“Three-ways are complicated” and other expert advice on dialogue

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The paperback edition of SMALL ADMISSIONS releases today, and I have been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned as a writer this year. Like, how have I grown and improved? In particular, I’ve been giving the art of dialogue a lot of thought, asking myself, “How does one write really fabulous, realistic conversations between characters?”

Writing good dialogue can be a challenge for even the most experienced writers. But the following five tips will help you write convincing and engaging conversations in your fictional world.

1. Dialogue tags are super helpful, so use them constantly, like all the time, to make sure the reader knows who is saying what to whom. 

 Example 1:

Jack turned to his wife Susan, saying, “Hey, there, Susan. Do you still love me?” Jack asked. “Feels like our marriage is on the rocks, Susan,” Jack continued.

“I adamantly disagree,” Susan replied dismissively. “The romance has dwindled, sure, but hell, Jack, don’t be so paranoid,” Susan said, while primping in the mirror and adjusting her brassiere. “I still love you, Jack,” Susan added.

“Oh, Susan,” said Jack, “I’m the luckiest man on earth.” And Jack sighed loudly whilst saying this last bit, to Susan.

Example 2:

“I’m going out,” declared Susan to Jack, throwing her keys and cell phone into her handbag. “I’ll be back when I feel like it,” she further proclaimed.

“But where are you going, Susan?” posed Jack, looking glum. “It’s our anniversary.” Jack then shook his head dejectedly as these words came out of his mouth in the direction of Susan’s ears. “Must you leave?” Jack implored.

2. To help the reader follow conversations, always repeat what the person speaking before has just said.

Example 1 (**advanced technique – cell phone conversation**):

Susan dialed a number into her phone. She was calling Edward who happened to be her husband Jack’s closest friend.

“Hi there, Edward,” she said using a sultry tone. “I was thinking maybe we could have a drink together. Can you meet me now at the bar on the corner?” she asked, still speaking into her cell phone, which remained connected via satellite to Edward’s.

“Did you just ask if I’d like to have a drink with you now at the place on the corner?” Edward asked with surprise, speaking into his phone as well. “Hell, yes, I would love to have a drink with you at the place on the corner.” Edward nodded his head as he spoke, keeping the phone to his ear, while his face was hosting a sly grin.

Example 2:

“Hey there,” said Susan to Edward as he entered the bar on the corner.

“Did you say ‘Hey there’?” clarified Edward. “Hey there yourself,” Edward uttered, standing at the bar, the one on the corner.

The bartender came and served martinis.

“I think you’re hot,” Susan said, speaking to Edward, not to the bartender who had walked away to serve other patrons at the bar and who wasn’t particularly attractive, at least not to Susan.

“You think I’m hot?” quizzed Edward. “That’s freaking awesome, because I think you’re hot, too.”

3. “Said” is super boring — Always use way better verbs.


“How was your weekend, Edward?” Jack queried his closest friend at the gym the next morning.

“Swell!” interjected Edward to Jack as they pumped iron and sweated profusely. “Your wife Susan is quite attractive,” Edward asserted, in a completely accidental slip of the tongue. “Ooops!” Edward suddenly gasped, clasping his hand over his mouth (his own mouth, that is, not Jack’s mouth), as if to put the figurative cat back in the proverbial bag.

“What did you just say?” inquired Jack. “Why are you speaking about my wife Susan?” he hollered out in a swirl of massive confusion.

“No reason,” fabricated Edward deceitfully. “I misspoke. I meant to say… I assume you think your wife Susan is attractive,” muttered Edward, covering his tracks quite expertly.

“You’re right about that, my close friend,” Jack guffawed jovially, clapping Edward on his broad, muscular back. “How about the three of us have dinner together at our place tonight?”

“Mmmm, I’d enjoy that tremendously,” Edward said, inwardly winking to himself.

4. Three-ways are complicated, so use caution.


“This dinner sure is delicious,” Edward offered as a remark to Susan.

“My Susan is one heck of a good cook,” delivered Jack to Edward, while indicating Susan as the recipient of his attention in the compliment.

“I’m good at a lot of things,” said Susan, mostly to Edward but also a little to Jack but more like as an aside about her cooking, whereas to Edward it was quite direct and loaded with double entendre, if you know what I mean.

“I’ll just bet you are,” Edward whispered in a breathy exhalation into Susan’s hair when Jack was distracted by something he thought he saw behind him in the other room.

5. Use adverbs generously so the reader is told exactly how the dialogue is being said and sprinkle your dialogue with colloquial (or “real”) language.


“What the holy cow is going on in here?” Jack yelped out explosively as he walked into the kitchen and found his wife Susan in the arms of his friend Edward.

“Nothing at all,” panted Susan orgasmically. “Whatever do you mean, ‘bae’?”

“Crud, this is awkward,” murmured Edward to himself sheepishly. And then he turned abruptly to Jack. “I was simply thanking Susan for the delectable dinner,” Edward fibbed convincingly. “I sure wish I could stay for seconds,” he flirtatiously innuendoed.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, pal,” announced Jack moronically, revealing both his penchant for hospitality as well as his unawareness of the cuckoldry that was afoot and the sexual energy that was at hand in plain view of his nose.


I sure hope that helps. For more terrific dialogue, you can grab a copy of my paperback – SMALL ADMISSIONS! – out TODAY!

And please feel free to join me tomorrow night (7/12 at 6:30) at Shakespeare & Co. for a reading and conversation with the fabulous Elissa Bassist, editor of The Funny Women column on The Rumpus.

Author: Amy Poeppel

Amy Poeppel grew up in Dallas, Texas and left the south to attend Wellesley College. Since then, she has worked as an actor, a high school English teacher, and most recently as the Assistant Director of Admissions at a school in New York City. Her three fabulous boys are all off in Boston attending school, and she and her husband now split their time between New York and Frankfurt, Germany. A theatrical version of SMALL ADMISSIONS was workshopped at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit. She later expanded it into her first novel.

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