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October 25, 2019
Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she looks at writing believable dialogue.

I’m having trouble writing believable dialogue. Any advice? —Susan S.


Good dialogue is essential if you want to attract the attention of an agent or an editor, so it’s well worth putting in the time necessary to make yours great. Here’s what I’d suggest.

First, learn to listen. Listen to yourself when you chat with your kids, or your husband, or your pharmacist. Listen in on the conversations going on around you. Pay attention to cadences, and the rhythm of language, and when you hear an intriguing phrase or speech pattern, jot it down. The more you develop your ear for language, the better your dialogue will be.

Second, know your characters well and make sure the way they speak reflects their background. Try to keep what they say short, clear, and necessary to the plot development.

Third, study the dialogue in your favorite novels and reread some of the masters. Notice how what one character says to another reveals her vulnerability, her underlying motives, and moves the story forward. Then read your dialogue out loud. “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it,” as Elmore Leonard says in his “Ten Rules of Writing.” And one more important tip from Leonard: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks. If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.