How To Write Engaging Dialogue

by Dax MacGregor
I've spent years honing my dialogue writing skills. Here are some of the steps I use to make my dialogue natural and engaging.

The first step in writing dialogue that engages readers is to make it sound natural. We’ve got a separate article with tips for developing the skills required to write dialogue that sounds right: Tips for Learning to Write Natural Dialogue.

Once you have developed the ability to write natural-sounding dialogue, then it is time to take your dialogue to the next level. Just because it sounds like everyday conversation, doesn’t mean it’s good. Here are tips for writing dialogue that captures readers’ imaginations and keeps them turning pages.

1. Remove Names from Your Dialogue

A common mistake that inexperienced writers make is to include names repetitively in the dialogue. Here’s an example:

“Mary, let me buy you lunch.”

“I can pay for my own lunch, Sam.”

“Okay, Mary. Where would you like to eat?”

“I don’t know, Sam. How about McDonalds?”

First off, that doesn’t sound natural. Instead, it sounds a bit creepy. So delete the names and change it around a bit, like this:

Sam said to Mary, “Let me buy you lunch.”

“I can pay for my own lunch.”

“Okay. Where would you like to eat?”

“I don’t know. How about McDonalds?”

2. Get Rid of the Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags slow the reader. So remove as many as possible. For example:

George asked. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Mary inquired.

“It sounded like a baby crying,” he exclaimed.

She replied, “I don’t hear anything.”

By stripping tags, it moves faster.

George asked, “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Mary whispered.

“It sounded like a baby crying,”

“I don’t hear anything.”

The first two paragraphs need tags to identify the speakers. I generally stick to simple tags like said or asked. In this case, I used whispered. It adds value because it helps describe the tone of her voice and helps set the mood of the scene.

Keep the tags simple and to a minimum, and your dialogue will flow.

3. Use Action Beats (and Emotion Beats) to Bring Dialogue to Life

Action beats and emotion beats are phrases or sentences placed before, in the middle of, or after dialogue. Use them to add action, create conflict and inject suspense. Action beats depict the speaker’s motions or facial expressions. Emotion beats describe what the speaker is feeling, smelling, tasting, or thinking.

Let’s add some action beats and emotion beats to the dialogue above.

George stopped. He tilted his head and listened, then leaned close to Mary and whispered. “Did you hear that?”

Her eyes darted to every alcove and alleyway along the darkened street. Her tiny voice trembled. “Hear what?”

“It sounded like a baby crying,”

Shudders coursed down her spine and weakened her knees. She clutched George. With her lips touching his ear, she breathed, “I don’t hear anything.”

With the help of the action beats, we add a lot.

  • We set the scene
  • We create suspense
  • We learn a little about George’s character and a lot about Mary’s

When I’m writing a scene like this, I find this technique useful: Write the dialogue first. Once the scene is complete, go back and add the gestures.

4. Add Dialect When Required

If you have characters that speak using a distinctive dialect, you’ll want to include that in your dialogue.

In Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, J. K. Rowling uses dialect to paint Fleur Delacour’s personality.

Zis is nothing,’ she said dismissively, looking around at the sparkling walls of the Great Hall. “At ze Palace of Beauxbatons, we ‘ave ice scultpures all around ze dining chamber at Chreestmas.

Capturing dialect properly takes practice. When it’s not perfect, we know immediately and it bothers us. So be sure to read your dialogue containing dialect aloud and listen.

One other warning: dialect is easy to overdo. It’s extra work for readers and they grow weary quickly. So keep the dialect away from your main characters.

5. Good Dialogue Has Rhythm

Somewhere, one of my sources (I hate that I can’t properly attribute it) claims that good dialogue has a rhythm, a cadence.

When you are reading your dialogue out loud, and it doesn’t sound quite right, try adjusting the order or swapping out words to improve the flow.

Consider the last paragraph of our earlier dialog.

Shudders coursed down her spine and weakened her knees. She clutched George. With her lips touching his ear, she breathed, “I don’t hear anything.”

It might sound better if we made a few adjustments.

Her knees buckled. Shudders coursed down her spine. She clung to George’s arm. With her lips pressed against his ear, she breathed, “I don’t hear anything.”

Breaking the paragraph into shorter sentences and using a few more powerful words (buckled, clung, pressed against), creates a more urgent cadence.

6. Engaging Dialogue Builds Character or Moves the Story Forward

In his book, Conflict, Action & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing), William Noble says, “Dialogue is a special kind of conversation; it’s a conversation with drama!”  Mr. Noble instructs that there are only two reasons for writers to include dialogue.

  1. It must contribute to telling the story. In other words, it needs to move the story forward.
  2. Use it to develop characters.

In other words, if your dialogue doesn’t advance the story or develop your characters, remove it. Good dialogue achieves both.


If, like I once did, you’ve got a tin ear for dialogue, incorporating these concepts and techniques should help you tune your ear. Mastering dialogue requires a lot of practice.

Other helpful articles on this topic:

Stephen Parolini has an excellent article on his Novel Doctor blog titled How to Write Good Dialogue

Emlyn Chand has an article on her Novel Publicity titled Help, How Can I Write Authentic Dialog.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the books mentioned in this article, please click on the links below.

(Full disclosure: If you do so, I earn a commission. Thank you.)


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