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Why is it Hard to Write Dialogue?

Updated: Apr 13

I was surprised when I learned that many authors are afraid of writing dialogue.

“Dialogue is easy to write!" I said to myself. "What's the big deal?”

I thought I was special.

After receiving many criticisms of my dialogue over the years, I learned I wasn't so special.

Why is dialogue so hard to write?

Ask yourself the following question: Would you be a little nervous if someone handed your dearest fictional works to an expert to review? Yet, this is exactly what happens when ordinary people read your dialogue because human beings can analyze dialogue better than ordinary writing.

Speech and our brain

Speaking and hearing human speech is physiologically more natural than reading and writing. Barring medical challenges, virtually all children worldwide learn to speak without formal schooling.

This is not the case with reading and writing. While some parts of our brains are dedicated to speaking and understanding human speech, none are dedicated to reading and writing. By the late 1600s, two hundred years after the invention of the printing press, only 30% of the world population could read, while nearly all of the population could speak and had been able to for a very long time.

When compared to reading and writing,

your readers are experts on speaking and understanding speech,

or, in other words, dialogue.

Canary in the coal mine

Your readers can detect flaws in your dialogue to a greater degree than in the remainder of your prose. This makes your dialogue the canary in the coal mine. It provides you advance warning of danger. Your dialogue is a litmus test of the quality of the remainder of your writing.

Once you’re comfortable writing dialogue (and your readers agree), you’re on the way to becoming a good writer.

Dialogue is faked, too

But wait, there's more. Not only is our dialogue held to a higher standard by our readers than the remainder of our work, it must be faked, too.

"What?" you ask.

By faked, dialogue in fiction,

  • Is shorter and crisper than in real life.

  • Is ideal speech: characters speak in the best way possible given their character limitations.

  • Must forward plot, define character, and set mood, tone, setting, and atmosphere.

Your dialogue must feel real, but not actually be real

Just as fictional adversity often resolves faster than in real life, fictional dialogue moves more quickly than in real life. Fictional dialogue is an illusion, just like the rest of your prose.

Good dialogue in fiction isn't how people talk.

It's how people want to talk.

Real dialogue is not interesting to read. People blather and hang onto unnecessary words like “um,” “uh,” and “well.” It bugs me when I hear professionals on the radio or TV use these words. They ought to know better.

Think of good dialogue as you would good action. The same rules of writing apply to both:


The following example demonstrates excellent dialogue between two characters from Blade Runner 2049. Officer K (male) speaks briefly with Luv (female, robot). Luv looks, acts, speaks, and even feels like a human being. They had just listened to part of a conversation recorded thirty years prior between Detective Deckard and Rachael. In the recording, Rachael had asked Deckard a series of questions.

What follows is the following brief conversation between Officer K and Luv:

Officer K: She likes him.

Luv: Who?

Officer K: This officer Deckard. She's trying to provoke him.

Luv: It is invigorating being asked personal questions. It makes one feel...desired." Luv pauses, looks at Officer K, and asks, "Do you enjoy your work, officer?"

Officer K: (Breathes deeply) "Please thank Mr. Wallace for your time."

What's being communicated in this conversation is not found in spoken words. Readers love this! In real dialogue, especially in fiction, two or more messages are communicated simultaneously. When you master this technique, you will be on your way to becoming a great writer.

Medium (TV Series)

Another excellent example of dialogue comes from the TV series Medium. The mother and father of Arial are having a tense conversation over the phone because their daughter had just been involved in a minor traffic accident while the mother was at work and the father was away in San Diego.

"Where were you?" the father says with a raised voice.

The question conveys a veiled accusation, suggesting that if the mother had been at home, the problem wouldn't have occurred. What is her response?

"I was closer than you."

Later in the conversation, the father tells his wife, "You're not telling me what I want to hear."

His wife's response?

"Why don't you turn on the radio."

Don't we wish we could all argue like that? Good fictional dialogue is what we wish we could say when our lives get tense.

Dialogue tips

Here are ways to make your dialogue better:

  • Avoid dialogue lacking context. Having your character say, "I am sad," without your reader first knowing why--by body language, setting, theme, events, and a host of other factors--is "telling" instead of "showing."

  • Initiate dialogue as late as possible in an unfolding scene so the reader can understand what's happening and feel empathy for the character before he or she speaks. This makes dialogue more emotionally meaningful.

  • Don't make the dialogue carry too much of the story.

  • Dialogue must match the character's desires and not the author's, and those desires must be established before the dialogue occurs.

  • Characters change how they talk depending on who they talk to. Including such fine-tuning will make your characters richer and more three-dimensional.

  • Have someone read to you aloud the dialogue in your story. If it's not good, you'll be embarrassed to hear it. Better fix it now than later.

  • See this excellent video on good vs. bad dialogue.

Dialogue foibles

Here are common ways authors abuse dialogue:

  • Too few dialogue tags (he said, she said). I see this all the time when I review other writers' works. After five or six dialogue exchanges, I don't know who's speaking.

  • Dialogue that does not forward character, theme, mood, setting, or plot.

  • Too much hip, snappy, funny talk. Readers won't like a story because the main character says, "Cool, dude!"

  • Characters who talk too much in fiction are just as annoying as people who talk too much in real life.

  • Too much exposition in dialogue when it feels like the characters are talking to the reader.

Good examples of dialogue

There is an infinite variety of dialogue styles and techniques authors can use. Rather than provide examples, I refer you to an excellent post on that answers, “How do we objectively assess if a dialogue sounds unnatural or cringy?"

If you want to watch an excellent video that explains everything I have discussed and much more, then watch this.

What to do about this?

Hunker down and work harder! Don't get discouraged. You’ll reach your goals eventually. Someday, you'll be like Stephen King and write a top-seller novel (Dolores Claiborne) consisting of 100% dialogue.

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