When we read great dialogue, sparks fly.
I love dialogue. When I’m reading a book and I spot dialogue up ahead, I think: Sweet—we’re getting to the good stuff soon. And when I’m writing a book and I get to a part requiring dialogue, I think: Sweet—time to have some real fun.
Here’s the reason the simple act of watching one human talk to another can cause our brains to spark: because of the spike in electrical neural activity.
Let’s feel that sparkiness ourselves, right here, right now! I’ll scribble up some examples.
Example: Where’s My Phone? (1st draft)
“Have you seen my phone?” barked Person A.
“No, I haven’t,” replied Person B. “Have you checked the kitchen?”
Person A sighed with frustration. “I checked there! I checked everywhere!”
“How about I try calling it?” offered Person B sheepishly.
“I mean that’s a good idea,” said Person A impatiently, “but what would really help me is if you could get up and help me find it!”
Person B looked perturbed. “I’m busy! Why can’t you do it yourself?”
This dialogue fulfills some basic guidelines for writing that you’re probably already aware of. Person A wants something and is driving toward getting it, and there’s also some clear tension between them and Person B, who wants to be left alone. Desire, intention, conflict—it’s all there.
So why isn’t your brain sparking? I know mine wasn’t.
To find out, let’s draft up a second version of the Where’s My Phone example.
Example: Where’s My Phone? (2nd draft)
“Have you seen my phone?” said Person A.
“Hey Siri, call Person A,” said Person B.
“You could get up for once and help me,” said Person A with a sneer.
Person B gestured helplessly at their desk. “Can’t you see I’m busy dealing with my own bullshit right now?”
“I’ve been noticing your bullshit for years,” said Person A, unmoved.
“I want a divorce,” said Person B.
Do a brain check: you should see sparks flying. This exchange has all the basics, just like the first version. But it has a few key features that are my favorites when it comes to really fun dialogue.
The characters talk in parallel.
In the first draft, both Person A and B answer each other’s questions fairly neatly. People in the real world don’t talk like this—they talk at cross-purposes, they interrupt, they don’t listen very well. Now, if you wrote a transcript of an actual real-life conversation, you’d probably wind up with unintelligible gibberish. The challenge as a writer is to strike a balance between the delightful chaos of real-world-speak and the modicum of logic required to propel a story forward in a way that makes sense.
In the second draft, the conflict and drive are still there—but now we see that each character isn’t really that considerate of what the other wants, and that little bit of psychological noise adds a fun layer of complexity to the scene.
The dialogue shows, not tells.
Yes, it’s the oldest rule in the writing handbook, but that’s because it’s forever true: show, don’t tell. In the first draft, we relied quite a bit on active verbs (barked, replied, offered) and adverbs (sheepishly, impatiently) to shore up what were essentially neutral (and therefore boring) lines of dialogue.
By contrast, the second draft had dialogue dripping with emotion, attitude, and motivation, so much so that all they needed for attribution was a basic said Person A, supported by the occasional concrete physical gesture. The attributions, in fact, become trivial at this point—all of the artistic focus is on the actual dialogue itself. In fact, you could theoretically remove everything in the second draft except the dialogue and still be left with a funny, unexpected, sparky scene. Not so with the first draft, which relies too heavily on telling by verb and adverb.
The great writer Elmore Leonard once advised against ever using adverbs, and even went so far as to ban exclamation points. He was a little extreme, but only due to his devotion to always showing, showing, showing with his craft.
The characters are not talking about what they are talking about.
For me, the best dialogue isn’t about the subject at hand—it’s about the subtext underlying the situation. In our first draft, Persons A and B are going through mild conflict (A needs help, but B is busy), but the story remains firmly centered around the quest to find a lost phone. That is not an interesting story. I would even go so far as to say that even if we replaced that lost phone with something bigger, like a Lost Ark of the Covenant, it would still remain a boring scene. That’s because great storytelling isn’t so much about the what, but the how.
The second draft is all about the how. The what of the lost phone is almost immediately discarded to allow the characters to unwittingly reveal a much bigger problem: their crumbling marriage. The fact that the exchange ends with B asking for a divorce shows just how tense things had gotten over the years. Isn’t that so much more interesting? In my mind, the best and most memorable stories are always about people—challenge your dialogue to stay centered rock-solid on your characters, even during seemingly trivial moments like a search for a lost phone.
Great dialogue, in other words, provides compelling keyframes with nice gaps in between, leaving it up to the reader to fill in those gaps with mental leaps. Instead of spelling emotional conflict with exposition, it’s much more interesting—and interactive—to let the reader piece together that, say, Person A and Person B have been on a disaster course for a long time and are right at the brink of marital collapse. Our brains fire up, piecing together bits of evidence found on the page. And that’s when the sparks start flying.
David Yoon is the author of the New York Times bestseller Frankly In Love, a William C. Morris Award finalist and Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature Honor book, as well as the upcoming YA novel Super Fake Love Song and adult thriller Version Zero. He also drew the illustrations for his wife Nicola Yoon’s #1 New York Times bestseller Everything, Everything. David grew up in Orange County, California, and now lives in Los Angeles with Nicola and their daughter. You can follow David on Instagram.