Ten Authors Who Write Great Dialogue

Dialogue is a tricky beast. There are so many writers who can craft stunning descriptive passages, entirely believable characters and heart-pounding action sequences, but whose dialogue falls flat and pale. Here are ten authors who can create a conversation that crackles.


1. Douglas Adams

The author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series marries the fantastical with the prosaic (perfectly distillated in an extra-terrestrial named Ford Prefect) in his snappy, bemused style. Perhaps his knack for chat stems from the fact that he started out as a writer for radio dramas before converting his Hitchhiker episodes into novels. From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

'Drink up,' said Ford, 'you've got three pints to get through.'

'Three pints?" said Arthur. 'At lunchtime?' 

The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, 'Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.'

'Very deep,' said Arthur, 'you should send that in to the Reader's Digest. They've got a page for people like you.'

'Drink up.'

2. Judy Blume

The young adult maven has spoken to the hearts of countless teens and tweens over the years, establishing a world that is both safe and risky, honest and entertaining. Much of her success is garnered through her unequivocal understanding of the workings of the teenage mind - and mouth. From Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret:

Nancy spoke to me as if she were my mother. 'Margaret dear--you can't possibly miss Laura Danker. The big blonde with the big you know whats!'

'Oh, I noticed her right off,' I said. 'She's very pretty.'

'Pretty!' Nancy snorted. 'You be smart and stay away from her. She's got a bad reputation.'

'What do you mean?' I asked.

'My brother said she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose.'

'And,' Janie added, 'she's been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period.'

3.  Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides has written three highly successful novels, The Virgin SuicidesMiddlesex and his most recent The Marriage Plot. The Greek Detroit native is long on poetic descriptions, but he is that rare novelist whose eloquence sounds natural in his characters' voices. From Middlesex:

'Well, the way you pretend to be blind is you just, sort of, stumble around a lot. But the thing is, this blind man down in Bermuda, he never stumbles. He stands up really straight and he knows where everything is. And his ears are always focusing in on stuff.'

I turned my face away.

'See, you're mad!'

'I'm not.'

'You are.'

'I'm being blind,' I said. 'I'm looking at you with my ear.'

'Oh. That's good. Yeah, like that. That's really good.'

Without letting go of my hand, she leaned closer and I heard, felt, very softly, her hot breath in my ear. 'Hi, Tiresias,' she said, giggling. 'It's me. Antigone.'

4. Barbara Kingsolver

In addition to being a widely published novelist, Kingsolver is also a poet and essayist. Her dialogue is pointed and memorable, an absolute force of meaningful emotion. From The Poisonwood Bible:

'With all due respect,' my father said, 'this is not the time or the place for that kind of business. Why don’t you sit down now, and announce your plans after I’ve finished with the sermon? Church is not the place to vote anyone in or out of public office.'

'Church is the place for it,' said Tata Ndu. 'Ici, maintenant, we are making a vote for Jesus Christ in the office of personal God, Kilanga village.'

Father did not move for several seconds.

Tata Ndu looked at him quizzically. 'Forgive me, I wonder if I have paralyzed you?'

Father found his voice at last. 'You have not.'

5. Elmore Leonard

The crime novelist's dialogue is so catchy, so snappy, so utterly say-able, that his novels and short stories have been made into some of the talkiest films in Hollywood: Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma, Out of Sight and, of course, the terrific FX series Justified starring Leonard's laconic lawman Raylan Givens. From Out of Sight:

'You sure have a lot of shit in here. What's all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains...What's this can?'

'For your breath,' Karen said. 'You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.'

'You devil, it's Mace, huh? What've you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders...Where's your gun, your pistol?'

'In my bag, in the car.' She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, 'You know you don't have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they'll stop the car.'

'They're off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.'

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

'I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.'

'I believe it,' Karen said. 'You've ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.'

She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.

'I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they're all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.'

'The idea of going after guys like you,' Karen said, 'appealed to me.'

6. Sinclair Lewis

Perhaps because Lewis was also a playwright, he shows a deft handle with dialogue in his many novels. His characters don't just talk - they sing. From Main Street:

Didn't she remember--what was it?--Kennicott sitting beside her at Fort Snelling, urging, 'See how scared that baby is. Needs some woman like you.'

Magic had fluttered about her then--magic of sunset and cool air and the curiosity of lovers. She held out her hands as much to that sanctity as to the boy.

He edged into the room, doubtfully sucking his thumb.

'Hello,' she said. 'What's your name?'

'Hee, hee, hee!'

'You're quite right. I agree with you. Silly people like me always ask children their names.'

'Hee, hee, hee!'

'Come here and I'll tell you a story of--well, I don't know what it will be about, but it will have a slim heroine and a Prince Charming.'

7. Toni Morrison

Morrison is one of the great writers of our time. Her novels are rich and tangible, and never so much as through the vivid dialogue offered by her deeply textured characters. From Beloved:

'Something funny 'bout that gal,' Paul D said, mostly to himself.

'Funny how?'

'Acts sick, sounds sick, but she don't look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull.'

'She's not strong. She can hardly walk without holding on to something.'

'That's what I mean. Can't walk, but I seen her pick up the rocker with one hand.'

'You didn't.'

'Don't tell me. Ask Denver. She was right there with her.'

8. Jean Rhys

The Dominican novelist turned Jane Eyre on her head with Wide Sargasso Sea and created an entirely original, stream-of-consciousness voice in Good Morning, Midnight. Her characters fly out of the page into fully realized dimension thanks to her strength of colloquy. From Wide Sargasso Sea:

'Then why do you never come near me?' she said. 'Or kiss me, or talk to me. Why do you think I can bear it, what reason have you for treating me like that? Have you any reason?'

'Yes,' I said, 'I have a reason,' and added very softly, 'My God.'

'You are always calling on God,' she said. 'Do you believe in God?'

'Of course, of course I believe in the power and wisdom of my creator.'

She raised her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth turned down in a questioning mocking way. For a moment she looked very much like Amélie. Perhaps they are related, I thought. It's possible, it's even probable in this damned place.

'And you,' I said. 'Do you believe in God?'

'It doesn't matter,' she answered calmly, 'what I believe or you believe, because we can do nothing about it, we are like these.' She flicked a dead moth off the table.

9. John Steinbeck

The prolific Nobel and Pulitzer-prize winning author created full, vibrant universes peopled with lasting characters. His dialogue is such that a reader can hear it as if spoken aloud; the words do not lie inert on the page. From Of Mice and Men:

'I forgot,' Lennie said softly. 'I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.'

'O.K.—O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tell’n you things and then you forget ‘em, and I tell you again.'

'Tried and tried,' said Lennie, 'but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.'

'The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?'

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. 'Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…'

'The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?'

'Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.' His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, 'George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.' He looked down at the ground in despair.

'You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?'

Lennie grinned with relief.

10. David Foster Wallace

Wallace was one of the most innovative writers of our time, influencing an entire generation of authors with his self-conscious, existential and post-ironic approach to writing. Wallace wrote dialogue like no other - he did everything his way, and his way was singular. From The Broom of the System:

'Do you want to hear what I think?' says Mindy Metalman Lang.

'I am one enormous ear,' says Rick Vigorous.

'I think you're just tired, and tense, and understandably upset, and that's why you're not being fair, and making up these lies.'

'And who may I ask has the temerity to allege that I am making up lies,' says Rick Vigorous softly, looking up and away. His face is running with light.


So who am I missing here? What other authors have a noted gift for gab? Let's start our own little dialogue in the comments!

Image via KeepStream

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Meredith_103's picture
Meredith_103 May 25, 2012 - 8:23am

David Foster Wallace was the best. Glad to see him on the list. But...isn't that passage from The Broom of the System?

James Storie's picture
James Storie from Alabama is reading The Fireman May 25, 2012 - 8:24am

For me this is one of the best uses of dialogue ever. Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.  

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 25, 2012 - 8:30am

I'm a Steinbeck guy, but I am glad to see Judy Blume on the list. She doesn't get enough credit for being a young adult writer before it was cool.

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith May 25, 2012 - 8:35am

@Meredith103 (name same!): Ack, it totally was! Edited to reflect, thanks!

@James: great point. I love that short story so much, and it's almost entirely dialogue.

@Jack: Thanks! I have so much love for Ms. Blume.

Mark Fresno's picture
Mark Fresno from Flint, MI is reading The Baseball Encyclopedia May 25, 2012 - 9:20am

Roger Zelazny. Specifically the Amber series, I am reminded a lot of Elmore Leonard. I get his words stuck in my head like songs. 

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith May 25, 2012 - 9:31am

That's the best sign of a true dialogue master.

Kate Rothwell's picture
Kate Rothwell May 25, 2012 - 9:52am

Absolutely Elmore Leonard. I'd add Lawrence Block and Jennifer Crusie to the list.

John Montag S J's picture
John Montag S J May 25, 2012 - 10:15am

I wouldn't have trusted this list without Elmore Leonard on it. I also think Hemingway belongs there, but even before Hemingway--Mark Twain. or are we limiting the consideration more or less to contemporary writers? But then, Sinclair Lewis? what about JD Salinger?

Laurie Genske's picture
Laurie Genske from Milwaukee, WI is reading Slaughter House Five May 25, 2012 - 10:28am

Um...where is the great, J.D. Salinger??? One of the best written dialogues I've ever read is in, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," in Nine Stories.  Of course there's Catcher, but ALL his works, though few, have amazing dialogue that's so real and rich with character history.  I will never undertsand how he did it and I will forever be in awe of him.

Thomas Berry's picture
Thomas Berry May 25, 2012 - 10:36am

Tom Robbins for sure. Anything in "Still Life With Woodpecker" or "Jitterbug Perfume".

Oh and "Today is Friday," by Hemingway.

And George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Good stuff. And I completely agree with Laurie about a Perfect Day for Bananafish.

Cameron Lawrence Merker's picture
Cameron Lawrenc... from Twin Cities is reading Watership Down May 25, 2012 - 10:38am

I love Vonnegut's dialogues, especially the inner dialogues. My favorite dialogues are from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. You can feel the frustration leaking from the characters.

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith May 25, 2012 - 11:56am

These are all great suggestions. I agree, it was really tough narrowing this down to 10. I thought long and hard about Hemingway, but ultimately other writers won out over him.

Debra Janicki's picture
Debra Janicki May 25, 2012 - 2:41pm

Thomas L. Scott, author of VooDoo Daddy, which is available on amazon.com.
Truly great dialogue. Believable, clever, and engaging. My favorite by far.
http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00805582W/ref=redir_mdp_mobile/000-387484...

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions May 25, 2012 - 4:35pm

Richard Price is a pretty big omission.  He's the writer other writers tend to praise for dialogue.

Some jacket copy from Lush Life:

"No one writes better dialogue than Richard Price--not Elmore Leonard, not David Mamet, not even David Chase.  Not only does Mr. Price have perfect pitch for the lingo, the rhythms, and the inflections of how people talk, but he also knows how to use a line or two or even a single phrase to conjure a character's history and emotional vibe." -- Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Price is our best, one of the best writers of dialogue in the history of American Literature." --Michael Chabon

"What if, for once, we did not credit Richard Price with having a wonderful ear for dialogue?  What if we praised his wonderful mind for dialogue instead?...Filled with page after page of vital speech." -- The New Yorker

"It's not just Price's much admired mastery of street language that grabs you, but also his emotional reach..." -- O Magazine

Etc Etc. 

If you appreciate good dialogue and haven't read Lush Life, you should.

John Lemon's picture
John Lemon May 25, 2012 - 4:17pm

Fun article. Richard Price definitely belongs on this list. 

Paul Rinn's picture
Paul Rinn May 25, 2012 - 4:31pm

No doubt that Richard Price is the biggest omission, but I love Irvine Welsh's dialect (and even with American characters, the dialogue is spot on). And for as sparse as the dialogue is in The Road, Cormac McCarthy was still able to evoke so much emotion in the few words his characters did say.

Mads's picture
Mads from Aarhus, Denmark is reading Charles Bukowski - Hollywood May 25, 2012 - 5:44pm

Two very different writers who both blow my mind, writing in almost opposite styles:

1. Joseph Heller - Catch 22

Alone with Milo later, Major Major felt protest stir for the first time and he said he would prefer to continue eating with the other officers. Milo told him it wouldn't work. 

'I don't see what there is to work,' Major Major argued. 'Nothing ever happened before.'

'You were never the squadron commander before.'

'Major Duluth was the squadron commander and he always ate at the same table with the rest of the men.'

'It was different with Major Duluth, sir.'

'In what way was it different with Major Duluth?'

'I wish you wouldn't ask me that, sir,' said Milo.

'Is it because I look like Henry Fonda?' Major Major mustered the courage to demand.

'Some people think you are Henry Fonda,' Milo answered.

'Well, I am not Henry Fonda,' Major Major exclaimed, in a voice quavering with exasperation. 'And I don't look the least bit like him. And even if I do look like Henry Fonda, what difference does it make?'

'It doesn't make any difference. That's what I'm trying to tell you, sir. It's just not the same with you as it was with Major Duluth.'


2. Charles Bukowski - Hollywood (but anything could serve as an example)

Francois walked in.

'I counted my chickens. They are all still there. I talked to them. I talked to my chickens.'

Francois sat down. Jon filled his glass.

'I want a castle,' Francois said, 'I want 6 children and a big fat wife.'

'Why do you want all those things?' I asked.

'So when I lose at gambling somebody will talk to me. Now when I lose at gambling nobody talks to me.'

I wanted to suggest that when he lost at gambling maybe a fat wife and 6 children might not talk to him either. But I didn't. Francois was suffering enough.

Instead I said, 'We must go to the racetrack together sometime.'

'WHEN?' he asked.

'We'll do it soon.'

'I have a new system.'

'We all have.'

Aaaaaand a short personal fave:

'Start somewhere...'

'I don't have the guts. I'm too worried about my own white ass. Let's join this jolly group here and have some more to drink.'

'That's your answer to everything: drink.'

'No, that's my answer to nothing.'

Mary Dorgan's picture
Mary Dorgan May 25, 2012 - 6:26pm

Roddy Doyle

Mark Beyer's picture
Mark Beyer from USA is reading Updike's "Rabbit at Rest" May 26, 2012 - 3:25am

Updike and Bellow also used dialogue to that top level. I'm surprised neither is on this list. I disagree with Morrison, although her dialogue outweighs her prose and storytelling. And where is Philip Roth??

Okay, okay ... it's an idiosyncratic list.

 

Mark Beyer
Author of "The Village Wit"
and "What Beauty" (June 2012)
blogs at www.bibliogrind.com

Rainn Peterson's picture
Rainn Peterson from Connecticut is reading What ever I have time for. May 31, 2012 - 2:07pm

In the spirit of Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore is one of my favorite authors.  I quote his books like movies. A short favorite would be the last page or so of the prologue in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal.  I always feel like I am sitting in the middle of a conversation I shouldn't be hearing when I read his books, especially the Pine Cove based ones.  It might not be so called literary gold, but this man is my hero.

Alan Solot's picture
Alan Solot June 1, 2012 - 8:40am

The Dog of the South is a very funny book by Charles Portis (author of True Grit).  The Dog of the South also a very well written book, with some really odd-ball characters.  There's not really much plot, but it's a road trip from Arkansas to Belize with the main character searching for his runaway wife. 

Portis is a master at writing dialogue.

This is an exchange between the main character in The Dog of the South, Ray Midge, and Dr. Reo Symes, who was speaking about his days as a medical student at Wooten Institute in New Orleans: 

He ended the long account by saying that Dr. Wooten "invented clamps."

"Medical clamps?" I idly inquired.

"No, just clamps.  He invented the clamp."

"I don't understand that.  What kind of clamp are you talking about?"

"Clamps!  Clamps!  That you hold two things together with!  Can't you understand plain English?"

"Are you saying this man made the first clamp?"

"He got a patent on it.  He invented the clamp."

"No, he didn't."

"Then who did?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know.  And you don't know Smitty Wooten either but you want to tell me he didn't invent the clamp." 

"He may have invented some special kind of clamp but he didn't invent THE CLAMP.  The principle of the clamp was probably known to the Sumerians.  You can't go around saying this fellow from Louisiana invented the clamp." 

"He was the finest diagnostician of our time. I suppose you deny that too."

"That's something else."

"No, go ahead.  Attack him all you please.  He's dead now and can't defend himself.  Call him a liar and a bum. . . . "

Alan Solot's picture
Alan Solot June 1, 2012 - 8:38am

P.G. Wodehouse is another author whose dialogue is marvelous:

From P.G. Wodehouse's Joy in the Morning.  Bertie is attempting to obtain his drunk Uncle Percy's permission for Boko Fittleworth to marry Nobby: 

Uncle Percy says, 'Because I'm jolly well not going to let him.'

Then Bertie says, 'But he loves, Uncle Percy.'

'Has he got an Uncle Percy?'

I saw that unless proper steps were taken, we should be getting muddled.

'When I say he loves, Uncle Percy," I explained, 'I don't mean he loves, verb transitive, Uncle Percy, accusative. I mean he loves, comma, Uncle Percy, exclamation mark.'

Even while uttering the words, I had a fear lest I might be making the thing a shade too complex for one in the relative's condition. And I was right.

'Bertie,' he said, gravely, 'I should have watched you more carefully. You're tighter than I am.'

'No, no.'

'Then just go over that observation of yours again slowly. I would be the last man to dispute that my faculties are a little blurred, but—'

'I only said that he loved, and shoved an "Uncle Percy" at the end of my remarks.'

'Addressing me, you mean?'

'Yes.'

'In the vocative, as it were?'

'That's right.'

the sleeve's picture
the sleeve June 19, 2012 - 4:49pm

I'm surprised that John O'Hara wasn't on this list.

the sleeve's picture
the sleeve June 19, 2012 - 4:49pm

I'm surprised that John O'Hara wasn't on this list.

GG_Silverman's picture
GG_Silverman from Seattle June 23, 2012 - 5:49pm

Thanks for this great list. Gives me more great authors to check out.

La Emme Nikita's picture
Class Facilitator
La Emme Nikita from Los Angeles is reading Tigerman by Nick Harkaway July 9, 2012 - 4:57pm

Maybe not in the top ten, but I have always been a huge fan of the dialogue in Douglas Coupland's novels. The characters come across as witty, wry, self-possessed, and you hear these insane conversations that would sound stilted in the real world but are so natural on the page, complementing the tone and enhancing the story. 

From Shampoo Planet:

"Earth to mother. Earth to mother-"

"Yes, my little donut?"

"Make love to the camera, please."

"Oh, sorry." She tries a wan smile. "Do you think the pumpkin face is scary enough?" she asks. "I tried to carve evil."

"Boo," I say.

"I think pumpkins are inherently godlike" (uh-oh...hippie talk), "like orange happiness bulbs. It's hard to imagine a pumpkin being truly frightening. Will this be an arty photo, Tyler? I want my grandchildren to think I was cultured. That I was different."

"It'll reek of art. Some emotion please, Jasmine."

A chattering charcoal blotch of migrating crows smudges the sky above us as they follow the river south for the winter. Jasmine just won't stop being glum. I ask her if she'd rather get her portrait taken some other time.

"No. No. Now's great. It's just the crows have got me depressed. Something that happened when I was young, growing up in Mount Shasta."

"Please tell the studio audience."

 
Nissim Levy's picture
Nissim Levy June 11, 2013 - 4:18pm

Orson Scott Card is an amazing novelist. Read his book Capitol. The writing is sublime.

Ryan Joseph Fitting's picture
Ryan Joseph Fitting April 15, 2014 - 5:35pm

Dostoevsky has always been captivating to me. You have to get a really good tranlation to really appreciate it, but when you do, despite their wordiness, his dialogues sound completely natural. You can tell that he was the type of author that liked to eavesdrop. 

Brian Dunn's picture
Brian Dunn from Phoenix, AZ is reading multiple things March 19, 2015 - 3:51pm

Glad to hear someone mention Charles Portis here. His characters are tremendously memorable and the dialogue pretty amazing. Dog of the South is such a great novel that I feel cheated having just found out about it six months ago.

Patrick Johanneson's picture
Patrick Johanneson is reading Not So Much, Said the Cat July 15, 2015 - 6:46am

I'd add Wiliam Gibson, Michael Swanwick, and Joe Haldeman to the list. Oh, and John Varley.

Marko Porobija's picture
Marko Porobija April 22, 2016 - 1:49pm

I'd have to go with Terry Pratchett. His ability to define characters through their conversations, and make the dialogues funny and deep at the same time was one of the best I've ever had the pleasure to read. 

Trev Moran's picture
Trev Moran April 22, 2016 - 2:12pm

Denis Johnson has a great way with dialogue. "Jesus' Son" in particular. 

Virgilcane's picture
Virgilcane April 22, 2016 - 3:21pm

Irvine Welsh 

John Matthew Laurits's picture
John Matthew Laurits April 22, 2016 - 6:19pm

Great list! I woulda put Salinger in there, though -- the dialogue in 'Franny & Zooey,' for instance, is just... just masterful.

Reader15's picture
Reader15 November 26, 2016 - 8:38pm

Have to add the man that inspired Elmore Leonard.   George V Higgins.   He bases almost all of his novels just off snappy and authentic dialogue.  His novel The Friends Of Eddie Coyle is the best crime novel ever written according to Leonard.  Love all the other mentions as well.  Happy reading!