- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

10 Tips for Writing Impactful Dialogue

Photobucket [1]
photo courtesy Flickr’s Βethan

Therese here. Today’s guest is author Catherine McKenzie [2]. Catherine’s latest novel, Forgotten [3], releases on October 16th in the U.S. I love the premise of this book. Check it:

Emma Tupper, a young lawyer with a bright future, sets out on a journey after her mother’s death: to Africa, a place her mother always wanted to visit. But her mother’s dying gift has unexpected consequences. Emma falls ill during the trip and is just recovering when a massive earthquake hits, turning her one-month vacation into a six-month ordeal.

When Emma returns home, she’s shocked to find that her friends and colleagues believed she was dead, that her apartment has been rented to a stranger and that her life has gone on without her. Can Emma pick up where she left off? Should she? As Emma struggles to recreate her old life, everyone around her thinks she should change: her job, her relationships, and even herself. But does she really want to sacrifice everything she’s working so hard to gain?

(Psst. Want an inside peek? Click here [4].)

I’m so pleased Catherine is with us today to share her best dialogue tips with us. Enjoy!

10 Tips for Writing Better Dialogue

Whenever I think about what makes good dialogue, that old adage about pornography comes to mind: I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it. You know what I mean, I’m sure. The dialogue in some books just seems to flow and sound like real people. In others, not so much. So, that being said, if it’s really something that’s undefinable, how do you do it? I don’t pretend to have all the answers[1] [5], but hopefully the tips below will be helpful. Happy writing!


  1. It’s okay to use identifiers like “he said”, “she replied”, he “asked”, but try to minimize them when you can, especially if only two people are speaking. Make your characters distinct enough that the reader can follow who’s speaking through 4-6 lines of dialogue without you having to tell them. Too many identifiers are an easy way to not make your characters distinct. Put in the work. It’s worth it.
  2. Related: avoid using too many adjectives (“he exclaimed, she gasped, he screamed”). The tone should be conveyed through the words used and the reader’s knowledge of the characters. Show, don’t tell.
  3. Dialogue is especially good for conflict or resolving conflict. You don’t need to use dialogue for getting a cup of coffee or making a grocery list. It should be for the big moments.
  4. Related: Photobucket [3]Dialogue should sound real, but that doesn’t mean dialogue on the page is exactly like snippets of dialogue you overhear. You can usually cut out the “hello” “how are you?” parts of conversation.
  5. Watching a good movie or television show is usually a great place to get a “feel” for writing dialogue. Examples of fast-paced, intelligent dialogue that will get people turning the pages: The Newsroom, Gilmore Girls, The Wire. Listen to the “beats” with your eyes closed. Internalize them.
  6. Read dialogue out loud. Or better yet, get someone to read dialogue out loud with you – like a script reading.
  7. Don’t use dialogue to convey large chunks of information. People don’t usually give speeches unless they’re actually giving a speech. People also don’t tend to narrate what they’ve just done (unless they’re annoying).
  8. Convey emotion through your words. If you want to show that someone’s emotional, for example, have them stumble, or stop and start what they are going to say, don’t write he said, emotionally.
  9. Speech has a particular punctuation to it. For example “Hello, Catherine”, rather than “Hello Catherine”. Make sure they don’t talk too formally. “It is my intention to ensure you are …” should be “It’s my intention to be sure you’re” unless speaking formally is that character’s defining characteristic. It’s important to get this part right. Mistakes take people out of the story.
  10. Give each character a distinct voice. Even if people are from the same place, they speak differently depending on education, age, sex etc. Don’t use clichés. Listen to your friends. Notice that one might say “a couple apples” while another might say “a couple of apples.” Some people swear more than others. Etc.


[1] [6] In fact, the tips below are not all my own, but come from a collaboration with the author of Jessica Z. and Two Years, No Rain, Shawn Klomparens, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of teaching several dialogue clinics.

Have dialogue tips of your own? Feel free to share in comments!

Readers, you can learn more about Catherine at her website [7], or follow her on Twitter [8]. Write on. 

About Catherine McKenzie [9]

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine is the author of 11 bestselling novels, including HIDDEN, THE GOOD LIAR, I’LL NEVER TELL and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME. Her most recent novel, SIX WEEKS TO LIVE, releases in Canada April 20 and the US May 4, 2021.