Dialogue is the glue that holds a book together. When I sit and write, I become each of my characters in turn. I’m an actor in my head and my tone of voice and feelings change as each character takes the stage to perform. How do we make the dialogue come alive? It isn’t hard but it takes practice and patience and, before you know it, you are riding a bike and changing dialogue gears without giving your mind and itching fingers a second thought. So how do we write unforgettable dialogue that holds the reader’s attention?

Know your character well. Don’t just give a character a name and gender and a physical appearance. We need to know what thoughts are running through his head and whether he is angry or sad. Dialogue written properly will let us know this and a lot more. More importantly, the audience will start to have empathy or dislike for characters as you disclose their real make-up. For example, if you listen to fellow passengers on a bus or train, you will hear conversation that depicts dreams or ambitions or an enthusiastic expansion of the factual information regarding a moment of success. Most conversations are not entirely truthful. What readers find interesting is what the character is not revealing. In life, most people are trying to hide something.

“I thought I’d have it cut short this time,” said Mary, looking in the mirror. “What do you think?”

George nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, it’s very nice. Bit short but…very nice, dear.”

“Well, it’s summer and hot. I hate having long hair to deal with.” Mary’s fingers brushed the hair either side down over her ears.

A reader would be right if they thought both Mary and George were not exactly truthful. Mary had her hair cut but George seemed not entirely satisfied so he voiced his concern but added he liked the new style. Mary was ready with her answer by the looks of things. However, in giving her answer, she also sub-consciously acknowledged George’s concern by flattening the hair over her ears so it looked longer.

These are just three short sentences of dialogue yet they say such a lot about the characters. Mary is a little insecure and obviously eager to please George. George is more self-confident and is not afraid to give an opinion but he is also a diplomat and gentleman. In three sentences of dialogue we know a lot about these two, not so much by the conversation but by what is going through their minds as they speak.

Listen to how people speak. You don’t have to write in dialect but you will find characters from a different part of the country have a different way of talking or explaining themselves.

“Anyway, guv, I’m going to get back to the fire. My feet are killing me now. The bloody snow has got into my trainers. I’ll call you tomorrow when I check out that kraut address.”

Now, here is a working class character who, for want of better description, shortens words and drops H’s. Yet, I have not written in his dialect except for a couple of hints. ‘Anyway, guv’ and ‘kraut address’ and the word ‘bloody’ and we can picture him. We don’t have to bore the reader who will give up trying to decipher what is said if we write in dialect.

Anyway guv, I’m gonna’ get back ta fire. Ma plates a-meat are killin’ me naw. The bloody snows got inta me trainers. I’ll call yer tommora’ when I check out that kraut address.

Terrible, isn’t it? To portray the character, we just need to insert a couple of traits and the odd mild swear word that is part of working class vocabulary. In writing each character, think about their dialect and just hint or use repetitious words like ‘guv’ .

Dialogue is also used to understand a character’s feelings, like embarrassment, when they are not involved directly as two other people are having a conversation. Although the dialogue is moving the story along, it also serves to add another dimension to the main character’s make-up.

The main character has just set eyes on a gay man wearing lipstick at a posh art reception in London.

Jessica turned and smiled as the man blew a kiss past both her cheeks. “Darling, this is Cecil Douglas-Horner, a wonderful friend and colleague. He’s art correspondent for the Mirror.”

I held a hand out smartly. “Nice to meet you, too, Cecil.”

We shook and Cecil looked into my eyes with a mischievous grin. “So nice to meet you, Enda. I’ve always been a fan of sharp wit and good political insight. I was so annoyed when you got married.” He looked at Jessica and pursed his lips. “You won him fair and square, dear. I don’t hold it against you.”

A little giggle escaped Jessica’s lips. She put a hand to her mouth and, grinning, looked sideways at me, her eyes willing me not to say a word.

A little comic and witty but see the embarrassment for Jessica’s husband and how Jessica is more used to this environment. This kind of short dialogue interlude as the story unfolds gives the book more depth and everyday realism. Again the reader is seeing and sensing something that is invisible within the dialogue.

Only you can make this happen. This is why it is important to set the scene within which your characters are playing. As you animate them, look around them and picture everything before giving them a voice. The scene and characters must become one.

If you would like more advice on this, or any other aspect of creative writing, why not join us and book to write a chapter for one of the many serials we are running at any one time. We are here to advise and make your writing experience an enjoyable one among our community of talented writers.

Ray Stone

Publishing Manager


Thank you, Vatsal. Since joining the Story Mint my work has improved 100% creatively and professionally. I use the style guide often and in so doing have increased my word-power. This is something that happens naturally as you succeed in having your work compared to famous authors. I think all of us should read and write a little every day to improve our craft and move forward to getting published. I am about to publish my third novel since joining the Story Mint and Suraya is about to be published too. Now it's you and your fellow students turn. If you found the article interesting and helpful then the Story Mint is doing its job.