How to craft great dialogue
Confession: I freaking adore Emily Henry’s books. If you haven’t read them, and you enjoy a good romance, I recommend picking one up. (Her newest comes out next month and for me, it’s already on pre-order. Just saying.)
So aside from the steamy scenes, why do I think these books are so great? It all comes down to the witty AF dialogue between the two love interests. Here’s an example from her last novel, Book Lovers, which is a romance between literary agent Nora and her nemesis, editor Charlie (pg. 51-53):
“Over the years I’ve developed a finely tuned filter—with pretty much everyone except Libby—but Charlie always manages to disarm it, to press the exact right button to open the gate and let my thoughts charge out like velociraptors.
For example, when Charlie replies, I’ll admit it’s a master class in pacing, Otherwise I remain unimpressed, my instant reaction is to type, ‘Otherwise I remain unimpressed’ is what they’ll put on your headstone.
I don’t even have the thought I shouldn’t send this until I already have.
On yours, he replies, they’ll put ‘Here lies Nora Stephens, whose taste was often exceptional and occasionally disturbing.”
Don’t judge me based on the Christmas novella, I reply. I haven’t read it.
Would never judge you on Bigfoot porn, Charlie says. Would entirely judge you for preferring Once in a Lifetime to The Glory of Small Things.
The wine has slipped one Jenga piece too loose from my brain: I write: IT’S NOT A BAD BOOK!
‘IT’S NOT A BAD BOOK’ – Nora Stephens, Charlie replies. I think I remember seeing that endorsement on the cover.
Admit you don’t think it’s bad, I demand.
Only if you admit you don’t think it’s her best either, he says.
I stare at the screen’s harsh glow. Moths keep darting in front of it, and in the woods, I can hear cicadas humming, an owl hooting. The air is sticky and hot, even this long after the sun has sunk behind the trees.
Dusty is so ridiculously talented, I type. She’s incapable of writing a bad book. I think for a moment before continuing: I’ve worked with her for years and she does best with positive reinforcement. I don’t concern myself with what’s not working in her books. I focus on what she’s great at…
Charlie replies, Says the woman they call the Shark.
I scoff. No one calls me that. I don’t think.
Says the man they call the Storm Cloud.
Do they? He asks.
Sometimes, I write. Of course, I would never. I’m far too polite.
Of course, he says. “That’s what sharks are known for: manners.
I’m too curious to let it go. Do they really call me that?
Editors, he writes back, are terrified of you.
Not so scared they won’t buy my authors’ books, I counter.
So scared they wouldn’t if the books were any less fucking fantastic.
My cheeks warm with pride. It’s not like I write the books he’s talking about—all I do is recognize them. And make editorial suggestions. And figure out which editors to send them to. And negotiate the contract so the author gets the best deal possible. And hold the author’s hand when they get edit letters the size of Tolstoy novels, and talk them down when they call me crying. Et cetera.
Do you think, I type back, it has anything to do with my tiny eyes and gigantic gray head? Then I shoot off another email clarifying, The nickname, I mean.
Pretty sure it’s your bloodlust, he says.
I huff. I wouldn’t call it bloodlust. I don’t revel in exsanguination. I do it for my clients.
Sure I have some clients who are sharks themselves—eager to fire off accusatory emails when they feel neglected by their publishers—but most of them are more likely to get steamrolled, or to keep their complaints to themselves until their resentment boils over and they self-destruct in spectacular fashion.
This might be the first I’m hearing my nickname, but Amy, my boss, calls my agenting approach smiling with knives, so it’s not a total shock.
They’re lucky to have you, Charlie writes. Dusty especially. Anyone who’d go to bat for a ‘not bad’ book is a saint.”
Okay, so aside from my obvious delight at their back-and-forth over book-related things, let’s step back and look at what makes this dialogue successful:
1. Natural speech and character-true voice
If you go back and read the words that each person is speaking—or typing in this case—they not only sound natural, as though you’re overhearing real people speaking to each other, but they also are using words, syntax, phrases (voice, in other words) that belongs uniquely to them. Notice Charlie’s slightly more “literary” or “high-brow” speech, and Nora’s blunt and quick-witted comebacks. Each of them has their own way of speaking. Great dialogue must sound natural and true to the character speaking.
2. The inclusion of the POV character’s thoughts & emotions
Glancing back through the above text will show how much of Nora’s thoughts are breaking up the back-and-forth between her and Charlie. The reader is in Nora’s head and therefore we understand why she says the things she does, as well as how Charlie’s words land for her. This internal monologue is essential to show what the events mean to the character and to help the readers connect to the character.
Better yet, this internal monologue conveys emotion, it shows readers how the character feels and as a result signals how they should be feeling as well. Without this added step of including the POV character’s thoughts and emotions, the reader won’t have the full perspective. It would just be an overheard conversation with zero context or emotion.
3. The way it moves the story forward and characterizes.
Though very little “happens” in this short scene besides a conversation between two people, this excerpt actually accomplishes quite a lot. It is the beginning of things changing between these two characters. They are establishing rapport. Beginning to flirt. Being almost vulnerable. There’s a point to this scene: it’s one of the first scenes in which Nora experiences Charlie as more than this Storm Cloud editor (with whom she had a very negative first meeting with at the book’s beginning). She softens to him a little, and he to her. The fire of their passionate hatred of each other begins to cool.
So not only does it move the needle of the story, it also helps the reader understand both character better—especially Nora, whose POV we experience. We see how others see her, how she thinks of herself, what her job is like, what matters to her. And we see some of the same things about Charlie.
Great dialogue is doing all of this at once. It’s tricky, but with practice—and by studying novels you think have fantastic dialogue—you can learn the art of mastering it.