Writing Great Dialogue

While being third person omnicient is great for seeing inside the deep, dark thoughts of characters, great dialogue is what carries a story along and keeps readers flipping the page.  Each word spoken reveals more of the plot and gives clues as to what is going on as well as lends itself to defining the characters.  Dialogue is to readers as clues are to detectives.

The most well-written speeches or lines can also become timeless quotes repeated by literary buffs throughout the ages.


"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." (Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice).

"'Tomorrow I'll think of some way . . . after all, tomorrow is another day."  (Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind)

"[W]hen your stomach is empty and your mind is full, it's always hard to sleep."
- E.B. White, Charlotte's Web

 "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

 "'Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.' That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it."
- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

We remember great lines because they have an impact on us.  We're able to connect to characters through their words, and even their thoughts.  Inner thoughts are also part of dialogue, and like spoken words, must flow as easily as conversation.

You wouldn't, for instance, write "I do not know why I did that, mother" unless your character was some uppercrust Englishman where proper speech might work.  Admit it.  When you read it, your mind went straight to a BBC/John Cleese-type of character.  If this same character was a young caucasion male, you'd write that line as "I don't know why I did that, mom."  If the character was an inner-city youth who grew up speaking slang, you'd change the wording to reflect that dialect. "No, ma, I dunno why I did that!"

Contractions are a great place to start when writing authentic dialogue.  Most people don't separate words like "don't" unless they are emphasizing what they are saying.  Then they may write "I do not always contract my words."

The best way to learn how to write great dialogue is to record a conversation between yourself and a friend.  Just carry a mini voice recorder with you, sit it down between you over coffee, and turn it on.  Later, go home and transcribe that conversation.  How many proper sentences did either of you actually speak or did you find that you spoke in fragments, interrupted each other, laughed in between, and finished each other's sentences a time or two?  That is a real dialogue; a true conversation, and that is how you must convey dialogue between your characters in order for them to come across as real.

Think about the setting and context of your characters, also.  Are they speaking from a place of fear, pain, love, anger?  What just happened?  Emotions matter, too, when writing dialogue.  If a character is angry, he or she will use angry words in short sentences.  Characters in love will sound reflective, happy, distracted.  They often ramble on and on about the object of their affection ad nauseum.

Read your dialogues out loud to an audience and listen to how they sound.  Ask your audience if the words sound sincere and authentic.  Ask twice because friends will prevaricate and try not to hurt your feelings.  Ask them how they would say something.  This will get the truth out of them without them feeling that they stomped all over your ego.

Inner monologue (a character's thoughts) should read just like spoken dialogue.  We generally think the way we speak and don't suddenly start using accents, proper British English, or words we wouldn't normally use.  I'm actually thinking each of these words in my head as I type.  I can hear my own inner voice.  I'm just transcribing my thoughts as they come in real-time dictation.  Because of this, you have an inside window into my head.  Welcome!

Practice recording and transcribing conversations.  Consider the ethnicity, background, and education of your characters and write their dialogue in a consistent voice.  Read your character conversations out loud to a friend and ask their opinion.  Practice makes perfect, after all.

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