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May 142012

Knowing how to write dialogue in a novel is right up there, on the same level of importance, as the knowing how to write the scenes that contain the dialogue. There are two things a novelist needs to know about dialogue. Dialogue in any novel must always perform the following huge functions:

1. Dialogue must characterize and individualize the speaker.

2. Dialogue must give the plot, the story forward momentum.

You may recognize these function as being the same things said of writing scenes. It’s true, in this way, scenes and dialogue are united in purpose, go hand in hand, and all that.

Learning how to write dialogue that shines involves some work, but if you can learn to write a compelling scene, you can also learn how to write dialogue that talks volumes. To get started, let’s look at some dialogue writing techniques.

How to Write Dialogue that Shows Individualization

How to Write DialogueThis first function requires a thorough understanding of your characters. From the discussion about developing characters, you know:

  • The primary, complex, and contrasting traits of, for example, your lead character
  • Your character’s background, strengths, weaknesses, manners, habits, etc.

Novel Writing Tips – The voice of your lead character should portray and be consistent with the things you know about him.

You know the same things about the other characters in the story, each one an individual. Likewise, the dialogue of each one of your characters should be different. There’s no better place in a novel than in dialogue to really show who these people are.

For example, only one character in your novel calls everyone “dear”, only one character has a potty-mouth, only one character talks in a self-deprecating way. If they all called each other “dear”, had a potty mouth, and spoke in a self-deprecating way, how would readers be able to distinguish one person from another?

Of course, if you continually write, “John said” or “Suzie said” after each line of dialogue, that would certainly give an indication. But if dialogue is individualized, you shouldn’t have to continually write who said what after each line.

Novel Writing Tips – The reader should be able to discern who is talking by the portrayal of a character’s unique traits.

Know How to Write Dialogue that Makes a Difference

How to Write DialoguesLearning how to write dialogue that is unique to each one of your characters, individualizing those characters, will make your novel shine. Here’s an example of character individualization. Let’s look at 3 different women, each one recently dumped by their boyfriend, and telling their BFF all about it. The women have the following traits:

Woman #1 – Reasonable, thoughtful, secure

Woman #2 – Insecure, clingy, meek

Woman #3 – Combative, loves a conflict, mouthy

Consider the following sections of dialogue:

1. “I keep wondering what I did wrong, but I’m afraid to ask him. He said that he needed a break, but I thought he liked being with me as much as I did him.”

2. “If he thinks he’s seen the last of me, he’s wrong. Who does he think he is? He just decides it’s over, and he thinks that’s it. Well. I’m going to drive over to his office and tell him a thing or two that will make his head rattle.”

3. “He may be right – things weren’t perfect between us for quite a while. I guess I’ll just see how it goes. Some things are just not meant to be.”

Can you tell who said what? Of course, the responses are in order of Woman #2, then Woman # 3, and the last response is from Woman #1. Each woman’s response to the breakup is based on her individual personality traits, values, and goals.

How to Write Dialogue that Portrays Individuality

How to Write a DialogueWriting good dialogue means making your characters sound like the person you envision them to be. An attorney will not speak the same way that a construction worker does. A child doesn’t speak the same way as an adult. A businessperson will not speak the same way as a teacher. A Type-A person will not speak the same as a laid-back, beach bum. And so on.

Becoming a writer who knows how to write dialogue effectively has a lot to do with listening. We must pay attention to the people around us, hear how people talk. A busy lawyer might talk fast with clipped sentences. A waitress may be more likely to engage in superficial small talk than a teacher at your child’s school conference. What words do people use? Do they think things over before responding to a question or are they all over it within seconds? Pay attention to the world around you, it’s a gold mine for understanding the nuances of dialogue.

How to Write Dialogue that Moves Plot

In the second function of writing dialogue, we must use it to move the story along its way. Plot moves when the story is exciting and interesting, and makes the reader wonder and care about what’s going to happen next.

Setting up dialogue to move the story in this way is perfect for showing what characters are feeling, particularly towards each other, and it should be bold and exciting. Think of all the things you would like to have said to so and so if only you’d thought of it in time. Your characters, or you as the writer, now have time to think of those snappy comebacks. You can even rewrite the comeback until you put that character royally in their place.

Novel Writing Tips – Now is the time to tell someone off, tell someone to go to hell, tell someone, yes, that dress makes you look fat!

Lame dialogue, dialogue without conflict, is boring and may stop a story in its tracks. Don’t talk about the weather. Don’t talk about your comings and goings. Make challenges through your dialogue, challenges that will lead to dramatic scenes in the reading ahead. Imagine how a story moves, and the reader along with it, when a character blurts out the following to her roommate:

“You didn’t sleep in your bed last night. But, I know where you were. You can’t deny it because I saw you. You were with Bill. My boyfriend. And you slept with him.”

Dialogue like that could set up a whole series of reactions – from the roommate (soon to be ex-), the boyfriend (also soon to be ex-), or anyone else that either witnesses or was affected by the betrayal and indiscretion.

Put dialogue to work in your novel – make it show conflict, pour out emotion, and set up future scenes – moving your story forward. Knowing how to write dialogue effectively will make all the difference in your novel’s success!

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  11 Responses to “Writing Tips – How to Write Dialogue that Speaks Volumes”


    Thanks for the insight provided by the article. I’m re-reading my novella and checking it against your advice.



      Lillian, thank you for stopping by Writania! I’m glad that you found this article helpful and wish you luck checking your novella dialogue. Good writers should go back into their work and review/revise their dialogue (among all the other aspects of a novel) to make sure that it is being put to good use in moving the story along. As with writing many of the elements of a novel – if it’s not doing something for the novel, take it out! All best writing!



    Yes, I think writing realistic dialogue is important in any novel and not the least so than in the genre i work in which is crime fiction. I would try to listen to how people spoke at work, at home and in public. Crime fiction writers such as Elmore Leonard have built their reputation on creating realistic dialogue and i have tried to do the same in my work.



      Hi David, I agree, Elmore Leonard provides a great example of tight, realistic, dialogue for crime fiction writers, as well as writers in other genres. You mentioned that you have tried listening to others speak – the thing with listening to how people speak is that if you wrote all of their words down, you wouldn’t use them as dialogue for your novel. Dialogue in a novel is much more succinct than conversation, and that’s why I recommended in the article that we DON’T write as we speak, or the way anyone else speaks. That being said, we can use people as examples of how I particular type of person might speak – a Type A person might speak in short clipped sentences, an expressive person might expound to her heart’s content. Using Elmore as an example for your writing is smart – good luck with your novels and let us know how it’s going! All best, Rita



    Thank you for this article. I feel that my single most difficult challenge in writing is creating dialogue, any dialogue, let alone plot-moving exchanges that reveal individual character traits. I am somewhat technically minded. I tend to express details about how things work. I tend to narrate a lot. This article gives me insights. I think writing a few micro fiction stories or short stories concentrating on the use of dialogue will be good practice.



      Hi Ilyan, I hope that you’ll be able to use the tips in this article to write effective dialogue. Many people struggle with writing dialogue, so you are not alone with this. You mentioned that you tend to narrate a lot; perhaps you could review your narrative to find out if there is a way that you could change it into a scene with characters – still providing the same information about the story or a character – but through an exchange of dialogue between two characters. Too much narrative tends to slow a story down. You can also practice writing dialogue in this way too – by taking a narrative and turning it into an action scene. Here’s to your writing success! Rita



    This blog is spot on. Dialogue needs to reflect the character’s personality. If it doesn’t match with your character, it needs to be worked on.



      Laura, thanks for commenting.I think we can all agree that if the dialogue of your characters doesn’t live up to what you’ve created as their primary, complexity and contrasting traits, something has to be changed – either the dialogue or the character’s traits. If dialogue doesn’t fit with a character’s personality, readers can become confused and may begin to lose confidence in the writer’s ability to tell the story.



    Like your format and the information you are providing. I sometimes feel I spend more time reading about writng than writing, but I don’t intend to quit either anytime soon.



    I have been studying fiction writing on my own, and article does a great job on explaining how to write dialogue. Thanks for this!



      Thanks, Rebecca! I’m glad you stopped by and are finding this article on writing dialogue helpful. Good writers study writing, often doing much of it on their own….so good for you, you are on the right track! All best!


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