Every writer needs to learn dialogue from the great writers preceding them.
This post isn’t about how to punctuate dialogue, or the basics of how to write dialogue, but more advanced techniques, as shown by established authors.
It doesn’t matter what genre you write: every writer needs to improve their dialogue. And whether you’re writing a novel or working on a short story, the examples below will help you.
After all, dialogue is where characters come alive, and characters are the heartbeat of fiction.
These fifty examples of excellent dialogue include everything from writing comic dialogue to writing dialogue between two people (and three people!), and focuses exclusively on fiction.
1. Use Ellipsis to Avoid Saying Hard Things
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
Her arms had a lovely tan, although a scatter of raw pink patches marred the skin above one wrist. Scars. Dolly stared at them. “Kitty, are those …” she faltered. “On your arms, are they …?”
“Burns,” Kitty said. “I made them myself.”
When you have a truth that a character can’t acknowledge, don’t make them say it out loud. Let them be interrupted. Let them stop talking. Make them trail off.
Avoiding a word, and making the other character say it, always increases the power of that word. It makes the reader wait for it — and that delay increases the tension.
2. Use Retorts for Boring Dialogue
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
“Good morning,” began the woman.
“I beg to differ.”
“My name is Gwendolin Bendincks.”
“Don’t blame me.”
Nothing is more dull than someone saying good morning, or announcing their name. How do you spice that up? With witty retorts to each line. This is using the age-old comedian strategy of straight-man and the comic, and allowing the comic to play off the straight man.
3. Speed up your Dialogue
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
“Did you tell him you were going to ask Helen to marry you?”
“But you aren’t.”
“And she got upset.”
“Ran into her bedroom and slammed the door. Hit me first, actually.”
“Good for her.”
“Sucker punched me.”
Bad dialogue is often longwinded dialogue. This runs quicker than an auctioneer — the reader is begged to fly down the page. It’s quippy and witty and makes light of violence in a way that manages to be humorous.
4. Switch the Topic
The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
“Tell me something about Dad,” he whispered.
“You forgot to cut your toenails,” I said.
Don’t make it easy on your characters. When one wants information from the other, simply change the subject.
Just make sure there’s an emotional reason for it. Here, it’s hard for this character to talk about her father — that’s why she changes the subject.
5. Use Punctuation to Pace Your Dialogue
Pachinoko, Min Jin Lee
“But you said — that you wanted to go. I thought you’d marry someone back home.”
“But you know that — that I’ve cared. That I do –“
“If you said it is possible –“
These characters are talking about something which is hard to admit — their affections for each other.
So their speech is halting, unsure of itself. You could use ellipsis for that, or here, Min Jin Lee uses em dashes.
Just watch out that you don’t go full Emily Dickinson on us with those em dashes — less tends to be more.
6. Lie — And Call Attention to It
Marilynne Robinson, Home
“I’m sorry if I kept you awake last night. I was restless. I needed to take a walk.”
“No, I went right to sleep,” she said, which was not true.
“I tried to be quiet.”
“I didn’t hear a thing.” That also was not true. She had heard him come through the door a little after three.
The question is how to communicate to the reader that the character is lying. Here, Robinson uses the thoughts of the narrator Glory to contrast with the spoken dialogue.
7. Be Evasive
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
“How does a person become an entertainment journalist?”
“Is this one of those postmodern things?” Jeevan asked. “Where you turn the tables and interview me, like those celebrities who take photos of the paparazzi?” […]
“I don’t know,” Arthur said, “I’m just curious. How’d you get into this line of work?”
“Gradually and then suddenly.”
“No, seriously,” he said, snapping out of it, “I’ve always wondered what drives you people.”
“Money, generally speaking.”
Here we have the celebrity trying to interview the interviewer, and the interviewer refuses to answer any questions.
Here’s a strategy for writing dialogue: never give the questioner what they want. Every question asked, he avoids the question in a new way:
- Answers a question with a question (postmodern things?)
- Vague, non-answer (gradually and then suddenly).
- Uninteresting answer that isn’t vulnerable (money)
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8. Use Dialogue Attribution for Pacing
White Oleander, Janet Fitch
“You better not be seen talking to me. She’s going to burn a cross on my lawn.”
“You don’t have a lawn,” I said.
She smiled, but she didn’t look at me again.
“My name’s Astrid,” I said.
“You go inside now,” she said. “Astrid.”
Normally, a character telling someone their name is fairly boring, and followed by the other character saying their name. Here, the placement of “she said” creates a pause, and emphasizes the gentle recognition of meeting someone new. It’s perfect timing.
9. Repetition of the Exact Phrase between Characters
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halfway Walk
Talking about joining the army:
Hector is nodding. “That’s sort of my whole point. What I got out here sucks, so I might as well join.”
“What else is there,” Mango says.
“What else is there,” Hector agrees.
“What else is there,” Billy echoes, but he’s thinking of home.
You see repetition of the exact same words between two characters often, but almost never between three characters.
What makes this work is that Billy is disagreeing in his thoughts, even though while verbally agreeing with the others. That’s a variation once we get to the third repetition.
10. Direct Dialogue
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
“Where is your mother?” Charlie asked.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you. But she was always dead.”
“Tell us about your girl,” I said.
“Her name is Anna, and her hair is the color of honey. It is the cleanest hair I have ever seen and runs halfway down to the ground. I am in love with her.”
“Are your feelings reciprocated?”
“I don’t know what that word means.”
“Does she love you too?”
The shape of sentences has an enormous impact on how your dialogue sounds. Most of these are SVO – subject, verb, object. Simple and direct.
These dialogues are also stripped down to the bone. This is told during the frontier days of American westerns, and there is a stiffness to the prose which gives it an old-timey feel without making it inaccessible to modern readers.
11. The Punchline
“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,’ I said. ‘By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”
This dialogue has the classic underpinnings of a joke. There is the set-up, the middle reversal (“I know this isn’t true”) and the payoff of the punchline.
12. Flaunt Egotism
Tobias Wolff, Old School
Ayn Rand, one of the speakers here, is the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
“If you have to name the single greatest work by an American author, what would it be?”
“Your own novel.”
“Is there another?”
“And after that?”
“Is there really no other American writer whose work you admire?”
Dialogue can be a great place to expose what a character believes about herself. In this case, Ayn Rand seems to have quite a lofty view of herself, and enough confidence to power a thousand lives.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
They’re talking about someone pawning a famous painting, “The Goldfinch”:
“Yes, but Sascha think he used the picture to clear a debt.”
“So the guy has ties there?”
“I find this difficult to believe.”
“What, about the ties?”
“No, about the debt. This guy — he looks like he was stealing hubcaps off the street six months ago.”
Most authors writing dialogue don’t use nearly as many misunderstandings as established authors do. Ties? Debt? Which one is it?
Misunderstandings happen far more often in real life than they do in fiction, so add more to your fiction.
14. Dialogue through Translators
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
“Do you know what’s wrong with him? Could he be a diabetic? Touch him, he’s cold!”
“Tell me what she says,” Fyodorov whispered from between his knees.
“She wants to know what’s wrong with you,” Gen said.
“Tell her it’s love,” he said.
Fyodorov nodded his head.
All through this book, they’re speaking French, Spanish, Russian, English, and a translator is translating between all these characters. It’s wonderful that no one understands each other, and they’re never talking to each other, but always the translator.
15. Making Dialogue Mean the Opposite
Jonathan Franzen, “The Corrections”
“Dad, Grandma’s on the phone!”
Gary ambled across the yard …
Thank you, Aaron, I heard you the first time.”
“Grandma’s on the phone!”
“I know that, Aaron. You just told me.”
“She called this morning,” Caroline said. ” I forgot to tell you. The phone’s been ringing every five minutes, and finally I was running –“
“Thank you Caroline.”
“I was running–“
Gary says, “Thank you” three times in this scene, and every time we know with more certainty that he doesn’t mean it. For him, “Thank you” is what he says when he’s trying desperately to control his temper, and I can hear the edge in his voice.
- sometimes “thank you” is patronizing
- sometimes “thank you” is disgruntled
- sometimes “thank you” is impatient
16. Unique Voices: Arch Dialogue
Busy Monsters, William Giraldi
“Just hold on,” I said, “and put some trust in me, Charles Homar. Others have done so and not been badly disappointed.”
“I’d rather not die, thanks.”
“Not a chance. I am neither bogus nor brash, just a citizen out doing his duty. Look into my eyes, miss. What do you see there? That’s right: I was a Templar Knight a few lives ago. Let’s meet the earth.”
“Why do you speak that way?”
“That weirdo way.”
“No comprende, chica.”
“Oh, Christ,” she said. “Are we really going to do this?”
And I said, “Really.”
When you have a character trot out archaic language and strange linguistic formulations, you are doing an enormous amount of character building.
What an amusing dweeb this man is, far more confident in himself than the other character is confident in him.
Hanya Yanagihara, The People in the Trees
“As a doctor,” Tallent said, “what do you want the most? You want to cure diseases — you want to eradicate illnesses, you want to prolong life … But what I want — and this will sound childish, but it is ultimately why we are here, and it is an interest many of my colleagues have, even if they are too grand to admit it — is to find another society, another people, one not known to civilization, and, I should say, one that does not know civilization … “I know what it’s like to be studied,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be reduced to a thing, a series of behaviors and beliefs, for someone to find the exotic, the ritual, in every mundane action of mine, to see –“
Dialogue is an excellent place to get at true motivations. Tallent is being exceptionally vulnerable here, admitting that he doesn’t have honorable medical intentions, but more like he’s curious anthropologically. But he feels bad studying these people, like he’s objectifying them. He’s revealing himself, doubting himself, wrestling with himself — and all out loud!
18. Socratic Dialogue
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
One of the men was shot through the lower chest and he lay propped against the wall in the office. Irving came in and looked at him.
What have you done for him? he said.
Ain’t done nothin.
What do you want me to do for him?
Aint asked you to do nothin.
That’s good, said Irving. Because there aint nothing to be done.
If Irving had started off telling the other speaker there’s nothing to be done, perhaps the other speaker wouldn’t have accepted it.
But he starts with a series of questions, as if leading the other speaker slowly toward the recognition that nothing can be done.
19. Short Dialogue
A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
A man and woman are considering whether to start an affair with each other:
He said, “All right?”
“I’m not very used to this.”
He pulled back, away from me, the look on his face unsmiling, suddenly cautious.
“Yes,” I said. “Please.” It was humiliating to ask, but that was okay, too. Reassuring in a way. He smiled. That was the reward.
Then, afterwards, I began all at once to shiver.
He pulled away and I buttoned three buttons on my shirt. He said, “Are you cold? It’s only ninety-four degrees out here.”
But I wasn’t, not anymore.
Look at how much isn’t said here. Look at the complex emotions and hesitancy Smiley boils down into so few words. Most lines are only one to five words.
They’re wondering whether they should have an affair, wondering whether to go through with the sex. He wonders whether she’s nervous. Eventually, though, they move toward physical intimacy.
20. Switch between Direct and Indirect Dialogue
Amy Hempel, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried
“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”
I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in American owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana — you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end-on.
One of the best techniques of the fiction writer is to avoid having all direct dialogue. Here, we have a line of direct dialogue, in quotes, to start the story. And then we have summarized dialogue (indirect dialogue). Hempel tells us the gist of what the character said, but not the exact words.
Indirect dialogue allows her to:
- Compress information into a tidy shape
- Avoid sacrificing an authentic voice
21. Use Humor
The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
“You’ve been to a bris, ain’t you?” he asked. “You know when they circumcise the baby at the bris, you know what they do, don’t you?”
“They cut off the foreskin,” I said.
“And what do they do with the little foreskin? After it’s off — do you know what they do?”
“No,” I told him.
“Well,” said Uncle Monty, “they save them up, and when they got enough they give them to the FBI to make agents out of.”
The nephew is giving the most basic and expected answers, which is basically just set up for the Uncle to deliver his humorous line at the end.
22. Differentiate Between Speakers
John Irving, “A Prayer for Owen Meany”
“Merciful Heavens, Owen!” my grandmother said. “You’ve been in a fight!”
“I JUST FELL DOWNSTAIRS,” he said.
“Don’t you lie to me, Owen Meany!” Grandmother said.
“I WAS ATTACKED BY JUVENILE DELINQUENTS AT HAMPTON BEACH,” Owen said.
“Don’t you lie to me!” Grandmother repeated.
Throughout the whole book, Owen Meany’s dialogue is always in all caps, to remind the reader of his high-pitched voice, which is talked about at length in the beginning of the book. Just remember for your own dialogue, it’s a great idea to show one character’s dialogue as different — different punctuation, different spelling, different capitalization, different syntax.
23. Master the Art of the Insinuation
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
I shaved my roommate, Bill. “Don’t get tricky with my mustache,” he said.
“Okay so far?”
“I’ll do the other side.”
“That would make sense, partner.”
“When you were shot right through your face like that, did the bullet go on to do anything interesting?”
“How would I know? I didn’t take notes. Even if it goes on through, you still feel like you just got shot in the head.”
Not every dialogue needs huge conflict. This is small conflict. Insinuations that he’s not good enough to shave the mustache. Insinuations that it’s okay — but only so far. Insinuations that he doesn’t know to do the other side. Insinuations that perhaps the bullet had something interesting to do afterwards (as if going through his face was too boring to talk about).
24. Write the Unspoken
Kazuo Ishiguro, “The Remains of the Day”
“I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking, Stevens. A great deal of thinking. And I’ve reached my conclusion. We cannot have Jews on the staff here at Darlington Hall.”
“It’s for the good of this house, Stevens. In the interests of the guests we have staying here. I’ve looked into this carefully, Stevens, and I’m letting you know my conclusion.
“Very well, sir.”
“Tell me, Stevens, we have a few on the staff at the moment, don’t we? Jews, I mean.”
“I believe two of the present staff members would fall into that category, sir.”
His lordship paused for a moment, staring out of this window.
“Of course, you’l have to let them go.”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“It’s regrettable, Stevens, but we have no choice. There’s the safety and well-being of my guests to consider. Let me assure you, I’ve looked into this matter and thought it through thoroughly. It’s in all our best interests.”
Stevens the Butler clearly does not approve of the antisemitism of his British Lord. But he doesn’t show it through dialogue, or even through thoughts.
It’s only the brevity of his dialogue, and the shape of his lines as questions, that tip the reader off to the fact that he deeply disapproves.
25. Gently Misspelled Dialect
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
“Don’t know bout no buryin, Marse,” Stennis said of the child Abundance, “gettin them chains off and on. Watchin em so they don’t run away. Lotta trouble for somethin that won’t cause no more trouble in this world.”
Most of the advice you see about writing dialect cautions the reader not to misspell words. Because when you start spelling words phonetically, all your writing veers sharp right into the pit of unreadability.
But here we see Edward P. Jones with very restrained and clear misspellings. He drops a single letter (g’s, mostly) from the end of words, drops an “a” off about, and drops the “th” from them, which is so common everyone understands it. Lastly, he uses the common “lotta”.
There is zero problem with intelligibility with this dialect, yet Jones gets his cake and eats it too — we can really hear the cadence and class of the speaker. So if you do dialect, tread carefully with misspellings, but if you do them, do them like Jones.
26. Develop a Character’s Personality
Robert Ward, Shedding Skin
“Hey, that’s nice, Grandma,” says Phantom as he motions me to come in the circle with him. “I’ll tell you what. You can have a contest too. Sure. I got a special one for you. A sweater contest. You get all the grannies out on the porch some night when you could catch a death a chill, and see which one can wear the most sweaters. I got an aunt who can wear fourteen. You top that?”
Those short sentences, the snappy casual language, plus the weird idea of a sweater contest for grannies. This character is a real character. Just the cadences of his language starts to draw him in the reader’s mind.
27. Contrast Thoughts with Dialogue
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
“Com’on over here, Easy. This here’s somebody I want ya t’meet.”
I could feel those pale eyes on me.
“This here’s a ole friend’a mines, Easy. Mr. Albright.”
“You can call me DeWitt, Easy,” the white man said. His grip was strong but slithery, like a snake coiling around my hand.
“Hello,” I said.
“Yeah, Easy,” Joppy went on, bowing and grinning. “Mr. Albright and me go way back. You know he prob’ly my oldest friend from L.A. Yeah, we got ways back.”
“That’s right,” Albright smiled. “It must’ve been 1935 when I met Jop. What is it now? Must be thirteen years. That was back before the war, before every farmer, and his brother’s wife, wanted to come to L.A.”
Joppy guffawed at the joke; I smiled politely. I was wondering what kind of business Joppy had with that man and, along with that, I wondered what kind of business that man could have with me.
“Where you from, Easy?” Mr. Albright asked.
Characters rarely say what they think. Here we have Easy Rawlings, the detective hero of the story, thinking that DeWitt’s a snake, but what does he say?
He very politely says “Hello” and not much else for the rest of the scene. He only speaks two words in this whole exchange (which is great characterization — he’s a man of few words).
Another way we know Easy is wary of DeWitt is that he continues to call him “Mr. Albright” in his head, or “that man” — he doesn’t want to get on a first name basis with this man.
28. Character Rambling On and On
Alice Munro, Open Secrets
The first thing she reported on, when she got back, was the man situation.
“Terrible. They all get married young, they’re Catholics, and the wives never die — they’re too busy having babies.”
“Oh they had somebody lined up for me but I saw right away he would never pan out. He was one of those ones with the mothers.”
“I did meet one, but he had an awful failing. He didn’t cut his toenails. Big yellow toenails. Well? Aren’t you going to ask me how I found out?”
All three of these lines come from the same character. Instead of paragraph breaks to signal that a new character is speaking, Alice Munro uses them to signal the passage of time. This woman was babbling all night long, and we speed through an entire evening in only three lines of dialogue. It’s beautiful characterization — this woman is a chatterbox.
29. Brevity is Power
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” he asked.
Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.
“Forever,” he said.
It’s surprising how often I see fledgling writers trying to cover all their bases in dialogue, but when I read published books, they make less dialogue do more.
A single word — a single word can wield so much power. Its power is multiplied because it’s standing all alone.
I love how ending this book on the word, “Forever,” says so much about his love. He might have been separated from the love of his life for those fifty-three years, but now that he’s with her, he wants the time to last forever.
30. Highlight the Unspoken
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
Jojo is talking to his grandfather (Pop) in this scene.
“Might rain bad up the road.”
“You remember how to change a tire? Check the oil and coolant?”
I nodded again. Pop taught me all of that when I was ten.
I wanted to tell Pop I didn’t want to go, that I wanted me and Kayla to stay home, and I might have if he didn’t look so mad, if his frown didn’t seem carved into his mouth and brow, if Leonie hadn’t walked out then with Kayla, who was rubbing her eyes and crying at being woken up int he gray light. It was 7 a.m. So I said what I could.
“It’s okay, Pop.”
His frown eased then, for a moment, long enough for him to say:
“Watch after them.”
The unspoken in this scene is far great than the spoken.
Ward is writing characters who are tight-lipped, so she keeps their dialogue brief but uses thoughts instead to get at the heart of her character’s emotions. Jojo wants to tell his Pop something, but can’t, so he said what he could.
This is very true to life — what we say is almost never what we really want to say.
Both of these characters are bound by rules of gender and propriety.
31. Use Dialogue to Create Villains
Sherman Alexie, Indian Education
Betty Towle, missionary teacher, redheaded and so ugly that no one ever had a puppy crush on her, made me stay in for recess fourteen days straight.
“Tell me you’re sorry,” she said.
“Sorry for what?” I asked.
“Everything,” she said and made me stand straight for fifteen minutes, eagle-armed with books in each hand.
The “Everything” line is cruel and excessive. Dialogue like this makes you pity the narrator and makes a villain out of the teacher.
32. Use Dialogue to Hint at Off-Page Action
Peter Carey, The Tax Inspector
He touched her on the forehead between her eyes and ran his finger down the line of her nose. “I’ll make love to you 100 percent safe.”
She had never imagined you could say those words and still feel tender, but now she was lying on her side and he was lying on his and he had those clear blue Catchprice eyes and such sweet crease marks around his eyes.
“Is there 100 percent?” she asked.
“Is this safe?”
“Does this feel safe?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep my word. Is this safe?”
What physical things are happening between this couple? The book doesn’t say. We’re left to imagine from the dialogue alone.
This is very suggestive dialogue, hinting at what maneuvers might be happening, but never giving it away.
Imagination can be more more potent than spelling out the specific actions.
33. Use Repetition for Critical Dialogue
Oyinkan Braithwaite, “My Sister, The Serial Killer”
“Perhaps your wife still loves you.”
He sighs. “You cannot take back words, once they’ve been spoken.”
“I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you.”
Braithwaite could have written this as a single “I divorce you.” Try reading the passage out loud with just a single one. Gives a completely different feel, doesn’t it?
But the fact that they’re spoken three times makes them seem:
- more irreversible
- spoken in anger
- spoken likely during a fight
34. Oppositional Dialogue
Caryl Churchill, “Top Girls”
“So just fill me in a bit more could you about what you’ve been doing.”
“What I’ve been doing. It’s all down there.”
“The bare facts are down here but I’ve got to present you to an employer.”
“I’m twenty-nine years old.”
“So it says here.”
“We look young. Youngness runs in our family.”
“So just describe your present job for me.”
“My present job at present. I have a car. I have a Porsche. I go up the M1 a lot. Burn up the M1 a lot. Straight up the M1 in the fast lane to where the clients are, Staffordshire, Yorkshire, I do a lot in Yorkshire. I’m selling electric things. Like dishwashers, washing machines, stainless steel tubs are a feature and the reliability of the program.”
Every line here opposes the other line, sometimes in subtle ways, but it’s always there. The interviewee is the model of unprofessionalism. She says it’s in the application. She says her current job involves burning up the road in her Porsche. And the interviewer is droll, critical, firm, and unimpressed.
Alice McDermott, Charming Billy
“Look at this little one here,” Billy said again. “She looks like a buoy.”
Dennis shook his head gravely. “No, she’s a girl.”
“But she looks like a buoy,” Billy said again. “A buoy, a buoy.” He pointed out to the bay, to the black buoys that dotted the horizon until the children saw what he meant and began shouting, “A Buoy, a boo-ee, one of those.”
But Dennis continued to shake his head. “How could she be a boy with all that hair piled up on top of her head? You’re a girl, aren’t you?”
Buoy/Boy. What I love is that even after correcting the pronunciation, Dennis continues to misunderstand, but as a joke, not seriously.
36. Repeat a Word to Establish Speaker Identity
Jonathan Ames, Wake Up, Sir
Jeeves transfused himself from the bedroom to the writing room. “Yes, Sir?”
“Have you ever had an outer-body experience?
“Do you mean, sir, an out-of-body experience?”
“Yes, you’re right. Jeeves …. I must have confused out-of-body with outer-borough. Anyway, have you had one?”
“One what, sir?”
“What do you think? An out-of-body experience! Lifted out of our body and gone somewhere else.” […]
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve not had an out-of-body experience.”
“Really? I’m surprised. Would you like to have one, Jeeves? I’d get one for you if I could.”
“No, sir, I don’t want one.”
How many dialogue tags are there in this passage? Look again through it. The answer is zero.
Ames can avoid any dialogue tags because he has a character (the imaginary butler Jeeves), uses the word “sir” in every line. So the reader is always reminded who is speaking.
Those kind of dialogue identity markers are excellent for:
- Giving your characters a unique voice
- Letting you skip dialogue tags (streamline the prose)
37. Historical Dialogue
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
“Just stand back,” Kat advises. “You don’t want bits of Thomas on your London jacket.”
No more does he. He backs off. “I wouldn’t care, but look at you, boy. You could cripple the brute in a fair fight.”
“It never is a fair fight,” Kat says. “He comes up behind you, right, Thomas? With something in his hand.”
“Looks like a glass bottle, in this case,” Morgan Williams says. “Was it a bottle?”
He shakes his head. His nose bleeds again.
“Don’t do that, brother,” Kat says. It’s all over her hand; she wipes the blood clots down herself. What a mess, on her apron; he might as well have put his head there after all.
“I don’t suppose you saw?” Morgan says. “What he was wielding, exactly?”
The trend in writing dialogue from historical issues is to modernize it. To strip away the anachronisms and old English spelling (of course) and only to occasionally pepper it with some phrase that betrays the time period. Essentially, modern authors care more about fluidity when writing historical dialogue than accuracy to the time period.
Look at the quote above: nothing here would be out of place if spoken today, although a word like “brute” seems a touch old fashioned.
38. One-Sided Dialogue
Breath, Eyes, Memory, by Edwidge Danticat
Mother greeting her child disembarking from a plane:
“I cannot believe that I am looking at you,” she said. “You are my little girl. You are here.”
She pinched my cheeks and patted my head.
“Say something,” she urged. “Say something. Just speak to me. Let me hear your voice.”
She pressed my face against her and held fast.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. “Did you have a nice plane flight?”
“You must be very tired,” she said. “Let us go home.”
She grabbed my suitcase with one hand and my arm with the other. Outside it was overcast and cool.
“My goodness.” Her scrawny body shivered. “I didn’t even bring you something to put over your dress.”
The daughter never speaks in this scene.
I love that the mother excuses her silence for tiredness, even though the reader expects that it’s shyness.
As far as technique, note that there is description between every line of dialogue, to give the reader a pause from the mother’s dialogue. You need description because the other speaker isn’t talking at all.
39. Contrast High Class with Low Class
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
Supposedly said by a black supreme court justice (without naming any names):
“Racial segregation? Slavery?Why you bitch-made motherfucker, I know goddamn well your parents raised you better than that! So let’s get this hanging party started!”
What makes this dialogue sizzle is the contrast between the dignified office (Supreme Court Justice) and the lowbrow earthy curses of the dialogue.
It’s shocking to see the coarseness — but it can be a good idea to have a character at odds with what the reader would expect. For instance, you could show a blue collar worker with a very high diction level.
40. Dialogue Confession
The Children of Men, P.D. James
“There is no comfort. I killed her.”
Miriam’s voice was firm, unnaturally loud, almost shouting in his ear. “You didn’t kill her! If she was going to die of shock it would have happened when you first showed her the gun. You don’t know why she died. It was natural causes, it must have been. It could have happened anyway. She was old and she had a weak heart. You told us. It wasn’t your fault, Theo, you didn’t mean it.”
He said: “The worst is that I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed it!”
Miriam was unloading the car, shouldering the blankets. “Enjoyed tying up that old man and his wife? Of course you didn’t enjoy it. You did what you had to do.”
“Not the tying up. I didn’t mean that. But I enjoyed the excitement, the power, the knowledge that I could do it. It wasn’t all horrible. It was for them, but not for me.”
These two characters are going in opposite directions. Miriam is trying to convince herself that they’re not guilty — and we suspect that she doesn’t believe what she’s saying.
And the other character is discovering some dark part of himself that he didn’t know existed, and confessing it because he’s so ashamed of himself.
It’s a wonderful move to have a character arc for both characters inside a dialogue scene. Miriam is slowly convincing herself that they’re not at fault, and he is coming face to face with his own dark desires.
Dialogue is a place where characters can be the most vulnerable, where they can confess the worse parts of themselves. And here, a good character wrestles with an unexpected pleasure: he felt joy when wielding power over others.
Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
Warning: this is in Second Person point of view.
“Have you ever noticed how all the good words start with D? D and L.”
You try to think about this. You’re not quite sure what she’s driving at. The Bolivians are singing their marching song, but you can’t make out the words.
“You know. Drugs. Delight. Decadence.”
“Debauchery,” you say, catching the tune now.
“Delectable. Deranged. Debilitated.”
“And L,” she says. “Lush and luscious.”
“What’s that?” she says.
I know, everyone harps on how dialogue always needs to include conflict (always!). But every once in a while, dialogue can show collaboration, two character riffing off each other, sharing a human connection.
Here we have two characters flirting through a word game. And it’s spot-on characterization to have recreational drug users to believe that “Deranged” and “Debilitated” and “Delinquent” are positive attributes.
42. Indirect Dialogue
Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
He kept talking. Harold was feeling a little sheepish, and making Loren tuna-and-mushroom-soup-with-noodles casserole for dinner. Jess had promised to put it in the oven at four-thirty; what time was it now? The farmer near Sac City had called him back, four hundred and seventy acres in corn and beans, only green manures and animal manures for fertilizer, the guy’s name was Morgan Boone, which sounded familiar, did it sound familiar to me? He said Jess could come any time.
What’s great about this indirect dialogue is that it retains the colloquial repetitions and rhythms of actual dialogue, yet while being a summary of dialogue, not dialogue itself. These aren’t his exact words, but an encapsulation of his words.
When do you want to use indirect dialogue? When you want to give a sense for a long stretch of dialogue, but it would bore the reader to reproduce exactly.
43. Make Dialogue Match Your Setting
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Do you know where we are Papa?
How sort of.
Well. I think we’re about two hundred miles from the coast. As the crow flies.
As the crow flies?
Yes. I means going in a straight line.
Are we going to get there soon?
Not real soon. Pretty soon. We’re not going as the crow flies.
Because crows dont have to follow roads?
They can go wherever they want.
Do you think there might be crows somewhere.
I dont know.
But what do you think?
I think it’s unlikely.
This is an apocalyptic wasteland where everything has been demolished and the earth is scorched and barren. So McCarthy decides his dialogue should reflect the state of the world.
- He avoids punctuation.
- He choose spare, short lines, emphasizing the scarcity.
- He keeps it simple, because they’re fighting for the simplest of needs
44. Show a Multilogue
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Aaron came running from the kitchen. “Dad!”
“I’m on the phone, Aaron.”
“I’m on the phone, Aaron, as you can see.”
“Dave has a colostomy,” Enid said.
“You’ve got to do something right now,” Aaron said. “Mom is really hurting. She says you have to drive her to the hospital.”
“Actually, Dad,” said Caleb, sidling in with his catalogue, “There’s someplace you can drive me, too.”
“No, but there’s a store I really actually do need to get to?”
“The affordable seats fill up early,” Enid said.
“Aaron?” Caroline shouted from the kitchen.
“It’s certainly is noisy in here for a person trying to concentrate,” Jonah said.
“Mother, sorry,” Gary said, “I’m going someplace quieter.”
Quick dialogue lesson:
- So a di-alogue is only for two people.
- A tri-alogue is for three.
- A multilogue is trying to handle a host of speakers in a single scene.
In this small excerpt, there are 8 (eight!) characters: Father, grandma on the phone, Aaron, Enid, Caleb, Caroline the wife, Jonah, Gary.
So by necessity, there are a ton of dialogue tags. But you really feel the frenetic energy of the house, how it’s boiling over with interruptions and a crowd’s worth of different conversations. It’s high stress.
45. How to Write Drunk Dialogue
What We Talk about When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver
“Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her. Then Terri said, “He beat me up one night. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying ‘I love you, I love you, you bitch.’ What do you do with a love like that?”
“My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it,” Mel said. “I don’t know what you’d call it, but I sure know you wouldn’t call it love.”
“Say what you want to, but I know it was,” Terri said. “It may sound crazy to you, but it’s true just the same. People are different, Mel. Sure, sometimes he may have acted crazy. Okay. But he loved me. In his own way maybe, but he loved me. There was love there, Mel. Don’t say there wasn’t.”
Mel let out his breath. He held his glass and turned to Laura and me. “The man threatened to kill me,” Mel said. He finished his drink and reached for the gin bottle. “Terri’s a romantic. Terri’s of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school. Terri, hon, don’t look that way.” Mel reached across the table and touched Terri’s cheek with his fingers. He grinned at her.
“Now he wants to make up,” Terri said.
“Make up what?” Mel said. “What is there to make up? I know what I know. That’s all.”
“How’d we get started on this subject, anyway?” Terri said. She raised her glass and drank from it. “Mel always has love on his mind,” she said. “Don’t you, honey?” She smiled, and I thought that was the last of it.
“I just wouldn’t call Ed’s behavior love. That’s all I’m saying, honey,” Mel said. “What about you guys?” Mel said to Laura and me. “Does that sound like love to you?”
“I’m the wrong person to ask,” I said. “I didn’t even know the man. I’ve only heard his name mentioned in passing. I wouldn’t know. You’d have to know the particulars. But I think what you’re saying is that love is an absolute.”
Mel said, “The kind of love I’m talking about is. The kind of love I’m talking about, you don’t try to kill people.”
Wild admissions. Colloquial banter. Sloppy phrasing. This is dialogue powered by gin, and plenty of it.
Please don’t slur when you write drunk dialogue — it’s so cliche. Take a page from Carver and release their inhibitions.
46. Dialogue as Climax
The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller
Then they held each other for a long time. And he whispered to her: “I have one thing to say, one thing only, I’ll never say it another time, to anyone, and I ask you to remember it. In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live.”
You have to love the warm up here. There are six clauses (six!) before he finally arrives at his point: this certainty about his love will never come again. You can’t get any more romantic than this line.
What is my point? My point is that dialogue often serves as the climax in a book. This profession of love was the most memorable and emotional part in the entire book. That’s how powerful dialogue is.
47. Oneupmanship and Lying
George Saunders, “In Persuasion Nation”
An orange and a Slap-of-Wack bar sit on a counter.
“I have vitamin C,” says the orange.
“So do I,” says the Slap-of-Wack bar.
“I have natural fiber,” says the orange.
“So do I,” says the Slap-of-Whack bar.
“You do?” says the orange.
“Are you calling me a liar?” says the Slap-of-Wack bar?
“Oh no,” says the orange politely. I was just under the impression, from reading your label? That you are mostly comprised of artifical colors, an innovative edible plastic product, plus high-fructose corn syrup. So I guess I’m not quite sure where the fiber comes in.”
“Slap it up your Wack!” shouts the Slap-of-Wack bar, and sails across the counter, jutting one pointy edge into the orange.
“Oh God,” the orange says in pain.
“You’ve got an unsightly gash,” says the Slap-of-Wack bar. “Do I have an unsightly gash? I think not. My packaging is intact, weakling.”
So I don’t care if this excerpt involves fruit and … a fruit-like substance, it can still teach us about dialogue.
This style of dialogue is particularly male, I’ve found. Men, in their casual banter, are always trying to outdo one another. And here we have two “characters” competing. The fact that it’s outrageous and hilarious doesn’t hurt. It’s wicked satire of our industrial food machine.
Really, this is an example of a character lying, over and over again, and lying is wonderful for dialogue, especially when the other characters calls them on it.
48. Avoid Talking about What You’re Talking About
Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
“Then what will we do afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”
“What makes you think so?”
“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”
This entire short story is about whether or not to get an abortion. Guess what word they never say?
If you said “abortion,” three cheers for you. Dialogue is very powerful when it dances around a topic without ever addressing it head-on — probably because that’s often how dialogue works in real life.
49. Conflicting Character Desires
Mary Gaitskill, “This is Pleasure”
“It doesn’t sound like this girl has a case legally, but, honestly, I can understand why she’s mad. You didn’t touch her, did you? I mean, sexually?”
I had not. Just sometimes on the shoulder, or around the waist. Maybe on the knee or the hip. Affection. Not sex. “I so don’t want Carolina to find out,” I said. “She hates male oppression. Hates it.”
And Margot laughed. Laughed. “Did you really just say that?” she said. “You?”
I said, “I’m concerned for my wife.”
She stopped laughing. She said, “If it wasn’t sexual, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
“But it could be made to sound sexual. Or just—she claims it cost her months of therapy bills.”
Margot laughed again, more meanly—I’m not sure at whom.
“I’d like you to keep quiet about this,” I said. “I mean, don’t tell anyone. Not even Todd.”
“I won’t,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
You should always know what your characters want in a scene, and make sure what they want is at odds with what the other character wants.
The man in this scene wants to keep this sexual harassment case hush hush. While Margot is curious, above all else. She’s amused by this entire dialogue, and one wonders whether she’ll keep her promise to not talk at the end. His embarrassment and her curiosity are at loggerheads.
Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
Michele describing the genius of Lila:
“You see, she really has a bad character. I’m speaking, but she doesn’t give a damn, she pulls out a piece of paper, says she wants to leave. But you forgive her, because she has many good qualities that make up for her bad character. You think you hired a worker? It’s not true. This woman is much, much more. If you let her, she’ll change shit into gold for you, she’s capable of reorganizing this whole enterprise, taking it to levels you can’t even imagine. Why? Because she has the type of mind that normally no woman has but also that not even we men have. I’ve had an eye on her since she was a child and it’s true. She designed shoes that I still sell today in Naples and outside, and I make a lot of money. And she renovated a shop in Piazza dei Martiri with such imagination that it became a salon for the rich people from Via Chiaia, from Posillipo, from the Vomero. And there are many—very many—other things she could do. But she has a crazy streak, she thinks she can always do what she wants. Come, go, fix, break. You think I fired her? No, one day, as if it were nothing, she didn’t come to work. Just like that, vanished. And if you catch her again, she’ll slip away again, she’s an eel. This is her problem: even though she’s extremely intelligent, she can’t understand what she can do and what she can’t. That’s because she hasn’t yet found a real man. A real man puts the woman in her place. She’s not capable of cooking? She learns. The house is dirty? She cleans it. A real man can make a woman do everything. For example: I met a woman a while ago who didn’t know how to whistle. Well, we were together for two hours only—hours of fire—and afterward I said to her: Now whistle. She—you won’t believe it—whistled. If you know how to train a woman, good. If you don’t know how to train her, forget about her, you’ll get hurt.”
Read this out loud. The rhythms of the speech are brilliant, which is not only due to Elena Ferrante’s brilliance, but also due to her translator’s brilliance (Ann Goldstein).
Every single sentence is a different shape, a different length, a different pattern. This is a masterclass in sentence variation. It really sounds like someone talking — Elena has captured the rollicking, galloping patterns of an impassioned speech.
- Colloquial openings (you’ll see)
- Comma Splices (she’ll, she’s)
- Starts with conjunctions (And, But)
- Fragment, Verbs only (Come, go, fix, break)
- Colon sentences (This is her problem:)
- Very short sentences (She cleans it).
Outstanding examples, instructive and inspiring. Thank you, John!
I really love this article, I am writing my sci-fi novel and I have no good ideas about the dialogue, the email came to me just in time.
Love it! Beautiful! Thank you John!
I’m not sure who compiled these examples, but I’m sure glad they did, and shared it with me!
Hi Bob, I’m John Matthew Fox, founder of Bookfox, and I compiled them. Very glad you’re benefitting from them!
Thank you, John, for sharing this, and so many other posts. Your posts are always informative and helpful.
I’m beginning the process of writing my mom’s biography — mostly as a family record. I appreciate all of your emails! They’re so relevant every time! They whir through boring work shifts, and remind me of my potential. I hadn’t considered how I will structure dialogue. I typically restructure others’ sentences to sound grammatically acceptable. As well as great dialogue, these examples show me how important voice is to a story. It’s more for a reader to feel like they’ve developed a relationship with a character than for one to be simply bombarded with endless facts and events. Something like a personal diary. I’d like to capture Mom’s stories in the way she tells them while also keeping it reader friendly.
Thank you John Matthew Fox. These are really helpful!
Just completing a Re-Write on a novel and conscious that I haven’t nailed or used dialogue as effectively as I might. So I’m really grateful for this post to set me on the right track for the third draft! Very timely here too.
Thank you very much for your research and erudition.
Damn….another long-ass post by John that causes me to shake my head, grind my grits, roll-up my sleeves and get back to work. #&^% man why you make me work so hard to improve myself. Just when I thought I was there – you show me I was mediocre.
Much love Yoda
Ha ha, you win for best comment. Thanks for the love — and good luck on writing your dialogue!
Your post about writing at 50+ gives me hope and although I don’t feel like I’ve read a thousand books, I’m buoyed by the discovery that I’ve read nearly all the books in this post!
Wow, you’re a walking library. Congrats. Hope your writing is going well!
For the most part, these are solid exemplars. My only objection is the PACHINKO example. Writers who resort to punctuation like that often do so to disguise the fact that have a tin ear for the way in which people talk. And PACHINKO, in addition to being an atrocious novel, has incredibly unconvincing and unbelievable dialogue. Very few people would stammer on “that.” It’s usually conjunctions and prepositions in which people who stammer or are nervous tend to falter.
I loved to read the article. Now, I’m writing a novel and tips in this article will definitely be helpful to me.