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6. an argument.
A: John, I was talking to the travel agent about where we might be taking our vacation this year. B: I am going fishing in Alaska with my friend, Mark. A: What are you talking about? B: What's wrong with heading out with Mark for vacation? A: You and I have been together for a whole year, and our vacation time should be about the two of us! B: Really? Who made that rule up? A: With that attitude, I don't really think we have much more to discuss here. B: That works for me!
A: John, I was looking through some magazines for ideas about where we might go on vacation this year. B: I've already told my buddy, Mark, that I am going hunting with him in Alaska. A: You can't be serious! B: Hey, I've always gone hunting or fishing on vacation. I am sorry that bothers you. A: After a year together, I thought it pretty safe to assume that we would automatically spend our vacation together. B: Says who? I don't think that is necessarily the case. A: You know, now that I think about it, I really don't have much more to say to you at all! B: Whatever you say!
A: Brian and Christina were mentioning that maybe it would be fun to go on vacation together this year, John. B: I thought that I already told you that I am going with Mark to Alaska. A: Are you kidding me? B: You know what? You and I had no plans, so I made plans with Mark. What's the problem? A: We have been together for a year and usually, people who've been together a year, take their vacation together. B: I don't think that I ever heard of that rule before. Any more rules that you would like to tell me about? A: Go on your vacation with Mark and when you come back, why don't you just move in with him as well! B: I am really looking forward to getting away from you. Far away from you!
Practice the Conversations of This Topic with Mike
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Writing Exercise: Ten Lines of Argument Between Two People in Love
- Jul. 30th, 2013 at 5:05 PM
Write ten lines of dialogue which is an argument between two people. It must be a genuine argument, but it must also be clear that they are in love. No descriptions or direction, just dialogue.
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- (Anonymous) 4 Feb 2021, 03:59 Zutara vs. The Canon Pairings: Which is Better? (Zutara vs. The Canon Pairings, 3/3) It is ludicrous though. Aang did value family, which would be for him, his people. He didn't constantly think of them or literally "replace" his love for them with his love for Katara for no reason.…
- (Anonymous) 4 Feb 2021, 03:32 Zutara vs. The Canon Pairings: Which is Better? (Zutara vs. The Canon Pairings, 3/3) Ah yes..back here again. To reaffirm (not that I needed to) why Kataang is a top tier ship.
Bestselling Author & YouTuber
- Oct 18, 2021
10 Best Tips for Writing Dialogue: Anger, Fights, & Arguments
A while back, I started a video series all about dialogue. We covered voice , tags , and formatting and you guys have asked for more. So that's what we're doing today! In this article, I’m breaking down the 10 best tips for writing angry dialogue. I'm talking about arguments, insults, clap backs, fights, all that good stuff. Some of you guys really suck at writing vitriol. You try so hard, but you fall so short. I'm here to fix that! And just a forewarning: the last tip is the trickiest to maneuver, so pay extra close attention.
Let's dive into my 10 best tips for writing angry, aggressive, argumentative dialogue!
The above video is sponsored by Skillshare . As always, all opinions are my own.
If you haven’t already, don’t forget to also subscribe to my YouTube channel for more writing tips, sarcasm, and of course, more of Princess Butters!
Number 1: Understand the motivation
Think about the character delivering the verbal blows. Why are they doing this? If they're angry, why are they angry? Is it jealousy? Is it frustration? Is it betrayal? You need to understand where this reaction is coming from because it will dictate the type of dialogue they deliver.
Say your character is fed up. They've been tolerating some bullshit for far too long and they finally snapped. A character who snaps is gonna be speaking completely differently than a character who is calm and collected. A snap is typically curt and explosive, whereas a calm character may be cruel or calculated. They've had time to think about and craft exactly what they're going to say. This is why the motivation behind the argument is key. It gives you an idea of how to perfect their verbal blows.
Number 2: Know your characters
Particularly, their baggage. This is pivotal for writing dialogue of any kind, but it’s especially the case when your characters are getting angry. People handle anger differently based on their personality, their experience, and most of all, their baggage.
Some characters have trust issues; their walls are up, their defenses are on. If that's the case, they are less likely to show vulnerability in an argument, and they might pull moves that put them in an offensive position. That means they may deal out low blows or cutting criticism. Anything that keeps the other person at a distance.
Sometimes fighting is triggering for a person, especially if they grew up in an explosive household. They may clam up in these situations. They may disassociate. They may go stone-faced, quiet, or numb.
And of course, there are people who get very vulnerable in angry situations. Sometimes they ramble. Sometimes they cry. Dialogue will always depend on your character’s background and personality. But in this case, baggage is especially important.
Number 3: Know your intention
This is when you need to take a step back from the characters and look at your plot. What is the intention behind this scene? What are you, the writer, trying to accomplish? Is this scene the character's breaking point? If that's the case, something needs to be said in this argument that breaks your character. Think about dialogue that cuts deep. That means tapping into your main character's deepest insecurities and fears and worries. We will elaborate on this in a later point.
What if your intention is to establish the villain? In that case, lots of bitter, cruel dialogue will make it clear to the reader that they need to watch out for this character, ‘cause they're an asshole. The intention of the scene will dictate the kind of dialogue you dish out, and you need to make sure that the argument you’re writing serves its purpose.
Number 4: How does it end?
If you're establishing the intention of the scene, you also need to establish where the scene is headed. How is this argument going to move the characters and the plot forward? Sometimes an argument instigates a breakup. This is especially relevant in romance novels, as well as romantic subplots. Sometimes arguments are stepping stones toward betrayal, murder, or the climax of your novel. Every scene within your story needs to serve a purpose to the plot, and bitchy dialogue is no different. Knowing where the scene is headed is super important, because it will dictate how severe the dialogue needs to be. For example, if your characters are breaking up and you intend for them to get back together, then the dialogue needs to warrant a breakup but still be forgivable so that readers can continue rooting for the ship. Think about fighting words that are harsh enough for them to take a break from one another, but not too harsh to prevent a reconciliation.
Every scene within your story needs to serve a purpose to the plot, and bitchy dialogue is no different. Knowing where the scene is headed is super important, because it will dictate how severe the dialogue needs to be.
Number 5: How bad are we aiming for?
Not all angry dialogue is supposed to evoke rage. Sometimes you want the words to cut deep. Sometimes you just want readers to go, “Damn, that was good!” It sounds like common sense, but so many writers do not know where to set the bar. They'll either go way over the top at the wrong moment or barely scratch the surface when it counts. Know the depth of your character's anger and stick to it.
Say this is a life or death situation. Someone nearly died, and they are pissed the fuck off. This is gravely serious, so calling someone a turkey head isn't gonna cut it. That's what you call your kid after they forget to take out the trash! On the other hand, say your characters are simply auditioning for the same part in the school play. If one tells the other to “Eat shit and die,” well…that's a little extreme. Look at the scene and be honest with yourself. Hold back when it calls for it and go all in when shit gets dire.
Number 6: Hit the characters where it hurts
You've gone through step Number 5 and you've decided this argument needs to be intense. Your character is going for the jugular. In order to do this, you need to ask yourself two questions. First, look at the character on the receiving end. What is their greatest insecurity or fear? In The Savior's Champion , Tobias prides himself on his integrity and he begins to question that element of himself. So if you really wanna cut deep, you would probably call out his morality or humanity.
Second, look at the character delivering the blow. What is their greatest insecurity or fear? Flynn is a character with a fragile ego, so for him, emasculation is the biggest blow. This means that if Flynn and Tobias were in a heated argument, Flynn would likely insult Tobias’ masculinity. It's a big blow to him, so he assumes it’ll be a big blow to Tobias. However, as we already covered, that probably wouldn't matter much to Tobias. That means if we wanted Flynn to hit Tobias where it hurt, he would have to insult Tobias’ integrity. That would be a crushing blow.
Number 7: Keep it brief
Not all fights end quickly, but I guarantee that if you go on for pages and pages, you will lose the reader. The best blows are quick and to the point. That's why the phrase is “Go to hell,” and not “Be gone to the darkest lairs of the fierce and maddening underworld.” A lot of newbies find long, rambling rants fun and cathartic. They think readers are going to eat ‘em up, but they usually come off as cheesy and self indulgent. Plus, they're not that realistic. People don't regularly go off on long diatribes. They usually stick with a good ole “Fuck you.” Long rants lack impact. What hurts more? A single heavy blow to the gut, or a bunch of teeny tiny pokes in rapid succession? Go for the blow and learn when to shut the fuck up.
Long rants lack impact. What hurts more? A single heavy blow to the gut, or a bunch of teeny tiny pokes in rapid succession? Go for the blow and learn when to shut the fuck up.
Number 8: Calm down on the descriptors
“You good for nothing, yellow belly, pea brained mama's boy!”
“You soft, fragile, sissy, blubbering mess of a princess!”
This shit doesn't work. No one is hurt by a laundry list of adjectives. Writers go this route because they think the more descriptors, the bigger the impact. And descriptors do help…to a point. When you go on and on, it doesn't make the burn harsher. It just makes it cheesier, and a little embarrassing. A general rule is to choose one effective descriptor, maybe two, and leave it at that. For example, “You dumb fuck.” Or, “You miserable, worthless shit.” Those statements pack power. They sound angry. But if you extend it on and on, it loses its oomph.
Number 9: Curse
I'm gonna preface this with the fact that not all people curse. I mean, I've never said a swear word in my life. It’s just not classy at all! If you have a character who would absolutely never swear in any situation, by all means, honor that trait. You also have to take your target audience into consideration. If you're writing a Children's book or a Middle Grade book, maybe don't use cuss words. But for a majority of Adult, New Adult, and Young Adult fiction, it's realistic for people to swear from time to time, especially if they're pissed off. No one is gonna say “Fudge!” when they're battling their lifelong nemesis.
“But Jenna, what if my mom reads this book?”
She knows swear words exist, I promise. Also, you're not writing this book for your mom, you're writing it for your audience. Sorry, mom! Cursing is realistic, especially in anger. Utilize it where it fits.
Number 10: Punch down with caution!
This is by far the trickiest part about writing anger and cruelty, particularly if you're writing a villain. One of the easiest ways to showcase an evil character is for them to punch down. This is basically when someone in a more powerful position insults a character that is in a more repressed position. For example, if a rich person makes fun of someone for being poor, that is considered punching down.
As I said, this is a very easy way to establish a villain or showcase that a character is an asshole. However, it gets messy when writers take it too far, especially if they're writing insults about a group of people they do not belong to. Sure, the character is the one ‘saying’ these things, but you–the writer–are writing them. And if you get excessive, it can come across as gratuitous and self indulgent.
A few words of advice. First, never write slurs about a real world group of people that you do not belong to. Readers are gonna be uncomfortable and rightfully pissed. Second, ask yourself if the punching down is necessary. Can you create conflict in a different way? For example, does your character have to say something racist, or can they instead say something classist? Which is still terrible and still considered punching down, but it's going to make your readers less uncomfortable. And third, have you created a completely fictional world? If yes, you can create your own unique hierarchies. You can create your own version of punching down that does not alienate or offend your readers. If Elves are more powerful than Pixies, you can create a ton of really powerful insults that will absolutely showcase how awful your characters are.
So that's all I've got for you today!
If you really want to write some vitriol that’ll have your readers rushing to the ice box to cool off a sick burn, remember that in most cases, less is more. Understanding the characters, your own intention, and what you want the end result to be will help you really hit ‘em where it hurts while also remaining faithful to your story. Above all, remember to never write slurs or hateful speech about a real world group of people that you do not belong to. Instead, consider creating conflict in a different way, and don’t be unnecessarily excessive. At the end of the day, what’s closest and most personal to your character will often pack the strongest punch; make sure to do the background work so you can deliver the proper cutting blows.
How do you write vicious dialogue? Share your top tip in the comments below!
#writingtips #CyborgQueen #JennaMoreci
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Digital words from another white guy @folkinhoosier, father-son argument (dialogue only 1200 word challenge).
Day 12 – 1200 words (dialogue-only skit b/t two people in argument)
Dad: Did you do it yet? Son: Do what? Dad: You know what I’m talking— Son: In a minute, okay? Dad: No, son. Now. Please. Son: Why does it have to be this moment? Dad: Because I… Son Nope. You can’t! Remember? Dad: Wait…What? Remember what? Son: Probably like…ten years ago. I remember! You sat me down one night. I was probably like seven or ten or something. Dad: That math tutor sure was worth it. Son: You said, “Ahem, well, uh…listen son. I want to do things differently…If you ever hear me begin to say ‘Because I said so’ you gotta just slap me and remind me how much I hated hearing it growing up.” Dad: That voice…that was supposed to be what I sound like? Son: Seriously though. Dad: I am serious. I need you to do it…now. Soon. Your mother will be here any time. Son: And that’s my problem because… Dad: C’mon, man. I can’t do this right now. You’re almost a grown man. It’s time to start taking… Son: Care of myself. Yeah. I get it. You and Mom are ready for me to be out. Dad: Well, you’ve already finished one year of coll– Son: Save it, Dad! I know! Dad: Whoa! What’s with that shit? Son: I’ll do it! I mean…Jesus! Why does it matter so much? Dad: It just does. I guess you’ll… Son: Oh shit…lemme guess. understand better when I’m a father? Dad: I, uh..wasn’t going to say that. Son: Right. Dad: Okay, fine. Just…please do it. Like I said, she’ll be here soon. Son: Have you always been afraid of her? Dad: What did you just say? Son: I said, ‘Have you always been afraid of her?’ Dad: What the fuck, man? Son: Touch a nerve? Dad: I’m about to… Son: Hey! Dad: College is changing you, son. In ways I didn’t expect. Son: Wait. Come back. Dad! Dad: What. Son: I’ m sorry. That was…out of line, I guess. Dad: Oh, you guess? Son: It was. I’m sorry. Dad: I’m…sorry too. Son: What do you have to be sorry fo?. I deserved it. Dad: No. You really didn’t. Not now. Defnitely not when you were younger. Son: I’d…actually disagree. It made me who I am. Dad: But you gotta understand, son. It’s not something dads want at the top of their parenting resume. Son: What’s the big deal? You spanked your kids when they acted up. Who doesn’t do that? Dad: Well, your mother for one. Son: I meant dads. Dad: Well…mine didn’t. Son: But he wasn’t in your life. Dad: Uh-huh. Son: Okay. Here’s my thing. I mean, kids are going to test you. Shit, Dad. I just did not two seconds ago. At least when they’re a certain age, you gotta set ‘em straight, right? Dad: Can I sit on that thing? Son: What, the bookshelf? Dad: No. That? Son: Oh. Sure. Lemme just….here ya go. Dad: Thanks. Huh. More comfy than I woulda imagined. Son: We got it worn in this past year, my roommate and I. Dad: I’d say so. Wait. Son: What? Dad: Um…did you, ya know…with anyone on this? Son: Um… Dad: I’ll get a chair. Son: Sorry, Dad. Dad: It’s fine. Glad I asked, at least. Son: Why don’t we just go get some coffee. Dad: That’d be nice…except you didn’t do what I came in here for in the first place. Son: Shit. Okay. I’m willing to do it. Dad: That’s remarkable. Son: Okay, okay. I get it. Dad: Do you? Son: Ha! Not really. But I feel guilty now. You know…your back, or whatever. Dad: Just don’t be in a rush to get older, son. Son: You kiddin’? I’m never gettin’ old. Dad: Don’t let your mother hear you say that. Son: Ugh…she takes everything I say the wrong way. Dad: Son…she’s a mother. She just cares. Son: I know, Dad. I know. But I’ll bet she only tells you part of the story. Dad: Are you suggesting that your mother would not be completely open with me? Son: What? What’s that mean? Dad: I was just being a dick. Son: Ha! Dad: Okay. I’m gonna get a chair. I’d prefer not to sit on that bed…for obvious reasons. In the meantime, please do it. Begin it. Do something to exhibit you heard her earlier and want to make her happy. She likes that. Son: Being happy? Dad: You know what I mean. Son: Okay….Dad! Don’t!! Dad: Why’d that happen? Son: I forgot those were there. Dad: You couldn’t even finish it? Son: Shit. I forgot I put it down last night. Dad: Now we’re both in it. She’s going to get here any second and we’ll be sopping up warm beer off that new carpet. Son: Shit. Dad: Dammit! It was one of the imports too! Son: Yeah. Lemme get some cleaning stuff. Didn’t know you liked those fancy beers. Dad: I splurge from time to time. Didn’t know you thought it was okay to drink in this house. You forget you’re only nineteen? Son: No. That’s impossible. Dad: Well, now we’re both in it. The room’s not clean. There’s beer on that new carpet. She’s going to be triple-pissed. So much for a fun weekend. Son: Dad! Relax! Dad: Shit! Son: What’s wrong? Dad: Oh, no!! Son: Is it your back? Dad: Yeah, son! I’m a grown man crouched on the fucking floor! Son: What can I do? Dad: Oh my god! Goddammit! Son: Dad! Relax! Dad: Shut up! Son: I mean, don’t let it tense up! Here…sort of fall into this beanbag. Dad: But you… Son: Just do it, Dad! Dad: I don’t want to think about what’s rubbed up against this fucking thing! Son: Then don’t! Dad: She’d better have been worth it is all I’m saying. This is torture. Son: Do you have any…pills or anything you need? Dad: In my…I mean…wait. Lemme think. I uh..put them… Son: Dad! Think! Where were you the last time you took them? Dad: Yelling at me isn’t going to speed up my memory! Son: Okay! I’m sorry! I’ve just never seen you… Dad: Nightstand. Son: What? Dad: For God’s sake…I took them a couple nights ago right before I went to sleep. They must be next to my bed. Son: Okay. Just…breathe… Dad: I’m not having a baby, son. Son: I mean…relax. I’ll be right back. Dad: Check around the floor if they aren’t on there! Son: Dad? Dad: Did you find them? Son: Sort of. Dad: What? Jesus. Either you did or you didn’t. Son: Well, you were right. They were next to your bed. Dad: Gimme two. And some water from your bathroom will be fine. Son: The bottle’s empty. Dad: What?! Son: All I found was the empty bottle. Dad: How can that be? I just filled it….lemme see…when did we go… Son: It says a refill is allowed but with doctor’s approval. Dad: Shit. It’s Saturday. Son: So it can’t be filled until Monday? Dad: Fuck it. I’ll just lay here face down in….ugh…whatever’s been on this beanbag until Monday. Son: Wait! I hear Mom. Dad: We’re both fucked now. Son: What does that mean? Dad: I was kidding. Go get the door for her. Son: Hey, mom! Is that dad’s prescription? When did you get that purse?
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Aug 12, 2020
Writing Fictional Arguments
Write believable arguments that pack a punch with these top tips.
You’ve finally reached the moment you’ve been waiting for. Your characters, and you, have been itching for a fight and now the time has come to unleash some feisty dialogue. But how do you make sure your character’s argument packs a punch? Here are some tips to write arguments that get readers fired up.
- Don’t Listen to Aggressive Music Whilst Writing Arguments Let’s get this one out of the way first. While music with a fast tempo and punchy lyrics can be just what you need to write out a fiery argument, it can lessen the impact of the argument itself. Scenes which, initially, may seem hard-hitting may be fuelled by the music rather than the brutality of the exchange and can lack the emotional sucker-punches that will keep readers interested. For best results, write arguments in silence or whilst listening to a softer playlist to make sure you hit the emotional notes you’re trying to invoke.
- Know The End Result Put simply, why is this argument happening and what do the characters, readers or plot gain from it? By knowing the purpose of the argument, and what the consequences of it are, you can avoid rambling and create a more meaningful result. Here are some things to consider: What will happen at the end of this argument? Will a relationship end? Will a physical fight break out? What are the consequences of this argument on the rest of the story? For example, does it create a rift that stops characters from being honest with each other which makes their situation worse? Does the villain get an upper hand and do something that might have been stopped? If you’re sharing information with the reader, are you sharing it in a way that feels authentic? Are you telling readers something that can be shown another way? Taking into account all of the above will help produce more guided and fruitful arguments.
- Know the Relationship Between the Arguing Characters Are your characters friends, siblings or romantic partners? Do they argue often or is this heated exchange rare? A pair who are used to arguing are likely to bring up, or allude to, old arguments. A sibling may refer to a childhood grievance such as a stolen toy or when their brother/ sister told their parents something they shouldn’t have. Here’s a quick example: Henry sighed deeply, his fingers twitching around his wine glass. “Problem?” Beth asked. “Why would there be a problem?” He gestured to the room with his drink. “All of this is just… perfect. ” “Don’t start.” “Don’t start what?” “You know exactly what I’m talking about. You always do this.” He masked a scowl with a smirk as their parents fawned over Ashley’s graduation photo, barely visible through the balloons and flowers that choked the entranceway. “Oh no, wouldn’t want to ruin Ashley’s special day.” “It’s not her fault.” “It never is.” Beth gritted her teeth then snagged a glass of her own from a passing waiter. “Can you just play nice for once? She’s worked hard for this.” “Yes, I imagine paying for all those essays would be very tiring.” “You don’t know that.” He shot her a look. “Alright, so she bought them, but I’m sure she still worked hard.” “Probably through the rugby team.” “Henry!” Their parents looked over. He gave them a brief salute, tried to ignore how their smiles wavered before they turned back to their neighbours. “Can you just,” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Say hello to some people, say how proud you are and I’ll talk to Mummy and Daddy about upping your allowance.” He quirked a brow. “You really are desperate.” “Is that a yes?” He pretended to consider then shrugged. “Fine. I’ll be good and pretend that our darling sister is the pinnacle of academia.” “Thank you.” Ashley slipped into sight, crossing the room on wobbly heels. Her pupils were so blown he could see them from where he was hiding in the corner. Beth scowled, went to run interference. “Still trying to keep the peace, Beth?” He asked. “Someone around here has to.” From this exchange, we can see the Beth and Henry know each other well and appear to have known each other for a while, something we see from the discussion of their parents and shared looks. Beth is seen to be a responsible mediator whilst Henry is a cynical rebel. Throughout, there are references to previous grievances, ‘ Don’t start ’, and Ashley’s behaviour, ‘ It’s not her fault.’; ‘It never is .’
- Use Shorter Sentences When you’re fired up, you want to get your point across quickly before the other person has the chance to cut you off. It’s unlikely your characters will be eloquent and present carefully considered counter-arguments in the heat of a fight. Use shorter sentences between two characters to increase the tempo of the fight and allow the reader to take in the exchange quicker, mounting the scene’s tension.
- Think About What the Fight is Really About Often arguments are the result of a much bigger issue- if conflict is a boiling kettle, arguments are the froth that spills over. While the topic of the argument may seem superficial or the result of a hot-headed character, buried resentment, anger and fear can be rushing up to break free. Are your fictional roommates arguing about a dirty dish or about the fact that they’re fed up of each other’s behaviour? Is your couple arguing about someone’s suspected infidelity or that someone is working too much and the other person is insecure? Establish the real issue that has led to the argument and find a way to either bring it to the surface or to fuel your character’s exchange.
- Think About The Character’s Emotions Before and During the Fight Does one character feel angry and hurt? Is another lashing out because they’re scared? Show the internal conflict during the argument by showing how characters react to the words being exchanged. Do they flinch? Cry? Throw things? How do they approach the fight? Do they try to remain calm before losing their temper? Are they eager to leave? Trying to keep the peace? Think about a character’s emotions may fluctuate during an argument. While anger is expected, they may also feel frustration, panic, paranoia or offence.
- Think About Where Your Argument Takes Place Where is your argument taking place? Are they somewhere private or in a public place? Characters may forget where they are in the middle of a shouting match. Alternatively, one or both characters may be trying to keep their voice down or insisting the other calm down lest they cause a scene. Think about how characters interact with their environment during an uncomfortable situation. Do they watch people passing by during a painful pause or a break in the conversation? Do they gaze deep into a coffee cup or pace across kitchen tiles as they try to navigate another character’s short fuse?
- Think About How Long the Argument Goes on For The longer the argument, the more likely your characters will start to lose their voices or become tired. People are unlikely to shout at each other for hours- likely someone will walk away or they will make digs at each other after a heated exchange that lasts across several scenes. If a couple is having a spat before they arrive at a dinner party, the exchange is likely to be brief and bitter before they go into someone’s home. If a character has discovered their friend has been lying to them for years, the argument is likely to drag on as they rehash every lie or half-truth that has been told.
What is your favourite fictional argument? How do you prepare to write a fictional argument? Let me know.
More from Mary Fletcher
Writer, reader and tea-enthusiast. Follow my profile to enjoy content that discusses writing tips and tricks, life-hacks, as well as the odd dash of philosophy.
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Justice For All
Stories of Conversations Including
Two Buckets - Impact Report - Sept. 2017 - Tammy Cook
A Popsicle Poll (and a Conversation) - January 2017 - Tammy Cook
When Compassion Kills - November 2016 - Rebecca Haschke
"What Do You Mean?" - The Question that Saved My Conversation - September 2016 - Rebecca Haschke
Don't Debate - Dialogue! (Alex) - March 2016 - Catherine Wurts
"You totally changed my perspective!" (Nina) - Dec. 2015 - Jeremy Gorr
#MindBlown - Nov. 2015 - Rebecca Haschke
Walking Away - Oct. 2015 - Jordan Newhouse
A Cornerstone of Women's Freedom - April 2015 - Joanna Wagner
“Wait! I Think I Can Help You!” (Common Ground to the Rescue… ) - Mar. 2015 - Steve Wagner
Let's Talk about the Same Thing - Feb. 2015 - CK Wisner
Charity on the Metro - Impact Report - Jan. 2015 - Steve Wagner / Charity Boaz
Time Travel, Dishwashing, and Biology - Jan. 2015 - Tammy Cook
The Power of a Picture - January 2015 - Rebecca Haschke
Why Do Human Beings Matter - Oct. 2014 - Joanna Wagner
Out of the Mouths of Babies - August 2014 - Jordan Newhouse
West - June 2014 - Jacob Burow (now with ADA )
Do All Humans Have an Equal Right to Life? - April 2014 - Joanna Wagner
A Transient, a Teenager, and a Cup of Tea - Dec. 2013 - Joanna Wagner
A Good Conversation Is...a Window - Nov./Dec. 2013 - Steve Wagner
A Good Conversation Is…a Mirror - July 2013 - Steve Wagner
Go to the Zoo (The Equal Rights Argument, Part II) - July 2013 - Timothy Brahm
Greenpeace - June 2013 - Jacob Burow (now with ADA )
We're Going to Go Tell Everyone! - May 2013 - Catherine Wurts
Stopped in His Tracks (The Equal Rights Argument, Part I) - April 2013 - Timothy Brahm
What Is the Unborn? - April 2013 - Joanna Wagner
One Central Question Helps Change a Mind - March 2013 - Joanna Wagner
What Kind of "Wrong" Is "Right"? - Oct. 2012 - Joanna Wagner
Bryndan Gets the Picture - June 2012 - Steve Wagner
Don't Debate - Dialogue! (Sammy) - February 2011 - Catherine Wurts
A Philosophy of Re-humanization - October 2010 - Catherine Wurts
Don't Debate - Dialogue! (Melissa) - September 2010 - Catherine Wurts
Toddlers Win Them Over - August 2010 - Catherine Wurts
Abortion is a Man's Issue - July 2010 - Catherine Wurts
Don't Debate - Dialogue! (Jake) - June 2010 - Catherine Wurts
Don't Debate - Dialogue! (James) - May 2010 - Catherine Wurts
Don't Debate - Dialogue! (Kayla) - March 2010 - Catherine Wurts
Repeat Work in Science Class - "The Conversation" - Laura Beeson
Facing Abortion - Collection - Four Conversation Stories Illustrating the Importance of Pictures
Three Essential Skills - Collection - Four Conversation Stories Featuring Listening, Asking Questions, and Finding Common Ground
Trot Out the Toddler - Collection - Four Conversation Stories Teaching Readers to Refocus the Conversation
Living Human Organism - Collection - Three Conversation Stories Teaching Readers to Defend the Unborn as a Human Being, Biologically Speaking
Equal Rights Argument - Collection - Five Conversations Stories Illustrating the Equal Rights Argument
A Living Room Conversation - Collection - A Story in Three Parts by Grace Fontenot: Part 1) Morality and Legality; Part 2) The Unborn – A Living Human Organism; Part 3) Human Equality and Women’s Rights
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Posted on Jan 14, 2021
15 Examples of Great Dialogue (And Why They Work So Well)
Any writer worth their salt knows that dialogue is one of the most useful tools in their arsenal: it can provide exposition, develop your characters , and move your plot along. That’s why we’ve put together a set of guidelines for how to write great dialogue . But sometimes it’s easier to learn by example. With that in mind and to help illustrate those rules, in this post we’ve got some dialogue examples to show you them in action.
We’ll be sharing 15 examples of dialogue from well-known authors, and breaking down exactly why they work so well.
1. Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered
In the opening of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, we meet Willa Knox, a middle-aged and newly unemployed writer who has just inherited a ramshackle house.
“The simplest thing would be to tear it down,” the man said. “The house is a shambles.” She took this news as a blood-rush to the ears: a roar of peasant ancestors with rocks in their fists, facing the evictor. But this man was a contractor. Willa had called him here and she could send him away. She waited out her panic while he stood looking at her shambles, appearing to nurse some satisfaction from his diagnosis. She picked out words. “It’s not a living thing. You can’t just pronounce it dead. Anything that goes wrong with a structure can be replaced with another structure. Am I right?” “Correct. What I am saying is that the structure needing to be replaced is all of it. I’m sorry. Your foundation is nonexistent.”
Alfred Hitchcock once described drama as "life with the boring bits cut out." In this passage, Kingsolver cuts out the boring parts of Willa's conversation with her contractor and brings us right to the tensest, most interesting part of the conversation.
By entering their conversation late , the reader is spared every tedious detail of their interaction.
Instead of a blow-by-blow account of their negotiations (what she needs done, when he’s free, how she’ll be paying), we’re dropped right into the emotional heart of the discussion. The novel opens with the narrator learning that the home she cherishes can’t be salvaged.
By starting off in the middle of (relatively obscure) dialogue, it takes a moment for the reader to orient themselves in the story and figure out who is speaking, and what they’re speaking about. This disorientation almost mirrors Willa’s own reaction to the bad news, as her expectations for a new life in her new home are swiftly undermined.
How to Write Believable Dialogue
Master the art of dialogue in 10 five-minute lessons.
2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
In the first piece of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice , we meet Mr and Mrs Bennet, as Mrs Bennet attempts to draw her husband into a conversation about neighborhood gossip.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?” Mr. Bennet replied that he had not. “But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.” Mr. Bennet made no answer. “Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently. “You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” This was invitation enough. “Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
Austen’s dialogue is always witty, subtle, and packed with character. This extract from Pride and Prejudice is a great example of dialogue being used to develop character relationships .
We instantly learn everything we need to know about the dynamic between Mr and Mrs Bennet’s from their first interaction: she’s chatty, and he’s the beleaguered listener who has learned to entertain her idle gossip, if only for his own sake (hence “you want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it”).
There is even a clear difference between the two characters visually on the page: Mr Bennet responds in short sentences, in simple indirect speech, or not at all, but this is “invitation enough” for Mrs Bennet to launch into a rambling and extended response, dominating the conversation in text just as she does audibly.
The fact that Austen manages to imbue her dialogue with so much character-building realism means we hardly notice the amount of crucial plot exposition she has packed in here. This heavily expository dialogue could be a drag to get through, but Austen’s colorful characterization means she slips it under the radar with ease, forwarding both our understanding of these people and the world they live in simultaneously.
3. Naomi Alderman, The Power
In The Power , young women around the world suddenly find themselves capable of generating and controlling electricity. In this passage, between two boys and a girl who just used those powers to light her cigarette.
Kyle gestures with his chin and says, “Heard a bunch of guys killed a girl in Nebraska last week for doing that.” “For smoking? Harsh.” Hunter says, “Half the kids in school know you can do it.” “So what?” Hunter says, “Your dad could use you in his factory. Save money on electricity.” “He’s not my dad.” She makes the silver flicker at the ends of her fingers again. The boys watch.
Alderman here uses a show, don’t tell approach to expositional dialogue. Within this short exchange, we discover a lot about Allie, her personal circumstances, and the developing situation elsewhere. We learn that women are being punished harshly for their powers; that Allie is expected to be ashamed of those powers and keep them a secret, but doesn’t seem to care to do so; that her father is successful in industry; and that she has a difficult relationship with him. Using dialogue in this way prevents info-dumping backstory all at once, and instead helps us learn about the novel’s world in a natural way.
Show, Don't Tell
Master the golden rule of writing in 10 five-minute lessons.
4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Here, friends Tommy and Kathy have a conversation after Tommy has had a meltdown. After being bullied by a group of boys, he has been stomping around in the mud, the precise reaction they were hoping to evoke from him.
“Tommy,” I said, quite sternly. “There’s mud all over your shirt.” “So what?” he mumbled. But even as he said this, he looked down and noticed the brown specks, and only just stopped himself crying out in alarm. Then I saw the surprise register on his face that I should know about his feelings for the polo shirt. “It’s nothing to worry about.” I said, before the silence got humiliating for him. “It’ll come off. If you can’t get it off yourself, just take it to Miss Jody.” He went on examining his shirt, then said grumpily, “It’s nothing to do with you anyway.”
This episode from Never Let Me Go highlights the power of interspersing action beats within dialogue. These action beats work in several ways to add depth to what would otherwise be a very simple and fairly nondescript exchange. Firstly, they draw attention to the polo shirt, and highlight its potential significance in the plot. Secondly, they help to further define Kathy’s relationship with Tommy.
We learn through Tommy’s surprised reaction that he didn’t think Kathy knew how much he loved his seemingly generic polo shirt. This moment of recognition allows us to see that she cares for him and understands him more deeply than even he realized. Kathy breaking the silence before it can “humiliate” Tommy further emphasizes her consideration for him. While the dialogue alone might make us think Kathy is downplaying his concerns with pragmatic advice, it is the action beats that tell the true story here.
5. J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit
The eponymous hobbit Bilbo is engaged in a game of riddles with the strange creature Gollum.
"What have I got in my pocket?" he said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset. "Not fair! not fair!" he hissed. "It isn't fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it's got in its nassty little pocketses?" Bilbo seeing what had happened and having nothing better to ask stuck to his question. "What have I got in my pocket?" he said louder. "S-s-s-s-s," hissed Gollum. "It must give us three guesseses, my precious, three guesseses." "Very well! Guess away!" said Bilbo. "Handses!" said Gollum. "Wrong," said Bilbo, who had luckily just taken his hand out again. "Guess again!" "S-s-s-s-s," said Gollum, more upset than ever.
Tolkein’s dialogue for Gollum is a masterclass in creating distinct character voices . By using a repeated catchphrase (“my precious”) and unconventional spelling and grammar to reflect his unusual speech pattern, Tolkein creates idiosyncratic, unique (and iconic) speech for Gollum. This vivid approach to formatting dialogue, which is almost a transliteration of the sounds Gollum makes, allows readers to imagine his speech pattern and practically hear it aloud.
We wouldn’t recommend using this extreme level of idiosyncrasy too often in your writing — it can get wearing for readers after a while, and Tolkien deploys it sparingly, as Gollum’s appearances are limited to a handful of scenes. However, you can use Tolkien’s approach as inspiration to create (slightly more subtle) quirks of speech for your own characters.
6. F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The narrator Nick has just done his new neighbour Gatsby a favor by inviting his beloved Daisy over to tea. Perhaps in return, Gatsby then attempts to make a shady business proposition.
“There’s another little thing,” he said uncertainly, and hesitated. “Would you rather put it off for a few days?” I asked. “Oh, it isn’t about that. At least —” He fumbled with a series of beginnings. “Why, I thought — why, look here, old sport, you don’t make much money, do you?” “Not very much.” This seemed to reassure him and he continued more confidently. “I thought you didn’t, if you’ll pardon my — you see, I carry on a little business on the side, a little side line, if you understand. And I thought that if you don’t make very much — You’re selling bonds, aren’t you, old sport?” “Trying to.”
This dialogue from The Great Gatsby is a great example of how to make dialogue sound natural. Gatsby tripping over his own words (even interrupting himself , as marked by the em-dashes) not only makes his nerves and awkwardness palpable, but also mimics real speech. Just as real people often falter and make false starts when they’re speaking off the cuff, Gatsby too flounders, giving us insight into his self-doubt; his speech isn’t polished and perfect, and neither is he despite all his efforts to appear so.
Fitzgerald also creates a distinctive voice for Gatsby by littering his speech with the character's signature term of endearment, “old sport”. We don’t even really need dialogue markers to know who’s speaking here — a sign of very strong characterization through dialogue.
7. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
In this first meeting between the two heroes of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, John is introduced to Sherlock while the latter is hard at work in the lab.
“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment. “Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself. “The question now is about hemoglobin. No doubt you see the significance of this discovery of mine?” “It is interesting, chemically, no doubt,” I answered, “but practically— ” “Why, man, it is the most practical medico-legal discovery for years. Don’t you see that it gives us an infallible test for blood stains. Come over here now!” He seized me by the coat-sleeve in his eagerness, and drew me over to the table at which he had been working. “Let us have some fresh blood,” he said, digging a long bodkin into his finger, and drawing off the resulting drop of blood in a chemical pipette. “Now, I add this small quantity of blood to a litre of water. You perceive that the resulting mixture has the appearance of pure water. The proportion of blood cannot be more than one in a million. I have no doubt, however, that we shall be able to obtain the characteristic reaction.” As he spoke, he threw into the vessel a few white crystals, and then added some drops of a transparent fluid. In an instant the contents assumed a dull mahogany colour, and a brownish dust was precipitated to the bottom of the glass jar. “Ha! ha!” he cried, clapping his hands, and looking as delighted as a child with a new toy. “What do you think of that?”
This passage uses a number of the key techniques for writing naturalistic and exciting dialogue, including characters speaking over one another, and the interspersal of action beats.
Sherlock cutting off Watson to launch into a monologue about his blood experiment shows immediately where Sherlock’s interest lies — not in small talk, or the person he is speaking to, but in his own pursuits, just like earlier in the conversation when he refuses to explain anything to John and is instead self-absorbedly “chuckling to himself”. This helps establish their initial rapport (or lack thereof) very quickly.
Breaking up that monologue with snippets of him undertaking the forensic tests allows us to experience the full force of his enthusiasm over it without having to read an uninterrupted speech about the ins and outs of a science experiment.
Starting to think you might like to read some Sherlock? Check out our guide to the Sherlock Holmes canon !
8. Brandon Taylor, Real Life
Here, our protagonist Wallace is questioned by Ramon, a friend-of-a-friend, over the fact that he is considering leaving his PhD program.
Wallace hums. “I mean, I wouldn’t say that I want to leave, but I’ve thought about it, sure.” “Why would you do that? I mean, the prospects for… black people, you know?” “What are the prospects for black people?” Wallace asks, though he knows he will be considered the aggressor for this question.
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is drawn from the author’s own experiences as a queer Black man, attempting to navigate the unwelcoming world of academia, navigating the world of academia, and so it’s no surprise that his dialogue rings so true to life — it’s one of the reasons the novel is one of our picks for must-read books by Black authors .
This episode is part of a pattern where Wallace is casually cornered and questioned by people who never question for a moment whether they have the right to ambush him or criticise his choices. The use of indirect dialogue at the end shows us this is a well-trodden path for Wallace: he has had this same conversation several times, and can pre-empt the exact outcome.
This scene is also a great example of the dramatic significance of people choosing not to speak. The exchange happens in front of a big group, but — despite their apparent discomfort — nobody speaks up to defend Wallace, or to criticize Ramon’s patronizing microaggressions. Their silence is deafening, and we get a glimpse of Ramon’s isolation due to the complacency of others, all due to what is not said in this dialogue example.
9. Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants
In this short story, an unnamed man and a young woman discuss whether or not they should terminate a pregnancy, while sitting on a train platform.
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.” “And you really want to?” “I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.” “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” “I love you now. You know I love you.” “I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?” “I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.” “If I do it you won’t ever worry?” “I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”
This example of dialogue from Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants moves at quite a clip. The conversation quickly bounces back and forth between the speakers, and the call-and-response format of the woman asking and the man answering is effective because it establishes a clear dynamic between the two speakers: the woman is the one seeking reassurance and trying to understand the man’s feelings, while he is the one who is ultimately in control of the situation.
Note the sparing use of dialogue markers: this minimalist approach keeps the dialogue brisk, and we can still easily understand who is who due to the use of a new paragraph when the speaker changes .
Like this classic author’s style? Head over to our selection of the 11 best Ernest Hemingway books .
10. Madeline Miller, Circe
In Madeline Miller’s retelling of Greek myth, we witness a conversation between the mythical enchantress Circe and Telemachus (son of Odysseus).
“You do not grieve for your father?” “I do. I grieve that I never met the father everyone told me I had.” I narrowed my eyes. “Explain.” “I am no storyteller.” “I am not asking for a story. You have come to my island. You owe me truth.” A moment passed, and then he nodded. “You will have it.”
This short and punchy exchange hits on a lot of the stylistic points we’ve covered so far. The conversation is a taut tennis match between the two speakers, as they volley back and forth with short but impactful sentences, and unnecessary dialogue tags have been shaved off . It also highlights Circe’s imperious attitude, a result of her divine status. Her use of short, snappy declaratives and imperatives demonstrates that she’s used to getting her own way, and feels no need to mince her words.
11. Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name
This is an early conversation between seventeen year old Elio and his family’s handsome new student lodger, Oliver.
What did one do around here? Nothing. Wait for summer to end. What did one do in the winter, then? I smiled at the answer I was about to give. He got the gist and said, “Don’t tell me: wait for summer to come, right?” I liked having my mind read. He’d pick up on dinner drudgery sooner than those before him. “Actually, in the winter the place gets very gray and dark. We come for Christmas. Otherwise it’s a ghost town.” “And what else do you do here at Christmas besides roast chestnuts and drink eggnog?” He was teasing. I offered the same smile as before. He understood, said nothing, we laughed. He asked what I did. I played tennis. Swam. Went out at night. Jogged. Transcribed music. Read. He said he jogged too. Early in the morning. Where did one jog around here? Along the promenade, mostly. I could show him if he wanted. It hit me in the face just when I was starting to like him again: “Later, maybe.”
Dialogue is one of the most crucial aspects of writing romance — what’s a literary relationship without some flirty lines? Here, however, Aciman gives us a great example of efficient dialogue. By removing unnecessary dialogue and instead summarizing with narration, he’s able to confer the gist of the conversation without slowing down the pace unnecessarily. Instead, the emphasis is left on what’s unsaid, the developing romantic subtext.
Furthermore, the fact that we receive this scene in half-reported snippets rather than as an uninterrupted transcript emphasizes the fact that this is Elio’s own recollection of the story, as the manipulation of the dialogue in this way serves to mimic the nostalgic haziness of memory.
Understanding Point of View
Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.
12. George Eliot, Middlemarch
Two of Eliot’s characters, Mary and Rosamond, are out shopping,
When she and Rosamond happened both to be reflected in the glass, she said laughingly — “What a brown patch I am by the side of you, Rosy! You are the most unbecoming companion.” “Oh no! No one thinks of your appearance, you are so sensible and useful, Mary. Beauty is of very little consequence in reality,” said Rosamond, turning her head towards Mary, but with eyes swerving towards the new view of her neck in the glass. “You mean my beauty,” said Mary, rather sardonically. Rosamond thought, “Poor Mary, she takes the kindest things ill.” Aloud she said, “What have you been doing lately?” “I? Oh, minding the house — pouring out syrup — pretending to be amiable and contented — learning to have a bad opinion of everybody.”
This excerpt, a conversation between the level-headed Mary and vain Rosamond, is an example of dialogue that develops character relationships naturally. The use of action descriptors allows us to understand what is really happening in the conversation.
Whilst the speech alone might lead us to believe Rosamond is honestly (if clumsily) engaging with her friend, the description of her simultaneously gazing at herself in a mirror gives us insight not only into her vanity, but also into the fact that she is not really engaged in her conversation with Mary at all.
The use of internal dialogue cut into the conversation (here formatted with quotation marks rather than the usual italics ) lets us know what Rosamond is actually thinking, and the contrast between this and what she says aloud is telling. The fact that we know she privately realizes she has offended Mary, but quickly continues the conversation rather than apologizing, is emphatic of her character. We get to know Rosamond very well within this short passage, which is a hallmark of effective character-driven dialogue.
13. John Steinbeck, The Winter of our Discontent
Here, Mary (speaking first) reacts to her husband Ethan’s attempts to discuss his previous experiences as a disciplined soldier, his struggles in subsequent life, and his feeling of impending change.
“You’re trying to tell me something.” “Sadly enough, I am. And it sounds in my ears like an apology. I hope it is not.” “I’m going to set out lunch.”
Steinbeck’s Winter of our Discontent is an acute study in alienation and miscommunication, and this exchange exemplifies the ways in which characters can fail to communicate, even when they’re speaking. The pair speaking here are trapped in a dysfunctional marriage which leaves Ethan feeling isolated, and part of the loneliness he feels comes from the accumulation of exchanges such as this one. Whenever he tries to communicate meaningfully with his wife, she shuts the conversation down with a complete non sequitur.
We expect Mary’s “you’re trying to tell me something” to be followed by a revelation, but Ethan is not forthcoming in his response, and Mary then exits the conversation entirely. Nothing is communicated, and the jarring and frustrating effect of having our expectations subverted goes a long way in mirroring Ethan’s own frustration.
Just like Ethan and Mary, we receive no emotional pay-off, and this passage of characters talking past one another doesn’t further the plot as we hope it might, but instead gives us insight into the extent of these characters’ estrangement.
14. Bret Easton Ellis , Less Than Zero
The disillusioned main character of Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Clay, here catches up with a college friend, Daniel, whom he hasn’t seen in a while.
He keeps rubbing his mouth and when I realize that he’s not going to answer me, I ask him what he’s been doing. “Been doing?” “Yeah.” “Hanging out.” “Hanging out where?” “Where? Around.”
Less Than Zero is an elegy to conversation, and this dialogue is an example of the many vacuous exchanges the protagonist engages in, seemingly just to fill time. The whole book is deliberately unpoetic and flat, and depicts the lives of disaffected youths in 1980s LA. Their misguided attempts to fill the emptiness within them with drink and drugs are ultimately fruitless, and it shows in their conversations: in truth, they have nothing to say to one other at all.
This utterly meaningless exchange would elsewhere be considered dead weight to a story. Here, rather than being fat in need of trimming, the empty conversation is instead thematically resonant.
15. Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
The young narrator of du Maurier’s classic gothic novel here has a strained conversation with Robert, one of the young members of staff at her new husband’s home, the unwelcoming Manderley.
“Has Mr. de Winter been in?” I said. “Yes, Madam,” said Robert; “he came in just after two, and had a quick lunch, and then went out again. He asked for you and Frith said he thought you must have gone down to see the ship.” “Did he say when he would be back again?” I asked. “No, Madam.” “Perhaps he went to the beach another way,” I said; “I may have missed him.” “Yes, Madam,” said Robert. I looked at the cold meat and the salad. I felt empty but not hungry. I did not want cold meat now. “Will you be taking lunch?” said Robert. “No,” I said, “No, you might bring me some tea, Robert, in the library. Nothing like cakes or scones. Just tea and bread and butter.” “Yes, Madam.”
The reason we’re including this one in our dialogue examples list is to show you the power of everything Du Maurier doesn’t do: rather than cycling through a ton of fancy synonyms for “said”, she opts for spare dialogue and tags.
The cold, sparse tone in this interaction complements the lack of warmth the protagonist is feeling in the moment depicted here. By keeping the dialogue tags simple , the author ratchets up the tension — without any distracting flourishes taking the reader out of the scene. The subtext of the conversation is able to simmer under the surface, and we aren’t beaten over the head with any stage direction extras.
The inclusion of three sentences of internal dialogue in the middle of the dialogue (“I looked at the cold meat and the salad. I felt empty but not hungry. I did not want cold meat now.”) is also a masterful touch. What could have been a single sentence is stretched into three, creating a massive pregnant pause before Robert continues speaking, without having to explicitly signpost one. Manipulating the pace of dialogue in this way and manufacturing meaningful silence is a great way of adding depth to a scene.
Phew! We've been through a lot of dialogue, from first meetings to idle chit chat to confrontations, and we hope these dialogue examples have been helpful in illustrating some of the most common techniques.
If you’re looking for more pointers on how to create believable and effective dialogue, be sure to check out our course on writing dialogue. Or, if you find you learn better through examples, you can take a look at our list of 100 books to read before you die — it’s packed full of expert storytellers who’ve really honed the art of dialogue.
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Dialogue Examples (With Writing and Format Tips)
Dialogue is typically a conversation between two or more people in a narrative work. As a literary technique, dialogue serves several purposes. It can advance the plot, reveal a character's thoughts or feelings, or show how characters react in the moment.
Dialogue is written using quotation marks around the speaker's exact words. These quotation marks are meant to set the dialogue apart from the narration, which is written as standard text. Together, let's explore some dialogue examples.
- DESCRIPTION mixed race female friend chatting with dialogue definition and example sentences
- SOURCE simplehappyart / iStock / Getty Images Plus / via Getty created by YourDictionary
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What Is Dialogue?
In writing, dialogue shows a character speaking. It works to tell you more about the character and how they converse with others or react. When it comes to dialogue, you might see two types: outer and inner dialogue.
- Outer dialogue is when a character talks to another character in the story or play. This is the classic dialogue you see most of the time, set off by quotation marks.
- Inner (internal) dialogue is when a character talks or thinks something to themselves like an inner monologue . In written works, this is set off by quotation marks or italics.
To truly understand dialogue, it’s important to look at dialogue examples.
Famous Examples of Dialogue From Literature
Let's take a moment to enjoy dialogue examples from some of the literary greats. No novel would be complete without an interesting volley between the main characters.
"A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle
This is a great example. Watch L'Engle intertwine scene description with dialogue.
Calvin licked his lips. "Where are we going?" "Up." Charles continued his lecture. "On Camazotz we are all happy because we are all alike. Differences create problems. You know that, don't you, dear sister?" "No," Meg said. "Oh, yes, you do. You've seen at home how true it is. You know that you're not happy at school. Because you're different.” "I'm different, and I'm happy," Calvin said. "But you pretend that you aren't different." "I'm different, and I like being different." Calvin's voice was unnaturally loud. "Maybe I don't like being different," Meg said, "but I don't want to be like everybody else, either."
"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë
Here's a classic, straightforward block of dialogue.
"Now he is here," I exclaimed. "For Heaven's sake, hurry down! Do be quick; and stay among the trees till he is fairly in." "I must go, Cathy," said Heathcliff, seeking to extricate himself from his companion's arms. "I won't stray five yards from your window…" "For one hour," he pleaded earnestly. "Not for one minute," she replied. "I must--Linton will be up immediately," persisted the intruder.
"The Secret History" by Donna Tartt
Now, let's enjoy a block of dialogue that's blended beautifully with ample description for the scene at hand. We're instantly drawn in, and then the dialogue picks up speed and lures us further into the story.
"Hi, Richard," she said, and spit out a mouthful of toothpaste. She was wearing cut-off jeans that had bizarre, frantic designs drawn on them in Magic Marker and a spandex top which revealed her intensely aerobicized midriff. "Hello," I said, setting to work on my tie. "You look cute today." "Thanks. "Got a date?" I looked away from the mirror, at her. "What?" "Where you going?" By now I was used to her interrogations.
"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas uses both outer and internal dialogue. These two types of dialogue typically intermingle.
“Hard evidence isn’t hard evidence if you don’t break your back digging for it. An editor named Dom Grelsch told me that.” Grelsch glares at her. “I got a lead, Dom.” “You got a lead.” I can’t batter you, I can’t fool you. I can only hook your curiosity. “I phoned the precinct where Sixsmith’s case was processed.”
You can see how the inner dialogue works seamlessly with the outer dialogue to give you more insight into the character, Luisa Rey.
"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins
Explore this example from The Hunger Games that exemplifies a dramatic change that happens between the two characters when Peeta reveals his crush during an interview.
“Handsome lad like you. There must be some special girl. Come on, what’s her name?" says Caesar. Peeta sighs. "Well, there is this one girl. I’ve had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t know I was alive until the reaping." Sounds of sympathy from the crowd. Unrequited love they can relate to. “She have another fellow?" asks Caesar. “I don’t know, but a lot of boys like her," says Peeta. “So, here’s what you do. You win, you go home. She can’t turn you down then, eh?" says Caesar encouragingly. "I don’t think it’s going to work out. Winning...won’t help in my case," says Peeta. “Why ever not?" says Caesar, mystified. Peeta blushes beet red and stammers out. "Because...because...she came here with me.”
Now, that you’ve seen dialogue in action through famous examples, learn how you can write your own.
How To Write Dialogue
Quotation marks (" ") are the key to writing clear dialogue. Place them around the exact words your character speaks, but not around any tags that identify the speaker. For example,
"I love French toast."
This use of quotation marks lets the reader know that someone said "I love French toast" out loud.
While it's fine to have only the spoken words in quotes, too many sentences like this can become confusing. Who just said what? You may wish to add extra information to let the reader know who is speaking. For example:
"I love French toast," my mother said.
Note that only the words spoken aloud by the mother are in quotation marks. The informative tag at the end is not part of what she said, so it does not get quotation marks. You can also put the tag before a line of dialogue:
After helping herself to three slices, my mother said, "I love French toast."
For internal dialogue, you can use quotation marks or italics to set it off, depending on the situation. Typically, first person works will use italics, but a third person work might use either.
I can’t stand this anymore, I thought to myself. He thought, “I just can’t stand this anymore.”
Writing Dialogue Examples: Identifying a Speaker
If you choose to add a tag that identifies the speaker, you'll also need to use a comma to connect your tag to the dialogue.
When the tag comes first, it's followed by a comma. After the comma is a space, followed by the quotation marks for the dialogue. Note that the punctuation at the end of the dialogue comes before the closing quotes . This is the order that dialogue punctuation always uses when the tag comes first:
Susan asked, "When will Daddy come home?" I rolled my eyes at the thought of having to answer this question for the millionth time. "Soon, baby," I offered in my most soothing tone. "But, he said he would be home for dinner," she wailed, "and it's past dinnertime!" "In life, you'll learn there are many things that are out of our control," I retorted through the massive wails. I continued, almost to myself, "But, we have to just carry on."
When you choose to place your tag after the line of dialogue, the comma comes at the end of the spoken words, before the closing quotation marks. In this case, following the dialogue with a comma lets the reader know that there's more information to come. After the comma comes the quotation marks to end the dialogue, then a space, then the tag, followed by a closing period to complete the sentence. For example:
"We were having a lovely dinner," Michael prompted. Doug made a short, chortling sound. "Yeah, until he showed up." "What's the matter with Scott coming around?" I asked, rather astonished. Michael dropped his fork and aimed daggers at me. "Are you kidding me, Jill? He's a miserable, sarcastic punk." I blinked at him, astonished. "Well, yes," I said. "I know that. But you two always carry on with him like you're best friends." "Girl, please," Doug retorted. "We thought you wanted us to keep the peace. Now that we know the misery he's caused you…" He paused, seeming to search for the right words. "He'll never walk through those two doors again."
Note that the only exception to using a comma before the tag is when your quotation must end with a question mark or exclamation point. In this case, that punctuation replaces the comma:
"How many days until our vacation?" asked Margaret. "Way too many!" William cried.
How To Format Dialogue Examples
You must begin a new paragraph each time a different character begins to speak. Paragraphs are your friend for dialogue between two or more people. For example:
"I don't want to go home," said Julia. "I like it here at the zoo. The animals are all so funny." She began to cry and then wailed, "I didn't even get to see the elephants!" "I know," replied her father. "Don't worry. We'll come back another time." "The zoo is now closing. Please make your way to the exit," came the announcement over the speaker.
Note that when Julia's father speaks, a new paragraph begins. Another paragraph is introduced when the announcer speaks. This makes it easier for the reader to keep track of who is saying what because the new paragraph is a strong signal that someone else is speaking.
"You must know I'm very upset," I snarled. "I even paid extra to insure the package!" "Ms. Sullivan, please lower your voice," the agent drawled. "I'll search the system now." "Sheila Sullivan? Is this your package?" I didn't know where the man appeared from, but I wanted to reach over the counter and give him a big, fat kiss. I'd never been so happy to see a cardboard box.
The only exception to this rule is when a character makes a long speech. In this case, you may wish to break up their dialogue into paragraphs as they change subject, just as you would in standard writing. When you do so, you begin each new paragraph with quotation marks to remind the reader that someone is still speaking, but you don't use closing quotation marks until the speech has ended.
"I want to make sure everyone is ready for the field trip next week," the teacher said. "That means you'll need to pack your lunches the night before and make sure that you bring plenty of water and a bag that is comfortable to carry. "It will be hot the day of the trip, so wear light, comfortable clothing and layers that you can remove as the day goes on. You will also need sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. "Finally, make sure you have fun!"
In the example above, the teacher's long speech is broken into paragraphs to keep topics well organized. Notice that only the final paragraph of her speech has quotation marks at the end of the quoted text. When a paragraph of dialogue does not have closing quotes, it lets the reader know that the same person is still speaking.
Speak Your Story
Adding dialogue to a narrative can bring the story and characters to life. Descriptive passages are great for setting the scene, but a few lines of dialogue can provide much more information about the characters.
At first, formatting dialogue may seem tricky. However, you'll find it becomes second nature with practice. Once you learn the rules, you'll see that they apply in many situations, and it's only the words you change to make your writing interesting - never the formatting.
The more you read books with dialogue and practice writing your own, the easier it'll be to write your own dialogue. For an in-depth dive on this skill, check out how to punctuate dialogue .
Writing dialogue: Complete guide to storied speech
Writing dialogue is an important skill to develop so that characters’ speech is imbued with voice and advances the story. Learn more in this complete guide to dialogue writing and formatting, with examples.
- Post author By Jordan
- 35 Comments on Writing dialogue: Complete guide to storied speech
This guide to writing dialogue is all about using speech and conversation in storytelling to make your characters’ voices drive plot, tension and drama. Use the links to jump to the dialogue-writing topic you want to learn more about right now.
What is dialogue? Key terms
Dialogue in writing is conversation between two or more people/animated voices (animated voices because it could be speech between a person and an inanimate object they personify, for example, an imaginary or supernatural voice, and so forth).
Dialogue can be compared to:
- A tennis or fencing match: Speakers may spar, score points, volley arguments or statements (and rebuttals to them) back and forth
- A dance: One speaker says one line, the other replies, and sometimes one person may lead, at other times, the other leads
- Pieces in a puzzle coming together: What different characters say may build up a gradual picture, for example an idea of the persona of a character who has not yet appeared in a story scene but has been spoken about by others
- Music: sometimes there is harmony (working together), other times discord (strife, heated conversation or disagreement)
Key terms in writing dialogue
There are several terms in dialogue worth knowing as they crop up often in discussing this element of writing craft:
Active listening: Dialogue is (usually) responsive
When somebody is engaged in ‘active listening’, they aren’t just waiting for their turn to speak. In a true conversation, people hear one another, respond.
There may be instances where your dialogue’s subtext or context (more on these below) calls for characters not to actively listen to one another, of course. There may be cause for them to interrupt, speak over, speak at cross purposes.
In these cases, it should be contextually or otherwise clear why characters aren’t properly responding to each other’s speech (the dialogue should not read or sound like random non sequiturs, each person’s utterances totally disconnected for no clear reason).
Context for dialogue
Effective dialogue involves its context. For example, in a frenzied car chase, the squeal of tires may drown out the exchange here or there. Speech and action in this context may reflect rapid decision-making, keeping pace.
In the middle of a bank heist, people may be curt, decisive (of course, inept thieves could wax lyrical and by talking too much make rookie mistakes).
Either way, context will inform how readers make sense of your dialogue, and helps to fill dialogue with tone and mood . Nobody whispers to each other standing next to Niagara falls (if they want to be heard).
Subtext and dialogue
Subtext in dialogue is the underlying meaning, motivation or feeling behind the words characters speak.
For example, a boss starts a casual conversation with a new employee but the subtext is that they’re having regrets at hiring the person and trying to come to a decision on whether to terminate in the trial period. The subtext will inform what language they will use (and this language would be different to someone ecstatic with their employee’s performance).
Subtext adds depth and complexity to dialogue, strata of the said and unsaid.
Purpose in dialogue
Why is the information you are writing in a scene given as dialogue? Knowing the purpose of dialogue (and writing dialogue that feels purpose-driven) is useful to ensure that every spoken line counts. In a stage play, dialogue and action are the two drivers of story.
In narrative fiction, you also get to use narration to convey meaning. A story where all character information is conveyed through narration may read oddly voiceless, impersonal. Dialogue makes your characters pause, take a breath, like real flesh and blood.
Learn more about writing conversations that feel real and draw on cause and effect, call and response:
- How to make dialogue in writing carry your story
- 7 dialogue rules for writing fantastic conversations
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I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Tom Stoppard
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Why dialogue matters
Why do most stories benefit from liberal use of dialogue?
1. Dialogue brings characters and their differences to life
In dialogue, you could show a character’s personality in a handful of words. Here, for example, Dostoyevsky creates the sense of a decisive doctor, used to dealing with uncertain, anxious patients in The Double :
‘Krestyan Ivanovich … I …’ ‘Hm,’ interrupted the doctor, ‘what I’m telling you is that you need to radically change your whole lifestyle and in a sense you must completely transform your character.’ (Krestyan Ivanovich particularly emphasized the word ‘transform’ and paused for a moment with an extremely significant look.) Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double , trans. Ronald Wilks (1846, 2009), p. 11
There is an immediate sense of power dynamic (and differential) – the hesitating patient and his decisive doctor.
2. Dialogue splits up exposition into varied parts
If all the revelation of your characters and world is in long, wall-of-text narration, it becomes slightly draining to read.
Dialogue lifts us out of a ‘this happened, then that’ sense of explanation and throws us into the immediate – sound striking the eardrum. Tweet This
3. Dialogue advances a story
Characters may tell each other things that reveal – or shift – goals, motivations, conflicts. ‘But first, I must tell you Mr Bond…’ A villain may say too much, a lover, too little (or vice versa).
4. Conversation builds relationships
Some of the most beautiful relationships (or the most ugly) emerge through what people say to one another.
Ed’s note: As an undergraduate in English Literature, I attended a lecture on Pride and Prejudice where the lecturer illustrated how Lizzie and Darcy’s love is established through the grammar of their language and how it shifts. At one point, Darcy says, ‘You are loved by me’ – a different structure to the standard ‘I love you’ that places the subject first, in a way that reads as full of care.
We detect attraction and resentment in the language people use with one another. A conversation about the weather may imply feelings – it comes down to tone, address, mood, agreement and disagreement.
5. Dialogue brings humor, levity and persona to stories
You can narrate that a character has grown wealthy and fallen out of touch with their humble origins. But in Dickens’ Great Expectations, when a character named ‘Trabb’s boy’, the tailor’s son, follows the main character Pip down the street mimicking him and saying, ‘Don’t know ya!’ after Pip is left wealth, it’s a brilliant and funny illustration of how people change (and perceive and react to changes in others).
Pip seems ‘too good for’ others now that he has wealth, and three words convey Trabb’s boy’s contempt with sly humor. Three words (paired with action, the following and mimicking) convey complex social dynamics and feelings.
Why else do you think dialogue matters? Tell us in the comments.
Learn more about writing dialogue that drives stories:
10 dialogue tips to hook readers
Hook readers into your story with dialogue that catches their attention.
- Writing movement and action in dialogue: 6 tips
How can movement and action make your dialogue more immersive? Find out.
Dialogue is the place that books are most alive and forge the most direct connection with readers. It is also where we as writers discover our characters and allow them to become real. Laini Taylor
How to format dialogue
Speech marks or quotation marks, and where do the line breaks go? Read on for how to format dialogue, common differences between UK and US formatting styles, and more:
Why do we format dialogue? Clarity, ease and flow
Try to write an exchange in dialogue all as block paragraph text and it becomes a nightmare trying to keep track of who says what:
“You’re late,” she said. “But I didn’t say what time I was coming.” “I don’t care, I’ve been waiting half an hour.” There was an awkward silence for a few seconds. “Well don’t say anything, whatever.”
It’s not clear from the above dialogue without line breaks and with no attribution for the last spoken sentence who says what at all times.
This is much easier to read because line breaks signal when the speaker changes:
It’s much easier to follow the back and forth (and because only two characters are present, the dialogue does not need excess attribution of who says what thanks to the line breaks clarifying this).
How to format dialogue in stories: 8 tips
To make sure it’s clear who’s speaking, when it changes, and when speech begins and ends (and narration or description interrupts):
1. Use quotation or speech marks to show when speech starts and stops
If a character is still speaking, don’t close speech marks prematurely.
2. Start a new line each time the speaker changes
Although it is common practice to use an indent for each change of speaker, make sure to use paragraph formatting in your word processor rather than the tab button as this can make indentation too large or wonky (using paragraph-wide settings is most precise).
3. Decide how you’ll format dialogue (and stick with it)
Speech marks with double quotations like the example from Colleen Hoover above (“) are more commonly used in the US, single quotation marks (‘) in books published in the UK.
Some contemporary novels don’t use speech marks at all, using an em dash at the start of a line or presenting dialogue another way. Whichever approach you use, consistency is key.
Example: Using single quotation marks to indicate speech
4. Always use a comma if there is an attributing tag
If dialogue is attributed using a tag such as ‘she said’ (read more on dialogue tags below), use a comma and not a period/full stop. For example:
“Writing dialogue is harder than I thought.” She said. ❌ “Writing dialogue is harder than I thought,” she said. ✔️
Remember: the tag continues the sentence.
5. Split long monologue over multiple paragraphs
What if the same character is speaking for a long time in dialogue?
To format this, the convention is to open speech marks for each new paragraph without closing speech marks for the previous one, until the speaker is finished talking.
Example: Dialogue where one speaker continues over paragraphs
“First I want to thank you all for being here on our special day. It does take a village (but you can put down the pitchforks, take off the creepy masks, and relax a little, guys, it’s not that kind of village) … Er eheh… OK I’m firing my joke writers.
“But in all seriousness, I couldn’t have chosen a better bride…zilla.”
6. Use the appropriate dialogue punctuation
If a speaker pauses, put it in with a comma or something longer such as a semicolon. This is where it helps to read dialogue out loud as you will hear where there is a natural pause that needs punctuating. Colons have an announcing effect. Example: “OK, here’s the kicker: The guard changes every forty-five minutes.”
If there is a question or exclamation, use the appropriate speech mark (that includes the occasional special effect, such as an interrobang (!?).
7. Write interruption or other changes in dialogue’s flow clearly
Ellipses are effective in showing a character trailing off or pausing to think for longer, mid-dialogue.
“Oh yes, I remember, it was … whatshername.”
There are several ways to show interruption. You could:
- Use an em-dash just after cut-off speech. Example: “If you’d just let me fini—”
- Use parentheses to show self-interruption. Example: “If you’d just let me finish what I was (actually, it’s fine, carry on).”
8. Format narration interrupting dialogue clearly
If you want to describe a character’s manner, movement, expression mid-dialogue, remember to use a comma before and resume dialogue without capitalization (unless the word is a proper noun):
“I can’t believe you said that,” John said, shaking his head, “and with absolutely zero remorse, too.”
Read more on how to ensure your dialogue reads clearly, including how to write ensemble dialogue with multiple characters present:
- Writing dialogue between multiple characters
Nothing teaches you as much about dialogue as listening to it. Judy Blume
Effective vs weak dialogue
Why does some dialogue scintillate, stir interest, while other dialogue reads like talking heads saying nothing of great impact in an inky void? There are several hallmarks of effective and less effective dialogue:
What makes dialogue effective:
- An authentic sense of voice. Do characters sound like cipher’s for an author’s pretension (this may be true to a specific stylistic choice, though) or like real people talking?
- Purpose-driven dialogue. Each line of dialogue should have identifiable purpose, whether it’s establishing character, advancing the story, building tone and mood, or dialogue serves another purpose.
- Aptness for type (or explicable ‘against type’ voice). Avoid confusing your reader by having a five-year old speak like a fifty-year-old (unless there’s a plot-given or other explicable reason for this anomaly).
- Varied structure. If every sentence is clipped or brusque, or every sentence is long and meandering, the eye (and ear) may tire. Switch it up if possible.
- Natural language. Contractions (e.g. ‘it’s’ for ‘it is’) and other ways people naturally speak (colloquial language or slang) lend further authenticity to voice.
- Conflict and tension . ‘As you know, Bob’ info dumps and happy people in happy land don’t make dialogue exciting (but tension, disagreement, doubt – sparks of contradiction – do).
- Movement and gesture. A gesture may change the entire meaning of a spoken phrase (a shrug, turn, sitting down, standing up, waving arms, and so on).
- Subtext and inference. What a character is truly thinking or feeling might not match up perfectly with what they’re saying. People lie, omit, embellish, and so forth.
What can weaken dialogue in fiction?
Dialogue in stories may feel bland or confusing (or too over the top and melodramatic) when:
- It’s all one note. If every utterance is an exclamation (with an exclamation mark), that gets old fast. Use special effects like salt – just enough to enhance the conversation.
- Connection is absent. Your reader may be confused if what characters reply to each other seems as though they’re having two different conversations (unless there is contextual explanation, e.g. both are hard of hearing).
- The scenery stays outside. If your characters are having an argument in the kitchen, does someone bang a pot, slam a drawer? Bring in surrounds.
- There is no differentiation. If everyone has the exact same vocabulary, mannerisms, and pattern of speech, characters start to become clone-like, like so many Agent Smiths.
- Excessive or bizarre tags. Characters shouldn’t honk or trumpet speech too often. Favor tags that you can say or express (no, “What!” she flabbergasted’). Leave out tags entirely if context tells your reader who speaks (and content of speech gives tone/mood).
- Excessive dialect or accent. At best excessive dialect or accent may read distracting, at worst, like hurtful stereotype or caricature.
- Adverbs clutter speech. Instead of overusing ‘she says softly’, leave space for the silence to come through.
- Dialogue dumps information. ‘As you know, Bob’ is a phrase used for dialogue where characters tell each other things both already know solely for the reader’s benefit. Find ways to make the retelling new/fresh, find what Bob doesn’t yet know and needs to be told.
Keep reading about ways to make dialogue characterful and engaging:
- Dialogue words: Other words for ‘said’ (and what to avoid)
- How to write accents and dialects: 6 tips
- Realistic dialogue: Creating characters’ speech patterns
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Dialogue devices for characterful speech
There are several dialogue devices that help to advance stories and create a sense of movement, tension and change:
Dialogue tags and action tags
What are dialogue tags and action tags?
Dialogue tag: The words added after dialogue that attribute who has spoken (and often the mood, emotion, or volume of speech).
“You might want that tattoo, but I know all your secrets and your twenty-first is coming up and don’t think for a second I’m above making an awkward speech,” mom warned.
“Shh!” he hissed in a half-whisper. “This freaking place is haunted.”
Action tag: Indicates the speaker’s movements or gestures in dialogue. This can be used to attribute speech and make dialogue livelier.
“You might want that tattoo, but …” Mom leaned over theatrically as though to confide something important. “I know all your secrets and […]’
Movement and gesture
Movement and gesture may punctuate dialogue, immersing the reader in a scene further.
‘Then go,’ said Mrs Williams, handing him the buckets and the coil of rope. ‘Swim,’ she said maliciously. She knew he was afraid of the sea. He carried his fear coiled and tangled in him like other boys carry twine and string in their crumb-filled pockets. Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda (1988), p. 16
Interruption is a useful device in dialogue for argument, dramatic scenes with high stakes where characters are speaking over one another, and so forth.
“I could have killed you.” “Or I could have killed you,” Percy said. Jason shrugged. “If there’d been an ocean in Kansas, maybe.” “I don’t need an ocean—” “Boys,” Annabeth interrupted, “I’m sure you both would’ve been wonderful at killing each other. But right now, you need some rest.” Rick Riordan, The Mark of Athena (2012).
Conflict and suspense
Conflict and suspense in dialogue keep the reader intrigued. Characters may argue, refuse to speak, tell a fib the reader may know to be untrue, or otherwise stir tension.
“What’s this for?” Tessie asked suspiciously. “What do you mean, what is it for?” “It’s not my birthday. It’s not our anniversary. So why are you giving me a present?” “Do I have to have a reason to give you a present? Go on, open it.” Tessie crumpled up one corner of her mouth, unconvinced. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002), p. 10.
Read more on devices in dialogue, including dialogue tags vs action tags and how to create tension:
- 421 ways to say said? Simplify dialogue instead
- Dialogue 101: Using dialogue tags vs action tags
- Writing tense dialogue: 5 ways to add arresting tension
I never say ‘She says softly.’ If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so a reader can hear that it’s soft. Toni Morrison
Dialogue examples that work
Read examples of dialogue that works from a cross-selection of genres including fantasy, romance, science fiction, thriller, historical, contemporary and more:
1. Fantasy dialogue example ( A Game of Thrones )
Note how George R. R. Martin weaves in setting to create mood between utterances in this exchange from the prologue to A Game of Thrones :
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.” “Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile. Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.” George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (1996).
2. Historical romance dialogue example ( The Duke and I )
Julia Quinn begins the first chapter in the first of her popular Regency-set romance novels with a typical Regency setting – a drawing room (and drama in letters):
“Oooooooooohhhhhhhhhh!” Violet Bridgerton crumped the single-page newspaper into a ball and hurled it across the elegant drawing room. Her daughter Daphne wisely made no comment and pretended to be engrossed in her embroidery. “Did you read what she said?” Violet demanded. “Did you?” Julia Quinn, The Duke and I (2000).
3. Mystery dialogue example ( The Murder of Roger Ackroyd )
Dame Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is often voted one of her best detective novels. In the first chapter already, conversation turns to death and the topic of who knows what about whom (and how):
My sister’s nose, which is long and thin, quivered a little at the tip, as it always does when she is interested or excited over anything. “Well?” she demanded. “A bad business. Nothing to be done. Must have died in her sleep.” “I know, said my sister again. This time I was annoyed. “You can’t know,” I snapped. “I didn’t know myself until I got there and I haven’t mentioned it to a soul yet. If that girl Annie knows, she must be a clairvoyant.” Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
4. Science fiction dialogue example ( Hyperion )
Dan Simmons’ Hyperion which won a Hugo Award was hailed as ‘The book that reinvented Space Opera’. Note the weaving in of dialogue between human and machine in the prologue:
‘We need your help,’ said Meina Gladstone. ‘It is essential that the secrets of the Time Tombs and Shrike be uncovered. This pilgrimage may be our last chance. If the Ousters conquer Hyperion, their agent must be eliminated and the Time Tombs sealed at all cost. The fate of the Hegemony may depend upon it.’ The transmission ended except for the pulse of rendezvous coordinates. ‘Response?’ asked the ship’s computer. Dan Simmons, Hyperion (1989).
5. Psychological thriller dialogue example ( Sharp Objects )
Notice how in Gillian Flynn’s debut Sharp Objects how even a simple conversation between reporter Camille Preaker and her editor at the St. Louis Chronicle who sends her back to her hometown on assignment is laced with a sense of tension and avoidance:
“Tell me about Wind Gap.” Curry held the tip of a ballpoint pen at his grizzled chin. I could picture the tiny prick of blue it would leave among the stubble. “It’s at the very bottom of Missouri, in the boot heel. Spitting distance from Tennessee and Arkansas,” I said, hustling for my facts. Curry loved to drill reporters on any topics he deemed pertinent – the number of murders in Chicago last year, the demographics for Cook County, or, for some reason, the story of my hometown, a topic I preferred to avoid. Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects (2006).
6. Humor dialogue example ( Lessons in Chemistry )
See here how Bonnie Garmus weaves together humorous dialogue and character description to create the portrait of a man who does not have much luck in love:
“I can’t believe you’re having trouble,” his Cambridge teammates would tell him. “Girls love rowers.” Which wasn’t true. “And even though you’re an American, you’re not bad looking.” Which was also not true. Part of the problem was Calvin’s posture. He was six feet four inches tall, lanky and long, but he slouched to the right – probably a by-product of always rowing stroke side. Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry (2022).
7. Historical/fantasy dialogue example ( The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue )
V.E. Schwab creates a sense of early, 17th Century times in this conversation about prayer and witches’ fates in her historical fantasy novel that involves immortality and contemporary romance:
“How do you talk to them?” she asks. “The old gods. Do you call them by name?” Estele straightens, joints cracking like dry sticks. If she’s surprised by the question, it doesn’t show. “They have no names.” “Is there a spell?” Estele gives her a pointed look. “Spells are for witches, and witches are too often burned.” V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020).
8. Literary fiction dialogue example ( Home )
Toni Morrison is a master of capturing the authentic ring of a real human voice. See the difference between the Reverend and his wife who dismisses his jaundiced view of the world as ‘foolishness’ in this dialogue example:
“You from down the street? At that hospital?” Frank nodded while stamping his feet and trying to rub life back into his fingers. Reverend Locke grunted. “Have a seat,” he said, then, shaking his head, added, “You lucky, Mr. Money. They sell a lot of bodies out of there.” “Bodies?” Frank sank down on the sofa, only vaguely caring or wondering what the man was talking about. “Uh-huh. To the medical school.” “They sell dead bodies? What for?” “Well, you know, doctors need to work on the dead poor so they can help the live rich.” “John, stop.” Jean Locke came down the stairs, tightening the belt of her robe. “That’s just foolishness.” Toni Morrison, Home (2012).
What is a favorite section of dialogue from a book in your favorite genre? Share in the comments below.
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Read further examples of effective dialogue:
- Writing conversations using setting (examples)
- 5 types of dialogue your novel needs
- Character writing: Complete guide to creating your cast
- Story planning and outlining: Complete guide
- Story setting and worldbuilding: Complete guide
- Point of view: Complete guide to POV in stories
- How to describe to immerse readers (complete guide)
- Story plotting and structure: Complete guide
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35 replies on “Writing dialogue: Complete guide to storied speech”
Thanks, Nathan, I’m glad to hear that.
kinda helpful to me 😀
I got my 18,5 mark from this Amazing ?
Fantastic, Chihab – do give yourself some of the credit! Well done.
Very useful to me… Thanks !!☺☺
It’s a pleasure, thank you for reading our articles and taking the time to share your feedback ?
[…] some dialogue writing tips at the following blog and evaluate them with some fellow […]
I want to know about the rule of using open quotation mark at the end of the dialogue 1 ‘We are not allowed to-‘
Hi Jagadishkk, thank you for sharing your question. From the example you’ve written, do you mean using interruption at the end of a line of dialogue? The way you’ve written that example is correct, you would usually use a dash with the interrupting person’s dialogue appearing immediately below on a new line (with indentation if indenting changes of speaker as is a common formatting style choice).
Hi I want you to help me with dialogue first draft
Hi Peggy, you can get constructive feedback from our community in our writing groups, they’re free to join. You can sign up here .
What is a favorite section of dialogue from a book in your favorite genre? Here is one of mine from “Bring up the bodies” by H. Mantel.
“Majesty, the Muscovites has taken three hundred miles of Polish territory. They say fifty thousand men are dead.” “Oh,” Henry says. “I hope they spare the libraries. The scholars. There are very fine scholars in Poland.” “Mm? Hope so too.”
Tells us something about Henry VIII — he “doesn’t give a hoot” about libraries and scholars in Poland or dead men.
Hi Nara, thanks so much for sharing that dialogue example. I like that Henry VIII seems preoccupied or disinterested in his responses, the simplicity of monosyllabic words and even how Mantel has him drop the subject ‘I’ to make it read more cursory, saying the bare minimum. He was probably too busy marrying and remarrying (and beheading) 🙂
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Combining explanation and argumentation in dialogue
Issue title: Computational models of natural argument
Guest editors: Floriana Grasso, Floris Bex and Nancy Green
Article type: Research Article
Authors: Bex, Floris a ; * | Walton, Douglas b
Affiliations: [ a ] Department of Information and Computing Sciences, Utrecht University, P.O. Box 80.089, 3508 TB Utrecht, The Netherlands | [ b ] Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric, Philosophy Department, University of Windsor, 401 Sunset Avenue, Windsor, Ontario N9B 3P4, Canada
Correspondence: [*] Corresponding author. E-mail: [email protected] .
Keywords: Argumentation, explanation, dialogue
Journal: Argument & Computation , vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 55-68, 2016
Explanation and argumentation can be used together in such a way that evidence, in the form of arguments, is used to support explanations. In a hybrid system, the interlocking of argument and explanation compounds the problem of how to differentiate between them. The distinction is imperative if we want to avoid the mistake of treating something as fallacious while it is not. Furthermore, the two forms of reasoning may influence dialogue protocol and strategy. In this paper a basis for solving the problem is proposed using a dialogue model where the context of the dialogue is used to distinguish argument from explanation.
The hybrid model of [ 2 , 6 ] combines arguments and explanations in such a way that an argument can support an explanation. The idea of argumentation and explanation being combined is also familiar in the notion of inference to the best explanation. But in general, there is a difference between argument and explanation, and as we will show in this paper, it would be a fundamental error to criticize an argument as falling short of standards for a rational argument, when what was put forward was actually an explanation.
A problem is that in many cases of natural language discourse, the same piece of discourse can reasonably be interpreted as either an explanation or an argument. Similarly, a question ‘Why?’ can be interpreted as either asking for a reason that supports some claim of the speaker or as asking for an explanation for some observed anomaly. So here we have a pervasive problem, which can only be solved if we can find some clear and useful method of distinguishing between explanations and arguments. It is not only a problem for logic and discourse analysis, but also for explanation systems in computing [ 7 ], and particularly for hybrid models that combine argument with explanation [ 6 , 18 ].
Our solution to the problem of distinguishing argument and explanation lies in dialogue, more specifically, in speech act theory [ 25 ]. According to this view, it is the illocutionary force of the speech act in a dialogue that determines whether reasoning is argumentation or explanation [ 4 ]. Illocutionary force can be seen as the intention of uttering some locution: one can say p with an intention of explaining p , arguing for p , challenging p , promising p and so on. We thus argue that the distinction between argument and explanation is not a logical one but rather that the only correct way of making this distinction is to look at the dialogical context.
The question is then how to determine the purpose or intention of uttering a locution. In other words, how do we know whether some assertion is meant to explain a proposition or argue for it? The solution lies in the different purposes of explanation and argumentation. Argumentation is meant to convince someone else, explanation is aimed at helping them understand. Hence, the rules for argumentation and explanation are different.
There are various reasons for wanting to properly distinguish between argumentation and explanation. For example, we might want to be able to handle situations in which argumentation is fallacious whilst explanation is not. Furthermore, confusion of argumentation and explanation may lead to undesirable misunderstandings and unwanted behaviour in multi-agent dialogue, as the use of either argumentative or explanatory techniques may influence dialogue protocol and strategy. Finally, the distinction is important in the analysis of natural language texts.
In this paper, we discuss argumentation and explanation and how to distinguish between them. We also discuss an example of the fallacy of begging the question, which in a case of an argument is a fallacy but for explanation it may not be. In Section 3 we then show how argument and explanation can be combined in a dialogical setting and how the rules for arguing differ from the rules for explaining.
2. Argumentation and explanation
How can one determine, in a given text of discourse where it is said that one event occurred because of another event, the text should be taken as representing an argument or an explanation? The problem is that cases where a given text of discourse could be interpreted as expressing either an argument or an explanation are fairly common, as an instructor of an informal logic course can tell you. Another factor is that in artificial intelligence, something called a justification explanation been recognized [ 7 ], suggesting that argument and explanation are often combined and work together. Suffice it to say that abductive reasoning, also commonly called inference to the best explanation, is just such a species of argument. There is also a tendency among students who are learning to use argumentation techniques in introductory logic courses, once they have learned some tools to analyze and evaluate arguments, to see any text of discourse they are given as expressing an argument. This can be a problem. The student who treats an explanation as an erroneous argument committing a fallacy, for example the fallacy of arguing in a circle, when the argument is really an explanation, has committed an error by misapplying logic.
Logic textbooks attempt to solve this problem by offering a pragmatic test to determine, in a given case, whether a passage expresses an argument or an explanation, namely by looking at how the discourse is being used in the given case. If it is being used to prove something that is in doubt, it is an argument. If it is being used to convey understanding of something that does not make sense or is incomprehensible, it is an explanation. The focus of this way of drawing the distinction is on the proposition or event that is to be explained or proved. If it is not subject to doubt (e.g. it is generally accepted as true, or can be taken for granted as true), the bit of text in question should be taken as an explanation. If it is subject to doubt, that is, if it is unsettled whether it is true or not, then the bit of text in question should be taken as an argument.
Let’s look at two examples of explanations cited in the most widely used logic textbook [ 14 , p. 19]. Here is the first one: the Challenger spacecraft exploded after liftoff because an O-ring failed in one of the booster rockets. Classifying this assertion as an argument or an explanation depends on whether the statement that the Challenger spacecraft exploded after liftoff should be taken as a statement that is accepted as factual or whether it should be taken to be a statement that is subject to doubt and that requires proof, or at least some supporting evidence, before it is accepted. The statement that the O-ring failed is not being used to prove the statement that the spacecraft exploded. That the spacecraft exploded is not in doubt. Most of us graphically remember seeing the exploding spacecraft on TV. The passage quoted above is not trying to prove that statement by providing evidence or reasons that support or imply it. The passage assumes that it is an accepted matter of fact that the spacecraft exploded, and is trying to show why it exploded. So the passage contains an explanation, as opposed to an argument. Because it is generally taken as common knowledge that the Challenger spacecraft exploded after liftoff, the whole causal statement is taken as an explanation.
The same principle applies to the second example: cows can digest grass, while humans cannot, because their digestive systems contain enzymes not found in humans. Should we take it as an accepted fact that cows can digest grass while humans cannot, or should we take this statement as subject to doubt and something that needs to be proved before it can be accepted? Again, it seems fairly plausible that the statement that cows can digest grass while humans cannot is generally accepted as part of common knowledge. If so it does not need to be proved, and the compound statement joined by the causal ‘because’ connective should be taken as an explanation.
We need to be aware, however, that this distinction based on common knowledge is not the only criterion required to distinguish arguments from explanations in a natural language text of discourse. Another part of the evidence or the so-called indicator words, like ‘therefore’, ‘since’, ‘accordingly’, and so forth. The problem is that the same indicator words are often used with respect to both arguments and explanations. Hence in any individual case one has to look carefully at the details of the actual text of discourse in the given case.
In the context of argumentation, premises are offered as proof of a conclusion or a claim, often in order to persuade someone or settle an issue that is subject to doubt or disputation. A number of computational models of argumentation have emerged and matured in the past twenty-or-so years [ 20 ] and the computational aspects of the dialectics of argument and of the structure of argument are well understood (cf. [ 19 ]).
In the context of explanation, the explananda (facts to be explained) are explained by a coherent set of explanans (facts that explain). The usual purpose of explanation is not necessarily to convince someone but rather to help someone understand why the explananda are the case. Computational models for explanation are mainly based on the technique of abductive (model-based) reasoning, which has been studied in the context of medical and system diagnosis [ 9 ]; other examples of computational explanation are [ 8 ], which models explanatory dialogues, and [ 24 ], which uses explanations for natural language understanding.
Despite the interest in dialogue treatments of explanation, the formal dialectical systems deriving from the early work of Hamblin treat only arguments. In Hamblin’s ‘ Why-Because System with Questions ’ [ 12 , pp. 265–276], there are two participants who take turns making moves following syntactical rules (protocols). For example, when one party asks the question ‘Why A?’, the other party must reply with one of three speech acts: Assertion A; No commitment A; Statements B, B → A (where → represents the material conditional of propositional calculus). The language is that of propositional calculus, but it could be any other logical system with a finite set of atomic statements [ 12 , p. 265]. As each party moves, statements are either inserted into or retracted from its commitment set of the party who made the move. A record of each party’s commitments is kept and updated at each next move. On Hamblin’s account, “a speaker is committed to a statement when he makes it himself, or agrees to it as made by someone else, or if he makes or agrees to other statements from which it clearly follows” [ 13 , p. 136]. Interestingly, a why-question can only be a request for the other to present an argument, never an explanation.
Despite the important role explanations can play in argumentative dialogue, there have not been many attempts to combine argumentation and explanation into one formal model. Perhaps the most thorough work thus far is [ 2 , 6 ], in which arguments in the framework of [ 19 ] are combined with abductive-causal reasoning based on standard models of explanation [ 9 ] in one hybrid theory . The basic idea of this hybrid approach is as follows. A logical model of abductive-causal reasoning takes as input a causal theory (a set of causal rules) and a set of observations that has to be explained, the explananda, and produces as output a set of hypotheses that explain the explananda in terms of the causal theory. Arguments can be used to support and attack stories, and these arguments can themselves be attacked and defeated. Thus, it is possible to reason about, for example, the extent to which an explanation conforms to the evidence. This is important when comparing explanations: the explanation that is best supported and least falsified by arguments is, ceteris paribus, the best explanation.
2.1. Argumentation and explanation in dialogue
Dialogues consist of a series of locutions or utterances made by the participants. As a simple example of a dialogue, take the following exchange between Allen and Beth.
(1) Allen: The Evanston City Council should make it illegal to tear down the city’s old warehouses.
(2) Beth: What’s the justification for preserving them?
(3) Allen: The warehouses are valuable architecturally.
(4) Beth: Why are they so valuable?
(5) Allen: The older buildings lend the town its distinctive character.
During a dialogue, the participants construct and navigate an underlying reasoning structure [ 23 ], a static rendition of the claims, arguments and explanations proposed. For example, in the above dialogue one of the arguments made is ‘The warehouses are architecturally valuable therefore the Evanston city council should make it illegal to tear them down’. The link between a dialogue and this underlying structure can be explained by combining speech act theory [ 25 ] with Hamblin-style dialogue theory. A speech act can be analyzed as a locutionary act (the actual utterance, e.g. ‘What’s the justification for preserving them?’), but also as an illocutionary act which consists of the illocutionary force, meaning that it functions a kind of move in a dialogue. For example, one may include p in different kinds of moves like asserting p , asking p , challenging p , promising p and so on. In our example, speech acts (1) and (2) have the same propositional content, namely ‘The Evanston City Council should make it illegal to tear down the city’s old warehouses’. The illocutionary force, however, differs between (1) and (2): where (1) is uttered with the intention of asserting ‘The Evanston City Council should make it illegal to tear down the city’s old warehouses’, (2) can be seen as an instance of requesting an argument for this sentence. Figure 1 shows the example dialogue at the top, which is connected to the underlying reasoning structure via illocutionary relations.
Argumentation and explanation in dialogue.
There are different types of dialogue [ 28 ], each with a different goal. In persuasion dialogues, for example, one of the players makes a claim which he has to defend, while the other player’s goal is to dispute this claim. Another example of a dialogue type is inquiry dialogue , the aim of which is to increase knowledge. The participants in such a dialogue collectively gather, organize and assess hypothetical explanations and evidence for and against these explanations. Hence, Walton [ 30 ] identifies both explanation and argumentation as functions of an inquiry dialogue. Aleven [ 1 ] has defined an inquiry dialogue based on the hybrid theory in which the participants build explanations and then support and critically analyze these explanations using arguments. In this type of dialogue, the participants collectively build a hybrid theory of explanations and arguments.
2.2. The problem of distinguishing argumentation and explanation
The very first problem in attempting to analyze the concept of an explanation is to attempt to provide criteria to determine when some piece of discourse that looks like it could be either an explanation or an argument should be taken to fit into one category or the other. One possible way of distinguishing between argumentation and explanation might be to look at the product of our reasoning, that is, the underlying reasoning structure. At first sight, it often seems an explanation is abductive and causal whilst an argument is modus-ponens style, non-causal reasoning. The basic idea of causal abductive inference is that if we have a general rule p → c q , meaning p causes q , and we observe q , we are allowed to infer p as a possible explanation of q . In contrast, argumentation is often seen as reasoning from a premise p to a conclusion q through an inference rule p → c q , where this rule need not necessarily be causal. However, as it turns out it is also possible to give abductive or causal arguments (cf. [ 29 ]; causal argument). Similarly, one may perform explanatory reasoning by taking a rule q → c p , meaning q is evidence for p (see [ 6 ] for a discussion on evidential and causal reasoning).
As was previously argued in [ 4 ], argument and explanation can only be properly distinguished by looking at the dialogical context of reasoning. In order to determine this context, we need not just look at the original intention of the speaker (i.e. the illocutionary force of a speech act) but also at the broader dialogical context, such as the utterance that was replied to by the speaker and the intentions of the other participants. Consider the example in Fig. 1 . Allen makes his first move by asserting that the old warehouses should be preserved, and then Beth asks for a justification for this claim. Here it is clear that Beth is requesting an argument to justify Allen’s claim. Allen then provides this, but then Beth asks him the why-question: why are they so valuable? The speech act could be interpreted as requesting either an argument (challenging) or an explanation (Fig. 1 ). Allen’s first reply to a challenge constitutes an argument but Allen’s second reply is ambiguous.
Circular arguments and explanations. Circular reasoning has long been a concern in logic. The fallacy of arguing in a circle has been included under the heading of informal fallacies in logic textbooks since the time of Aristotle [ 12 ]. But circularity is not been concerned exclusively with respect to arguments. Circular explanations are often condemned by the logic textbooks as unhelpful and confusing. But the reasons for condemning circular explanations are different from those for condemning circular argumentation [ 26 ].
The fallacy of arguing in a circle, or begging the question, is committed by an instance of circular reasoning that fails to work as an argument supposed to prove the conclusion that is in doubt. A standard textbook example is provided by the following short dialogue between a man, Smith, and his bank manager.
(1) Manager: Can you give me a credit reference?
(2) Smith: My friend Jones will vouch for me.
(3) Manager: How do we know he can be trusted?
(4) Smith: Oh, I assure you he can.
Here we can detect a sequence of circular reasoning. The trustworthiness of Smith is supposed to depend on the testimony of his friend Jones, but the trustworthiness of Jones depends on the testimony of his friend Smith. This obviously will not work because of the circularity in the procedure of providing evidence to support a claim in an argument. If Jones’s trustworthiness can be vouched for by some source independent of Smith, then the argument would work, and would no longer commit the fallacy of begging the question. In this kind of case, we cannot prove claim q by relying on premise p and then try prove p by backing it up by using q as a premise. It does not follow, however, that all circular arguments are fallacious as we now indicate.
Circular reasoning in the credit reference example.
To extend the example a bit further, suppose that a third-party could vouch for Jones, and that the trustworthiness of this third party is not dependent on the trustworthiness of either Smith or Jones. Then there would still be a circle in the argumentation structure, as shown in Fig. 2 , but the two text boxes on the right function as premises in a linked argument supporting the trustworthiness of Jones. This new argument gives us a way of breaking out of the circle that we were locked into in the previous argument represented by the dialogue above. The argumentation as a whole shown in Fig. 2 has a circle in it, but when evaluated a whole it does not commit the fallacy of begging the question.
The problem with real cases where the fallacy of begging the question is a serious danger is that the circle is embedded in a text where it may be mixed in with much other discourse. This danger becomes even more serious when the discourse combines argumentation with explanation. But if you can find such a circle in an argument, it represents quite a serious criticism of that argument. A rational argument used to persuade a respondent to accept its conclusion must not be based on premises that can only be accepted if part of the evidence for one of these premises depends on the prior acceptance of the conclusion itself. If, so the argument is useless to prove the conclusion. The argument lacks what has been called a probative function [ 26 ].
The situation is different for explanations. They need to be evaluated in a different way. When a circular explanation is fallacious it is because it is uninformative or useless in transferring understanding. As with arguments, however, an explanation can be circular, but still be useful as an explanation. One reason is that there are feedback processes in nature, and to explain what is happening, the account given needs to go in a circle. For example, the more overweight a diabetic gets, the more insulin is produced in his blood, but the more insulin there is in his blood, the more he eats, and the more he becomes overweight. In this vicious circle, the problem becomes worse and worse by a continual process of feedback that escalates it. To understand that the process is circular helps to explain the whole picture of what is going on.
Mixed version of the warehouse example.
Let us return to our warehouse dialogue from Section 2.1 . First, let us assume that Allen’s reply (5) is a speech act of arguing that creates an argument ‘ the older buildings lend the town its distinctive character so the warehouses are valuable architecturally ’ (Fig. 3 ). Now extend the dialogue as follows:
(6) Beth: OK agreed. But why do the older buildings lend the town its distinctive character?
(7) Allen: The warehouses are valuable architecturally.
When examining this dialogue we might be suspicious about the possibility that it contains the fallacy of begging the question. After all, when Allen is asked by Beth about the justification for preserving the old warehouses (4), Allen replies that the warehouses are valuable architecturally (5). But then later, at his last move in the dialogue (7), he reverts back to making the same statement again. It definitely appears that the dialogue is circular. The question then is whether the circularity is benign or vicious.
Let’s interpret Beth’s question (6) as a request for explanation. Now the reasoning in the dialogue is no longer just a sequence of argumentation, but a mixture of argumentation and explanation (Fig. 3 ). In order to prove his claim that the warehouses are valuable architecturally, Allen has used the premise that the older buildings lend the town its distinctive character. But then he has used the former as an explanation to help Beth understand the latter. The sequence of replies is then circular but not fallacious. Allen is merely explaining why the older buildings lend the town its distinctive character. Since Beth has agreed to this proposition, Allen does not need to prove it, and so there is no interdependency in the sequence of argumentation of the kind required for the committing of the fallacy of begging the question. There is no failure to fulfill the probative function of the kind that signals circular reasoning of a kind associated with committing the fallacy of begging the question. Allen is not using premise p to prove conclusion q and then using q as a premise required to prove p .
This is an unusually subtle case to disentangle. There is a circularity there, but it is benign one where the explanation fits into the argumentation in a way that is not an obstruction to the dialogue. The circularity could help Beth to understand the situation. So it does have a legitimate function. There is circular reasoning, but no circular argumentation.
3. Defining explanation in dialogue
How then, given the text of discourse, are we to determine whether the text is better taken to represent an argument or an explanation? The test widely adopted in logic textbooks uses the distinction between an accepted fact and a disputed claim was discussed in Section 2 . But we need to go even beyond that and look more broadly at how arguments and explanations function as different kinds of moves in a dialogue. An argument is a speech act used to convince the hearer of some unsettled claim and an explanation is a speech act used to help the hearer to understand something. This distinction can be drawn as one of a difference of purpose of discourse. Since the distinction is drawn this way, it can be seen to be based on a dialogue model of communication in which two parties take turns in putting forward speech acts. As argued above, in order to then determine whether something is an argument or an explanation, we need not just look at the original intention of the speaker (i.e. the illocutionary force of a speech act) but also at the broader dialogical context.
Defining explanation as a speech act put forward with the aim of transferring understanding from an explainer to an explainee raises further questions. What is understanding, and how can it be transferred from one party to another? Research in AI and cognitive science shows that communicative agents understand the actions of other agents because they share “common knowledge” of the way things can normally be expected to proceed in familiar situations in everyday life. This common knowledge can be modeled as explanation schemes or scripts [ 24 ]. An explanation scheme is a generic scenario, an abstract rendering of a sequence of actions or events of a kind. For example, the restaurant-script contains information about the standard sequence(s) of events that take place when somebody goes to dine in a restaurant.
Explanation schemes can be instantiated by particular explanations and thus the scheme provides the conditions for the explanation’s coherence [ 2 ]. Take, for example, a man who enters a restaurant, orders a hamburger and then removes his pants and offers the waiter his pants. This particular story is incoherent, because it does not adhere to the typical restaurant scheme. But if this story fits another explanation scheme it can still be coherent. Suppose information is added that the waiter spilled hot soup on the man’s legs. This new information would fill out the story in such a way that it hangs together as a coherent script about what happens when someone spills hot liquid on one’s clothes. Thus, an explanation may be causal, motivational, teleological, and so on.
A dialogue model of explanation can then be constructed by building it around the notion of the mutual comprehensibility of a story, or connected sequence of events or actions that both parties can at least partially grasp in virtue of their common knowledge about the ways things can be generally expected to happen in situations they are both familiar with. This is the route taken by Schank and his colleagues in cognitive science (cf. [ 24 ]). According to them, explanation is a transfer of understanding from one party to another in a dialogue, where understanding is clarified scripts, “frozen inference chains stored in memory”. On Schank’s theory, failures of understanding of kinds that trigger a need for an explanation occur because of an anomaly, a gap in a story that contains a part where it fails to make sense, or even where the whole story fails to make sense because it does not “add up”. An explanation, on this approach, is a repair process used to help someone account for the anomaly by using scripts that could be taken from script libraries.
3.1. A dialogue system for argument and explanation
We now propose an example of a dialogue system for argumentation and explanation, based on the protocols presented by [ 5 , 27 ]. Our dialogue system consists of a communication language that defines the possible speech acts in a dialogue, a protocol that specifies the allowed moves at any point in the dialogue and commitment rules , which specify the effects of a speech act on the propositional commitments of the dialogue participants. Furthermore, we assume that both players have their own separate knowledge bases containing argumentation schemes and explanation schemes, which form the basis of arguments and explanations proposed in the dialogue [ 21 ].
In a game for argumentation and explanation, essentially two types of dialogue are combined: explanation dialogue [ 8 , 17 , 27 ] and examination dialogue [ 10 ]. In a pure explanation dialogue the explainer is trying to transfer understanding to the explainee; an examination dialogue can be used to test (evaluate) an explanation. Examination dialogues are more adversarial. For example, the answerer’s inconsistency in previous replies can be attacked using probing counter-arguments to test his trustworthiness (for example, as a witness). Figure 4 shows the combination of explanation and examination dialogues as a process.
Explanation and examination dialogues combined.
The speech acts of a game for explanation and argumentation are presented in the typical format F p , where F is the illocutionary force and p is the propositional content.
(1) claim φ . The player claims a proposition φ .
(2) argue ψ because φ . The player states an argument ψ because φ based on an argumentation scheme S A from the player’s knowledge base.
(3) challenge φ . The player asks for an argument for φ .
(4) concede φ . The player admits that proposition φ is the case.
(5) retract φ . The player declares that he is not committed (any more) to φ .
These speech acts are standard in systems for argumentative dialogue (cf. [ 16 ]). Now, for explanation we need other speech acts, as defined by [ 5 , 27 ].
(6) explain ψ because φ . The player provides an explanation ψ because φ based on an explanation scheme S E from the player’s knowledge base.
(7) explanation request φ . The player asks for an explanation of φ .
(8) inability to explain φ . The player indicates that he cannot explain φ .
(9) positive response : The player indicates that he understands an explanation.
(10) negative response : The player indicates that he does not understand an explanation.
Note that with explanation, the issue is not whether a player is convinced (i.e. wants to be committed to a proposition) but rather whether he understands a proposition.
Commitment rules specify the effect of moving with one of the speech acts. A player becomes committed to any claim, argument or explanation he puts forward, and also to any claim he concedes to. Commitments can be retracted by the retract speech act.
The following standard protocol rules are part of the dialogue system (cf. [ 30 ]).
(1) The players each take their turn.
(2) The players cannot move the exact same speech act twice.
(3) Players cannot commit to propositions which would make their commitments inconsistent.
(4) Players are only allowed to argue for propositions to which they are committed but the other player is not.
(5) Players are only allowed to argue against propositions to which the other player is committed and they are not.
(6) A challenge φ move may only follow either a claim φ move or an argue ψ because φ move.
(7) A challenge φ move can only be responded to by either an argue φ because ψ move or a retract φ move.
(8) Players are only allowed to challenge propositions to which the other player is committed and they are not.
(9) Players can only concede to propositions to which the other player is committed.
(10) Players can only retract propositions to which they are committed.
The above rules capture the basics of argumentative dialogue. The rules encapsulate the idea that argumentation is an activity aimed at proving (or disproving) some claim: once both parties are committed to a claim, there is no point in arguing any further.
For explanation the rules are different, as explanation is aimed at improving understanding. Both parties can be committed to a claim, but one of the two may not fully understand it.
(11) Players are only allowed to request explanations of propositions to which both players are committed.
(12) Players are only allowed to request explanations of propositions for which they themselves do not have an explanation scheme in their knowledge base.
(13) A request explanation φ move can only be responded to by an explain φ because ψ move or an inability to explain φ move.
(14) Players are only allowed to explain propositions to which both players are committed.
(15) Players are only allowed to explain propositions for which they have an explanation scheme in their knowledge base and the other party does not.
(16) An explain move is always followed by either a positive response or a negative response .
Note how explaining is in a sense analogous to arguing but with a different aim, namely making someone understand a proposition instead of committing them to it.
The system can be applied to the two examples taken from the logic textbook [ 14 ], the Challenger spacecraft example and the example about the digestive system of a cow. These are classified as explanations because of the rules stating that players are only allowed to argue for or against propositions to which the other player is not committed. In the one example it is taken as common knowledge that the Challenger spacecraft exploded after liftoff. In the other example, it is taken to be common knowledge that cows can digest grass while humans cannot. Therefore both parties can be taken to be committed to both these propositions. Hence in both examples, it would be inappropriate for either party to argue either for or against these propositions. However it would be appropriate for either party to offer an explanation.
Briefly, it can be shown how a script is involved in the spacecraft example as follows. To make the explanation successful the party to whom it was directed must have enough general knowledge about how rockets work, how a rocket can explode, and to connect an O-ring failure to a leakage of fuel. There must also be knowledge about what might normally be expected to happen when a fuel leak occurs during the operation of the rocket motor. The receiver of the explanation must also know that the booster rockets are attached to the spacecraft in such a way that if the booster rocket explodes, the whole spacecraft that is attached to it will also explode. To connect all these events into a coherent script that explains how the spacecraft exploded after liftoff the receiver of the explanation must already have the common knowledge required to understand how this series of events and objects is connected up into a coherent story.
How the system applies to the example dialogue about the warehouses is indicated in Fig. 1 in the account given of the illocutionary relations in that figure. The evidence for classifying moves as arguments or explanations is indecisive in the instance where Beth asks Allen the question ‘Why are the warehouses so valuable?’. As noted, the speech act could be interpreted as requesting either an argument or an explanation. There was another ambiguous speech act when Beth asks Allen why the warehouses are so valuable. This speech act could be interpreted as requesting either an argument or an explanation, as noted in the discussion of the case in Section 2.2 . The system manages these cases by analyzing them as instances where the evidence given in the dialogue exchange is insufficient to classify the speech act as either an argument or an explanation. The system needs to then follow up by shifting to an examination dialogue where the dialogue participant who asked the question needs to be examined and must indicate whether he or she is putting forward the speech act as an argument on explanation. In many instances, especially the short ones like those found in the logic textbooks, the text of the case is merely given, and there is no possibility of examining the questioner. In such cases we need to make a determination based on the given textual and contextual evidence. It is our contention that this determination needs to be made in the framework provided by our hybrid system of dialogue for argument and explanation.
4. Related research
We have presented only relatively simple examples, or at any rate short ones, that can fit the space confines of this paper. However, we would suggest as a project for further research applying the dialogue system comprising both arguments and explanations to longer examples of dialogues of the kind that can already be found in the literature. This literature is about explanation systems, but it could be helpful to re-examine the examples used in them, as well as other longer texts containing explanations, using this new system. In some instances of applying our system to problematic cases where there are ambiguous instances of questions that could be requests for either explanations or arguments, participants will need to extend the dialogue by having a clarification dialogue used to deal with ambiguity.
In addition to the dialogue systems that combine argumentation and explanation as proposed in [ 5 , 27 ], there are numerous explanations systems that incorporate the ideas about transferring understanding through explanations. For example, ACCEPTER [ 15 ] is a computational system for story understanding, anomaly detection and explanation evaluation. In this system, explanations are directed towards filling knowledge gaps revealed by anomalies. Examples of explanations processed by ACCEPTER along the lines of the dialogue sequence above, include the death of a race horse, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the recall of Audi 5000 cars for transmission problems, and an airliner that leaves from the wrong departure gate [ 15 , p. 38].
The schemas in ACCEPTER’s memory are represented as MOPS (memory organization packages) representing stereotyped sequences of events. MOPS help an agent understand by providing expectations on how things can normally be expected to go in a familiar situation. MOPS are comparable to the stories used in the hybrid theory. A simplified version of the explanation of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger modeled by Leake [ 15 , pp. 39–53] can be used to show how this example fits nicely into the way of treating explanations in the hybrid theory.
This version of the explanation [ 15 , p. 39] can be summed up as follows. The boosters burned through, allowing flames to reach the main fuel tank, causing an explosion. According to the engineers, the explosion was caused by the booster seals being brittle and the cold weather. The explanation given is that the Challenger’s explosion was caused by the flame in the booster rockets, and prior to that by the cold weather which was the cause of the brittleness of the O-rings which enabled the flames to leak out through the seals. This causal sequence can be displayed in the hybrid theory as shown in Fig. 5 . The arrows with filled heads represent causal relations, while the arrows with white heads represent arguments.
Explanation supported by evidence.
The explanation given in the example in Section 2 explained the Challenger explosion by presenting the story that the spacecraft exploded because the O-ring failed in one of the booster rockets. This story leaves out intervening causal steps made explicit in the fuller story represented in Fig. 5 . Also, we see at the bottom left of Fig. 5 , there was additional information given by testimony of the engineers. This testimony can be seen as an argument supporting the two initial items in the causal story sequence along the top and right. This supplemented explanation expands the story of what happened, yielding better understanding of why the Challenger explosion happened. It does this by filling further information in the causal sequence in the story and by adding in evidence supporting part of the story.
Cawsey’s work [ 8 ] on computational generation of explanatory dialogue and Moore’s dialogue-based analysis of explanation for advice-giving in expert systems [ 17 ] also took a dialogue approach. Moore defines explanation as an inherently incremental and interactive process that requires a dialogue between an explanation presenter who is trying to explain something and a questioner who has asked for an explanation.
An interesting piece of related research is [ 3 ], which uses scripts or story schemes to model cases about the facts. These cases can then be argued with using the argumentative moves of CATO [ 1 ], which were originally developed for reasoning with legal cases. What this means is that [ 3 ] have a skeleton dialogue system that uses scripts to perform argumentation instead of explanation. This conforms with our findings: it is not the logical structure of the reasoning or the schemes used in reasoning that determines whether something is explanation or argumentation but the context of the dialogue in which the reasoning is performed and the schemes are used.
In this paper, we have discussed the problem of distinguishing between argumentation and explanation. In many cases, the same piece of discourse can reasonably be interpreted as either an explanation or an argument, and the logical structure of the reasoning proposed also does not conclusively distinguish between the two. The distinction is important for several reasons. First, there are situations in which argumentation may be fallacious whilst explanation is not, as illustrated by our examples of circular reasoning in Section 2.2 . Second, explanation and argumentation serve different aims and it is important that there is no confusion in multi-agent dialogue; if a request for explanation is interpreted as a request for argumentation, this may lead to undesirable misunderstandings and unwanted behaviour by agents. We have shown that such confusions can easily lead to the committing of logical fallacies. The illustration we have used to make this point is the specific fallacy of begging the question, also known as arguing in a circle. Finally, the distinction is important for the connection between argumentation, story-based explanation and discourse analysis, as argumentation schemes and explanation schemes can play important roles in the analysis of natural language texts [ 11 , 22 ].
Our solution involves looking at the context of dialogue to determine whether reasoning is argumentation or explanation. Whether something is argumentation or explanation is determined by the intention of uttering a locution, and this intention can be inferred from the context of the dialogue, such as the speech act that was replied to and the knowledge and intentions of the other players. This context of dialogue can be modeled as a dialogue system (Section 3 ). In this sense, our dialogue system for argumentation and explanation does not only provide normative rules for coherent dialogue (as is usual), but it also helps us describe the difference between argumentation and explanation in dialogue.
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