The Art of Dialogue

I've talked a few times about dialogue on the blog, as I consider it a completely essential part of fiction writing.  Okay, maybe that's unfair.  If you get one thing horribly, horribly wrong, it all falls apart, no matter what that thing is.  But before I can scare you completely, I'll justify this: I notice when your dialogue is bad.  Why?

Because dialogue is cadence, but on steroids.

Want to see what I mean?  Click the link.

Awhile ago, I pontificated about The Art of Cadence, the art of rhythm and knowing how to pace your sentences and words to build up or release tension as needed.  Dialogue is going a step farther than that — it's combining cadence and putting words in your characters' mouths.  Not only does it have to sound great and like real people talking, but it has to be what the character thinks, and not what the author does.

Did I ever tell you that I have this great theory about writers having just a touch of disassociative identity (multiple personality) disorder?  I do.  I'll tell you about it sometime, if I remember.  My mother worries that I hear voices. I tell her, "That's okay.  It's just the narrator."*

Anyway, back to the point.  Your dialogue has to be a) in character and b) sound like real people talking as it fits the situation.  It has to move your scene forward, reveal what your characters are thinking and feeling, and it has to feel completely natural besides.  Now you're thinking, Oh, crap, dialogue does a lot. It does.  To me, dialogue is the thing upon which everything else swings.  A single word from a character can cut out paaaaages of internal monologue.  A sentence, a threat, can send your character onto the biggest journey of their life, or kill all of their hopes completely.

And that can be daunting, I know.  But there are tricks to help you learn to make your dialogue the strongest it can possibly be.  How can you achieve this?


People talk, every day.  News programs, specials, etc have these things they actually call "talking heads" where it's some guy or some woman, head and shoulders mostly, talking on and on about something or other.  Then you have shows that are actually called talk shows. Talk radio. TV. The people in your life. Random strangers in the next table over at the cafe (for the record, please be careful with this last part; I'm not after creating a legion of stalkers!).

Take the time to listen to what they say.  What vocabulary they're using. How fast or slow they talk.  Inflection, rhythm, state of emotion.  Pay attention, mark down what you learn, and then put it in your own writing. Chances are, none of them are going to know anyway!  And hey, who knows when you'll learn that little fact that makes it all click in your head?  It's happened to me.


I learned 50% of my dialogue skills from J.K. Rowling, whose dialogue I've always felt was fantastic and sounded like a bunch of real-world people talking (for some aspects; all-caps dialogue always turns me off, as does phonetically putting in different accents).  I picked up my soldier talk from Tanya Huff.  Humor came from Terry Pratchett, that sort of thing (mxpw recommended a Heinlein novel to me the other day, based on dialogue alone).  Look at your favorite authors—what do they do that you admire?  How can you take those principles and make it work in your own writing?  Don't plagiarize, but do learn.

Say It Out Loud

It's silly, but it works, people.

Know Your Characters  

Those darlings in your word document are real people, too!  Surely they're not going to have the same opinion and reactions of the author penning them, not when there are hundreds of them and only one of you.  That would be like permanently living on Camazotz (and if you caught that reference, you are clearly another Meg Murray fan)!  Your characters are going to have opinions and thoughts that are different from your own, and dialogue, how they speak, is a fantastic and fascinating way to show differences, similarities, parallels, and characterization.

And remember, the term dialogue means more than one person is talking, which means you have at least two sides to the conversation.  Plus, there are layers to consider.  Apart from Cordelia Chase, who do you know that actually says exactly what he or she is thinking?  It ain't Sarah Walker, that's for sure (“I’ve asked Sarah, but you know how she is, you practically have to play Chicken with her to get a real answer. Or outright dare her.”).  So keep that in mind as you pen any conversation—is your character telling the truth? Lying? Deflecting? Drunk? (The last one is fun).


Format, format, format!  I did a rant post a while back that should help with some of the basic formatting issues I know a lot of writers have, and this is a great resource, very clear, very concise.  And if you have a question, just ask.  I know several authors always willing to answer questions about formatting or any principle of writing, actually.  It's not author vs. author out here. It's author vs. self-doubt, and anything you can do to kick that self-doubt is a point in your favor!

And don't sweat it.  Writing good dialogue is not something that happens overnight.  Trust me, I can dredge out some of my first manuscripts and scare you with how much of a tin ear I had, how expository my characters could get for no reason.  Like everything else on this planet, you can only get better at this by practicing.  So go out: listen.  Read.  Practice.

You just might surprise yourself.

- Frea

*Lest you worry that Frea is a crazier than you thought person, I don't actually hear voices.


  1. Anonymous15.4.11

    Out of curiosity, would you ever actually post something you've written from a long time ago and compare it to your work now to show the improvements? It'd be nice to see how far a writer of your caliber has come.

  2. If everybody really wants to see it, I can dig in the files. But, you know, y'all would have to make it worth my while. :)

  3. Ayefah16.4.11


  4. It's totally NOT silly to speak your dialogue out loud. It's really good advice for anyone, no matter your skill level. I mean, that's probably why TV shows have table reads, so they can zone in on any lines that don't quite work before they actually get on set.

    Granted, it could be embarrassing if someone walked in while you're writing a love scene, and speaking both parts out loud... to yourself... but that's a risk you take when you become a writer.

  5. Liz James19.4.11

    It's not just dialogue, Frea. It NEVER hurts to read anything you write out loud before your release it on an unsuspecting world. When people read, they "hear" it in their heads. So if it sounds good when YOU say it out loud, it'll sound good when people read it.

    Just a tip from someone who's pushed nouns against verbs for a living for (yikes!) a couple of decades.

  6. Yup, agreed. I covered that in my Art of Cadence post, actually, but it's always nice when people agree with me. It makes me be nicer to the minions.

    Ninja, it's even worse if you're adding the moans. Not that, you know, that's, uh, happened to me or anything... :-P


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