12 Tips to Writing Believable Dialogue in Romance Novels

12 Tips to Writing Believable Dialogue in Romance Novels

On the surface, writing dialogue should be an easy aspect of writing romance fiction. After all, we know how to talk, right?

However, writing good, effective dialogue involves more than writing a conversation between characters. Like all other elements of your story, it needs to serve a purpose. It also should sound believable, while at the same time be coherent.

What is the point of dialogue in fiction?

Romance novels tell of people who meet, fall in love, struggle to overcome obstacles, and finally find their HEA. For that to happen, they need to talk to each other from time to time. But dialogue is so much more than a conversation.

1. Dialogue is action. It can create conflict and tension, and helps drive the story plot forward.

2. Dialogue reveals character. How characters talk and what they say reflect their past and present. It speaks to where and how they grew up, what they believe, their goals, fears, etc.

3. Dialogue delivers information. Note that the information delivered may not always be accurate. The speaking character may be unreliable, deceptive, or intentionally vague.

4. Dialogue supports the setting. How characters talk and what they talk about helps establish the setting, including time and place, social norms, locations, etc. For example, the characters in a regency era palace setting up an arranged marriage will converse differently than the characters in a modern day office environment setting up a fake relationship.

12 Tips to Writing Great Dialogue

Now that you know the point of dialogue, how do you write it so that it serves your romance story? Here are 12 tips:

1) Determine the purpose of the conversation

You want to avoid having people talk simply for the sake of conversing or break up long narrative. I’ve read manuscripts in which there are conversations (and actions) that don’t serve any purpose. Often this happens because the writer is simply trying to get from one point in time to another. But readers don’t need an account of every second of every day. For example, when characters are introduced, you don’t have to go through the entire process of the introduction and small talk. You can write that as exposition (it’s one time when telling is better than showing).

Instead, dialogue should serve the purpose of the scene. If you’re writing the inciting event, dialogue should support the decision the characters are making in that moment.

Dialogue can also reveal something about the character. In Pride and Prejudice, there is a scene at Lady Catherine’s home where Darcy tells Elizabeth that he’s not very good in social situations. To me, that line tells us all we need to understand Darcy—he’s shy and has social anxiety. Her response, he should practice more, tells us about her irreverent personality.

2. Write how people talk.

In high school English, you’re taught not to use contractions and instead to write formally. But people don’t talk formally (unless they do in your setting or genre). They use contractions, pause, hem and haw, and use slang.

Dialogue should reflect the reality of where your character is from (place and time), their mood, and age. For example, an angry person might be loud or terse. Or, depending on the character, withdrawn. Children and teenagers speak differently than adults.

BONUS TIP: Your characters should also think how they talk. If you have inner dialogue, it should reflect how they speak.

3. Don’t write EXACTLY how people talk.

Yes, I understand this contradicts #2, but your goal is to be realistic without slowing down the story or annoying your reader. Adding “uh,” “well,” “um,” that people use in real life is difficult to read.

For example, compare:

“Well, I… ah…I guess maybe…ah…maybe I should go.”


“I guess maybe I should go.”

Both express hesitancy or uncertainty, which is your goal. There’s no reason to use eleven words if six will do.

When adding pauses (ahs and ums), use them for effect instead of in the course of a regular conversation.

4. Don’t write monologues.

Long-winded characters detract and can pull readers out of the story. In many cases, characters talk too much for too long to provide information. While information dumps aren’t necessarily bad, they don’t work as a single long-monologue.

Instead, break up the monologue with a conversation or action. How does the other person respond to the information? Let person two ask questions or have the speaker (if it’s their POV) consider the reaction of the listener, or vise versa (if it’s the listener’s pov, have them think about the speaker).

Finally, consider that many times less is more. One of my pet peeves in romances is that at the end of the story, one or both of the protagonists gush out all their feelings, which feels out of character to me. They’ve spent the entire book keeping their feelings to themselves and suddenly the words flow like a tidal wave.

While they certainly need to express their feelings, they don’t need to be long-winded. They’re still the same people. Love doesn’t automatically make someone gush with sentiment.

Characters might need to push themselves to reveal feelings, but they still must do it within the constraints of their normal ways of behaving.

5. Skip the pleasantries.

I mentioned this above, but it’s worth mentioning again (I just read two books that did this). You’re told to show, not tell in writing, but sometimes you want to tell to skip unimportant or boring stuff. For example, when two people meet, you can skip the “Hi, how are you?” “Nice to meet you,” etc, unless it serves a purpose beyond an introduction. For example, if the couple is being introduced and the night before they had a one-night stand, you might have an introduction with hellos and nice to meet yous, but there will be subtext of discomfort or surprise or worry.

6. Limit dialogue tags.

Reducing dialogue tags (e.g. he said) is one of the easiest ways to beef up the quality of your writing. By limit, I suggest you avoid them as much as possible. It can be difficult if there are more than two people in the conversation, but dialogue tags pull readers out of the story because dialogues are telling. Instead, use action or description to identify who’s speaking.

For example:

“I hate you, Sam,” June said angrily.

“Really?” Sam asked in surprise.


“I hate you.” June’s hands fisted at her sides.

“Really?” Sam’s brows lifted.

June’s fisted hands suggest anger, and Sam’s raised brows show surprise. Now, instead of being told how June and Sam are feeling, we can “see” it and feel it.

Many authors use a dialogue tag with action, in which case, you can remove the tag. For example:

“I hate you, Sam,” June said, as she threw her glass at him.


“I hate you, Sam!” June threw her glass at him.

If you do use dialogue tags, stick with “said.” Occasionally you can use similar tags to “asked,” “yelled,”  or “muttered,” but avoid getting too creative. Avoid tags like opined, retorted, etc.

Here is an interesting article on dialogue tags from Jane Friedman’s blog. The author of the article points out an important trouble spot for many authors is using dialogue tag that aren’t acts of speech. For example, “smiled,” “laughed,” “sneered.” Romance authors in particular use these types of tags, usually in the form of breath or sighs. I suspect most readers are okay with that, but for tighter prose that shows instead of tells, you can rewrite those sentences so that these words are illustrative instead of telling.

7. Be careful when using dialect.

I love books set in Louisiana. I enjoy the cajun language, culture, history, etc. However, when all cajun dialogue is written phonetically, I find it difficult to read. It’s like reading old English. You have to slow down and try to figure out what the words mean.

My series, Southern Heat, takes place in the south and part of what creates the setting is how people talk. However, I don’t drop every -g from -ing words (e.g. fixin’). Choice of words and sentence organization can go a long way to convey a character’s dialect without having the reader sound out the words.

Yes, in the south, y’all and bless your heart are common phrases, but there are other expressions or turns of phrases that differ from other parts of the country that can highlight the southern dialect without phonetically writing. For example, in the south we “cut on” (or off) the lights versus turn on/off. We cut the grass, not mow it. I have a friend from New York who says she stands “on line” (like in a queue) whereas I’d say “in line.” Some areas of the country say “soda” while others say “pop”.

8. Give characters distinct voices.

There’s a writer in my critique group that has a very distinctive writing voice. When he writes, though, nearly all his characters have that same voice (his voice), which makes them blend together.

As I mentioned above, dialogue can reveal character. The words they choose and how they talk tells the reader about the person. This can include dialect and slang, but also tone and pace. The strong silent type says a lot in a few words. A babbler uses a lot of words to say very little.

9. Speak without speaking

I’ve already mentioned limiting dialogue tags and using action to identify the speaker. However, sometimes no words are needed. One of my favorite books is Persuasion by Jane Austen. During the course of the book, Captain Wentworth, still hurt from Anne’s rejection years before, hardly acknowledges her, much less talks to her, and yet, during the story, we slowly see him rekindling his feelings towards her. Glances, gestures, and other non-verbal cues can say as much, if not more, than words.

One way to get a sense of this is watching movies. In Forest Gump, when he learns he’s a father, the expression on his face reveals everything going on inside him emotionally. Awe. Surprise. Concern. Tom Hanks won the Oscar in that moment (in my opinion).

The challenge for writers is to convey all that with words so that readers can see and feel it.

10. Balance dialogue with narrative.

An author recently shared with me that they found the dialogue in a book they were reading exhausting. While all readers differ in their experiences of books, it is important to remember that dialogue is action and sometimes readers need a break. You’re not writing a screenplay, so you want to break up dialogue with narrative. It can be action (e.g. taking a sip of their drink) or a thought. It could be an awkward silence or interruption.

Sure there are times when banter or rapid-fire dialogue is needed, but there’s a limit at which readers also need a moment to catch their breath.

11. Fit dialogue with the tone/mood of your book.

If you’re writing a sweet romance, there shouldn’t be swear words. And, if appropriate for your book, be purposeful in your use of swear words. Too much and it could get annoying.

If your book is a romcom, there should be a light tone and lots of banter. A dark romance can have banter too, but the overall tone of the book will be foreboding.

12. Read your dialogue out loud.

Saying your dialogue out loud will help you hear how your character sounds. If you stumble while reading it or it sounds awkward, then you know it’s not quite right. In fact, consider dictating for the most realistic sounding dialogue.


Do you have other tips for writing great dialogue in romance fiction? Share it in the comments below.

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