WRITING A PLAY, especially an early play, is intimidating. Suddenly you’re confronted with problems you’ve never thought about. How do you construct a story? How do you make your characters both interesting and consistent? How do you handle transitions?

But when I teach playwriting, none of those questions comes up nearly as much as this one: “How do I make my dialogue sound realistic?”

Before we answer that question, think through the elements of the last play you saw. Did the characters seem like people you know in your life? Unlikely. The characters in a play are bigger than life, driven by strong wants and clear goals.

Did the story resemble events from your life? Let’s hope not. 

Did the set look real? Unlikely, unless the play was set in a living room (which I hope it wasn’t. Different essay.)

Sound? No.

Lighting? The least realistic element of all. A glance up at the row of Fresnels hung from the ceiling shows you the artifice.

Why would dialogue be the only element that mimics real life? The answer to “How do I make my dialogue sound realistic” is simple.

You don’t.

Just as we do with other elements of theatre, we optimize dialogue to best tell a story. We shed realism in order to create what audiences really want, which is a compelling experience. Compelling theatre requires compelling dialogue. And the secret to compelling dialogue is conflict.

At its most basic, conflict in a play consists of one character who wants something and one character who opposes them. Just as in sport, it’s the skill of the combatants, combined with the uncertainty of the outcome, that holds us in our seats.

With that in mind, following are six tips for writing better dialogue.

Photo of Crush by Stephen Gregg from the 2016 International Thespian Festival.
Good dialogue is dialogue in which every line is an attempt to get something. Photo of Crush by Stephen Gregg from the 2016 International Thespian Festival by Don Corathers.


“Dialogue” is an unfortunate word. It sounds languorous, and it comes from the Greek root for conversation which, to be clear, good dialogue is not. In conversation, we often speak without an agenda. We praise a neighbor’s garden. We discuss the weather or fret about how difficult next semester is likely to be.

But good dialogue is actor-friendly. Actor-friendly doesn’t mean “easy to say.” Actors are trained to find objectives — things their characters want. Dialogue that’s actor-friendly is dialogue in which every line can be weaponized. Every sentence the character utters should be an attempt to reach an objective. The objective can be to wound, to seduce, to acquire, to drive away, or any of a thousand things the character is trying to accomplish.

Every line needs to be a tactic. That bit of philosophy, the funny story, the hilarious joke: None of those belong in your play unless you can find a way to turn them into tactics. Good dialogue is dialogue in which every line is an attempt to get something.


In linguistics, a verbal hedge is a phrase that makes a statement less forceful, such as “I think” or “This might not be right, but …” People use hedges all the time to appear modest or unthreatening.

But the same hedges that are useful in life muddy your script. We like characters with clear, strong agendas. Great characters are unlikely to say, “I hope you won’t mind my saying this, but I think I should get the inheritance.”

In my opinion, certitude makes better conflict, and, therefore, better dialogue.


“I’m Lisa.”

“Nice to meet you, Lisa. I’m Seth. How are you today?”

There’s not much less interesting than watching two characters greet each other. It’s better dialogue — and better dramaturgy — to find a way to start your scene just as the conflict ramps up.

“What do you mean, I can’t leave?” is way more interesting than “Hello.” If you must show two characters meeting, have at least one of them state her agenda up front: “I’m here to get my son.”


In life, we repeat ourselves constantly, particularly if we’re having an argument. If we think it’s relevant to the argument that we arrived 10 minutes early, then a transcript might show us saying that, emphatically, four different times.

Theatre is more streamlined than life. Don’t have characters repeat themselves. If the words are important, the actors will sell them.

Photo from the 2018 International Thespian Festival production of Stephen Gregg's Trap
The secret to compelling dialogue is conflict. Photo from the 2018 International Thespian Festival production of Stephen Gregg's Trap by John Nollendorfs.


Your characters use all methods at their disposal to get what they want. Part of the fun of a play is watching two characters play off each other: jab, feint, punch, flirt, dazzle.

Acting is reacting. If your play consists of long lines of dialogue, with relatively little white space on the page, you’re giving your actors fewer chances to react to one another, and potentially missing some of the fun.


If hearing your play aloud feels like wading through waist-deep water, hunt for moments in which characters ask questions.

Questions destroy dialogue. They have no theatrical energy. Curiosity is not a tactic. When character A asks character B a question, most often that question could be rephrased as “Could you give the audience information the playwright wants them to know?” This is especially true if the question is the ubiquitous and deadly “What do you mean?”

If you catch yourself writing “What do you mean?” use it as a tipoff that you’re only in the other character’s head. The character who asks the question is temporarily missing. She has no agenda of her own, so the crackle that results from two characters sparring goes away.

Questions do work if they’re used as weapons: “Where were you on the night of the 23rd?” or “Do you really think you can get past me?”

To sharpen your script, hunt for question marks. If the question is used to attack, leave it. But if the question is you, lazily feeding information to your (bored) audience, treat it the way you’d treat a cockroach.

Ironically, all of these techniques make dialogue less realistic. But because they make for better theatre, the audience won’t mind. In fact, they won’t even notice.

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