If you’ve ever transcribed a conversation between two people, you know the resulting text is a bunch of incomprehensible, run-on sentences and fragments. If you don’t believe me, just ask our blogifier. Shauna Letellier has to turn these episodes into actual blog posts. Natural conversation does not translate well onto the written page.

When we write novels, we must realize that good, written dialogue does not actually imitate how real people talk. But we also don’t want our written dialogue to sound contrived and awkward. 

How do you write good dialogue that will propel your story forward? How do you write it in a way that sounds natural, even though natural dialogue is boring to read because of the way real people talk in real life?

Bad dialogue can kill your story and bring it to a screeching halt. Well-written dialogue carries many books and all screenplays. If you want your book to be screenplay-friendly and easier to adapt into a film, you must write good dialogue. 

How do you write dialogue that will keep your readers turning pages? 

I asked Angel Hunt. She’s a friend of the show and a Christie Award winning novelist who has sold over 5 million copies. 

Thomas: What is the role of dialogue in a story? Why do we have to include dialogue? Why can’t we just show and tell what’s going on?

Angela: Dialogue is important because it can do so many things. It can impart information, reveal character, and imply what is never said. If someone speaks obliquely, the reader has the challenge of reading between the lines and picking up the subtext. 

Our characters can say one thing but mean the opposite of what they’re saying. The bottom line is that dialogue is not exact speech; it’s an approximation of exact speech. 

On paper, your characters should interrupt each other, occasionally stutter, and use bad grammar. However, you don’t want as much of that in writing as is present in real life, or it would be incomprehensible gibberish.

Thomas: I remember the first time I experienced good dialogue as a reader. I was reading the scene in Huckleberry Finn where some con artists claim to be European nobility. Everything they said was a lie, and Huck Finn had no idea he was being bamboozled. It made me feel good that I was decoding a story, and I felt so enlightened. It was fun for me as a young reader to be able to read between the lines. 

How do you balance writing dialogue that is real but also readable?

Thomas: How do you know when to include stutters and “ums” and when to remove them?

Angela: Stutters or “ums” must serve a purpose. They will appear in any conversation, but I would not include them in written dialogue unless I wanted to show that a character was hesitant or nervous about approaching a subject. If you include stuttering or awkwardness, it should reveal character or show something about the character’s hesitation.

In our conversation today, if we wanted to portray ourselves as suave professionals, I would remove all the “ums” and extra words so we would have a very smooth and polished conversation.

Thomas: We try to create that for the Christian Publishing Show. I’ll edit out many of the “ums,” “uhs,” and stutters from the audio version. I often have to make a judgment call on whether those words convey meaning or not.

For example, does the “um” convey that the person is about to give a considered answer, or is it just a distracting verbal tick?

I imagine it’s like the judgment call you make as an author, adding those things to the dialogue. I imagine it’s a useful tool in a mystery if the author wants to hint to the reader about whether a character is lying or not.

How do you write dialogue that’s fun to read?

Thomas: How do you write dialogue that’s engaging or mysterious?

Angela: Dialogue is all about characterization. As a writer, I’d like to improve my dialogue writing. Sometimes, I’ll read my book and realize that all my characters sound like me. I have to stop and think about who the character is.

Sometimes, it helps me to make a list of words that my main characters can only use. 

For example, suppose your character Bob has a degree in chemistry, and his best friend Matt is a farmer. I would have Matt use phrases like, “Well, that’s just a pile of manure,” because he uses farm terms. Bob might say something like, “These facts are not coalescing in my mind,” because he uses chemistry terms. 

Bob would probably use more three-syllable words than Matt, but Matt would have more of an earthy common sense. It’s all about characterization, so I would create a list of words that this character and only this character uses throughout the book.

You shouldn’t overuse the word. Maybe Bob says “coalesce” only six times throughout the whole book, but that will register with the reader because it’s an unusual word. If Bob uses that term any time he’s trying to say “merge,” “blend,” or “gel,” then it will mark his dialogue.

Thomas: The word you associate with Sherlock Holmes is “Elementary!” It’s a simple word, but it’s iconic for that character. Using a specific word also makes the writing easier because it reduces the number of decisions you have to make about which words to use.

Dialogue is key to crafting cool characters. It can also help you as a Christian author, especially if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction and want to avoid expletives.

Mormon authors discovered the powerful technique of world-building through made-up expletives. If you want to avoid offensive words in English but still want your characters to cuss to reveal character, you can make up cuss words that aren’t offensive to your readers but are offensive to your characters. 

The gods that someone swears by and the curses they use tell you a lot about that character’s value system and what they fear. 

The technique has spread throughout the fantasy and science fiction genres, so much so that modern English swear words are now seen as lazy writing. 

Angela: I just finished a book set in ancient Rome, and I often have characters saying, “By all the gods!” The Egyptian characters swear by Seth, which doesn’t offend the modern reader. 

I recently read a book set in Medieval times, and they kept saying, “Zounds!” It was derived from the phrase “Christ’s wounds,” and people used it as a curse word. If we had known they were swearing by Christ’s wounds, we would be offended, but we don’t know, so we’re not.

How do you avoid dumping information into dialogue?

Thomas: Authors are often tempted to dump a lot of exposition into the dialogue by saying something like, “As you know, Angie, this is a really common mistake that a lot of authors make.”

Angela: Yes, “As you know, Bob, we are on an island, and the ferry picks us up only twice a day at 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.” Of course, Bob knows that. The writer’s information dump comes off as heavy-handed. 

Whenever I see that in a book or manuscript, I write in the margin, “As you know, Bob.”

There’s a Muppet movie where actress Diana Rigg is standing by the fireplace with a cigarette in her hand, talking to Kermit and saying, “I’m trying to act sophisticated, and nobody can see me, so I’m wasting my acting here.”

She’s telling Kermit about all that’s happened, and he says, “Why are you telling me this?”

She says, “Because it’s exposition, darling. It has to go somewhere.” 

It’s the best line.

Thomas: That’s a screenwriter joke. 

You can convey information through dialogue, but the key is to make it natural. One easy way to do that is to add a character who doesn’t know what’s going on. It might be a newcomer to town or the police chief who just showed up. 

That’s a more natural way to convey information because the chief would expect a report. You can use other techniques as well. Maybe he uses his own catchphrases, or perhaps you reveal character by keeping him from mentioning that the dame that got out was actually his girlfriend. 

You can convey exposition while developing that character with tightly written dialogue.

Angela: My husband and I watch a lot of British murder mysteries. It’s always very informative to see what one character tells another and what they leave out.

What is said is telling, and what is not said is often even more telling. 

AngelA Hunt

What are some other mistakes authors make when writing dialogue?

Using Dialect

Angela: Writing in dialect is tricky. I don’t see this so much anymore. Margaret Mitchell wrote very heavy-handedly when she wrote the words of the slaves in Gone with the Wind. You almost had to slow down and sound out every word, and we just don’t do that anymore. We choose to indicate that someone is speaking with a different accent by word choice instead of dialogue.

Thomas: Accents are tricky, particularly if you’re using a racial accent. It’s hard to know when to use it and how to write it without being offensive. But it is a powerful tool, particularly in a fantasy or sci-fi world. 

Just as individual characters may use certain catchphrases, a group of people from another planet can have a unique way of talking.

For example, in Expanse, all the Belters use a certain kind of slang that gives them a cohesiveness and makes the dialogue more interesting to listen to. A Belter and a character from Earth are both speaking English, but you can hear the differences, and those obvious differences make the conversation interesting because the theme of the book is about class differences.

Angela: You see the same technique in The Walking Dead. Every group had a different word for the zombies, but you could tell instantly what group a character belonged to by what they called the zombies.


Angela: Many writers think ping-ponging is necessary to help the reader follow the conversation, but it comes across as stilted. 

Ping-ponging is when Character B has to respond to Character A before Character A can continue. 

Tom carried the bag of groceries into the kitchen, where Brenda waited. 

“Did you get the ketchup?” she asked without looking up. 

“Yes, I did. It’s Heinz because I know you like it.” 

“I like any kind, as long as it’s on sale.” 

“Well, this one wasn’t.”

“On sale?” 

“Right. But the mustard was 20 percent off. And by the way, I saw Melissa standing over in produce.” 


Thomas: That’s exactly how AI would structure a conversation.

Angela: Yes, and it’s not human. Mix it up and leave off some of those automatic responses. 

Consider this version:

Tom carried the groceries into the kitchen, where Brenda waited.

“Ketchup?” she asked without looking up. 

“Heinz, because I know you won’t eat anything else.” 

“I like any kind as long as it’s on sale.”

“I saw Melissa standing over in produce.” 

“Was it?” She turned. “Was the ketchup on sale?” 

“Did you hear me? I saw Melissa.” He bent closer to look into her eyes. “She asked if I’d seen Toby.” 

Brenda blinked. “You must think I’m some kind of tightwad.”

The dialogue reveals that Brenda is focusing on the ketchup and how much it costs, mainly because she doesn’t want to talk about Melissa.

When people talk, they skirt around issues and respond two seconds too late. That’s a more natural and interesting conversation precisely because it’s off balance.

A perfectly balanced conversation is too boring.

Thomas: We often hear that “The eyes are the window to the soul.” If you’re with someone in person, that’s definitely true, but you can’t stare into your character’s eyes to discern what they’re thinking. However, well-written dialogue gives you a glimpse into their thoughts.

That ping-pong exchange made it sound like both characters were fully thinking about this very mundane conversation. Nobody ever thinks about only one thing. Our minds are all over the place. The second version of the conversation gave me a sense that one person cares about Melissa, and the other is trying to avoid talking about her. It’s the unspoken subtext. 

Do you ever write down their thoughts or motives and goals in the conversation just for your own use?

Angela: I don’t have to write it out because I know. Every scene should have tension. One person always has a goal, and the other often has a conflicting goal. 

How do you add tension to a dialogue between friends?

Thomas: You might have a conversation between two friends who like each other, but the conversation still needs tension. How would you add tension to a conversation between two friends?

Angela: Let’s say your scene has two friends sitting down for coffee. You can’t have two pages of “How’s the weather?” 

When you write dialogue, you’re in one person’s head. So, one way to add tension is to write around one character’s thoughts. 

For example:

Sally looked at Susan. She was wearing the necklace. The one Bob gave her. Why did my husband give her that necklace? Sally said, “I like your jewelry.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Susan.

Susan would try to brush it off. To create tension, you’d write around the one character’s tense and troubling thoughts. They’d bat these comments back and forth without a direct confrontation. Subtle hints can add tension. 

I heard about an exchange between two rival stage actors. The first actor told the second, “I can upstage you anytime I want to.”

The second one said, “Oh yeah? Prove it.”

They had a scene where the first actor was supposed to walk off stage, but before he did, he took a sip from a glass of water that was on the set, and he put it on the edge of the table, with almost half the glass hanging off the edge. Then he left the stage. 

The second actor had his big monologue, but the audience wasn’t listening because they were paying attention to the water glass.

You can do something similar by writing something into the scene that worries the audience without explicitly mentioning it. 

Thomas: One key to creating tension is to give your characters different goals, even if they’re not opposing goals. 

In your earlier example, one character was trying to give an account of the money spent at the grocery store, and the other wanted to talk about Melissa. Those aren’t opposing goals, but they aren’t the same either, so there is conflict. 

Some information is being given, but some is being acquired. Who will achieve their goal? Who will fail to achieve their goal? What will the ramifications be? 

You will use those ingredients to make a tension sandwich and ratchet up (or down) the tension. But you don’t want every conversation to be that intense.

Angela: You also don’t want characters to spell out everything they think and feel. In my book Writing Dialogue: How to Put Words in Your Characters’ Mouths, I talk about a scene from the show Alias with Jennifer Garner. 

I loved the writing on that show because Sidney (Garner’s character) is a double agent who is falling in love with the CIA guy who’s her handler. But they never say they’re falling in love.  

For example, he shows her his watch and says, “My father gave me this watch. You could set your heart by it,” which is an interesting and unusual thing to say. Then he looks at her and says, “It broke the day I met you.”

He’s implying that he’s falling in love, but the L-word never escapes his lips. I can predict the dialog in many TV shows because the writing is so predictable, but I could never do that with Alias.

What happens when you have too many people in a conversation?

Thomas: What happens when you add a bunch of people to the conversation?

Angela: It’s too unwieldy.

I wrote a book about a group of people who went to explore the rainforest canopy. The day before they climbed to the top of the canopy, they had dinner around a table. The characters were from all over the world. I had Russians, Swedes, and Americans. I tried to create a scene where they were all having a conversation, but it just got to be too much. 

I recorded the audiobook with Bill Meyers, and we tried to use different voices with different accents. It was awful. 

When you’re seated at a banquet, you typically only talk to the people seated on your right and left. You don’t scream across the table.

When I write conversations, I limit them to three people at most. If you include more, it gets too convoluted. You may need to send one character away so you can have decent dialogue.

Thomas: Tolkien did this very tellingly in the first Lord of the Rings book. 

Towards the end of the first book, the hobbits finally catch up with Aragorn and get to Rivendell, where they learn what’s going on.

This is the big exposition chapter Tolkien called “Many Meetings,” which does much of the story’s world-building. It’s also where the characters make key decisions that affect the rest of the books in the series. 

There’s a meeting between Gandalf, Aragorn, and Elrond. There’s a conversation between Gandalf, Frodo, and Bilbo about this mithril coat. All these meetings include different people, but only those who need to be in the conversation are in the scene, which keeps it simpler.

It’s not the most action-packed chapter in Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien earned the right to do that because he just got off a thrilling chase scene. The “Many Meetings” chapter gives everyone a chance to reset before the adventures they’ll have once the Fellowship is formed.

Tolkien strategically placed the people in the room who needed to be there, not everyone at once. 

You can play with many fun elements, but I like the idea of being careful not to overload the conversation. 

Another downside of having too many people in a conversation is that you have to rely on dialogue tags. If only two people are talking, the structure reveals who’s speaking. Adding a third person adds a lot of dialogue tags, and it gets more unwieldy.

It can be done well. Dune has a very famous banquet scene, which is a masterclass on how to do it well, but most people can’t pull that off, especially from an omniscient view. You can’t be in the heads of 12 people around a table. It was an unfilmable scene, and you’ll notice it’s not in the movie.

How does dialogue change between genres? 

Thomas: Are there some rules that are specific to one genre over another?

Angela: The elements of the genre probably come into play. For instance, science fiction and fantasy probably use many more references to world-building because the writer has to explain a lot by referring to certain things.

In romances, characters have to explain their feelings. In women’s fiction, it’s more personal, like that scene I read in the kitchen between the husband and his wife. 

Every genre seems to have certain words or key phrases that are used frequently. But good dialogue is good dialogue, no matter the genre.

Thomas: In historical dialogue, you have to avoid anachronistic language and turns of phrase. As a student of history, I often notice anachronisms in movies, and I irritate my wife by pointing them out. 

How do we use historically accurate language in dialogue?

Thomas: We know we shouldn’t use anachronisms, but looking up the etymology of every word we want to use is very burdensome. So, how do we use historically accurate language?

Angela: It’s hard. I just finished a book on ancient Rome, but I did not write it in Latin. So, in a sense, every word I used is modern because modern English was not invented in 64 AD. You just have to be careful. You have to reach your modern reader with the words you have to communicate, but at the same time, you want the dialogue to sound ancient. 

I wrote a couple of historical books set in biblical times, and one of the comments I got from a trusted friend was that their dialogue sounded so modern. I used the old trick of eliminating contractions to keep it from sounding modern. Writing without using contractions makes language sound stilted. 

In the past, I used that technique only when I had a character whose first language was not English. Now, I’ve started using it in all my ancient fiction because it does not sound modern or natural. It sounds stilted and ancient.

I also threw in some references to “the gods.” 

I’m big on jotting down phrases. For instance, I would read some translated ancient Roman literature and jot down phrases for my characters to use in conversation. 

When I was writing a book set in Ireland, I visited Ireland and carried a notebook so I could jot down phrases I heard people using, like, “He was always a dear wee chap.” 

I’d use those colloquial phrases in the dialogue of my Irish characters. It gives your characters the flavor of that time or place without using phonetic spellings and other funky things.

Thomas: The contraction trick is used in Adventures in Odyssey to make Eugene Meltzner seem more intelligent without overly elevating his language. It’s used in Star Trek to make Data sound a bit less human. He eventually uses a contraction, and it’s a major plot point.

Tarzan only uses one conjugation for verbs. He communicates in the present tense, which reveals that he’s a bit of a barbarian. His poor usage of English helps communicate that.

You can dial up the sophistication or the simplicity of the vocabulary or the usage of English to reveal character.

What is the FAS rule in dialogue?

Thomas: In your book, you talk about the FAS rule for good dialogue. What is it?

Angela: FAS stands for Feeling, Action, and Speech. Whenever you have those three elements, they need to be in that order. 

Suppose I have a character who’s angry, and he’s going to do an action and say something. You need to write the scene with those elements in that order.

For instance, you wouldn’t write a scene with speech then feeling and then action:

“Get out of here! Anger rose in his chest, and he slammed the desk.” 

Doesn’t that just feel wrong? To make it sound right, you need to switch the order: 

“Anger rose in his chest, and he slammed the desk. “Get out of here!”

Actually, the desk slamming implies anger, so I would cut “anger rose in his chest.”

He slammed the desk. “Get out of here!”

It flows better in that order. 

I learned something fascinating this week in an article that says there is a prescribed order for adjectives if you have a whole list of them. Since we are native English speakers, we tend to do it correctly, but it really trips up non-native English speakers.

Thomas: I suspect your FAS rule is biologically grounded. As someone who is raising small children, I know their development generally follows the order of feelings, actions, and speech. For example, a newborn has feelings but cannot act on them, so they cry for everything without being able to do anything about it. Once they reach the toddler stage at around 12 to 14 months old, they start walking and acting but don’t yet have language skills.

There’s a growing trend among parents to teach sign language to children. This allows them to communicate basic needs through signs before they can speak. A 13-month-old might hit an older sibling for taking their toy because they are still a year away from saying, “Don’t take my toy.” As they grow older, they learn to verbalize this message.

The progression from feelings to action to speech is fundamental to our biology, and each stage develops naturally. If you need to remember this order, just think about a child’s development. Every trigger or impulse usually follows this pattern, and any deviation is noticeable.

Tell us about your book on writing dialog.

Angela: Like all the books in my Writing Lessons from the Front Series, this one is brief and to the point. We’ve discussed a few tips, but there are more in Writing Dialogue: How to Put Words in Your Characters’ Mouths.

Thomas: I highly recommend Angela Hunt’s books. They are short, focused, and easy to implement. Start working your way through her series. Once you feel comfortable with dialogue, get the next book. Over time, your writing will get much stronger. 

Related Episodes

Beyond First Drafts: How to Master the Art of Revision With Angela Hunt

How to Write Books Boys Will Love With Tim Shoemaker

How to Create Compelling Secondary Characters for Your Novel with Angela Hunt

Writing Conflict: How to Keep Your Protagonist on Their Toes