Last chapter already mentioned how good dialogue is an automatic consequence of having good characters. This chapter drills down on that idea and gives more specific tips for how to use this.

The general idea to take away is …

All dialogue is just information through a human filter.

If a line could’ve been said by anyone, it’s probably not a good line. If a line only contains cold hard facts—with nothing removed, added, embellished, or worded in a unique ways—then it’s probably not a good line.

If you’ve designed your characters well, all of them will see the world through a different filter. They have different opinions about the same problem. They have different levels of experience or past trauma with that problem. An interesting dialogue should use this filter to do its multitasking: convey information while also conveying the characters.

Then, the only question you need to ask yourself repeatedly (while writing dialogue), is …

How would THIS character in THIS situation provide THIS information?

To do this, it helps to have a general understanding of how humans (and their conversations) work. That’s what the rest of this chapter will discuss.

To learn how to craft great characters (and to read many more specific examples about how character can shine through in dialogue or description), read my Character course.

How humans work

Living in the moment

Humans live in the moment. They are incredibly influenced by current events and short-term gain.

Consequence #1: humans like to talk, a lot, about what’s on their mind RIGHT NOW. Even if nobody asked for it, even if it’s not that relevant.

Story dialogue often has non-sequiturs: people who suddenly change topic or don’t respond to the thing you were asking. You can certainly go too far—having two characters talk past each other entirely—but you also don’t need to provide direct responses to everything. Your characters will mostly be concerned with their current worries or goals. If something stops being relevant to a character, they’ll stop wanting to talk about it.

Consequence #2: humans are influenced by the location of the conversation and what’s happening around them. As such, don’t make dialogue feel like it happens in a void. Design the environment to influence the dialogue and prompt new ideas.

This connects to the first consequence, of course. If you need your characters to give information about X, then plant something in the scene that puts X on their mind.


Maybe one character is on a quest to retrieve some old map (which should contain the location of a lost city). Then, as you start the scene, hang a map on the wall of the room. Halfway through, one of them can look at it or describe it, which makes it more natural to then ask: “How’s the progress on finding that old map?”

Ego first

I just said that most people have something on their mind RIGHT NOW. This often leads to them having a certain goal, a certain desired outcome for this conversation.

This causes humans to steer conversations towards where they want. (And disallow others from steering it.)

So ask yourself …

What would the character want in this scene? And how would their wording reflect that?

I talked about this in the previous chapter. People will attack and defend, using small logical leaps to get where they want to be. It’s not just enough to defend yourself if another asks a question. The more interesting dialogue would be to defend yourself in a way that steers the conversation to another place.

Even if a character really likes or respects their conversational partner, their ego will often have top priority. If it doesn’t, the dialogue is bound to be boring or directionless.

I’ll dive into the specifics of this (word choice, characteristic language, etcetera) next chapter.

Conflict brings out the bad

Most humans have a difference between their inner and outer. A difference between what they want and what they actually need. Between who they are and what they actually show to the world. Between the information they share and the information they opt to hide (also known as secrets, of course).

This is usually caused by some flaw or weakness. Some “dark side” that humans try to cover up or polish when another is with them.

As such, in a completely friendly conversation without stakes … this dark side does not come out.

Conflict is the state in which characters reveal things about themselves.

People only slip up and show the inner world when pressured. When afraid, worried, angry, at risk of losing something. When defending themselves or attacking another who defends themselves valiantly.

Most dialogue is about slowly building and building to that moment.

Most disagreements are boring

Now you might wonder: how do you get such conflict that leads to interesting dialogue? How do you pressure humans enough to reveal themselves in dialogue?

When I was younger, almost all my dialogue scenes were disagreements or arguments. I thought I was doing great, crafting tense dialogue and good conflict. Most of the time? It was just a boring repetition of the same angry characters discussing something. It was terrible.

Most disagreements are boring. People talk and talk, but nothing actually comes of it. People say “well let’s agree to disagree” and then continue with their life.

Don’t do that. Instead …

Plot should be used to bring a potential problem to an actual problem.

Design your plot in such a way that once two characters are in the same room and talking, they fight over an actual problem, not a potential one. Design situations that do not allow for differing viewpoints to coexist or arguments to remain unresolved.

This is hard. It’s one of those hidden skills that takes a while to master, but increases the quality of the final story immensely. I still struggle with it and many million-dollar productions do so as well.


Of course, if you can’t come up with anything meaningful for your characters to disagree on, reconsider your story setup. Most stories have one core theme on which every character has a completely different view, ensuring potential problems for the whole story.

An example

Let’s say James believes everybody should fight for themselves, while Sarah believes you should always put the needs of others before yours.

This can be a disagreement. You could write a nice scene in which these views become apparent and but heads. But … so what? They believe different things, they go their separate ways, nothing happens.

Now we need to think about how to turn this into an actual problem. Can we conceive a situation in which the differing beliefs have direct consequences or are immediately relevant?

The first thing I come up with (on the spot), is a last will and testament. James and Sarah are siblings. Their father is on the brink of death and will leave behind a grand fortune. If they choose James to redistribute the fortune, Sarah is certain he’ll keep it all for himself.

Now we have an actual problem.

  • Sarah can visit the father and try to persuade him to change the will.
  • Sarah can go to James and try to persuade him to stop being selfish, without outright stating it and giving him ideas.
  • And if they both refuse her, she’s reached a boiling point. She’s tried her best, but will most likely go over to action. Perhaps falsifying the will, or incapacitating James, or whatever decisive action will be interesting.
  • (And you might go even further. There are more siblings. They don’t all believe the same thing as Sarah and James and will let that be known through more tense dialogue scenes. Maybe one of them knows what Sarah did, and doesn’t agree, so she has to convince them to keep that a secret.)

I’m sure you can think of numerous other ways to bring this disagreement into an actual problem.

Another example

Another example, to help drive the point home. (Let’s change the names for once.)

Becky and Lisa start a company together. Becky is very good at marketing and focused on profit, while Lisa started the company because she believes in its message and products. A disagreement, alright.

How to turn it into an actual problem?

You probably already have something in mind.

Becky asks Lisa to change her products to be more “commercially viable”, Lisa refuses and wants to stay true to herself. This infuriates Becky, who now seeks any excuse to discredit Lisa. She works too slowly, hurting the bottom line. Lisa threatens to leave the company. It comes to a boiling point and Becky outright kicks her out.

But their clients were fans of the company because of Lisa. So now Becky suddenly lost all of them and the company tanks, suffering huge losses.

There you go. A simple disagreement turned into actual consequences. You can add many tense dialogue scenes with this.

  • Becky’s request, which Lisa refuses.
  • More severe threats and orders from Becky, which cause Lisa to respond in kind, perhaps binding even more of the loyal customers to her.
  • Until Lisa’s latest threat causes Becky to kick her out on the spot, during a conversation.
  • And then, a while later, we might have another dialogue scene in which Becky has to come crawling back to Lisa and ask for forgiveness, so she returns to the company.

A disagreement turned into decisive actions and interesting events. That’s what good dialogue should do: a verbal fight over actual problems with actual consequences.


Hopefully, the last two chapters gave you the tools to invent the setup for a strong dialogue scene and then execute it.

  • Pick two (or more) characters who want different things. Make sure they have a reason to be interesting (lying, keeping secrets, persuading the other, …)
  • Have them fight it out, attacking and defending, steering the conversation
  • Until it reaches a boiling point and something decisive happens.

If it’s hard to craft such a scene …

  • Design the plot to turn potential disagreements into actual problems.
  • Then use this conflict to make the worst come out from each character.
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