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How to Write Effective Dialogue in 6 Steps
by: Jerry Jenkins
If your writing bores you, it’ll put your reader to sleep.
And unfortunately, your first reader will be an agent or an editor.
Your job is to make every word count—the only way to keep your reader riveted until the end, which is no small task.
Riveting dialogue is your friend because it can accomplish so many things:
- It breaks up narrative summary.
- It differentiates characters (through dialect and word choice).
- It moves the story, showing without telling.
But writing dialogue well is not easy. If your dialogue is bloated or obvious or telling, readers won’t stay with you long.
Step 1. Cut to the Bone
Unless you’re including them to reveal a character as a brainiac or a blowhard, omit needless words from dialogue.
Obviously, you wouldn’t render a conversation the way a court transcript includes repetition and even um, ah, uh, etc.
See how much you can chop while virtually communicating the same point. It’s more the way real people talk anyway.
“What do you want to do this Sunday? I thought w We could go to the amusement park.”
“I was thinking about renting a rowboat,” Vladimir said. “On one of the lakes.”
“Oh, Vladimir, that sounds wonderful! I’ve never gone rowing before.”
That doesn’t mean all your dialogue has to be choppy—just cut the dead wood.
You’ll be surprised by how much power it adds.Unless you’re including them to reveal a character as a brainiac or a blowhard, omit needless words from dialogue.
Step 2. Reveal Backstory
Layering in backstory via dialogue helps keep your reader engaged.
Hinting at some incident introduces a setup that demands a payoff.
As they headed toward the house, Janet whispered, “Can we not bring up Cincinnati?”
Maggie shot her a double take. “Believe me, I don’t want that any more than you do.”
“Good,” Janet said. “I mean—”
“Can we not talk about it, please?”
What normal reader wouldn’t assume they will talk about it and stay with the story until they do?
As the story progresses, reveal more and more about your protagonist’s past.
This offers setups that should engage your reader, and it allows you to avoid relying on cliched flashbacks.
Step 3. Reveal Character
Step 4. Be Subtle
Dialogue offers a number of ways to powerfully understate things.
Here are three:
1. Subtext—where people say other than what they mean.
Cindy falls in love with the slightly older boy next door, who sees her as just a little sister type.
When she gets to high school, Tommy is already captain of the football team, dating the head cheerleader, and largely ignoring Cindy.
Tommy leaves for college and word soon gets back to Cindy during her senior year of high school that he and his girlfriend have broken up.
So when he comes home after his freshman year of college and is changing a tire on his car, Cindy just happens to walk outside. She strikes up a conversation with Tommy, and he looks up, stunned. Who is this beauty—little Cindy from next door?
She says, “Making a change, are you?”
Tommy looks at the tire and back at her and says, “Yeah, I actually am making a change.”
Cindy says, “Well, I’ve heard that rotating can be a good thing.”
And he says, “Yeah, I’ve heard that too.”
That’s subtext. They’re not saying what they really mean. They’re not really talking about changing the tire, are they?
2. Sidestepping—when a character responds to a question by ignoring it.
Instead, he offers a whole new perspective.
In the movie Patch Adams, the late Robin Williams played a brilliant young doctor who believes the Old Testament adage that “laughter is the best medicine.”
In the children’s cancer ward he wears an inflated surgical glove on his head, making him look like a rooster. He wears bedpans for shoes and stomps about, flapping his arms and squawking.
The children find it hilarious, but hospital directors consider it undignified and demand he stop.
Patch is trying to make one girl in particular—a hospital volunteer—laugh. But while everyone else thinks he’s funny, she never cracks a smile.
Finally, Patch leaves the hospital to open a clinic in the country. Imagine his surprise when that humorless young lady appears to help him set up.
At one point, she goes outside to rest, so Patch follows and sits opposite her. He says, “I’ve got to ask. Everybody thinks I’m hysterical, but you. I’ve tried everything. Why don’t you ever think anything I say is funny?”
After several seconds, she says, “Men have liked me all my life…all my life…” And we realize by the way she says it, she was abused as a child.
Suddenly, we understand what this girl is all about. She doesn’t trust men, and she doesn’t laugh, because life isn’t funny.
She had not really answered his question. Her problem had nothing to do with him or his humor.
Finally, Patch realizes that some things aren’t funny. Some things you just don’t make fun of.
It’s a great turnaround in the story. And an example of sidestep dialogue.
Silence truly can be golden.
Many, including Abraham Lincoln, have been credited with the line: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
One of the toughest things to learn as a writer is to avoid filling silent gaps.
Just like we shouldn’t tell what’s not happening in a story, neither do we need to write that someone didn’t respond or didn’t answer.
If you don’t say they did, the reader will know they didn’t.
“Well, John,” Linda said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”
John set his jaw and stared out the window.
“I’m waiting,” she said.
He lit a cigarette.
Linda shook her head. “I swear, John, honestly.”
Too many writers feel the need to write here, “But he refused to say anything,” or “But he never responded.”
Don’t! We know, we get it—and it’s loud, effective, silent dialogue.
Saying nothing, John is actually saying everything.
Step 5. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
One way to be certain your dialogue flows is to read it aloud or even act it out.
Anything that doesn’t sound right won’t read right either, so rewrite it until it does.
Step 6. Create a “Make My Day” Moment
Certain iconic lines of dialogue have become as legendary as the films and books they originate from:
- “Frankly my dear…”
- “There’s no place like home.”
- “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
- “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
- “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
- “Go ahead, make my day.”
- “May the force be with you.”
- “Houston, we have a problem.”
- “Run, Forrest, run!”
- “You had me at hello.”
Most writers—even bestselling novelists—never create such an unforgettable line of dialogue. But striving to create one is worth the effort.
Ironically, iconic dialogue should fit so seamlessly it doesn’t draw attention to itself until fans begin quoting it.