The Best Examples of Good Dialogue
Writing “good” dialogue isn’t easy. I mean, even defining what makes dialogue good can trip up the best of writers. It’s the kind of thing that you know it when you see it, right?
But that’s not helpful for authors like us who want to up our writing game.
Let’s be clear, you need to write the best dialogue you can. There is nothing more jarring or disheartening than bad, stilted dialogue. At best, messing up how your characters speak will get you bad reviews. At worst, it will get your book tossed on a DNF pile.
That’s why we’re going to dissect everything that makes good dialogue. That includes:
- Defining “good”
- Examples of great dialogue in authors, movies, and TV shows
- What good dialogue brings to your story
- Practical tips for writing good dialogue.
But before diving any deeper, understand that quality dialogue can’t exist without quality characters. So be sure to bookmark this link so you can learn everything you need to know about writing great characters.
That’s for later, though. Let’s dive into awesome dialogue.
What is “Good” Dialogue?
Like we said, defining good dialogue can be tricky. If you ask 100 different writers and readers to give you a definition, you’re likely going to get 100 different answers. But we need something to work with, right?
So here’s the definition we’ll be working with:
Dialogue that feels natural and authentic while also advancing the plot or revealing something about a character.
I know that reads a little vague, but let’s take a moment to understand it.
Natural and authentic - If your characters are speaking like robots or with weird pacing, it’s going to come across as robotic and weird. Unless your character has some flaw or quirk that makes them do this, you’re going to want them to speak like actual people.
Advancing the plot - Basically everything in your novel should advance the plot in some way. Sure, you can have some details thrown in to make your world seem alive, but adding in a bunch of superfluous details into your novel, especially in your dialogue, will bog it down and confuse the reader. Unless you are…
Revealing something about a character - If you aren’t driving the narrative forward with your dialogue, you should use it to let the reader know a little bit more about a character. Reveal their motivation or part of their backstory. Progress their arc a tiny bit. Make the dialogue worth reading by making it meaningful.
Does all the dialogue in your story need to be good (by our definition)? No, not technically. But the vast majority should be. Again, too much meaningless content makes your book worse.
Don’t fill your book with “Good morning” and “How are you?” and “Traffic was rough.”
That’s boring and wastes the reader’s time. Aim, whenever possible, for good dialogue.
Examples of Good Dialogue
I’ve compiled a heck of a lot of good dialogue here for you to analyze. While we’ll briefly go over why each is considered good, try to identify what each brings to its respective story.
You’ll see that most of these examples are pretty short. You don’t need paragraphs of text to write something great. With a lot of dialogue, it’s quality over quantity.
Good Dialogue in Books
We have to start with books. It’s a legal obligation, since we’re all writers here.
"I cannot make speeches, Emma… If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more." - Mr. Knightley, Emma by Jane Austen
This line from Emma is a great example of how dialogue can reveal a character's emotions and personality. Mr. Knightley's confession to Emma is sincere, heartfelt, and reveals his inability to articulate his feelings. In fact, it’s the lack of dialogue that makes this line so dang good.
"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will." - Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
How else could Jane express her strength and resolve? Not only is this line eloquent, but it makes great use of a clear and understandable metaphor. Jane's declaration of independence and refusal to be constrained by societal norms is a powerful statement of her character.
"So it goes." - Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
This recurring phrase from Slaughterhouse-Five is a great example of how dialogue can be used for thematic effect. It's a simple, understated statement that appears throughout the novel to underscore its message of fatalism and the inevitability of death.
"'You're not the first to go through this, you know.'
'You think I don't know how this feels?'
'No, you don't know how it feels! Your wife did not die!'
'My son did! He was four years old! You're right, you're not the same. But you can take some comfort in that.'" - The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
This exchange between two characters in The Lovely Bones is a great example of how good dialogue can be emotional and impactful. The back-and-forth between the characters reveals their shared experience of grief and loss, while also highlighting how each character embraces the grieving process differently. Even if you haven’t read the book, you can tell just how much each character is hurting.
Good Dialogue in Television Shows
TV is a great place to look for good dialogue since, unlike books, you can hear people speak. You understand tone, inferences, body language, and everything else that goes into communicating.
Here are some of the best pieces of dialogue from television shows you might know.
"I'm not a psychopath, Anderson. I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research." - Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock
Sometimes dialogue not only reveals something about a character, but it basically defines the character. It’s hard not to perfectly envision Holmes saying this line, right down to the accent and smug look. Not only that, but in just one sentence, we learn that Sherlock is not only highly intelligent, but he also has a tendency toward anti-social behavior.
"I declare bankruptcy!" - Michael Scott, The Office
Sometimes good dialogue does the job while being funny and memorable. Michael Scott's declaration of bankruptcy in The Office is a prime example of how a well-crafted line can be equal parts hilarious while showing the reader how oblivious Michael is.
"I have been and always shall be your friend." - Spock, Star Trek: The Original Series
This line from Star Trek is an excellent example of how dialogue can evoke emotion and leave a lasting impact on the audience. Spock, while being characterized for a lack of emotions from half his heritage, shows how strong his relationship with Captain Kirk is. This single piece of dialogue shows the impact these characters have had on one another.
“Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn't believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up. Disappears! It ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that is me? No. I am the one who knocks! - Walter White, Breaking Bad
I still remember the first time I watched this scene in Breaking Bad. It was one of the most powerful moments on television and showed us just how much Walter had changed from meek chemistry teacher to a powerful drug kingpin. If that’s not character development revealed in dialogue, I don’t know what is.
Good Dialogue in Movies
Just like television, movies give us the opportunity to understand more about dialogue than just the words.
"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." - Vito Corleone, The Godfather (1972)
This line from The Godfather is a great example of how good dialogue can reveal character and advance the plot. It's a statement made by Vito Corleone that highlights his power and influence in the criminal underworld, while also setting up the main conflict of the story.
"What we do in life echoes in eternity." - Maximus, Gladiator (2000)
Good dialogue is more than just basic prose, and this line from Gladiator shows us exactly that by being a great example of how dialogue can be poetic and profound. The statement made by Maximus encapsulates the themes of honor, legacy, and mortality that run throughout the movie, all of which are tenets that he holds dear.
"That's my secret, Captain: I'm always angry." - Bruce Banner, The Avengers (2012)
I’m a big Marvel fan, so I had to include this line from The Avengers. Throughout the entire movie, we see Bruce struggling to control the Hulk or accept who he is. That’s why this piece of dialogue is so good: Bruce has made a major development, turning into someone who embraces who he is instead of being scared of it.
"You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives… You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall." - Col. Nathan R. Jessup, A Few Good Men
This exchange between Col. Nathan R. Jessup and Lt. Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men is a great example of how good dialogue can involve multiple speakers and reveal important information about the story and characters. While part of a larger back-and-forth, this dialogue reveals traits of both characters involved: Jessup’s frustration and willingness to do what others can’t, along with Kaffee’s moral hypocrisy, even if it’s subconscious.
Practical Tips for Writing Good Dialogue
Now that you’ve seen some of the best dialogue in pop culture (and some classics), let’s talk about writing your own.
As with everything related to writing, you aren’t going to just stumble into consistently good dialogue. Sure, you’ll have a stroke of conversational genius every now and then, but you want to be a great writer, right? That means you should understand and practice writing good dialogue.
Create realistic characters - We established this at the very beginning: you can’t have good dialogue without good characters. If you want what someone says to be meaningful and help your story, the person saying it has to be well-developed. We have a ton of articles on writing great characters, but here are a few places to get you started:
- Fleshing out a character
- How to write complex characters
- How to write realistic characters
- Writing characters your readers will love
Show, don’t tell - This should be a guiding principle in all your writing, but it’s especially important when writing dialogue. Which seems contradictory, right? Because speaking is literally telling. But use dialogue to show growth, a plot point, conflict, etc. If you need some show, don’t tell practice, we’ve got some great worksheets right here.
Listen to real conversations - One of the best ways to write natural-sounding speech is to listen to real people having real conversations. Head to a coffee shop or restaurant and (politely) listen to other people, listening for the words they use, their tone, body language, and what they’ve deemed worth speaking about. Understand how everyone’s personality, quirks, and mood affect their speech. Just don’t be weird about it, okay?
Literary devices - The effective use of literary devices and effective prose will help elevate your dialogue from good to great. Toss in a simile or metaphor, use evocative, emotional language to make a speech more impactful. As writers, there are hundreds of different literary devices at our disposal. Check out this link for information on all the options you have available to you.
Time to Write Some Good Dialogue
Remember, you won’t write memorable, effective dialogue without first writing really bad dialogue. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is. So your next step is the best one: get writing.
To do that, you need a novel-writing platform designed specifically for fiction writers. That’s where Dabble comes in.
Dabble isn’t just a word processor or simple writing tool. In fact, there are even features in Dabble that can help you write better dialogue.
You can keep all your character details just one click away from your writing, making it easy to reference all their flaws, strengths, weaknesses, and backstory to integrate into their speaking.
If there’s a really important piece of dialogue you want to refine later, highlight it, add a sticky note next to it, or leave a comment to make sure you get it just right.
And to really nail the flow and style of your writing, let ProWritingAid—integrated directly into Dabble—let you know where and how your words can improve.
All that is just the tip of the iceberg of the tools and resources Dabble brings to the table to help you write your best story. And you can try it out for fourteen days, totally free of charge, by clicking here.
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