How Can Spying Improve How You Write Dialogue?

You finally get the courage to submit your first ten pages to a writing contest, and you paid a little extra for the judges to evaluate your prose. But you think, what could they say, this story rocks. You can’t wait to impress them. But when you get the scores back your heart sinks. Basically, your dialogue sucks. The judges don’t say that, but your scores are consistently the same: LOW. Out of a possible FIVE points for dialogue you received mostly ONE’S and a few TWO’S.

Now what?

First of all, applaud yourself for entering the contest because it takes courage. You put yourself out there. Contests are a great way to learn the craft and improve your writing.

Secondly, read through all the judge’s remarks and let the manuscript sit for a while–maybe a week or two. Work on something else. Then look at it the judge’s comments again with fresh eyes and an open mind.

Finally, let the fun begin and  BECOME A SPY.


That’s right. Start spying on people when they’re not aware of what you’re doing. (NO, I don’t mean you should watch them with binoculars through their windows. That’s not spying. That’s a peeping Tom or Tracy.)

Do this instead:  Spend a few hours in the mall, or a restaurant, or someplace where you can eavesdrop on people and listen to how they converse. If you’re writing YA see if you can volunteer in the cafeteria at your local middle school or high school. Be a fly on the wall with big ears and fast wings. Bring a Kindle or something to look at to make you look busy, but instead, LISTEN to how people talk. Observe how they greet each other.

As you listen to dialogue, pay attention to slang words and try to determine what part of the country they’re from. Think of your characters as you listen. Does anyone sound like your villain? How can you make each of your character’s dialogue distinct so the reader knows who’s speaking without seeing the attributions like, “Josh said,” or “Melanie said.” (See my Andre Aggassi example below.)

Be careful about using too many slang words. If your character sounds like she ain’t got no learnin’s use a few words to indicate this, not paragraphs. Your readers will stop reading if they’re frustrated about sounding out all the words.

When you finally sit down to rewrite your dialogue make sure the conversation moves the story forward. Don’t ask, “How are you today?” and respond, “Great. You?” Boring. Ask yourself what’s the purpose of the scene? If the dialogue doesn’t show the reader something the reader needs to know, delete it. Check to see if your dialogue does one of the following:

  • Moves the story forward
  • Shows something about your character
  • Gives information
Here are a few ways to help your dialogue sound natural:
  • Use contractions. People don’t speak like this: “I do not want to play today.” They say, “I don’t want to play today.”
  • Have your characters interrupt each other.
  • Have them pause or use an occasional, ‘um,’ or ‘er.’

Try this exercise I learned from Susie May Warren: Pick two of your main characters and plant them in a scene where they’re angry at each other because they disagree on a core value. Start the banter between them without worrying about quotation marks, beats, description or attributions. Just FIRE away the dialogue without stopping and write it as if the couple were arguing right in front of you. Afterward, you can add the beats and tags if you need them. Try it. Does it help? It did for me.

Also, keep in mind when you’re writing dialogue that people don’t typically say what they really think. (Well, some do.) But typically, we can tell if someone is lying by their body language or their shifty eyes, not necessarily by their dialogue.

I’m a tennis junky. I love to play and watch tennis. A few years ago our book group (mostly all tennis players) read OPEN, by Andre Agassi. We all gave it a TEN. We loved what a fast read it was. Check out this excerpt from the book, page 50. Pay attention to the dialogue. There are few tags. It’s different, but I think you’ll agree that it’s fast, realistic and totally engaging.

I came to play, Mr. Brown is saying, and I want to play.

My father steps forward.

You looking for a game?


My son Adre will play you.

Mr. Brown looks at me, then back at my father.

I ain’t playing no eight-year-old boy!


Nine? Oooh, well, I didn’t realize.

Mr. Brown laughs. A few men within earshot laugh too.

I can tell that Mr. Brown doesn’t take my father seriously. Big mistake. Just ask that trucker lying in the road. I close my eyes and see him, the rain pelting his face.

Look, Mr. Brown says, I don’t play for fun, OK? I play for money.

My son will play you for money.

I feel a bead of sweat start down my armpit.

Yeah? How much?

My father laughs and says, I’ll bet you my house.

I don’t need your house, Mr. Brown says, I got a house. Let’s say ten grand.

Done, my father says.

I walk toward the court.

Slow down, Mr. Brown says. I need to see some money up front.

I’ll go home and get it, my father says. I’ll be right back.

My father hurries out the door. I sit in a chair and picture him opening the safe and pulling out stacks of money. All those tips I’ve seen him count through the years, all those nights of hard work. Now he’s going to let it ride on me. I feel a heaviness in the center of my chest. I’m proud, of course, to think my father has such faith in me. But mainly I’m scared. What happens to me, to my father, to my mother and my siblings, not mentioning Grandma and Uncle Isar, if I lose?

 How do you make your dialogue sound realistic?


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  1. This is very good stuff. I especially like the bead of sweat. Thanks, keep it up.

  2. Robin says:

    Holy Cow. I want to read that book.

    On another note, I love this idea. Eavesdropping without purpose is rude, but I do enjoy thinking about the people behind the words.

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