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Novel writing ,
Writing dialogue in fiction: 7 easy steps.
By Harry Bingham
Speech gives life to stories. It breaks up long pages of action and description, it gives us an insight into a character, and it moves the action along. But how do you write effective dialogue that will add depth to your story and not take the reader away from the action?
In this article I will be guiding you through seven simple steps for keeping your fictional chat fresh, relevant and tight. As well as discussing dialogue tags and showing you dialogue examples.
Time to talk…
7 Easy Steps For Compelling Dialogue
Getting speech right is an art but, fortunately, there are a few easy rules to follow. Those rules will make writing dialogue easy – turning it from something static, heavy and un-lifelike into something that shines off the page.
Better still, dialogue should be fun to write, so don’t worry if we talk about ‘rules’. We’re not here to kill the fun. We’re here to increase it. So let’s look at some of these rules along with dialogue examples.
“Ready?” she asked.
“You bet. Let’s dive right in.”
How To Write Dialogue In 7 Simple Steps:
- Keep it tight and avoid unnecessary words
- Hitting beats and driving momentum
- Keep it oblique, where characters never quite answer each other directly
- Reveal character dynamics and emotion
- Keep your dialogue tags simple
- Get the punctuation right
- Be careful with accents
Dialogue Rule 1: Keep It Tight
One of the biggest rules when writing with dialogue is: no spare parts. No unnecessary words. Nothing to excess.
That’s true in all writing, of course, but it has a particular acuteness (I don’t know why) when it comes to dialogue.
Dialogue Helps The Character And The Reader
Everything your character says has to have a meaning. It should either help paint a more vivid picture of the person talking (or the one they are talking to or about), or inform the other character (or the reader) of something important, or it should move the plot forward.
If it does none of those things then cut it out! Here’s an example of excess chat:
“Good morning, Henry!”
“Good morning, Diana.”
“How are you?” she asked.
“I’m well. How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” She looked up at the blue sky. “Lovely weather we’re having.”
Are you asleep yet? You should be. It’s boring, right?
Sometimes you don’t need two pages of dialogue. Sometimes a simple exchange can be part of the narrative. If you want your readers to know an interaction like this has taken place, then simply say – Henry passed Diana in the street and they exchanged pleasantries.
If you want the reader to know that Henry finds Diana insufferably then you can easily sum that up by writing – Henry passed Diana in the street and they exchanged pleasantries. As always she looked up at the sky before commenting on the weather, as if every day that week hadn’t been gloriously sunny. It took ten minutes to get away, by which time his cheeks were aching from all the forced smiling.
No Soliloquies Allowed (Unless You’re Shakespeare)
This rule also applies to big chunks of dialogue. Perhaps your character has a lot to say, but if you present it as one long speech it will feel to the modern reader like they’ve been transported back to Victorian England.
So don’t do it!
Keep it spare. Allow gaps in the communication (intersperse with action and leave plenty unsaid) and let the readers fill in the blanks. It’s like you’re not even giving the readers 100% of what they want. You’re giving them 80% and letting them figure out the rest.
Take this example of dialogue, for instance, from Ian Rankin’s fourteenth Rebus crime novel, A Question of Blood . The detective, John Rebus, is phoned up at night by his colleague:
… “Your friend, the one you were visiting that night you bumped into me …” She was on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors.
“Andy?” he said. ‘Andy Callis?”
“Can you describe him?”
Rebus froze. “What’s happened?”
“Look, it might not be him …”
“Where are you?”
“Describe him for me … that way you’re not headed all the way out here for nothing.”
That’s great isn’t it? Immediate. Vivid. Edgy. Communicative.
But look at what isn’t said. Here’s the same passage again, but with my comments in square brackets alongside the text:
[Your friend: she doesn’t even give a name or give anything but the barest little hint of who she’s speaking about. And ‘on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors’. That’s two sentences rammed together with a comma. It’s so clipped you’ve even lost the period and the second ‘she’.]
[Notice that this is exactly the way we speak. He could just have said “Andy Callis”, but in fact we often take two bites at getting the full name, like this. That broken, repetitive quality mimics exactly the way we speak . . . or at least the way we think we speak!]
[Uh-oh. The way she jumps straight from getting the name to this request indicates that something bad has happened. A lesser writer would have this character say, ‘Look, something bad has happened and I’m worried. So can you describe him?’ This clipped, ultra-brief way of writing the dialogue achieves the same effect, but (a) shows the speaker’s urgency and anxiety – she’s just rushing straight to the thing on her mind, (b) uses the gap to indicate the same thing as would have been (less well) achieved by a wordier, more direct approach, and (c) by forcing the reader to fill in that gap, you’re actually making the reader engage with intensity. This is the reader as co-writer – and that means super-engaged.]
[Again: you can’t convey the same thing with fewer words. Again, the shimmering anxiety about what has still not been said has extra force precisely because of the clipped style.]
[A brilliantly oblique way of indicating, ‘But I’m frigging terrified that it is.’ Oblique is good. Clipped is good.]
[A non-sequitur, but totally consistent with the way people think and talk.]
[Just as he hasn’t responded to what she just said, now it’s her turn to ignore him. Again, it’s the absences that make this bit of dialogue live. Just imagine how flaccid this same bit would be if she had said, “Let’s not get into where I am right now. Look, it’s important that you describe him for me . . .”]
Gaps are good. They make the reader work, and a ton of emotion and inference swirls in the gaps.
Want to achieve the same effect? Copy Rankin. Keep it tight. And read this .
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Dialogue Rule 2: Watch Those Beats
More often than not, great story moments hinge on character exchanges with dialogue at their heart. Even very short dialogue can help drive a plot, showing more about your characters and what’s happening than longer descriptions can.
(How come? It’s the thing we just talked about: how very spare dialogue makes the reader work hard to figure out what’s going on, and there’s an intensity of energy released as a result.)
But right now, I want to focus on the way dialogue needs to create its own emotional beats. So that the action of the scene and the dialogue being spoken becomes the one same thing.
Here’s how screenwriting guru Robert McKee puts it:
Dialogue is not [real-life] conversation. … Dialogue [in writing] … must have direction. Each exchange of dialogue must turn the beats of the scene … yet it must sound like talk.
This excerpt from Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs is a beautiful example of exactly that. It’s short as heck, but just see what happens.
As before, I’ll give you the dialogue itself, then the same thing again with my notes on it:
“The significance of the chrysalis is change. Worm into butterfly, or moth. Billy thinks he wants to change. … You’re very close, Clarice, to the way you’re going to catch him, do you realize that?”
“No, Dr Lecter.”
“Good. Then you won’t mind telling me what happened to you after your father’s death.”
Starling looked at the scarred top of the school desk.
“I don’t imagine the answer’s in your papers, Clarice.”
Here Hannibal holds power, despite being behind bars. He establishes control, and Clarice can’t push back, even as he pushes her. We see her hesitancy, Hannibal’s power. (And in such few words! Can you even imagine trying to do as much as this without the power of dialogue to aid you? I seriously doubt if you could.)
But again, here’s what’s happening in detail
[ Beat 1: What a great line of dialogue! Invoking the chrysalis and moth here is magical language. it’s like Hannibal is the magician, the Prospero figure. Look too at the switch of tack in the middle of this snippet. First he’s talking about Billy wanting to change – then about Clarice’s ability to find him. Even that change of tack emphasises his power: he’s the one calling the shots here; she’s always running to keep up.]
[ Beat 2 : Clarice sounds controlled, formal. That’s not so interesting yet . . . but it helps define her starting point in this conversation, so we can see the gap between this and where she ends up.]
[ Beat 3 : Another whole jump in the dialogue. We weren’t expecting this, and we’re already feeling the electricity in the question. How will Clarice react? Will she stay formal and controlled?]
[ Beat 4 : Nope! She’s still controlled, just about, but we can see this question has daunted her. She can’t even answer it! Can’t even look at the person she’s talking to. Notice as well that we’re outside quotation marks here – she’s not talking, she’s just looking at something. Writing great dialogue is about those sections of silence too – the bits that happen beyond the quotation marks.]
[ Beat 5: And Lecter immediately calls attention to her reaction, thereby emphasising that he’s observed her and knows what it means.]
Overall, you can see that not one single element of this dialogue leaves the emotional balance unaltered. Every line of dialogue alters the emotional landscape in some way. That’s why it feels so intense & engaging.
Want to achieve the same effect? Just check your own dialogue, line by line. Do you feel that emotional movement there all the time? If not, just delete anything unnecessary until you feel the intensity and emotional movement increase.
Dialogue Rule 3: Keep It Oblique
One more point, which sits kind of parallel to the bits we’ve talked about already.
If you want to create some terrible dialogue, you’d probably come up with something like this (very similar to my previous bad dialogue example):
“Yeah, not bad. What do you say? Maybe play some tennis later?”
“Tennis? I’m not sure about that. I think it’s going to rain.”
Tell me honestly: were you not just about ready to scream there? If that dialogue had continued like that for much longer, you probably would have done.
And the reason is simple. It was direct, not oblique.
So direct dialogue is where person X says something or asks a question, and person Y answers in the most logical, direct way.
We hate that! As readers, we hate it.
Oblique dialogue is where people never quite answer each other in a straight way. Where a question doesn’t get a straightforward response. Where random connections are made. Where we never quite know where things are going.
As readers, we love that. It’s dialogue to die for.
And if you want to see oblique dialogue in action, here’s a snippet from Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network . (Because dialogue in screenwriting should follow the same rules as a novel. Some may argue that it should be even more snipped!)
So here goes. This is the young Mark Zuckerberg talking with a lawyer:
Lawyer: “Let me re-phrase this. You sent my clients sixteen emails. In the first fifteen, you didn’t raise any concerns.” MZ: ‘Was that a question?’ L: “In the sixteenth email you raised concerns about the site’s functionality. Were you leading them on for 6 weeks?” MZ: ‘No.’ L: “Then why didn’t you raise any of these concerns before?” MZ: ‘It’s raining.’ L: “I’m sorry?” MZ: ‘It just started raining.’ L: “Mr. Zuckerberg do I have your full attention?” MZ: ‘No.’ L: “Do you think I deserve it?” MZ: ‘What?’ L: “Do you think I deserve your full attention?”
I won’t discuss that in any detail, because the technique really leaps out at you. It’s particularly visible here, because the lawyer wants and expects to have a direct conversation. ( I ask a question about X, you give me a reply that deals with X. I ask a question about Y, and … ) Zuckerberg here is playing a totally different game, and it keeps throwing the lawyer off track – and entertaining the viewer/reader too.
Want to achieve the same effect? Just keep your dialogue not quite joined up. People should drop in random things, go off at tangents, talk in non-sequiturs, respond to an emotional implication not the thing that’s directly on the page – or anything. Just keep it broken. Keep it exciting!
This not only moves the story forward but also says a lot about the character speaking.
Dialogue Rule 4: Reveal Character Dynamics And Emotion
Most writers use dialogue to impart information – it’s a great way of explaining things. But it’s also a perfect (and subtler) tool to describe a character, highlighting their mannerisms and personality. It can also help the reader connect with the character…or hate them.
Let’s take a look here at Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower as another dialogue example.
Here we have two characters, when protagonist Charlie, a high school freshman, learns his long-time crush, Sam, may like him back, after all. Here’s how that dialogue goes:
“Okay, Charlie … I’ll make this easy. When that whole thing with Craig was over, what did you think?”
… “Well, I thought a lot of things. But mostly, I thought your being sad was much more important to me than Craig not being your boyfriend anymore. And if it meant that I would never get to think of you that way, as long as you were happy, it was okay.” …
… “I can’t feel that. It’s sweet and everything, but it’s like you’re not even there sometimes. It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder? What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things.”
“Like what?” …
“I don’t know. Like take their hands when the slow song comes up for a change. Or be the one who asks someone for a date.”
The words sound human.
Sam and Charlie are tentative, exploratory – and whilst words do the job of ‘turning’ a scene, both receiving new information, driving action on – we also see their dynamic.
And so we connect to them.
We see Charlie’s reactive nature, checking with Sam what she wants him to do. Sam throws out ideas, but it’s clear she wants him to be doing this thinking, not her, subverting Charlie’s idea of passive selflessness as love.
The dialogue shows us the characters, as clearly as anything else in the whole book. Shows us their differences, their tentativeness, their longing.
Want to achieve the same effect? Understand your characters as fully as you can. The more you can do this, the more naturally you’ll write dialogue that’s right for them . You can get tips on knowing your characters here .
Dialogue Rule 5: Keep Your Dialogue Tags Simple
A dialogue tag is the part that helps us know who is saying what – the he said/she said part of dialogue that helps the reader follow the conversation.
Keep it Simple
A lot of writers try to add colour to their writing by showering it with a lot of vigorous dialogue tags. Like this:
“Not so,” she spat.
“I say that it is,” he roared.
“I know a common blackbird when I see it,” she defended.
“Oh. You’re a professional ornithologist now?” he attacked, sarcastically.
That’s pretty feeble dialogue, no matter what. But the biggest part of the problem is simply that the dialogue tags ( spat, roared , and so on) are so highly coloured, they take away interest from the dialogue itself – and it’s the words spoken by the characters that ought to capture the reader’s interest.
Almost always, therefore, you should confine yourself to the blandest of words:
And so on. Truth is, in a two-handed dialogue where it’s obvious who’s speaking, you don’t even need the word said .
As an alternative, you can have action and body language demonstrate who is saying what and their emotions behind it. The scene description can say just as much as the dialogue.
Here’s another example of the same exchange:
Joan clenched her jaw. “Not so!”
“I say that it is.”
His voice kept rising with every word he shouted, but Joan was not going to be deterred.
“I know a common blackbird when I see it.”
“Oh. You’re a professional ornithologist now?”
Not one dialogue tag nor adverb was used there, but we still know who said what and how it was delivered. And , if you’re really smart and develop how your characters speak (pacing, words, syntax and speech pattern), a reader can know who is talking simply by how they’re talking.
The simple rule: use dialogue tags as invisibly as you can. I’ve written about a million words of my Fiona Griffiths series, and I doubt if I’ve used words other than say / reply and other very simple tags more than a dozen or so times in the entire series.
Keep it simple!
Dialogue Rule 6: Get The Punctuation Right
Dialogue punctuation is so simple and important, and looks so bad if you get it wrong. Here are eight simple rules to know before your character starts to speak:
- Each new line of dialogue (ie: each new speaker) needs a new paragraph – even if the dialogue is very short.
- Action sentences within dialogue get their own paragraphs too. The first paragraph of a chapter or section starts on the far left, and the next paragraph (whether it starts with dialogue or not) is indented.
- The only exception to this rule is if the sentence interrupts an otherwise continuous piece of dialogue. for example: “Yes,” she said. She brushed away a fly that had landed on her cheek. “I do think hippos are the best animals.”
- When you are ending a line of dialogue with he said / she said , the sentence beforehand ends with a comma not a full stop (or period), as in this for example: “Yes,” she said.
- If the line of dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation mark, you still don’t have a capital letter for he said / she said . For example: “You like hippos?” he said .
- If the he said / she said lives in the middle of one continuous sentence of dialogue, you need to deploy those commas like a comma-deploying ninja. Like this for example: “If you like hippos,” he said, “then you deserve to be sat on by one.”
- And use quotation marks, dummy. You know to do that, without me telling you, right? (Yes, yes, some serious writers of literary fiction have written entire novels without one speech mark – but they are the exception to the rule.)
- Use the exclamation point sparingly. Otherwise! Your! Book! Is! Going! To! Sound! Very! Hysterical!
Dialogue Rule 7: Accents And Verbal Mannerisms
Realistic dialogue is important, but writing dialogue is not the same as speaking. Remember that the reader’s experience has to be smooth and enjoyable, so even if your character has an accent, speech impediment, or talks excessively…writing it exactly as it’s spoken doesn’t always work.
If you want to show that your character is from a certain part of the UK, it often helps to add a smattering of coloquial words or
In The Last Thing To Burn by Will Dean, the antagonist, Len, has an accent (Yorkshire or Lancashire, it’s obvious but never stated). The protagonist is trapped inside this man’s honme, she has no idea where she is, but by describing the endless fields and hearing his subtle accent the reader knows exactly where in the UK she’s trapped.
Len says things like:
‘Going to go feed pigs’ and ‘There’s a good lass.’
You can highlight location, a character’s age, and their social standing simply by giving a nod to their accent.
On the flip-side, if they have a foreign accent, it can sometimes be too jarring to write dialogue exactly as it sounds.
‘Amma gonna eata the pizza’ is an awful way to write an Italian accent – it’s verging on racist. Try to avoid that. Instead, simply mention they have an Italian accent and let the reader fill in the blanks.
Accents Written Well
But, of course, there’s always an exception!
Irvine Welsh writes English in his native Scottish dialect and it’s exemplary – but nothing something we would recommend for a novice writer.
Here’s an excerpt from Trainspotting:
Third time lucky. It wis like Sick Boy telt us: you’ve got tae know what it’s like tae try tae come off it before ye can actually dae it. You can only learn through failure, and what ye learn is the importance ay preparation. He could be right. Anywey, this time ah’ve prepared.
Perhaps, if you have a Scottish character in your novel you may want them to speak in a strong accent. But getting it wrong can ruin an entire novel, so unless you are very skilled and very confident, stick to the odd coloquialism or word and leave it there.
Whether you realise it or not, we all have speech patterns. Some of us speak slowly, others pause, people also trail off mid-sentence. Some people also use verbal mannerisms, such as adding a word to a sentence that is unnecessary but becomes a personal tic (such as ‘man’, ‘like’ or ‘innit’). Or repeat favourite words. These can be influenced by age, background, class, and the period in which the book is set.
Here’s an example of two people talking. I won’t mention their ages or backgrounds, but see if you can guess.
“Chill? I’m far from chilled, you scoundrel. That’s my flower bed you’ve just dug up.”
“I found something, though. It was sticking out the ground.”
“Outrageous behaviour. So… You… One simply can’t go around digging up people’s gardens!”
“Yeah. And what?” They both stared down at the swollen white lumps pressing out of the soil like plump snowdrops.”What is it, though?”
Harold swallowed. “Fingers.”
A Few Last Dialogue Rules
If want some great examples of how to write in dialogue, read plays or screenplays for inspiration. Read Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen. Anything by Elmore Leonard is great. Ditto Raymond Chandler or Donna Tartt.
Some last tips:
- Keep speeches short . If a speech runs for more than three sentences or so, it (usually) risks being too long. Break it up with some action or someone else talking.
- Ensure characters speak in their own voice . And make sure your characters don’t sound the same as each other. Remember mannerisms, speech patterns, and how age and background influences speech.
- Add intrigue . Add slang and banter. Lace character chats with foreshadowing. You needn’t be writing a thriller to do this.
- Get in late and out early. Don’t bother with small talk. Decide the point of each interaction, begin with it as late as possible, ending as soon as your point is made.
- Interruption is good. So are characters pursuing their own thought processes and not quite engaging with the other.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the 5 typesetting rules of writing dialogue.
Part of the editing process is to ensure you format dialogue correctly. Formatting dialogue correctly means remembering 5 simple steps:
- Only spoken words go within quotation marks.
- Use a separate sentence for every new thing someone says or does.
- Punctuation marks stay inside quotation marks and don’t forget about closing quotation marks at the end of the sentence.
- You can use single quotation marks or double quotation marks – but you must be consistent!
- Beware of capital letters. Always at the start of a sentence and after the quitations mark.
How Can You Use Everyday Life To Perfect Your Dialogue?
Listening to people speak will really help you perfect good dialogue. Sit in a cafe and people watch. Watch their body language and how they express themselves. Their verbal mannerisms, tics, how they choose their words, the syntax, speech patterns and turns of phrase. Make notes (without being spotted) and look out for contrasting word choices and personas.
What Is A Bad Example Of Dialogue?
There are plenty to choose from above – but the worst things you can do include:
- Using too many words
- Writing an accent how it’s heard (unless you are Irvine Welsh, which most people are not)
- Writing dialogue that’s irrelevant or misleading
- Using too many dialogue tags (or none at all)
- Bad punctuation – remember dialogue formatting
- Avoid long speeches
How Do You Start Dialogue?
There are many ways to start dialogue. You can ease into it, by introducing the character to the scene. Or you can jump in median res, slap bang into the centre of the action. Much like life, sometimes we hear a person’s voice before we see them – they pop up out of nowhere – and sometimes we call them or walk into a room where they are, and we have rehearsed what we plan to say.
See what works best for your scene, your characters, and the genre you are writing in (dialogue in a crime thriller will sound very different to dialogue in a young adult novel, for instance).
That’s All I Have To Say About That
We really hope you have found this article interesting and that you have now found the confidence to tackle the dialogue in your novel.
What your characters say and how they say it can make the difference between a good book and one that everyone is talking about. So get eavesdropping, get practising, and read as many books and plays as you can to create better dialogue.
Practice makes perfect and don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers , providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter . For more writing articles, take a look at our blog page .
About the author
Harry has written a variety of books over the years, notching up multiple six-figure deals and relationships with each of the world’s three largest trade publishers. His work has been critically acclaimed across the globe, has been adapted for TV, and is currently the subject of a major new screen deal. He’s also written non-fiction, short stories, and has worked as ghost/editor on a number of exciting projects. Harry also self-publishes some of his work, and loves doing so. His Fiona Griffiths series in particular has done really well in the US, where it’s been self-published since 2015. View his website , his Amazon profile , his Twitter . He's been reviewed in Kirkus, the Boston Globe , USA Today , The Seattle Times , The Washington Post , Library Journal , Publishers Weekly , CulturMag (Germany), Frankfurter Allgemeine , The Daily Mail , The Sunday Times , The Daily Telegraph , The Guardian , and many other places besides. His work has appeared on TV, via Bonafide . And go take a look at what he thinks about Blick Rothenberg . You might also want to watch our " Blick Rothenberg - The Truth " video, if you want to know how badly an accountancy firm can behave.
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FORMATTING + DESIGN
How to Write Dialogue: Formatting, Examples, & Tips
Posted on Mar 3, 2023
by Bella Rose Pope
Learning how to write dialogue can be tough for some without the right guidance.
This is why we started Fundamentals of Fiction & Story in the first place. We wanted to give writers the skills and knowledge they needed to take an idea and turn it into a bestselling novel (and even potentially a full-time career).
But unless you plan on writing a textbook, you must learn how to properly create dialogue—and use it correctly because yes, there is a wrong way to present dialogue (and we’ll get into that later).
Without effective dialogue, even the best plot or book ideas will fall flat. Your efforts for successfully publishing a book that reads well will be ineffective. Writing well is the cornerstone of marketing your book . Ultimately, your reader’s reviews of your book will hold weight.
Because if the dialogue is bad… Readers will put the book down (because the dialogue is often what readers pay the most attention to).
But if you’re not sure how to write dialogue in a way that is not only natural but also works as a catalyst within your book, the process of writing a book can be even more daunting than it already is.
6-LESSON Fiction & Memoir Writing Handbook including <
How To Write Dialogue Activity Guide [Printable]
Learn how to write better dialogue. Dialogue writing examples, dialogue writing format guide, dialogue writing activity, PLUS 100 words to replace “said”. Start writing better dialogue NOW!
You can’t write a book without dialogue—and you can’t write a good book without good dialogue (even if you’re writing a nonfiction book !).
In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to write dialogue, including dialogue format, dialogue punctuation, examples of dialogue with grammar, and common dialogue mistakes to avoid.
We’ll also cover, in detail, how to write realistic dialogue.
Here’s what to know about writing dialogue:
- Dialogue Rules
- Format & Punctuation
- Tips for Dialogue
- Say the dialogue out loud
- Cut small talk when writing dialogue
- Keep your dialogue brief and impactful
- Give each character a unique voice
- Add world-appropriate slang
- Be consistent with the characters’ voices
- Remember who they’re speaking to
- Avoid long dialogue paragraphs
- Cut out greetings
- Show who your character is
- Mistakes to avoid
*click to jump to that section
Ready to learn what makes great dialogue? Let’s get started.
Basic Dialogue Rules All Writers Should Follow
Before we get into the actual formatting and styles of writing dialogue (along with some tips for making sure it’s good dialogue), let’s go over some of the common and universal rules for writing dialogue in any book genre .
Here are the main rules for writing dialogue:
- Each speaker gets a new paragraph . Every time someone speaks, you show this by creating a new paragraph. Yes, even if your characters are only saying one word, they get new paragraphs.
- Each paragraph is indented . The only exception for this is if it’s the start of a chapter or after a scene break, where the first line is never indented, including with dialogue.
- Punctuation for what’s said goes inside the quotation marks . Any time the punctuation is a part of the person speaking, they go inside the quotes so the reader knows how the dialogue is said.
- Long speeches with several paragraphs don’t have end quotations. You’ll see more on this below, but overall, if one character is speaking for so long they have separate paragraphs, the quotation marks on the end are removed, but you start the next paragraph with them.
- Use single quotes if the person speaking is quoting someone else . If you have a character who says, “Man, don’t you love it when girls say, ‘I’m fine’?”, the single quotes indicate what someone else says.
- Skip the small talk and focus on important information only. Unless that small talk is relevant for character development, skip it and get to the point, this isn’t real life and will actually feel more fake if you have too much.
Dialogue Punctuation and Format
When it comes to book formatting , dialogue is one of the most difficult to get right.
It’s not that it’s especially complicated, but there are many different types of dialogue and many different types of punctuation (including when to use a comma, quotes, and even em dashes) needed in order to properly format it.
Therefore, it’s easy to get confused or forget which format you should use for which line of dialogue.
The basics for the format of dialogue is that each time a new person speaks, it’s a new paragraph with quotes around what they said.
In order to fully understand how to format dialogue, you have to know how to punctuate it properly, depending on the form you’re using.
The one thing most writers get wrong when they’re first starting out is proper dialogue format.
Sure, you could leave that up to the editor , but the more work for your editor, the more expensive they’ll be.
Plus, it’s important that, as serious writers and future authors, you know how to punctuate dialogue no matter what.
That also means editors will be able to focus on more complex edits instead of just punctuation.
Dialogue punctuation is complex and takes some time to learn, understand, and master.
While we go into more depth with dialogue in our Fundamentals of Fiction program, here are some dialogue examples of each and how you would punctuate them.
Dialogue Example 1: Single Line
Single lines of dialogue are among the easiest to write and remember. The punctuation for this dialogue is simple:
The quotations go on the outside of both the words and end-of-dialogue punctuation (in this case a period, but it’s the same for a comma, question mark, or exclamation point).
Example: “You really shouldn’t have done that.”
No matter what other punctuation you have, whether it’s a question mark or exclamation point, it will go on the inside of the quotations.
Dialogue Example 2: Single line with a dialogue tag
In this case, “tag” means dialogue tag.
A dialogue tag is anything that indicates which character spoke and describes how they spoke.
Here are some common examples of dialogue tags:
- She whispered
- They bellowed
- He hollered
- They sniped
- They responded
In the example below, you can see that the dialogue tag goes on the outside of the quotations, while the comma goes on the inside .
Example: “You really shouldn’t have done that,” he whispered.
This is the case with any dialogue tags that are used. You can also see how this dialogue formatting works with different types of sentences and different dialogue tags.
Note that the tag, when following a comma within the quotation marks, is lowercase, as it’s a part of the overall sentence.
Dialogue Example 3: Questions
Because a question mark seems like the end of a sentence, it’s easy for most writers to get the format for questions when writing dialogue wrong.
But it’s actually pretty easy. Essentially, a question mark will be treated as a comma or period. What changes the formatting most is what follows the dialogue.
Example: “Are you sure we have to leave that early?” she wondered aloud.
Here are some examples of writing questions in dialogue:
- “Will you ever stop being a child?” she asked.
- “What about that man over there?” he whispered, pointing in a old gentleman’s direction. “Doesn’t he look odd too?”
- “What’s the big deal, anyway?” she huffed.
In this example above, you can see that if there is a dialogue tag , the question mark will act as a comma and you will then lowercase the first word in the dialogue tag (unless it’s a person’s name).
However, if there is simply an action after the question, the question mark acts as a period and you will then capitalize the first word in the next sentence.
Dialogue Example 4: Dialogue Tag, then single line
When it comes to formatting dialogue tags before your character speaks, it’s essentially the same as when they come after, except backward.
As you can see in the example above, the dialogue tag is in front, followed by a comma outside of the quotations. Then the quotations appear when the sentence starts with that sentence’s punctuation inside the quotations at the end.
Example: He finally said, “Fine. Let’s just go for it.”
Here are a few more examples of this type of dialogue, as it’s very common:
- They hung their head and mumbled, “It’s fine if you don’t want me to come.”
- She huffed, “Well that’s just great , isn’t it?”
- He drew in a long breath and spoke, “I’m just not sure what to do anymore.”
Dialogue Example 5: Body language description
There are a couple of different types of body language dialogue formats to learn.
This is when the actions your character is taking come between lines of dialogue but after a sentence is complete. In real life, this would indicate someone pausing to complete the action.
Example: “I don’t see what the big deal is.” She tossed a braid over her shoulder. “It’s not like she cared anyway.”
Here’s what this dialogue example looks like:
- “Are you sure we should go this weekend?” She shoved the curtain aside, sneering at the greying clouds. “It could be a mess out there.”
- “What’s the big deal, anyway?” He yanked the sheet from the envelope. “It’s not like you cared for her all that much.”
- “Let’s go to the moon!” She twirled, her pale pink dress lifting around her. “We could make it, I know we could.”
Below is a detailed explanation of how you would format this type of dialogue:
Variation 2 :
With this dialogue formatting, it’s different because this is when a character does something while they are speaking, instead of pausing like in variation 1. The action happens in the middle of a sentence and has to be formatted as such.
Example: “I don’t see what”—she tossed a braid over her shoulder—”the big deal is.”
Here are some dialogue examples of this formatting:
- “It’s really just”—he rubbed his hand over his stubble—”the most frustrating thing I can think of.”
- “If you’re not going to”—she grabbed his face—”at least listen to me, I don’t see the point in even trying.”
You can see the proper formatting for this dialogue below:
You would use this to help build a clearer image and communicate the scene to match how it is in your head.
This is also the case when characters have inner thoughts within their dialogue, as seen in the second example in variation 2.
Dialogue Example 6: Single line getting cut off
Something that happens in real life (sometimes an irritatingly large amount) is getting cut off or interrupted when you’re speaking.
This typically happens when someone either doesn’t care what you’re talking about or when two people are in an argument and end up speaking over one another.
Example: “Are you crazy—” “Do not call me crazy.”
You can see in this example that you place an Em Dash (—) right at the end of the sentence, followed by the quotation marks.
You’ll treat this format of dialogue much like example 1, a single line of dialogue.
Dialogue Example 7: Dialogue tag in the middle of a line
Another common type of dialogue. This is essentially a mix of a single line with a dialogue tag.
Example: “You really shouldn’t have done that,” she murmured. “That will get you in a lot of trouble.”
Mostly, you will use this type in order to indicate who is talking if there are more than two and in order to keep the focus on the dialogue itself and not the character’s actions.
Dialogue Example 8: Paragraphs of dialogue
There are certain situations that call for a single character to speak for a long time. However, grammatically, not all of what they say will belong in the same paragraph.
Example: single speaker “It’s not that I don’t think you should have done that. Not exactly. “Actually, I think it might be a great thing for you to have done. I’m just worried about what will happen next and how that will impact everyone else.”
For writing dialogue paragraphs, you want to leave the quotations off the end of the paragraph and begin the next paragraph with them in order to indicate that the same person is just telling a long story .
[ NOTE: These dialogue rules apply to American English. Other parts of the world may use different dialogue formatting, including single quotations and more. ]
How to Create Dialogue That’s Realistic and Effective
Great dialogue is hard to get right. For something we do and hear every day, knowing what to make your characters say in order to move the plot forward and increase intrigue isn’t easy.
But that’s why we’ve broken it down into easy steps for writing dialogue for you.
Here are some of the best tips for writing dialogue that feels real but is also effective for moving your story forward.
#1 – Say it out loud first
One of the easiest and best ways to see if your dialogue sounds realistic is to read it out loud, especially if you are writing a genre that would benefit from such an approach.
Hearing what someone is supposed to say (since your readers will imagine them speaking out loud) will allow you to determine if it sounds real or fake.
One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes your dialogue will sound a little “cheesy” to you. Since written dialogue is a little different and more purposeful than what we hear in our day-to-day lives, you might think it sounds a little dramatic—and that’s okay. It just can’t be unrealistic.
But that’s okay! Dialogue should have more “weight” than what you say in real life.
Even so, it has to sound like something someone would actually say. If you feel yourself cringing a little or you can’t imagine a real person saying it, you might have to do some editing.
Ask these questions when reading your dialogue out loud to yourself:
- Would someone actually say this in real life?
- Does it move the plot forward or develop a character?
- Is it easy to say or do you fumble over the sentence?
- Do you pause in certain areas where you haven’t written commas? (Note: if this happens, put in some commas so the readers interpret it how you hear it!)
Extra dialogue tip: Record yourself reading your dialogue in what you imagine your characters to sound like and play it back to yourself. This can help you pinpoint which words or phrases sound off.
#2 – Get rid of the small talk
Your readers don’t care about what your characters had for dinner last night—unless that dinner had been poisoned and is now seeping into their bloodstream, impacting their immediate danger.
Talking about the weather or your character’s pet or anything trivial will read as boring and unnecessary.
This also slows down your novel’s pacing.
One exception may be if your characters are stalling in order to avoid talking about something that is major and impactful to the plot. When it’s used as a literary device to set the mood or tone of a scene, it’s acceptable.
#3 – Keep it brief and impactful
Dialogue in books is not meant to read in the way we actually speak—not full conversations, at least. If it did, each book would be exceptionally longer, due in part to the fact that humans often say a lot of pointless things.
When it comes to writing dialogue in your book, you have to keep it briefer and more poignant than in real life.
A great way to get to the meat of the dialogue is to cut out everything that doesn’t immediately impact the scene.
A quick, “Hey, how’s it going?” isn’t necessary unless the other character’s state is vital to the scene. This, however, doesn’t include if your character is meeting someone for the first time, obviously. Again, focus on writing the scene in a way that informs the dialogue.
Essentially, anything that does not further develop your character, the plot, or any subplots should be cut.
#4 – Give each character a unique way of speaking
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, but not everyone speaks in the same way. We all have a specific “flow” to our sentences and we all have favorite words we prefer to use.
This is actually a big part of character development in your novel.
For example, maybe people will use “perhaps” or “maybe” but not often both in equal amounts. This is a very small detail, but it does a long way in developing the characters and giving them their own voice.
Another way you can do this is with sentence structure.
Does your character speak in short, chopped sentences? Or do they eloquently describe their point of view in long-winded, crafted sentences that ebb and flow with their tone of voice?
Do they use a lot of analogies and metaphors when explaining things or is this character extremely literal and gets right to the point?
This difference is very important. Your readers should be able to tell the difference between characters based on their sentences and diction . It ultimately comes down to your chops as an author when it comes to writing styles and your ability to use it to bring your characters alive.
A reasonable exception to this would be pairs or groups of close people. Meaning, if your main character’s best friend speaks similarly to them, that’s okay. As humans, we subconsciously pick up on the speech patterns of those closest to us – those we speak to regularly (like when we use similar slang in our friend group that others may not use).
#5 – Add world-appropriate slang
A major part of the dialogue that often gets overlooked is the slang.
Even in our own world, new slang is developed every day and sometimes, the words might seem crazy or even confusing.
Take the term “fleek” for example. This word looks like it would be a herd of some sort of animal.
But in fact, it’s a word being “on point” or “sharp.”
The point is, creating unique slang for your world can add to the dialogue and tell you more about the characters who use it, not to mention build your world effortlessly.
Here’s an example of slang from Jenna Moreci’s, EVE: The Awakening . This book is set in the near future and so Moreci had to create slang fitting for the time:
#6 – Be consistent with characters’ voices
It wouldn’t make sense for your character to flop the way they speak unless they’re talking to someone specific (which we cover in the next tip).
The main idea is that if one character speaks in choppy sentences, it should remain that way unless the moment changes to something that would require something more elegant.
At the same time, you want to make sure your characters are using consistent language.
Like in the tips in #4, if they use a specific word more frequently, make sure they use that word whenever they should in order to maintain a consistent voice.
#7 – Think about who they’re speaking to
You don’t speak in the same way around every single person.
Your voice and style change depending on who you’re chatting with. For example, you’re going to talk differently to your mom than you would to your best friend.
While it’s important to be consistent with your character’s style and voice, it’s also crucial to think about the who when it comes to their dialogue and adjust accordingly.
#8 – Keep long speech paragraphs to a minimum
Rarely do people speak for a very long time uninterrupted. It might be important for your character to say something lengthy but remember to at least split it up with body language and other means of giving your reader a break.
These can feel very long-winded and end up slowing down the pacing of your book, which can be great if you use them for this purpose.
One way to break up long paragraphs if one person is speaking for a while (like when they’re telling a story of sorts) is to add in the other characters’ body language reactions.
But if you’re trying to move your plot along at a steady rate, avoid long speech paragraphs.
#9 – Cut the hellos and goodbyes
Greetings are absolutely necessary in real life. In your book? Not so much.
Your readers know enough to assume there was a greeting of some sort. In addition, these aren’t usually pivotal parts of your book and therefore, aren’t necessary to have.
An exchange like this will bore your readers to death:
“Hey, Charlie!” “What’s up, dude?” “Not much, how are you doing?” “I’m fine, you know. Same old, same old.” “Ah, I feel ya. Anything new in your world?” “Not really, to tell you the truth.”
Cutting these will help speed up your pacing as well as keep the dialogue to the must-speak information.
#10 – Show who your character is
One of the best methods of character development is dialogue.
Think about it: how do we learn about new people when we meet them? Through what they say.
You could meet someone entirely new and based on the exchange, you actually learn a lot about who they are and how they operate in life.
You discover if they’re shy, bold, blunt, or kind-hearted and soft-spoken.
Your dialogue should do the very same for your characters.
Here’s an example of what this would look like:
She let stray strands fall in front of her face as she looked down and scuffed something sticky on the sidewalk. “ Do you really think so ?” Her voice was soft, her eyes still fixed on the ground instead of the new guy standing in front of her.
This example shows you what the character looks like in a specific situation and therefore, we gather facts about what she’s like.
For one, she’s shy—as much is seen by her avoiding eye contact even as she speaks.
Common Dialogue Mistakes to Avoid
We all make mistakes. But if you want to become a published author (or just write a great book), you can’t make these major ones within your book’s dialogue.
#1 – Using the person’s name repeatedly
It’s tempting to make your characters call each other’s names often. However, this isn’t how we talk in real life.
Unless we’re trying to get their attention or are emphasizing (or warning!) a point, we don’t say their name.
How not to write dialogue:
“Rebecca, I really needed you and you weren’t there.”
“I’m sorry, Ashley. I was just busy with school and work.”
“Okay, but that’s not a good excuse Rebecca.”
“You’re right, Ashley. It’s not.”
#2 – Info-dumping through dialogue
It’s perfectly okay to have some characters explain certain elements your readers won’t understand. However, it gets very boring and unrealistic when that’s all they do.
Your world should unfold gradually to the reader through showing and not telling.
In the case of dialogue, this worldbuilding is all “tell” and no show. And this works sometimes, especially if a character is telling another character about something they don’t yet know.
Just keep this to a minimum and use other methods of worldbuilding to show your readers the world you’ve created.
#3 – Avoid repetitive dialogue tags
There’s nothing quite as annoying as reading dialogue tags over and over…and over again.
It’s a surefire way to bore your readers and make them want to set the book down with no plans to pick it back up in the immediate future.
How not to write dialogue with tags:
“I really needed you and you weren’t there,” Ashley said.
“I’m sorry. I was just busy with school and work,” Rebecca replied.
“Okay, but that’s not a good excuse,” she huffed.
“You’re right. It’s not,” Rebecca whispered.
#4 – Avoid repetitive dialogue styles
This means that if you have the same dialogue format for a few lines, you need to change it up because otherwise, it will be very boring to your readers.
You can see in the point above, using only dialogue tags at the end is very boring. The same applies for repeated other types as well.
For example, read through each of these and you can get a feel for the monotony you want to avoid within the repeated formats.
Bad Dialogue Example 1: Dialogue tags in the front
He spoke. “You’re one of the oddest people I know.”
She replied, “Is that necessarily a bad thing?”
He smiled. “I didn’t say it was a bad thing at all.”
She laughed. “Good. ”
Bad Dialogue Example 2: Action within the dialogue
“I’m just not sure”—she grabbed a handful of seeds— “that you’re taking this seriously.”
“What?” He weaved between the overgrown plants, pushing them aside. “Why would you think that?”
“Because you—” she plunged her finger into the pot with soil— “just ignore the important stuff unless it’s important to you only.”
“That’s ridiculous.” He craned his neck around a calla lily. “That’s not true.”
Bad Dialogue Example 3: Tags in the middle
“I really wish you would just talk to me,” Ada said. “This silent treatment isn’t helping anyone.”
“It’s helping me,” he said. “Or does that not matter to you?”
“Of course it matters to me,” she replied. “It’s just not solving the problem.”
“I don’t think anything can solve this problem,” he murmured. “It’s permanent.”
How to fix this: whenever you’re writing dialogue, switch the type of formatting you use in order to make it look and sound better. The more enjoyable it is to read, the more readers will become invested.
One exception is when you have two characters going back and forth very quickly. In this case, a few lines of dialogue only, with no tags or anything, is acceptable.
Fixing Dialogue Example: Variation is Key
“I’m just not sure”—she grabbed a handful of seeds— “that you’re taking this seriously.”
He weaved between the overgrown plants, pushing them aside.“Why would you think that?”
“Because…you just ignore the important stuff unless it’s important to you only.”
“No.” She plunged her finger into the pot with soil, dropping in a few seeds. “It’s true.”
Much like with anything that has rules, there are always exceptions.
The most important part of these rules is knowing them .
Once you know the rules and why they’re there, you can break with purpose – instead of doing so on accident.
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Alfred Hitchcock once said that “drama is life with all the boring bits cut out.” Similarly, we could say that good dialogue is like a real conversation without all the fluff.
Think about it: very few “classic” scenes start with characters saying “Hey buddy! How are you doing? Wow, long time no see. Parking was a nightmare.” These lines don’t add anything to the story, and they are said all the time . Are you willing to repeat this prelude for every scene where the characters meet? Probably not, nor do your readers want to sit through it. Readers can infer that all these civilities occur, so you can go ahead and skip forward to get to the meat of the conversation.
For a more tangible example of this technique, check out the dialogue-driven opening to Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Unsheltered .
Outlined by screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb, the Three-Beat Rule advises writers to have a maximum of three dialogue beats at a time, after which you should insert a dialogue tag, action beat, or another character’s speech. Dialogue “beats” can be understood as the short phrases in speech that you can say without pausing for breath. Sometimes they correlate with actual sentences, sometimes they don’t.
Here’s an example from Jane Gardam’s short story, “Dangers”, in which the boy Jake is shooting an imaginary gun at his grandmother:
Now, you may point out that classic books often don’t follow this rule — that’s because dialogue conventions have changed over time. Nowadays, a lengthy and unbroken monologue (unless it’s been effectively built up to be an impassioned outburst or revelation) tends to feel dated and awkward. Readers also lose their attention and interest easily in the face of long speeches, so the Three-Beat Rule is definitely one to follow!
How to Write Believable Dialogue
Master the art of dialogue in 10 five-minute lessons.
While we’re on the topic of beats, let’s take a look at another kind — action beats. These are descriptions of the expressions, movements, or even internal thoughts that accompany the speaker’s words. They’re included in the same paragraph as the dialogue, to indicate that the person acting is also the person speaking.
Action beats can keep your writing varied, avoiding the need for a long list of lines ending in ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. They can also be used to manage the pace of a dialogue-heavy scene. Furthermore, they can illustrate and add context to the conversation, so that readers can gauge the significance of the scene beyond what was being said.
These beats are a commonly used technique so you can find plenty of examples — here’s one from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro .
‘Said’ gets a bad rap for being boring and overused as a dialogue tag, especially in school. But in the book-writing world, this simple tag is favored over more descriptive ones like ‘exclaimed,’ ‘declared,’ or the many other words used to replace ‘said.’
Pro-tip: While we cannot stress enough the importance of "said," sometimes you do need another dialogue tag. Download this free cheatsheet of 270+ other words for said to get yourself covered!
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Upgrade your dialogue with our list of 270 alternatives to “said.”
The thinking goes that most of the time, readers don’t notice words like ‘said’ because their attention is (rightfully) on what’s actually being spoken. As writer Elmore Leonard puts it:
“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled,’ ‘gasped,’ ‘cautioned,’ ‘lied.’”
To never use other verbs might be a drastic measure, but you definitely do not want to overcrowd your dialogue with fancy tags and risk taking readers out of a scene for a brief display of verbal virtuosity. If bestsellers like Daphne du Maurier's Gothic novel, Rebecca, features ‘said’ on a regular basis , then your book can, too.
This tip is all about exceptions to some of the tips we’re sharing here. Learning how to write good dialogue isn’t about strictly following rules but rather learning what technique to use when, and emphasizing what's actually being said between characters.
If you stick to one rule the whole time — i.e. if you only use ‘said,’ or you finish every dialogue line with an action beat — you’ll quickly wear out readers. See how unnaturally it plays out in the example below with Sophie and Ethan:
The key, then, is to have variety in structure and use of dialogue tags or action beats throughout a scene — and by extension, throughout your book. Make ‘said’ the default, but be flexible about changing it whenever a description of the characters or a more elaborate dialogue tag can add nuance to the scene!
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Exposition is always a tough nut to crack when writing — finding an organic, timely, and digestible way to reveal important background information can be quite the challenge. It might seem natural to slot some exposition into dialogue in order to avoid overt narrative digressions, but it’s far from a sure-fire solution to your problem.
This is mostly because speech-based explanations can quickly become unnatural. Characters might speak for too long, with too much detail on things that they really might not think about, remember, or comment on in the story’s context (think “I’m just going to the well, mother — the well that my brother, your son, tragically fell down 5 years ago…” ). Just because it’s a conversation doesn’t mean that info-dumps can’t happen.
As such, be careful when carrying out dialogue-based exposition. It’s usually good to have at least one character who doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, so that you can offer explanations relatively naturally — rather than explaining things just for the sake of the readers. For instance, in The Godfather , readers get their first look at the Corleones through Michael's introduction of his family to his girlfriend.
Giving a character a catchphrase or quirk — like Jay Gatsby’s “old sport” or Dolores Umbridge’s “hem hem” — can give them a distinctive, recognizable voice. But as with all character quirks , they work best when you don’t go overboard with them.
Firstly, you don’t want your character to repeat this catchphrase too frequently, otherwise, readers might find it jarring. Remember what Elmore Leonard said about the writer intruding? If you inject the quirk too much, you might become visible on the page.
Secondly, you also want to avoid giving too many characters their own quirks. Gatsby and Umbridge’s voices stand out because no one else has something as memorable about their speech. Moreover, each quirk reveals something about the character: Gatsby impersonates a gentleman in his speech and lifestyle; Umbridge works to maintain her image of composure in contrast to the disarray of Hogwarts under the direction of Dumbledore.
You therefore want to think carefully about your character’s voice, and use catchphrases and quirks only when they really have something to say about your character.
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Just as “I’m good” in response to a friendly “How are you?” might not actually mean that you’re good, characters can also say things that don’t reflect the truth. Creating dialogue that places emphasis on what’s not said (i.e. the subtext) can make your story that much more realistic and compelling.
To do this, you can apply the classic rule of “show, don’t tell” . Use action beats and descriptions to provide clues that can be read between the lines. Let’s revisit Sophie and Ethan in this example:
While Sophie claims she hasn’t been obsessing over this project all night, the actions in between her words indicate that there’s nothing on her mind but work. In weaving personality traits into the conversation through action beats, rather than describing Sophie as hardworking or using a “she lied” dialogue tag, you give readers a chance to organically get to know the characters.
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Our final tip is more of a reminder than anything. With a “less is more” mentality, you can cut out unnecessary bits of dialogue (the “boring bits” from tip #1) and focus on making sure the dialogue you do keep matters. Good writing is intentional and purposeful — it always strives to keep the story going and readers engaged — so the importance lies in quality rather than quantity.
One particular point we haven’t really addressed is repetition. If used well (i.e. with clear intentions), repetition is a literary device that can help you build motifs and flesh out themes in your writing. But when you’re writing dialogue and find yourself repeating well-established pieces of information, it might be a good time to step back and revise your work.
For instance, here’s a scene with Sophie and Ethan later on in the story:
Having Sophie mention that they’ve been working together since the transfer feels repetitive without really adding anything to the conversation. Instead of rephrasing this bit of info, consider cutting Sophie’s line altogether or adding something else, like “I can’t believe we’re talking about this again”, to increase the tension between the characters.
The point is, a good dialogue is often a place where character dynamics can play out. Including needless phrasings or repetitions may decrease the strength of that interaction, and waste valuable space in a scene. If you’re verging on repeating yourself, it’s better to write less and let the readers infer more.
We know that writing dialogue can be intimidating, especially if you don’t have much experience with it. But that should never keep you from including it in your work! Just remember that the more you practice — especially with the help of these tips — the better you’ll get.
And once you’re confident with the conversational content you can conjure up, follow along to the next part of our guide to see how you can punctuate and format your dialogue flawlessly .
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How to write dialogue: 7 steps for great conversation
Learning how to write dialogue in a story is crucial. Writing gripping conversations that include conflict and disagreement and further your story will make readers want to read on. Here are 7 steps to improve your dialogue writing skills:
- Post author By Jordan
- 4 Comments on How to write dialogue: 7 steps for great conversation
7 steps to write better dialogue:
- Learn how to format dialogue
- Include conflict and disagreement
- Involve characters’ goals, fears and desires
- Include subtext for subtle gestures and effects
- Involve context for tone and atmosphere
- Learn by copying out great dialogue writing
Let’s expand these ideas:
1. Learn how to format dialogue
You should always leave your reader caught up in your dialogue, not lost in it. Good formatting is key to making dialogue enjoyable and effortless to read [that’s why formatting is the focus of Week 1 of our writing course, How to Write Dialogue ].
Here are some guidelines for how to write dialogue for maximum clarity:
a) Every time you change speaker, start a new, indented line
Follow this convention because it’s all too easy to lose track of who’s saying what in dialogue. An example of good format:
“What were you thinking?” Sarah frowned.
“I wasn’t. Thinking, I mean,” Tom admitted.
b) Always use opening and closing speech marks
If you write in US English, it’s standard to use double quotation marks for dialogue. In UK English, single quotation marks suffice.
There is an exception: If you have the same character speaking across multiple paragraphs, uninterrupted (if a character is telling a long story), use an opening speech mark for each paragraph and only use a closing speech mark at the end of the last paragraph before narration resumes or another character speaks.
c) Place all dialogue punctuation inside speech marks
In the above example, the question mark in Sarah’s dialogue comes before the closing speech marks, not after.
If the end of a line of dialogue is also the end of the sentence, place the period or full stop before the closing speech marks because it’s part of the rhythm of the speech. It’s part of character’s own coming to a stop (it doesn’t lie outside their speech):
“That’s your problem,” Sarah chided, “you only ever rely on your gut.”
The best policy when formatting dialogue is to check published books and compare multiple dialogue extracts. Investigate what the most common practice is in books by published authors in your country, and remember to be similarly consistent.
Get the hang of great dialogue
Learn how to write dialogue in a structured, four-week self-study course.
2. Cut filler
In strong dialogue, there is no filler . If characters speak on the phone, there are no ‘may I speak to’s’ or ‘Please hold’s’. Cut all filler from your dialogue. Launch straight into any phone conversation. For example:
The voice on the other end of the line was doubtful; suspicious.
Sometimes, filler material such as an introduction between characters , is necessary. Yet take the opportunity to weave in colourful character description . For example, here is an introduction in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations that is full of character:
‘…Joe was smoking his pipe in company with Mr. Wopsle and a stranger. Joe greeted me as usual with “Halloa, Pip, old chap!” and the moment he said that, the stranger turned his head and looked at me.
He was a secret-looking man whom I had never seen before. His head was all on one side, and one of his eyes was half shut up, as if he were taking aim at something with an invisible gun.’
Note that Joe’s greeting is just four words. Yet Dickens instead adds narration around Joe’s voice, giving detailed character description.
‘Filler’ includes unnecessary dialogue tags. Instead of an endless ‘he said, she said’, see where you can replace a tag with a gesture or motion that supplies more story information. Compare:
“So you’re leaving…” he said.
“I thought that much was obvious,” she said.
The dialogue tags have a monotonous, repetitive effect. You could either leave them out entirely (if the preceding scene’s context makes it clear who says which line), or you could add gesture that attributes the dialogue the same:
“So you’re leaving…” He folds his arms, standing in the doorway.
“I thought that much was obvious.” Pausing her packing, she looks over her shoulder at him, resisting the sudden impulse to turn and face him.
Here the dialogue supplies a lot more detail about the emotions of the scene, while avoiding clunky repetition of a standard dialogue writing device.
Another type of filler in dialogue is excessive adverbs. Let the words themselves convey tone and mood:
3. Include conflict and disagreement
Key to writing great dialogue is knowing how to write dialogue involving confrontation or disagreement . In real life, we might go weeks without a single terse or grumpy word to another person. Yet in stories, conflict and confrontation in dialogue supply narrative tension and this keeps the story compelling.
If everyone in your novel gets on swimmingly with everyone else, this could result in dull dialogue.
For example, the verbal sparring between Estella and Pip in Great Expectations creates tension, as we see Estella taunt and test Pip by insulting and goading him. Her dialogue and behaviour is consistent with Estella’s backstory. Her legal guardian, Miss Havisham, once jilted by a lover, has turned the young Estella against boys and sentimentality:
“Well?” “Well, miss?” I answered, almost falling over her and checking myself. “Am I pretty?” “Yes; I think you are very pretty.” “Am I insulting?” “Not so much so as you were last time,” said I. “Not so much so?” “No.” She fired when she asked the last question, and she slapped my face with such force as she had, when I answered it. “Now?” said she. “You little coarse monster, what do you think of me now?” “I shall not tell you.”
Conflict and disagreement might not be anything so dramatic as a physical altercation mid-dialogue. It could be something as small as two traveling characters arguing over a map in the middle of a maze-like city. But these moments of tension are useful for illustrating how your characters react (and interact) under pressure.
4. Involve characters’ goals, fears and desires
Remember that characters don’t always need to be honest, willing or helpful conversation partners. They may be cryptic and misguiding. They can trip each other up with questions and evasive responses. This is particularly the case in dialogue where characters hold different levels of power (in an interrogation or courtroom cross-examination, for example).
Like an unreliable narrator, an unreliable character in conversation could feed your protagonist false information, out of their own motivation.
In every dialogue, keep in mind what motivates each character.
Before you start writing an important section of dialogue, ask yourself:
- What does each character want at this point in the story? What do they fear?
- How might each character’s goals, fears and desires shift or affect this particular conversation?
When you connect character’s conversations to their personal paths and goals in your story, even if just subconsciously, this will help you write more directed, purposeful-seeming dialogue. This is particularly important in genres such as crime and mystery, where characters gaining information from others forms a big part of the narrative.
This leads into subtext in dialogue:
5: Include subtext for subtle gestures and effects
Subtext in dialogue is as important as context . It’s the ‘why’ (in addition to the where ) underlying characters’ conversations. If, for example, a spouse suspects their partner of cheating, this underlying mistrust could be the subtext for an unrelated conversation about dinner plans with their friends. The subtext explains the turn the conversation takes:
“The Watsons have invited us for dinner this Saturday.” She beamed.
“What, again? That’s the third time this month. You seem thrilled. Next they’ll be inviting you to a menage a trois.”
She didn’t understand why he brought every conversation to sex lately. It seemed a new infatuation. And why did he always state the obvious about her every mood and gesture?
Here, the subtext of suspicion and mistrust makes the dialogue interesting. A mundane conversation about dinner plans becomes a story in miniature about jealousy and miscommunication.
6. Involve context for tone and atmosphere
The context in dialogue (another subject we explore in How to Write Dialogue) is important. The context of a conversation – the place where the conversation occurs, and the circumstances leading to it – gives us important details. Mastering using context in dialogue is important because it will help you avoid using adverbs with dialogue tags that make the author’s shaping hand too visible. For example:
“I think someone might be in the house,” she said softly.
Here, you could use the stronger tag ‘she whispered’ to convey volume and eliminate the unnecessary adverb. Yet you could also use context from setting and narration to convey the softness of the conversation here:
For weeks they’d been tempted to enter the dilapidated house. It was a late, windy Friday afternoon when temptation got the better of them. They’d knocked nervously first, not knowing what they’d do if someone answered. After a hushed minute, they’d crept and tip-toed inside, while the paint-stripped front door creaked closed. They were huddling together and shuffling down a dark, musty corridor when she heard a sudden noise from upstairs. “I think someone might be in the house…” Her eyes were wide, her voice barely audible.
Here you don’t need an adverb – the context supplies plenty of detail to suggest the character’s fear and the house’s eerie stillness.
When thinking about the context of characters’ conversation, remember Toni Morrison’s dialogue writing advice:
“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.’
7. Learn by copying out great dialogue
Many great artists in all mediums – art, literature, music – have learned and honed their craft by copying out effective work by their peers and predecessors. To write great dialogue, write down a few lines of dialogue in a journal when you come across dialogue in a story that makes you say ‘wow!’
Create your own treasure trove of inspiring dialogue snippets that you can dip into whenever you need a reminder of how to write dialogue that builds character and story.
Want helpful feedback on sections of your dialogue? Enroll in our four-week course How to Write Dialogue and get an editor’s feedback.
I took the course “How to Write Dialogue” offered by Now Novel. The learning material is well-structured and easy to comprehend. The clear and elegant style of the workbooks made me enjoy the learning process. Creative assignments inspired me to complete each of them. Lastly, the course instructors reviewed the final writing assignment and provided with feedback. I am grateful to receive advice on areas of improvement. I recommend this course for each writer who wants to build a good foundation in writing dialogues. — Tanya
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Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.
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How To Write Dialogue (With Formatting and Examples)
Updated February 3, 2023
Published May 25, 2021
The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.
Writers use various tools like monologues, dialogues and narratives to tell stories that appeal to their audiences. Dialogue is one of the most important tools for written and scripted works with more than one character. You may be interested in learning more about dialogue if your job involves writing a novel, short story or script to share with an audience.
In this article, we discuss why dialogue is important in written works and how to write dialogue that engages your audience, then offer examples to help you write quality conversations.
What is dialogue?
Formatting dialogue rules.
There are several rules you can follow when formatting your dialogue:
Start a new paragraph with each speaker.
Keep punctuation inside quotes for spoken words.
With long quotes that last several paragraphs, skip end quotes at the end of each paragraph.
Consider single quotes for when a speaker quotes another source.
How to write a dialogue
Consider these steps that you can take for how to write a dialogue:
1. Determine the reason for the dialogue
It's often helpful to first determine why you're adding dialogue to a piece of writing. Think about whether the dialogue enhances the story by developing character relationships or backgrounds, advancing the action of the plot or revealing information to your audience. You may place your dialogue strategically throughout your piece to ensure an even flow from narration, action and character voice. Remember to only include dialogue if necessary and avoid dialogue that adds little to your written work.
2. Decide which characters are speaking
3. use quotation marks to start and end spoken dialogue.
Example of proper quotation mark usage: "This is the best salad I've ever tasted," Charles said.
4. Create a new paragraph for each speaker
Every time a different character speaks, it's important to start and indent a new paragraph. This helps you and your readers understand who is speaking and makes your story or script look more visually appealing and easy to read. Separating each character's speech may avoid confusion about what each character is saying, which can be useful in stories with characters who have conflicting values, roles or levels of information.
Example of multiple speakers: "I want to go on a picnic," Karla said, "but I don't want to go alone." "Why don't we go together?" Jenna replied. Karla said, "I'd like that."
5. Write the dialogue
Within your quotation marks, you can write the dialogue between your characters. Consider the reason you're adding it to your story and which characters are speaking the words as you write. Since dialogue is a conversation, the style in which you write it may sound different from the narrative parts of your story or script. Adjust your style based on the setting, characters' personalities and your goal. For example, if your goal is to show two characters meeting for the first time, their conversation may be more formal than if they had been friends for a long time.
6. Start with the action
It's a good idea to give every piece of dialogue a purpose, and starting with the action or most important information of a conversation is an excellent way of achieving that purpose. Although real conversations may have small talk and filler words, dialogue conversations must often be more straightforward and direct for audiences to easily grasp their meaning and intention. To accomplish this, keep your dialogue concise and include only the information that moves your story forward, strengthens connections between characters or offers new knowledge to readers.
7. Use dialogue tags to show who's speaking
Dialogue tags are brief descriptions of who is speaking a piece of dialogue. These tags can come before or after the quotation marks of a character's speech and often include the name or pronoun of the speaking character and a verb describing that they spoke. You can use dialogue tags in many ways to increase the readability of your work and show readers which character is speaking. One way to add visual diversity to your piece is by including dialogue broken up by dialogue tags, which can increase suspense and reader interest.
Example of a dialogue tag before dialogue: Ken said, "That sunset is incredible!"
Example of a dialogue tag after dialogue: "I prefer sunrises," Joe replied.
Example of a dialogue tag breaking up dialogue: "If you want to see a sunrise," Ken said, "we can go hiking in the morning next time."
8. Include action beats
Example of an action beat in a dialogue tag: "I studied really hard for this test," Jimmy said with a smile.
Example of an action beat before dialogue: Yolanda sipped her drink. "This is the best cafe I've been to in a while," she said.
Example of an action beat after dialogue: "After the power went out, I had to reset the clock," his mother said, and she shook her head.
Example of an action beat breaking up dialogue: "There used to be many species of birds here," the tour guide said as he waved his hands toward the trees, "but many have migrated to warmer climates."
9. Remember the setting
When writing dialogue, it's easy to focus on your characters and their conversation, so try to remember to add information about the setting where the dialogue takes place. This helps keep your story balanced and helps readers or viewers feel like the characters in your novel, short story or scripted production are really interacting with their world. You can include the setting in small ways, like having the characters mention how time has passed or noticing a branch fall from a tree nearby. Doing this may help keep your dialogue brief and grounded.
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A Guide to Writing Dialogue, With Examples
“Guess what?” Tanika asked her mother.
“What?” her mother replied.
“I’m writing a short story,” Tanika said.
“Make sure you practice writing dialogue!” her mother instructed. “Because dialogue is one of the most effective tools a writer has to bring characters to life.” Give your writing extra polish Grammarly helps you communicate confidently Write with Grammarly
What is dialogue, and what is its purpose?
Dialogue is what the characters in your short story , poem , novel, play, screenplay, personal essay —any kind of creative writing where characters speak—say out loud.
For a lot of writers, writing dialogue is the most fun part of writing. It’s your opportunity to let your characters’ motivations, flaws, knowledge, fears, and personality quirks come to life. By writing dialogue, you’re giving your characters their own voices, fleshing them out from concepts into three-dimensional characters. And it’s your opportunity to break grammatical rules and express things more creatively. Read these lines of dialogue:
- “NoOoOoOoO!” Maddie yodeled as her older sister tried to pry her hands from the merry-go-round’s bars.
- “So I says, ‘You wanna play rough? C’mere, I’ll show you playin’ rough!’”
- “Get out!” she shouted, playfully swatting at his arm. “You’re kidding me, right? We couldn’t have won . . . ”
Dialogue has multiple purposes. One of them is to characterize your characters. Read the examples above again, and think about who each of those characters are. You learn a lot about somebody’s mindset, background, comfort in their current situation, emotional state, and level of expertise from how they speak.
Another purpose dialogue has is exposition, or background information. You can’t give readers all the exposition they need to understand a story’s plot up-front. One effective way to give readers information about the plot and context is to supplement narrative exposition with dialogue. For example, the protagonist might learn about an upcoming music contest by overhearing their coworkers’ conversation about it, or an intrepid adventurer might be told of her destiny during an important meeting with the town mystic. Later on in the story, your music-loving protagonist might express his fears of looking foolish onstage to his girlfriend, and your intrepid adventurer might have a heart-to-heart with the dragon she was sent to slay and find out the truth about her society’s cultural norms.
Dialogue also makes your writing feel more immersive. It breaks up long prose passages and gives your reader something to “hear” other than your narrator’s voice. Often, writers use dialogue to also show how characters relate to each other, their setting, and the plot they’re moving through.
It can communicate subtext, like showing class differences between characters through the vocabulary they use or hinting at a shared history between them. Sometimes, a narrator’s description just can’t deliver information the same way that a well-timed quip or a profound observation by a character can.
In contrast to dialogue, a monologue is a single, usually lengthy passage spoken by one character. Monologues are often part of plays.
The character may be speaking directly to the reader or viewer, or they could be speaking to one or more other characters. The defining characteristic of a monologue is that it’s one character’s moment in the spotlight to express their thoughts, ideas, and/or perspective.
Often, a character’s private thoughts are delivered via monologue. If you’re familiar with the term internal monologue , it’s referring to this. An internal monologue is the voice an individual ( though not all individuals ) “hears” in their head as they talk themselves through their daily activities. Your story might include one or more characters’ inner monologues in addition to their dialogue. Just like “hearing” a character’s words through dialogue, hearing their thoughts through a monologue can make a character more relatable, increasing a reader’s emotional investment in their story arc.
Types of dialogue
There are two broad types of dialogue writers employ in their work: inner and outer dialogue.
Inner dialogue is the dialogue a character has inside their head. This inner dialogue can be a monologue. In most cases, inner dialogue is not marked by quotation marks . Some authors mark inner dialogue by italicizing it.
Outer dialogue is dialogue that happens externally, often between two or more characters. This is the dialogue that goes inside quotation marks.
How to structure dialogue
Dialogue is a break from a story’s prose narrative. Formatting it properly makes this clear. When you’re writing dialogue, follow these formatting guidelines:
- All punctuation in a piece of dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.
- Quoted dialogue within a line of dialogue goes inside single quotation marks (“I told my brother, ‘Don’t do my homework for me.’ But he did it anyway!”). In UK English, quoted dialogue within a line of dialogue goes inside double quotation marks.
- Every time a new character speaks, start a new paragraph. This is true even when a character says only one word. Indent every new paragraph.
- When a character’s dialogue extends beyond a paragraph, use quotation marks at the beginning of the second and/or subsequent paragraph. However, there is no need for closing quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph—or any paragraph other than the final one.
- Example: “Thank you for—” “Is that a giant spider?!”
- “Every night,” he began, “I heard a rustling in the trees.”
- “Every day,” he stated. “Every day, I get to work right on time.”
Things to avoid when writing dialogue
When you’re writing dialogue, avoid these common pitfalls:
- Using a tag for every piece of dialogue: Dialogue tags are words like said and asked . Once you’ve established that two characters are having a conversation, you don’t need to tag every piece of dialogue. Doing so is redundant and breaks the reader’s flow. Once readers know each character’s voice, many lines of dialogue can stand alone.
- Not using enough tags: On the flip side, some writers use too few dialogue tags, which can confuse readers. Readers should always know who’s speaking. When a character’s mannerisms and knowledge don’t make that abundantly obvious, tag the dialogue and use their name.
- Dense, unrealistic speech: As we mentioned above, dialogue doesn’t need to be grammatically correct. In fact, when it’s too grammatically correct, it can make characters seem stiff and unrealistic.
- Anachronisms: A pirate in 1700s Barbados wouldn’t greet his captain with “what’s up?” Depending on how dedicated you (and your readers) are to historical accuracy, this doesn’t need to be perfect. But it should be believable.
- Eye dialect: This is an important one to keep in mind. Eye dialect is the practice of writing out characters’ mispronunciations phonetically, like writing “wuz” for “was.” Eye dialect can be (and has been) used to create offensive caricatures, and even when it’s not used in this manner, it can make dialogue difficult for readers to understand. Certain well-known instances of eye dialect, like “fella” for “fellow” and “‘em” for “them,” are generally deemed acceptable, but beyond these, it’s often best to avoid it.
How to write dialogue
Write how people actually speak (with some editing).
You want your characters to sound like real people. Real people don’t always speak in complete sentences or use proper grammar. So when you’re writing dialogue, break grammatical rules as you need to.
That said, your dialogue needs to still be readable. If the grammar is so bad that readers don’t understand what your characters are saying, they’ll probably just stop reading your story. Even if your characters speak in poor grammar, using punctuation marks correctly, even when they’re in the wrong places, will help readers understand the characters.
Here’s a quick example:
“I. Do. Not. WANT. to go back to boarding school!” Caleb shouted.
See how the period after each word forces your brain to stop and read each word as if it were its own sentence? The periods are doing what they’re supposed to do; they just aren’t being used to end sentences like periods typically do. Here’s another example of a character using bad grammar but the author using proper punctuation to make the dialogue understandable:
“Because no,” she said into the phone. “I need a bigger shed to store all my stuff in . . . yeah, no, that’s not gonna work for me, I told you what I need and now you gotta make it happen.”
Less is more
When you’re editing your characters’ dialogue, cut back all the parts that add nothing to the story. Real-life conversations are full of small talk and filler. Next time you read a story, take note of how little small talk and filler is in the dialogue. There’s a reason why TV characters never say “good-bye” when they hang up the phone: the “good-bye” adds nothing to the storyline. Dialogue should characterize people and their relationships, and it should also advance the plot.
Vary up your tags, but don’t go wild with them
“We love basketball!” he screamed.
“Why are you screaming?” the coach asked.
“Because I’m just so passionate about basketball!” he replied.
Dialogue tags show us a character’s tone. It’s good to have a variety of dialogue tags in your work, but there’s also nothing wrong with using a basic tag like “said” when it’s the most accurate way to describe how a character delivered a line. Generally, it’s best to keep your tags to words that describe actual speech, like:
You’ve probably come across more unconventional tags like “laughed” and “dropped.” If you use these at all, use them sparingly. They can be distracting to readers, and some particularly pedantic readers might be bothered because people don’t actually laugh or drop their words.
Give each character a unique voice (and keep them consistent)
If there is more than one character with a speaking role in your work, give each a unique voice. You can do this by varying their vocabulary, their speech’s pace and rhythm, and the way they tend to react to dialogue.
Keep each character’s voice consistent throughout the story by continuing to write them in the style you established. When you go back and proofread your work, check to make sure each character’s voice remains consistent—or, if it changed because of a perspective-shifting event in the story, make sure that this change fits into the narrative and makes sense. One way to do this is to read your dialogue aloud and listen to it. If something sounds off, revise it.
As I stepped onto the bus, I had to ask myself: why was I going to the amusement park today, and not my graduation ceremony?
He thought to himself, this must be what paradise looks like.
“Mom, can I have a quarter so I can buy a gumball?”
Without skipping a beat, she responded, “I’ve dreamed of working here my whole life.”
“Ren, are you planning on stopping by the barbecue?”
“No, I’m not,” Ren answered. “I’ll catch you next time.”
Here’s a tip: Grammarly’s Citation Generator ensures your essays have flawless citations and no plagiarism. Try it for citing dialogue in Chicago , MLA , and APA styles.
What is dialogue.
Dialogue is the text that represents the spoken word.
How does dialogue work?
Dialogue expresses exactly what a character is saying. In contrast, a narrator might paraphrase or describe a character’s thoughts or speech.
What are different kinds of dialogue?
Inner dialogue is the dialogue a character has inside their own head. Often, it’s referred to as an inner monologue.
Outer dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters.
How is dialogue formatted?
Inner dialogue simply fits into the narrative prose.
Outer dialogue is marked by quotation marks and a few other formatting guidelines. These include:
- A new, indented paragraph every time a new character speaks
- Punctuation inside the quotation marks
- Em dashes to communicate interruption
How to Write Dialogue That Captivates Your Reader
If your writing bores you, it’ll put your reader to sleep.
And unfortunately, your first reader will be an agent or an editor.
Your job is to make every word count—the only way to keep your reader riveted until the end, which is no small task.
Riveting dialogue is your friend because it can accomplish so many things:
- It breaks up narrative summary.
- It differentiates characters (through dialect and word choice ).
- It moves the story, showing without telling.
But writing dialogue well is not easy. If your dialogue is bloated or obvious or telling, readers won’t stay with you long.
- How to Write Effective Dialogue in 6 Steps
- Cut to the Bone
- Reveal Backstory
- Reveal Character
- Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
- Create a “Make My Day” Moment
How to Write Dialogue: Step 1. Cut to the Bone
Unless you’re including them to reveal a character as a brainiac or a blowhard, omit needless words from dialogue.
Obviously, you wouldn’t render a conversation the way a court transcript includes repetition and even um, ah, uh, etc.
See how much you can chop while virtually communicating the same point. It’s more the way real people talk anyway.
“What do you want to do this Sunday? I thought w We could go to the amusement park.”
“I was thinking about renting a rowboat,” Vladimir said. “On one of the lakes.”
“Oh, Vladimir, that sounds wonderful! I’ve never gone rowing before.”
That doesn’t mean all your dialogue has to be choppy—just cut the dead wood.
You’ll be surprised by how much power it adds.
How to Write Dialogue Step 2. Reveal Backstory
Layering in backstory via dialogue helps keep your reader engaged.
Hinting at some incident introduces a setup that demands a payoff.
As they headed toward the house, Janet whispered, “Can we not bring up Cincinnati?”
Maggie shot her a double take. “Believe me, I don’t want that any more than you do.”
“Good,” Janet said. “I mean—”
“Can we not talk about it, please?”
What normal reader wouldn’t assume they will talk about it and stay with the story until they do?
As the story progresses , reveal more and more about your protagonist’s past.
This offers setups that should engage your reader, and it allows you to avoid relying on cliched flashbacks .
How to Write Dialogue Step 3. Reveal Character
Your reader learns a lot about your characters through dialogue.
You don’t have to TELL us they’re sarcastic, witty, narcissistic, kind, or anything else.
You can SHOW us by how they interact and by what they say.
How to Write Dialogue Step 4. Be Subtle
Dialogue offers a number of ways to powerfully understate things.
Here are three:
1. Subtext: Where people say other than what they mean.
Cindy falls in love with the slightly older boy next door, who sees her as just a little sister type.
When she gets to high school, Tommy is already captain of the football team, dating the head cheerleader, and largely ignoring Cindy.
Tommy leaves for college and word soon gets back to Cindy during her senior year of high school that he and his girlfriend have broken up.
So when he comes home after his freshman year of college and is changing a tire on his car, Cindy just happens to walk outside. She strikes up a conversation with Tommy, and he looks up, stunned. Who is this beauty—little Cindy from next door?
She says, “Making a change, are you?”
Tommy looks at the tire and back at her and says, “Yeah, I actually am making a change.”
Cindy says, “Well, I’ve heard that rotating can be a good thing.”
And he says, “Yeah, I’ve heard that too.”
That’s subtext . They’re not saying what they really mean. They’re not really talking about changing the tire, are they?
2. Sidestepping: When a character responds to a question by ignoring it.
Instead, he offers a whole new perspective.
In the movie Patch Adams , the late Robin Williams played a brilliant young doctor who believes the Old Testament adage that “laughter is the best medicine.”
In the children’s cancer ward he wears an inflated surgical glove on his head, making him look like a rooster. He wears bedpans for shoes and stomps about, flapping his arms and squawking.
The children find it hilarious, but hospital directors consider it undignified and demand he stop.
Patch is trying to make one girl in particular—a hospital volunteer—laugh. But while everyone else thinks he’s funny, she never cracks a smile.
Finally, Patch leaves the hospital to open a clinic in the country. Imagine his surprise when that humorless young lady appears to help him set up.
At one point, she goes outside to rest, so Patch follows and sits opposite her. He says, “I’ve got to ask. Everybody thinks I’m hysterical, but you. I’ve tried everything. Why don’t you ever think anything I say is funny?”
After several seconds, she says, “Men have liked me all my life…all my life…” And we realize by the way she says it, she was abused as a child.
Suddenly, we understand what this girl is all about. She doesn’t trust men, and she doesn’t laugh, because life isn’t funny.
She had not really answered his question. Her problem had nothing to do with him or his humor.
Finally, Patch realizes that some things aren’t funny. Some things you just don’t make fun of.
It’s a great turnaround in the story. And an example of sidestep dialogue.
Silence truly can be golden.
Many, including Abraham Lincoln, have been credited with the line: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
One of the toughest things to learn as a writer is to avoid filling silent gaps.
Just like we shouldn’t tell what’s not happening in a story, neither do we need to write that someone didn’t respond or didn’t answer.
If you don’t say they did, the reader will know they didn’t.
“Well, John,” Linda said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”
John set his jaw and stared out the window.
“I’m waiting,” she said.
He lit a cigarette.
Linda shook her head. “I swear, John, honestly.”
Too many writers feel the need to write here, “But he refused to say anything,” or “But he never responded.”
Don’t! We know, we get it—and it’s loud, effective, silent dialogue.
Saying nothing, John is actually saying everything.
How to Write Dialogue Step 5. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
One way to be certain your dialogue flows is to read it aloud or even act it out.
Anything that doesn’t sound right won’t read right either, so rewrite it until it does.
How to Write Dialogue Step 6. Create a “Make My Day” Moment
Certain iconic lines of dialogue have become as legendary as the films and books they originate from:
- “Frankly my dear…”
- “There’s no place like home.”
- “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
- “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
- “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
- “Go ahead, make my day.”
- “May the force be with you.”
- “Houston, we have a problem.”
- “Run, Forrest, run!”
- “You had me at hello.”
Most writers—even bestselling novelists—never create such an unforgettable line of dialogue. But striving to create one is worth the effort.
Ironically, iconic dialogue should fit so seamlessly it doesn’t draw attention to itself until fans begin quoting it.
- How to Format Dialogue
1. Use Dialogue Tags
Attribution tags— he said, she said, etc.—are usually all you need to indicate who’s speaking, so resist the urge to get creative.
Teachers who urge you to find alternatives are usually unpublished and believe agents and editors will be impressed.
Trust me, they won’t be.
Avoid mannerisms of attribution. People say things. They don’t wheeze, gasp, sigh, laugh, grunt, or snort them.
They might do any of those things while saying them, which might be worth mentioning, but the emphasis should be on what is said, and readers just need to know who is saying it.
Keep it simple. All those other descriptors turn the spotlight on an intrusive writer.
Sometimes people whisper or shout or mumble , but let their choice of words indicate they’re grumbling, etc.
If it’s important that they sigh or laugh, separate that action from the dialogue.
Jim sighed. “I can’t take this anymore.”
Not: Jim sighed, “I can’t take this anymore.”
Though you read them in school readers and classic fiction, attribution tags such as replied , retorted , exclaimed, and declared have become clichéd and archaic.
You’ll still see them occasionally, but I suggest avoiding them.
Often no attribution is needed.
Use dialogue tags only when the reader wouldn’t otherwise know who’s speaking.
I once wrote an entire novel , The Last Operative , without attributing a single line of dialogue.
Not a said , an asked , anything.
I made clear through action who was speaking, and not one reader, even my editor, noticed.
Jordan shook his head and sighed. “I’ve had it.”
Another common error is having characters address each other by name too often.
Real people rarely do this, and it often seems planted only to avoid a dialogue tag. Fictional dialogue should sound real.
Don’t start your dialogue attribution tag with said.
…said Joe or … said Mary reads like a children’s book. Substitute he and she for the names and that will make it obvious: …said he or said she just doesn’t sound right.
Rather, end with said for the most natural sound: …Joe said or …Mary said.
Resist the urge to explain, and give the reader credit.
The amateur writer often writes something like this:
“I’m beat,” exclaimed John tiredly.
Besides telling and not showing—violating a cardinal rule of writing—it uses the archaic exclaimed for said , misplaces that before the name rather than after, and adds the redundant tiredly (explaining something that needs no explanation) .
The pro would write:
John dropped onto the couch. “I’m beat.”
That shows rather than tells, and the action ( dropped onto the couch ) tells who’s speaking.
2. How to Punctuate Dialogue
Few things expose a beginner like incorrect punctuation, especially in dialogue.
Agents and editors justifiably wonder if you read dialogue, let alone whether you can write it, if you write something like: “I don’t know.” she said. Or, “What do you think?” He said.
To avoid common mistakes:
- When dialogue ends with a question or exclamation mark, the dialogue tag following the quotation marks should be lowercase: “I’m glad you’re here!” she said.
- When one character’s dialogue extends to more than one paragraph, start each subsequent paragraph with a double quotation mark, and place your closing double quotation mark only at the end of the final paragraph.
- Place punctuation inside the quotation marks, the dialogue tag outside: “John was just here asking about you,” Bill said.
- Put the attribution after the first clause of a compound sentence: “Not tonight,” he said, “not in this weather.”
- Action before dialogue requires a separate sentence: Anna shook her head. “I can’t believe she’s gone!”
- Quoting within a quote requires single quotation marks: “Lucy, Mom specifically said, ‘Do not cut your bangs,’ and you did it anyway!”
- When action or attribution interrupts dialogue, use lowercase as dialogue resumes: “That,” she said, “hurt bad.”
3. Every New Speaker Requires a New Paragraph
Here’s how I handled a conversation between Brady, one of my lead characters, and his attorney, in my novel Riven :
Ravinia sat shaking her head and telling him all the reasons it would never fly. Rules, regulations, protocol, procedure, no exceptions, and the list went on and on. “I’m not going to pursue this for you, Brady.”
“Yes, you are. I can tell.”
“You can’t tell it by me. Have you been listening? It’s impossible…”
“But you’ll try.”
Ravinia rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“Sure you would. You know everything, and you’ve been working inside the system a long time.”
“I’d be laughed out of here,” she said.
“Just tell me you’ll try.”
“Brady, really, be serious. Think this through. Can you imagine the warden going for this? Huh-uh. No way.”
“I like your idea of starting with the warden,” he said.
“I said no such thing.”
“Start at the top; go right to the man.” …
“Brady, don’t ask me to do this.”
- Additional Dialogue Examples
If you’re old enough to remember the original Twilight Zone (hosted by Rod Serling) or Dragnet (starring and narrated by Jack Webb), you know how dialogue set the tone for their shows.
Serling was sometimes whimsical, sometimes mysterious, but always provocative. “Consider one middle-aged adult, lost in space and time…”
Jack Webb, as L.A. police detective Sergeant Joe Friday, was always deadly serious and monotone. “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Contrast those with the dialogue between Tom and his Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.
“There! I mighta thought of that closet. What you been doing in there?”
“Nothing! Look at your hands. And look at your mouth. What IS that truck?”
“I don’t know, aunt.”
“Well, I know. It’s jam—that’s what it is. Forty times I’ve said if you didn’t let that jam alone I’d skin you. Hand me that switch.”
The switch hovered in the air—the peril was desperate—
“My! Look behind you, aunt!”
The old lady whirled round and snatched her skirts out of danger. The lad fled on the instant, scrambled up the highboard fence, and disappeared over it.
Such dialogue sets the tone for the entire story and clearly differentiates characters.
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain delineates between the Southern white boy and Jim, the runaway slave, by hinting at their respective accents.
Twain doesn’t need to tell who’s speaking, yet the reader never confuses the two.
“Jim, did y’all ever see a king?”
Y’all is the only word in that sentence that implies a Southern accent, but it’s enough.
“I sho enough did.”
“You liar, Jim. You never seen no king.”
“I seen foh kings in a deck of cards.”
Huck’s grammar and Jim’s sho and foh are the only hints of their dialects.
Too much phonetic spelling would have slowed the reading.
Good dialogue can condense a character’s backstory:
A woman in a restaurant whispers to her lunchmate, “You know who that is over there, don’t you?”
The other says, “No, who?”
“That’s just it. She’s had so much work done, you don’t recognize her. That’s Betty Lou Herman.”
“Yeah, she’s had her nose done, her cheeks lifted, and a hair transplant.”
“She’s going into politics.”
“Seriously, that’s really her?”
In that brief exchange, backstory is layered in, showing where there would otherwise have been too much narrative summary in the form of telling.
Allow readers to experience the enjoyment of having a story naturally emerge rather than spelling out every detail.
Instead of writing clunky dialogue like this:
“Just because you’re in this hospital because you were nearly killed in that wreck when Bill was driving, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t forgive him.”
“What are you going to do about Bill? He feels terrible.”
“He ought to.”
“Well, has he visited?”
“He wouldn’t dare.”
What actually happened, and why, can emerge in further realistic dialogue as the story progresses. If you were walking past a hospital room and heard this conversation, they wouldn’t be spelling the whole thing out like the first example did. In a normal conversation between two characters — not there only to dump information on the reader — you’d have to deduce what’s going on.
That’s part of the fun of being a reader — participating in the experience.
In real life, we repeat ourselves for emphasis, but that should be trimmed from written dialogue.
Instead of a wordy exchange like this:
“Well, this may be one of my craziest mistakes ever.”
“Why is that, Pa?”
“This may be my craziest mistake ever.”
The words are virtually the same, in the same order, but there are fewer of them, rendering the sentences more powerful.
- The Cardinal Sin of Dialogue
No shortcuts will turn you into a bestselling author, but writers often ask me for that Yoda-esque bit of wisdom “you’d give me if you could tell me only one thing…”
So here it is: avoid on-the-nose dialogue .
It’s not magic, but if you can get a handle on this amateur writing pitfall, you’ll instantly have a leg up on your competition.
On-the-nose may sound like a positive thing — which it would be if related to marksmanship or academics, but for our purposes it’s a term coined by Hollywood producers and scriptwriters for prose that mirrors real life without advancing the story. It’s one of the most common mistakes I see in otherwise good writing. Even the pros often fall into it.
Paige’s phone chirped, telling her she had a call. She slid her bag off her shoulder, opened it, pulled out her cell, hit the Accept Call button, and put it to her ear.
“This is Paige,” she said.
She recognized her fiancé’s voice. “Jim, darling! Hello!”
“Where are you, Babe?”
“Just got to the parking garage.”
“No more problems with the car then?”
“Oh, the guy at the gas station said he thinks it needs a wheel alignment.”
“Good. We still on for tonight?”
“Looking forward to it, Sweetie.”
“Did you hear about Alyson?”
“No, what about her?”
- How to Write More Believable Dialogue
Here’s the way that scene should be rendered:
Paige’s phone chirped. It was her fiancé, Jim, and he told her something about one of their best friends that made her forget where she was.
“Cancer?” she whispered, barely able to speak. “I didn’t even know Alyson was sick. Did you?”
Trust me, not a single reader will wonder how she knew the caller was Jim. Does anyone need to be told that:
- the chirp told her she had a call?
- her phone is in her purse?
- her purse is over her shoulder?
- she has to open it to get her phone?
- she has to push a button to take a call?
- one needs to put the phone to her ear to hear and to speak?
- she identifies herself to the caller?
Those who love you might also love that kind of writing, praising you for describing every real life detail of answering a cell phone.
It shows you can exactly mirror real life. Good for you. Don’t beat yourself up over it; we’ve all done it. Just quit it. :) Leave it to the amateurs.
Separate yourself from your competition by recognizing and deleting minutiae like that.
Dig deep. Go past the surface. Mine your emotions, your mind and heart and soul.
Remember what it felt like when you got news like that about someone you deeply cared about, and take the reader with you on the journey you promised them when they picked up your story. Let them hear Paige’s response: “Jim, let me give you a raincheck on tonight. I need to see her.”
Apply to your own dialogue the principles and tools I’ve outlined here, and I believe you’ll immediately see a compelling difference in your own prose.
Are You Making This #1 Amateur Writing Mistake?
Faith-Based Words and Phrases
What You and I Can Learn From Patricia Raybon
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How to Write Dialogue: Step-by-Step and Infographic
By Jarie Bolander
Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic
Learning how to write dialogue is an essential part of telling stories that work. Dialogue is a character’s verbal and non-verbal expression of what they are thinking and feeling. It’s through dialogue that other characters get a glimpse into what’s going on in each other’s minds. It’s also used to reveal to the reader those inner thoughts, feelings, and actions that want to come out.
Contrast that with narration, which describes the world in which the characters find themselves in as well as the inner thoughts of potentially some of the characters. It’s through the balance of Dialogue and Narration that the story reveals itself to the readers and characters.
Dialogue is the Yin to narration’s Yang. They both must be present and strengthen each other. Without clear, concise, and compelling dialogue, your character’s authentic self won’t shine through, the tension in your scenes won’t progressively complicate , and all that great narration will be for nothing.
Dialogue must always serve a purpose. It intensifies the action as well as organizes it so that the emotion that people feel in a situation builds up while the characters are processing what’s going on. This real-time processing is important to remember since it’s these beats of processing that build great dialogue.
Types of Dialogue
There are two types of dialogue to think about when you’re writing a story — inner and outer dialogues. Both are important to understand and use depending on the type of characters and the story you’re trying to tell.
Outer dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters. This is the type that is the easiest to identify since the tags and markers are present and it feels like a conversation.
This type of dialogue is when the character speaks to themselves and reveals parts of their personalities or unburdens their soul. Inner dialogue is usually written as a stream of consciousness or dramatic monologue or just thoughts. Sometimes italicized, sometimes not. Sometimes with attributions, sometimes not. The way that inner dialogue is rendered on the page will depend on the POV/Narrative Device choice.
A stream of consciousness type dialogue describes the flow of thoughts in the mind(s) of the character(s). It borders on narration in that there are no dialogue markers or tags per se. It’s usually obvious when it’s happening.
Dialogue Lives at the Beat Level
A story has a nested structure with the smallest level being a beat . The story then builds up to scenes, sequences, acts, subplots, and finally the global story. For dialogue, it’s important to start at the beat level because the action and reaction that the character(s) are doing, based on the dialogue, will change as the scene moves from beat to beat. In the Story Grid universe, we use the Five Commandments of Story to build up these different story parts since they all nest together as you go from micro to macro.
A Quick Review of the Five Commandments of Story
The five commandments of story make up the component parts of a story. These commandments must be present at all levels for each component to work and move the story forward. Briefly, these five commandments are:
- Inciting Incident : upsets the life balance of your lead protagonist(s). It must make them uncomfortably out of sync for good or for bad.
- Progressive Complication(s): move the story forward (never backward) by making life more and more complicated for the protagonist(s). The stakes must progressively get higher and higher until the turning point progressive complication that shifts the life value and prompts the crisis.
- Crisis: the point where the protagonist(s) must make a decision by answering the best bad choice or irreconcilable goods question such as: do I go in the cave or not? Or do I share my true feelings or not?
- Climax: is the answer (the decision plus the action) to the question raised by a crisis.
- Resolution: the results (good or bad) from the answer in the climax
For dialogue, we’ll look at a similar set of commandments or tasks inspired by Robert McKee later on. We’ll also explore a way to analyze dialogue using the tasks and a few other techniques. As we go along, you’ll see why it’s important to think, write, and analyze dialogue at the beat level to build up great scenes, sequences, acts, sub-plots, and finally the global story.
Three Functions of Dialogue
According to Robert McKee, in his book Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen , dialogue has three functions: Exposition, Characterization, and Action.
“Exposition is a literary device used to introduce background information about events, settings, characters, or other elements of a work to the audience or readers. The word comes from the Latin language, and its literal meaning is ‘a showing forth.’ Exposition is crucial to any story, for without it nothing makes sense.” Literary Devices.net
This trick with exposition is that too much information is hard for our brains to process. That’s what gives rise to the exposition is ammunition recommendations all writers hear. A story needs exposition to drive the story forward yet too much will distract, especially in dialogue, from the pace and flow of the story. It’s these fictional or non-fictional facts of the set (character mindset) and setting (environment) that gives the reader what the characters are experiencing and reacting too. It’s important to pace and time your exposition to not reveal too much too soon. You also have to take great care and skill to make the details of the character come alive in unique and novel ways so you keep the reader interested, which leads to another tried and true piece of advice — remember to show and not to tell.
The sum of a character’s traits, values, behaviors, and beliefs. It’s how the author creates the character(s) in the reader’s mind. It’s through characterization that we can see and feel how the character(s) will react and interact.
What a character does — mental, physical, and verbal. Action reveals what cannot be understood otherwise or would sound awkward to describe. Again show don’t tell. The action is what keeps the story interesting and moving along.
Six Tasks of Dialogue
All dialogue must have a purpose and perform one of the three functions. Within these functions, a great beat of dialogue will complete these six tasks (taken from McKee’s Dialogue):
- Express Inner Action (Essential Action in Story Grid terms)
- Conveys Exposition
- Unique Verbal Style
Let’s take a look at each one to see how they build up to great dialogue. For each, I’ll give an example of dialogue that completes the task from this wonderful article Ten Authors Who Write Great Dialogue .
Task #1: Express Inner Action
Each verbal expression requires an internal action to make it happen. These inner actions or essential action in Story Grid terms are how the character responds to the outside world’s stimulus as well as their own past experiences. The interaction of external stimulus and character subtext (past experiences) will create this inner action. This would be the essential action that the character wants to express or the goal they are trying to achieve. The example is from Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy :
‘Drink up,’ said Ford, ‘you’ve got three pints to get through.’
‘Three pints?” said Arthur. ‘At lunchtime?’
The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, ‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’
‘Very deep,’ said Arthur, ‘you should send that in to the Reader’s Digest. They’ve got a page for people like you.’
Ford’s goal is to get Arthur to ‘drink up’, for what reason we don’t know, but for this beat, it’s pretty clear.
Task #2: Action/Reaction
Once a character takes action, there will be a reaction. This action/reaction dance will lead to the ultimate turning point of the scene between the characters. As the tension in a scene builds from beat to beat, so should the dialogue. The dialogue should stir up the emotions of the characters so there will be a desire to express more and more extreme inner actions.
Let’s look again at the same example from Task #1. The Action/Reaction between Ford and Arthur escalates as Arthur complains that it’s too early to drink yet Ford prods him on by saying that ‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’
Task #3: Conveys Exposition
What a character says, does not say, and how they say it will reveal exposition. The revealing of exposition in unique and novel ways is what separates good dialogue from great dialogue. For example, Judy Blume does this to great effect in this piece of dialogue from her book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Nancy spoke to me as if she were my mother. ‘Margaret dear–you can’t possibly miss Laura Danker. The big blonde with the big you know whats!’
‘Oh, I noticed her right off,’ I said. ‘She’s very pretty.’
‘Pretty!’ Nancy snorted. ‘You be smart and stay away from her. She’s got a bad reputation.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘My brother said she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose.’
‘And,’ Janie added, ‘she’s been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period.’
To the teenage reader, the line ‘My brother said she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose’ says a lot about Laura Danker and why she has a bad reputation without saying what goes on behind the A&P.
Task #4: Unique Verbal Style
Each character will have a unique verbal style that they used to communicate their inner actions. This verbal style must be appropriate for the set and setting the characters find themselves in. This tone and tenor of their voice along with word choice (or lack of words) must be on theme for the character. The reader must say to themselves, “yeah, they would say that that way.” For this example, we’ll look at Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.
With all due respect,’ my father said, ‘this is not the time or the place for that kind of business. Why don’t you sit down now, and announce your plans after I’ve finished with the sermon? Church is not the place to vote anyone in or out of public office.’
‘Church is the place for it,’ said Tata Ndu. ‘Ici, maintenant, we are making a vote for Jesus Christ in the office of personal God, Kilanga village.’
Father did not move for several seconds.
Tata Ndu looked at him quizzically. ‘Forgive me, I wonder if I have paralyzed you?’
Father found his voice at last. ‘You have not.’
Tata’s unique verbal style shows that English is his second language and as such, he means to not offend the priest giving the sermon. Equally unique is the priest that gives this dialogue the contrast it needs to know who is talking.
Task #5: Captivates
Dialogue must do work. It is not normal everyday speech. Great dialogue captivates the reader by being clear, concise, and compelling. There is no shoe leather or wasted words, movements, or expressions. It’s hyper speech in that, as the writer, you can think about every word.
Looking at the example from Task #4, it’s clear that there is some tension between the characters. There are no wasted words in what Tata wants to accomplish and the tension between Tata and the priest is made more by Tata’s line ‘Forgive me, I wonder if I have paralyzed you?’
Task #6: Authentic
All dialogue must sound like the character would say it. Dialogue that falls flat or does no work will have readers saying “the character in the book would never say that.” An authentic character voice starts with a solid story and character design where the reader knows the character and will anticipate how they will express their inner/essential action. Inner/Essential action comes from a character’s authentic voice. For this task, we’ll look at some dialogue from Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight:
‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’
‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’
‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’
‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’
‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’
His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.
‘I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.’
‘I believe it,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.’
She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.
‘I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they’re all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.’
‘The idea of going after guys like you,’ Karen said, ‘appealed to me.’
The man character in this dialogue is an outlaw who escaped from prison and would say and do what this character is doing. As for Karen, this bit of dialogue reveals a lot of exposition as well as the type of person a female federal marshal might be.
Five Stages of Talk (Dialogue)
All verbal action and behavior move through stages of steps to come to life. These stages go from desire to antagonism to choice to action to expression. For our purposes, we’re going to use these stages like the five commandments of story to ensure that as we analyze and write dialogue, we have an objective framework to apply (again from McKee’s Dialogue).
What the character wants to achieve in the scene or the essential action or the goal. Mostly, it’s to get back to a life balance that has been disrupted from the status quo or the character’s object of desire. Background desires will limit the character’s choice because they limit what the character will or will not do. More on background desires when we get into the analysis.
#2 Sense of Antagonism
What is preventing the character(s) from getting back to balance? What or who is in their way? The sense of antagonism is what the character is reacting to and is usually who they are dialoguing with.
#3 Choice of Action
The action the character wants to take to get to the desired scene intention based on their desires or inner actions. The choice of action has to be authentic to the character so that the series of possible actions or best bad choices make sense to the reader.
The actual or literal action they take be it physical or verbal and the reaction that might occur. Desire is the source of action, and action is the source of dialogue. All are governed by the character’s subtext or past experiences.
The verbal action as dialogue coupled with any physical activity that might also express the actions of the character (e.g. narration of expression, physical act like screaming, stepping forward, clenching a fist, etc.). The expression must be authentic to the character and as such, the reaction to the expression by another character(s) will drive the action/reaction to the turning point, crisis, climax, and finally resolution.
Before we get to the mechanics of writing dialogue, let’s take a look at a framework to analyze existing dialogue so we can better understand its structure. This analysis framework consists of the following:
- Character(s) Agenda + Voice (Macro)
- Pre Beat/Scene Character(s) Subtext (Micro)
- Five Stages of Talk (Micro)
- Post Beat/Scene Character(s) Subtext (Micro)
The first item on this list operates at the macro-level (e.g. scene, sequence, etc) while the last three operate at the micro or beat level.
Character(s) Agenda/Subtext + Voice
Character subtext or past experiences are what drive the expression of dialogue since they are what generate the inner action. A character’s subtext, their authentic voice, and their abilities to manifest action will constrain their expression. These guardrails of expression are what have to be considered when writing character dialogue. This is why it’s vital to have a solid story structure and character studies to guide your character’s dialogue.
A character study is a description of the character that includes age, gender, physical appearance, internal and external struggles, quirks, etc. It’s a great way to ground a character’s dialogue since you want every word that comes out of a character’s mouth to be consistent with who they are and in their voice. It’s also their history along with character traits, values, beliefs, and skills that are the guardrails in which they can express their inner/essential actions.
A character’s voice will also be unique to them. The more of a contrast in voice between characters, the more tension and the easier the reader can follow who is saying what. If characters have a similar voice (e.g. sound or act the same), it will be harder for readers to keep track. Of course, you can use tags and markers to set off who is talking but as the reader gets to know the characters, it should become extremely clear who the characters are based on what they say and do.
Pre Beat/Scene Character(s) Subtext
The character study above is a macro level synopsis of the traits, values, beliefs, quirks, and skills that a character has. All of these parameters may or may not come into play at the Pre Beat/Scene level since all characters arrive at a beat with a macro-history and micro-history.
As I mentioned before, the macro history is the guardrails of their action or what will be in character for them to do while the micro-history what happened before the beat/scene they are about to come into. It’s these micro-histories that will shape how the character acts at the moment. For example, if the character comes to the beat tired or hungry, they will have a different action/reaction than if they were fed and well-rested.
Five Stages of Talk
Each beat of a scene should follow the five stages and build on each other. If one or more of the stages is missing or not as strong, the dialogue is not doing its job. Again, dialogue is not real-life speech and it must not meander or build up like people talk in real-life with all the um’s and likes and on the nose exposition that real-life speech can have when a person is trying to figure out what to say. For a character, the writer can bypass all that at the moment thinking to deliver what the character wants to say. Every word must be intentional and mean something to the characters and the story.
Post Beat/Scene Character(s) Subtext
After each beat, the character(s) subtext has changed in some way since their inner action has been expressed or some new exposition has been revealed. These new facts need to be considered for the next beat or scene since it’s the sum of the character(s) experiences.
Dialogue Analysis Examples
Let’s take a look at a few examples of dialogue and how the analysis framework can be applied.
Example #1 — Fargo
For our first example, we’ll look at the movie Fargo that we analyzed on the Story Grid Roundtable Podcast. I picked this as the first one because it clearly shows the five tasks of dialogue as well as the pre and post beat subtext, which changes substantially from the start to the end of the scene.
Character(s) Agenda + Voice: Carl and Gaear want to get to the hideout after kidnapping Jean. Carl is a highly-strung, talks too much know-it-all while Gaear is the strong/silent but deadly type.
Pre Beat Subtext: Kidnappers Carl and Gaear are taking their victim Jean to the hideout. They get pulled over on the highway for not having a license plate. Carl and Gaear want to deceive the trooper so he does not find Jean. This scene takes place at 0:27:33 after they get pulled over on the highway.
CARL: How can I help you, Officer?
TROOPER: Is this a new car then sir?
CARL: It certainly is, Officer. Still got that smell
TROOPER: You’re required to display temporary tags, either in the plate area or taped to the inside of the back window.
TROOPER: Can I see your license and registration, please?
CARL: Certainly. Yeah, I was gonna tape up those … The tag. You know, to be in full compliance, but it must have [CARL shows a $50 to the TROOPER] … must have slipped my mind. So maybe the best thing to do would be to take care of that right here in Brainerd.
TROOPER: What’s this sir?
CARL: My license and registration. Yeah, I want to be in compliance. I was just thinking we could take care of it right here, in Brainerd.
TROOPER: Put that back in your pocket please, and step out of the car, please, sir.
[TROOPER hears Jean whimpering. Looks in the back and Gaear smashes his head then shoots him dead.]
CARL: “Whoa. Whoa, Daddy.”
Five Stages :
- Desire: Carl wants to get to the hideout with Jean without being caught.
- The Sense of Antagonism: The Trooper.
- Choice of Action: Carl tries to talk his way out of the trooper sniffing around by hinting at a bribe.
- Action/Reaction: Carl presents his wallet with a $50 sticking out of it. The Trooper senses the bribe and asks Carl to “put that back in your wallet and get out of the car.”
- Expression: Carl looks at Gaear, wondering what to do. Gaear smashes the cop against the car and shoots him dead.
Post Beat Subtext: Gaear killed the trooper and now they need to take care of the body and get out of there quickly. Carl is clearly upset about what happened and now knows, more than before, that Gaear is a psychopath.
Example #2 — Pride & Prejudice
Jane Austin’s Pride & Prejudice is the masterwork in the Love > Courtship genre. Her use of dialogue makes the story flow and gives great scenes like the one below between Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Bennet.
Character(s) Agenda + Voice : Mrs. Bennet wants to marry off one of her daughters to Mr. Bingley. Mrs. Bennet is quite excitable so her voice is high pitched and fast. Mr. Bennet is a serious man but loves to give his wife a hard time since he knows that she’s a gossip.
Pre Beat Subtext : We are introduced to three of the Bennet sisters and how obsessed Mrs. Bennet is with marrying them off to good men so the family can be taken care of.
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? How can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”
“Is that his design in settling here?”
“Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”
- Desire: Mrs. Bennet wants to know more about Mr. Bingley for her daughters.
- The Sense of Antagonism: Mr. Bennet’s apathy to doing so
- Choice of Action: Mrs. Bennet wants to know as much as she can about Mr. Bingley
- Action/Reaction: Mrs. Bennet tells Mr. Bennet that she is thinking that Mr. Bingley would be a good match for one of her daughters. Mr. Bennet is skeptical.
- Expression: Mrs. Bennet wants Mr. Bennet to inquire right away and is adamant about him doing it quickly.
Post Beat Subtext : Mr. Bennet will be pestered by Mrs. Bennet until he goes for a visit to inquire about Mr. Bingley’s status.
How to Format Dialogue
The rules for formatting dialogue are straightforward for 90% or so of the dialogue you’ll write. It’s best to start with the simple and expand as you get better at writing dialogue. There are two formats to consider when writing dialogue — what tag or markers to use and proper punctuation.
A dialogue tag is a small phrase either before, after, or in between the actual dialogue itself to communicate attribution of the dialogue (e.g. who is speaking). The most common tags are said and asked with the most common placement being after the dialogue as in:
“Can you come here?” Jane asked. “I’m on my way,” Jack said.
There is some debate as to the types of tags or a variety of tags that should be used. This centers around whether adding the actions to the characters as opposed to adding the narration after the tag as follows:
“Can you come here?” Jane yelled from the other room. “I’m on my way,” Jack shouted back.
Compare that to:
“Can you come here?” Jane asked. Her voice echoed as she yelled from her home office, which was added last summer. “I’m on my way,” Jack said. His low baritone rattled the windows in Jane’s office.
I don’t think there is any right answer to what to do but I would add that it will depend a lot on what type of pace you want your dialogue to take.
For rapid-fire dialogue, the amount of complexity in the tags and narration will slow it down but also can reveal exposition about the characters as illustrated in the last example.
The set and setting of where the dialogue takes place will affect the tone and tenor between the characters. These variables affect the pace and the variety of pace in a story makes it more interesting and engaging. We’ll talk more about that in how to write captivating dialogue.
Dialogue punctuation rules are simple. There are two parts that need to be punctuated: the actual dialogue, which identifies the words spoken, and the dialogue tag, which identifies who is speaking. The basic rules of dialogue punctuation are as follows:
- Surround your dialogue with quote marks and add a comma before closing the quotes if you’re using tags.
- Create a new paragraph for new speakers.
- Put periods inside of quotation marks when not using dialogue tags.
These basic rules should get you most of the way to properly formatted dialogue. This excellent post from Thinkwritten will get you the rest of the way.
How to Write Dialogue That Captivates Readers
Captivating dialogue is effortless for the reader to read and digest. It never gets in the way, always feels natural, and is in the authentic voice of the character. In order to do that, we’ll apply the captivating dialogue framework to write the dialogue and if needed, we follow that up with the analysis. Not all dialogue you write will require analysis so don’t feel like you have to look at every single beat of dialogue. Rather, save the analysis method for when you’re stuck or the dialogue is not working.
Captivating Dialogue Creation Framework
At the Story Grid, we like frameworks and objective ways to craft stories. For us, this is the best way to have a consistent process of creation, where if we follow the process, we have a better shot at creating a story that works. The same goes for dialogue.
The importance of this process-driven methodology comes to light when a story or beat of dialogue has problems. Since we rely on objective measures, usually we can pinpoint the problem and provide a solution. For dialogue, I propose the following framework:
- Genre Specific Conventions, Scenes, Tropes, and Styles
- Character Studies + Annoying Quirks + Authentic Voice
- Ramp up Conflict + Tension
- Weave Subtext using Exposition
- Balance Dialogue/Narration for Pace
- Read it Aloud
- Analysis when needed
#1 Genre Specific Conventions, Scenes, Tropes, and Styles
All writers need to pick a genre. Genre selection will then lead to the conventions, obligatory scenes, tropes, and styles that readers of the genre are expecting. This list of requirements allows the writer to already have scenes and tropes that will give hints for great dialogue.
For example, if your story is in the Love > Courtship genre, then one of the Obligatory Scenes is when the lovers meet — you can’t have a love story without lovers. The dialogue between the lovers needs to convey some form of either interest or hate or a combination of both. When they talk about the potential suitor to others, the exposition of interest or annoyance or lust comes through in the dialogue. Or in contrast between inner and outer dialogue: what they say to others versus what they admit to themselves. Much of this will depend on the POV you’re using.
In terms of scene tropes, any Crime story usually has a scene in a police car or station house. The words the police use will be in a certain style and readers will expect the good cop/bad cop or a police car ride or an integration scene trope.
#2 Character Studies + Annoying Quirks + Authentic Voice
Once you have settled on your genre, you’ll need to figure out the characters in your story. For convenience, we’ll assume that all stories will have at least a victim, a villain (antagonist), and a hero (protagonist). These three characters will clearly talk to each other at some point and need to have enough of a difference so that it’s clear who is talking even without dialogue tags.
A quick character study of a few paragraphs describing the character along with some character-specific quirks will set the tone for how they speak. It’s always a good idea to have character quirks that annoy other characters so that the tension is built into every interaction.
For example, in the Fargo scene we looked at before, Carl and Gaear have quirks that get on each other’s nerves. Carl talks too much. He thinks he’s the smartest of the two. Gaear is quiet and reserved but will resort to violence when he is annoyed. This makes Carl nervous so he talks more thus annoying Gaear even more. As the movie progresses (spoiler alert), Carl annoys Gaear to the point where Gaear shoots and kills him. Talk about ramping up the conflict + tension.
#3 Ramp up Conflict + Tension
Dialogue should moderate the pace of the story and the best way to do that is to ramp up the conflict and tension between characters. All dialogue should perform the six tasks and conflict is the best way to accomplish that.
The true nature of a character (and frankly people in real life) are revealed under stress and strain. The inner action that’s under control one minute will suddenly explore out when the conflict or tension is ramped up. Great dialogue will masterfully “power of ten” the conflict and tension to a crisis and climax that will surprise and delight the reader (or viewer).
Another way to think of this conflict and tension ramp is to imagine you’re a director of a movie. The actors are in the scene and you’re trying to visually capture the energy of the scene. At your disposal is the shots the camera can get. Wide shots. Narrow shots. Split shots. Out of focus shots. All of these pieces of the scene can be used to reveal what the characters are doing. The same goes for written dialogue.
Being able to “move the shot” around in your dialogue will give different ways to ramp up the conflict or change the pace. Being specific about a certain detail or use of a word or even a group of people off in the distance can make a difference. That’s what’s done in this Die Hard Scene. Image how you would write this into a script or novel:
HAN GRUBER: [On the radio] You are most troublesome for a security guard.
JOHN MCLANE: [Imitates buzzer] Sorry, Hans. Wrong guess. Would you like to go for double jeopardy where the scores can really change?
HANS GRUBER: Who are you, then?
JOHN MCLANE: Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. A monkey in the wretch. A pain in the ass.
It’s a simple exchange but it ramps up the tension and also reveals John’s character, Han’s character and the exposition that John is going to cause all sorts of trouble for Hans. We don’t know how yet and that’s what makes us want to keep watching.
#4 Weave Subtext using Exposition
When characters are under stress and strain, it’s easier for them to reveal hidden secrets or details that they might not want to reveal. It’s these “oops” moments or a reflective moment that makes great dialogue. These moments are what is meant by using exposition as ammunition to reveal character quirks, subtext, and story details.
The challenge is to not make the exposition reveal too obvious or boring or “on the nose.” That type of dialogue will distract the reader from the story and harms the flow of the story. As an example, look at this passage from Little Red Riding Hood to see how exposition is used to reveal story details.
“You will need to wear the best red cloak I gave you,” the mother said to her daughter. “And be very careful as you walk to grandmother’s house. Don’t veer off the forest path, and don’t talk to any strangers. And be sure to look out for the big bad wolf!”
“Is grandmother very sick?” the young girl asked.
“‘She will be much better after she sees your beautiful face and eats the treats in your basket, my dear.”
“I am not afraid, Mother,” the young girl answered. “I have walked the path many times. The wolf does not frighten me.”
This beat of dialogue foreshadows what is to come and while maybe not as subtle as it could be, it gives the reader the necessary background to create tension as the girl sets off to grandma’s house.
#5 Balance Dialogue/Narration for Pace
Dialogue does not live in a vacuum. It needs narration to give subtext, explain the physical world, and to set up the situations our characters find themselves in. While there are no hard fast rules on the split between dialogue text and narration text, I did a brief study of 14 books from Project Gutenberg . See below for the statistics.
A perfect split between dialogue words and narration words would be 50%. Anything below 50% would be more narration. Anything above 50% would be more dialogue. As you can see from the sample, there tends to be, on average, more narration than dialogue. This intuitively makes sense since narration sets up dialogue and most dialogue uses tags or markers to set it off. My guess is that the Dialogue/Narration ratio will depend on the genre, so take these numbers as such.
Another consideration on the Dialogue/Narration spectrum is the pace of the story. In general, the more narration in a scene, the slower the pace while more dialogue will tend to make the pace faster. That’s one of the reasons that dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech in which the author, through the characters, has a purpose for each word. When dialogue hits its mark, the pace of the story quickens because all of the sub-text, narration setup, and stylization reveals the character(s) inner action in the least amount of words.
When writing dialogue, it’s good to mix up the dialogue/narration ratio so that the reader can feel the pace quicken or take a break to internalize and synthesize what just happened. This variety in dialogue will keep readers interested and yearning to find out what happens next since story is about change and the way a story changes should be varied.
#6 Read it Aloud
Nothing gives you a better sense of the tone, tenor, and pace of dialogue like reading aloud, preferably in each character’s unique voice and accent (if present). Reading dialogue aloud will connect the words on the page with the processing in your brain. What I mean by this is that when you verbalize dialogue, your attention is heightened because you have to read then speak. That’s a different pathway than the normal shortcuts most people take while reading, skipping connector words or full-on sentences.
#7 Analysis When Needed
Not all of the dialogue you write will need a detailed analysis discussed above. My guess is that the more dialogue you write, the better you’ll naturally ask yourself the important questions about raising the conflict by power of ten, revealing exposition, keeping a consistent character voice, and distilling the words characters say into tight interactions.
If you do get stuck, then doing the analysis will get you unstuck. Remember that dialogue that’s not working is usually rooted in a fundamental story problem and my guess is that the analysis will reveal an underlying story problem that will need to be fixed.
Pitfalls to Look Out For
Most dialogue pitfalls come from not setting up the subtext enough so that the characters can express their inner action in their authentic voice. Usually, it’s obvious when the exchange is read aloud but sometimes the writer can get so consumed with the process that even an aloud read can’t find it.
The analysis framework will likely catch any problem but as I mentioned before, it can be cumbersome to apply to all your beats of dialogue. That’s why I have come up with a couple of spot checks for your dialogue to quickly catch the majority of the pitfalls that writers run into.
- Confusion on Who’s Talking : This is especially problematic with more than two people talking. Use the tags liberally to get the flow and then fine-tune in later drafts.
- Cursing : Too much cursing takes away from the power of the words and will bore the reader. That does not mean that a well-placed f-bomb will not hit the mark.
- Improper use of Period Speech/Mixing of Speech: If you’re writing period pieces, then getting the words right matters.
- Misusing Humor: Humor is hard to write and should be used sparingly unless you’re writing a comedy. Pay particular attention to jokes that are meant to break the tension since those are the hardest.
- Variety of Dialogue Tags : Don’t get carried away with having to mix up different dialogue tags. When in doubt, use said and asked. Having too many different dialogue tags can wear out the reader.
- On the Nose Dialogue: Avoid stating the obvious or what the characters already know. This is the classic telling problem where the action of the character is more important than them telling the other character what they are doing.
Your best tool for catching dialogue problems will be reading it aloud over and over again so that you get the tone and tenor of the character’s authentic voice down cold. It’s also good practice to step away from the dialogue so you can look at it fresh after doing something completely different.
Dialogue Writing Prompts
The framework above is a good way to create dialogue once you have an idea. Sometimes, those ideas are hard to come by. That’s why having a few go-to writing prompts will make the creation process a little easier. The best resource I found for prompts comes from Daily Writing Tips and their post 70 Dialogue Writing Prompts . At the end of the post, they also have a list of additional resources for even more prompts. The ones I have listed below are a sample of what Daily Writing Tips has as well as the other resources. The sources are denoted in brackets.
- “Ma’am, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Please, sit down.” [Daily Writing Tips]
- “This is going to be way harder than we thought.” [Daily Writing Tips]
- “Oh man, I’ve had the worst day ever.” [Daily Writing Tips]
- “You must have misheard me.” [Daily Writing Tips]
- “If you could just set it down – very slowly – and then back away.” [Daily Writing Tips]
- “Do you maybe think, in retrospect, that this was a terrible idea?” [Daily Writing Tips]
- “I’m so sick of all this gloom and doom. Why can’t people just be happy?” [ Marylee McDonald ]
- “You’re going in there right now and apologize.” [Marylee McDonald]
- “I’m asking because I’ve seen the way you look at me.” [ A Cure for Writer’s Block ]
- “Will you stay the night?” [A Cure for Writer’s Block]
- “I want to spend the little time I have left with you and only you.” [A Cure for Writer’s Block]
- “Sometimes, being a complete nerd comes in handy.” [ Chrmdpoet ]
- “How much of that did you hear?” [Chrmdpoet]
- “People are staring.” [Chrmdpoet]
Hopefully, you won’t need to use too many prompts. Again, dialogue problems are usually story problems so if your story structure and character design is solid, then your dialogue should follow. If you get stuck and can’t figure a way out, then read one of the masterworks in your genre for inspiration. Chances are, those stories will inspire you and get you past your block.
The Golden Rule of Dialogue
Dialogue problems are story problems. If you feel that your dialogue is weak or lackluster, chances are, your story fundamentals are not in place. Luckily, you’re reading this on the Story Grid and we can help.
The Story Grid is a framework for telling better stories. It exists to help writers objectively evaluate their stories to see what’s working and what’s not. The best place to start is the editor’s six core questions and the five commandments of story . These macro and micro tools will give you some keen insights into where your dialogue problems are coming from.
If you’re like me, then most of your dialogue problems will come from not setting up scenes properly (five commandments), character development (wants and needs), and moving the story forward (conventions and obligatory scenes).
Clear, concise, and compelling dialogue is achievable the same way you write a great story — by starting out with a clear, concise, and compelling framework. A framework like the Story Grid can help give you objective measures of how well your story works so you can learn how to write dialogue that flows naturally from your character’s authentic voice.
Special thanks to Kim Kessler for reviewing this post and providing some great feedback.
- Robert McKee: Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen
- James Scott Bell: How to Write Dazzling Dialogue
- Marcy Kennedy: A Busy Writer’s Guide to Dialogue
- Sammie Justesen: Dialogue for Writers
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How To Write Dialogue: 7 Steps To Writing Dialogue
Learn how to write and format dialogue, the secretes of dialogue punctuation, and the seven easy steps to writing a dialogue scene.
How to write dialogue is one of the first things a budding storyteller can master with just a bit of practice and effort. That’s not to say that writing dialogue is easy- it’s not. But, once you realize the purpose of dialogue in a story and hone in on all those pesky formatting rules, it can become intuitive. With a little bit of focused and consistent practice, you’ll be in a flow state before you know it! You’ll be cranking out conversations that sound natural, serve a purpose, and are entertaining as hell!
Like everything, though, before you nail your dialogue, you’ve got to know the fundamentals. You can’t play Moonlight Sonata if you know where middle C is- know what I mean? Don’t worry though, because that’s precisely what we are going to cover in this post! The fundamentals of writing dialogue. How to format dialogue, what proper tags to use, and the overall purpose of dialogue in your story. Then I’ll take you through seven easy steps to writing your dialogue scene. Let’s get started!
Dialogue Format & Punctuation
Ex. “ I’m going to the store.”
Quotation marks indicate to a reader that a character is speaking. Notice that everything else about this sentence is normal. It starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. That won’t always be the case, but we’ll get to that.
Enclose all your dialogue with quotation marks.
Place dialogue tags outside of the quotation marks. By dialogue tag, I mean attribution, or ending a line of dialogue by indicating the speaker.
Ex. “I’m going to the store,” Paul said.
At the end of that sentence, ‘Paul said’ is the dialogue tag. The tag indicates that Paul is speaking. Notice how adding the dialogue tag changes the punctuation. A comma replaces the period.
When ending with a dialogue tag, you’ll close your dialogue with a comma, close quotations, then add the dialogue tag. When a dialogue tag comes before the dialogue, you’ll reverse this order.
Ex. Paul said, “I’m going to the store.”
When the dialogue tag is before the dialogue, your comma is outside of the quotation marks.
Ex. Paul said: “I’m going to the store.”
I’ve also seen authors employ a colon when they have a large cast of characters or want a quick flow to the dialogue. When doing this, the author will often just use the name of the person speaking as a tag.
Ex. Paul: “I’m going to the store.”
Jenny: “Why? You just went yesterday?”
Susie: “Can I go too?”
Jenny: “You’re staying here.”
Paul: “Listen to your mom, Susie.”
You can see how this makes a conversation seem quick and can also add tension. However, this is not a technique you want to use all the time as it removes action beats and will lose its effectiveness.
Questions and Exclamatory Statements in Dialogue
If you end a quotation with a question mark or exclamation point, then they will replace the comma. Don’t capitalize the first word of the dialogue tag.
Ex. “May I go to the store?” asked Paul.
Or , “I’m going to the store!” said Paul.
Jenny said, “Oh my God, Paul. You’ve been to the store four times this month!”
“What are you trying to say, Jenny?” Paul asked.
“You know exactly what I’m saying, Paul. You’re going to the store four times a week. You’ve been working late every day. You’re up all night texting on your phone. I know exactly what’s going on. I’m not stupid. How could you do this to little Susie and me?”
Paul threw his keys down on the table. He sat down, “Ok, let’s talk. I’ve got something to tell you, Jenny.”
Properly formatted, each speaker gets their paragraph. Separated paragraphs create dialogue that’s clear for the reader. It cuts down on the number of dialogue tags you’ll have to use, especially if there are only two speakers. The reader will know that a new paragraph indicates a new speaker.
Action beats break up dialogue; it can also act as a dialogue tag, indicating the speaker. Action beats do other important things like giving the readers spatial awareness in the scene. You can use it to show the mood of the characters and the tone of the scene.
Separate action beats that happen before or after the dialogue. Write these action beats as a single sentence.
Ex. Paul grabbed his keys off the counter. “I’m going to the store.”
Action beats can also interrupt the conversation. In this case, use commas to separate the action beat.
Ex. “I’m going to the store,” he burped, “My stomach’s killing me.”
Ex. “I’m going to the—”
“Store. We know!” Jenny said.
There are also times when a character may trail off. They may get lost in contemplation or forget something. In those instances, you’ll use ellipses.
Ex. “I’m going to the…”
“To where?” Jenny asked.
“I forgot,” Paul said.
One last style point. You can also use an em dash when an action beat interrupts dialogue. In this case, the em dash will go outside the quotation marks.
Ex. “I’m going”— Paul dropped his keys on the floor—” damn it!” He bent over to pick them up. “I’m going to the store.”
Keep in mind that an em dash indicates an abrupt interruption.
If a character speaks for a long time, and the dialogue needs multiple paragraphs, you will open the quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph. You won’t close the quotation marks until the last paragraph.
Ex. “Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in this history of mankind.
“Mankind — that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests.
“Perhaps its fate that today is the 4th of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom, not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution — but from annihilation. We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist.”
A few final words on formatting dialogue. It can be pretty confusing. I know because I was confused while researching for this article. I’ll drop a few links at the bottom of this post to the articles I used for research.
And, if you think I’ve gotten something wrong, please let me know in the comments!
What is a dialogue tag? A dialogue tag, or attribution, is a small piece of text that lets your reader know who is speaking.
Ex. Paul said, Jenny asked, Susie whispered
We talked about punctuating dialogue tags in the section above, but here’s a quick refresher. Dialogue tags can come at the beginning of your sentence. In that case, separate tags from the dialogue with a comma that will go outside the quotation marks.
Ex. Jenny asked, “Do we have any eggs in the house?”
Dialogue tags can come in the middle of dialogue. In that case, the tag is separated by commas on both sides of the tag. The first comma will be inside the quotations, and the second will be outside the quotation marks.
Ex. “I’m going to the store,” Paul said, “I’ll get a carton of eggs while I’m there.”
Ex. “I’m glad he’s leaving,” Susie whispered.
How often should you use dialogue tags?
You don’t have to end every piece of dialogue with an attribution. You only want to use dialogue tags to clarify who is speaking. If your tags distract from or confuse the dialogue, you should cut them.
If you read all three examples above, you’ll notice that the dialogue tags are a bit distracting. However, there are three people in the scene. Without attribution, the reader would be confused about who is speaking. If I were writing that scene, I would replace one, or more, of the tags with an action beat to break up the monotony.
Jenny slammed the fridge door shut, “Do we have any eggs in the house?”
“I’m going to the store,” Paul said, “I’ll get a carton of eggs while I’m there.”
“I’m glad he’s leaving,” Jenny heard Susie whisper from beneath the kitchen table.
That’s not perfect, but it’s better than before. You can also delete tags entirely if your reader can tell who’s speaking without the attribution.
Said vs. Other Verbs for ‘said’
Browsing through Pinterest, I see several infographics with titles like, “100 words to use instead of SAID.” Usually, I roll my eyes at these. I’m a firm believer in using ‘said’ for statements and ‘ask’ for questions. All the other verbs are distracting, and many writers will view their use as the sign of an amateur.
There are two reasons authors advise you not to use a bunch of fancy verbs like exclaimed or mumbled when ‘said’ gets the job done.
- ‘Said’ verbs distract the reader from your dialogue, which should be the essential part of your writing.
- Your dialogue and action beats should show your character’s emotional state, and you shouldn’t rely on verbs like, ‘yelled,’ or ‘stuttered’ to do this for you.
Take a look at my example above- Jenny slammed the fridge door shut, “Do we have any eggs in the house?” What emotional state is Jenny in? She’s frustrated, and we know this because she’s slamming the refrigerator door, rather than closing it.
I could have written, “ Do we have any eggs in the house,” Jenny yelled. But the action beat of slamming the door has more weight and makes the scene more interesting. If you get into the habit of telegraphing your characters’ emotions through verbs like yelled or cried, your writing will be as dull as ditchwater.
This part is a rant, and you can skip this paragraph if you like— the reason people tell you not to use ‘said’ is because it’s “boring,” and it will make your writing dull, they claim. But relying on exciting verbs rather than action and dialogue is what makes your writing boring. So, when people tell you not to use ‘said,’ it’s just bad advice. Don’t listen to it!
Now, like every rule, there are exceptions. You can sneak a ‘whispered’ in now and then, but for most of your attributions stick with ‘said’ or ‘asked.’
To learn how to write dialogue you need look at some examples. So, take a look at the following two scenes. Try to identify character goals, and action beats. Ask yourself how each line of dialogue and action beat pushes the narrative foward.
7 Easy Steps to Writing Fantastic Dialogue
Determine the purpose of your dialogue.
Before you sit down to write a dialogue-heavy scene, you want to ask yourself what the goal of this dialogue is. What do I mean by this? Well, a couple of things.
First, in a broad sense, dialogue should usually serve one of two goals. It should either tell the reader something about the plot of your story. Or, it should illustrate to the reader something about the characters in your plot. Therefore, the two goals of dialogue are either exposition or characterization. So, determine which of those two goals (or it could be both) your dialogue scene serves.
The other purpose that dialogue has is specific to individual characters and will talk about that in the next step.
Who are the characters, and what are their goals?
Now, you need to populate your scene with characters. These characters are going to be talking, but it shouldn’t be idle small talk. Sure, small talk happens in real life, but it doesn’t serve a purpose in stories, so it doesn’t belong.
Each of your characters should have a goal within the scene. The goal can be big or small. Characters just need to want something. Everything they say should be in service of that goal or desire. They may not be upfront about what they want; it’s more interesting if they aren’t, but their dialogue should be designed to attain something.
So, know what each characters’ goals are and write dialogue that makes sense for those goals.
Develop a unique voice for each character
One of the ways you can avoid an excessive amount of dialogue tags is by giving characters a unique way of speaking. Create individual speech through the use of slang, or tone, or a particular dialect. But, be careful with accents, as in be respectful and accurate.
You create a difference in the emotional state of each character. One character could be icy and collected, and the other can be on a hair-trigger. Or, you can have one character speak very professionally or technically while having another character who uses colloquialisms. Pay attention to the differences in the ways people in your life express themselves, and use those real-life speech patterns in your plot.
Make sure that characters don’t sound and talk alike. That’s not realistic, and it’s hard for readers to follow.
What action beats will break up your dialogue?
Let’s talk about conflict. .
Your characters have goals in every scene. Conflict arises when something gets in the way of your characters accomplishing their goals. The things that get in your character’s way vary from other characters to physical barriers, to literal fighting.
A great tactic is to have characters with opposing goals. That’s the best way to have your conflict show up in the dialogue. Have fun with characters that conflict but outwardly seem polite because they don’t want to show their cards. Or you can have characters who, straight up, argue.
Find a way to insert the scene’s conflict into the dialogue.
Check your punctuation and formatting.
Tighten it up (did you accomplish your goals cut everything else out).
A rule of thumb for scene writing is to cut to the action as early as possible. The same can be said for dialogue. If the action of a dialogue scene is an argument then you need to get to it as early as possible.
Cut all the small talk, meaning cut dialogue that doesn’t push a character or story goal forward.
Hopefully you’ve got a handle on how to write dialogue.
The last thing I want you to do before you leave is to take what you’ve learned and use it! Go and open your word processor of choice. Come up with a few characters; I would stick to two if you’re just starting. But, if you’re feeling ambitious, then, by all means, add three or four characters. Then, write a dialogue scene by going through the seven steps above. As you’re writing, only worry about this single scene.
Don’t think of it in terms of a larger story beyond what you might need to know for context. And it doesn’t have to be very long. Five or six hundred words should do. When you’re done with the scene, put it away. You don’t have to do anything else with it. It’s just practice! Then do it again, and again, and again, and pretty soon, you’ll be a master of dialogue!
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Read More About Dialogue:
“In Dialogue, McKee offers the same in-depth analysis for how characters speak on the screen, on the stage, and on the page in believable and engaging ways. From Macbeth to Breaking Bad, McKee deconstructs key scenes to illustrate the strategies and techniques of dialogue. Dialogue applies a framework of incisive thinking to instruct the prospective writer on how to craft artful, impactful speech. Famous McKee alumni include Peter Jackson, Jane Campion, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Haggis, the writing team for Pixar, and many others.”
“In How to Write Dazzling Dialogue you’ll learn:
- What fictional dialogue is … and isn’t
- The 11 secrets of crafting memorable dialogue
- The 5 essential tasks of dialogue
- 5 ways to improve your dialogue ear
- 4 can’t-miss methods to increase conflict and tension in any dialogue exchange
- The top 10 dialogue issues, and how to resolve them”
How to Format Dialogue- Masterclass
How to Punctuate Dialogue- The Editor’s Blog
A Critical DON’T for Writing Dialogue- The Write Practice
Dialogue Tags: What they are and how to use them- The Write Practice
Published by John
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2 comments on “How To Write Dialogue: 7 Steps To Writing Dialogue”
Excellent tips, John! Thanks for sharing 😊.
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