Understanding how to write dialogue in a story enables you to bring characters to life using their individual voices. Great dialogue moves your story along at a good pace, giving your reader a break from non-stop narrative prose. Try these dialogue tips for writing effective speech:
How to use dialogue to hook readers:
- Enliven character dialogue using disagreement
- Keep dialogue tags appropriate and unobtrusive
- Give each character a distinct voice
- Punctuate and format written dialogue clearly
- Read all your dialogue aloud
- Make sure characters talk to each other (not to the reader)
- Cut out unnecessary intros and outros
- Use silences as well as speech
- Reveal interesting character insights through dialogue
- Balance dialogue words that show with actions and gestures
Let’s examine each of these dialogue tips closer:
1: Enliven character dialogue using disagreement
When everyone agrees all the time in dialogue, it gets boring fast. Even the most besotted lovers or forever friends quarrel at times. Friction is entertaining, and adds an element of unpredictability. It’s the glue that holds many reality TV shows together, as conflict and friction produce tension and suspense.
To write dialogue that keeps readers engrossed, make sure there are occasional disagreements and moments of friction. This isn’t to say that you have to create friction for its own sake. Your characters don’t need to be at each other’s throats every page. Yet if characters sometimes disagree, you can use this to show:
- Personality differences
- Differences between characters’ goals and values
- Differences of opinion
- Other traumas or issues affecting how patient your characters are with each other
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. The disagreement gives us essential facts about each character (Zooey’s cynicism and Bessie’s controlling, demanding personality).
Another way to enliven dialogue is remove distracting dialogue tags:
2: Keep dialogue tags appropriate and unobtrusive
Dialogue tags such as ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ are sometimes necessary for the reader to know who in a scene says what. Yet be wary of using excessive dialogue tags. If it’s clear from context who’s speaking (say there are only two speakers and we can see from line breaks who says what), cut tags. They draw our attention to the ‘written-ness’ of the story, to the author’s presence.
To take the Salinger example above, Salinger does not write: “That’s no reason!” Bessie retorted angrily’. It’s clear from previous lines, Bessie’s questioning, that she is the person getting mad with Zooey in this moment.
If you look at the Salinger extract above, Salinger doesn’t use any dialogue tags, in fact. It’s still easy to tell who’s talking. Because Salinger’s dialogue matches these dialogue tips:
- Give each character a distinct voice (Bessie frequently emphasizes words, often individual syllables, and these are shown in italics)
- Stick to the rules of writing dialogue, such as formatting (each time a different character speaks, Salinger starts a new line)
Additionally, because there are only two characters in the scene, it’s much easier to tell who says what. Read these tips for writing dialogue involving more than two characters, if you need help with this.
When there are more than two characters in a scene, you can still avoid excessive dialogue tags. For example, if Zooey’s younger sister Franny were to enter you could use adjectival phrases and movement 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?’
If you do use dialogue tags and need a synonym for ‘said’, make sure that:
- The word is a sound people actually make while talking (no ‘she trumpeted’, for example)
- There isn’t a gesture or action that could convey the emotion in someone’s utterance less obtrusively
One way to hook readers on your characters and use dialogue to develop your characters is to give each a unique voice:
3: Give each character a unique voice
Creating characters with distinct personalities is easy to do using dialogue. In the Salinger example (and the rest of the scene), Zooey tends to exaggerate and make mock-serious statements. For example, when his mother is talking to him through the shower curtain and worrying about painters she’s hired, 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 sarcastic and belittling. His mother’s voice, by contrast, is anxious, scolding and reassurance-seeking. It reveals not only Zooey’s dry wit but also his frustration with his mother’s lack of boundaries.
Pay attention not only to the different language characters use habitually, but the style of delivery. Do they use some tones more than others, such as sarcasm, complaining, accusing?
Besides making dialogue build your characters, it’s also important to format dialogue well for clarity and flow.
4: Punctuate and format written dialogue clearly
Here are basic dialogue tips for formatting characters’ speech:
- Begin a new line every time there’s a change of speaker
- Open and close speech marks for every complete utterance, except if a character speaks over multiple paragraphs
- When a character speaks over multiple paragraphs, each new paragraph should begin with a speech mark. Don’t include the closing speech mark for the paragraph until that character finishes speaking. This shows that the same person continues talking
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, or you want any other feedback, submit an 800-word extract for critique by members of the Now Novel community.
5: Read all your dialogue aloud
One of the best dialogue tips is to read aloud. Sure, you might feel like an idiot talking to yourself, but do it. Why? Because dialogue mimics speech, it’s important that your dialogue falls on the ear convincingly, too.
Read your dialogue aloud occasionally, either to yourself or into the voice recording feature on your phone and play it back. This makes it easier to hear anything that sounds awkward or unnatural.
6: Make sure your characters talk to each other (not the reader)
One of the signs of bad dialogue is when characters’ conversation reads as an info dump.
This is a common hazard of using dialogue to catch the reader up on past developments in your story’s timeline. When characters tell each other events they were both present for, it’s noticeable it’s for the reader’s benefit. For example:
“Hey Hal, remember the other day when the Captain told us the mission plans? That we’ve got to get to Beta 5 by next week?”
“Yeah, and you know he said we have to check the engines first thing tomorrow.”
It makes no sense for characters to catch each other up on an event they were both present for, and knowledge they both already share. Instead, you could make this dialogue shed new information, or your characters’ private views:
“Hal, what do you think of the Captain’s plans to get to Beta 5 by next week? Ain’t no way the ships will be ready by then.”
“Well nothing we can do ’bout that. Just gotta check the engines first thing tomorrow, like we been told.”
Here the dialogue is more believable, as the two men share their personal views on a prior moment, adding new information relevant to the present interaction.
The New York Film Academy refers to dialogue where characters’ conversation is solely used to bring the reader up to date as ‘heavy exposition’. To avoid it they give this dialogue writing tip: Keep exposition in dialogue light. Show events as they unfold rather than have characters constantly recap each other.
7: Cut out unnecessary intros and outros
In our everyday speech, we have a lot of pleasantries and polite sayings that are habit or custom. Yet in stories, we have the pleasure of being able to skip the ‘Hi, how are you? Fine thanks and you?’ that is a lead-in for what we really want to talk about.
Your character could answer the phone with a simple, irritated ‘Yeah?’ for example.
Starting in the middle is a great way to hook readers with your dialogue 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
Take this example from The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré:
‘The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”
The first line of Le Carré’s bestseller is effective dialogue writing because it combines clear action with conversation that speaks immediately to a tense, suspenseful situation. The effect is like overhearing (or eavesdropping on) two private talkers.
In a good, gripping piece of dialogue, often the pauses and silences are just as loaded with meaning as the words:
8: Use silences as well as speech
When people talk in real life, they pause. They fall silent. Trail off. Hesitate. 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.
Zooey popped his head around the shower curtain, rolling his eyes at Bessie’s expression. ‘It’s a perfect reason. Go away, Bessie. Leave me in peace in here.’
The facial gesture is ambiguous but implies that Bessie is thinking hard about Zooey’s reason for not chasing after marriage. There are many reasons why someone might not speak when expected: Shock, anger, disbelief, distraction. Silence mid-dialogue means you can switch to physical description (like in the example above) to keep your characters physical, embodied.
9: Reveal interesting character insights through dialogue
As the dialogue tips above show, dialogue is a great instrument for developing your characters. Dialogue alone can give characters backstories, desires and objectives. To write character dialogue that reinforces characterization:
- ‘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 background, and more. Subtle changes in how a character speaks over the course of your novel can also highlight their 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.
10: Balance dialogue words that show with actions and gestures
This follows on from using silences to convey emotions and implications. Learn how to write dialogue that is economical. Being wordy could just be part of a character’s nature. But some people are better with touch, deed, gesture than words. Make some characters say little, and make every word count. Let others play with language. And remember to use movement and gesture in dialogue to place characters clearly in your setting and in relation to each other.
Get help writing great dialogue: Take an online writing course or join Now Novel and get constructive feedback on extracts from your work in progress.
14 replies on “10 dialogue tips to hook readers”
Excellent article, especially the silence part. I hadn’t thought about that before. (Tweeted.)
Thank you, Lexa. Glad you enjoyed reading it.
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!
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.
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.
She is awesome. A wealth of knowledge really.
Thank you, 2Cents! Thanks for reading 🙂
Thank you so much!! This is really useful and helps improve my writing!
I’m glad to hear that, Aracely. Keep working on it!
Thank you, very helpful, Jordan!
Thank you, Nara 🙂 I’m glad to hear that, thanks for reading and sharing your feedback.