Dialogue Exercises?

Are there any good dialogue exercises around that help you practice writing dialogue, so it isn’t generic.

Something that will help me pick out different speech patterns, and how that dialogue might look on the page?

I apologise in advance if I’m not making much sense.

Thanks, Stacey

Have you tried transcribing a conversation?

Not being a real author or writer, not having any patience whatsoever, I figured that would let me see a real conversation. The biggest problem with this method for me is that most folks here are unable to speak coherently. So the result were not only unreadable, but very depressing. Especially when I realized I was the worst one of the bunch!

Thanks for the tip. I will try it out once my new microphone arrives.

Dialogue in fiction should probably never be a transcription of actual dialogue. Very seldom does a conversation in real life move at a pace that many readers would tolerate in a novel setting. Avoid overuse (some might say any use) of “um” or “y’know”.

A trick would be to transcribe the dialogue and then tighten it to where it realtes only the crucial information and increases interest in what’s going to happen next. Your story doesn’t need to be a mystery or thriller to require tension as to what is about to happen.

For instance, when two friends run into each other, there’s a lot of “how are you doing?” and “you know, same old, same old” sort of conversation that doesn’t read well. Also, questions asked usually get answered with cliché responses.

Two characters run into each other in a novel, the how-are-you dialogue should be skipped unless it serves direct purpose, and a way to increase interest and tension in writing is to not have questions answered directly:

“How have you been?”
“Did you hear what happened to Leanne?”

This may be too general for direct help to your situation, but it is general advice.

Also, use “said” for what people say. Don’t use interjected, demanded, offered, explained. And never ever use verbs in place of said: he grimaced, she chuckled; it’s impossible to grimace words. Said really is an invisible word on the page.

Lastly, let dialogue show what the characters think and feel, resist the urge to explain their dialogue through narrative. Showing beats of action to accompany dialogue works, but not if you-as-narrator are re-stating what the character just said. [“That’s incredible!” she chortled ecstatically as she jumped up and down.]

Find some authors you respect and read how they handle dialogue, or listen to a good story-teller as they speak and listen to how they relate dialogue out loud.

Hope that helps…


I agree with Kirk’s suggestions, and particularly endorse

As for instance, “Don’t talk to me like that,” she hissed. Ouch. One cannot his without sibilants.

Another model is a good play, where dialogue has to do virtually all the work. Concentrate on the lines of just one character. See how word choices and sentence rhythm begin to define character and motivation.

But don’t simply read the lines to yourself. Read them out loud, as an actor must, to feel how the language goes together. Verlyn Klinkenborg has a lovely essay in The New York Times <http://is.gd/AtTn> about reading aloud. I recommend the whole piece – it’s rather short – but especially his comment about asking his students to read aloud.

“… at first, I notice that they are trying to read the meaning of the words. If the work is their own, they are usually trying to read the intention of the writer. It’s as though they’re reading what the words represent rather than the words themselves. What gets lost is the inner voice of the prose, the life of the language.”

Once you have found the right voices for your characters, you’ll be surprised at how often you don’t even need “said.” Tone, style, and context themselves will make clear who is speaking, and how.


I disagree that transcribing real conversation is a particularly useful guide (sorry Jaysen). Like much else in fiction, writing dialogue is an exercise in stylisation. Written dialogue is an artificial construct with certain goals in mind, such as developing character or plot, detailing theme or adding wit, often all at the same time, sometimes heavily freighted with subtext, and seldom “on the nose” or natural.

A good guide to the skills necessary was a book I once read that suggested that it’s necessary to discover one’s Inner Actor. I can’t remember the name of the book now, but when I do I’ll post it here.

Alternatively look to authors who are effective writers of dialogue in the genre you want to enter. For example, for thrillers I recommend Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Some of the dialogue there has no “said” tags or adverbs whatsoever, and is often no more than half a line or less per speaker, but perversely manages to convey as much or more meaning than the film made from the book (which is nonetheless good).


No apology needed. I am married with a teenage daughter. I naturally assume that I am always wrong.

As far as distinguising different character’s voices, one exercise I ran across (in a book on dialogue) was to remove everything that wasn’t dialogue. Everything. Including the simplest of speech tags.

Then work on it until you can tell who said what, until their personality and background shows in their word choice and grammar patterns. Only then, add the non-dialogue back - actions first, speech tags last, and only where the speaker might be ambiguous to a reader. You’ll find you need a lot fewer speech tags.

Thanks for the tips!

I’ll agree. Far too many moons ago Barry B. Longyear reccommended avoiding ‘said’ and ‘said-isms’ completely. It can be very challenging to make dialog work sometimes, but I think my writing is the better for it.

For an exercise, using some extant, good dialogue and characters as a guide, imagine these same characters in some other setting and write the dialogue that happens between them. You could pick a setting that is compatible with the original fictional setting of the characters, but it is also instructive to set them down in some other time and place.


P.S. Of course, there is always the option of keeping the setting intact and just adding zombies. “Do you very often walk to Meryton?”

Okay, I’m going to add yet another disagreement, and suggest the transcribing thing–NOT to learn how dialogue should be written, but to get a feel for what it is in actuality. Playwrights do that, writing and collecting snippets of actual dialogue to expand their “flavor” portfolio.

Written dialogue MIMICKS actual dialogue, and the best way to mimic something is to know the actuality.

So, record actual conversation, transcribe it, then make another copy and cut as much as you possibly can and not lose any “flavor” or meaning. You should be able to cut it in half or more. Then compare the original with the end result.

Different writing exercises write better for different people. In my case, when I have a problem, writing something that forces me to confront it head-on. For example, when my description’s weak, force myself to write a short “story” that’s mostly monologue + description, or writing with too many compound-complex sentences and making myself write something in all simple ones. (Speaking of the latter, I think it’s time for a repeat of that exercise.)

With that in mind, here’s another dialogue exercise that might help you:

  • Pick a situation that results in two people arguing.
  • Give the two people very different backgrounds that should affect their vocabulary.
  • Write an indirect summary of the situation and argument without any direct dialogue whatsoever.
  • Now, write the scene with the argument. You may work better by starting out by writing ONLY the dialogue, then going back and adding description/action, or you may work better by just jumping into the scene.

I get blank looks a lot at work, and my manager laughed at me the other day for using “endeavor” in an e-mail. (But then, I sometimes look at him blankly, myself; I still can’t figure out what his slang meaning of “special” is, precisely, even though I do get the gist.) Don’t underestimate vocabulary in dialogue, or how much gets said by being unsaid.

Aren’t blank looks the only appropriate look when dealing with management?