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Writing Dialogue: Two Rules to Keep in Mind

By: Chris O'Brien

Ninety-five percent of the time, when I think I've come up with a great piece of writing advice, I pause for a second and realize... yep, I heard that from somebody else.

For today's writing tip, I'm paraphrasing a lesson I learned from the great Heather Sellers (a professor I had during my senior year at Hope College).

Dialogue, ideally, should either:

  1. Advance the action

  2. Show us a character's personality

With these two rules in mind, you don't have to waste valuable real estate in your book with a sequence like this:


Hey, how are you doing?


Good, how are you?


Good. Any big weekend plans?


Not really. Just hanging out. You?


Same. Just a low-key weekend

While this is a common interaction in everyday life, in a book it's rather dull. Almost feels like a learning English 101 conversation. There's no drama. No suspense or any sort of buildup. And nothing particularly unique about either character's personality via their responses.

As an author, you're always showing the reader what's important to the story, and what was worth documenting. So, fast-forward in the scene. Pick up the conversation at a more interesting point. Or maybe you use the short, mundane answers to build some tension. For example:


Hey, how are you doing?




Any big weekend plans?




Do you still want to get dinner?


Doesn't matter to me.


Is everything alright?


I don't know, Jess, is everything alright? Maybe we should text Paul and see what he's doing this weekend. Yeah? And maybe consider a password that's not 1-2-3-1-2-3 next time.


You're going through my phone now?

What if there's no conflict?

Not every interaction calls for conflict, suspense, or rising action. That's where the second part of the rule (showcasing a character's personality) comes into play.

For this, let's look at an example from Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

The hotel clerk asks Del Griffith (played by John Candy) -- not a generic, "Hey, how are ya?" -- but instead a joyful, "Del Griffith! How the hell are ya?"

Del's response:

"Well, I'm still a million bucks shy of bein' a millionaire!"

In this two-sentence exchange, we see:

  1. So far in the movie, Neal is increasingly annoyed by Del. But others like the big guy (and eventually Neal will too)

  2. Del's friendliness

  3. Cheesy sense of humor

  4. Del is the "real article." He's always this authentic guy no matter who he's with

✍️ Dialogue Exercise to Try

Start from scratch or find a "How are you?" exchange in your manuscript and ask the following questions:

What dialogue could I write here to advance the action?


How would my character respond that's truly unique to him or her?

Here are a couple of ideas to get you started (and feel free to use any of these in your book. Fair game!)

How are ya?

  • Can't complain

  • Well, I'm 6 feet above the ground, not 6 feet below!

  • Who's asking?

  • Better than the Detroit Lions, that's for sure!

  • I was doing great until I ran into you

And see where the scene takes you from there!

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