Fiction Writing help: How Do I Write Great Dialogue?

(NOTE: Post updated to add new material to aid with dialogue writing).

I love writing dialogue! The characters speak and I take dictation. At least, that's how it feels to me. Here is a snippet of dialogue from my work in progress, They All Died Smiling. Kassidy, a writer/demon hunter, talks with her friend Floyd:

While finishing an assignment for the paper, I dialed my phone. “Floyd, I’m borrowing your studio for a half hour this afternoon, OK? Thanks. I appreciate it.”

“Uh…you’re welcome. Thanks for asking ahead of time.” I heard the smile in his voice and imagined him brushing a stray lock of blond hair out of those eyes that look like the sea.

“My pleasure. You won’t be in the throes of artistic fervor this afternoon. You will be at the gallery for your viewing.”

“You truly are a mess, Kass. It’s a showing, not a viewing. A viewing is what they do for dead bodies.”

Floyd was a good verbal sparring partner; I let him tease me in honor of our first meeting. I made that faux pas for real when interviewing him for a story about green pottery. Having come right from a wake to the gallery, I accidentally used the wrong word.

“Floyd, just the reception room, not the part full of your cherished creations. And I promise to make it up to you.”

“Ooh, that should be fun. I’ll hold you to it. You owe me big time for using my space.”

“Yes, I do.” My face flushed. “Sell lots of pots.”

“It’s a good thing you put an s on that.”

So many authors I know struggle with dialogue. Maybe I as a blind person have a distinct advantage over you sighted people, because I pay so mush attention to what I hear.

What's at the Root of Dialogue Problems?

My observations tell me that problems with dialogue come from 2 main issues with writing dialogue:

Dialogue Problems

  1. Not knowing your character well enough to hear them speak inside our head and translate that to the page, and
  2. Being so focused on grammar and punctuation that you don't put the cadence of the character's voice onto the page.
Making Jewelry

Issue #1: Knowing Your Character

The most important things to know about a character are her hopes, fears, motivations and hot buttons. He will react to everything and everyone in the story based on those elements.

If he is terrified of dogs, he'll react to a person he might like to date differently once he discovers his intended has 2 large dobermans. If she has been abused, someone raising a hand might cause her to flinch.

I don't believe you need to reate a super complicated summary and life history for each inhabitant of your tales, but you want to know each of the main people like a friend.

How to Know your Characters Better

  1. Answer those basic questions for the principles: hopes, fears, goals/motivations and hot buttons.
  2. Get to know your character as a person. Don't force him to be someone he's not. Let him come alive.
  3. One of my favorite techniques comes from author jan Morrill, author of The Red kimono. She suggests you interview your character in a place where they will feel comfortable. You can ask them anything. It is a great way to tap into insights you may not have otherwise discovered.

Now it's time to develop your ear for how people really speak.

Issue #2: Cadence and Dialect

While you may otherwise be a dedicated grammarian, you need to keep in mind that your characters need to be free to express their truth in the way they would say it.

Your Characters Won't (Usually) Have Perfect Grammar

In case you hadn't noticed, people don't speak in a grammatically correct way most of the time. We use shortcuts. Start sentences without a subject sometimes.. Say incomplete sentences. Put words in the wrong order. (I'm driving the grammar Nazis NUTS right now!)

And it's bigger than how they speak...

Your characters think inside their heads the way they speak.

in other words, if your point of view character is a country boy, he won't think, I wonder why has he not stoped doing that.  He'll think, Why ain't he quit?

Is dialect nothing more than stereotype?

I received a critique on a story that I was "tapping into too many stereotypes." Naturally, the person who leveled this charge at me is a grammar Nazi.  You just can't give every character impeccable grammar and punctuation.

stereotypes are what they are because there's a good dose of truth in them. Jeff Foxworthy's Redneck jokes work because, well, that's how rednecks are.

Become a Keen Listener

Make your character's dialogue and internalization sound like the character. The reader should hear their voice in her head. So the first order of business is to know your character so well that YOU hear her inside your own head. Then turn what you hear in your head into speech and inner thoughts on the page.

Next, make sure your character sounds right for the time and place from which she comes. If your character is from New York, she or he should talk and think like a New Yorker. If you're from Iowa and have no idea how those from the Big Apple talk, then you might consider following the tips below. If he's a 14th Century noble, he will not use contractions or modern phrases like "hey bro," or, "what's shakin', dude?"

How to Develop Your Ear for Dialogue

  1. Listen to music relevant to what you're writing. It will convey the feeling for the correct way of thinking.
  2. Watch TV shows and/or movies set in the correct time and place. This will help you hear the difference between the way a city slicker and a country boy speak.
  3. If your character comes from another country, take in media from that country. If your character is East Indian, watch some Bollywood films to get the cadence right. If she's English,watch some shows on BBC America.
  4. Don't be afraid to write what you hear. Your character's voice will stand out as long as you let it.

Have fun with dialogue, and if you would like a weekly author success tip about writing, publishing, book marketing and everything else authorly...please claim your free gifts and tips at or complete the form below.

* indicates required

Follow your B.L.I.S.S.!

Ronda Del Boccio,The Story Lady

Bestselling author, speaker and mentor