Advice From Fellow Authors / Illustrators

I reached out to fellow authors/illustrators and asked them for a quick response to this question: How do you write good dialogue?

  • Author A. LaFaye: Books have been written to answer that question, but I’ll try to be brief and borrow a line from Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” People don’t express the truth simply or directly or with great poetry, unless they’re a poet like Emily herself. Most people slant the truth because they don’t know how to express it or they’re trying to get more than one point across at a time or the emotions in the moment are clouding their perspective. Dialogue is best written with a slant which means that characters reveal partial truths, include digs about past experiences with the character s/z/he is speaking with or just plain lie to advance another agenda. So, my advice is: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Thanks, Emily!


  • YA Author Cassie Gustafson: Listen to how people really speak. It’s not usually verbose or eloquent or given in succinct monologues. People don’t generally use proper grammar or sentence structure. Real dialogue is full of filler words (“uh,” “like,” “well”) and half-formed thoughts and self-interruptions and run-on sentences. Your dialogue should reflect some of this. Then read it aloud to check its authenticity and find its cadence.


  • Author / Illustrator Brian Lies: Two things: 1) read the dialogue you’ve written out loud. If it sounds like actual people talking, it may be OK. 2) you should be able to remove the “attribution tags” and still be able to tell which character is saying what. Make sure each character’s voice is distinctive.


  • Author / Illustrator Ashley Wolff: My picture book dialogue is simple–my characters are 3-6 year olds conversing with parents/caregivers. I favor short, declarative statements/questions: conversations that don’t involve many semicolons but include the occasional comma. My books don’t have room/time for anything more elaborate so I try to make every word of the dialogue count!


  • Author Han Nonlan: I got this from a book called Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost, and I’ve never forgotten it: Write only the dialogue you would like to overhear while sitting in a restaurant.
  • Author Amanda Cockrell: I eavesdrop on other people’s conversations to get an ear for how people really talk and how the way they talk can define character.
  • Author and director of the Graduate Programs in Children’s Lit at Hollins University Lisa Rowe Fraustino: When I write dialogue I always have a particular person or composite of real people in mind for each character. These may be people I know or actors playing roles in film or television. This helps me to hear my characters’ voices and picture their body language as well. As I’m writing, I read the dialogue aloud with the inflection that I imagine the real person or actor would give the language, and this allows me to fine tune each word and gesture or mannerism.


  • Author Hillary Homzie (author of many middle grade and chapter books, including the just released middle grade Apple Pie Promises and the soon-to-be-released Ellie May chapter books): My best advice for dialogue is to truly understand your characters really well. Know their diction choices. Do they use elevated diction? Do they use more jargon or slang? Do they speak in a rush? Are they more phlegmatic? Do they answer questions by responding with another question? Are they pedantic and teacherly? Do they express themselves more positively or are they more pessimistically (think of Eeyore). However, if you establish a gloomy character at some point have them act in a way that is completely positive. You never want to have a character who is predictable. Having them act out of character will add to verisimilitude.


  • Author S. A. Cosby: The secret to great dialogue, in my opinion, is listening. Listen to the way people around you talk. Listen to your family … I’d say listen to strangers talking in restaurants and at the mall, but that might get you in trouble. However, no matter what the genre, listening to the way people talk will help you when you are writing. The rhythms of speech are varied and overlapping. People talk in short sentences not long soliloquies. They cut each other off. They stop and start. All of this is how real people talk. And that’s the real secret.


  • Author Jeanne Lark Wilkins: Aside from reading relentlessly, which is an author’s biggest assignment for writing well, I try to understand the mindset of each of the characters. I will use colloquialisms (local jargon) to help give the reader an insight into the character without having to describe them, and will often use dialog to replace other description, so the story can move along at a faster pace. For example, “Would you just look at the red mess you’ve made with your sucker again? I just got the last stain out of your school shirt, and now you’ve ruined your knickers.” This says that the character is from the Midwest (suckers vs lollipop), they are likely Catholic (school uniform), and that it’s likely the 1930’s (knickers).


  • Author D. M. Patterson: There are a lot of craft books about writing great dialogue. Read them. Make sure you DO THE EXERCISES.

(Photo credit by Wynand can Poortvliet on Unsplash)

What are your thoughts?