How For Talk Pretty – Three Essential Dialog Tips

“How the heck do I write really, really, really good dialog?” she queried quizzically.

“You don’t know?” quoth he.

“Nay,” she stated sadly, “and it’s really bumming me out.”

Dialog writing holds pitfalls aplenty.  There are so many ways we can stumble (witness the example above), it’s a wonder we ever get it right.  But the effort is worth it.  Well-written dialog sings from the page, bringing characters to vivid, three-dimensional life.

So what’s the trick to crafting killer dialog? Do some people have an ear for it while others don’t?

It does help to have a good ear, but anyone can improve their dialog skills. This month and next, we’ll plunge into the mysteries of writing about talking.  Here are three tips to get you started:

1. KASS (Keep Attributions Simple, Stupid)

Really, 85 percent of the time, all you need is the basic “he said,” “she said.”  I know it sounds boring.  I know it’s more fun to crack open the thesaurus and load up on “exclaimed,” “asserted,” and “denounced.”

But this doesn’t help clarity, it just gets in the way.

Attributions should be like water — clear, simple, and bland.  They should set off the dialog, not distract from it.  Yes, “he said’s” may seem dull at first, but there are other ways to create variety without dipping into the thesaurus.  We’ll explore those next time.  For now, just remember this: simple is good.

2. Different characters talk differently

Seems obvious, right?  Not necessarily.  I can’t count how many manuscripts I’ve read where every character sounds exactly like the author.

Remember, each character has a different background, family, attitude and origins.  Tailor their dialog to reflect that.  Make one character verbose and Southern, and make another one tight-lipped.  Give them exclamations (“Jiminy Christmas!” vs. “No frickin’ way!”) appropriate to their background.

And if you’re consistent, readers will picture your characters big as life — plus, they’ll never have to wonder who’s speaking.

3. Brief is better

Whoever said “brevity is the soul of wit” was on the right track.  But they should’ve just left it at “brevity.”

Next time you’re at a party or a mall or a workplace, listen to the way people REALLY talk.  They speak. In fragments.  They start a thought and get — that reminds me, have you seen my glasses? — sidetracked. They trail off halfway through a…

It’s not our job to record dialog like a journalist, with each “um” and “uh” and rambling thought intact.  It’s our job to craft an artful representation of how people talk.  That means trimming all unnecessary words to keep dialog lean and to-the-point.

If you want clues on how it’s done, read a movie script.  See how compact and info-packed dialog can be.  See how much can be said with a single word.

And one last tip: Leave the “quoth he’s” for 18th century poets.

Bruce Hale is the author-illustrator of over 25 books for young readers, including the Edgar-nominated Chet Gecko Mysteries and Snoring Beauty, one of Oprah’s Recommended Reads for Kids.  He is a popular speaker and storyteller, having presented at conferences, schools and libraries across North America.  Subscribe to his free e-newsletter of writing tips at:  Or check out Bruce’s books at