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Writing Dialogue for Dummies

Writing dialogue that's repetitive gets you a dunce cap!


“Gimme yours.”




“I said, give it to me.”




“I’m gonna tell your mom if you don’t.”






Dialogue.  Makes you feel characters.  Your imagination hostage to the writer’s will.  Sights, smells and scenery all beam vivid life as your senses search for context cues.  You’re only free when the prose takes back over.


Think about that.  Can you remember ever closing a book or turning off a TV show in the middle of a dialogue exchange?  If so, I bet it was an emergency… or the world’s worst dialogue.  That’s the power of good dialogue.  You learn without learning.  Enjoy without thinking.  Your brain sucks it up like a starving vacuum cleaner.


“So how ya write it?”


“Hoped you’d ask…”


1. Simple. Sweet. Fragments.

No one composes when they talk.  Most of us aren’t that smart.  Look at the first dialogue exchange I wrote.  Two characters.  Neither of them say more than 8 words at any one time.  29 words.  7 lines.  An average of 4.1 words per line.  4 sentences.  You don’t even know their names.  I didn’t even put a “he said” at the end of any line.  But you can see the scene.


Now look at the paragraph, starting with “Think about that…”  58 words.  7 sentences.  Just over 3 lines.  8.3 words per sentence.  Just under 20 words per line.  Your left brain has to work harder while your right brain waits for it to catch up with the party.


In general, the shorter and choppier your lines of dialogue, the better.  Notice how many of the lines I’ve written aren’t complete sentences.  Makes your imagination fill in the rest.  That’s how people talk.  They use facial expressions, body positions, hand gestures, their surroundings, in addition to what they say, to make the fragments make sense.  Perfect grammar is for essays and court documents.  Who wants to read those in their free time?


Look again at the first dialogue exchange.  Which kid do you like better, the one who gives one word answers, or the one who talks in complete sentences that got sent to the corner in the picture?  That’s because people who actually talk in complete sentences without contractions sound like pompous jerks or know-it-alls.  Use that to make your audience like one character more than another.  The shorter the answer, the more you trust someone.  The longer the answer, the more you feel like they’re just talking about themselves to make themselves sound good and repeating themselves and going on and on and…  Whoops.


2. You have to hear it.

Can’t write dialogue ya haven’t heard.  Nope.  Has to be listened to.  Scraped off the street.  Look at what Aaron Sorkin, dialogue writing genius wrote:


“I send students to eavesdrop at coffee shops, malls, hospital waiting rooms or cafeterias and take notes about how real people talk. Students return to class with pages of notes and typically report that real conversations are more fragmented than they expected. Together, we pick a juicy interaction and mess with it as a whole class, then have students make a conversation fragment they have collected more interesting. As they work, students should read their dialogue out loud, making sure that the heightened language does not sound too artificial: “Would you like me to introduce more ideas about dialogue today?” asked Todd helpfully. Ick!”


Imagine someone saying it.  Write it.  Say it out loud.  Then edit.  You probably have to cut out half the words.  Repeat until it sounds natural.  Real.  Uncontrived.


Got it?  That’s it.  2 simple rules for the dummy in all our brains.

1. Simple. Sweet. Fragments.

2. You have to hear it.

Go try it for yourself.


Think you need to learn more before you try?  Here are some great posts that will overload your brain with knowledge.  I suggest going to them after you’ve attempted writing the basics.  In fact, do that now.  Don’t take long.  Write a snippet of dialogue in the comments below.  Write it.  NOW.  I’ll tell you how and why you did well… unless you truly were awful.  In that case, I’ll tell you how to fix it.


Resources: Writing Dialogue That Doesn’t Suck

How to Write Dialogue that Matters: Lessons from Aaron Sorkin – great post.  Lots of examples.  This guy’s smart.

Sorkin on Sorkin: Learn Dialogue Techniques from the Man Himself – pretty cool stuff about how dialogue sounded like music to him.  Apparently Aaron Sorkin’s a pretty good dialogue writer.  😉

Ernest Hemingway – he won the Nobel Prize or somethin’

John Steinbeck – another Nobel prize winner.  Whatever. 

Tennessee Williams – a somewhat successful playwright

some plays by a little guy named William Shakespeare 


Basically if you know a great work of literature, it’s probably got great dialogue in it.  Read, you fools.  Read!


Resources: Writing Dialogue That Sucks

Writing Dialogue: How to Write Dialogue in a Story – I’m probably being mean by including this.  The guy tries.  But I had no better idea after I read it.  Maybe it needs examples or creativity or something…

Grammar Girl: How to Write Dialogue – You can tell that a grammar website won’t have the best dialogue advice.  Parallel structure?  Proper pronoun procedure??  WHO CARES???


Okay, okay, I’ll stop being mean now.  Go write and feel free to let me know if this didn’t help you one bit.

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  1. Kirsten

     /  January 24, 2013

    Awesome. Likey muy muy much.

    • peternevland

       /  January 31, 2013

      Thanks for the muy muy much likey, Kirsten!

  2. Great job Peter! It’s the deconstructionist flip of what we do at Shortcut Blogging. We use conversation as a starting point and have editors turn it into written content. They have to de-fragment the dialogue, complete the sentence or thought. People are always amazed at how choppy a transcript of an interview reads.

    • peternevland

       /  January 31, 2013

      Thanks, Dave!

      So, when you turn their conversation into a blog how often do you complete the thought? Do you guys actually go in and pretty-fy the simple thoughts people speak to your interviewers? Make ’em sound like better writers than they are?

  3. That’s exactly it, Peter. In conversation, we intuitively know what the other person is saying…or at least we can guess correctly most of the time. Some people do it out loud. It’s called finishing each others….

    Even though we want to make the “writing” grammatically correct, we also try to preserve the tone of voice of the speaker. If they speak in colloquialisms, they probably write that way, so we try to leave those things in the writing.

    • peternevland

       /  January 31, 2013

      Pretty cool, Dave. Thanks for adding a valuable resource on dialogue. Have any posts on the tips for turning written conversations into riveting copy?