Many writers, myself included, worry about writing dialogue. Does it flow? Does it sound natural? Is it interesting? I obsess over it in my own writing. If I’m concerned about word count, the first thing I’ll cut is dialogue. It’s easy to write bad dialogue without even realizing it, so I’ve compiled a few tips to help you craft Snazzy Dialogue to please even the pickiest dialogue critic – like me!

1. No talking just for talking’s sake

“Hey bro. What’s up?”

“Nothing really. You?”

“You know. More of the same.”

“Yeah dude. I know.”

Not terribly exciting, is it? But I bet you’ve had – or overheard – this very conversation, dozens of times. That doesn’t mean you need to write it in your story.

Sure, your characters have to speak to one another, but dialogue needs to be meaningful. It needs to be real, but it can’t be real. Get my drift? I don’t care how many times you scream “But I’ve heard dozens of people talk like that!” Just because people have long conversations about their bowel movements or their cousin’s husband’s predilection for online porn, doesn’t mean your characters should.

Dialogue should tell us something about the character speaking it. It should illuminate the situation. It should create tension or assuage it, clarify a problem or confuse it, whatever the goal of the scene-at-large, the dialogue should work in tandem with the rest.

Let’s think about that and revisit the above conversation:

“Hey bro. What’s up?”

“Cut the shit. How much you need to borrow this time?”

“Dude, a grand should cover me. Blackjack table got me this time.”

“Yeah, more of the same.”

See? At least now we know a little bit about what’s going on. We can see distinct personalities in the speakers. There’s connotation to the remark “more of the same.” Like any “rule”, there will be exceptions. You may have a character who talks a lot when they’re nervous, or who has a tendency to avoid difficult questions through circumlocution. In this case, there will be times when excess dialogue will make sense. But if there is no sense, no good reason for all that talking, that’s when you need to cut. Going along with the idea that your characters shouldn’t engage in meaningless dialogue just for the sake of talking is this next tip:

2. Don’t be afraid of silence

In your every day life, I bet you know more than a few people who would rather talk about nothing in particular than sit in silence with someone else. Who knows, maybe you are one of those people. That’s fine, but don’t ignore the potential value of silence.

Silence can mean omission or guilt. It can imply either agreement or disagreement. There’s a flip side to that, too. While it can mean one thing to one character, another character in the scene can interpret it differently. Imagine the possibilities this creates for action and dialogue later on.

Silence is also a good place for physical action that can add more dimension to the dialogue. Those tiny quiet moments, added up, can spell big-time character building. Think of the last time you were speaking to someone and you learned more about them from one or two non-verbal cues than from any word they spoke. Which leads me to…

3. Supporting/intermittent action

Action can do a lot for your scene in tandem with your dialogue. It can potentially change the meaning of the words. It can alter the mood of the scene, the pacing, it can ease or create tension. Let’s look at this stripped-down version of one of my scenes. Charlotte and Steven are two characters who have had a tumultuous relationship. After a long separation, with little to no contact, they have a passionate reunion. This is the morning after:

“I have bacon?” he asked.

“No. Your refrigerator was pathetic. I had to steal your car and a twenty from your wallet so I could make breakfast,” she said.

“And just how do you plan on paying me back?” he asked mischievously.

“The bacon’s going to burn,” she said when he unbuttoned her pants.

“Let it.”

“We’ve got all day for that,” she said, grinning.

“All day?” he asked.

“Well, most of it. My plane doesn’t leave until six.”

“Stay,” he implored her.

“Steven, I can’t,” she insisted.

“I know. But I had to ask anyway.”

“I’m glad you want me to, though,” she said. “Now put a shirt on and sit down. Breakfast is almost ready.”

Eh. It’s just okay. Nothing spectacular. All dialogue. No pacing. Not much on the descriptive or emotional side. There’s no action from either character to help us understand how they each feel during this scene. Not to mention it sucks to read “he said,” “she insisted,” “she said” every other sentence. Let’s see what some supporting action can do for us:

“I have bacon?” he asked, coming up behind her.

“No. Your refrigerator was pathetic. I had to steal your car and a twenty from your wallet so I could make breakfast.”

“And just how do you plan on paying me back?” He put his arms around her waist and kissed the back of her neck. Her hair was still damp from the shower and he could smell his shampoo, his soap. She still wore his T-shirt, though she’d put on her own jeans. She’d never been more sexy.

“The bacon’s going to burn,” she said when he unbuttoned her pants.

“Let it.”

She squealed as he slid his hand down between her legs, but she managed to wriggle out of his arms.

“We’ve got all day for that,” she said, grinning.

“All day?”

She looked away, turned back to the stove. “Well, most of it. My plane doesn’t leave until six.”

“Stay.” They’d just found their way back to each other and she was leaving already.

“Steven, I can’t.”

“I know. But I had to ask anyway.”

“I’m glad you want me to, though.” She turned around and kissed him. “Now put a shirt on and sit down. Breakfast is almost ready.”

Not to toot my own horn (well okay, maybe a little) but I think the second version is much better. When Steven puts his arms around Charlotte and reacts to the scent of her, we can sense the sexual tension. And then it’s not nearly so shocking when he puts his hand down her pants! And the fact that she “squeals” shows her playfulness and willingness to participate. Otherwise the scene could come across as super creepy. There’s some tension of the non-sexual variety when she turns away from him before mentioning her plane leaving at six. It would be difficult to achieve this kind of layered meaning with line after line of dialogue alone.

By including intermittent action with your dialogue you can avoid a lot of the following:

4. Adverbs and alternatives to “said”

It can get really repetitive reading “said” all the time. And it’s not necessarily better to use every alternative to it, either. Commanded, growled, purred, shouted, uttered, announced, exclaimed, cried, replied, disclosed, mumbled, stated…… Really, by trying to come up with a clever synonym for “said” every time you use a dialogue tag, you just end up making your writing appear immature and not very clever. If you write “It’s freezing in here.” Johnny hugged himself and rubbed his hands over his arms. then we’ll know that it was Johnny who said it’s freezing. Alternately, you can omit the dialogue tags altogether for a few lines. As long as you begin the conversation with a clear indication of who’s speaking, the format of a new line for each speaker makes it easy to follow along for four or five lines without needing a he said/she said to clarify.

Also, please try to avoid this:

“Give it to me now,” he said angrily.

“But it’s min
e!” she shouted loudly. “You can’t have it!”

Adverbs are never the answer. You’re telling the reader everything and showing them nothing. Yeah, that old adage… Now I’m a firm believer that a good story need a little bit of telling along with showing, so there will be exceptions to this rule. There are instances where a nicely placed adverb can be brilliant (see what I did there?), but don’t overdo it.

Now that you’ve mastered the art of natural-sounding, meaningful dialogue, you may run into this last issue:

5. Everyone sounds the same!

This is where you focus not on the content of speech, but on the manner of speaking. Chances are, you’ll develop some great, quirky characters whose dialogue will differentiate them from other characters without a lot of help from you (don’t you just love when they do that?) It might be an accent, a stutter, a lisp. It could be a certain catch-phrase they use, or an uncommon bit of slang in their vocabulary. It might even be a gesture accompanying their speech, like shrugging the shoulders, waving of the hands, snapping fingers.

So what if you have a few characters who are very much the same? You’re writing the kind of story where it’s not really practical to have a character who insists on speaking like a pirate, or – more subtly – there’s no logical reason for one character to sound different in any of the obvious ways I just mentioned. You still want their dialogue to sound authentic to their character, so how can you use their manner of speaking to differentiate them from one another? Here’s another example from my own writing. In this excerpt, we see Charlotte, from the scene above, in an argument with her best friend, Lora. These two grew up in the same town, are both white females, the same socioeconomic backgrounds. But you can see the differences when they speak to each other.

Lora put a hand on her shoulder. “What’s going on with you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you’re freaking me out a little bit. I’m sorry if it makes me sound like a jerk, but you weren’t even this…crazy—” she winced when she said it “—right after your mom died. What’s going on now?”

Charlotte shrugged, exaggerating the movement of her shoulders and slumping her chin to her chest.

“I don’t know what I should tell you. What I can tell you.”

“It’s fucking me you’re talking to,” Lora whispered. “That shouldn’t even be a question in your mind.”

But it was. She couldn’t help it.

“I don’t have anything useful to say right now. I just don’t even know what words should be coming out of my mouth. But please don’t leave right now, okay? Please?”

The content of the dialogue isn’t as important as the manner in which the girls speak to each other. You can see Lora’s dominating personality in the way she asks questions plainly, and doesn’t hesitate to potentially insult her friend by calling her crazy. Charlotte, on the other hand, can’t give a simple answer to anything at this point. She talks a lot here, but doesn’t actually answer Lora’s questions. Lora – and the reader – can sense that Charlotte is withholding information, but never learn what it is. Not at this point. It creates an ongoing tension that lasts however long you want or need it to. And it’s much more interesting to see the conversations and relationships develop this way, instead of having Charlotte and Lora say the exact feelings behind the dialogue.

Thanks for sticking with this dialogue maniac through such a long post, and I hope you’ve learned enough to create all the Snazzy Dialogue your manuscript can handle. I’ll be looking for it, and I won’t hesitate to let you know if you’re slacking!


J. Lea Lopez

Happily married. Eternal optimist and bitter cynic all at once. Proud “mama” to a 3-year-old Dachshund whom she spoils to death. Retail manager by day, writer by night. She is an aspiring writer of literary fiction, women’s fiction, erotica, and some poetry. She has one complete novel, for which she is seeking representation, and two novels in progress. Check out J. Lea’s blog here: