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The Interesting Conversation

Alright, so you have decided to tell a part of your story through dialogue. What to do now? How do we make the dialogue as interesting and natural as possible?

Heightened Dialogue

The important distinction here is that natural is not the same as realistic. In real life, people often misspeak, mumble, stutter, go off on tangents, and more of that. In real life, people start the conversation with pleasantries and small talk, and usually finish conversations the same way.

Not in stories. That’s boring, irrelevant stuff. Stories should tell the most interesting parts in the most efficient way.

That’s why we say that dialogue in stories is “heightened dialogue”. It’s just a little sharper, more advanced, more efficient than realistic dialogue. But it shouldn’t be so efficient that it becomes unnatural.

That’s lesson number one.

Arrive Late, Exit Early. Start the dialogue the moment it becomes interesting, leave as soon as you’ve made your point.

This means you do not add small talk, irrelevant tangents, or the exchange of pleasantries. Don’t add “hello, how are you?” at the start of each dialogue scene, or “well, see you next week, goodbye!” at the end of one.

Only write the part that matters. This means arriving late in the conversation (or having some other reason to skip parts of it), and exiting early.


Obviously, you can have reasons for going on tangents. You can use that as a character trait, for example. Many stories successfully include “meaningless” banter between the characters to add humor and make you like them more. The “writing rules” I explain are, as usual, only true 95% of the time.

This makes the dialogue efficient. But how to make it natural?

Logical leaps

Somebody once explained this to me with a chessboard analogy.

  • Imagine the conversation is a chessboard.
  • At the start, characters have a certain position ( = their current square).
  • But they have something else they want to discuss ( = the square they want to reach).
  • What do you do? You slowly move from your current square to the one you want, one step at a time ( = like a pawn or king in a game of chess).

The reason dialogue often sounds stilted and unnatural is because characters jump (instantly) from one topic to the next. They don’t build to a climax—no, characters just outright state what they want, out of the blue.

Instead, construct your dialogue around logical leaps.

With everything a character says, have them take one more (logical) step towards the thing they really want to say. With every line of dialogue, have character A persuade character B to talk about what they want to talk about.


Currently, the characters talk about their next mission to rob a bank. One character, however, feels like they’re not being taken seriously by the group and their role is too small. What do they do?

Perhaps they mention something like “can you explain my role again?” The team leader is annoyed, but does so, not sensing anything is wrong yet.

While explaining, our character says “maybe it’s better if I also do X?” The team leader says “no”.

The character says “I might bored, you know, and boredom leads to mistakes”. The team leader slowly realizes what they really want: a bigger role in the mission.

You can continue taking these leaps, again and again, until it culminates in some climax. (At which point you’ve reached your desired topic and conversation can be more “direct”.)

The trick is, of course, finding these leaps and making sure they’re not too small or too large.

When you achieve this, though, the conversation will flow naturally, but you’ll be able to talk about anything you want. Need characters to convey some information about your world? Steer the conversation to make this a natural thing to say. Need a scene to culminate in one character declaring their love for another? Steer the conversation, step by step, to the point where this declaration is inevitable.

But what if my characters don’t want something? What if they’re fine with the current topic? Ah! Then you don’t have an interesting conversation ;) If everybody already agrees and just says the same things, then what’s the point of the dialogue? If nobody wants something out of the conversation, then why are we talking?

More specifically, let’s talk about …

Conversations like Stories

The best way to create gripping dialogue is to treat it like a (mini) story.

  • At the start, somebody wants something ( = their goal).
  • Where can they get it? From another person ( = their obstacle).
  • So they try to steer the conversation, ask questions, persuade the other person, more and more desperately …
  • … until it all ends in a climax. (Either they get what they want, or they’re shut down definitively.)

There should be a rising tension. If your dialogue starts with yelling and threats … there is nowhere to go from there! You need to build towards it.


Take an argument between two characters. Start it small. About something simple or only tangentially related. Slowly things get more and more heated, as they start to accuse one another or become more direct. Until the argument explodes in a climax: a huge accusation, a secret revealed, a burst of violence, whatever.

I remember this through a very simple quote.

Dialogue is verbal action.

Dialogue should not just be some chitchat or information thrown at the reader. It’s action, just like a fight or a threat, but executed through words only.

To me, a strong dialogue scene should also end with a memorable oneliner that clearly signals “this conversation is OVER”. The dialogue should culminate in something, a point being made or an action happening.


I always have to think of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplays. He’s the master of dialogue. In particular, there’s this scene in The Social Network that starts with simple (legal) questions, escalates and escalates, until Mark Zuckerberg confidently says: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”

Great line. Scene over. Cut. That’s dialogue as a mini-story, if you ask me.

Attack & Defend

Okay, so you know the dialogue should be structured like a mini-story with rising tension. But how? How do you create rising tension in dialogue?

The simplest technique, which you’ll use 99% of the time, is attack and defend.

Good dialogue is nothing more than one character attacking (verbally) and another defending (verbally).

They might switch roles. The intensity of attacks might increase. But in essence, dialogue is just a fight with words.

When I was younger, I called this the “QA” pattern: question and answer. Interesting dialogue comes from people asking questions and trying to give answers, as opposed to people just giving … statements at each other.

Nowadays I think this is too narrow, but it might help some people remember this idea.


“Where were you last night?” she asked. (ATTACK)

“Office. Complications with the latest project,” he said. (DEFEND)

“Again?” (ATTACK)

“Yeah. And it’s not going away by whining about it.” (DEFEND -> ATTACK)

“I’m not. You’re just … not yourself lately.” (DEFEND -> ATTACK)

This is a very simplified example, but hopefully it gets the idea across. Whenever you write a line of dialogue that doesn’t attack or defend, seriously consider scrapping or rewriting it. It probably sounds unnatural or doesn’t interest the audience.

The floating heads issue

Perhaps the most common mistake for beginning writers is “floating heads” or “talking heads”. They get so caught up in their dialogue, that they forget to describe the environment, or add some action they’re doing at the same time.

The result? Readers are left to imagine these two heads floating in a blank space, just talking at each other ;)

As such, a way to make your conversation more interesting, is by adding things around the conversation.

  • Make sure you describe the environment (as early as possible).
  • Make sure characters have something to do at the same time. (Purposely design the conversation to take place in an interesting location, or when one person is in a hurry, or whatever trick you can come up with.)
  • Then regularly mix these lines of description and action with the dialogue.

James entered a large room with glass windows on all sides. “This my new office?”

“What? You don’t like it?” Tom stood frozen in the doorway, eyebrow raised. “Do you have any idea how long I had to search—”

“No, no, I do.” James pushed his nose against the glass to check out the surroundings. With a tap of his fingers, he checked the strength of the supporting beams. “Just worried about safety.”

This is a balance you need to find yourself. Too many descriptions and the dialogue will be disjointed and hard to follow. Too little descriptions and you get the “talking heads” issue.


I always have to laugh when somebody asks a question … and the main character goes on this four page tangent with thoughts and considerations before responding. It just feels as if they were silent for a good five minutes before finally continuing to speak.

Choose interesting over honesty

Earlier, I mentioned that a common mistake was “on-the-nose” dialogue. Everybody says exactly what they’re thinking or what they want, and the rest gives honest and complete answers.

The advantage is efficiency. You can get out a lot of information quickly. You show your characters to be logical, helpful, honest beings. Nice, right?

But the disadvantage is that it isn’t interesting.

I struggled with this for the longest time. I, personally, have this principle that I never lie. It does way more harm than good. Since I was a young boy, I’ve striven to be honest and precise in my conversations, which saves worlds of trouble (most of the time).

So I had a hard time making my characters lie or withhold information. It just felt unnatural, like cheating, like my main characters were the dumbest people in the world.

That’s when I had a revelation.

Why did it feel unnatural for my characters to lie? To attack/defend, instead of saying what they wanted directly? Because they had no reason to do so!

As such, I switched it around.

If your characters have NO reason to lie or hide information, then they simply aren’t INTERESTING enough to tell a story about them.

Don’t make your dialogue filled with secrets and lies just because some writing advice told you to do it. If your character really has no reason to obscure their real intent, let their dialogue be direct and a little “on-the-nose”.

But if most of your characters never have a reason to talk in an interesting way, then you should reconsider the design of your characters. Give them a reason to lie. Give them a reason to keep secrets. Give them a reason to approach conversations with distrust or aggression.

If your characters are well-designed, you could fill a book with only dialogue scenes, and they’d all be incredibly interesting.

An example

Take the example below. It would be very direct and efficient, but also boring.


“Where are you from?” Sarah asked.

James proceeds to provide a detailed and completely honest explanation of his backstory.

Now compare that to the following example. It gives less information, but creates more interest.


“Where are you from?” Sarah asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” James said.

“If we’re going to do this mission, I need to know if I can trust—”

“Trust?” He drove the tip of his knife deep into the wood grain of the table. “Trust is unreliable. I’m from a fairy tale place filled with kind unicorns who treated me well, if that’s what you need to hear.”

He stood up and left the room.

The trick here is to design the character of James to have a reason to hate talking about his past. It might sound odd, but it’s the way to go. Hurt your characters. Give them flaws. Give them reasons that prevent “on-the-nose” or “completely honest” dialogue in most of the scenes.

Do not have them lie or refuse to answer questions just because it sounds more interesting.

Continue with this course
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