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How to Write Dialogue: Formatting, Examples, & Tips
Posted on Mar 17, 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.
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How To Write Dialogue Activity Guide [Printable]
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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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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 Learning 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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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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How to Write Fabulous Dialogue [9 Tips + Examples]
Writing good dialogue is not just about quippy lines and dramatic pauses. It's about propelling the story forward, pulling the reader along, and fleshing out characters and their dynamics right in front of the readers. Well-written dialogue has the potential to take your story to a whole new level.
Here's how to write great dialogue in 9 steps:
1. Skip the greetings and small talk
2. keep to three dialogue beats , 3. use action beats , 4. don’t be afraid to use ‘said’ , 5. add variety to your dialogue scenes, 6. avoid excessive exposition , 7. use catchphrases or quirks in moderation, 8. know that characters don’t always mean what they say , 9. remember that less is more, which dialogue tag are you.
Find out in just a minute.
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!
Get our Dialogue Tag Cheatsheet
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 Format Dialogue (includes examples)
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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 Interesting and Effective Dialogue
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Writing verbal conversations or dialogue is often one of the trickiest parts of creative writing. Crafting effective dialogue within the context of a narrative requires much more than following one quote with another. With practice, though, you can learn how to write natural-sounding dialogue that is creative and compelling.
The Purpose of Dialogue
Put simply, dialogue is narrative conveyed through speech by two or more characters. Effective dialogue should do many things at once, not just convey information. It should set the scene, advance action, give insight into each character, and foreshadow future dramatic action.
Dialogue doesn't have to be grammatically correct; it should read like actual speech. However, there must be a balance between realistic speech and readability. Dialogue is also a tool for character development. Word choice tells a reader a lot about a person: their appearance, ethnicity, sexuality, background, even morality. It can also tell the reader how the writer feels about a certain character.
How to Write Direct Dialogue
Speech, also known as direct dialogue, can be an effective means of conveying information quickly. But most real-life conversations are not that interesting to read. An exchange between two friends may go something like this:
"Hi, Tony," said Katy.
"Hey," Tony answered.
"What's wrong?" Katy asked.
"Nothing," Tony said.
"Really? You're not acting like nothing's wrong."
Pretty tiresome dialogue, right? By including nonverbal details in your dialogue, you can articulate emotion through action. This adds dramatic tension and is more engaging to read. Consider this revision:
Tony looked down at his shoe, dug in his toe and pushed around a pile of dust.
"Hey," he replied.
Katy could tell something was wrong.
Sometimes saying nothing or saying the opposite of what we know a character feels is the best way to create dramatic tension. If a character wants to say "I love you," but his actions or words say "I don't care," the reader will cringe at the missed opportunity.
How to Write Indirect Dialogue
Indirect dialogue doesn't rely on speech. Instead, it uses thoughts, memories, or recollections of past conversations to reveal important narrative details. Often, a writer will combine direct and indirect dialogue to increase dramatic tension, as in this example:
Katy braced herself. Something was wrong.
Formatting and Style
To write dialogue that is effective, you must also pay attention to formatting and style. Correct use of tags, punctuation , and paragraphs can be as important as the words themselves.
Remember that punctuation goes inside quotations. This keeps the dialogue clear and separate from the rest of the narrative. For example: "I can't believe you just did that!"
Start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. If there is action involved with a speaking character, keep the description of the action within the same paragraph as the character's dialogue.
Dialogue tags other than "said" are best used sparingly, if at all. Often a writer uses them to try to convey a certain emotion. For example:
"But I don't want to go to sleep yet," he whined.
Instead of telling the reader that the boy whined, a good writer will describe the scene in a way that conjures the image of a whining little boy:
He stood in the doorway with his hands balled into little fists at his sides. His red, tear-rimmed eyes glared up at his mother. "But I don't want to go to sleep yet."
Practice Makes Perfect
Writing dialogue is like any other skill. It requires constant practice if you want to improve as a writer. Here are a few tips to help you prepare to write effective dialogue.
- Start a dialogue diary. Practice speech patterns and vocabulary that may be foreign to you. This will give you the opportunity to really get to know your characters.
- Listen and take notes. Carry a small notebook with you and write down phrases, words, or whole conversations verbatim to help develop your ear.
- Read. Reading will hone your creative abilities. It will help familiarize you with the form and flow of narration and dialogue until it becomes more natural in your own writing.
Watch Now: How to Write a Book
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