Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: Effective Dialogue.

What makes effective, engaging dialogue? How do you keep your dialogue smooth and snappy without losing your reader?

First, what makes dialogue effective? A lot of novice writers ask about how to make their dialogue “realistic,” but I’m not sure “realistic dialogue” is a good goal. Listen to people talking some time. There’s a lot of repetition, a lot of dead space, a lot of “um” and “uh.” Good written dialogue isn’t realistic; it’s is crisper than real dialogue. The secret to good dialogue is it sounds realistic without being realistic. It sounds like a more polished, faster-paced version of something people might actually say.

If you want to see how not to do it, watch Star Trek, especially (God help you) Voyager. The dialogue seems intentionally written for particularly slow-witted audience members, filled with exposition that actual people on an actual vessel would never, ever say. “As you know, Captain, the Treaty of Vernabbs signed by the Frobozzians and the Smackhandians means that the Frobnozzians share technology with the Smackhandians, including turboencabulator technology, which is why...” People don’t, as a general rule, spend vast amounts of time telling other people things they already know.

Voyager dialogue comes from a sense that you want to relay information to the audience but you can’t think of an elegant or graceful way to do it, so instead you have two characters telling each other things they already know for the sake of the reader.

Not all expository dialog is necessarily bad. A character might legitimately explain to another character things they don’t know. In fact, this is the exact function of the "Companion" characters in Dr. Who; the companion doesn't come from the Doctor’s world, so the companion becomes a proxy for the reader. When the Doctor explains things to the companion, he (or she) is actually explaining things to us.

Good dialogue is dialogue that the characters would actually say, carefully polished and refined down to the point it contains no unnecessary elements. It’s snappier than real dialogue, it’s wittier than real dialogue, it’s leaner than real dialogue.

Here’s an example, from the first draft of a novel that’s not yet published:

“What should we expect?”

“About average, I think.”

The two women stood in the middle of a dusty, deserted dirt road, regarding a wooden two-story building with appraising eyes. The moon hung low in the sky, less than half full, shrouding the street in deep shadow. A pair of oil lamps with red lenses hung from large iron hooks on each side of the door. A sign over the door announced “Girls!” in bright red and yellow letters.

“He’s on the top floor. So is the safe and the office. Bottom floor has the rooms for the girls. Three men living down there as well. They’re the muscle.” She spoke in a clipped, precise voice, with a strong aristocratic British accent.

The two women were of that age where people start saying women are “of a certain age.” They were dressed in a sort of London-fashion-meets-New-World-pragmatism style: button-up shirts with lace at the wrists, ankle-length skirts with smooth lines and little pretension. Each wore a hat with a bit of black lace that hung over their eyes.

“No customers?”

“Not on Sunday.”

“Ah.” The woman who spoke crossed herself. She was the taller of the two, though not by much. Her hair was black as midnight, tied up in a bun that straddled the line between “proper” and “severe.” Her companion’s hair was the color of straw, though that straw had seen better days. “Well, that makes things easier, then. Thank God for the Church, hmm?”

“Oh, yes, indeed. Where would we be without the guiding light of faith?”

“Over and under, then?”

“Yes, quite.”

“You go high. I’ll go low.”

“Now, Miss Sparrow, you know I went high last time.”

“So? I just thought you might, you know…” Miss Sparrow’s eyes flicked over her companion. “There are certain to be more people downstairs.”

“What of it? Are you suggesting that I am out of practice?”

“Miss Bluejay, perish that thought! I would never presume to imply such a thing. I merely suggest—”

“I know exactly what you are suggesting! I will have you know I am still spry as a spring chicken. And I took high last time.”

“Fine! No need to make such a fuss. You go low this time. I’ll deal with one man in his bed and you can have such glory as you may find among the hired hands.”

“Did you find out how they are armed?”

“Of course I did! I know what I’m doing, Miss Bluejay. I am informed we should expect at least two of the men on the bottom floor to have pistols.”

“And the owner?”

“He probably has a pistol of his own, I expect. They always do.”

“Of course they do,” Miss Bluejay said. “It is a dangerous business, after all.”

“That’s what I hear,” Miss Sparrow said.

“You do? Who do you hear that from?”

“Why, from you, Miss Bluejay!” Miss Sparrow said.

“Well, yes, right, of course. But you implied that you hear that from others as well.”

“Well, there was that man in Harton.”

“Oh, him.” Miss Bluejay waved her hand dismissively. “He was talking about you, as I recall.”

“Was he? Oh. I suppose he was, wasn’t he?”

“Might as well get this done,” Miss Bluejay said. “The evening is not getting any earlier and we aren’t getting any younger.”

“True, and there’s a shame. Wasn’t there supposed to be a Fountain of Youth around here somewhere?”

“Ah, yes. Terrible fuss about that. Didn’t work out, I hear.”



The function of this dialogue is to give the reader, not just a sense of what’s happening in the story, but who the characters are. The dialogue is lean, without fluff or filler, but it gives the reader the sense that they work together, they’ve worked together for quite some time, they’ve done whatever it is they’re doing before, and they have a certain sense of competitiveness about it.

You also want different characters to have different ways of using dialogue, and you want the dialogue to reflect what the characters are actually feeling. For example, characters who are passionate about something will speak directly and forcefully, while characters who are nervous or uncertain may have hesitations, or backtrack, or repeat words.

People who feel vulnerable will often talk around something, particularly if they’re afraid of an answer they don’t want.

Here’s an example to a forthcoming novel in the Passionate Pantheon series that Eunice and I have co-authored:

A few weeks later, Felinnira stood in the garden, her face long. She turned toward Tsimbar as he came through the door. “I’m going to miss being here with you.”

“You don’t have to leave just yet.”

“It’s time. I’ve been away long enough. It’s been nearly a year since I became Sacrifice. The new Sacrifice will enter the garden soon.” She took Tsimbar’s hands in hers. “I am so grateful to you. I…I know you’ve stayed with me out of service to the Quickener, but I have…I am happy we had this time together. I would like to…I know things are different now, and I left you all those years ago, so I understand if you have your own life now, and you don’t want—”

Tsimbar kissed her gently. “The answer is yes.”

“Oh.” She clung tightly to him. “I promise—”

He put his finger over her lips. “You don’t need to promise me anything. We don’t know what might happen. If you are with me, let it be from joy, not obligation.”

“Thank you.” She looked into his eyes, fingers running through his hair. “You really have changed.”

“It’s been a strange year.”

“A good one?”

“Yes. I’m grateful for it.”

“Me too.”

They left the house that evening. Tsimbar escorted Felinnira to a pod terminal that would take her to the quarters she’d last left almost a year ago. They kissed at the entrance to the float tube. “I will see you soon,” she said. “And…thank you.”

When she had gone, Tsimbar rescinded the block on communication. He reached out to Mahree. Hi!

Hey, lover, she sent. You back?

Yes. I’m about to let everyone know. I wanted to tell you first.

If you keep acting like this, I might start thinking you like me.

I do. And Mahree?


Thank you.

For what?
she sent.

For being you. I don’t know if the Quickener made us cross paths or it was just blind luck, but I’m glad it happened. So thank you.

There was a long pause. For a moment, Tsimbar thought she’d dropped the connection. Then her voice materialized in his head. Tsimbar, that’s…incredibly lovely. Honestly. I don’t think anyone’s ever thanked me for being me before. When can I see you again?

Soon, if you like,
he sent.

I would like.

Soon, then.


She disappeared from his head. Darynne met him at the door to the house. They embraced for a long time in the cool evening sun. “I missed you,” Tsimbar said.

“I missed you,” Darynne said. “I’m glad you’re home. Talking to an invisible version of you every night isn’t the same.”

“Yeah, it really isn’t.”

They cuddled together, delighting in the simple pleasure of one another’s company. Finally, Darynne said, “How are you doing, my love? I know you kept me updated every day, but how are you?”

Tsimbar considered the question. At last he said, “Tired. Grateful.”

”Tired? You’ve had quite a long rest.”

“Perhaps.” Tsimbar snuggled in closer to Darynne. “I am happy I was able to help Felinnira return to her life.”

“There is no returning to life,” Darynne said. “There is only moving forward. All of it is life.”

“I had a tiny taste of what you feel as Sacrifice. I hear the Quickener now, in the space between breaths. Is that what it’s like for you?”

“Yes.” Darynne kissed his forehead. “Welcome back, Ishahal.”
These two samples show dialogue that serves very different functions, but the same ideas apply: Keep the dialogue leaner and tighter than real dialogue, make sure different characters have their own voices, use the dialogue to show the reader something about what’s happening inside the characters’ heads. It helps to pay attention to people in social settings. Listen to people in the real world. People are leaky; the way they speak tells you almost as much as what they say.

At the end of the day, what you’re going for is dialogue that sounds authentic (that is, it’s true to the characters, their personalities, and the situation they’re in), without being overly realistic (that is, it’s had the pauses, the interrupters, the fillers and meanders polished away).

If you want to learn how other people do it, watch Quentin Tarantino films. Dude is a master at dialogue. Love him or hate him, he knows the craft. When you watch, pay attention to the way he uses dialogue, to the timing, to the punchiness of it, to the rhythm. Whatever else you might think of him, he’s a heckin’ artist with dialogue.

A random assortment of things that are helpful when you're writing dialogue:

  1. Pay attention to the way people talk. People use contractions, vernacular, and jargon. People don’t always speak in complete sentences. A lot of the grammar rules you’re taught in school don’t apply to genuine dialogue.
  2. Keep it snappy. Dialog in a novel should sound realistic without being realistic. What does that mean? Trim out fillers that aren’t necessary to show that the character is hesitating, unsure, or thinking something through. Keep the dialog crisp, without unnecessary flourishes, unless you’re using them intentionally to convey your characters’ reactions.
  3. One speaker per paragraph. Conversation is enclosed in double quotation marks. Change paragraphs whenever you change speakers.
  4. Use an em dash (—) to indicate an abrupt cessation of speech, for example when one speaker interrupts another. You use an ellipsis (…) when a character trails off without finishing a thought. Otherwise, you end a spoken bit with a period, or with a comma if it’s followed by a dialogue tag: “It’s a turboencabulator,” he said.
  5. Quoted literal exclamations or questions do not use a capital letter for a dialogue tag after the punctuation: “A turboencabulator?” she said. “I didn’t know they still made those!”
  6. When a speaking character performs an action, it is usually part of the same paragraph as the spoken part. When a non-speaking character responds to speech with an action, it’s usually a new paragraph. Exceptions exist, of course.

And, of course, as with all writing, practice practice practice. The only way you learn to write good words is by writing a ton of bad words first.