How Do You Write Good Dialogue?

boy listening to tin can telephoneThe Secret to Dialogue is Good Listening

Interesting, believable dialogue has been mentioned several times in reviews of my stories. I’m delighted and actually quite proud of that. However, when someone asks me how to do it, there’s only one thing I can say …

That’s not a joke. If you seriously want to learn the secret to good dialogue, listen to the way people talk … really listen. I do it so much it’s second nature. If you haven’t conciously done it before, take the time to listen to the conversations you hear around you.

Listen to people talking to each other in the check-out line at the grocery store. Eavesdrop on the conversations at other tables in restaurants. Listen to friends talking at social gatherings. Jot down words and phrases.

When you do, the first thing you’ll discover is that no one speaks the way your grade school teacher told you they’re supposed to when she was teaching you grammar (sorry, Mrs. Bliss).

When you listen, it shouldn’t take long to notice the poor grammar, misplaced modifiers, mispronounciatons, sarcasm (both intended and unintended) and allusions that people include in their routine conversations with one another.

You’ll discover believable dialogue is no big secret … it’s just not necessarily proper English.

People get the “poor grammar” and sarcasm part. We all speak in a way that’s less than perfect. It’s when I talk about allusions that most people ask questions. They want to know more about what an allusion is, and how to use it.

It really isn’t hard to describe.

Allusions in Dialogue
An allusion is a reference within your work to another work: a book, a film, a piece of artwork, a known quotation or even a real event. They’re often used to summarize complex ideas in one quick, powerful image, getting your point across without lengthy paragraphs of description.

Think of it as a kind of shorthand that provides greater meaning to what you’re writing about, by relating it to an already familiar story. I often think of allusion as a kind of modern day hypertext, linking the reader to another thought.

There are poems, like T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which rely heavily on allusions and practically sample the works of others, the way local bands go through other artists’ songs at a wedding. It’s quite a challenging read (and definitely not one of my favorites).

However, good allusions are contingent on the reader knowing about the story or event being referenced. While they can be an economical way of communicating, you risk alienating anyone who doesn’t recognize the reference … or, as T.S. Eliot did with me … making it so hard to decipher you finally say the hell with it.

As a writer, the absolute last thing you want is for the reader to leave the story.

Allusions in Titles
However, allusions don’t have to be difficult. They can also be quite subtle. For instance, Shakespeare’s influence on English literature is so strong that we often make allusions to his plays without being aware of it.

For instance, these five books give a nod to the bard simply by using his words in their titles.

    “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley;
    “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury;
    “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner;
    “The Gods Themselves” by Isaac Asimov, and
    “The Winter of Our Discontent” by John Steinbeck

Common Dialogue Examples
Good allusions are also found in dialogue. How many times in simple dialogue have you heard something referred to as a “Pandora’s Box?” It’s an allusion to Greek mythology.

The box was actually a large jar given to Pandora which contained all the evils of the world. She was admonished not to open it, but curiosity got the best of her, and all the evil was released when she lifted the lid.

Today the phrase “to open Pandora’s box” is an allusion that means to perform an action that may seem small or innocent, but turns out to have severe and far-reaching consequences.

“I was surprised his nose wasn’t growing like Pinocchio’s.” This is obviously an allusion to “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” written by Carlo Collodi, where the character’s nose grew whenever he told a lie. Even schoolchildren know the story.

“She acted like a Scrooge and refused to buy anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary, and even some things that were.” Scrooge, as most of you know, was an extremely stingy character from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Both allusions help cement the writer’s character in our minds without lengthy exposition. We know quite a bit about the writer’s intent for them from one sentence. Both sentences, you will note, are also comments any character might make in simple dialogue.

Thus, allusion doesn’t have to be something that makes reading difficult. It can be found in some of the simplest sentences.

Allusions Are Everywhere
However, the use of allusions is not confined to literature alone. We often refer to common people and places in our speech that are quite apart from scholarly things.

If you pay attention to the conversations going on around you, the occurrence of allusion is fairly common in our daily speech. “Stop acting like my ex-husband please.” That was an actual remark I overheard at a recent social event.

While the reason behind the statement is unknown, the implication of rudeness and distaste in that single sentence tells us a lot about what one character is really saying to another.

Allusion. A useful tool in a writer’s toolbox.

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8 Responses to “How Do You Write Good Dialogue?”

  1. John Parry Says:

    Good points about allusion Ron – it may seem the most natural thing in the world, but it can be infuriating – you shouldn’t assume that your readership all understand references to supermarket brands for example. Even colloquial usages aren’t universally known – I’m expected to know what a ‘five and dime’ is. As it happens, I do, but it’s a mild irritant that you’ve assumed that I would.

    I had real problems with ‘drugstores’ at first. Why on earth would they sell soft drinks at a chemist’s shop? (see what I mean?)

    If you happen to be a historian though, allusion can be a goldmine, because people tend to use it when talking about the way people live. If you can dig out what they’re alluding to (often couched in archaic expressions) it gives you a whole load of new references…


    • Ron Herron Says:

      Good comment. But you make my point well with the allusion to “a chemist’s shop.” That would make it evident we’re talking about a pharmacy in the UK, without going into long descriptions of place.

      Same with “five and dime” … a distincly American phrase (although from about 30 years ago). I’m willing to bet there are a lot of young American readers today who would have to stretch for the connection.

      But your point IS well taken. A writer should always take his reader into account, and make certain his/her words are making the correct image in their mind…no, change that thought…make certain the words are conjuring the image the writer intends to make.

      Nobody ever said this writing business was easy. 😉

      Thanks, John.


      • John Parry Says:

        Yes – they tend to call them pharmacies these days – so the chemist’s shop is a historical allusion. The drugstore reference gets even worse though – the expression “soda fountain” is really hard for Brits to get their heads round. Soda is a mildly aerated water that you splash into whisky (to compensate for variations in local water supplies). And a fountain is what you get in the gardens of a country house, so visions of very flat, rather unpalatable liquid springing forth from a spectacular marble edifice in the centre of a pharmacy!

        I’m enjoying your Tinker by the way…


        • Ron Herron Says:

          Thanks, John. I hope you’ll leave a review for my books…so many people don’t.

          “Soda” is a funny term here, too. Some people use it to mean any carbonated beverage, while others use the word “pop” — when both mean Coca-Cola, or something similar. I hear them both (although “red pop” is always “red pop” and not “red soda”). I always think of a chocolate malt when I hear “soda fountain” — although most of the ones served around here have not one hint of malt in them.

          Gotta write something, and we often use phrases we know, or have heard in frequent usage.



          • John Parry Says:

            Oh – none of that was meant as a criticism – I struggled with the drug-store references many years ago when I read Ray Bradbury’s Greentown, Illinois books. One of my favourite American authors, along with James Thurber of course. I’ll certainly post a review when I get to the end…


  2. Jeff Bushman Says:

    Good info Ron. I often struggle with dialogue in my writing. Getting hung up on the “correct” way to do it. I end up with a he said she said that I even get discouraged with let alone any readers.
    -Jeff Bushman


    • Ron Herron Says:

      Thanks, Jeff. Nothing wrong with “he said, she said” — but there are times when the speaker should be obvious, so no speech attribution is needed…in fact, it might detract from the flow. Read it aloud to yourself (or better yet, an interested third person). If you think you can do without the attribution…go for it!


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