The Art of Masterful Fiction Dialogue

Writing great dialogue is probably the hardest skill fiction writers need to acquire.

If you’ve tried your hand at it, you know it’s tricky because dialogue in fiction is not at all like real-life dialogue. Which seems counterintuitive because fiction often is meant to present “real life” in a realistic fashion.

However, ordinary dialogue is usually boring and wordy. Or vague. Or all over the place.

Fiction writers need to write strategically and purposefully, every line, whether it be narrative, action, or dialogue.

So what are some tips to writing masterful dialogue?

I’ve compiled what I feel are the most important and succinct aspects of masterful dialogue in fiction, and if you struggle with writing snappy, engaging, believable, and fresh dialogue, these tips are for you.

Some Basics to Crafting Great Dialogue

Here are the first major considerations regarding dialogue in fiction:

  • Make sure it fits the context and the character.
  • No one should sound like anyone else. Unless you have some funny bit about a character mimicking another character, each person should be unique.
  • Don’t use dialogue to dump information. All too often writers use dialogue as a way to impart information to the reader. Yes, dialogue is a great way to convey important things related to your plot and backstory. Through dialogue you can nicely reveal the past and character motivation. But when you slip into what is sometimes called “As you know, Bob” dialogue, the reader can tell you are having characters say things they obviously would know already. Those lines smack of “info dump,” put in there for the reader’s benefit. Which is a no-no.
  • Don’t tell us things we already know or don’t care about. Many beginning writers make the mistake of needless repetition. They might say something in the narrative, and then have a character speak out loud the very same thing. For example: Mary really hated it when people talked down to her. She looked at George and said, “You know, George, I really hate it when people talk down to me.”
  • Avoid “on the nose” dialogue. This means that characters should never simply state exactly what’s on their minds, without nuance or subtext, nor appear to be giving “exposition.”
  • Less is more. If you can “say” the same thing with a visual image, action, behavior, or sound effect instead of through dialog, omit the dialogue Trim out extra words, boring bits of info and phrasing.
  • Have a specific purpose for what’s being said, and lead steadily to your point. Don’t have random chatting that serves no purpose.
  • Try to have dialogue accomplish more than one purpose (not just to convey information). Dialogue can reveal plot points and backstory, create tension, hint at mystery, etc.

Some Technical Suggestions

Regarding writing dialogue of any kind, here are some tips to making it flow smoothly:

  • Don’t go on for more than five or six lines of dialog between characters without making it clear who is speaking. With only two people speaking, after a while it’s hard to keep track of who is talking. Just adding “Mary said” here and there can help avoid confusion. With more than two conversing, it’s essential you make it clear with every line who the speaker is.
  • Conversely, don’t use a speaker tag with every line. Remove unnecessary speaker tags. If it’s clear who is speaking, you don’t need one. A narrative tag here or there will suffice. Example: John shook his head. “I really don’t care.”
  • Put a character’s speech and action together in a paragraph. Failure to do this causes confusion as to who is speaking. It’s assumed the last person mentioned is the speaker, so if you do not group the speech and action for each character in separate paragraphs, you’ll have the wrong characters speaking your lines.
  • Don’t use fancy verbs for speech (speaker tags). Just use said, asked, replied, or answered. Once in a while you might punch with a different verb: “There,” she declared. “I found it.” Speaker tags should be functional and invisible. Readers blip over the word said. And that’s what you want.
  • Don’t use adverbs with your speaker tags. You’ve probably heard this, but it’s a good admonition. A good writer will show the intent and emotion in what’s being said and with body language. Instead of writing “‘Go away,’ he said angrily,” write “‘Go away,’ he said, clenching his fists, his face flushing with heat.”
  • Read it aloud. You will hear the wordiness or stiffness of dialog by doing this. It helps a lot.
  • Use contractions where appropriate. Unless it befits the character to speak without using contractions (it’s instead of it is, for example), be sure to use them.

 Subtext: Don’t Have Characters Say What They Mean

First write your scene and have characters say outright what they want and mean. Then go through and change the wording so that they aren’t saying those things. One way you can do this is by having a character talk about something other, while your narrative is revealing she is trying to say something else. Example (Before and After):

“John, I’m worried that you don’t really love me.”

“Mary, you’re right. I really don’t. But I have to keep up appearances. We don’t want the children to think anything’s wrong.”

“Well, that really hurts. I guess I’ll have to just accept that fact and pretend I don’t care.”

Okay, I hope you see how unreal this is, even though this is the truth of how John and Mary feel.

Here’s the same exchange but with these feelings as subtext:

“John, are you listening?” Mary fidgeted, her heart aching at the way he was ignoring her.

“What? Oh, sure. Why are you wondering if I love you? Of course I do—how could you think such a thing?” John went back to reading his book, his brows furrowed in concentration. Mary waited for more, but he said nothing else. Then his face brightened. “Hey, what’s for dessert?”

“Chocolate cake—your favorite.” She played with her apron strings, then, with clenched teeth, she threw the apron to the ground. “I’ll go get you a piece.”

Mary isn’t saying what she really feels, but we can tell by her show of emotion.

You can go through and find lines of dialogue that are too direct in telling what a character feels or wants and then have her say something unrelated to what’s important, as a way to cover her feelings.

Here are two other ways to craft compressed, essential dialogue:

  1. Put in moments of silence. Silence implies other feelings and thoughts. When a character pauses, doesn’t answer right away and gives some emotional “tell” with a gesture or expression, that is subtext.
  2. Tension can thicken when characters do talk about mundane things but the reader knows there is something very intense going on plot-wise or unspoken between them. Again, the characters’ physical movements, tone of voice, and behavior can belie what they are actually saying.

Here is a Before passage by editor Rachel Thomson (from our book 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing). See what you think of this Before passage and how effective the dialogue is, then compare with the After version.

Before Passage:

Tyler was sitting out front, whittling a branch with a rusted knife he’d found in the desk inside the cabin.

“Reese, hey. Out for a hike?” he said welcomingly.

“Yeah, Tyler,” she said.

“Can’t be easy with your ankle,” he nodded.

“It isn’t easy, Tyler. But the ankle’s healing. It’s a workout, getting through the woods on crutches. I’m pretty tired after doing this for weeks, but I hope it will get better soon,” she said.

“Y’know, Reese, if you want company, all you have to do is ask,” Tyler said.

“Where’s Jacob, Tyler?” she asked.

“Off somewhere like usual, Reese,” Tyler shrugged.

Overhead, the sky was darkening. Reese looked up and frowned.

“Tyler, get inside,” she said worriedly.

“What, Reese? What’s going on?” he asked questioningly.

“Just get inside,” she said commandingly.

“What’s going on, Reese?” he asked persistently.

“Would you get inside, Tyler?” she shot back hotly.

“No, Reese. I’m going to help you,” he insisted.

“Fine, Tyler. But whatever happens, it’s not my fault,” she said with annoyance.

Inwardly, she laughed with derision at her own words.

Was anything not her fault?

The actual dialogue in the passage above isn’t bad. But it has a few key (and common) problems:

  • The characters constantly address each by name. (In real life, we almost never do this.)
  • It uses a speech tag after every line of dialogue, which is wholly unnecessary and oftentimes annoying.
  • The speech tags always come at the end of the dialogue, even when that’s awkward.
  • It uses adverbs to tell what the dialogue itself is perfectly capable of showing. (Yes, I had to stop myself from writing “he insisted insistently.”)
  • The passage doesn’t use action or setting details, so all we have is talking heads in white space. This detaches readers from the scene. It’s also lacking in any inner speech from the POV character, so there’s an entire under-layer missing.

Here’s the difference when the above problems are corrected:

After Passage:

Tyler was sitting out front, whittling a branch with a rusted knife he’d found in the desk inside the cabin.

“Hey,” he said, looking up as Reese approached. “Out for a hike?”

“Yeah.”

“Can’t be easy with your ankle.”

Reese laid her crutches aside and lowered herself beside him, using the cabin wall to steady herself. “It isn’t. But the ankle’s healing.”

Tyler nodded. “Good.” Then he frowned. “You okay? You look like you just ran a marathon.”

“It’s a workout, getting through the woods on crutches.”

“Okay.” He seemed less than convinced. “Y’know, if you want company, all you have to do is ask.”

She didn’t say the answer that ran through her head. No good. It’s not safe to be with me right now. They’re after me, and I’m not sure why. Better you don’t get yourself killed being in my company.

Tyler was a good kid with a good heart, but he had no battle training. She was happiest having him far away while she fought off the attacks.

“Where’s Jacob?” she asked.

“Off somewhere. Like usual.”

Overhead, the sky was darkening. Reese looked up and frowned. Clouds were blocking out the open spaces between the pines—clouds and something else.

“Tyler,” she said, “get inside.”

“What? What’s going on?”

“Just get inside.” She reached for the wall and got to her feet. Tyler jumped up but didn’t make a move to go in. She turned to glare at him and saw a sword in his hand. He held it up.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Would you get inside?”

“No. I’m going to help you.”

“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “But whatever happens, it’s not my fault.”

Was anything not her fault?

I hope you were able to see the difference and note why and how the second example was better, more masterful.

Let’s take a look at a second example, this one from editor and author Robin Patchen (also from our Fatal Flaws book).

Before Passage:

Walter answered on the second ring. “Walter Boyle.”

“Hi, Walter. It’s Rae.”

“Wow, Rae. How are you?”

“I’m okay, Walter. How about you?”

“Oh, it’s been busy. I love my job, though. Working as a reporter for the New York Times was always my dream job, so I’m not going to complain. I haven’t heard from you in months. I’ve been calling and calling, but you never call me back. Where have you been? What’s been going on with you?”

“I’m glad you still love your job. I’ve been . . .” She thought of the infant sleeping upstairs. “Busy. Listen, I need a favor.”

“Of course you need a favor. You always need a favor. You practically fall off the edge of the world, but as soon as you need something, then you call me. First, you need to tell me what you’ve been up to.”

“I really don’t have time to go into all of that right now. And it was awkward, you know, because we were together, and now I’m with someone else. I didn’t know how you felt about that. But still, I really need a favor.”

 Lots of problems here. First, we have some telling. They both know he works for the Times. They both know he’s been calling, and she’s neglected to call him back. They both know they used to be together. So why is it in there? To tell the reader? Find a better way, please. Telling through dialogue doesn’t work.

Second, we have the banal greetings. Hi. How are you? How long’s it been? What’s new …? If the reader wants to hear all that stuff, she’ll go have a conversation with the clerk at Walmart. Eliminate all the obvious stuff.

Finally, this dialogue is “on the nose.” One character says something, and then the next character responds directly to that, saying almost exactly what you’d expect. If the reader can guess what the characters are about to say, I guarantee, the dialogue will be boring.

Here’s the rewrite.

After Passage:

Rae stood in the living room and dialed.

He answered on the third ring. “Walter Boyle.”

“It’s me.”

“Rae? Where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for—”

“It’s a long story,” she said. “Listen, what can you tell me about the bombing in Tunisia yesterday?”

A long pause. “I don’t hear from you in months. You don’t return my calls. You fall off the face of the earth—”

“I didn’t. I just—”

“You stop sending stories,” he said. “You just disappear.”

“Look—”

“Where have you been?”

“I’ve been . . .” She thought of the events of the previous few weeks, months. There was no time to explain. “Tied up.”

“Literally? Because anything less than that, and you could’ve returned my calls.”

She paced across the living room. “I don’t have my phone.”

“They sell phones on every street corner.”

“Look, I’ll tell you, but—”

“You married that guy, right?” Walter said. “Moreau?”

Rae froze. Swallowed. “How did you—?”

“It’s not like it was a state secret.”

“No. I know. I—”

“You could’ve told me.”

She ran her fingers through her hair and paced again. “I should have. It was awkward.”

“And this isn’t? You disappear, then call for information like nothing happened.”

“I’m sorry.” Rae collapsed on the sofa. “You’re right. I’m just . . . I need your help.”

“Don’t you always?”

“That’s not fair.”

“Is he . . . ?” His voice softened, and he started again. “Is he good to you?”

His concern nearly brought tears to her eyes. “You and I have been over for a long time. You ended it.”

“Only because I was the only one really in it.”

She imagined him then, not just as her conduit to information but as her friend. As more than her friend. She’d blown it with Walter like she’d blown it with everybody she ever loved. “I’m sorry, Walter. I don’t know what else to say.”

So what did Robin do here? She deleted all the boring stuff. And because this is a tense scene, sje made the paragraphs short. They’re talking back and forth—not fighting, exactly, but certainly not friendly. There’s enough subtext to keep the reader interested. But the main point of the scene remains the same—she needs information, and she has to deal with his questions before he’s going to tell her anything.

You’ll note that Walter has a different goal in mind. He wants to find out where she’s been. So while she’s trying to turn the conversation to her needs, he keeps shifting it back to his.

Studying great dialogue will teach you some terrific technique. And, when you think about it, a character’s voice—which flows through every line of a scene’s narrative—is a kind of dialogue and should reflect all the nuances and attributes that would come out in spoken dialogue.

Go through Your Scenes 

And look for these culprits that show flawed dialogue:

  •  Overuse of characters’ names in direct address (“You know, Mary, that I’m right . . .”)
  • Using speech tags with every line
  • Using flowery verbs for speech tags (“Go away,” she cajoled . . . or extrapolated or interjected)
  • Using inappropriate verbs for speech tags (“Go away,” she sighed . . . or groaned or wished)
  • Putting a speech or narrative tag at the end of a long passage of speech identifying who is speaking instead of placing it close to the beginning
  • Using flowery adverbs to tell how the words are being spoken instead of showing the emotion (“Go away,” she said angrily)
  • Having all your characters sound alike, even though they have different personalities, backgrounds, and cultural influences
  • Using “on the nose” dialogue, which means saying exactly what a character feels and which isn’t very believable
  • Padding scenes with a lot of unnecessary discourse such as boring greetings
  • Lack of contractions in speech of characters that would use contractions in conversation (as well as in the narrative and internal dialogue in POV)
  • Showing dialogue floating in space: talking heads that aren’t attached to bodies engaged in activity and in real places in your scene
  • Lack of an interesting, effective THAD for your scene (Talking Heads Avoidance Device)

If you want to be a masterful fiction writer, you will have to master dialogue. Want to go deeper?

Enrollment is open NOW for my highly popular course: 8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful Novel!

You will learn specific ways to craft dialogue via a method that you won’t learn anywhere else. I have spent decades studying masterful fiction writing and developed a technique to help writers fast track to success.

This course begins Monday January 24, 2022.

This unique method of scene analysis, revision technique, and nailing genre will fast track you to success when you apply them to your book.

Here’s what’s included in your course:

    • Weekly Zoom Q&A meetings with C. S. Lakin
    • Downloadable course PDFs: worksheets, articles, and dozens of sample scenes from best sellers
    • More than 12 hours of intensive video instruction on the 8 essential elements for novel success
    • 4 bonus videos on deep edit and analysis, scene types, and genre markers
    • Optional weekly critique group (no extra cost!) to immediately put into practice what you’re learning

While the course is only 8 weeks long, you’ll have lifetime access to all the worksheets, handouts, videos, and sample scenes. If you can’t attend any sessions or even look at the material for a while, no worries! Whenever you’re ready, it will be there for you. But you must enroll by January 23 or you’ll miss out until the next time this course is offered!

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