The previous chapters explained how to set yourself up for an interesting dialogue scene. One that deepens characters by having them talk in a way that matches their view of the world. I promised to give more specific tips for that in this chapter. So let’s do that!

Magic and Forbidden Words

An easy place to start is to ask yourself the following for each character.

  • What are their magic words? Specific words or phrases they love and use all the time? If I use this phrase, the reader should immediately know who is speaking.
  • What are their forbidden words? Specific words or phrases they would never say, or perhaps only when severely threatened? If I use this phrase, the reader will be confused and the character will be inconsistent.

This can be anything you want! Although it’s best if the word choice often flows naturally from the character.


Say our character is all about rules, honor and following the law.

  • Magic words? “It’s not right.” or “It’s against the rules.”
  • Forbidden words? Swear words. Sentences like “Don’t be so stiff.” or “Relax.”

Say our character comes from a simple background. They grew up on a farm and worked there since they were just a kid.

  • Magic words? Sayings related to animals or farms. “Oh stop milking the same cow over and over, James.” They’ll always respond with specific, practical advice and ideas.
  • Forbidden words? Anything too abstract or theoretical. Anything related to corporate culture or city life, which they know nothing about.

The ultimate goal is that your audience could identify who is speaking merely by listening to what is being said. In the ideal situation, a novel can leave out most of the dialogue tags and be fine.

All you need to do is set this up. Have the character use their magic words ~3 times in quick succession and it will stick.


Another way to personalize dialogue without dialogue tags is through statements that only match the view of one character. For example, if only one character in the scene is religious, only they would say the line “God will save us all.”

Clipped Sentences

How to write them

In dialogue, we often directly continue on the previous line of dialogue. Either we answer a question or continue on their thought.

This means there are many common elements between the two sentences (such as the subject or the verb). To be more efficient, we tend to leave those out.


“How’s the leg injury?” Sarah asked.

  • FULL: “It’s not too bad,” James said.
  • CLIPPED: “Not too bad,” James said.

If it fits the character or situation, you can go even further and leave out more parts. (For example, the character is in a hurry, or they’re illiterate and struggle to find words.)


“Where’s the million dollars?” Sarah asked.

  • FULL: “It’s in a safe place,” James said.
  • CLIPPED: “In a safe place,” James said.
  • CLIPPED+: “Safe,” James said.

All those little “rules” you learned about writing more formally? They hold true for general prose, but can be thrown out the window for dialogue.

For example, many people are taught not to end a sentence with a proposition.

  • BAD = “That’s the option I voted on”
  • GOOD = “That’s the option on which I voted.”

While I agree that the second version usually reads more clearly and flows better … how many people do you know that consistently talk like that? No, when we talk, we invent the words as we’re speaking them. Sentences will be structured in odd ways and, if you do it well, this reveals character without making it hard to read.

When to use them

In general,

People respond with detail and care to things that matter to them. They don’t give the same treatment to any other topic. (If they want to talk more about something, they’ll respond with more.)

Use this technique to make your dialogue as efficient and sharp as possible. Also use it to reveal more about character.

Cut-off sentences

The second way sentences can be clipped, is when they’re cut off unexpectedly.

  • You cut off yourself (realizing you don’t want to say what you were about to say)
  • Or another character talks over it
  • Or something happens to interrupt it.

We usually indicate this with a dash (---) before the closing double quotes. You’ve seen this several times already in this course.


“We don’t think you should—” James started.

“I don’t care what you think!” Sarah yelled.


“Maybe we’re wrong and the enemy hasn’t found our—”

The building exploded.

Another way to cut off yourself is to “trail off”. That’s when somebody is unsure how to continue or where their thoughts are leading them. This is usually indicated with an ellipsis (...).


“Maybe we could …” Sarah shook her head. “No, it’s impossible.”

Don’t draw attention

Another general rule about dialogue is that it should not draw attention to itself.

Good dialogue might cause you to forget people are speaking. Maybe you don’t even register the words they’re saying. Good dialogue should draw attention to the character relationships and what’s going to happen next.

How might this be executed poorly?

  • When it feels like the characters are talking ONLY for the viewer to hear it. This especially happens when the dialogue is too literal or repeatedly tries to make the same point.
  • When the dialogue feels out of place. Good dialogue should feel like it comes from this world and these characters.
  • Convoluted Language. In an effort to sound sophisticated or meaningful, many writers get carried away and pick words just because they sound complicated. No, most people speak plainly, using the easiest possible words.
  • Abstract Language. It takes a while to arrive at an abstract thought and communicate it. Hence, if you want to communicate an abstract concept or some epic idea, you need to build up to it.

That last point is especially true for fantasy or “epic stories” with speeches and world-ending stakes.

Don’t suddenly burst into some abstract dialogue about “let’s be heroes” and “let’s be brave and save the world”. It’s too sudden, too quick, too out there. The audience rolls their eyes, because the dialogue brought attention to the writers and what they tried to convey.

Any dialogue will start small and concrete. Start with a character talking about themselves and their own weaknesses. Start by mentioning some object that is in the room or some specific event that just happend. Start with what could be on someone’s mind RIGHT NOW.

Then expand that to more abstract or general concepts. If you want your dialogue to sound epic or “high stakes”, you need to elevate it to that position in a natural way.

About accents and grammar

One of the deeper lessons I’ve learned about art in general is …

Clarity above all. (If you want to have wide appeal.)

Yes, it might be realistic to make people talk with an accent. And yes, it will create very characteristic dialogue if people ignore grammar.

It will also make the story much harder to follow, to the point that many will just give up.

Tweaks to the dialogue are fine. Recurring verbal ticks are fine. Go any further, and you risk losing 90% of your audience while obscuring what actually happens in your story.

A story will never be “amazing” because you made the characters talk with realistic accents, nor “terrible” because you did not. This is one of those decisions that will only slightly improve your story when done well, but absolutely destroy clarity otherwise. The risk is too high, the reward too low.

When writing, it helps to identify such decisions—and then, obviously, decide not to take the high-risk low-reward options.

The same thing is true for ignoring grammar, or any other wondrous method for natural dialogue you come up with.

Remember: dialogue in stories should sound natural, but not be realistic.


As you see, natural language is a combination of many things.

  • Favorite or forbidden phrases, unique to the characters.
  • Playing around with how to word or deliver ideas, using clipped sentences, but keeping clarity above all.
  • Sidestepping some common pitfalls that draw attention to the dialogue, instead of its meaning. If you want high stakes, start small and then elevate the dialogue naturally.

And finally, let me repeat what I’ve shown several times in this course. It’s surprising how often people just don’t respond or don’t say a lot. That’s the unpredictability of dialogue: the human element that can suddenly change topic or add complications.

Don’t feel like everything needs a response. Don’t feel like the response needs to be a whole paragraph with answers to everything. In fact, most people know that if you ask somebody three questions in an email, they’ll only answer one. (Very, very frustrating.)

Your job is not to sound realistic dialogue. It’s to write interesting dialogue, that sounds natural enough to not break immersion. Use whatever tricks you need—clipped sentences, verbal quirks, non-sequiturs—to achieve that.

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