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Last updated on Sep 21, 2023
How to Write Fabulous Dialogue [9 Tips + Examples]
This post is written by author, editor, and bestselling ghostwriter Tom Bromley. He is the instructor of Reedsy's 101-day course, How to Write a Novel .
Good dialogue isn’t about quippy lines and dramatic pauses.
Good dialogue is about propelling the story forward, pulling the reader along, and fleshing out characters and their dynamics in front of readers. Well-written dialogue can take your story to a new level — you just have to unlock it.
In this article, I’ll break down the major steps of writing great dialogue, and provide exercises for you to practice your own dialogue on.
Here's how to write great dialogue in 9 steps:
1. Use quotation marks to signal speech
2. pace dialogue lines by three , 3. use action beats , 4. use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag , 5. write scene-based dialogue, 6. model any talk on real life , 7. differentiate character voices, 8. "show, don't tell" information in conversation , 9. delete superfluous words, which dialogue tag are you.
Find out in just a minute.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with all the boring bits cut out.”
Similarly, I could say that good dialogue in a novel is a real conversation without all the fluff — and with quotation marks.
Imagine, for instance, if every scene with dialogue in your novel started out with:
'Hey, buddy! How are you doing?"
“Great! How are you?""
'Great! Long time no see! Parking was a nightmare, wasn’t it?"
Firstly, from a technical perspective, the quotation marks are inconsistent and incorrectly formatted. To learn about the mechanics of your dialogue and how to format it, we also wrote this full post on the topic that I recommend reading.
Secondly, from a novel perspective, such lines don’t add anything to the story. And finally, from a reading perspective, your readers will not want to sit through this over and over again. Readers are smart: they can infer that all these civilities occur. Which means that you can skip the small talk (unless it’s important to the story) to get to the heart of the dialogue from the get-go.
For a more tangible example of this technique, check out the dialogue-driven opening to Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Unsheltered .
Screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb once proposed an idea called the “Three-Beat Rule.” What this recommends, essentially, is to introduce a maximum of three dialogue “beats” (the short phrases in speech you can say without pausing for breath) at a time. Only after these three dialogue beats should you insert a dialogue tag, action beat, or another character’s speech.
Here’s an example from Jane Gardam’s short story, “Dangers”, in which the boy Jake is shooting an imaginary gun at his grandmother:
In theory, this sounds simple enough. In practice, however, it’s a bit more complicated than that, simply because dialogue conventions continue to change over time. There’s no way to condense “good dialogue” into a formula of three this, or two that. But if you’re just starting out and need a strict rule to help you along, then the Three-Beat Rule is a good place to begin experimenting.
How to Write Believable Dialogue
Master the art of dialogue in 10 five-minute lessons.
Let’s take a look at another kind of “beats” now — action beats.
Action beats are the descriptions of the expressions, movements, or even internal thoughts that accompany the speaker’s words. They’re always included in the same paragraph as the dialogue, so as to indicate that the person acting is also the person speaking.
On a technical level, action beats keep your writing varied, manage the pace of a dialogue-heavy scene, and break up the long list of lines ending in ‘he said’ or ‘she said’.
But on a character level, action beats are even more important because they can go a level deeper than dialogue and illustrate a character’s body language.
When we communicate, dialogue only forms a half of how we get across what we want to say. Body language is that missing half — which is why action beats are so important in visualizing a conversation, and can help you “show” rather than “tell” in writing.
Here’s a quick exercise to practice thinking about body language in the context of dialogue: imagine a short scene, where you are witnessing a conversation between two people from the opposite side of a restaurant or café. Because it’s noisy and you can’t hear what they are saying, describe the conversation through the use of body language only.
Remember, at the end of the day, action beats and spoken dialogue are partners in crime. 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 .
If there’s one golden rule in writing dialogue, it’s this: ‘said’ is your friend.
Yes, ‘said’ is nothing new. Yes, ‘said’ is used by all other authors out there already. But you know what? There’s a reason why ‘said’ is the king of dialogue tags: it works.
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!
Get our Dialogue Tag Cheatsheet
Upgrade your dialogue with our list of 270 alternatives to “said.”
The thinking goes that ‘said’ is so unpretentious, so unassuming that it focuses readers’ attention on what’s most important on the page: the dialogue itself. 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.’”
It might be tempting at times to turn towards other words for ‘said’ such as ‘exclaimed,’ or ‘declared,’ but my general rule of thumb is that in 90% of scenarios, ‘said’ is going to be the most effective dialogue tag for you to use while writing dialogue.
So now that we have several guidelines in place, this is a good spot to pause, reflect, and say that there’s no wrong or right way to write dialogue. It depends on the demands of the scene, the characters, and the story. Great dialogue isn’t about following this or that rule — but rather learning what technique to use when .
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 wear out readers. Let’s see how unnaturally it plays out in the example below with Sophie and Ethan:
All of which is to say: don’t be afraid to make exceptions to the rule if the scene asks for it. The key is to know when to switch up your dialogue structure or use of dialogue tags or action beats throughout a scene — and by extension, throughout your book.
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Dialogue isn’t always about writing grammatically perfect prose. The way a person speaks reflects the way a person is — and not all people are straight-A honor students who speak in impeccable English. In real life, the way people talk is fragmented, and punctuated by pauses.
That’s something that you should also keep in mind when you’re aiming to write authentic dialogue.
It can be tempting to think to yourself, “ Oh, I’ll try and slip in some exposition into my dialogue here to reveal important background information.” But if that results in an info-dump such as this — “ I’m just going to the well, Mother — the well that my brother, your son, tragically fell down five years ago ” — then you’ll probably want to take a step back and find a more organic, timely, and digestible way to incorporate that into your story.
Kay Adams is Michael’s date at his sister’s wedding in this scene. Her interest in his family is natural enough that the expository conversation doesn’t feel shoehorned in.
A distinctive voice for each character is perhaps the most important element to get right in dialogue. Just as no one person in the world talks the same as each other, no one person in your book should also talk similarly.
To get this part of writing dialogue down pat, you need to start out by knowing your characters inside out. How does your character talk? Do they come with verbal quirks? Non-verbal quirks?
Jay Gatsby’s “old sport,” for example, gives him a distinctive, recognizable voice. It stands out because no one else has something as memorable about their speech. But more than that, it reveals something valuable about Gatsby’s character: he’s trying to impersonates a gentleman in his speech and lifestyle.
Likewise, think carefully about your character’s voice, and use catchphrases and character quirks when they can say something about your character.
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“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most oft-repeated rules in writing, and a conversation on the page can be a gold mine for “showing.”
Authors can use action beats and descriptions to provide clues for readers to 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 there’s nothing on her mind but work. The result is that you show , through the action beats vs. the dialogue, Sophie being hardworking—rather than telling it.
Show, Don't Tell
Master the golden rule of writing in 10 five-minute lessons.
As always when it comes to writing a novel: all roads lead back to The Edit, and the dialogue you’ve written is no exception.
So while you’re editing your novel at the end, you may find that a “less is more” mentality will be helpful. Remember to cut out the unnecessary bits of dialogue, so that you can focus on making sure the dialogue you do keep matters. Good writing is intentional and purposeful, always striving to keep the story going and readers engaged. The importance lies in quality rather than quantity.
One point I haven’t addressed yet is repetition. If used well (i.e. with clear intention), repetition is a literary device that can help you build motifs in your writing. But when you find yourself repeating information in your dialogue, it might be a good time to revise your work.
For instance, here’s a scene with Sophie and Ethan later on in the story:
As I’ve mentioned before, good dialogue shows character — and dialogue itself is a playground where character dynamics play out. If you write and edit your dialogue with this in mind, then your dialogue will be sharper, cleaner, and more organic.
I 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 .
As an editor and publisher, Tom has worked on several hundred titles, again including many prize-winners and international bestsellers.
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- Literacy Tips
How To Write Dialogue In A Story (With Examples)
One of the biggest mistakes made by writers is how they use dialogue in their stories. Today, we are going to teach you how to write dialogue in a story using some easy and effective techniques. So, get ready to learn some of the best techniques and tips for writing dialogue!
There are two main reasons why good dialogue is so important in works of fiction. First, good dialogue helps keep the reader interested and engaged in the story. Second, it makes your work easier to write, read and understand. So, if you want to write dialogue that is interesting, engaging and easy to read, keep on reading. We will be teaching you the best techniques and tips for writing dialogue in a story.
Internal vs External Dialogue
Direct vs indirect dialogue, 20 tips for formatting dialogue in stories, step 1: use a dialogue outline, step 2: write down a script, step 3: edit & review your script, step 4: sprinkle in some narrative, step 5: format your dialogue, what is dialogue .
Dialogue is the spoken words that are spoken between the characters of a story. It is also known as the conversation between the characters. Dialogue is a vital part of a story. It is the vehicle of the characters’ thoughts and emotions. Good dialogue helps show the reader how the characters think and feel. It also helps the reader better understand what is happening in the story. Good dialogue should be interesting, informative and natural.
In a story, dialogue can be expressed internally as thoughts, or externally through conversations between characters. A character thinking to themself would be considered internal dialogue. Here there is no one else, just one character thinking or speaking to themselves:
Mary thought to herself, “what if I can do better…”
While two or more characters talking to each other in a scene would be an external dialogue:
“Watch out!” cried Sam. “What’s wrong with you?” laughed Kate.
In most cases, the words spoken by your character will be inside quotation marks. This is called direct dialogue. And then everything outside the quotation marks is called narrative:
“What do you want?” shrieked Penelope as she grabbed her notebooks. “Oh, nothing… Just checking if you needed anything,” sneered Peter as he tried to peek over at her notes.
Indirect dialogue is a summary of your dialogue. It lets the reader know that a conversation happened without repeating it exactly. For example:
She was still fuming from last night’s argument. After being called a liar and a thief, she had no choice but to leave home for good.
Direct dialogue is useful for quick conversations, while indirect dialogue is useful for summarising long pieces of dialogue. Which otherwise can get boring for the reader. Writers can combine both types of dialogue to increase tension and add drama to their stories.
Now you know some of the different types of dialogue in stories, let’s learn how to write dialogue in a story.
Here are the main tips to remember when formatting dialogue in stories or works of fiction:
- Always use quotation marks: All direct dialogue is written inside quotation marks, along with any punctuation relating to that dialogue.
- Don’t forget about dialogue tags: Dialogue tags are used to explain how a character said something. Each tag has at least one noun or pronoun, and one verb indicating how the dialogue is spoken. For example, he said, she cried, they laughed and so on.
- Dialogue before tags: Dialogue before the dialogue tags should start with an uppercase. The dialogue tag itself begins with a lowercase.
- Dialogue after tags: Both the dialogue and dialogue tags start with an uppercase to signify the start of a conversation. The dialogue tags also have a comma afterwards, before the first set of quotation marks.
- Lowercase for continued dialogue: If the same character continues to speak after the dialogue tags or action, then this dialogue continues with a lowercase.
- Action after complete dialogue: Any action or narrative text after completed dialogue starts with an uppercase as a new sentence.
- Action interrupting dialogue: If the same character pauses their dialogue to do an action, then this action starts with a lowercase.
- Interruptions by other characters: If another character Interrupts a character’s dialogue, then their action starts with an uppercase on a new line. And an em dash (-) is used inside the quotation marks of the dialogue that was interrupted.
- Use single quotes correctly: Single quotes mean that a character is quoting someone else.
- New paragraphs equal new speaker: When a new character starts speaking, it should be written in a new paragraph.
- Use question marks correctly: If the dialogue ends with a question mark, then the part after the dialogue should begin with a lowercase.
- Exclamation marks: Similar to question marks, the next sentence should begin with a lowercase.
- Em dashes equal being cut off: When a character has been interrupted or cut off in the middle of their speech, use an em dash (-).
- Ellipses mean trailing speech: When a character is trailing off in their speech or going on and on about something use ellipses (…). This is also good to use when a character does not know what to say.
- Spilt long dialogue into paragraphs: If a character is giving a long speech, then you can split this dialogue into multiple paragraphs.
- Use commas appropriately: If it is not the end of the sentence then end the dialogue with a comma.
- Full stops to end dialogue: Dialogue ending with a full stop means it is the end of the entire sentence.
- Avoid fancy dialogue tags: For example, ‘he moderated’ or ‘she articulated’. As this can distract the reader from what your characters are actually saying and the content of your story. It’s better to keep things simple, such as using he said or she said.
- No need for names: Avoid repeating your character’s name too many times. You could use pronouns or even nicknames.
- Keep it informal: Think about how real conversations happen. Do people use technical or fancy language when speaking? Think about your character’s tone of voice and personality, what would they say in a given situation?
Remember these rules, and you’ll be able to master dialogue writing in no time!
How to Write Dialogue in 5 Steps
Dialogue is tricky. Follow these easy steps to write effective dialogue in your stories or works of fiction:
A dialogue outline is a draft of what your characters will say before you actually write the dialogue down. This draft can be in the form of notes or any scribblings about your planned dialogue. Using your overall book outline , you can pinpoint the areas where you expect to see the most dialogue used in your story. You can then plan out the conversation between characters in these areas.
A good thing about using a dialogue outline is that you can avoid your characters saying the same thing over and over again. You can also skim out any unnecessary dialogue scenes if you think they are unnecessary or pointless.
Here is an example of a dialogue outline for a story:
You even use a spreadsheet to outline your story’s dialogue scenes.
In this step, you will just write down what the characters are saying in full. Don’t worry too much about punctuation and the correct formatting of dialogue. The purpose of this step is to determine what the characters will actually say in the scene and whether this provides any interesting information to your readers.
Start by writing down the full script of your character’s conversations for each major dialogue scene in your story. Here is an example of a dialogue script for a story:
Review your script from the previous step, and think about how it can be shortened or made more interesting. You might think about changing a few words that the characters use to make it sound more natural. Normally the use of slang words and informal language is a great way to make dialogue between characters sound more natural. You might also think about replacing any names with nicknames that characters in a close relationship would use.
The script might also be too long with plenty of unnecessary details that can be removed or summarised as part of the narration in your story (or as indirect dialogue). Remember the purpose of dialogue is to give your story emotion and make your characters more realistic. At this point you might also want to refer back to your character profiles , to see if the script of each character matches their personality.
Once your script has been perfected, you can add some actions to make your dialogue feel more believable to readers. Action or narrative is the stuff that your characters are actually doing throughout or in between dialogue. For example, a character might be packing up their suitcase, as they are talking about their holiday plans. This ‘narrative’ is a great way to break up a long piece of dialogue which otherwise could become boring and tedious for readers.
You have now planned your dialogue for your story. The final step is to incorporate these dialogue scenes into your story. Remember to follow our formatting dialogue formatting rules explained above to create effective dialogue for your stories!
That’s all for today! We hope this post has taught you how to write dialogue in a story effectively. If you have any questions, please let us know in the comments below!
Marty the wizard is the master of Imagine Forest. When he's not reading a ton of books or writing some of his own tales, he loves to be surrounded by the magical creatures that live in Imagine Forest. While living in his tree house he has devoted his time to helping children around the world with their writing skills and creativity.
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Home » Blog » How to Write Dialogue that Engages Readers in 9 Steps
How to Write Dialogue that Engages Readers in 9 Steps
TABLE OF CONTENTS
As a writer, you need to constantly improve your writing and draft. You need to work on characters, plot, and story to create your best work. This includes how to develop characters, what writing software to use, and importantly, how to write dialogue.
Dialogues are essential for writing and are the backbone of your story. No New York Times bestseller ever made the list with bad dialogue.
Lauren Grodstein says:
“I like writing dialogue – I can hear my characters so clearly that writing dialogue often feels as much like transcribing something as it does like creating it.”
If you want to hear your characters and if you want to have your readers hear them, you should know how to write dialogue in a book, script, or short story. Dialogues make your story interesting, they hook readers, they make your writing reader-friendly, and have several other benefits (discussed below).
So how to incorporate dialogue in your book? How to write them? What steps you should follow to write a great book with compelling dialogue?
All these and many other questions will be answered in this in-depth and actionable guide on how to write dialogue, good dialogue examples, their benefits, and more.
By the time you’ll finish reading this guide, you’ll become a better writer than you are now as the writing tips are useful and valuable.
What is Dialogue?
Dialogue is a conversion between two or more characters. The purpose of dialogue is to exchange information. It isn’t meant to convince someone. Dialogue in writing is two-way communication that’s cooperative in nature and is meant for the exchange of information.
There are several reasons you should use dialogue in your book and how to write a conversation that will keep readers engaged and persuade them to keep reading.
The major benefits of using dialogue in your book is covered in the next section.
The Benefits of Writing Dialogue in Your Book
The leading benefits of writing dialogue in your book are:
- Grabs attention
- Character development
- Advance your story
1. Dialogue Grabs Attention
Using dialogue in your story helps you grab the reader’s attention. Interesting conversation is something that reader’s love. What you can achieve with a dialogue (even a short one), you can’t do the same without dialogue.
A story without dialogues will get boring. To hook readers, you have to add dialogues in your book. You need to master how to write a conversation in your book and that’s what makes all the difference.
Here is an example from The Secret History by Donna Tartt :
‘It was Julian and Henry. Neither of them had heard me come up the stairs. Henry was leaving; Julian was standing in the open door. His brow was furrowed and he looked very somber, as if he were saying something of the gravest importance […]. Julian finish speaking. He looked away for a moment, then bit his lower lip and looked up at Henry. Then Henry spoke. His words were low but deliberate and distinct. ‘Should I do what is necessary?’ To my surprise, Julian took both Henry’s hands in his own. ‘You should only, ever, do what is necessary,’ he said.’
The suspense Tartt developed with dialogue couldn’t be done without dialogue. It shows an agreement between Julian and Henry which, in the absence of dialogue, wouldn’t be possible to communicate effectively.
This is what makes dialogues so crucial for your story. If you’re ever stuck on finding a good piece of dialogue, try using a writing prompt generator . This will give you some random ideas that may just spark en entire scene or conversation.
2. Character Development
You can write pages upon pages to describe your character or you can use a simple dialogue to show readers everything about your character. Here is an example :
Reported speech: He asked her what she was doing. Dialogue 1: “What’cha doin’?” Dialogue 2: “What the bloody hell are you doing?” Dialogue 3: “W-w-w-what are y-y-you doing?” Dialogue 4: “If I may be so bold, may I ask what the young Miss is doing?” Dialogue 5: “By the bloody battleaxe of the wargod Sarnis, what on earth are you up to now?”
You can describe your character in a single sentence with a dialogue. The way how your characters speak, what language they use, what words they use, how often they speak, etc. helps you develop your characters and it helps your readers better understand the characters.
You don’t have to put a lot of hard work in explaining who, what, why, and how about your characters if you know how to write dialogue in a story.
Dialogues let you share information with the readers. You can share information related to moods, personalities, history, and any other important or even unimportant information via dialogues. Readers get the information unconsciously while reading and they don’t feel burdened.
That’s the beauty of dialogues.
Most importantly, the back story can be best explained through dialogues. If you narrate back story, it will get boring and readers might lose interest. On the other hand, if the same back story is expressed in the form of a conversation between two characters, it gets a whole lot more interesting. It then becomes a story in the true sense.
Here is a perfect dialogue example by Tennessee Williams from A Streetcar Named Desire:
“Who do you think you are? A pair of queens? Now just remember what Huey Long said—that every man’s a king—and I’m the king around here, and don’t you forget it!” Again, Stanley wants to undermine Blanche to Stella when he reminds her of the good times the two had before Blanche arrived: “Listen, baby, when we first met—you and me—you thought I was common. Well, how right you was! I was common as dirt. You showed me a snapshot of the place with them columns, and I pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it, having them colored lights goin’! And wasn’t we happy together? Wasn’t it all OK? Till she showed up here. Hoity-toity, describin’ me like an ape.”
Stanley is sharing information about his past and the writer used dialogues to share the backstory and other relevant information that doesn’t sound as information. This is one powerful reason you should learn how to write dialogues.
Dialogues make your story realistic. That’s how the world we live in works. We talk. We have conversations, big and small. Generally, we are always involved in some kind of conversation in our lives.
So if you wish to write a story that’s natural and depicts our real world, you need dialogues. It will make your story more organic and it will be easier for the readers to connect with your plot.
5. Advance Your Story
Perhaps the best feature of using dialogues in your writing is that it helps you move the story forward. When you narrate the story, it complicates it as compared to using dialogues that make your job easier.
Here is a dialogue example that moves the story forward by sharing important information with the readers:
The writer explained a situation and advanced the story in a few dialogues. The same could have taken two paragraphs or maybe more if it were to be done without dialogues.
Dialogues help you convey emotions and describe the complete scene without using too many words. This is the real beauty of using them and that’s why you need to know how to write dialogue in a book.
How to Write Dialogue in a Book
Follow these steps to write dialogue in your book:
- Have a purpose for the dialogue
- Differentiate characters
- Use conflict
- Be consistent
- Keep dialogues natural
- Keep dialogues short
- Improve flow
- Check formatting and punctuation
- Recheck and edit
Step #1: Dialogue Purpose
You should use dialogues for a purpose. They should have a reason.
Not all types of writings need to have dialogues. You can’t fit them anywhere based on your liking. That’s not how it works and that’s not how it will work.
The decision to use dialogues in your writing should be logical and must be purpose-driven. The first thing you should do is ask yourself the following questions:
Do I really need a dialogue here?
If so, what is its purpose?
Can I go without a dialogue?
Will it make any difference if I add a dialogue?
Generally, novels and fiction writing need dialogues. Non-fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily need dialogues. But there isn’t any rule. You’re the best judge. It’s your book so you have to decide rationally what makes more sense – and why.
To make things simple for you, you should use dialogue in your book if it meets one of the conditions:
- Dialogue should provide information that otherwise would be tough to narrate
- Dialogue needs to improve characterization
- Dialogue is moving the story forward
These are the three primary purposes of using dialogue in your book. It should meet at least one of the conditions above. If it does none of the above, you don’t necessarily need dialogue and you’d be fine without it.
For instance, George Eliot in her novel Middlemarch used the following dialogue between the two sisters and set them apart. The following dialogue shows the difference between the two characters:
Celia was trying not to smile with pleasure. “O Dodo, you must keep the cross yourself.” “No, no, dear, no,” said Dorothea, putting up her hand with careless deprecation.” “Yes, indeed you must; it would suit you – in your black dress, now,” said Celia, insistingly. “You might wear that.” “Not for the world, not for the world. A cross is the last thing I would wear as a trinket.” Dorothea shuddered slightly. “Then you will think it wicked in me to wear it,” said Celia, uneasily. “No, dear, no,” said Dorothea, stroking her sister’s cheek.
This character differentiation couldn’t be achieved without a dialogue. And that’s how you should ensure that dialogues in your story have a specific purpose.
The easiest way to figure out if your dialogue has a purpose is by removing it. If the story still makes sense after removing a specific dialogue, it has no purpose and should be removed. If, however, the story doesn’t make sense anymore or the message gets distorted, you should retain it.
As a writer, you’re the judge and you should define the purpose and reason of the dialogue before you initiate a conversation.
Step #2: Differentiate Characters
One of the first things you need to understand while learning how to write dialogue is to set your characters apart using dialogue. You can write several pages explaining different characteristics of the characters which might not work well as opposed to a dialogue.
You can express several types of important information about your characters via dialogue such as:
- Character’s background and accent
- Character’s personality, mood, feelings, thoughts, and other traits by the tone and word selection
- How often a character speaks and information on whether he/she is introvert or extrovert
Dialogue helps you define your characters and differentiate them from one another. If you are writing a novel or a screenplay , I’m sure you know how important character development is and what role it plays in novel writing .
You should use dialogue to differentiate characters, set them apart, and for character development. You should also use dialogue to describe changes in motives, feelings, and intentions as the story moves forward. When these changes are conveyed via dialogue, it makes them more meaningful and notable as opposed to the writer narrating the changes a character is going through.
Here is an example from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White :
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. “Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.” “I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight. “Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.” “Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?” Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”
The difference in their personalities is clearly evident- no line of dialogue is out of character. This is a perfect way to use dialogue to differentiate characters and who they actually are.
Step #3: Use Conflict
Imagine your characters are sitting in a couch spending time watching birds in the sky. You can narrate the scene and explain it in detail. You can add dialogue but if everything is moving smoothly and there isn’t anything new or conflicting, what’s the point of having a dialogue?
It won’t add value.
When dialogue doesn’t add value, it should be removed. This is the first rule.
And when there is a conflict or disagreement between two or more characters at any level and of any kind, there has to be a dialogue. This rule is really important.
When there isn’t any conflict and everything is pleasing and normal, and the dialogue doesn’t raise the eyebrows of the readers, they will start losing interest. The fact is: We all do chitchat and conversations in our daily lives that have no purpose. That’s fine.
But if you’ll do the same in your novel will bore your readers. It doesn’t just work.
This is why it’s important that you must learn how to write dialogue that uses conflict between two characters. It doesn’t have to be severe conflict rather it should be two opposing views. If you’re not using conflict and the dialogue doesn’t advance the story, you don’t need one.
Makes sense, right?
Things, however, get challenging when there isn’t any conflict and the conversation is pleasant and lively. You can’t skip it. That’s also a part of the novel because removing these types of pleasant conversations from your story will ruin it.
What do you do to narrate lively conversations?
You need to keep these conversations brief. Better yet, narrate them. This is something you have to learn. This is why reading is crucial if you want to become a better writer. Check dialogue examples from other writers and see how they write dialogues when characters are happy and when there is a conflict.
You’ll notice that pleasant conversations are kept to a minimum while conflicts are covered in detail because stories rely on conflicts and that’s how it moves forward. When everything is fine and there aren’t any conflicts, that’s the end of the story.
Here is an example from Fat City by Leonard Gardner:
“That’s a good one.” Tully placed the meat in the black encrusted frying pan, pushing in the edge of fat until the steak lay flat. “What?” “Nothing.” “I heard what you said.” “Then why’d you ask?” “You think I’m lying to you.” “I didn’t say that.” “You don’t trust me, do you?” “All I’m trying to do,” said Tully, now opening a can of peas, “is make us our supper.”
It is a perfect example of how to use dialogue to create conflict in your characters and move the story forward.
Step #4: Be Consistent
One of the basics lessons of dialogue writing that you’ll learn in every book or screenwriting course on how to write dialogue and how to write a conversation is that dialogues need to be consistent. That is, it keep characters consistent throughout the book unless you want to depict a change in a character’s behavior.
This means the words your character use, his attitude, personality, taste, feelings, and language should be consistent. Make them as humane as possible. That’s the key to bringing a story to life.
After spending time with someone, you can anticipate their reaction to a situation and you can anticipate their behavior. This is what exactly readers do. They anticipate the reaction of your characters.
How you’ll get to know you’re being consistent in dialogue writing?
If readers can anticipate the reaction of your characters, you’re doing a great job. If dialogue surprises them, readers will lose interest. It will become confusing.
Sometimes, it’s essential to keep a character or two mysterious. And that’s fine. When you have such a character, readers expect a different response from him every time – and that’s what you should do.
The thing is: Readers expect characters to behave in a certain way. This expectation is developed by dialogue, narration, and the plot. You need to ensure that dialogue is consistent and is as per readers’ expectation that you have developed in your book.
The tone, word choice, structure, language, voice, etc. need to be consistent with the character’s personality and with the situation they’re dealing with. If a character is talking to a stranger, he will use a different tone as compared to when he is talking to his wife. You can use the exact same tone.
Consistency isn’t just relevant to the character but it should be relevant to the situation, the character he is talking to, and the scenario.
Step #5: Keep Dialogues Natural
While you’re trying to be consistent with the character’s personality and scene, it is equally important to keep dialogues natural as people communicate generally on a daily basis.
For instance, you need to use slang appropriately as people use slang all the time. Here is an example of how to make dialogue appear natural and realistic:
Jenna Moreci has created a slang for the novel which fits perfectly.
Make sure dialogues don’t appear alien to the readers. For instance, if you’ll use formal language, it won’t fit well because people don’t use formal language.
Here is an example :
People don’t talk like this. Writing dialogue like this will make readers roll their eyes from boredom.
An easy approach to keeping your dialogues natural and realistic is to listen to how people talk. Spend time in a park or a hotel lobby and record snippets of conversations people have. You can even visit a high school to learn how teenagers talk. You’ll be able to figure out how people talk and communicate. Alternately, check dialogue examples from top authors. See how they make dialogues realistic and world-like.
Needless to say, you don’t have to keep dialogues natural and realistic all the times. You have to, at times, switch to unrealistic dialogues. This is something that fiction writers do a lot especially when they build a new world.
Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you have to adjust dialogue accordingly. At the end of the day though, speech patterns need to stay consistent otherwise characters will lose believability.
Step #6: Keep Dialogue Short
If there is one thing all new writers should know about how to write dialogue, it’s this: Keep them short.
As much as you can.
Here is what Nigel Watts says about dialogues:
“Dialogue is like a rose bush – it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along.”
Why keep it concise?
To make it reader-friendly. When you cut the dialogue, it might not appear realistic because that’s not how people talk. So there is a fine line between realistic dialogues and short dialogues.
You have to write dialogue like it sounds in real life and then shorten it. Remove anything and everything that’s excessive. Get rid of the unnecessary stuff, that once removed doesn’t change the meaning of the dialogue.
Try shortening the dialogue as much as you can. This is something that you’ll learn with the passage of time. Practice. Check dialogue examples.
Here is an example . Check the following dialogue that’s not shortened.
Now here is a revised version of the same dialogue:
Both versions have the same meaning. Readers don’t miss anything. That’s what you have to do with your dialogues. Keep them short. This is one of the basic lessons on how to write dialogue in a book.
Here is what you should do to make dialogue concise. Small talk may happen in real life, but it’s not necessary to include in your novel. It halts the flow and doesn’t add much value.
Edit dialogues multiple times during the editing process. If you use editing software , make sure you edit dialogues manually and make them short. Once you’re done, ask someone else to reduce the word count of the dialogues. Finally, compare the original version with the new version and see if they still deliver the same message.
Avoiding common mistakes like fluffy dialogue is paramount to a good story.
Step #7: Improve Flow
If you have ever written a book or a novel and have used a book editing software , I’m sure you’ll know the importance of flow in writing. Dialogues are no different. In fact, the flow of the dialogues needs to be taken care of specifically. You need to master how to write dialogue that flows well which can be read effortlessly.
What does dialogue flow mean?
It means the dialogue should flow logically and the readers don’t have to put an effort to understand anything. It should move from one character to another smoothly.
There are several ways to improve the flow of the dialogues such as:
- Improve dialogue tags. Too many or too few tags (e.g. she said, he asked, etc.) ruins the flow. Always tag a piece of dialogue when it’s the first time a character is speaking in the conversation, but refrain from adding tags in every single line as it gets too monotonous. Using too few dialogue tags isn’t a good idea either as readers will have to move back after a few lines to identify whose line they’re reading. There has to be a balance. Be smart with tags.
- Describe the character’s action as to what they’re doing. That makes dialogue natural and that’s the correct way on how to write a conversation in a book. Naturally, when people talk, they’re always doing something like staring at the wall, playing with the key, chopping the vegetable, etc. These are the actions that you should explicitly mention to make dialogues appear natural and to improve flow.
- Don’t add long lengthy paragraphs in dialogue. This ruins the flow. And it never happens. When a person is talking continuously, you have to mention the action of the other person. For instance, add umm, ahh, I see, etc. to maintain the flow and to avoid large paragraphs of text.
Follow these three steps to improve the flow of your dialogues and you’ll be able to write better dialogues that make sense.
Step #8: Check Formatting and Punctuation
You can’t hook a reader with poorly formatted and punctually incorrect dialogue. It won’t happen. If you want to know how to write dialogue, you also need to learn how to format dialogue and how to punctuate dialogue.
Here are a few basic punctuating rules that you should always stick with when formatting dialogue:
- Add comma and period within the quotation marks.
- Use a comma between dialogue and the tag.
- Double quotation marks are used for regular dialogue.
- Use single quotation marks if you have to use a quotation inside a dialogue. Single quotes help the quote stand out within the dialogue.
- When quotations extend and move to another paragraph, don’t close it at the end of the first paragraph rather close it towards the end of the last paragraph.
- Start a new paragraph for new lines of dialogue.
- Em dashes can be used instead of a comma at times for extra emphasis. This also creates variety and improves readability.
- Pay attention to the proper use of uppercase and lowercase letters when appropriate.
- If you’re ending the dialogue with ellipses, don’t add any other punctuation.
Poorly written dialogues don’t make sense. In fact, when the punctuation isn’t correct, it will ruin the flow and the meaning too. For instance, inner dialogues are put in italics and if you aren’t putting them in italics, readers won’t know if they’re inner dialogues.
Simple things like a period, question mark, and exclamation point all need to be placed perfectly. Basic errors like these are inexcusable. These types of mistakes can change the meaning and context of the book altogether.
Great dialogue starts with perfect dialogue punctuation and formatting.
If you use an editing tool like Grammarly , it is highly likely that formatting and punctuation related issues will be identified by it. However, you’ll still need to go through it manually because there are several errors that software can’t identify and fix.
The best approach is to check dialogue formatting and punctuation as you write. And once you finish writing your novel or screenplay, you can then go through all the dialogues to check their formatting and punctuation.
Step #9: Recheck and Edit
This is the last step in the dialogue writing process where you have to check dialogues for errors. You can set a schedule as to when you need to recheck written dialogue. You can do it daily, weekly, monthly, or after completing a specific word count or chapter-wise.
But you should do it regularly as you write.
What to check?
Everything ranging from character development to story to flow to dialogue length to formatting. The best approach is to check dialogues individually for Step #1 to Step #8. This will perfect dialogues and your book leaving no room for errors.
Using a writing tool like Squibler will make it easier for you to recheck and edit dialogues as managing your draft gets easier. You can easily edit and tweak your document and keep track of the changes.
In the end, it all comes down to how you write dialogue and how you format dialogue. It’s difficult to tell if you’ve written effective dialogue until readers have gotten their hands on it. All you can do is arm yourself with the best information and write the best dialogue you can.
Spice Up Conversations with Dialogue
Dialogue is essential for fiction writing and if you’re a fiction writer, you should master the art of writing dialogue. It’s an asset to your writing skills.
What you can achieve with dialogue can’t be achieved otherwise. Dialogue gives life to your manuscript. Dialogue gives life to your characters. Dialogue helps you grab the reader’s attention. Dialogue makes your story easy-to-understand.
You can’t ignore the importance and usefulness of dialogues in writing. I’m confident these 9 steps on how to write dialogue will help you write better novels , screenplays, and books for your readers.
Published in What is Dialogue?
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How to Write Dialogue in a Narrative Paragraph
What is Dialogue?
How to write dialogue, how to punctuate your dialogue, periods and commas, question marks and exclamation points, final thoughts.
Dialogue is the written conversational exchange between two or more characters.
Conventional English grammar rules tell us that you should always start a new paragraph when someone speaks in your writing.
“Let’s get the heck out of here right now,” Mary said, turning away from the mayhem.
John looked around the pub. “Maybe you’re right,” he said and followed her towards the door.
Sometimes, though, in the middle of a narrative paragraph, your main character needs to speak.
Mary ducked away from flying fists. The fight at the pub was getting out of control. One man was grabbing bar stools and throwing them at others, and while she watched, another one who you could tell worked out regularly grabbed men by their shirt collars and tossed them out of the way. Almost hit by one flying person, she turned to John and said, “Let’s get the heck out of here right now.”
In my research, I couldn’t find any hard and fast rules that govern how to use dialogue in the middle of a narrative paragraph. It all depends on what style manual your publisher or editorial staff follow.
For example, in the Chicago Manual of Style , putting dialogue in the middle of paragraphs depends on the context. As in the above example, if the dialogue is a natural continuation of the sentences that come before, it can be included in your paragraph. The major caveat is if someone new speaks after that, you start a new paragraph and indent it.
On the other hand, if the dialogue you’re writing departs from the sentences that come before it, you should start a new paragraph and indent the dialogue.
The fight at the pub was getting out of control. One man was grabbing bar stools and throwing them at others, and another one who you could tell worked out regularly grabbed men by their shirt collars and tossed them out of the way.
Punctuation for dialogue stays consistent whether it’s included in your paragraph or set apart as a separate paragraph. We have a great article on how to punctuate your dialogue here: Where Does Punctuation Go in Dialogue?
It’s often a stylistic choice whether to include your dialogue as part of the paragraph. If you want your dialogue to be part of the scene described in preceding sentences, you can include it.
But if you want your dialogue to stand out from the action, start it in the next paragraph.
Dialogue is a fantastic way to bring your readers into the midst of the action. They can picture the main character talking to someone in their mind’s eye, and it gives them a glimpse into how your character interacts with others.
That said, dialogue is hard to punctuate, especially since there are different rules for different punctuation marks—because nothing in English grammar is ever easy, right?
We’re going to try to make this as easy as possible. So we’ll start with the hardest punctuation marks to understand.
For American English, periods and commas always go inside your quotation marks, and commas are used to separate your dialogue tag from the actual dialogue when it comes at the beginning of a sentence or in the middle. Here are a few examples:
Nancy said, “Let’s go to the park today since the weather is so beautiful.”
“Let’s go to the park today since the weather is so beautiful,” she said.
“Let’s go to the park today,” she said, “since the weather is so beautiful.”
British English puts the periods and commas inside the quotation marks if they’re actually part of the quoted words or sentence. Consider the following example:
- She sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, the theme song from The Wizard of Oz.
In the above example, the comma after “Rainbow” is not part of the quoted material and thus belongs outside the quotation marks.
But for most cases when you’re punctuating dialogue, the commas and periods belong inside the quotation marks.
Where these punctuation marks go depends on the meaning of your sentence. If your main character is asking someone a question or exclaiming about something, the punctuation marks belongs inside the quotation marks.
Nancy asked, “Does anyone want to go to the park today?”
Marija said, “That’s fantastic news!”
“Please say you’re still my friend!” Anna said.
“Can we just leave now?” asked Henry.
But if the question mark or exclamation point is for the sentence as a whole instead of just the words inside the quotation marks, they belong outside of the quotes.
Does your physical therapist always say to his patients, “You just need to try harder”?
Do you agree with the saying, “All’s fair in love and war”?
Single Quotation Marks
Only use single quotation marks for quotes within quotes, such as when a character is repeating something someone else has said. Single quotes are never used for any other purpose.
Avery said, “I saw a sign that read ‘Welcome to America’s Greatest City in the Midwest’ when I entered town this morning.”
“I heard Mona say to her mom, ‘You know nothing whatsoever about me,’ ” said Jennifer.
Some experts put a space after the single quote and before the main quotation mark like in the above example to make it easier for the reader to understand.
Here’s a trickier example of single quotation marks, question marks, and ending punctuation, just to mix things up a little.
- Mark said, “I heard her ask her lawyer, ‘Am I free to go?’ after the verdict was read this morning.”
Perfectly clear, right? Let us know some of your trickiest dialogue punctuation situations in the comments below.
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Hayley is the Head of Education and Community at ProWritingAid. Prior to joining this team, Hayley spent several years as an elementary school teacher and curriculum developer in Memphis, TN. When Hayley isn't hunched over her keyboard, you can find her figure skating at the ice rink or hiking with her dog.
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