Writing Engaging Dialogue

Repartee is something we think of twenty-four hours too late.

Mark Twain

 Written dialogue is an illusion, and a good writer is skilled conjurer of words. The complex purpose of dialogue is to “show” rather than to “tell.” Through dialogue, the reader perceives nuances of character and the story on multiple levels.

What a character says and what a character does not say are equally important, as well as word choice, context and innuendo. The dialogue in a good book is dialogue distilled to what is relevant to plot, theme, character development and message.

Fortunately, a writer has the time and leisure to craft witty and coordinated conversations and repartee, specific to the objective, and the ability to edit in order to achieve better than life results.

No one actually speaks the way characters speak in short stories, books and dramatic works. Given the time and advantage of contemplation and revision, a writer can transform dialogue into art, make it relevant, deliver an argument, bring an audience to laughter or tears and make characters unforgettable.

Stories can be written without dialogue, but dialogue imparts a living, breathing dimension. It is the difference between a good book and a master work.

If you are a writer, there is no shortage of advice for writing dialogue to be found at libraries, colleges and on the Internet. There are thousands of books, manuals, blogs and websites that will provide rules and instructions for writing spoken words.

They will explain where the quotation marks go, whether the punctuation goes inside or outside, before or after, depending on where you reside. It is good technical advice, but it will not help you write engaging dialogue.

The key to writing effective dialogue is in the ear. A writer must learn to listen—not in the way that most people hear speech, communication, argument and conversation—but with a writer’s ear. Few are born with it, so it is a skill that requires dedicated training and development.

During a twenty second conversation where most observers hear an exchange of words, a writer should hear everything that is said as well as everything that is not said.


Developing a writer’s ear requires spending a large amount of time in public places, where conversations happen. Restaurant and café jobs work well, as these are places where people sit, lower their guards and speak freely.

Eavesdropping is easy in busy places, as workers are constantly moving and customers have to elevate the volume of their voices in order to be heard. These jobs are total conversation immersion, as in some places there are thirty to forty conversations all going on all at the same time. A writer who cloisters himself or herself away from people and their banter will find it difficult to write realistic dialogue.

In time, a good listener learns to filter out irrelevant chatter and focus on dialogues in play as they fade in and out, from place to place. Eventually, the ear learns to distill each overheard conversation to its meaningful content. This practice will help a writer determine the scope of written dialogue in a given scene.

Simple advice to writers who want to develop dialogue writing skills: spend at least four hours daily in a loud, public place, and Listen, Listen, Listen. If you are wearing an apron or vest, at least you get paid to do it.

Developing a writer’s ear takes years, which is just fine if you are determined to be a writer. Written dialogue improves as the ear improves. If writing realistic dialogue is difficult for you—all the more reason to get out there and focus on writing it. If you have listened, many of the voices will return to you as you sit to write. You will actually hear the dialogue before you begin to write it.

Even after you have developed a writer’s ear and you can write the conversations you hear between your characters, you must realize you cannot include everything you hear.

You should utilize the same distillation process you practiced while eavesdropping (which, by the way, can be a great source for new material) to limit the scope of your character’s conversations.

After you have written a dialogue passage, you must apply the following tests for every line. You should determine: Is it relevant? Does it move the story forward? Does it reveal something previously unknown? Does it reveal something telling about the character? And is it realistic, something someone would actually say? If the answer is no to those questions, you need to rewrite the dialogue or eliminate it.

Part of the art of writing dialogue involves the point where the writer picks up the conversation and how he or she ends it. All the dialogue a writer hears should not be included. If characters have a conversation about the time of day, but the time of day is irrelevant to the story, then the writer wants to pick up and include only the part of the conversation that pertains to moving the action forward.

It is the art of distillation. Conversations and comments should move the story and should build to end at a memorable point. Dialogue that just fizzles out is disappointing.

Well-written dialogue also reduces the need for excessive explanations in the narrative. If your character is intelligent, you do not have to continually remind your audience how intelligent he or she is in your narrative. If the words spoken indicate intelligence, readers will understand that on their own, arriving at the conclusion on their own, rather than hearing you repeat it for them. It is the difference between “telling” and “showing.”

Language is idiosyncratic, meaning that while in a room of English speakers, each person has his or her own language foibles, voice characteristics, and speech patterns that are unique. We sometimes recognize each other by voice and the style of our speech. Characters in dialogue are no different. They will have accents, lisps, word choices and patterns that make up their personalities and these should be included in dialogue.

However, a writer must be careful to avoid overemphasizing these differences to the point of distraction. Stereotyping can even be offensive. A character from Mississippi probably should not begin every conversation with a robust, “Howdy Y’all!” And every black teenager in America does not listen to rap music, play sports and speak in Ebonics.

Finally, a writer must allow the “living persons” created to have voices of their own. Characters must be allowed to say what they would say, and not necessarily in the way the author might say it. Personally, I could never bring myself to utter a curse word, even a mild one.

It is just not in me, but some of my characters curse like sailors, even some of the women. If your character curses, uses racial slurs or makes outrageous statements, he or she must be allowed to do it in conversation in cases where dialogue is relevant.

In this blog, I am asking writers to share experiences and challenges at writing dialogue with our readers. How many writers have trained their thoughts on listening in order to develop a writer’s ear? How many believe that, in order to write compelling dialogue, a writer must be immersed with random conversations for an extended period of time? How many have worked in restaurants and cafés?

Does practice at asking questions/interviewing to make his or her own conversations relevant help a writer to develop effective dialogue between characters? Is anyone willing to share a dialogue example with us?

Thank you again for taking the time to consider my blog. If you have any comments and suggestions, I am anxious to hear them.

Marcus McGee

genus irritabile vatum

Below I have included a dialogue passage from Legal Thriller:

Mid-way through the third song of the second set, Peter arrived, his eyes scanning the room. He carried a small black canvass briefcase, placing it on the table as he sat.

“It’s all there. Want to count it?”

“I never count it.”

Vic’s eyes on the envelope, he nodded.

“What you wanted, it’s right here. But like I said, it’s sensitive stuff, so I got two rules.”

Peter tightened his jaw, preparing himself for the conditions.

“And those are?”

“One, you can read it, you can take notes about it, but you can’t physically take it away from here.”

Peter thought for a while before nodding.

“Okay, I can live with that. What’s the second rule?”

“You can tell her you know about it, you can threaten her with it, but if she calls your bluff, you can’t use it.”

“What do you mean, I can’t use it?”

“Exactly that. You can threaten her with it if you know what you’re doin, but I can’t let you burn the other people involved. Be bad for business.”

Peter sat back in the chair.

“I wouldn’t be able to actually use it? Now that one I’ll have to think about.”

Vic smiled, sipping the bourbon.

“It’s your decision. Take your time. Of course, if you don’t think you’ll know how to make it work for you, you can always pick up your money and go back home. Like I told you earlier, for the money you’re payin, all you get is a look.”

He patted Peter’s shoulder.

“Have a drink. I’m buyin.”

Fifteen minutes later, Peter pushed the highball glass aside in order to grasp the envelope. Straightening the metal clasp, he opened it and slid out the document, dropping the envelope into his lap. He read for a few seconds before his eyes widened. His jaw slacked and his mouth fell halfway open moments later as he flipped to the second page. Midway through the second page he stopped, looking up at Vic.

Vic smiled, wryly.

“Think that’s somethin you can work with?”

Peter nodded, his eyes falling again to the page. Flipping to the last page of the document, he read a minute more and put it down on the table.

“It’s scary how anyone could have access to this kind of information? I mean, we all know there are people like you out there, Vic, but we don’t really want to believe it. Where do you get this stuff?”

Peter steadied his shaking hands by resting them on the table.

“Don’t get me wrong. I mean, you’ve given me more than I bargained for. But Vic, you scare the hell out of me. Where on earth do you get this stuff?”

“It’s my job. I’m in the information business.”

Peter gulped a large mouthful of the bourbon and soda, wagging his head. Then his expression was transformed to one of concern.

“Uh Vic? You know I have to ask, but do you have anything like that on me?”

Vic was watching the trumpet player soloing during Bitch’s Brew, a tribute to Miles Davis. Hearing Peter’s question, he answered as he lit a new cigarette.

“Tell ya the truth, depends on who’s asking and how much money they’re payin.”

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