Crafting Dialogue

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 08:26 min

Margaret teaches how to use dialogue to reveal character and story, and discusses the importance of making your dialogue authentic to the time and place in which your narrative transpires.

Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.
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If you're going to have your characters talking to one another, it should be for some reason, not just to have them chattering away. When people talk, there's usually quite a lot of padding and verbiage, pauses and ums and uhs and you know and like, a lot of stuffing in the conversation like that. And if you put all of that into a book, it can get either unintentionally comical or very boring. So dialogues in books are much, much more selective. And they're usually trying to find out something from the other person or they're making some social move. They're making some power play of a social nature or trying to ingratiate themselves, or they may even be attempting to be seductive. So how people talk and what they say in a book is indicative of who they are, of course. It has to be consistent with who they are. But it's also telling the reader things that the reader needs to know, but most particularly, what their intention is in talking to this other character. What are they trying to achieve? What is their goal? And what are they trying to avoid? [MUSIC PLAYING] What people say to one another and what they're thinking while they're saying those things may be quite different. What the person listening hears, what they understand by what the first person has said, which can be something like, that person is trying to be quite rude to me although, they've put it in a polite way. I get it that they're being dismissive and condescending to me. You can do it like that. You can hear a veiled threat. For instance, you can hear some information that the first person wasn't intending to give you. Maybe they're attempting to be seductive and the other person just thinks they're an idiot. All of these can happen. Pickup lines-- what the person says, what the recipient hears, those can be two quite different things. It might be fun sometimes to have to have your character overhearing two other people. So that's another kind of use of dialogue, an overheard dialogue. And if you do that, usually the person doing the overhearing is either learning a secret or hearing something quite unpleasant about themselves, so that experience people may have had in wash rooms, say, wash rooms in high school about overhearing other people discussing you behind your back. Because it is true in society in general that people will say things about you behind your back that they would not say to your face. [MUSIC PLAYING] It's hard to speak about someone's tone of voice or their voice apart from what's happening to them and who they are. So you need to know who they are. You need to know where they're living, what their social level is, what sort of vocabulary would be available to them, how they talk. What's their level of speech? What is their local dialect? I just watched a film called "Bad Grannies." I see these on planes. So they're all talking southern-- southern dialect, and they're putting in a lot of vernacular expressions because th...

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.


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Andrea P.

I find that good dialogue is hard to achieve. Especially, when you are trying to tell the reader something about the character through the words he/she says. Dialogue can reveal so much, and I loved all the insights from this lesson.

Heath M.

I also love dialogue because I get to be in control of what my characters say and I get to almost invent their personality.


Sometimes I feel like I have too much dialogue going on in my writing, but this lesson has helped me decide what dialogue should stay and what is irrelevant to the story

Gareth S.

I love dialogue. Dialogue seems to be the most important part of my writing.

G. S.

Who they are, where they live, their education is how the dialogue should be!

G. S.

1. Overhearing can be fun! Hearing something unpleasant about themselves beacuse it is true!

Suzanne B.

I love dialogue. My first love was reading plays, Tennessee Williams to be exact. Why? because his realities were close to mine growing up and I couldn't find anything close in the literature that was offered to me. I was 15 going on 35 and, once safely installed in boarding school, I was free to roam in my mind. I wound up with TW. So when my narrative starts to slow down and I begin to struggle, I often think, hey, she's been awfully quiet. Let's check in.

Craig H.

I feel lucky that dialogue is one of my strengths. Still have a lot to learn, but it flows from my fingers more easily than description, etc. I hear the conversations fairly clearly in my head. Plus, I've had a fair number of years listening to people speak, taking note of word usage and accent, etc. But my big takeaway here was to think about what's not being said, or not intended to be said, etc. I look at some recent dialogue I've written and see it might be too facile, too open, without subtext. Well, back to the drawing board!

Elizabeth M.

Dialogue seems to be the most difficult part of my writing. I find it difficult to know when to infuse dialogue into first person narrative, etc... When and why do we add dialogue vs narrative? How much dialogue? Don't want the story to be one running conversation, etc...

Diana H.

I listen to people and their vernacular, dialect, and inflection all the time. I do it inspite of myself. When I hear something I like I copy it down in my memory. I remember entire conversations. To find the characterization again I use the stories they told. When spending time on Shakespeare you are so often unlocking the language so you can glean all the nuance it is sort of a game and a challenge for an actor or an audience. I have not experimented much with vastly different era's. I will do that for homework .