How to write dialogue that hooks readers: 10 tips

Here’s how to write dialogue that keeps readers engrossed. Read on after the summary for a more in-depth explanation with examples:

1: Create enlivening disagreement and friction
2: Keep dialogue tags appropriate and unobtrusive
3: Make sure each character has a distinct voice
4: Get dialogue punctuation right to avoid reader confusion
5: Read all your dialogue aloud, with a friend if possible
6: Make sure characters are really talking to each other and not just for the reader’s benefit
7: Drop readers into the middle of an important conversation
8: Use silence as well as speech to convey meaning
9: Reveal interesting character insights in the course of conversation
10: Balance words that tell with actions

To expand on each suggestion:

1: How to write dialogue that captures attention: use disagreement to create friction

Even the most besotted lovers or forever friends quarrel at times. To write dialogue that keeps readers engrossed, make sure there are disagreements and moments of friction. This isn’t to say that you have to create friction for its own sake. When your characters disagree, however, it shows that they are autonomous individuals with independent and sometimes opposing wants and needs.

Take, for example, this extract from J.D. Salinger’s novella Franny and Zooey, in which Zooey is arguing with his mother Bessie. Bessie asks Zooey why he doesn’t get married:

‘Why don’t you?’

[…] ‘I like to ride in trains too much. You never get to sit next to the window any more when you’re married.’
‘That’s no reason!’
‘It’s a perfect reason. Go away, Bessie. Leave me in peace in here.’

Even though the characters aren’t having a particularly major conflict, there is friction in their differences of opinion that conveys essential facts about each character (Zooey’s cynicism and Bessie’s controlling personality).

One thing you won’t see in the lengthy scene between Zooey and his mother is obtrusive dialogue tags:

2: Be sparing and reasonable with your dialogue tags

Whether you prefer to let actions speak and use dialogue tags such as ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ or you like to use more emotive speech-words such as ‘retorted’ or ‘demanded’, be wary of overusing tags. Overdoing it with words that indicate how characters are talking can distract readers from what they are saying and can also draw readers’ to the ‘written-ness’ of the text, taking them out of the story.

If you look at the Salinger extract above, Salinger doesn’t use any dialogue tags here. It’s still easy to tell who’s talking because:

  • Each character has a distinct voice (Bessie frequently emphasizes words, often individual syllables, and these are shown in italics)
  • Salinger maintains rules of dialogue-writing (a different character speaking begins on a new line)
  • There are only two characters in the scene

To expand on the third point above: What if there were more than two characters talking in the scene? Say for example Zooey’s younger sister Franny were to enter. You can use adjectival phrases (two or more words that describe a noun) to indicate who’s speaking without using tags. For example:

Franny (who had been standing in the doorway quietly listening) joined in: ‘Who’s getting married?’

Keeping dialogue tags in the background and being selective about which tags you use will help readers to stay engrossed in what your characters are actually saying and doing. If you do decide to use a synonym for ‘said’, make sure that:

  • The word is a sound people can actually make while talking (no ‘trumpeted’, for example)
  • There isn’t a gesture or action that could convey the emotion behind the character’s utterance more visually

One way to make sure your dialogue creates interest is to make sure each character has their own unique voice:

3: Put your characters’ individual personalities in your dialogue

Have you ever felt frustrated because it felt like an author’s characters sounded like thin variations on the author herself? Creating characters who are distinct from each other is easy when your dialogue is suffused with their differences. In the Salinger example (and the rest of the scene), Zooey is prone to hyperbole and mock-serious statements. His mother is talking to him through the shower curtain in the bathroom, and when she worries about painters she has hired being able to access every room of her home, Zooey says:

‘The painters! Ah! The dawn comes up. I forgot all about the painters. Listen, why haven’t you asked them in here? There’s plenty of room. What the hell kind of host will they think I am, not asking them into the bathroom when I’m-‘

Zooey’s voice throughout the scene is by turns teasing, sarcastic and waspish. His mother’s voice, by contrast, is anxious, scolding and reassurance-seeking.

Pay attention not only to the differences in the kind of language characters use but the mode of delivery. Is there one type of expression they tend to use more than others (such as sarcasm, teasing, expressions of affection or complaining)?

An important factor of great dialogue is smooth punctuation. Because you want the reader to be absorbed in your dialogue, you don’t need muddled punctuation distracting her from what’s being said.

4: Get dialogue punctuation right to keep readers focused on the conversation itself

Some basic points to remember:

  • Each time a different character starts speaking their dialogue should begin on a new line
  • If the same character speaks over multiple paragraphs (when said character is retelling a lengthy story, for example), each new paragraph should begin with a quotation mark. Only the end of the final paragraph receives a closing quotation mark however (otherwise you would need to identify who was speaking each paragraph)

Glencoe’s ‘Writer’s Choice’ has this list of helpful dialogue punctuation reminders.

If you are concerned your punctuation in a piece of your story is flawed, submit a 500-word extract for critique by members of the Now Novel community.

The Editor’s Blog also offers a more comprehensive guide to dialogue punctuation here.

5: Read all your dialogue aloud, with another person if possible

Because dialogue mimics speech, it’s important that your dialogue falls on the ear as convincingly as it does on the eye. Read your dialogue aloud, either to yourself or with a friend or significant other. This makes it easy to hear anything that sounds awkward or unnatural. You could even improvise around what’s written. Pretend as though you’re each a character and just continue the conversation: This can be a useful way to get inspiration for good lines of dialogue.

6: Make sure your characters are truly talking to each other

One of the signs of bad dialogue is when characters’ conversation reads as though it is more for the reader’s benefit than either of the speakers. This is especially common when you use dialogue to catch the reader up on backstory. Find other ways to communicate a sense of preceding action. This post on how to tell a story without using backstory should help.

The New York Film Academy refers to dialogue where characters’ conversation is solely used to bring the reader up to date as ‘heavy exposition’. The NYFA suggests an alternative that will let you keep exposition light: Don’t use dialogue where you can use actions and gestures between characters to show the reader what one is thinking about or desiring from the other.

7: Start intriguing conversations from the middle

Often we talk about in medias res (or starting from the middle of things) in the context of story or scene beginnings. Beginning in the middle of an unfolding event or conversation grabs readers’ attention because:

  • It creates mystery – as readers we ask ‘what is going on?’
  • It doesn’t waste time on ‘heavy exposition’, throwing readers into forward-moving action instead

A further advantage of beginning a conversation in the middle is that it creates the effect of overhearing (or eavesdropping on) two private talkers – there is a sense of being given access to an exclusive, private conversation and this gives the dialogue an additional sense of immediacy and intrigue. Think about how you might hear snatches of a conversation and the occasional word or phrase that intrigues you and might want to listen closer: Starting dialogue in the middle creates a similar alluring effect.

In a real-life conversation, often the pauses and silences are just as pregnant with meaning as the words:

8: Use silences and non-replies in your dialogue for variety and subtlety

When people talk in real life, they don’t continuously speak back and forth without ceasing until the conversation is over. Think about how a silence can be suggestive and intriguing. For example, you could rewrite the Salinger extract above as follows:

‘Why don’t you?’

[…] ‘I like to ride in trains too much. You never get to sit next to the window any more when you’re married.’
Bessie pursed her lips.
‘It’s a perfect reason. Go away, Bessie. Leave me in peace in here.’

The facial gesture is ambiguous but implies that Bessie is not convinced or impressed by Zooey’s given reason for not actively seeking marriage. There are many reasons why someone might not speak where expected: Shock, anger, disbelief, distraction and myriad others.

9: How to write dialogue that supports characterization: Reveal character insights

If you’re thinking about your characters as individuals with individual backstories, desires and objectives, you’re probably already building character insights into dialogue. If you’re wondering how to write dialogue that reinforces the lines of your character sketches, here are some tips:

  • ‘Give your characters distinct speech patterns’ – this is great dialogue advice Ali Luke gives over at Write to Done. Let the way your characters speak give readers ideas of their upbringing, economic advantage or disadvantage, age, cultural leanings (e.g. what subculture a character’s slang places them within) and so forth. These don’t have to be static either: Subtle changes in how a character speaks over the course of your novel can underscore character evolution.
  • Consider character types and make your characters’ dialogue fitting with their personalities. Think about what circumstances might cause them to speak ‘out of character’. Perhaps, for example, a character who is usually mild can lose their temper at a major provocation to emphasize to the the reader just how significant the displeasure is.

10: Strike a balance between words that tell readers how characters feel and actions

This follows on from using silences to convey emotions and implications. Learn how to write dialogue that is economical with words. Being wordy could just be part of a character’s nature. Just as some people in real life express themselves more through touch or gesture, though, make sure your characters are varied in how they choose to express particular feelings such as affection or anger.

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  • Excellent article, especially the silence part. I hadn’t thought about that before. (Tweeted.)

  • Rebecca Anderson

    This is really useful! Thank you. I shall bear all of these points in mind when writing the rest of my draft and throughout the editing process 🙂

    • I’m glad to hear it, Rebecca. Best of luck for finishing your draft!

      • Rebecca Anderson

        Thank you!

  • ohita afeisume

    Thanks, Bridget for this post. Since a friend who read my work commented that all the four characters in a certain scene all sounded alike, I have been seeking to rewrite that particular scene without much headway.

    However, I have spent the whole day on this website reading the great thoughts you have on writing interesting dialogue. I have been enlightened in no small measure. The light bulbs have come on! I shall now go ahead to rework that scene and I am confident it will come out good.

    Thanks very much indeed for sharing so generously from your wealth of knowledge and experience.

  • Eileen Endowsky

    Thank you Bridget for all the wonderful information. The email invites from you are also appreciated, without which I probably would not be adding my input of gratitude, seeing the last comment was posted 6 months ago is standard for me, I’m usually about six months behind so I rarely join these conversations. Because of you, and all who share their wisdom here at Now Novel, I’m a rich girl now! (don’t get all happy here, I say that when I pick up a penny, but people rarely accept that penny for their thoughts). I also appreciate your selection of examples, some of my favorites, Dickens, Salinger and others you have chosen are those I run back to when looking for help. Thank you, thank you, and may you receive letters of gratitude from lauded new novelists in the future.

    • Hi Eileen – thank you so much for this kind feedback, it’s always hugely gratifying to know that readers and fellow writers are finding Now Novel helpful. All the best for your own writing.

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