How to Write Great Dialogue
By Jacob Krueger
One of the top questions that we get from our students is “What Makes Good Dialogue?”
People are always terrified about dialogue. (Except for the people who are really comfortable about dialogue and they’re like “ah, it’s fine for me.”) But most people are kind of scared about dialogue.
So, if you’re scared about dialogue, it usually means that you’re focused on what your character is saying. Which means that you’re not actually understanding what dialogue is. Because if you understand what dialogue is, you know that dialogue is not what your characters say. Dialogue is actually something your characters do to one another.
Before you try to write good dialogue, the first thing you want to find out is: is your dialogue actually dialogue? Or is your dialogue actually talk? Because there’s a gigantic difference between talk and dialogue.
“Hey how are you doing?”
“Good, good. How are you?”
“I’m fine, how was your day?”
“Oh it was nice. Beautiful weather!”
This is not dialogue. This is talk. And even if I have a brilliant way of saying “Hi, how you doing? Beautiful weather,” even if I’m incredibly funny, or incredibly unique, as the writer – if you’re writing dialogue in that way – you’ve got to do so much work.
You’ve got to work so darn hard because your characters aren’t doing any of the heavy lifting for you. The characters are like, “I don’t want anything. You just go ahead and figure out how I talk.” And that’s really, really hard. And what that means is that you have to start making all these decisions about your character. Instead of just letting your character do the hard work and you be the person who’s transcribing what they say.
So, if your dialogue is not working, the first thing you want to ask yourself is: do you know what the character wants? And not just do you know what the character wants in general like “oh, the character wants love. Oh, the character wants her father to forgive her. Oh, the character wants a new job.” What is the very specific want that the character has right here, in this scene? And what’s the very specific plan that your character came up with the moment before they entered the scene that’s going to allow them to get what they want or that they think is going to? Because things never turn out the way we plan, right?
So, what’s the very specific want? And you want to make sure that the reason that they are using dialogue is to get that want from the other character. For example, they might be using that dialogue to seduce, to cajole, to inspire, to abuse.
And you notice when we’re describing that dialogue that I’m using a verb to describe the dialogue. I’m not using an adjective. I’m not saying, “They talk funnily.” I’m saying what they do with the dialogue, the action that they’re taking with the dialogue. If you do this – even if your dialogue isn’t brilliant yet – it’s going to be effective. It’s going to feel real. And it’s going to move your story forward.
Even if you’re not blessed – you know, some students are just blessed with an ear. They can just hear their characters and it just seems effortless. They can just get those lines that we all wish we could get. And not every writer has the same strength. So, if dialogue is harder for you, the first thing you want to make sure is that your character is using that dialogue. That there is a strong verb under every single thing that they say. That they’re trying to get something with every single line that they say.
You also want to make sure that the character they are talking to also has a really strong want and a really strong plan. Because sometimes we end up with a scene that looks like this:
“So tell me more”
[Other character tells them more]
[Other character dialogue]
“Oh my god! That happened to you? No way.”
Where one character has some crappy dialogue that’s just enabling the other character to talk, while the other character has this really strong want and this amazing story.
So, if you’ve found that you have one character who is really doing stuff with their dialogue and the other who’s like, “Tell me more. Yes, I’d like to know about that. Hmmm…interesting.” What’s happening is, the conflict and the structure of your story is dropping out. Once again, your characters aren’t working for you anymore.
So, take out that enabling dialogue. Take out the questions that your character is asking. Take out the prompts for dialogue. Take out the “Hmmm’s,” “Really?’s” and “Oh my G-d’s.” And allow the other character to have something they’re trying to get that they want as badly as your first character.
When you do this, your dialogue is going to come to life, whether you have a natural gift for it or not. So, in your first draft, I want you to write all the way through the scene just making sure that the character is trying to get something with every single line that they say.
When you get to the end of that draft, you’re either going to have an amazing scene with amazing dialogue or you’re going to have a very good scene with good dialogue.
If you have an amazing scene with amazing dialogue, you get to write the next scene.
If you have a good scene with good dialogue, it usually means that this word is going on with your dialogue: Normal.
If your dialogue is working, your characters are doing actions with their dialogue but you’re not feeling like the dialogue feels inspired or special or specific or unique to your character, it probably means that there is something normal about the dialogue.
For example, if I’m at a bar, and I’m trying to pick up some beautiful girl, and I say, “hey, can I buy you a drink?” Well, that’s action. I’m doing something. Maybe she even has a great action too. Maybe she’s just trying to get to the guy standing behind me. Maybe she’s arcing her head and saying, “excuse me, could you just slide over just a little bit.” And that’s a fun little scene.
But at the end of the day I still have a boring piece of dialogue, which is me saying, “hey, can I buy you a drink?” Which is a boring piece of dialogue not because it’s bad dialogue – everybody’s used this line. It’s boring dialogue because it’s normal. It’s normal and that means that any character trying to ask out somebody in a bar might use the words, “hey, can I buy you a drink?”
So, if you find that you have normal dialogue, don’t despair. First ask yourself: is there an action underneath it? If there is, it’s good dialogue.
Then you just want to ask yourself this question: How?
How does my character say this one line? How do they do this one little verb of trying to get an introduction? How does my character say this line in a slightly different way than any other character would say it?
This doesn’t mean that your character has to be profound or that every line has to be amazing. Simply going up to somebody at the bar and saying, “Jagermeister?” is already better than “can I buy you a drink?” Because it’s more specific. It gives us a little something about the character. We know this character likes Jagermeister. It gives us something specific to play with and to build on.
There’s also a different rhythm to it. Saying one word like “Jagermeister” is different from saying “can I buy you a drink?” And you might to find that this character has a rhythm where he kind of uses these one-word lines.
Jagermeister also makes him feel a little bit more confident. The guy who says, “can I buy you a drink,” is slightly different from the one who says, “Jagermeister.”
You notice that I didn’t come up with an amazing line of dialogue for you. I came up with a slightly different line of dialogue.
Once you have that slightly different, slightly more specific, slightly more unique line for your character, you can start to learn – just from that line – how your character talks.
And then you can start to ask yourself, how is the next line similar or how is the next line different? And continue to build your character’s unique voice from there.
Looking for a new way to get your best dialogue on the page? Check out our Meditative Writing class on Wednesday July 30th, and learn how to get in touch with your characters driving needs, and find those unique, unforgettable lines in an instant.