If you asked a writer what makes dialogue work, we would answer, “When the words are readable instead of tear-drenched and shredded into tiny pieces.” If you asked an improv actor what makes banter work, they would say, “Why are the pages of my script all wet? What’s with the shredder? I can’t work like this.”
Dialogue is one of the most versatile tools in a writer's toolbox (after industrial-strength waterproof mascara, that is). Entertaining back-and-forths can establish compelling relationship dynamics, heighten tension, and invest readers in your characters. In contrast, weak dialogue can quickly lose readers or even break their suspension of disbelief. Readers’ minds might wander or—worse yet—you might start breaking out the shredder in frustration.
We all ask ourselves the same question: How make characters talk good?
One rule of thumb I picked up for writing fun dialogue comes from improv comedy. It’s called the “yes, and” technique.
“Yes, And” What?
“Yes, and” refers to the principle of accepting what your improv partner has said (“yes”) and then building off the idea (“and”). The agreement creates a sense of cooperation and keeps the scene flowing. Popular improv shows such as Whose Line is it Anyway? are entirely built on this principle.
Your scene partner acts like a lizard and then you start acting like a lizard. You add your own lizard-like behavior, which they then copy, and so on. You create a playful cycle that is fun to watch or listen to. The Lizard Cycle, a new writing term I am coining and is sure to catch on, appears in many different forms in other media. Take this exchange from Book Lovers by Emily Henry where I have highlighted the [YES] and [AND] within brackets.
“I’m not laughing,” he interjects. “When did I laugh?”
“Good point. I’m sure that’s never happened. [YES] But just you wait until one of your authors turns in a book about an amber-eyed asshole editor. [AND]”
“Amber-eyed?” he says.
“I notice you didn’t question the asshole part of that sentence,” I say, and chug some more. Clearly, the filter has melted away again, but at least that’s proof I’m not the woman in those pages.
“I’m used to people thinking I’m an asshole,” he says stiffly. “Less used to them describing my eyes as ‘amber.’”
“That’s what color they are,” I say. “It’s objective. I’m not complimenting you.”
“In that case, I’ll abstain from being flattered. [YES] What color are yours?” [. . .]
I take another sip. “Red.” [AND]
“Really brings out the color of your forked tail and horns.” [YES, AND]
The characters continuously agree with the new reality of someone never having laughed or having red eyes. Their mutual “buy-in” allows for the conversation to flow and characters to connect.
“Yes, And” Why?
Dialogue is often an essential tool for developing a bond between characters. When people are less comfortable around each other, they default to politeness scripts. This isn’t always a bad thing and can add to the realism of a fictional world. Nevertheless, politeness can often be read as guarded and, subconsciously, readers take “yes, and” interactions as a sign of ease around one another. They trust the other person to not misinterpret their words or silliness—they can claim to have red eyes and be safe. The technique can also prevent characters talking past each other. In real life, people can have two different conversations at once all the time. They ask what time of day it is and someone answers “Thursday.” Listening is hard and responding is harder. Characters having two different conversations can be essential in some scenes but not fun in all of them as it shuts down the other person. “Yes, and” forces writers to make sure characters talk to each other, not at each other as their banter builds.
“Yes, And” How?
The “how” of writing interesting dialogue can take as many different forms as there are writers in the world. No two authors' dialogue will sound exactly the same, and your “yes, and” may look vastly different from someone else’s. That being said, you can target the same areas to punch-up, such as exchanges where characters are in agreement. They are on the same page but possibly only say “yes” to each other when they could say “yes, and.”
I’ve made up dialogue for a classic meet-cute at a dog park with an example of how you can make these types of edits.
Ellen shaded her eyes from the sun and squinted at twin furry blurs. The only word for what the two schnauzers were doing was “frolic.”
“Wow! Look at them go. Our dogs must really like each other.”
He whistled. “Puppy love, I tell you. Or senior love? I haven’t seen Shelley run so fast in years.” The tall man, Dave, she reminded herself, shook his head. “Huh. How long have you had her?” “At least ten years.” “Wow! Me too.” Ellen smiled. “Wouldn’t it be funny if they were from the same litter?” “I’d say that’s impossible but definitely would be funny.” He gave her a sidelong smile and Ellen reminded herself she knew his secret. And he probably had bad breath too. Hopefully.
The above dialogue is workable and yet we can punch it up using the “yes, and” principle.
Ellen shaded her eyes from the sun and squinted at the twin blurs. The only word for what the almost-identical schnauzers were doing was “frolic.”
“Wow! Look at them go. Our dogs must really like each other.”
He whistled. “Puppy love, I tell you. Or senior love? I haven’t seen Shelley run so fast in years.” The tall man, Dave, she reminded herself, shook his head.
“Huh. How long have you had her?”
“At least ten years.”
“Wow! Me too.” Ellen smiled. “Wouldn’t it be funny if they were from the same litter?”
“Ha! Just what I needed, another in-law.” He winked. “But I think I could make an exception for you, Miss Ellen.” “Don’t you dare!” She laughed. “I’ve been waiting my whole life to move into someone’s guest bedroom and become a nightmare. Move around the furniture. Criticize their pantry organization—I bet you keep the salt right next to the sugar.” He nodded grimly. “I don’t even label them.” “Don’t worry, I move them to a more sensible location like the roof and get up at the crack of dawn to take four-hour-long showers.” “That works perfectly for me!” He grinned. “I never shower.”
“Pee in the sink as well, eh? One of those men.”
“What can I say, cleans the dishes too.”
Ellen let out donkey-kick laugh then slapped a hand over her mouth. He gave her a sidelong smile and Ellen reminded herself she knew his secret. And he probably had bad breath too. Hopefully.
The edited version gives a greater sense of fun and cooperation—it adds that spark. The “yes, and” spark can do wonders for developing friendships, romances, or even rivalries in any given novel. The struggle for writers to get the banter right may still lead to some damp manuscript pages but also provide a roadmap to reaching that final goal: making the reader cry from laughter.
So go forth and make some stranger cry!
If you'd like to follow Jacquelynn Lyon on her writing journey or find out more about her stories, this is where you can find her:
Jacquelynn's writing website: Jacquelynn Lyon
One of Jacquelynn's sapphic fantasy and science fiction collections: The Soft Landing Collection