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“Hey, look! A stranger!” How I Learned to Write Dialogue

I love writing dialogue. I love it so much that I tend to write too much dialogue and have to remind myself I’m writing a novel and not a screenplay. Dialogue can convey information, move the plot forward, and reveal character.

There was a time when my dialogue wasn’t so great. I wrote a story about a man stumbling upon an underground city unknown to the surface world. Two inhabitants of the city spotted him. One said to the other, “Hey, look! A stranger!” A friend of mine reading the story

laughed out loud at the stiff and unnatural dialogue. There was nothing wrong with what the

character said, but it wasn’t how most people talk. I was embarrassed and decided to learn how to write better dialogue. Here are some of the methods I learned.

I made sure I was writing dialogue correctly. Dialogue is a separate paragraph with open and close quotes and a dialogue tag. Here is an example.

“I’ve never seen that guy before,” Sam said. “Have you?”

I listened to people talk. I listened to my friends and family. I eavesdropped on

conversations in public places. If I heard an interesting turn of phrase, I wrote it down. For

example, I was listening to a radio interview and the man being interviewed was asked about

something he did that could be seen as noble. He said, “I don’t want to church it up.” He meant he didn’t want his actions to seem more amazing than they actually were. This is not an

uncommon saying, but it was new to me and was a perfect fit for a story I’m currently working


I also noticed that what people don’t say can be just as important as what they do say.

There is a reason why they don’t share information. It could be fear, distrust, or just not paying

attention. Allow me to use a conversation I wrote as an example. Here is the setting. Wayne is an FBI agent and Harry’s cousin. Harry is involved in illegal activities. Harry arrives at an airport to find Wayne waiting for him.

“Let me buy you a cup of coffee,” Wayne said.

“How did you know I was going to be here?” Harry asked.

“I’m going to get coffee.”

“How long have you been watching me?”

“Yes or no on the coffee?”

“Yes. I want coffee. Am I under arrest?”

Wayne laughed and slapped Harry’s back. Harry winced.

“Let’s get that coffee first,” Wayne said. “Then we’ll talk.”

Wayne is going to let Harry twist in the wind for as long as possible before answering

any of his questions. He’s clearly enjoying Harry’s discomfort which tells you everything you

need to know about their relationship.

Here’s what I learned about dialect. I’m not good at it and presently don’t have the desire

to get better. There are writers who excel at it, but when reading a story with dialect, I find it

hard to follow. The time I take to figure out what the character is saying takes me out of the

story. I also feel using dialect has the potential to be condescending or even insulting. I try to use word choice instead but even that can get tricky. Not all people from the South say “y’all.” I’m Jewish and I’ve never heard anyone Jewish say “oy, gavalt.”

When it comes to dialogue tags, I’ve learned to keep it simple. I stick mainly with said

and asked. I realize I’m turning my back on dozens of dialogue tags that can convey emotion.

Tags like hollered, replied, gulped, drawled, sang, prayed, groused, urged, noted, whispered,

blurted, mewled, stammered, cried, hissed, joked, or spat (just to name a few). I prefer to let the dialogue itself combined with action convey the emotion. For example:

“I need you. I’ve always needed you,” Hank said as he took Angie’s hand.

Hank didn’t need to exclaim or coo or gush. He showed his love with his words and by

taking Angie’s hand.

The best lesson I learned for writing good dialogue and for writing in general is to read

my story out loud. That’s when I catch most of my mistakes. I can hear where the dialogue

sounds strained and unnatural. I suggest you read out loud to someone, preferably someone you trust and whose opinion you respect. They can hear when your dialogue isn’t working better than you can because they aren’t as close to the story as you are.

Once I had a better command of dialogue, my stories became more alive.

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