How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript by James Scott Bell book cover

How to Write Dazzling Dialogue:
The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript
by James Scott Bell

How to Write Dazzling Dialogue is a book written for English writers looking to improve their novel/screen play/comic, etc. by improving the dialogue. But that’s not to say this book can’t be used by translators too! Translators are, after all, writers.

Entertainment translators in particular write for TV, movies, novels, and comics. We may not create the original work, but we craft the dialogue in the translation. As such, a good entertainment translator should have a good command of written dialogue. Translated speech needs to sound natural while accurately reflecting the meaning of the original manuscript.

This is why I wanted to try out Dazzling Dialogue—to see how useful it was for translators looking to improve writing English dialogue.


An Overview

Dazzling Dialogue is a short 132-page book split into two main themes. The first 80-ish pages focus on Bell’s experience writing dialogue to tell the reader what good dialogue is and how to improve it, with lot of examples.

The second half of the book looks at some issues in dialogue and how to address them—such as adverbs, dialects, cursing, comedy, etc. Again, with lots of examples. This section is somewhat useful but it mostly looks at the impact these things have on your writing, rather than the nitty-gritty how to utilize them.

I actually found the first half a lot more useful than the second.


What I liked about this book is it reads as if the author is speaking to you. It’s written in Bell’s voice, which makes it easy and enjoyable to read.

What I’m personally not a huge fan of is all the references to old movies that I haven’t seen. There are lots of references to many great scenes from famous films, plays, TV shows, and novels but they don’t quite land when you’ve never seen or read them. But that could be a problem with me, not the author.


What Dazzling Dialogue Will Teach You

First of all, this book focuses on the purpose of dialogue and how to create dialogue that will engage your audience. Although this means there’s a lot of talk about how to write scenes to create a desired effect, a large portion of this can be applied to translation when adapting scenes in your translation.

The first thirty-odd pages focus on introducing the basic principles behind what dialogue is and isn’t. The basics to get every reader on the same page. But the rest of the book is quite useful.


Characterization and Tone Through Dialogue

On page 28, Bell explains how you can express character through vocabulary, syntax, and dialect. Similar to what I discuss in Translating Character Voicehow a character talks tells the reader a lot about who they are as a person—their education, class, social rank, where they’re from, whether a language is their native tongue, etc.

Character dialogue also helps to set the tone of a text. Similar to my complaints about There’s No Such Thing as An Easy Job, when someone’s register doesn’t match their character, it can shift the tone of the overall story and give the reader the wrong impression, or throw them out completely.


Keep It Short and Sweet

On page 71, Bell calls this Compression but it’s pretty much exactly the driving principle behind my favourite book, The 10% Solution by Ken Rand. Basically—cut the fat for punchier dialogue.


Add Some Spice

On page 77, Bell explains how a few Gems and Spice can help move the reader emotionally. This is important when you’re translating because word choice impacts the reader’s reaction to a scene. If you have a moving scene or a conversation where some important news is dropped, you want to choose your words carefully to re-create this effect.


Writing Funny Dialogue

There’s a whole section in the second half of the book on Comic Relief, but it doesn’t tell you how to write comedy, only the impact it has on a scene. Page 68, however, talks about Curving the Language and how you can express the same information in a way that makes it more entertaining to the reader.

I think this is some of the best advice I’ve seen for writing funny, witty dialogue.


How to Practice Your Dialogue Writing

You might think chapter 4, Training for Dialogue wouldn’t be useful for translators, but don’t skip it! This chapter goes over exercises you can use to practice your original writing skills. This is so important when working as a translator or editor, because if you can’t write well in English then how can you translate well?

Chapter 5 and 6 then look at more techniques for how to write original scenes which can help shape your dialogue. These are great for things to think about when working on the exercises in chapter 4.

As I mentioned, this book focuses on the purpose of dialogue and how to create dialogue that will engage your audience. Which is why I think chapters 4 to 6 are the most useful if you’re looking to improve your writing skills.


Overall a Short, Sweet Book But is Somewhat Lacking

This book is short and sweet and great at getting you to think about dialogue. But upon re-visiting it for this review I noticed how it mostly has surface-level explanations. I bookmarked sections I found useful and only have 18 little tabs.

James Scott Bell introduces an idea or issue that only takes a few sentences, then fluffs up the section with examples. Very useful for understanding the point, but not so useful if you want clearer guidance. He doesn’t explain exactly what parts of the example apply to the point he’s making either, he just expects you to know them.

I like this book, I found it useful, but if you’re looking for a more comprehensive guide then you might be better off looking elsewhere.

How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell book with tabs


Other Articles You Might Find Useful

Translating Character Voice

Improving English Writing – How to Improve Your Translations Skills

A Quick Read for Self-Editing Tips and Tricks

Effective Self-Editing for Terrific Translations

Persistent Pitfalls in Media Translation and How to Avoid Them


Dazzling Dialogue for Translators — Book Review
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kathryn radford
1 year ago

Thank you very much for reviewing this book. Perfect timing! I am working on the dialogue in my WIP.