Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: Making Your Dialogue Engaging.

How do you wirte dialogue that keeps your readers wanting to read?

Okay, so, this is subjective. There's no concrete list of rules for “this dialogue is engaging, this dialogue isn’t.” With that in mind: Dialog is interesting, I think, when it feels authentic, when it shows you who the characters are, and when it surprises the reader.

It feels authentic

There’s a difference between dialog that feels authentic and dialog that is authentic. Actual authentic dialog is…pretty terrible, to be honest. Lots of filler, lots of random pauses. Dialog that feels authentic isn’t written like a website that’s been optimized for Google placement—it isn’t stilted and formal, it uses vernacular, it has pauses and filler—but they’re trimmed down, crisp, succinct, polished, punchy. Authentic feeling dialog is real dialog polished to be more spare and more punchy.

It shows you who the characters are

Good dialog flows from whatever emotional state the characters are in. If a character is excited, the dialog is more abrupt, more forceful. If the character is feeling awkward, the dialog is more awkward. People don’t speak the same way all the time. The dialog should reflect what the character is feeling right now.

It surprises the reader

Part of making dialog engaging is not going to the obvious places. Dialogue isn’t just about moving the plot from point A to point B; it’s surprising. It’s a lot more engaging when the reader can’t tell where it’s going.

Real dialog wanders off track from time to time. Real dialog, unless you’re at an insurance seminar or something, is unpredictable. Quentin Tarantino is a master of this; who would expect hitmen on the way to a hit talking about what they call McDonald’s burgers in places that use the metric system?

Eunice and I try to throw some unexpected twists and turns into our dialogue, to make it less of a straight-line path from plot point A to plot point B. Here’s an example of what I mean, from an upcoming urban fantasy:

“How about we focus on helping May get up to speed with basic lexomancy?” Iris said.

“You can start with showing me how you do that thing that makes pain go away,” May said.

Iris nodded vigorously. “Good idea! Eventually you’ll be working on countermeasures to mind and body control spells, so body control magic is a logical place to begin.”

“I’ve got a few body control spells I wouldn’t mind—okay, okay!” Lillian said at May’s look. “It’s easiest to learn basic body control spells while you’re having sex. As you get better, you can cast some spells without sex, using energy you’ve stored up like what you just did. Well done, by the way. You’ll find that doesn’t always work, though. Certain spells really only work during sex.”

“What kinds of spells only work during sex?” May said.

“Ah, now that’s a conversation. Let’s leave that for when you’ve learned the basics.” She crawled onto the bed with May. “Listen. I’ve been hitting on you enough to make my intentions clear, but if you don’t want to have sex with me, that’s okay. You and Iris can find another tutor. Maybe Sinnamon. I don’t want—”

“No, it’s okay,” May said. She resisted an impulse to cover herself with the blanket. Her ears burned. “I don’t, ah, I’m not…oh, hell. I, um, I like you fine. Oh my God this is awkward.”

Lillian’s eyes searched May’s face. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“God no! That just makes it worse.”

“Okay, listen, we can just forget—”

“No. I need to learn this. Apparently, that means I need to have sex. And you did sort of save my life. Well, both our lives. All our lives.”

“You helped.”

May rolled over on her side toward Lillian, wincing at a sharp stab of pain. “How do we do this? Do we, like, kiss, or what?”

“If you like. Some people like kissing, some people would rather not mix kissing with their on-duty sex.”

May kissed her lower lip, awkward, hesitant, one hand on Lillian’s shoulder. Lillian drew back. “Are you sure you want to do this?”


“Then kiss me like you mean it.”

May closed her eyes, pushed aside the grating in her ribs, and kissed Lillian again, more solidly this time. Lillian sighed. “That’s more like it.”

“So what now?”

“Iris teaches you a visualization. You hold it in your head while we have sex. As you orgasm, picture yourself pouring all that pleasure into the image.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know how to explain. You just do it.”

“I’m supposed to shag you while holding this picture in my head at the same time, and then imagine myself putting the power of my orgasm into it? That seems a lot to keep track of.”

“That’s why the class on introductory visualisation is so important. You learn to hold things in your head no matter what’s going on with your body. But if it helps, you can just lie there and let me do you.”

“That’s not usually my jam,” May said, “but honestly, I’m not feeling so hot right now, so if you’re okay with that—”

“I am,” Lillian said, quickly enough that May blinked.

Iris smirked. “You two are cute. Okay, pay attention.” She sat on the corner of her bed and swivelled her laptop to face May and Lillian. “Here’s the diagram. Your home symbol at the bottom, at the base of a triangle within a triangle, see? Most body control spells have this configuration. Picture these glyphs here at each corner of the inner triangle, and these ones at the corners of the outer triangle. It’s a little more complex than the visualisations you’ve done before, but still pretty simple as these things go. Big spells get way more complicated. Got it?”

May studied the screen. “Got it.”

“Think you can do it?”

“I can try.”

“Do, or do not. There is no try.”

“You know,” May said, “I always thought that was such stupid advice. How are you supposed to know if you can do something before you try it? Plus you can’t expect to succeed at everything the first time. I mean, when you really get down to it, that’s how you learn new things, right? By trying them.”

“Huh,” Iris said. “I never thought about it that way.”

“Beware wrinkly green guys living in swamps handing out platitudes. You can never tell when they’re having one over on you.” May rolled on her back, eyes closed. “Okay, I suppose I’m ready.”
If the conversation the characters are having is interesting, you can have pages of dialogue that’s interesting. If the conversation is boring, then two lines of dialogue will be boring.

Making dialogue interesting is no different than making any other type of writing interesting: write engagingly on an interesting subject. Keep the reader’s attention. Don’t fill the writing with fluff. If it’s boring, remove it.

If you really want to know how to write long blocks of dialog, go watch the movie Reservoir Dogs. It’s basically hours of guys standing in a warehouse talking, and it’s brilliant. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Tarantino is a master with dialogue.