Fiction is all about creating the experience of real-life through made-up stories and characters. And because so much of what we experience in reality happens in conversations, it’s no wonder that dialogue is a defining feature of fiction. The following principles will help you create realistic and engaging dialogue that drives your plot and theme:
1. Written dialogue is a representation of real speech
The first principle to understand is that written dialogue is not real speech – it’s a representation of real speech. This means you need to cut out the annoying and random things that often litter real speech and include only what drives your story forward.
On the other hand, you can go to the other extreme with your dialogue and create something that is so pure and perfect it comes across as wooden and sterile.
Here are some aspects of real speech that you can bring into written speech to create more natural dialogue:
- Beginning in medias res: That’s a Latin term meaning ‘in the middle of things’. People don’t always start a dialogue at the logical beginning – they often just say stuff that comes unfiltered from their thoughts.
- Redirected questions: People don’t always answer the questions that are put to them. They can ignore, misdirect or purposely misinterpret questions. Sometimes they say nothing.
- Sentence fragments: People don’t always speak in nice, grammatical sentences. They’ll often just speak in phrases and sentence fragments or just say a single word.
- Interruptions: People interrupt other speakers or finish their sentences for them.
- Body language and meta-language: People don’t only communicate with the words they use – they communicate with silences, pauses, body language, etc. Silence can speak volumes. So can a shrug or a nervous laugh.
2. Characters should speak only to each other, not to the reader
A common mistake with dialogue is to put information intended for the reader into the mouths of characters who would not normally use that information in natural speech. When this happens, the character is speaking to the reader rather than to the character they are having a conversation with.
For example, I once read a novel where an army colonel was explaining a very simple fact about artillery to another officer. Even though I was a kid when I read this, I immediately knew that the line was nonsense because any officer in a combat role would know this information. The author was using the colonel’s speech to tell the reader something, and it broke the fictive spell for me as a reader.
If you need to explain something to the reader, rather do this in distinct passages of exposition or give it indirectly through the words of other characters.
One easy way to recognise if you’re using dialogue to speak to the reader rather than a character in your story is if you find yourself using the phrase, ‘as you know…’.
“Well, Major, as you know, a 150-mm gun can shoot a projectile up to 40 kilometres.”
3. Dialogue is a form of conflict
Your dialogue should have a defined purpose that drives your story forward or deepens character – and as such it will need to be laced with conflict. By conflict, I mean any kind of doubt, need, frustration, mistaken assumption, or desire that evokes questions in the mind of the reader. A dialogue without overt or subtle conflict is boring to the reader.
“Nice to see you again, Molly.”
“It’s been years. What have you been up to?”
“Well, Molly, as you know, I studied law after school and now I work for a small firm in Dullsville. I’ve lived here in for twelve years. I was married, but that ended last year and now I just come here most evenings.”
There’s no conflict here and it’s just plain boring. What you want to do is cut out the ‘hello, how are you’ greetings and get to something interesting as quickly as possible.
Let’s try it again:
“Oh my goodness … it’s you. Alex Morton!”
The attractive blonde I’d noticed at the bar a moment ago was now looking at me. She moved closer and recognition dawned. Molly Kohl. From high school. Plain little Moll had certainly blossomed. I just nodded and gave a goofy grin.
“What on earth are you doing here?” she said. “You were in Dullsville on your way to becoming town mayor or senator, or something.”
I gave a laugh. “Still in Dullsville, but not the mayor.” I caught the barman’s eye and gestured to Molly. “A drink? For old times?”
Her face clouded and she gave the barman an anxious glance. “Oh, I shouldn’t,” she said. “It’s, well, I’m working.”
I think that works better. The lame greeting is gone and now we have a dialogue that evokes questions in our minds: Is he still attracted to Molly, has he failed at some ambition (he hasn’t lived up to Molly’s perceptions of him), and what work is Molly doing that she can’t have a drink with him?
4. Begin in medias res
You don’t have to begin each new dialogue with background information or with pointless greetings. You can simply jump in at the interesting part, in other word – in medias res (in the midst of things). For example, you could start a new scene or even a chapter with dialogue like this:
“Let’s go to the Hamptons for Christmas this year,” said Jane. She was standing on a chair in the kitchen, wielding a cleaning rag and a spray bottle.
“Why, did you just find a thousand dollars on top of the refrigerator?” I said, squeezing past her to get to the kettle.
This piece of dialogue doesn’t begin with any kind of intro but starts right in the middle of a scene. No greetings or explanation necessary. If there’s information that the reader really needs, you can fill in the details as you go along.
Constructing dialogue on the page
A piece of dialogue consists of three things:
- the words spoken
- the attribution, which tell us who is speaking
- the action that occurs while characters are speaking
The words spoken are the bits between the quotation marks.
“What on earth are you doing here?” she said. “You’re supposed to be at home looking after the kids.”
Attribution is what lets us know who is speaking. It’s usually indicated by means of dialogue tags – the little phrases outside of quotation marks that name or identify the speaker. For example:
“Look at yourself, Alex,” she said. “You’ve become a sad and sorry loser.”
“No I haven’t,” said Alex.
Things to note about tags:
- Don’t overuse them – not every line of dialogue needs a tag. If it’s clear who is speaking, you don’t need to state it.
- Avoid adding adverbs or other descriptors (e.g., ‘angrily’, ‘haughtily’) unless absolutely necessary. The general advice is to stick with ‘said’ or ‘says’. It’s simple and doesn’t draw attention to itself, so it almost becomes invisible.
A dialogue beat is a short statement that describes the physical action a character performs while speaking, before speaking or after speaking. Like a dialogue tag, it can act as a form of attribution identifying the speaker, though it is usually longer and doesn’t contain the word ‘said’ or ‘says’.
In the passage below, the bits in italics are beats:
The woman at the bar looked up from her martini and a flicker of recognition crossed her face. “Oh, my goodness … it’s you. Alex Morton.”
Alex turned towards her. “Ah … Molly? Molly Kohl?” Plain little Moll had certainly blossomed since high school, he thought.
“Yes, it’s me. What on earth are you doing here?” She slid her drink along the counter and moved closer. “You were in Dullsville on your way to becoming town mayor or senator, or something.”
Beats can stand on their own or they can be attached to attribution tags to suggest simultaneous action:
“Beats are useful parts of dialogue,” he said, looking into the eyes of his audience.
The principles outline here are enough to get you well on the road to writing dynamic, realistic dialogue that impresses editors and agents. If you want more detail, examples and exercises, get my book or video course Writer Masterful Fiction now (details below).
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