Dialogue and Scenes – Making Them Great – Quick Writing Tips

Great dialogue makes for great scenes

Great dialogue makes for great scenes

In last week’s post, I focused on tips for writing great scenesscenes and summary are the building blocks of fiction and memoir. A friend who blogs and writes essays read the post and reminded me that scenes and partial scenes also lend energy and veracity to nonfiction. So true!

C’mon, make a scene!

First of all, a vital reminder: a scene is a piece of story action, played out moment-by-moment on page, stage, or screen. Conflict drives every scene. No conflict, no scene. A scene moves, dynamically beginning in one place and ending in another. Along with action, scenes usually include people talking, otherwise known as dialogue. Therefore, here is my promised companion post on writing great dialogue.

“Don’t speak!”

If you’ve seen the movie Bullets Over Broadway, it’s unlikely you’ve forgotten “Don’t Speak.”  Dianne Wiest’s famous line, a running gag, delivered to John Cusack, also happily demonstrates subtext. What’s subtext? Listen to this “Don’t speak!” clip and note how much is going on between Wiest and Cusack, all of it underlying the dialogue, the implicit meaning-that’s subtext.

 Do speak-but only when you want something!

Unlike real life, narrative dialogue is honed and parsed and characters only speak when they want something. Remember, characters want something in every scene. And what they want matters, the stakes are huge! When you begin to draft a scene, know what your characters’ want. Both of them. (For now, let’s focus on two-person scenes.) When they speak, they are both trying to get what they want. They are at odds. She wants to stay in for an intimate evening so she can tell him she’s pregnant (news that will be a shock). He wants to go out to the movies-the new action flick-because he ran into his ex that morning, realized he still loves her, and isn’t ready to talk about anything!

Mean it!

Scenes mark change. The story moves. Every scene explores the dramatic question at the heart of the story, revealing meaning. Every scene  holds consequences for the characters. If a scene works, the reader or viewer gleans something new about the experience of the characters.

On the nose-Please no!

Pro writers use the term “on the nose” to point out dialogue that is…well, kind of the opposite of subtext. With “on the nose” dialogue, everything is on the surface and the characters are saying exactly what they mean, explaining to the audience what is going on. Think of it as equivalent to saying, read my lips and meaning, “no, really, read my lips…”

Get to the heart

Characters in a scene are always working to get what they want and by witnessing their struggle we begin to understand what their goal means to them.

Try this

Pick a partner, parent, sibling, child-and imagine you want them to agree to ________ (fill in the blank with a meaningful goal). Now imagine all the strategies you might use to get to your goal. And now, name them with action gerunds: convincing, requesting, threatening, inviting, seducing, pleading, demanding, enticing, questioning, challenging, luring, deceiving, inquiring, explaining, pretending, acting, manipulating, digging, flattering, bargaining, soothing, guilting…and so on and so on.

Great Dialogue – Quick Tip Sheet

  • Know what your characters want and know their situation.
  • Characters speak when they want something.
  • Conflict is constant.
  • Raise the stakes to “life and death.”
  • Characters are always working to get what they want.
  • Name each tactic she/he takes with an action verb.
  • Ask yourself what she/he wants to say and how can you distill it?
  • Don’t use names unless absolutely necessary. “Glad you’re back, Bob, the wine guy at the market suggested a new pinot grigio and I poured you a glass.” “Let’s save it, Mary, we can just catch the 8:15 show of Bombs & Babes.” “But, Bob…” You get the idea.
  • Don’t use dialogue as exposition-stay off the nose!
  • Don’t worry about grammar, just write it the way your character says it. A 12 year old boy in Nebraska won’t sound like a 90 year old woman in Texas or a 20 year old woman in the UK or a disembodied alien creature of any age.
  • Get in, get out. Instead of “Do you want to see a movie?” cut to the movie or better yet, when they’re leaving the movie.
  • Cut the small talk, umm, ya know?

There you have it, a lot of info and tips on writing dialogue that works! As always, when you sit down to draft your scene, forget the rules and follow the life of your characters, dive for the fault lines, those spaces between people where electricity sparks! Remember, great dialogue makes for great scenes!

Have tips of your own? Please share because we’re all in this together, writers helping writers, and we want to hear from you!


  1. Amber says:

    Yes, I see Sarah, i will remember that. I heard a phrase once called ” lets cut to the chase” Someone said it in a comedy movie i was watching. I never forgot it. So maybe that is what you are really saying here. Repeatedly addressing a character by stating their name sounds boring and can take away from a really good story or event. I see what you mean. Thank you !

  2. Sarah Lovett says:

    It’s “cut to the chase” while avoiding dialogue that’s “on the nose.” Useful phrases to remember, not always easy to do, especially in first draft. That’s why revision rules when it comes to working the finer points of our stories. Good points, Amber.

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