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How to Become a Pro at Dialogue

How to Become a Pro at Dialogue

dialogue writing writing skills Mar 20, 2024

If you’re new to fiction, writing dialogue can be a bit daunting at first. And while some people may have a natural ear for brilliant witty dialogue, the rest of us luckless fools have to work at it. Now, if you’re here, you’ve recognized there’s a problem. Your dialogue seems off, but you can’t seem to figure out what exactly the issue is or how to fix it. 



I’m going to give you the tips I’ve had to repeat most often when working with novice writers over the past four years. I’ll be focusing on the contents of the dialogue, not formatting or how to pace it with the rest of your prose.

ALSO: In Fervent Defense of Said

Once you understand these common pitfalls and their fixes, it’ll be much easier for you to identify and resolve any issues you have with dialogue.


Problem 1: How can you make your dialogue sound natural?

Solution: Listen to real conversations.


Ah, what sounds more casual and completely normal than two siblings looking at each other and saying, “Hey, bro,” and “Hey, sis?”


Many things can make your characters’ speech sound off. Weirdly formal speech is one. (This doesn’t apply if your character just so happens to be weirdly formal.) Sometimes, characters are too direct, or they go on and on with small talk that adds nothing to the scene or overall story. 

Oh, how about when two characters talk about something they should both be familiar with as a way to drop some exposition in there? 

Here’s an overblown example of what I’m talking about: 

“As you know, eldest brother, Mom and Dad divorced two years ago. Such a Shame. If only Dad could’ve seen Mom’s increasing emotional detachment as her needs continued to be ignored, perhaps we could all gather together once more,” said ten-year-old Paige.


If you’ve ever gotten this critique, there is one surefire way to address it. Listen in on how real people talk.


Dialogue Exercise 1


Go down to any coffee shop, bar, or restaurant and pay attention to how each person speaks. (It’s not snooping. It’s studying.)


If you are unable to do this for any reason, there are lots of videos online of people talking to themselves or their friends in relaxed settings. This is the first bit of advice I have for a reason, and this is especially crucial if you’re not writing in your first language.


Some things you can take note of while listening:

  • What rhythms do certain accents sound like?
  • What kind of words and sentence lengths are common with different emotions? (Short snappy anger versus gushing babbling happiness.)
  • How does each person’s vocabulary differ based on their background, age, location, etc…?
  • What judgments do you unconsciously make based on how someone talks? (Keep an eye on your biases here.) For example, if you find yourself thinking someone seems sweet, try to pin down the phrases or tones of voice they use that gave you that impression. How could you make it seem passive-aggressive instead?

ALSO: Writing Respectful Representation


Problem 2: How can I make my dialogue more interesting?

Solution: Know the purpose of each conversation.


Once you’ve listened in on people enough, your dialogue will sound much more realistic. Now, you need to recognize that effective dialogue won't always be the same as realistic dialogue

Just like every other part of your novel, dialogue should serve a purpose. Usually, this is related to expanding our understanding of characters, pushing the plot, or escalating conflict. 

In real life, we talk about a lot of stuff that doesn’t mean anything, and we aren’t good communicators. We trail off without finishing our thoughts, pivot mid-sentence, or babble on without saying anything of substance. (Note: there is a place for all these things in your story, like if you want to show that a character is nervous or frazzled, but the majority of your dialogue should be more purposeful.)

I won’t bore you by giving you an example here because no one wants to read a conversation about different menu items in a restaurant. 

 Don’t just aim to make it real. Make it interesting.


Dialogue exercise 2


Write a conversation between an older couple on a date, just another normal night. Make it as realistic as possible. 

Now, write it again, but this time, one of them has a secret that the other has begun to suspect.


Problem 3: How can I get my characters to have distinct voices?

Solution: Consider each character's background and voice


This is the key to making sure that your characters have unique voices. One of the main complaints beginner writers get is that their characters all sound the same. Please don’t try to cheat this by relying solely on giving each character a dialogue quirk (e.g. calling everyone babe or cursing a lot) because that can become annoying really quickly. 

Let’s look at this exchange between coworkers I just wrote. 

“Let’s go to the beach. It’ll be so fun to run around in the sand,” said Betty. 

“Yeah, I can’t wait to feel the sand between my toes and the sun on my skin,” Charlotte replied.

“Come on, then. Pack your bag. Oh, and don’t forget the sunscreen!”

“How could I? You know how much I care about my SPF.”

There’s more than one issue with this exchange, but let’s just look at the voices. Basically, there’s no difference between them. I could switch the speakers around for the exchange, and it wouldn’t really matter because both are flat and indistinct. 

However, an easy way to fix this is to always filter the message you want to deliver (the purpose of this section of dialogue) through the lens of the character.

ALSO: What the F is 'show not tell'?

You can incorporate this into your writing practice by making a document or flashcards with each character and their main traits to always remind you of what you want to convey to the reader.

BONUS: For my main characters, I also like to add to my flashcard how they react to stress since they are constantly in conflict. If someone threatens my character, are they likely to crack a joke, threaten their attacker, or try to talk their way out of it?

Going back to the example I gave above, let’s say, instead, that Betty is quiet, suspicious, and dangerous. She dropped out of high school but is well-read with a love for horror. 

Now, Charlotte is friendly, talkative, and trusting. They’ve got a master’s degree in microbiology but struggle to figure out small daily problems.


Dialogue exercise 3


Rewrite the exchange in a way that shows the personality and temperament in their speech. Keeping those characters in mind, how do you think they’d speak? What tone of voice might they use? What vocabulary? What kind of jokes or quips are they likely to make?


Problem 4: How can I take my dialogue to the next level?

Solution: Use subtext.


A big part of keeping a reader’s attention is raising questions. If you over-explain everything in the moment, then the reader has nothing to interest them. If everything is exactly as it seems, then why should the reader pay attention and try to piece together what’s happening? 

This piece of advice is especially for any dialogue that deals with heavy emotions. Most people can rarely identify their emotions in the heat of the moment, let alone communicate clearly what they’re feeling and why. 

Instead, the feeling grows inside and bleeds into our actions and words until it becomes unmistakable. 

A character may not be able to say, “I think I’m falling in love with you,” but they might say, “I got you your favorite snacks,” or “I can’t wait to see you.”


Dialogue exercise 4


Write a conversation between two characters, showcasing a strong emotion (e.g. love, anger, fear), without mentioning the feeling or any of its synonyms.

ALSO: The 3-step System to Create a Well-written Dialogue




I hope you’ve found some of my opinions to be interesting or at least thought-provoking. And whether you think my simple exercises are stupid or useful, I encourage you to apply my advice, if only so you can compare it to your usual style then tell me why I’m wrong.


Ariadne Aaronson
Written for The Plottery

Ariadne Aaronson is a professional editor and lover of urban fantasy. After getting her degree in creative writing, she began working as an editor with independent publishers and mentoring novice writers. When she’s conveniently avoiding her work schedule, she might be playing with cats, baking, or painting.



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