext.
Tip number nine is to try to get your dialogue to do more than one thing. So, remember earlier I talked about the five functions of dialogue? I said that ideally, your dialogue should either reveal character, establish context, highlight your theme, set the tone, or advance the plot. Well, you if you can do more than one of these things at once, yoru dialogue and your story will be stronger for it.
But also, this is where subtext comes in. Subtext is built on characterization, which is the key to great dialogue. This is why developing your characters is so important before writing or editing your dialogue.
But essentially, you’ll want to consider things like a character’s backstory, their fears and worries, their hopes and dreams, any current or past relationships that might be at play in the present moment, and things like that. All of that will help you write subtext into your dialogue.
Check out this example is from The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab:
“And who will be blamed, I wonder, for the missing chocolates in the lady’s room? Or the blue silk robe? Do you think no one suffers when you steal?”
Addie bristles, heat rising to her cheeks.
“You gave me no choice.”
“I gave you what you asked for, Adeline. Time, without constraint. Life without restriction.”
“You cursed me to be forgotten.”
“You asked for freedom. There is no greater freedom than that. You can move through the world unhindered. Untethered. Unbound.”
“Stop pretending you did me a kindness instead of a cruelty.”
“I did you a deal.”
This is one of my favorite examples of a conversation doing more than one thing. There’s obviously a lot of conflict here between Luc and Addie, but there’s a ton of subtext, too. And because the story has been so expertly set up—because the characters have been so well fleshed out—we can infer the subtext here.
So, that’s tip number nine. Try to write dialogue that does more than one thing—and include subtext wherever you can.
#10. Use dialogue to help you control the pacing of your scenes.
Tip number ten is to use your dialogue to help you control the pacing of your scenes and your story. And this is a really fun one…
If you want to slow down the pacing of your story, you can increase the description between the dialogue and decrease the white space on the page. If you need to speed things up, you can decrease the description and increase the white space.
Check out this example is from Spells For Forgetting by Adrienne Young…
“We stopped coming after the fire, of course. Couldn’t believe it when we heard. It was all over the news for months. Same night that poor girl died, wasn’t it? What was her name? Lily?”
When I didn’t answer, the woman smiled sheepishly. “Anyway, I thought it was time to bring my daughter. Carry on the tradition, you know.” She patted the girl on the shoulder absently. “You wouldn’t know by the look of the orchard now. Everything’s so beautiful.”
“Well, it’s been a long time,” I said. And it had been. Fourteen years. But it didn’t matter how green the branches of the apple trees were now, I could still feel that black stain on the earth that the fire had left behind.
So, in this excerpt, the protagonist doesn’t respond to her customer who is prying about something that happened on the island a long time ago. And her silence (or what she doesn’t say) helps draw the readers' attention to this moment. It purposely slows down the pacing (just a tad) so we focus on that moment.
And that’s tip number ten—use dialogue to help you control the pacing of your scenes and your story.
Can you see how dialogue is one of the fastest way to improve your manuscript? And how quality storytelling inspires and creates quality dialogue?
Remember, crafting impactful dialogue takes time and revision, so focus on capturing the essence of your characters and story during the drafting process, and refine the dialogue as you edit.
With skillful dialogue, you can elevate your storytelling and create a truly memorable reading experience for your audience. So, embrace the power of dialogue and let it help you bring your story to life!