Welcome to the final chapter of this course! There were a handful of tips or mistakes that didn’t fit anywhere else (or that I wanted to repeat) again, and that’s what this chapter will cover.


Equal participation

In general, try to have all characters participate equally in the conversation.

Otherwise it’s not a dialogue: it’s just one person monologuing. And the others, perhaps, chime in once in a while, merely to break up the wall of text for the reader.


In the Three Body Problem (first book of Remembrance of Earth’s Past), this is a HUGE problem. Several times, somebody is just infodumping with a monologue that goes on for several pages. And the only time it is broken up is because another scientist is like “Can you explain that further?” or “Yes, I saw the same in my research.” When I read that, I was very surprised this got through editing and it left a sour taste.

Keep sentences short. Keep speakers to one paragraph. Make the dialogue back-and-forth, attack and defend, with a nice pace and momentum.

Of course, breaking this rule can also be used to great effect. If there’s a power dynamic (one character is powerful, the other isn’t), then yeah, the powerful person will speak a lot more. If a character is naturally very shy or quiet, then yeah, they won’t participate as much.

But keep “equal participation” as a baseline, to prevent the monologue problem.

Put dialogue tags before the dialogue

I’ve always been confused about why on earth we put the dialogue tag after the dialogue. This means I might not know who is speaking before they are done. More importantly, if there’s any modifier (such as “they spoke in a soft voice”), I don’t know it until I’m already done reading the dialogue!

Thus, my personal rule is to clearly communicate important information about the dialogue before the actual line.


BAD: “Are you sure this isn’t dangerous?” James asked with a high-pitched voice. (Now I need to re-read the dialogue with this new information!)


BETTER: James spoke with a high-pitched voice. “Are you sure this isn’t dangerous?”

For short one-liners, though, it’s fine to put it at the end. Studies show that people “read ahead”. A crucial part in our magic ability to read (fast) is that we barely look at your current word and more at the shapes around it. We have some innate ability to “look ahead” and already see who speaks a line of dialogue while still reading that line. But this only works if the dialogue is short enough.

Mix dialogue with other prose

Some people call dialogue a “last resort”. I think it’s just one of the many ways to convey information, and you should combine it with all the other methods.

Information is more likely to stick if it’s conveyed in multiple ways.

Even if your dialogue is amazing, try to convey the same information as well through action, description, thoughts, or writing style. This leads to maximum clarity and retention.

If you want maximum interest, however, you want the opposite. You want to communicate different information with the different techniques. Maybe the dialogue explains “this character likes surfing”, but then their description communicates “they hate the ocean”. (Remember the subtext chapter and the importance of preventing dialogue that is too literal or complete.)

The dialogue on its own is not enough to give the full picture. Nor is the description. But when combined, they slowly lead the audience to realize who this character is and where this incongruity comes from.

I see it like giving the audience puzzle pieces. There’s a big mystery, or character trait, or plot twist coming up. You want to give the audience all the puzzle pieces, but never outright state the final solution.

There’s this famous quote from Pixar about this. I will give a paraphrased version.

You don’t want to give the audience 4, nor tell them 2 + 2 = 4. You want to give them 2 + 2.

The other reason to interweave the different types of prose is just because it reads more naturally and prevents the “talking heads” issue. You want a healthy dose of action or description to break up your lines of dialogue. Just saying lines, back and forth, for pages on end, is boring and hard to imagine.

Design your plot to make dialogue happen in an interesting location with characters doing stuff at the same time. Have that influence the dialogue as well.


Once you know this, you’ll see it in tons of movies. Characters don’t just talk at home, or the office, or sitting in a cafĂ©. No, they talk while walking across the street, or while taking the elevator, or while cooking dinner. An easy way to make dialogue much better, is by purposely placing it in a dynamic environment.


The alley-oop line

The “alley-oop” line is a line that only exists to prompt a more interesting or important line.

You might also call it a “contrived setup”. One character brings something up only to setup another character to monologue about that important thing.

When this happens, you break all immersion and the audience just feels the hand of the author looming over them, pulling the strings.

I also like to call this the “glad you asked!” If somebody can respond with that phrase, the dialogue that came before is probably a contrived setup.

Don’t do this! Find a more natural way (or character reason) to steer the conversation to where you want to go.


“This spaceship has a very special warp drive.”

“What kind of wrap drive?” (SETUP)

“Glad you asked! It’s the 3X Ultimate … blabla … more information about the spaceship”

Repeated beats

There’s nothing more grating than a conversation that keeps circling back to the same points or repeating itself. Yes, it might be realistic, as this certainly happens in real life (especially with arguments people can’t resolve).

But this is a story. And we want to be more efficient and more interesting. So just say what you want to say once, then continue.

If the point you want to make is something really big and dramatic, build up to it. Don’t try to make something more important by just repeating it multiple times or talking about it multiple times.

“As you know”

Another common mistake is to have characters say something they or their dialogue partner already knows!

This can get quite silly. Beginning writers will often write something like: “As you know, we can’t defeat the enemy without the Sword of Everdoom.” Phrases like “as you know” are of course a big red flag and should be removed.

But it can also be very subtle. You might accidentally make somebody explain stuff that the other person can be (reasonably) expected to know. Or they don’t know if this is new information, which they should probably ask first.

To prevent this, the first step is to keep track of who knows what at all times. Simply forbid yourself from adding any “as you know” lines. Even in real life, people rarely state information that’s already known (again and again).

To simplify this, however, most people construct their plot and characters to prevent the issue.

Give your characters clear and unique domains of knowledge.

A common technique is the “mentor / student” relationship, such as with fantasy books. One character is a very experienced wizard who knows all the spells. The other is a student suddenly dropped into this world. The mentor can basically explain everything, as they can be certain the student does not possess this information.

Similarly, although you want to avoid stereotypes, it’s a great help (for both the writer and the story) if your characters most closely relate to different stereotypes. If one of your characters is “the hacker”, then the others should surely not be. This allows the hacker to explain computer concepts through dialogue, knowing everyone else does not possess this knowledge. (It also prevents characters filling similar roles, causing them to have similar dialogue.)


And finally, there’s the mistake of infodumping. Even if you follow the tips and rules from before, you might still end up with a conversation that merely explains, explains, explains.

Even if well written, too much information is just too much. Try to keep conversations focused on one or two topics. Try to keep conversations limited in length.

Giving information is fine. In fact, you often want to be more direct and clear, to make sure information isn’t lost on the reader.

But it becomes an info dump if that’s all you’re doing and it goes on for too long. So it’s fine to have some pieces of literal, direct dialogue that tell critical information. (The alternative would be worse: the book would become twice as long and critical information hard to discover.)

Just don’t make it the only thing you’re doing with a dialogue scene.

Continue with this course
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