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Dan Brown’s Top 9 Tips For Writing Great Dialogue
To avoid the pitfalls of bad dialogue, Brown gives his writing students a few simple tips to remember when writing their characters’ speech. It’s everything you need to know if you want your dialogue to sound natural and your story to race along.
- Know your characters’ voices and stick to them. In order to craft realistic dialogue, you need to make your character speak as if they are a real person, with a human being’s limitations and specific point of view. “You have to take into account their level of education, their facility with whatever language they're speaking, their world point of view,” Brown says. “Ideally, if you take away he said and she said, you should be able to look at a line of dialogue and know exactly who said it just by the way it's written. Then you know you’re reading good dialogue.”
- Think of dialogue like music. Brown finds a useful analogy for good dialogue in polyphony—a kind of music where each instrument plays a different melody, and yet they all come together harmoniously. He suggests that writers can benefit from thinking about their characters’ speech patterns in the same way. “If you're writing dialogue that involves three different people, ideally each person will have their own tone, their own perspective, and their own agenda,” he says. “That's what makes a dialogue work.”
- Avoid dialogue of agreement. In real life, it’s pleasant when people get along. But for your reader, it will likely be soporific. This doesn’t mean your characters need to argue all the time, but Brown advises playing up their conflicts and differences through dialogue. “The best dialogue that you're going to write is going to be dialogue of disagreement,” says Brown. “If you're writing dialogue where two characters are saying the same thing—there is no tension there. There is no new information, there's no challenging each other's point of view.”
- Where disagreement won’t work, write dialogue of revelation. If characters aren’t disagreeing, there is another way to make their conversation captivating: use it to reveal new information. Brown sums this up as one character says, “You’re not gonna believe what I found out, let me share it with you,” and the other replies, “That’s incredible because you know what I found out? Let me share it with you.” This is also a reliable way to move your story forward. “What you're doing is you're sharing information with the reader by letting your characters talk,” says Brown. “Whenever you're writing dialogue, make sure that there's new information coming out at all times.”
- Remind yourself of your characters’ motivations. If you’re stuck, bring yourself back to what your character wants to gain from the dialogue they’re engaging in. After all, real human beings talk because they want something. Perhaps they want to give someone some information or gain information themselves. Perhaps they’re hungry or frightened. Even engaging in small talk comes with a reason. “Dialogue is always driven by your character's agenda, says Brown. “So as you write dialogue, ask yourself, ‘Why is this person talking? What do they want?’”
- Put your characters in motion. One of Brown’s favorite dialogue tips is to keep characters physically moving as they talk. He writes body language and action into his characters’ dialogue, getting them to their next destination and changing the setting. His rationale is that it is just more compelling to read this way. He asks his students to think back over TV shows and films, remembering conversations they have watched unfold as characters run through museums or stride the corridors of power. “They’re all in a hurry to get somewhere,” says Brown. “We’re not even sure where they're going. But the fact that they are physically in motion adds to the drama of the scene. It gives us the sense that the plot is moving forward, even if you're taking your time revealing some dialogue.”
- Intersperse dialogue and exposition effectively. One of the most common mistakes among fiction writers is crafting overly lengthy sections of dialogue or exposition. The main problem here is pacing—the nature of dialogue punctuation is such that a reader’s eyes move down the page quickly in these passages. It gives them a sense of fun and accomplishment. But the downside is that the opposite is usually true of exposition. Brown has a tip for checking if he’s got the mix right: he flips through his manuscript and if he hits “too many pages in a row that just have too much text on them,” he rewrites them to add snippets of dialogue. “Just remember that dialogue is also a little bit of an accelerator as far as how people read,” says Brown. “So intersperse it with your exposition, such that your readers don't get bogged down; they always feel like they're making progress.”
- Use dialogue tags with restraint. Dialogue tags are controversial terrain. These are the phrases you use when describing who is speaking—i.e. “he said,” “she said,” “he shouted,” “they whimpered,” “she said laughingly.” A lot of people find the word choice in the latter three examples distracting, preferring to stick to the less showy “he said”/”she said” (including Stephen King, who famously opined that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”) Brown agrees with this advice, particularly in the context of suspense writing. You don’t want to jar your readers out of the story.
- Check out How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript (2014) by James Scott Bell as a follow-up. Brown says it’s a great book for both first-time and experienced writers alike. It is geared toward helping you craft dialogue that is authentic and natural.
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