How to write dialog

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Artist Anna Janosik“You can’t write dialog, dammit! You don’t have that spark, th-th-that effortless connection to who a person is, what they actually say. Forget it! Go back to your hovel and return when you’ve realized this.” He took a breath, looking happy he had gotten that off his chest. “Now,” he continued, “go get me some coffee, and stop bothering me with these dreams of yours.”

Interesting, huh? What kind of image do you get from that little scene? What does the man who said it look like? How does he feel about people in general? We know how he feels about the subject of his discussion. And we can probably fill our minds with a lot more information rounding out the character he represents.

In my own head, he was a man sitting (and probably for far too long) on a leather chair in a modestly dark room with the smell of cigar and old books around him. He wore a light tan shawl with thick tassels on its ends over his shoulders, which were slumped, but resistant to the last.

Why he had this shawl was beyond me, I just write what I see. I imagine it had to do with the fact that his eyesight wasn’t so great and he was cold, picking up the first thing close by that felt warm.

You can tell he probably didn’t get many visitors, most of his friends having died off long ago leaving him with his thoughts and sorrow and anger. He didn’t care for dreamers, preferring the practical.

Did anything I wrote there in that description not fit well with the dialog I wrote earlier? I think it fits well.

In this example I started writing a scene using dialog as the basis. I had no visual of the man until his words started forming—in essence, he started forming in my mind as I wrote what he was saying.

Let’s do it the other way around:

Miss Gentry pulled her skirt down as she walked. It had been too tight at her hips and had the problem of rising with her movements. She walked slower and took a breath to calm herself, only then remembering that, as she opened her mouth, she could smell her gum. Bubble gum. She was walking into the office of the old man with bubble gum in her mouth.

She quickly looked to the side and found not a thing in which to place her gum. There were two plants standing guard outside his office, but their foliage was high off the stem and anything put in the planter would be visible.

Unless she shoved it under the dirt.

She shook her head quickly. She wasn’t about to walk into his office with dirty fingernails.

She used her tongue to shove the gum between her cheek and her right rear molar. She inhaled at the wrong time in this process and spit went into her trachea. She coughed hard, trying to cover her mouth with her left hand. She inhaled and the gum went down her throat.

Miss Gentry’s eyes went wide and coughed hard again, tears filling her eyes and mucus running down the inside of her nose. The gum shot out from between her teeth and landed in her hand, warm and sticky.

She closed her fist and did everything within her power to stifle the successive coughs that followed, never mind that she mashed the gum in her hand.

“Miss Gentry!” came the old man’s voice from behind the door. “Are you going to stand out there all day or are you going to grace me with your late presence?”

Miss Gentry jolted and stepped forward quickly, her skirt rising up past her knees. She used the back of her right index finger to wipe away a tear that had made it past her lids. Another followed and she quickly caught that one as best she could as she made the door, turning the knob with the same hand and wet finger.

The door opened easily and she straightened, placing her hands down at her sides in one last attempt lower her skirt.

She stopped then, realizing by the tacky drag that she had just smeared the bubble gum onto her skirt with her left hand.

“Oh,” she moaned quietly, feeling more tears well up. She shook her head quietly, wishing for a meteor to drop through the ceiling on her before the old man got a look at her.

She stepped into the room, trying to expose her right side as much as possible.

The old man looked at her and squinted, “I don’t go for that…what is it they call it? Goth look, Miss Gentry. I despise such things and will cross the street to stamp them out. No dark, smeary black eyeliner in my presence, am I understood?”

Miss Gentry couldn’t talk, she only nodded her head weakly as one traitorous tear spilled over her left lid to gloss a trail down her cheek. “Yes, sir,” she said, bringing up her left hand to wipe the tear away only to realize too late about the gum in that hand. A long, pink ribbon of bubble gum stretched from her skirt to her face.

And that was when she started crying in earnest.

I had fun with that one.

Miss Gentry’s dialog was sparse. That very fact rounded out a personality that would have been quite different had I written her with a sailor’s mouth or a high-pitched, nervous chatter some people have when in a similar situation, perhaps explaining to death to the old man just what had happened every step of the way into his office.

As it was, my Miss Gentry was reserved. She was emotional, but only because she was doing her best to make a good impression on the old man, and life, it seemed, was conspiring against her.

I like this Miss Gentry. I think she could be a strong person with some depth. I would have to write any successive dialog with that in mind.

The ingredients to good dialog

Several things go into writing great dialog.

1. Have a clearly defined character in mind.

This means that you know not only how the person sounds with their tone of voice, you also know some of their physicality. An extremely obese person has a different cadence and quality to their voice that may be interrupted by his or her effort to take in a labored breath.

Someone on crack cocaine would also have a different cadence and flow, versus a sweet older lady who smiles a lot.

Know your characters, breathe with them and you will find it easier to speak like them.

2. Listen well.

This is a skill you either have or you need to develop.

As a general rule, introverts tend to listen more than extroverts, if only from the fact that they aren’t putting themselves out there constantly chatting about this or that. They generally take the back seat and don’t speak up, allowing others to do that job.

To listen well you have to shut up.

Easy as that. You can’t hear well over your own voice. The world around you has things it wants to say, whether it’s a bird on the limb of a tree or a small child at your leg pulling on your pants and saying, “look at what I made.”

But shutting up isn’t all there is to listening.

Listening well doesn’t have an agenda behind it. There is no waiting for the other person to speak so that you can quickly get in your point or observation. Sometimes just listening and resisting the urge to speak your opinion is all it takes to start truly hearing someone.

Can you recreate on paper the cadence and structure of dialog your closest friend has? Try it. How do they speak? Is their voice thick and slow, deep like a low note from a tuba, or dancing and clean like a piccolo? Do they repeat common phrases or clichés? Do they have a wry twist to their mouth that curbs some of their consonants when speaking about a certain subject? Are they very clear, enunciating each word properly as if their life depended on it, or do they draw them out because the medication they are on shifts their mind to a lower gear?

Listening is important. If you can’t write your closest friend in dialog, someone you hear frequently, then you aren’t either good at writing, or you aren’t good at listening. I suspect the latter.

3. Observe people.

Dialog doesn’t exist in a vacuum. People speak dialog. But people also have mannerisms that round out their dialog experience.

Take these two examples:

“I’m not going to write that,” she said, harshly.

(Please forgive me the use of harshly here; it is demonstration only and not how I write normally.)


“I’m not going to write that,” she said, putting the pen down so hard on the desk that it made everyone in the room look at her. She swallowed visibly and lowered her eyes, looking from side to side almost as if to find a way to escape.

A person moves with emphasis relating to his or her dialog. You cannot separate the two. The dialog of the body must also be conveyed.

Spend time observing people, a lot of time. Sitting and watching and listening. See how their language ties in with their body.

It’s important.

Your Assignment

There really isn’t much beyond that. There’s the technical end of it, which can be observed by watching others write dialog well, but having the technical know-how doesn’t make for realistic, believable characters.

Listening and observing helps you there.

So, if you are up the challenge, listen to your friend next time. Listen closely. Observe. Take your time and write him or her as a character and see how closely you can come to reality.

I’d be very interested in seeing what you’ve learned.

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