Dialogue Writing I

Dialogue Writing I

Lesson 1 — English Phrases Natural and True to Context

Dialogue Writing

Whether you are writing a screenplay, fleshing out a novel, or creating a short dialogue on TikTok, a few basic principles must first be mastered. The first principle in writing informal dialogue is to match the characters with appropriate words and phrasing. Remember also that idioms in English conversation, particularly in informal dialogue writing, can intensify the conversation with imagination and spirited feelings.

The English phrases you choose must sound natural and true: true to the character and feelings of the people speaking, true to the plot (the narrative or story) in style and feeling, and natural and true to the context. Context means environment or setting, either situational, geographical, social, or psychological. Are emotions high, are idioms desirable? What English phrases are needed? Is it a barroom brawl or taking place at work? Is it inside a classroom or on comfortable sofas in a personal living room? Are the characters at the top of Mt. Everest carrying oxygen tanks? The words and phrasing must be true to the situation.

I’ll give a quick example. The following is from a dialogue between Alice and Bonnie on my website dialogueswithidioms.com. The two girls are 19 years old and have been friends since they were babies. They have a day off from their work as newscasters.

Here’s the beginning of the dialogue entitled “True Blue.” Note, the Idioms are in bold-italic:

from “True Blue”

Alice: “We have today off.”
Bonnie: “What are you doing today?”
Alice: “I want to go over to the lake.”
Bonnie: “I’d go with you except I’m babysitting today.”
Alice: “Who is it, your niece? Your sister’s daughter?”
Bonnie: “Yes, she’s going to some friend’s birthday party and I have to chaperone.”
Alice: “So you’re taking the old beater?”
Bonnie: “She’s on her last legs.”
Alice: “She is?”
Bonnie: “Yes, and soon she will cross the great divide.”
Alice: “You’re going to make me cry.”
Bonnie: “She has been faithful, she has been true blue.”
Alice: “She’s cost you a fortune on repairs.”

This is half the one-page dialogue. Between these lifelong friends on their day off, we expect upbeat feelings and humor. Notice in this informal dialogue there are already five idiomatic phrases.

Now I will re-write this dialogue differently, momentarily inventing two characters who are not friends but who are at work together:

Samara: “We have tomorrow off.”
Indira: “I’m glad. What are your plans?”
Samara: “I might go to the lake, I’m not sure. And you?”
Indira: “I have to babysit my niece. It means being a chaperone at a birthday party.”
Samara: “Are you taking your car, the old Chevy?”
Indira: “Yes, but I need to replace it soon. It’s too old.”
Samara: “But it looks good. Does it have problems?”
Indira: “Yes, a few. But I’m shopping for a newer car. Repairs can be expensive.”
Samara: “That’s true. Unless you’re a mechanic, you’ll save money in the end.”

In some ways, these two mini-dialogues seem almost the same. But if you look closer, you’ll see they are like night and day. The second dialogue between acquaintances (not close friends) at work is dry, mechanical, factual, with no apparent emotion (what I will call “passion” here and elsewhere). Technically there is nothing wrong with this dialogue; it is perfect English. However, it has no spirit. It has no feeling, no passion.

Where Indira says the car is getting old, Alice calls it a “beater” and Bonnie says “She is on her last legs, and will soon cross the great divide.” She humanizes the car, which (who) is about to experience death. Alice replies, “You’re going to make me cry.” This is all exaggerated language, expansive and imaginative, idiomatic, passionate. It is the way lifelong friends might talk to each other.

Notice how the short dialogue between Alice and Bonnie concludes:

from “True Blue” (conclusion)

Bonnie: “Well, you’re only looking at one side of it.”
Alice: “What’s the other side?”
Bonnie: “She was there at my graduation, she was there on my first date with Jackson, she was there when I crossed the border into Mexico.”
Alice: “You’re taking me down memory lane.”
Bonnie: “Yes I am, I can’t help it. I’m a sentimental old fool.”
Alice: “You’re old? Are you even registered to vote yet?”
Bonnie: “When I think of where I’ve been, sometimes I feel old.”
Alice: “Your car is old and ready for heaven or hell. You’re a spring chicken, a long way from eternal checkout.”
Bonnie: “Know where I can get a new car cheaply?”

The feelings are obvious here, but so is the humor. “You’re old? Are you even registered to vote yet?” Or when Bonnie says that sometimes she feels old, Alice replies with two idioms: “You’re a spring chicken, a long way from eternal checkout.” And notice how Bonnie replies, as if acknowledging the idioms and the humor but relaxed enough (as between old friends) to ignore the humor and ignore her own deep passion and just reply, matter-of-factly: “Where can I get a new car cheaply?” Which in itself is a form of humor, because she is laughing at herself.

If we were to finish the encounter between Samara and Indira, it would simply be dry and factual, and more or less spiritless. “Do you know where I can purchase an inexpensive car?” and blah-blah-blah. Nobody cares.

This first lesson does not say that only close friends use idioms in day-to-day conversation, but it does say that close friends will evince more spirited feeling and imagination in dialogue than people who do not know each other. Many idioms can easily express that kind of passion. So whether you are a writer or an ESL student trying to improve your English by making it more natural and true-to-life, you should master idioms to raise emotions in your dialogue writing just as thoroughly as you work to master grammar and standard vocabulary.


1.Write a short dialogue (one or two pages) between two friends and use at least two idioms (could be single words, phrasal verbs, slang, or proverbs) to give the dialogue more passion, humor and complexity.

2.Write an alternate short dialogue with more or less the same situation and facts but this time between two characters who are “stick characters” (like Samara and Indira) and not friends (basically unknown to each other).

3.Write a dialogue between student and teacher that also utilizes idioms but conveys differing levels of respect and authority.

4.Write down words or phrases that define the emotions you find in the dialogues from Exercises #1-3. Here are some possible answers: Empathy. Jealousy. Anger. Impatience. Joy. Sorrow. Reticence. Ambition. Humiliation. Victory. Loss. Boredom. These words describe only part of the total spectrum of human emotions.

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