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How to Write Dialogue: Rules, Examples, and 8 Tips for Engaging Dialogue

how to write dialogue in stories

by Fija Callaghan

You’ll often hear fiction writers talking about “character-driven stories”—stories where the strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations of the central cast of characters stay with us long after the book is closed. But what drives character, and how do we create characters that leave long-lasting impressions?

The answer lies in dialogue : the device used by our characters to communicate with each other. Powerful dialogue can elevate a story and subtly reveal important information, but poorly written dialogue can send your work straight to the slush bin. Let’s look at what dialogue is in writing, how to properly format dialogue, and how to make your characters’ dialogue the best it can be.

What is dialogue in a story?

Dialogue is the verbal exchange between two or more characters. In most fiction, the exchange is in the form of a spoken conversation. However, conversations in a story can also be things like letters, text messages, telepathy, or even sign language. Any moment where two characters speak or connect with each other through their choice of words, they’re engaging in dialogue.

Dialogue is the verbal exchange between two or more characters.

Why does dialogue matter in a story?

We use dialogue in a story to reveal new information about the plot, characters, and story world. Great dialogue is essential to character development and helps move the plot forward in a story.

Writing good dialogue is a great way to sneak exposition into your story without stating it overtly to the reader; you can also use tools like dialect and diction in your dialogue to communicate more detail about your characters.

Dialogue helps to create characters that leave long-lasting impressions.

Through a character’s dialogue, we can learn about their motivations, relationships, and understanding of the world around them.

A character won’t always say what they mean (more on dialogue subtext below), but everything they say will serve some larger purpose in the story. If your dialogue is well-written, the reader will absorb this information without even realizing it. If your dialogue is clunky, however, it will stand out and pull your reader away from your story.

Three reasons why dialogue matters in a story.

Rules for writing dialogue

Before we get into how to make your dialogue realistic and engaging, let’s make sure you’ve got the basics down: how to properly format dialogue in a story. We’ll look at how to punctuate dialogue, how to write dialogue correctly when using a question mark or exclamation point, and some helpful dialogue writing examples.

Here are the need-to-know rules for formatting dialogue in writing.

Enclose lines of dialogue in double quotation marks

This is the most essential rule in basic dialogue punctuation. When you write dialogue in North American English, a spoken line will have a set of double quotation marks around it. Here’s a simple dialogue example:

“Were you at the party last night?”

Any punctuation such as periods, question marks, and exclamation marks will also go inside the quotation marks. The quotation marks give a visual clue to the reader that this line is spoken out loud.

Quotation marks give a visual clue to the reader.

In European or British English, however, you’ll often see single quotation marks being used instead of double quotation marks. All the other rules stay the same.

Enclose nested dialogue in single quotation marks

Nested dialogue is when one line of dialogue happens inside another line of dialogue—when someone is verbally quoting someone else. In North American English, you’d use single quotation marks to identify where the new dialogue line starts and stops, like this:

“And then, do you know what he said to me? Right to my face, he said, ‘I stayed home all night.’ As if I didn’t even see him.”

The double and single quotation marks give the reader clues as to who’s speaking. In European or British English, the quotation marks would be reversed; you’d use single quotation marks on the outside, and double quotation marks on the inside.

Every speaker gets a new paragraph

Every time you switch to a new speaker, you end the line where it is and start a new line. Here are some dialogue examples to show you how it looks:

“Were you at the party last night?” “No, I stayed home all night.”

The same is true if the new “speaker” is only in focus because of their action. You can think of the paragraphs like camera angles, each one focusing on a different person:

“Were you at the party last night?” “No, I stayed home all night.” She raised a single, threatening eyebrow. “Yeah, I wasn’t feeling that well, so I just stayed in and watched Netflix instead.”

If you kept the action on the same line as the dialogue, it would get confusing and make it look like she was the one saying it. Giving each character a new paragraph keeps the speakers clear and distinct.

Use em-dashes when dialogue gets cut short

If your character begins to speak but is interrupted, you’ll break off their line of dialogue with an em-dash, like this:

“Yeah, I wasn’t feeling that well, so I just stayed in and—” “Is that really what happened?”

Be careful with this one, because many word processors will treat your em-dash like the beginning of a new sentence and attach your closing quotation marks backwards:

“Yeah, I wasn’t feeling that well, so I just stayed in and—“

You may need to keep an eye out and adjust as you go along.

In this dialogue example, the new speaker doesn’t lead with an em-dash; they just start speaking like normal. The only time you’ll ever open a line of dialogue with an em-dash is if the speaker who’s been cut off continues with what they were saying:

“Yeah, I wasn’t feeling that well, so I just stayed in and—” “Is that really what happened?” “—watched Netflix instead. Yes, that’s what happened.”

This shows the reader that there’s actually only one line of dialogue, but it’s been cut in the middle by another speaker.

Each line of dialogue is indented

Every time you give your speaker a new paragraph, it’s indented from the left-hand side. Many word processors will do this automatically. The only exception is if your dialogue is opening your story or a new section of your story, such as a chapter; these will always start at the far left margin of the page, whether they’re dialogue or narration.

Each time you change speakers, begin dialogue on a new line.

Long speeches don’t use use closing quotation marks until the end

Most writers favor shorter lines of dialogue in their writing, but sometimes you might need to give your character a longer one—for instance, if the character speaking is giving a speech or telling a story. In these cases, you might choose to break up their speech into shorter paragraphs the way you would if you were writing regular narrative.

However, here the punctuation gets a bit weird. You’ll begin the character’s dialogue with a double quotation mark, like normal. But you won’t use a double quotation mark at the end of the paragraph, because they haven’t finished speaking yet. But! You’ll use another opening quotation mark at the beginning of the subsequent paragraph. This means that you may use several opening double quotation marks for your character’s speech, but only ever one closing quotation mark.

If your character is telling a story that involves people talking, remember to use single quotation marks for your dialogue-within-dialogue as we looked at above.

Sometimes these dialogue formatting rules are easier to catch later on, during the editing process. When you’re writing, worry less about using the exact dialogue punctuation and more about writing great dialogue that supports your character development and moves the story forward.

How to use dialogue tags

Dialogue tags help identify the speaker. They’re especially important if you have a group of people all talking together, and it can get pretty confusing for the reader trying to keep everybody straight. If you’re using a speech tag after your line of dialogue—he said, she said, and so forth—you’ll end your sentence with a comma, like this:

“No, I stayed home all night,” he said.

But if you’re using an action to identify the person speaking instead, you’ll punctuate the sentence like normal and start a new sentence to describe the action taking place:

“No, I stayed home all night.” He looked down at his feet.

The dialogue tags and action tags always follow in the same paragraph. When you move your story lens to a new person, you’ll switch to a new paragraph. Each line where a new person speaks propels the story forward.

When to use capitals in dialogue tags

You may have noticed in the two examples above that one dialogue tag begins with a lowercase letter, and one—which is technically called an action tag—begins with a capital letter. Confusing? The rules are simple once you get a little practice.

When you use a dialogue tag like “he said,” “she said,” “he whispered,” or “she shouted,” you’re using these as modifiers to your sentence—dressing it up with a little clarity. They’re an extension of the sentence the person was speaking. That’s why you separate them with a comma and keep going.

With an action tag , you’re ending one sentence and beginning a whole new one. Each sentence represents two distinct moments in the story. That’s why you end the first sentence with a period, and then open the next one with a capital letter.

If you’re not sure, try reading them out loud:

“No, I stayed home all night,” he said. “No, I stayed home all night.” He looked down at his feet.

Dialogue tags vs. action tags.

Since you can’t hear quotation marks out loud, the way you say them will show you if they’re one sentence or two. In the first example, you can hear how the sentence keeps going after the dialogue ends. In the second example, you can hear how one sentence comes to a full stop and another one begins.

But what if your dialogue tag comes before the dialogue, instead of after? In this case, the dialogue is always capitalized because the speaker is beginning a new sentence:

He said, “No, I stayed home all night.” He looked down at his feet. “No, I stayed home all night.”

You’ll still use a comma after the dialogue tag and a period after the action tag, just like if you’d separate them if you were putting your tag at the end.

If you’re not sure, ask yourself if your leading tag sounds like a full sentence or a partial sentence. If it sounds like a partial sentence, it gets a comma. If it reads like a full sentence that stands on its own, it gets a period.

External vs. internal dialogue

All of the dialogue we’ve looked at so far is external dialogue, which is directed from one character to another. The other type of dialogue is internal dialogue, or inner dialogue, where a character is talking to themselves. You’ll use this when you want to show what a character is thinking, but other characters can’t hear.

Usually, internal dialogue will be written in italics to distinguish it from the rest of the text. That shows the reader that the line is happening inside the character’s head. For example:

It’s not a big deal, she thought. It’s just a new school. It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.

Here you can see that the dialogue tag is used in the same way, just as if it was a line of external dialogue. However, “she thought” is written in regular text because it’s not a part of what the character is thinking. This helps keep everything clear for the reader.

External dialogue vs. internal dialogue.

In your story, you can play with using contrasting internal and external dialogue to show that what your characters say isn’t always what they mean. You may also choose to use this internal dialogue formatting if you’re writing dialogue between two or more characters that isn’t spoken out loud—for instance, telepathically or by sign language.

8 tips for creating engaging dialogue in a story

Now that you’ve mastered the mechanics of how to write dialogue, let’s look at how to create convincing, compelling dialogue that will elevate your story.

1. Listen to people talk

To write convincingly about people, you’ll first need to know something about them. The work of great writers is often characterized by their insight into humanity; you read them and think, “Yes, this is exactly what people are like.” You can begin accumulating your own insight by listening to what real people say to each other.

You can go to any public place where people are likely to gather and converse: cafés, art galleries, political events, dimly lit pubs, bookshops. Record snippets of conversation, pay attention to how people’s voices change as they move from speaking to one person to another, try to imagine what it is they’re not saying, the words simmering just under the surface.

By listening to stories unfold in real time, you’ll have a better idea of how to recreate them in your writing—and inspiration for some new stories, too.

2. Give each spoken line a purpose

Here is something that actors have drilled into their heads from their first day at drama school, and writers would do well to remember it too: every single line of dialogue has a hidden motivation. Every time your character speaks, they’re trying to achieve something, either overtly or covertly.

Small talk is rare in fiction, because it doesn’t advance the plot or reveal something about your characters. The exception is when your characters are using their small talk for a specific purpose, such as to put off talking about the real issue, to disarm someone, or to pretend they belong somewhere they don’t.

When writing your own dialogue, ask yourself what the line accomplishes in the story. If you come up blank, it probably doesn’t need to be there. Words need to earn their place on the page.

Eight tips for creating engaging dialogue.

3. Embrace subtext

In real life, we rarely say exactly what we really mean. The reality of polite society is that we’ve evolved to speak in circles around our true intentions, afraid of the consequences of speaking our mind. Your characters will be no different. If your protagonist is trying to tell their best friend they’re in love with them, for instance, they’ll come up with about fifty different ways to say it before speaking the deceptively simple words themselves.

To write better dialogue, try exploring different ways of moving your characters around what’s really being said, layering text and subtext side by side. The reader will love picking apart the conversation between your characters and deducing what’s really happening underneath (incidentally, this is also the place where fan fiction is born).

4. Keep names to a minimum

You may notice that on television, in moments of great upheaval, the characters will communicate exactly how important the moment is by saying each other’s names in dramatic bursts of anger/passion/fear/heartbreak/shock. In real life, we say each other’s names very rarely; saying someone’s name out loud can actually be a surprisingly intimate experience.

Names may be a necessary evil right at the beginning of your story so your reader knows who’s who, but after you’ve established your cast, try to include names in dialogue only when it makes sense to do so. If you’re not sure, try reading the dialogue out loud to see if it sounds like something someone would actually say (we’ll talk more about reading out loud below).

5. Prune unnecessary words

This is one area where reality and story differ. In life, dialogue is full of filler words: “Um, uh, well, so yeah, then I was like, erm, huh?” You may have noticed this when you practiced listening to dialogue, above. We won’t say there’s never a place for these words in fiction, but like all words in storytelling, they need to earn their place. You might find filler words an effective tool for showing something about one particular character, or about one particular moment, but you’ll generally find that you use them a lot less than people really do in everyday speech.

When you’re reviewing your characters’ dialogue, remember the hint above: each line needs a purpose. It’s the same for each word. Keep only the ones that contribute something to the story.

6. Vary word choices and rhythms

The greatest dialogue examples in writing use distinctive character voices; each character sounds a little bit different, because they have their own personality.

This can be tricky to master, but an easy way to get started is to look at the word choice and rhythm for each character. You might have one character use longer words and run-on sentences, while another uses smaller words and simple, single-clause sentences. You might have one lean on colloquial regional dialect, where another sounds more cosmopolitan. Play around with different ways to develop characters and give each one their own voice.

Effective dialogue is the key to a good story.

7. Be consistent for each character

When you do find a solid, believable voice for your character, make sure that it stays consistent throughout your entire story. It’s easy to set a story aside for a while, then return to it and forget some of the work you did in distinguishing your characters’ dialogue. You might find it helpful to write down some notes about the way each character speaks so you can refer back to it later.

The exception, of course, is if your character’s speech pattern goes through a transformation over the course of the story, like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady . In this case, you can use your character’s distinctive voice to communicate a major change. But as with all things in writing, make sure that it comes from intention and not from forgetfulness.

8. Read your dialogue out loud

After you’ve written a scene between two or more characters, you can take the dialogue for a trial run by speaking it out loud. Ask yourself, does the dialogue sound realistic? Are there any moments where it drags or feels forced? Does the voice feel natural for each character? You’ll often find there are snags you miss in your writing that only become apparent when read out loud. Bonus: this is great practice for when you become rich and famous and do live readings at bookshops.

3 mistakes to avoid when writing dialogue

Easy, right? But there are also a few pitfalls that new writers often encounter when writing dialogue that can drag down an otherwise compelling story. Here are the things to watch out for when crafting your story dialogue.

1. Too much exposition

Exposition is one of the more demanding literary devices , and one of the ones most likely to trip up new writers. Dialogue is a good place to sneak in some information about your story—but subtlety is essential. This is one place where the adage “show, don’t tell” really shines.

Consider these dialogue examples:

“How is she, Doctor?” “Well Mr. Stuffington, I don’t have to remind you that your daughter, the sole heiress to your estate and currently engaged to the Baron of Flippingshire, has suffered a grievous injury when she fell from her horse last Sunday. We don’t need to discuss right now whether or not you think her jealous maid was responsible; what matters is your daughter’s well being. As to your question, I’m afraid it’s very unlikely that she’ll ever walk again.” Can’t you just feel your arm aching to throw the poor book across the room? There’s a lot of important information here, but you can find subtler ways to work it into your story. Let’s try again: “How is she, Doctor?” “Well Mr. Stuffington, your daughter took quite a blow from that horse—worse than we initially thought. I’m afraid it’s very unlikely that she’ll ever walk again.” “And what am I supposed to say to Flippingshire?” “The Baron? I suppose you’ll have to tell him that his future wife has lost the use of her legs.”

And so forth. To create good dialogue exposition, look for little ways to work in the details of your story, instead of piling it up in one great clump.

Three mistakes to avoid when writing dialogue.

2. Too much small talk

We looked at how each line of dialogue needs a specific purpose above. Very often small talk in a story happens because the writer doesn’t know what the scene is about. Small talk doesn’t move the scene along unless it’s there for a reason. If you’re not sure, ask yourself what each character wants in this moment.

For example, imagine you’re in an office, and two characters are talking by the water cooler. How was your weekend, what did you think of the game, how’s your wife doing, are those new shoes, etc etc. Can’t you just feel the reader’s will to live slipping away?

But what about this: your characters are talking by the water cooler—Character A and Character B. Character A knows that his friend is inside Character B’s office looking for evidence of corporate espionage, so A is doing everything he can to stop B from going in. How was your weekend, what did you think of the game, how’s your wife doing, are those new shoes, literally anything just to keep him talking. Suddenly these benign little phrases have a purpose.

If you find your characters slipping into small talk, double check that it’s there for a purpose, and not just a crutch to keep you from moving forward in your scene. When writing dialogue, Make each line of dialogue earn its place.

3. Too much repetition

Variation is the spice of a good story. To keep your readers engaged, avoid using the same sentence structure and the same dialogue tags over and over again. Using “he said” and “she said” is effective and clear cut, but only for about three beats. After that, try switching to an action tag instead or letting the line of dialogue stand on its own.

Powerful dialogue elevates a story.

You can also experiment with varying the length of your sentences or groupings of sentences. By changing up the rhythm of your story regularly, you’ll keep it feeling fresh and present for the reader.

Effective dialogue examples from literature

With all of these tips and tricks in mind, let’s look at how other writers have used good dialogue to elevate their stories.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine , by Gail Honeyman

“I’m going to pick up a carryout and head round to my mate Andy’s. A few of us usually hang out there on Saturday nights, fire up the playstation, have a smoke and a few beers.” “Sounds utterly delightful,” I said. “What about you?” he asked. I was going home, of course, to watch a television program or read a book. What else would I be doing? “I shall return to my flat,” I said. “I think there might be a documentary about komodo dragons on BBC4 later this evening.”

In this dialogue example, the author gives her characters two very distinctive voices. From just a few words we can begin to see these people very clearly in our minds—and with this distinction comes the tension that drives the story. Dialogue is an excellent place to show your character dynamics using speech patterns and word choices.

Pride and Prejudice , by Jane Austen

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?” Mr. Bennet replied that he had not. “But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.” Mr. Bennet made no answer. “Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently. “You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” This was invitation enough. “Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

In this famous dialogue example, the author illustrates the relationship between these two characters clearly and succinctly. Their dialogue shows Mr. B’s stalwart, tolerant love for his wife and Mrs. B’s excitement and propensity for gossip. The author shows us everything we need to know about these people in just a few lines.

Dinner in Donnybrook , by Maeve Binchy

“Look, I thought you ought to know, we’ve had a very odd letter from Carmel.” “A what… from Carmel?” “A letter. Yes, I know it’s sort of out of character, I thought maybe something might be wrong and you’d need to know…” “Yes, well, what did she say, what’s the matter with her?” “Nothing, that’s the problem, she’s inviting us to dinner.” “To dinner?” “Yes, it’s sort of funny, isn’t it? As if she wasn’t well or something. I thought you should know in case she got in touch with you.” “Did you really drag me all the way down here, third years are at the top of the house you know, I thought the house had burned down! God, wait till I come home to you. I’ll murder you.” “The dinner’s in a month’s time, and she says she’s invited Ruth O’Donnell.” “Oh, Jesus Christ.”

This dialogue example is a telephone conversation between two people. The lack of dialogue tags or action tags allows the words to come to the forefront and immerses us in their back-and-forth conversation. Even though there are no tags to indicate the speakers, the language is simple and straightforward enough that the reader always knows who’s talking. Through this conversation the author slowly builds the tension from the benign to the catastrophic within a domestic setting.

Compelling dialogue is the key to a good story

A writer has a lot riding on their characters’ dialogue, and learning how to write dialogue is a critical skill for any writer. When done well, it can leaves a lasting impact on the reader. But when dialogue is clumsy and awkward, it can drag your story down and make your reader feel like they’re wasting their time.

But if you keep these tips in mind, listen to dialogue in your everyday life, and practice , you’ll be sure to create realistic dialogue that brings your story to life.

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Writing Effective Dialogue: Advanced Techniques

Writers.com

Writing dialogue in a story requires us to step into the minds of our characters. When our characters speak, they should speak as fully developed human beings, complete with their own linguistic quirks and unique pronunciations.

Indeed, dialogue writing is essential to the art of storytelling . In real life, we learn about other people through their ideas and the words they use to express them. It is much the same for dialogue in fiction. Knowing how to write dialogue in a story will transform your character development , your prose style , and your story as a whole.

We’ve packed this article with dialogue writing tips and good examples of dialogue in a story. These tools will help your characters speak with their full uniqueness and complexity, while also helping you fully inhabit the people that populate your stories.

Let’s get into how to write dialogue effectively. First, what is dialogue in a story?

Inner Dialogue Definition

Indirect dialogue definition.

  • How to Write Dialogue: Elements of Good Dialogue Writing

How to Write Dialogue in a Story: 4 DOs of Dialogue Writing

  • How to Write Dialogue in a Story: 4 DON’Ts of Dialogue Writing

9 Devices for Writing Dialogue in a Story

Dialogue writing exercises, how to format dialogue, what is dialogue in a story.

Dialogue refers to any direct communication from one or more characters in the text. This communication is almost always verbal, except for instances of inner dialogue, where the character is speaking to themselves.

Dialogue definition: Direct communication from one or more characters in the text.

In works of Fantasy or Science Fiction, characters might communicate with each other telepathically or through non-human means. This would also count as dialogue in a story.

The importance of dialogue in a story cannot be overstated. The words that characters speak act as windows into their psyches: we can learn lots about people by what they say, as well as what they omit.

Additionally, dialogue allows for the exchange of information, which will advance the story’s plot. Any story that involves conflict between two or more people must involve dialogue, or else the story will never reach its climax and resolution.

Inner dialogue is a form of communication in which a character speaks with themselves. This is, essentially, a form of monologue or soliloquy . Inner dialogue allows the reader to view the character’s thoughts as they happen, transcribing their doubts, ideas, and emotions onto the page.

Inner dialogue definition: a form of communication in which a character speaks with themselves.

Inner dialogue can also be a memory or reminiscence, even if the character is not consciously speaking to themselves. If the narrator shows us a memory that the character is currently thinking about, then that character is still offering something to the narrative by means of unspoken conversation.

It is not necessary for any story to have inner dialogue. However, if you plan to use dynamic characters in your writing, then it probably makes sense to show the reader what that character’s inner world looks like. Developing complex, three dimensional characters is essential to telling a good story, which requires us to have some sort of window into those characters’ minds.

Indirect dialogue is dialogue, summarized. It is not put in quotes or italics; rather, it neatly sums up what a character said, without going into detail.

Indirect dialogue definition: dialogued, summarized.

In other words, we don’t get to see  how the character said something , we are only told what they said. This is useful for when the information is better summarized than told in excruciating details, because the narrator wants to get to the important dialogue, the dialogue that introduces new information or reveals important aspects of the character’s personality.

Haruki Murakami gives us a great example in  Kafka on the Shore :

I tell her that I’m actually fifteen, in junior high, that I stole my father’s money and ran away from my home in Nakano Ward in Tokyo. That I’m staying in a hotel in Takamatsu and spending my days reading at a library. That all of a sudden I found myself collapsed outside a shrine, covered in blood. Everything. Well,  almost everything. Not the important stuff I can’t talk about.

How to Write Dialogue: The Elements of Good Dialogue Writing

Every story needs dialogue. Unless you’re writing highly experimental fiction , your story will have main characters, and those characters will interact with the world and its other people.

That said, there’s no “correct” way to write dialogue. It all depends on who your characters are, the decisions they make, and how they interact with one another.

Nonetheless, good dialogue writing should do the following:

Develop Your Characters

A close study in how to write dialogue requires a close study in characterization. Your characters reveal who they are through dialogue: by paying close attention to your characters’ word choice , you can clue your reader into their personality traits and hidden psyches.

Your characters will often reveal key aspects of their personality through dialogue.

One character who can’t stop characterizing himself is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye . J. D. Salinger’s anti-hero could be psychoanalyzed for hours. Take, for example, this excerpt from Holden’s inner dialogue:

“Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.”

What do we learn about Holden through this line? For starters, we learn that Holden is the type of person who analyzes and scrutinizes each word – just like writers do, perhaps. We also learn that Holden hates anything positive. Always a downer, Holden despises words of praise or grandeur, thinking the whole world is irresolvably flat, boring, and monotonous. He hates grandness almost as much as he hates phoniness, and both concepts are sure to make him sick.

Holden is a character who puts his entire personality on the page, and as readers, we can’t help but understand him – no matter how much we like him or hate him.

Set the Scene

Dialogue is a great way to explore the setting of your story. When the setting is explored through dialogue writing, both the characters and the reader experience the world of the story at the same time, making the writing feel more intimate and immediate.

When the setting is explored through dialogue writing, the writing feels more intimate and immediate.

You might have your character wander through the streets of New York, as Theo does in The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Here’s an excerpt of inner dialogue:

“It was rainy, trees leafing out, spring deepening into summer; and the forlorn cry of horns on the street, the dank smell of the wet pavement had an electricity about it, a sense of crowds and static, lonely secretaries and fat guys with bags of carry-out, everywhere the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.”

Notice Theo’s attention to detail, and the vibrant imagery he uses to capture the city’s energy. Of course, you might set the scene more simply, as Dorothy does when she says:

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

In only a few words, this line of dialogue advances not only the setting but also Dorothy’s characterization. She is innocent and operating from a limited frame of reference, and the setting could not be more different from her homely Kansas background.

Both methods of scene setting help advance the world that the reader is exploring. However, don’t explore the setting exclusively through dialogue. Characters are not objective observers of their world, so some information is better explained through narration since the narrator is (often) a more reliable voice.

Advance the Plot

Dialogue doesn’t just tell us about the story and the people inside it; good dialogue writing also advances the plot . We often need dialogue to reveal important details to the protagonist , and sometimes, an emotionally tense conversation will lead to the next event in the story.

At times, dialogue will advance the plot by offering a twist or revealing sudden information. We can all agree that the following lines of dialogue advanced the plot of Star Wars :

“Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”

“He told me enough! He told me you killed him!”

“No. I am your father.”

And the following bit of dialogue catalyzed the plot of the entire Harry Potter series:

“You’re a wizard, Harry.”

The exchange of information is often what accelerates (0r resolves) a story’s conflict. Paying attention to word choice and the strategic revelation of information is key to using dialogue in a story.

Just like in real life, your characters don’t always say what they mean. Characters can lie, hint, suggest, confuse, conceal, and deceive. But one of the most powerful uses of dialogue writing is to foreshadow future events.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet , Romeo foreshadows the death of both lovers when he exclaims to Juliet:

“Life were better ended by their hate, / Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.”

In saying he would rather die lovers than live in longing, Romeo unknowingly predicts what will soon happen in the play.

Foreshadowing is an important literary device that many fiction stories should utilize. Foreshadowing helps build suspense in the story, and it also underlines the important events that make your story worth reading. Don’t try to trick your readers, but definitely use foreshadowing to keep them reading.

Learn more about foreshadowing here:

Foreshadowing Definition: How to Use Foreshadowing in Your Fiction

We’ve talked about what dialogue writing should accomplish, but that doesn’t answer the question of how to write dialogue in a story. Let’s answer that question now—with some more dialogue writing examples in the mix.

1. How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Differentiate Each Character

Each character will have their own style of speaking, and will emphasize different things when they talk.

Your characters’ dialogue should be like thumbprints, because no two people are alike. Each character will have their own style of speaking, and will emphasize different things when they talk. You can make each character unique by altering the following elements of dialogue style:

  • Sentence length: Some people are verbose and loquacious, others terse and stoic.
  • Dialogue Punctuation: Do your characters let their sentences linger… or do they ask a lot of questions? Are they really excited all the time?! Or do they interrupt themselves frequently—always remembering something they forgot to mention—struggling to put their complex thoughts into words?
  • Adjectives/adverbs: Characters that are expressive and verbose tend to use a lot of adjectives and adverbs, whereas characters that are quiet or less expressive might stick to their nouns and verbs.
  • Spellings and pronunciation: Do your characters omit certain vowels? Do they lisp? The way you write a line of dialogue might reveal a character’s dialect, and adding consistent quirks to a character’s speech will certainly make them more memorable.
  • Repetitions and emphasis:  Do your characters have any catchphrases? Do they use any words or phrases as crutches? Maybe they emphasize words periodically, or have a strange cadence as they speak. We tend to repeat certain words and phrases in our own everyday vocabularies; repetition is also a useful device for writing dialogue in a story.

You’ve already seen character differentiation from the previous quotes in this article. In this scene from The Catcher in the Rye , notice how differently Holden Caulfield speaks from the young woman he’s talking to—and just how much characterization is implied in their divergent voices:

“You don’t come from New York, do you?” I said finally. That’s all I could think of.

“Hollywood,” she said. Then she got up and went over to where she’d put her dress down, on the bed. “Ya got a hanger? I don’t want to get my dress all wrinkly. It’s brand-clean.”

“Sure,” I said right away. I was only too glad to get up and do something.

Aside from these two characters being different from one another, Holden speak differently than characters in other works of fiction. Can you imagine Holden Caulfield being Romeo in R&J ? He’d say something stupid, like “Juliet’s family are all phonies, but the funny thing is you can’t help but fall half in love with her.”

A more contemporary example comes from  White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Every character in this novel is exceptionally well differentiated, even the minor characters—like Brother Ibrahim ad-Din Shukrallah, who appears only briefly towards the novel’s end. Here’s an excerpt:

“Look around you. And what do you see? What is the result of this so-called democracy, this so-called freedom, this so-called liberty ? Oppression, persecution, slaughter . Brothers, you can see it on national television every day, every evening, every night ! Chaos, disorder, confusion . They are not ashamed or embarrassed or self-conscious ! They don’t try to hide, to conceal, to disguise . They know as we know: the entire world is in a turmoil!”

Pay attention to the dialogue. What do you notice? What’s odd about the way he speaks? If you don’t notice it, the novel’s narrator gives us a hint:

“No one in the hall was going to admit it, but Brother Ibrahim ad-Din Shukrallah was no great speaker, when you got down to it. Even if you overlooked his habit of using three words where one would do, of emphasizing the last word of such triplets with his see-saw Caribbean inflections, even if you ignored these as everybody tried to, he was still physically disappointing.”

For more advice on characterization, check out our article on character development.

https://writers.com/character-development-definition

2. How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Consider the Context

A common mistake writers often make when writing dialogue in a story: they use the same speaking style for that character throughout the entire story.

For example, if you have a character that tends to speak in wordy, roundabout sentences, you might think that every sentence of dialogue should be wordy and roundabout.

However, your character’s dialogue needs to take context into consideration. A wordy character probably won’t be so wordy if they’re being held at gunpoint, and their words might stammer or falter when talking to a crush. Or, in the case of Jane Eyre , the context might make your statement more powerful. Jane proclaims:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart!”

As she lives in a society with strict gender roles, Jane’s statement—to a man, no less—is thrillingly bold and controversial for its time.

Your characters aren’t monotonous, they’re dynamic and fluid, so let them speak according to their surroundings.

3. How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Space Out Moments of Dialogue

If your characters just had a lengthy conversation, give them a page or two before they start speaking again. Dialogue is an important part of storytelling, but equally important is narration and description.

The following excerpt from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy has a great balance of dialogue (underlined) and narration.

“Are there any papers from the office?” asked Stepan Arkadyevitch, taking the telegram and seating himself at the looking-glass.

“On the table,” replied Matvey, glancing with inquiring sympathy at his master; and, after a short pause, he added with a sly smile, “ They’ve sent from the carriage-jobbers.”

Stepan Arkadyevitch made no reply, he merely glanced at Matvey in the looking-glass. In the glance, in which their eyes met in the looking-glass, it was clear that they understood one another. Stepan Arkadyevitch’s eyes asked: “Why do you tell me that? don’t you know?”

Matvey put his hands in his jacket pockets, thrust out one leg, and gazed silently, good-humoredly, with a faint smile, at his master.

“I told them to come on Sunday, and till then not to trouble you or themselves for nothing,” he said. He had obviously prepared the sentence beforehand.

You can see, in the above text, that about 1/3 of the writing is dialogue. This allows the reader to see the full scene while still viewing the conversation, making this an excellent balance of narration and dialogue writing.

Simply put: balance dialogue with your narrator’s voice, or else the reader might lose their attention, or else miss out on key information.

4. How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Use Consistent Formatting

There are several different ways to format your dialogue, which we explain later in this article. For now, make sure you’re consistent with how you format your dialogue. If you choose to indent your characters’ speech, make sure every new exchange is indented. Inconsistent formatting will throw the reader out of the story, and it could also prevent your story from being published.

How to Write Dialogue in a Story: 4 DON’Ts of Dialogue Writing

Just as important as the DOs, the DON’Ts of dialogue writing are just as important to crafting an effective story. Let’s further our discussion of how to write dialogue in a story: we’ll dive into what you shouldn’t do when writing dialogue, alongside some more dialogue examples.

1. DON’T Include Every Verbal Interjection

When people talk, they don’t always talk linearly. People interrupt themselves, they change direction, they forget what they were talking about, they use pauses and “ums” and “ohs” and “ehs.” You can include a few of these verbal interjections from time to time, but don’t make your dialogue too true-to-life. Otherwise, the dialogue becomes hard to read, and the reader loses interest.

Let’s take a famous line from The Catcher in the Rye and fill it in with verbal interjections.

“I have a feeling that you are riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. But I don’t honestly know what kind.”

With interjections:

Oh, man—I have a feeling, like, that you are riding for some kind of… a terrible, terrible fall. But, uh, I don’t honestly know what kind?

What do you think of the edited quote? The interjections make it much harder to read, much less personable, and honestly, they become kind of annoying. However, the quote with interjections is much more “true to life” than the original quote. Your characters don’t need to speak perfectly, but the dialogue needs to be enjoyable to read.

2. DON’T Overwrite Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are how your character expresses what they say. In the quote “‘You’re all phonies,’ Holden said,” the dialogue tag is “Holden said.”

Unique dialogue tags are fine to use on occasion. Your characters might yell, stammer, whisper, or even explode with words! However, don’t use these tags too frequently—the tag “said” is often perfectly fine. Notice how overused dialogue tags ruin the following conversation:

“How are you?” I stammered.

“Great! How are you?” she inquired.

“I’m hungry,” I announced.

“We should get lunch,” she blurted.

“I’m on a diet,” I cried.

“You poor thing,” she rejoined.

Sure, the conversation isn’t interesting to begin with, but the dialogue tags make this writing cringe-worthy. All of this dialogue can be described with “said” or “replied,” and many of these quotes don’t even need dialogue tags, because it’s clear who’s speaking each time.

This is doubly serious when dialogue tags are combined with adverbs : adjectives that modify the verbs themselves. Our intent with these adverbs is to intensify our writing, but what results is a strong case of diminishing returns. Let’s see an example:

“I don’t love you anymore,” she said.

“I don’t love you anymore,” she spat contemptuously.

Yikes! If your dialogue tags start distracting the reader, then your dialogue isn’t doing enough work on its own. The reader’s focus should be on the character’s statement, not on the way they delivered that statement. If she spoke those words with contempt, show the reader this in the dialogue itself, or even in the character’s body language.

Lastly: if you’re going to use a dialogue tag other than “said,” make sure the verb you use actually corresponds to dialogue. In other words, there needs to be a speaking verb before you describe some other sort of action.

Here’s an example of what NOT to do:

“I don’t love you anymore,” she stomped.

She might have stomped while saying that line, but “to stomp” is not a kind of communication.

The dialogue tag “said” is perfectly fine for most situations.

3. DON’T Stereotype

Everybody’s speech has a myriad of influences. Your characters’ way of speaking will be influenced by their parents, upbringing, schooling, socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, and their own unique personality traits.

Of course, these personal backgrounds will influence your character’s dialogue. However, you shouldn’t let those traits overpower the character’s dialogue—otherwise, you’ll end up stereotyping.

Stereotyped characters are both glaringly obvious and embarrassing for the author. For example, J. K. Rowling didn’t do herself any favors by naming a character Cho Chang—both of which are Korean last names. Similarly, if all of your male characters are strong, charismatic, and loud, while all of your female characters are meek, helpless, and insecure, your writing will be both offensive and inaccurate to life.

Let’s explore this with two ways of writing a policeman.

“Don’t stand here,” said the policeman in front of the caution tape. “We need to keep this street clear.”

And here is lazy writing that takes no real interest in the character beyond one-dimensional surface traits:

“Move it along, folks, move it along,” said the policeman in front of the caution tape. “Nothing to see here.”

Neither policeman is going to win a dialogue award, but the second policeman doesn’t even seem like a real person . He’s written in unconsidered cliché: phrases we’ve all heard a thousand times, general ideas of what policemen tend to say.

Simply put, stereotyped dialogue is bad writing. Not only does it make your characters one-dimensional, it’s also offensive to whomever your characters resemble. If you’re going to be writing your characters from a careless, surface-level take, you might reconsider whether you want to write them at all.

What to do about this? The safest way to avoid stereotyping is to write using identities that you know both personally and intimately. If your writing takes you beyond those identities, then do your research: seek out, and truly work to internalize, a diverse array of input from people whose identities resemble those you’d like to write about.

4. DON’T Get Discouraged

For some writers, dialogue is the hardest part about writing fiction. It’s much easier to describe a character than to get in the character’s head, transcribing their thoughts into language.

If you feel like your characters aren’t saying the right things, or if the dialogue feels tricky to master, don’t get discouraged. Dialogue writing is difficult!

The following devices and exercises will help you master the art of writing dialogue in a story.

An important consideration for your characters is giving them distinct speech patterns. In real life, everyone talks differently; in fiction it’s much the same. The following devices will help you write dialogue in a story, as they offer ways to make your characters unique, compelling, and conversational.

Note: don’t try to use all nine of these devices for one character. Your dialogue should flow and feel consistent with the way people speak in real life, but if you overload your character’s speech with idioms, colloquialisms, proverbs, slang, and jargon, they won’t speak like anyone in the real world.

Use these devices as quirks for your characters. You can even use colloquialisms and vernacular to establish the setting, or use jargon to assign your character their occupation and social standing. Be wise, be strategic, and keep an ear for how people sound in real life.

Now, here’s how to write dialogue using 9 specific devices.

1. Colloquialism

A colloquialism is a word or phrase that’s specific to a language, geographical region, and/or historical period. Mostly used in informal speech, colloquialisms will rarely show up in the boardroom or the courtroom, but they pop up all the time in casual conversation.

We often use colloquialisms without realizing it. Take, for example, the shopping cart. Someone in the U.S. Northeast might call it a “cart,” while someone in the South might call it a “buggy.”

In fact, colloquialisms abound in the history of the English language. When it rains but the sun is out, a native Floridian might call it a sunshower. A Wisconsinite will call a water fountain a “bubbler.” In the 1950s, a small child might have been called an “ankle-biter.” Nowadays, a New Yorker might describe cold weather as being “brick outside.” (Yes, brick.)

Colloquialisms help define a character’s geographic background and historical time period. They also help signify when the character feels comfortable and informal, versus when they are speaking in an uncomfortable or professional situation.

2. Vernacular

Vernacular refers to language that is simple and commonplace. When a character’s speech is unadorned and everyday, they are speaking in vernacular, using words that can be understood by every person in that character’s time period. (A colloquialism is often an example of vernacular.) For dialogue in a story, your characters will likely use vernacular, unless they try to avoid it at all costs.

The opposite of vernacular would be dialect, which is speech that is tailored to a specific setting, and is therefore not commonplace or universally understood. An example of vernacular is contrasted with dialect below.

A dialect is a type of speech reserved for a particular time period, geographical location, social class, group of people, or other specific setting. It is language that the entire population might not comprehend, as it uses words, phrases, and grammatical decisions that aren’t universally understood.

Here’s an example of modern day vernacular. The same sentence has been rewritten as though it were spoken by someone with a Southern dialect.

Vernacular: I am craving some coleslaw and a soft drink.

Southern Dialect: I’m fixin’ for some slaw and soda pop.

An English speaker who doesn’t hail from the American South may be tripped up by “fixing” and “slaw,” as those terms aren’t universally understood.

Do note: the words “coleslaw” and “soft drink” can also be considered dialects of other regions in the United States. However, these words will likely be understood across the nation.

A slang is a word or phrase that is not part of conventional language usage, but which is still used in everyday speech. Generally, younger generations coin slang words, as well as queer communities and communities of color. (Some of the terms below started in AAVE , or African American Vernacular English.) Those words then become dictionary entries when the word has circulated long enough in popular usage. Slang is a form of colloquialism, as well as a form of dialect, because slang terms are not universally understood and are often associated with a specific age group in a specific region.

Some recent examples of slang words and phrases include:

  • No cap—“no lie.”
  • Boots—this is a sort of grammatical intensifier, placed  after the thing being intensified. “I’m hungry, boots” is basically the same as “I’m  so hungry.”
  • Bop—a catchy or irresistible song.
  • Drip—a particularly fashionable or interesting style of clothes.
  • It’s sending me—“that’s hilarious.”
  • Periodt—a more “final” use of the word “period” when a salient point has been made.
  • Snatched—used when someone’s fashion is impeccable. In the case of someone’s waist size, snatched refers to an hourglass figure.
  • Pressed—“stressed” or “annoyed.”
  • Slaps—“exceptionally good.”
  • Stan—stan is a portmanteau of “stalker fan,” but really what it means is that you enjoy something intensely or obsessively. You “stan” a song or a movie, for example.
  • Werk—a term to describe something done exceedingly well. If you’re dancing tremendously, I might just yell “werk!”
  • Wig—when something shocks, excites, or moves you, just say “wig.”

Jargon is a word or phrase that is specific to a profession or industry. Usually, a jargon word intentionally obfuscates the meaning of what it represents, as the word is meant to be understood solely by people within a certain profession.

Often, people let jargon slip from their tongues without realizing the word is inaccessible. For example, a doctor might tell their friend they have rhinitis, rather than a seasonal allergy. Or, someone well-versed in mid-century diner lingo might ask for “Adam and Eve on a raft” rather than “two poached eggs on toast.”

When it comes to dialogue in a story, the occasional use of jargon can help characterize someone through their profession. However, too much jargon usage will start to sound comical and inane, as most people don’t speak in jargon all the time.

An idiom is a phrase that is specifically understood by speakers of a certain language, and which has a figurative meaning that differs from its literal one. Idioms are incredibly hard to translate, because the meaning conveyed by the idiom does not appear within the words themselves.

For example, a common idiom in the United States is to say someone is “under the weather” when they’re feeling ill. No part of the phrase “under the weather” conveys a sense of sickness; at most, it might communicate that that person feels pushed down by the weather. But then, what weather? Could they be under “good” weather, too? These are questions that someone who doesn’t speak English natively will likely ask.

So, the literal meaning of “under the weather” is different from the figurative meaning, which is “ill.” Some other idioms in the English language include:

  • Pulling your leg—just having fun with someone or messing with them.
  • Bat a thousand—to be successful 100% of the time.
  • The last straw—the final incident before something (usually negative) occurs.
  • Big fish in a little sea—someone is famous or hugely successful, but in a very small corner of the world.
  • Eat your heart out—be envious of something.

An idiom can also reveal regionality, as some idioms are only spoken in certain dialects. For example, when it rains while the sun is shining, a common idiom in the South is that “the devil is beating his wife.” This phrase is understood in other parts of the U.S. and might have its roots in folklore, but it is primarily spoken by people in the American South.

7. Euphemism

A euphemism is the substitution of one word for another, more innocuous word. We often use euphemisms in place of words and phrases that are sexual, uncomfortable, or otherwise taboo.

For example, when someone dies, you might hear their family member say “they kicked the bucket.” Or, if someone were unemployed but didn’t want to say it, they might say they are “between jobs” or “searching for better opportunities.”

Euphemisms present something psychologically interesting to a person’s dialogue. We often use language to mask that which upsets us most but which we are unwilling to confront or communicate. A euphemism for death is intended to mask the pain of death; a euphemism about unemployment is intended to mask the shame of unemployment.

We might also use euphemisms to hide information from people we don’t trust. Let’s say you’re in an intimate relationship, and don’t want the person you’re conversing with to know about it. You might pull out your knowledge of Middle English and say you’re “giving a girl a green gown.” Or, you might simply say you’re rolling in the hay with someone, to communicate your relationship while also communicating you don’t want to talk about it.

Note: even “intimate relationship” is a bit of a euphemism!

In dialogue writing, use euphemisms as hints to your characters’ psyches. In speech, what is omitted often says more than what is included.

A proverb is a short, oft-repeated saying that bears a wise and powerful message. Proverbs are often based on common sense advice, but they use metaphors and symbols to convey that advice, prompting the listener to place themselves in the world of the proverb.

For example, a common English proverb is “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” This means that it’s better to take away modest gains than to sacrifice those gains for something that may be unobtainable. Sacrificing the bird in your hand for two birds which may be impossible to own is a risky endeavor.

When it comes to writing dialogue in a story, proverbs educate both the protagonist and the audience. A proverb will often be spoken by an elder or someone with relevant experience to help guide the protagonist. The story’s events might also be a reaction to that proverb, either fulfilling or complicating it. Finally, a proverb might characterize the speaker themselves, cluing the reader into the speaker’s beliefs. Not all stories have proverbs, but stories with wise characters often do.

9. Neologism

A neologism is a coined word that describes something new. Some neologisms are coined by authors themselves—Shakespeare, for example, coined over 2,000 words, many of which we use today. “Baseless,” “footfall,” and “murkiest” come from The Tempest , just one of Shakespeare’s many plays and poems.

Nowadays, most neologisms describe advancements in technology, medicine, and society. “Doomscrolling,” for example, describes the act of consuming large quantities of negative news, often to the detriment of one’s mental health. The word was likely invented in 2018, due in part to the increased access to information that technology gives us.

Other modern day neologisms include:

  • Google (as a verb: to google something)
  • Crowdsourcing

Some neologisms are portmanteaus, which is a word made from two other words combined in both sound and meaning. For example, “smog” is a portmanteau of “smoke and fog,” and it’s a neologism only relevant to the Industrial Revolution and beyond.

Neologisms are not to be confused with grandiloquent words , which are invented words used for the sole purpose of sounding intelligent (and which have become enduring facets of modern English).

In dialogue writing, neologisms primarily help situate the reader in the story’s temporal setting. No one would use the word malware in the year 1920. Additionally, words like “crowdsourcing” are far more likely to be used by younger generations, and they signify a certain sense of tech savviness and modernity that not everyone has.

Finally, neologisms are fun! You might even invent some new words in your own writing, though a neologism should be elegant and relevant, without drawing too much attention to itself.

Of course, the best way to learn how to write dialogue in a story is to practice it yourself. Below are some dialogue writing exercises to try in your fiction.

Dialogue Writing Exercise: Write out a character’s “personal vocabulary.”

All of us have a personal vocabulary, meaning that we tend to choose the same set of words to describe something, even though our vocabularies are much larger. For example, I have a tendency to use the word “scandalous” when describing something. I often use it ironically or as a compliment, which is a trait of word-usage associated with Millennials and older Gen Z kids. This word is a part of my personal vocabulary, and though I don’t say it constantly, I often use it when I can’t think of a better word.

Your characters are the same way! Writing out a personal vocabulary for your characters might jumpstart your dialogue writing, and it also gives you something to fall back on in your dialogue while still providing depth and character.

Coming back—once again—to Holden Caulfield, his personal vocabulary might include words like: phony , prostitute , goddam , miserable , lousy , jerk . These words and phrases are rare overall, but they’re exceedingly common in his own personal way of verbalizing his experience of the world.

Dialogue Writing Exercise: Consider different settings.

Sometimes, you just need to generate dialogue until you come across the right line or turn-of-phrase. One way to do that is to write what your character would say in different situations.

On a separate document or piece of paper, write what would happen if your character was talking to different people or talking in different situations. For example, your character might:

  • Talk to a grocery store clerk
  • Be a hostage in a bank robbery
  • Take the SAT
  • Run into their crush
  • Get pulled over for speeding

Explore what your character would say in each of these (and other) different scenarios, and you might just trick your brain into writing the next sentence of your story.

Dialogue Writing Exercise: Pretend you are your character.

Instead of writing your character in different settings, be your character in different settings. Think about what your character would think while you’re doing the laundry, driving to work, or paying the bills. This habit will help you approach this character’s dialogue, as you develop the ability to turn their personality on in your brain, like a switch!

(Hopefully, you’re never caught in a bank robbery. If you are, maybe your character can save you.)

We’ve covered how to write dialogue in a story, but not how to format dialogue. Dialogue formatting is a relatively minor concern for fiction writers, but it’s still important to format correctly. Otherwise, you’ll waste hours of your writing time trying to fix formatting errors, and you might prevent your stories from finding publication.

There are a few different ways to format dialogue; for each of these examples, we will reformat the sentence “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” said Chief Brody.

Most writers and publishers use standard quotation marks at the beginning and end of the dialogue.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” said Chief Brody.

A comma always separates the dialogue from the speaker. In this case, the comma goes inside of the quotation marks. Periods, semicolons, and em dashes also go inside the quotation marks. If you’re writing in British English, some conventions place the dialogue punctuation outside of the quotation, but both ways are acceptable.

Another way some people format their dialogue is by italicizing instead of using quotation marks.

You’re gonna need a bigger boat, said Chief Brody.

In this instance, you would fit the comma within the italicized text, as you would any other punctuation in the dialogue. Only the quote is italicized; the speaker remains unitalicized. The drawback of this formatting is that your dialogue might be confused with the character’s inner dialogue, which should also be italicized.

Finally, your dialogue formatting can eschew the use of quotation marks and italics. In this case, you would indent any part of the text that is dialogue, and leave narration un-indented.

Suddenly, the shark loomed behind the orca.

This way of formatting makes it easier to write without worrying about punctuation marks, but be warned that most publishers will change that formatting before publication.

If your sentence starts with the dialogue tag, put a comma before the quotation mark. Do capitalize the first letter inside the quotation marks, as this is, grammatically, the start of a sentence.

Chief Brody said, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

And, if your dialogue spans multiple paragraphs, do not use the end-quote until the very end of the dialogue, but start each paragraph with a new start-quote.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat. “A boat this size can’t handle a shark,” Chief Brody continued.

Looking for More Dialogue Writing Tips?

Great dialogue is the true test of whether you understand your characters or not. However, developing this skill takes a lot of time and practice. If you’re looking for more advice on how to write dialogue in a story, check out our online fiction writing courses for dialogue writing tips from the best instructors on the net!

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Sean Glatch

10 comments.

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This was very helpful: I’m a French Canadian, living here in the US for the past 28 years, very fluent in English and this article will help me to polish my stories telling. I love to write spending a lot of time doing so, whether it’s a story, an email, documentation in my field (I’m an IT guy) and I’m now more confident about my writing.

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I’m so happy to hear that, Richard. Happy writing!

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As an aspiring writer, this helped me a lot!

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Great article! Nice job capturing so many elements and explaining things so well. I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

The only thing that puzzled me was in the following section (watch for the **):

If your sentence starts with the dialogue tag, put a comma before the quotation mark. **In this case, do not capitalize the first letter inside the quotation marks.**

Chief Brody said, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

I’ve never seen that guidance before. I thought you were supposed to capitalize the first word of complete dialogue sentences regardless of speaker attribution placement. Might this be a mistake? Or a vestige from a previous edit?

You’re absolutely right–that bit of advice was written in error. The start of a new sentence of dialogue should always begin with a capital letter. I’ve updated the text accordingly. Many thanks for your comment!

[…] How to Write Dialogue in a Story […]

Thank you, Nicole! I’m so glad you found it helpful. Happy writing!

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Directed here from somewhere else. A novice when it comes to fiction writing and the proper use of English. I fid dialogue my most difficult in writing. I am glad for this. I get most of the gist now.

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I came across your website while doing some research for my writing students and I have to say this is one of the best resources I’ve found when it comes to writing dialogue. Thank you for taking the time to put together such a valuable resource and one which I’ll be passing on to my students.

Thank you again!

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Really great advice. One thing I often do is get my students to ‘capture conversations’ so they can hear the cadence of real dialogue. Then we look at how to make it more powerful by taking out most if not all of the ‘um’s, ah’s’ and other interruptions or interjections. It has improved the quality of my students written dialogue immensely. 🙂

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How to Write Dialogue: 7 Great Tips for Writers (With Examples)

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Hannah Yang

How to write dialogue title

Great dialogue serves multiple purposes. It moves your plot forward. It develops your characters and it makes the story more engaging.

It’s not easy to do all these things at once, but when you master the art of writing dialogue, readers won’t be able to put your book down.

In this article, we will teach you the rules for writing dialogue and share our top dialogue tips that will make your story sing.

Dialogue Rules

How to format dialogue, 7 tips for writing dialogue in a story or book, dialogue examples.

Before we look at tips for writing powerful dialogue, let’s start with an overview of basic dialogue rules.

  • Start a new paragraph each time there’s a new speaker. Whenever a new character begins to speak, you should give them their own paragraph. This rule makes it easier for the reader to follow the conversation.
  • Keep all speech between quotation marks . Everything that a character says should go between quotation marks, including the final punctuation marks. For example, periods and commas should always come before the final quotation mark, not after.
  • Don’t use end quotations for paragraphs within long speeches. If a single character speaks for such a long time that you break their speech up into multiple paragraphs, you should omit the quotation marks at the end of each paragraph until they stop talking. The final quotation mark indicates that their speech is over.
  • Use single quotes when a character quotes someone else. Whenever you have a quote within a quote, you should use single quotation marks (e.g. She said, “He had me at ‘hello.’”)
  • Dialogue tags are optional. A dialogue tag is anything that indicates which character is speaking and how, such as “she said,” “he whispered,” or “I shouted.” You can use dialogue tags if you want to give the reader more information about who’s speaking, but you can also choose to omit them if you want the dialogue to flow more naturally. We’ll be discussing more about this rule in our tips below.

The purpose of dialogue

Let’s walk through some examples of how to format dialogue .

The simplest formatting option is to write a line of speech without a dialogue tag. In this case, the entire line of speech goes within the quotation marks, including the period at the end.

  • Example: “I think I need a nap.”

Another common formatting option is to write a single line of speech that ends with a dialogue tag.

Here, you should separate the speech from the dialogue tag with a comma, which should go inside the quotation marks.

  • Example: “I think I need a nap,” Maria said.

How to puntuate dialogue

You can also write a line of speech that starts with a dialogue tag. Again, you separate the dialogue tag with a comma, but this time, the comma goes outside the quotation marks.

  • Example: Maria said, “I think I need a nap.”

As an alternative to a simple dialogue tag, you can write a line of speech accompanied by an action beat. In this case, you should use a period rather than a comma, because the action beat is a full sentence.

  • Example: Maria sat down on the bed. “I think I need a nap.”

Finally, you can choose to include an action beat while the character is talking.

In this case, you would use em-dashes to separate the action from the dialogue, to indicate that the action happens without a pause in the speech.

  • Example: “I think I need”—Maria sat down on the bed—“a nap.”

Now that we’ve covered the basics, we can move on to the more nuanced aspects of writing dialogue.

Here are our seven favorite tips for writing strong, powerful dialogue that will keep your readers engaged.

Tip #1: Create Character Voices

Dialogue is a great way to reveal your characters. What your characters say, and how they say it, can tell us so much about what kind of people they are.

Some characters are witty and gregarious. Others are timid and unobtrusive.

Speech patterns vary drastically from person to person.

To make someone stop talking to them, one character might say “I would rather not talk about this right now,” while another might say, “Shut your mouth before I shut it for you.”

When you’re writing dialogue, think about your character’s education level, personality, and interests.

  • What kind of slang do they use?
  • Do they prefer long or short sentences?
  • Do they ask questions or make assertions?

What goes in to character voice

Each character should have their own voice.

Ideally, you want to write dialogue that lets your reader identify the person speaking at any point in your story just by looking at what’s between the quotation marks.

Tip #2: Write Realistic Dialogue

Good dialogue should sound natural. Listen to how people talk in real life and try to replicate it on the page when you write dialogue.

Don’t be afraid to break the rules of grammar, or to use an occasional exclamation point to punctuate dialogue.

It’s okay to use contractions , sentence fragments , and run-on sentences , even if you wouldn’t use them in other parts of the story.

Contractions, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences

This doesn’t mean that realistic dialogue should sound exactly like the way people speak in the real world.

If you’ve ever read a court transcript, you know that real-life speech is riddled with “ums” and “ahs” and repeated words and phrases. A few paragraphs of this might put your readers to sleep.

Compelling dialogue should sound like a real conversation, while still being wittier, smoother, and better worded than real speech.

Tip #3: Simplify Your Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag is anything that tells the reader which character is talking within that same paragraph, such as “she said” or “I asked.”

When you’re writing dialogue, remember that simple dialogue tags are the most effective .

Often, you can omit dialogue tags after the conversation has started flowing, especially if only two characters are participating.

The reader will be able to keep up with who’s speaking as long as you start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes.

When you do need to use a dialogue tag, a simple “he said” or “she said” will do the trick.

Our brains generally skip over the word “said” when we’re reading, while other dialogue tags are a distraction.

Which dialogue tags to use

A common mistake beginner writers make is to avoid using the word “said.”

Characters in amateur novels tend to mutter, whisper, declare, or chuckle at every line of dialogue. This feels overblown and distracts from the actual story.

Another common mistake is to attach an adverb to the word “said.” Characters in amateur novels rarely just say things—they have to say things loudly, quietly, cheerfully, or angrily.

If you’re writing great dialogue, readers should be able to figure out whether your character is cheerful or angry from what’s within the quotation marks.

The only exception to this rule is if the dialogue tag contradicts the dialogue itself. For example, consider this sentence:

  • “You’ve ruined my life,” she said angrily.

The word “angrily” is redundant here because the words inside the quotation marks already imply that the character is speaking angrily.

In contrast, consider this sentence:

  • “You’ve ruined my life,” she said thoughtfully.

Here, the word “thoughtfully” is well-placed because it contrasts with what we might otherwise assume. It adds an additional nuance to the sentence inside the quotation marks.

Dos and don'ts of dialogue tags

You can use the ProWritingAid dialogue check when you write dialogue to make sure your dialogue tags are pulling their weight and aren’t distracting readers from the main storyline.

Dialogue tags check

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Tip #4: Balance Speech with Action

When you’re writing dialogue, you can use action beats —descriptions of body language or physical action—to show what each character is doing throughout the conversation.

Learning how to write action beats is an important component of learning how to write dialogue.

Good dialogue becomes even more interesting when the characters are doing something active at the same time.

You can watch people in real life, or even characters in movies, to see what kinds of body language they have. Some pick at their fingernails. Some pace the room. Some tap their feet on the floor.

Common action beats for dialogue

Including physical action when writing dialogue can have multiple benefits:

  • It changes the pace of your dialogue and makes the rhythm more interesting
  • It prevents “white room syndrome,” which is when a scene feels like it’s happening in a white room because it’s all dialogue and no description
  • It shows the reader who’s speaking without using speaker tags

You can decide how often to include physical descriptions in each scene. All dialogue has an ebb and flow to it, and you can use beats to control the pace of your dialogue scenes.

If you want a lot of tension in your scene, you can use fewer action beats to let the dialogue ping-pong back and forth.

If you want a slower scene, you can write dialogue that includes long, detailed action beats to help the reader relax.

You should start a separate sentence, or even a new paragraph, for each of these longer beats.

Action beats for dialogue tip

Tip #5: Write Conversations with Subtext

Every conversation has subtext , because we rarely say exactly what we mean. The best dialogue should include both what is said and what is not said.

I once had a roommate who cared a lot about the tidiness of our apartment, but would never say it outright. We soon figured out that whenever she said something like “I might bring some friends over tonight,” what she meant was “Please wash your dishes, because there are no clean plates left for my friends to use.”

Tip for dialogue subtext

When you’re writing dialogue, it’s important to think about what’s not being said. Even pleasant conversations can hide a lot beneath the surface.

Is one character secretly mad at the other?

Is one secretly in love with the other?

Is one thinking about tomorrow’s math test and only pretending to pay attention to what the other person is saying?

Personally, I find it really hard to use subtext when I write dialogue from scratch.

In my first drafts I let my characters say what they really mean. Then, when I’m editing, I go back and figure out how to convey the same information through subtext instead.

Tip #6: Show, Don’t Tell

When I was in high school, I once wrote a story in which the protagonist’s mother tells her: “As you know, Susan, your dad left us when you were five.”

I’ve learned a lot about the writing craft since high school, but it doesn’t take a brilliant writer to figure out that this is not something any mother would say to her daughter in real life.

Characters sould talk to each other, not the reader

The reason I wrote that line of dialogue was because I wanted to tell the reader when Susan last saw her father, but I didn’t do it in a realistic way.

Don’t shoehorn information into your characters’ conversations if they’re not likely to say it to each other.

One useful trick is to have your characters get into an argument.

You can convey a lot of information about a topic through their conflicting opinions, without making it sound like either of the characters is saying things for the reader’s benefit.

Here’s one way my high school self could have conveyed the same information in a more realistic way in just a few lines:

Susan: “Why didn’t you tell me Dad was leaving? Why didn’t you let me say goodbye?”

Mom: “You were only five. I wanted to protect you.”

Tip #7: Keep Your Dialogue Concise

Dialogue tends to flow out easily when you’re drafting your story, so in the editing process, you’ll need to be ruthless. Cut anything that doesn’t move the story forward.

Try not to write dialogue that feels like small talk.

You can eliminate most hellos and goodbyes, or summarize them instead of showing them. Readers don’t want to waste their time reading dialogue that they hear every day.

In addition, try not to write dialogue with too many trigger phrases, which are questions that trigger the next line of dialogue, such as:

  • “And then what?”
  • “What do you mean?”

It’s tempting to slip these in when you’re writing dialogue because they keep the conversation flowing. I still catch myself doing this from time to time.

Remember that you don’t need three lines of dialogue when one line could accomplish the same thing.

Let’s look at some dialogue examples from successful novels that follow each of our seven tips.

Dialogue Example #1: How to Create Character Voice

Let’s start with an example of a character with a distinct voice from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling.

“What happened, Harry? What happened? Is he ill? But you can cure him, can’t you?” Colin had run down from his seat and was now dancing alongside them as they left the field. Ron gave a huge heave and more slugs dribbled down his front. “Oooh,” said Colin, fascinated and raising his camera. “Can you hold him still, Harry?”

Most readers could figure out that this was Colin Creevey speaking, even if his name hadn’t been mentioned in the passage.

This is because Colin Creevey is the only character who speaks with such extreme enthusiasm, even at a time when Ron is belching slugs.

This snippet of written dialogue does a great job of showing us Colin’s personality and how much he worships his hero Harry.

Dialogue Example #2: How to Write Realistic Dialogue

Here’s an example of how to write dialogue that feels realistic from A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

“As much as I love this land, some days I think about leaving it,” Babi said. “Where to?” “Anyplace where it’s easy to forget. Pakistan first, I suppose. For a year, maybe two. Wait for our paperwork to get processed.” “And then?” “And then, well, it is a big world. Maybe America. Somewhere near the sea. Like California.”

Notice the punctuation and grammar that these two characters use when they speak.

There are many sentence fragments in this conversation like, “Anyplace where it’s easy to forget.” and “Somewhere near the sea.”

Babi often omits the verbs from his sentences, just like people do in real life. He speaks in short fragments instead of long, flowing paragraphs.

This dialogue shows who Babi is and feels similar to the way a real person would talk, while still remaining concise.

how to write realistic dialogue

Dialogue Example #3: How to Simplify Your Dialogue Tags

Here’s an example of effective dialogue tags in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

In this passage, the narrator’s been caught exploring the forbidden west wing of her new husband’s house, and she’s trying to make excuses for being there.

“I lost my way,” I said, “I was trying to find my room.” “You have come to the opposite side of the house,” she said; “this is the west wing.” “Yes, I know,” I said. “Did you go into any of the rooms?” she asked me. “No,” I said. “No, I just opened a door, I did not go in. Everything was dark, covered up in dust sheets. I’m sorry. I did not mean to disturb anything. I expect you like to keep all this shut up.” “If you wish to open up the rooms I will have it done,” she said; “you have only to tell me. The rooms are all furnished, and can be used.” “Oh, no,” I said. “No. I did not mean you to think that.”

In this passage, the only dialogue tags Du Maurier uses are “I said,” “she said,” and “she asked.”

Even so, you can feel the narrator’s dread and nervousness. Her emotions are conveyed through what she actually says, rather than through the dialogue tags.

This is a splendid example of evocative speech that doesn’t need fancy dialogue tags to make it come to life.

Dialogue Example #4: How to Balance Speech with Action

Let’s look at a passage from The Princess Bride by William Goldman, where dialogue is melded with physical action.

With a smile the hunchback pushed the knife harder against Buttercup’s throat. It was about to bring blood. “If you wish her dead, by all means keep moving," Vizzini said. The man in black froze. “Better,” Vizzini nodded. No sound now beneath the moonlight. “I understand completely what you are trying to do,” the Sicilian said finally, “and I want it quite clear that I resent your behavior. You are trying to kidnap what I have rightfully stolen, and I think it quite ungentlemanly.” “Let me explain,” the man in black began, starting to edge forward. “You’re killing her!” the Sicilian screamed, shoving harder with the knife. A drop of blood appeared now at Buttercup’s throat, red against white.

In this passage, William Goldman brings our attention seamlessly from the action to the dialogue and back again.

This makes the scene twice as interesting, because we’re paying attention not just to what Vizzini and the man in black are saying, but also to what they’re doing.

This is a great way to keep tension high and move the plot forward.

Dialogue Example #5: How to Write Conversations with Subtext

This example from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card shows how to write dialogue with subtext.

Here is the scene when Ender and his sister Valentine are reunited for the first time, after Ender’s spent most of his childhood away from home training to be a soldier.

Ender didn’t wave when she walked down the hill toward him, didn’t smile when she stepped onto the floating boat slip. But she knew that he was glad to see her, knew it because of the way his eyes never left her face. “You’re bigger than I remembered,” she said stupidly. “You too,” he said. “I also remembered that you were beautiful.” “Memory does play tricks on us.” “No. Your face is the same, but I don’t remember what beautiful means anymore. Come on. Let’s go out into the lake.”

In this scene, we can tell that Valentine missed her brother terribly, and that Ender went through a lot of trauma at Battle School, without either of them saying it outright.

The conversation could have started with Valentine saying “I missed you,” but instead, she goes for a subtler opening: “You’re bigger than I remembered.”

Similarly, Ender could say “You have no idea what I’ve been through,” but instead he says, “I don’t remember what beautiful means anymore.”

We can deduce what each of these characters is thinking and feeling from what they say and from what they leave unsaid.

Dialogue Example #6: How to Show, Not Tell

Let’s look at an example from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This scene is the story’s first introduction of the ancient creatures called the Chandrian.

“I didn’t know the Chandrian were demons,” the boy said. “I’d heard—” “They ain’t demons,” Jake said firmly. “They were the first six people to refuse Tehlu’s choice of the path, and he cursed them to wander the corners—” “Are you telling this story, Jacob Walker?” Cob said sharply. “Cause if you are, I’ll just let you get on with it.” The two men glared at each other for a long moment. Eventually Jake looked away, muttering something that could, conceivably, have been an apology. Cob turned back to the boy. “That’s the mystery of the Chandrian,” he explained. “Where do they come from? Where do they go after they’ve done their bloody deeds? Are they men who sold their souls? Demons? Spirits? No one knows.” Cob shot Jake a profoundly disdainful look. “Though every half-wit claims he knows...”

The three characters taking part in this conversation all know what the Chandrian are.

Imagine if Cob had said “As we all know, the Chandrian are mysterious demon-spirits.” We would feel like he was talking to us, not to the two other characters.

Instead, Rothfuss has all three characters try to explain their own understanding of what the Chandrian are, and then shoot each other’s explanations down.

When Cob reprimands Jake for interrupting him and then calls him a half-wit for claiming to know what he’s talking about, it feels like a realistic interaction.

This is a clever way for Rothfuss to introduce the Chandrian in a believable way.

how to show not tell

Dialogue Example #7: How to Keep Your Dialogue Concise

Here’s an example of concise dialogue from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

“Do you blame me for flunking you, boy?” he said. “No, sir! I certainly don’t,” I said. I wished to hell he’d stop calling me “boy” all the time. He tried chucking my exam paper on the bed when he was through with it. Only, he missed again, naturally. I had to get up again and pick it up and put it on top of the Atlantic Monthly. It’s boring to do that every two minutes. “What would you have done in my place?” he said. “Tell the truth, boy.” Well, you could see he really felt pretty lousy about flunking me. So I shot the bull for a while. I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff. I told him how I would’ve done exactly the same thing if I’d been in his place, and how most people didn’t appreciate how tough it is being a teacher. That kind of stuff. The old bull.

Here, the last paragraph diverges from the prior ones. After the teacher says “Tell the truth, boy,” the rest of the conversation is summarized, rather than shown.

The summary of what the narrator says in the last paragraph—“I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff”—serves to hammer home that this is the type of “old bull” that the narrator has fed to his teachers over and over before.

It doesn’t need to be shown because it’s not important to the narrator—it’s just “all that stuff.”

Salinger could have written out the entire conversation in dialogue, but instead he kept the dialogue concise.

Final Words

Now you know how to write clear, effective dialogue! Start with the basic rules for dialogue and try implementing the more advanced tips as you go.

What are your favorite dialogue tips? Let us know in the comments below.

Do you know how to craft memorable, compelling characters? Download this free book now:

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Hannah Yang is a speculative fiction writer who writes about all things strange and surreal. Her work has appeared in Analog Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, The Dark, and elsewhere, and two of her stories have been finalists for the Locus Award. Her favorite hobbies include watercolor painting, playing guitar, and rock climbing. You can follow her work on hannahyang.com, or subscribe to her newsletter for publication updates.

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Writing dialogue: Complete guide to storied speech

Writing dialogue is an important skill to develop so that characters’ speech is imbued with voice and advances the story. Learn more in this complete guide to dialogue writing and formatting, with examples.

  • Post author By Jordan
  • 37 Comments on Writing dialogue: Complete guide to storied speech

how to write dialogue in stories

This guide to writing dialogue is all about using speech and conversation in storytelling to make your characters’ voices drive plot, tension and drama. Use the links to jump to the dialogue-writing topic you want to learn more about right now.

What is dialogue? Key terms

Dialogue in writing is conversation between two or more people/animated voices (animated voices because it could be speech between a person and an inanimate object they personify, for example, an imaginary or supernatural voice, and so forth).

Dialogue can be compared to:

  • A tennis or fencing match: Speakers may spar, score points, volley arguments or statements (and rebuttals to them) back and forth
  • A dance: One speaker says one line, the other replies, and sometimes one person may lead, at other times, the other leads
  • Pieces in a puzzle coming together: What different characters say may build up a gradual picture, for example an idea of the persona of a character who has not yet appeared in a story scene but has been spoken about by others
  • Music: sometimes there is harmony (working together), other times discord (strife, heated conversation or disagreement)

Key terms in writing dialogue

There are several terms in dialogue worth knowing as they crop up often in discussing this element of writing craft:

Active listening: Dialogue is (usually) responsive

When somebody is engaged in ‘active listening’, they aren’t just waiting for their turn to speak. In a true conversation, people hear one another, respond.

There may be instances where your dialogue’s subtext or context (more on these below) calls for characters not to actively listen to one another, of course. There may be cause for them to interrupt, speak over, speak at cross purposes.

In these cases, it should be contextually or otherwise clear why characters aren’t properly responding to each other’s speech (the dialogue should not read or sound like random non sequiturs, each person’s utterances totally disconnected for no clear reason).

Context for dialogue

Effective dialogue involves its context. For example, in a frenzied car chase, the squeal of tires may drown out the exchange here or there. Speech and action in this context may reflect rapid decision-making, keeping pace.

In the middle of a bank heist, people may be curt, decisive (of course, inept thieves could wax lyrical and by talking too much make rookie mistakes).

Either way, context will inform how readers make sense of your dialogue, and helps to fill dialogue with tone and mood . Nobody whispers to each other standing next to Niagara falls (if they want to be heard).

Subtext and dialogue

Subtext in dialogue is the underlying meaning, motivation or feeling behind the words characters speak.

For example, a boss starts a casual conversation with a new employee but the subtext is that they’re having regrets at hiring the person and trying to come to a decision on whether to terminate in the trial period. The subtext will inform what language they will use (and this language would be different to someone ecstatic with their employee’s performance).

Subtext adds depth and complexity to dialogue, strata of the said and unsaid.

Purpose in dialogue

Why is the information you are writing in a scene given as dialogue? Knowing the purpose of dialogue (and writing dialogue that feels purpose-driven) is useful to ensure that every spoken line counts. In a stage play, dialogue and action are the two drivers of story.

In narrative fiction, you also get to use narration to convey meaning. A story where all character information is conveyed through narration may read oddly voiceless, impersonal. Dialogue makes your characters pause, take a breath, like real flesh and blood.

Recommended reading

Learn more about writing conversations that feel real and draw on cause and effect, call and response:

  • Context and subtext in dialogue: Creating layered speech
  • How to make dialogue in writing carry your story
  • 7 dialogue rules for writing fantastic conversations

To the top ↑

I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Tom Stoppard

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Why dialogue matters

Why do most stories benefit from liberal use of dialogue?

1. Dialogue brings characters and their differences to life

In dialogue, you could show a character’s personality in a handful of words. Here, for example, Dostoyevsky creates the sense of a decisive doctor, used to dealing with uncertain, anxious patients in The Double :

‘Krestyan Ivanovich … I …’ ‘Hm,’ interrupted the doctor, ‘what I’m telling you is that you need to radically change your whole lifestyle and in a sense you must completely transform your character.’ (Krestyan Ivanovich particularly emphasized the word ‘transform’ and paused for a moment with an extremely significant look.) Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double , trans. Ronald Wilks (1846, 2009), p. 11

There is an immediate sense of power dynamic (and differential) – the hesitating patient and his decisive doctor.

2. Dialogue splits up exposition into varied parts

If all the revelation of your characters and world is in long, wall-of-text narration, it becomes slightly draining to read.

Dialogue lifts us out of a ‘this happened, then that’ sense of explanation and throws us into the immediate – sound striking the eardrum. Tweet This

3. Dialogue advances a story

Characters may tell each other things that reveal – or shift – goals, motivations, conflicts. ‘But first, I must tell you Mr Bond…’ A villain may say too much, a lover, too little (or vice versa).

4. Conversation builds relationships

Some of the most beautiful relationships (or the most ugly) emerge through what people say to one another.

Ed’s note: As an undergraduate in English Literature, I attended a lecture on Pride and Prejudice where the lecturer illustrated how Lizzie and Darcy’s love is established through the grammar of their language and how it shifts. At one point, Darcy says, ‘You are loved by me’ – a different structure to the standard ‘I love you’ that places the subject first, in a way that reads as full of care.

We detect attraction and resentment in the language people use with one another. A conversation about the weather may imply feelings – it comes down to tone, address, mood, agreement and disagreement.

5. Dialogue brings humor, levity and persona to stories

Dialogue is often a vehicle for comedy. It’s a crucial part of how to write a funny story .

You can narrate that a character has grown wealthy and fallen out of touch with their humble origins. But in Dickens’ Great Expectations, when a character named ‘Trabb’s boy’, the tailor’s son, follows the main character Pip down the street mimicking him and saying, ‘Don’t know ya!’ after Pip is left wealth, it’s a brilliant and funny illustration of how people change (and perceive and react to changes in others).

Pip seems ‘too good for’ others now that he has wealth, and three words convey Trabb’s boy’s contempt with sly humor. Three words (paired with action, the following and mimicking) convey complex social dynamics and feelings.

Why else do you think dialogue matters? Tell us in the comments.

Learn more about writing dialogue that drives stories:

Writing dialogue tips to hook readers | Now Novel

10 dialogue tips to hook readers

Hook readers into your story with dialogue that catches their attention.

Writing movement and action in dialogue | Now Novel

  • Writing movement and action in dialogue: 6 tips

How can movement and action make your dialogue more immersive? Find out.

Dialogue is the place that books are most alive and forge the most direct connection with readers. It is also where we as writers discover our characters and allow them to become real. Laini Taylor

How to format dialogue

Speech marks or quotation marks, and where do the line breaks go? Read on for how to format dialogue, common differences between UK and US formatting styles, and more:

Why do we format dialogue? Clarity, ease and flow

Try to write an exchange in dialogue all as block paragraph text and it becomes a nightmare trying to keep track of who says what:

“You’re late,” she said. “But I didn’t say what time I was coming.” “I don’t care, I’ve been waiting half an hour.” There was an awkward silence for a few seconds. “Well don’t say anything, whatever.”

It’s not clear from the above dialogue without line breaks and with no attribution for the last spoken sentence who says what at all times.

This is much easier to read because line breaks signal when the speaker changes:

It’s much easier to follow the back and forth (and because only two characters are present, the dialogue does not need excess attribution of who says what thanks to the line breaks clarifying this).

How to format dialogue in stories: 8 tips

To make sure it’s clear who’s speaking, when it changes, and when speech begins and ends (and narration or description interrupts):

1. Use quotation or speech marks to show when speech starts and stops

If a character is still speaking, don’t close speech marks prematurely.

2. Start a new line each time the speaker changes

Although it is common practice to use an indent for each change of speaker, make sure to use paragraph formatting in your word processor rather than the tab button as this can make indentation too large or wonky (using paragraph-wide settings is most precise).

Dialogue formatting example: Colleen Hoover from It Ends with Us

3. Decide how you’ll format dialogue (and stick with it)

Speech marks with double quotations like the example from Colleen Hoover above (“) are more commonly used in the US, single quotation marks (‘) in books published in the UK.

Some contemporary novels don’t use speech marks at all, using an em dash at the start of a line or presenting dialogue another way. Whichever approach you use, consistency is key.

Example: Using single quotation marks to indicate speech

Dialogue example using single quotation marks from Zadie Smith's On Beauty

4. Always use a comma if there is an attributing tag

If dialogue is attributed using a tag such as ‘she said’ (read more on dialogue tags below), use a comma and not a period/full stop. For example:

“Writing dialogue is harder than I thought.” She said. ❌ “Writing dialogue is harder than I thought,” she said. ✔️

Remember: the tag continues the sentence.

5. Split long monologue over multiple paragraphs

What if the same character is speaking for a long time in dialogue?

To format this, the convention is to open speech marks for each new paragraph without closing speech marks for the previous one, until the speaker is finished talking.

Example: Dialogue where one speaker continues over paragraphs

“First I want to thank you all for being here on our special day. It does take a village (but you can put down the pitchforks, take off the creepy masks, and relax a little, guys, it’s not that kind of village) … Er eheh… OK I’m firing my joke writers.

“But in all seriousness, I couldn’t have chosen a better bride…zilla.”

6. Use the appropriate dialogue punctuation

If a speaker pauses, put it in with a comma or something longer such as a semicolon. This is where it helps to read dialogue out loud as you will hear where there is a natural pause that needs punctuating. Colons have an announcing effect. Example: “OK, here’s the kicker: The guard changes every forty-five minutes.”

If there is a question or exclamation, use the appropriate speech mark (that includes the occasional special effect, such as an interrobang (!?).

7. Write interruption or other changes in dialogue’s flow clearly

Ellipses are effective in showing a character trailing off or pausing to think for longer, mid-dialogue.

“Oh yes, I remember, it was … whatshername.”

There are several ways to show interruption. You could:

  • Use an em-dash just after cut-off speech. Example: “If you’d just let me fini—”
  • Use parentheses to show self-interruption. Example: “If you’d just let me finish what I was (actually, it’s fine, carry on).”

8. Format narration interrupting dialogue clearly

If you want to describe a character’s manner, movement, expression mid-dialogue, remember to use a comma before and resume dialogue without capitalization (unless the word is a proper noun):

“I can’t believe you said that,” John said, shaking his head, “and with absolutely zero remorse, too.”

Read more on how to ensure your dialogue reads clearly, including how to write ensemble dialogue with multiple characters present:

  • Writing dialogue between multiple characters
Nothing teaches you as much about dialogue as listening to it. Judy Blume

Effective vs weak dialogue

Why does some dialogue scintillate, stir interest, while other dialogue reads like talking heads saying nothing of great impact in an inky void? There are several hallmarks of effective and less effective dialogue:

How to write dialogue that's effective - infographic

What makes dialogue effective:

  • An authentic sense of voice. Do characters sound like cipher’s for an author’s pretension (this may be true to a specific stylistic choice, though) or like real people talking?
  • Purpose-driven dialogue. Each line of dialogue should have identifiable purpose, whether it’s establishing character, advancing the story, building tone and mood, or dialogue serves another purpose.
  • Aptness for type (or explicable ‘against type’ voice). Avoid confusing your reader by having a five-year old speak like a fifty-year-old (unless there’s a plot-given or other explicable reason for this anomaly).
  • Varied structure. If every sentence is clipped or brusque, or every sentence is long and meandering, the eye (and ear) may tire. Switch it up if possible.
  • Natural language. Contractions (e.g. ‘it’s’ for ‘it is’) and other ways people naturally speak (colloquial language or slang) lend further authenticity to voice.
  • Conflict and tension . ‘As you know, Bob’ info dumps and happy people in happy land don’t make dialogue exciting (but tension, disagreement, doubt – sparks of contradiction – do).
  • Movement and gesture. A gesture may change the entire meaning of a spoken phrase (a shrug, turn, sitting down, standing up, waving arms, and so on).
  • Subtext and inference. What a character is truly thinking or feeling might not match up perfectly with what they’re saying. People lie, omit, embellish, and so forth.

What can weaken dialogue in fiction?

Dialogue in stories may feel bland or confusing (or too over the top and melodramatic) when:

  • It’s all one note. If every utterance is an exclamation (with an exclamation mark), that gets old fast. Use special effects like salt – just enough to enhance the conversation.
  • Connection is absent. Your reader may be confused if what characters reply to each other seems as though they’re having two different conversations (unless there is contextual explanation, e.g. both are hard of hearing).
  • The scenery stays outside. If your characters are having an argument in the kitchen, does someone bang a pot, slam a drawer? Bring in surrounds.
  • There is no differentiation. If everyone has the exact same vocabulary, mannerisms, and pattern of speech, characters start to become clone-like, like so many Agent Smiths.
  • Excessive or bizarre tags. Characters shouldn’t honk or trumpet speech too often. Favor tags that you can say or express (no, “What!” she flabbergasted’). Leave out tags entirely if context tells your reader who speaks (and content of speech gives tone/mood).
  • Excessive dialect or accent. At best excessive dialect or accent may read distracting, at worst, like hurtful stereotype or caricature.
  • Adverbs clutter speech. Instead of overusing ‘she says softly’, leave space for the silence to come through.
  • Dialogue dumps information. ‘As you know, Bob’ is a phrase used for dialogue where characters tell each other things both already know solely for the reader’s benefit. Find ways to make the retelling new/fresh, find what Bob doesn’t yet know and needs to be told.

Keep reading about ways to make dialogue characterful and engaging:

  • Dialogue words: Other words for ‘said’ (and what to avoid)
  • How to write accents and dialects: 6 tips
  • Realistic dialogue: Creating characters’ speech patterns

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Dialogue devices for characterful speech

There are several dialogue devices that help to advance stories and create a sense of movement, tension and change:

Dialogue tags and action tags

What are dialogue tags and action tags?

Dialogue tag: The words added after dialogue that attribute who has spoken (and often the mood, emotion, or volume of speech).

“You might want that tattoo, but I know all your secrets and your twenty-first is coming up and don’t think for a second I’m above making an awkward speech,” mom warned.

“Shh!” he hissed in a half-whisper. “This freaking place is haunted.”

Action tag: Indicates the speaker’s movements or gestures in dialogue. This can be used to attribute speech and make dialogue livelier.

“You might want that tattoo, but …” Mom leaned over theatrically as though to confide something important. “I know all your secrets and […]’

Movement and gesture

Movement and gesture may punctuate dialogue, immersing the reader in a scene further.

‘Then go,’ said Mrs Williams, handing him the buckets and the coil of rope. ‘Swim,’ she said maliciously. She knew he was afraid of the sea. He carried his fear coiled and tangled in him like other boys carry twine and string in their crumb-filled pockets. Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda (1988), p. 16

Interruption

Interruption is a useful device in dialogue for argument, dramatic scenes with high stakes where characters are speaking over one another, and so forth.

“I could have killed you.” “Or I could have killed you,” Percy said. Jason shrugged. “If there’d been an ocean in Kansas, maybe.” “I don’t need an ocean—” “Boys,” Annabeth interrupted, “I’m sure you both would’ve been wonderful at killing each other. But right now, you need some rest.” Rick Riordan, The Mark of Athena (2012).

Conflict and suspense

Conflict and suspense in dialogue keep the reader intrigued. Characters may argue, refuse to speak, tell a fib the reader may know to be untrue, or otherwise stir tension.

“What’s this for?” Tessie asked suspiciously. “What do you mean, what is it for?” “It’s not my birthday. It’s not our anniversary. So why are you giving me a present?” “Do I have to have a reason to give you a present? Go on, open it.” Tessie crumpled up one corner of her mouth, unconvinced. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002), p. 10.

Read more on devices in dialogue, including dialogue tags vs action tags and how to create tension:

  • 421 ways to say said? Simplify dialogue instead
  • Dialogue 101: Using dialogue tags vs action tags
  • Writing tense dialogue: 5 ways to add arresting tension
I never say ‘She says softly.’ If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so a reader can hear that it’s soft. Toni Morrison

Dialogue examples that work

Read examples of dialogue that works from a cross-selection of genres including fantasy, romance, science fiction, thriller, historical, contemporary and more:

1. Fantasy dialogue example ( A Game of Thrones )

Note how George R. R. Martin weaves in setting to create mood between utterances in this exchange from the prologue to A Game of Thrones :

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.” “Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile. Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.” George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (1996).

2. Historical romance dialogue example ( The Duke and I )

Julia Quinn begins the first chapter in the first of her popular Regency-set romance novels with a typical Regency setting – a drawing room (and drama in letters):

“Oooooooooohhhhhhhhhh!” Violet Bridgerton crumped the single-page newspaper into a ball and hurled it across the elegant drawing room. Her daughter Daphne wisely made no comment and pretended to be engrossed in her embroidery. “Did you read what she said?” Violet demanded. “Did you?” Julia Quinn, The Duke and I (2000).

3. Mystery dialogue example ( The Murder of Roger Ackroyd )

Dame Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is often voted one of her best detective novels. In the first chapter already, conversation turns to death and the topic of who knows what about whom (and how):

My sister’s nose, which is long and thin, quivered a little at the tip, as it always does when she is interested or excited over anything. “Well?” she demanded. “A bad business. Nothing to be done. Must have died in her sleep.” “I know, said my sister again. This time I was annoyed. “You can’t know,” I snapped. “I didn’t know myself until I got there and I haven’t mentioned it to a soul yet. If that girl Annie knows, she must be a clairvoyant.” Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

4. Science fiction dialogue example ( Hyperion )

Dan Simmons’ Hyperion which won a Hugo Award was hailed as ‘The book that reinvented Space Opera’. Note the weaving in of dialogue between human and machine in the prologue:

‘We need your help,’ said Meina Gladstone. ‘It is essential that the secrets of the Time Tombs and Shrike be uncovered. This pilgrimage may be our last chance. If the Ousters conquer Hyperion, their agent must be eliminated and the Time Tombs sealed at all cost. The fate of the Hegemony may depend upon it.’ The transmission ended except for the pulse of rendezvous coordinates. ‘Response?’ asked the ship’s computer. Dan Simmons, Hyperion (1989).

5. Psychological thriller dialogue example ( Sharp Objects )

Notice how in Gillian Flynn’s debut Sharp Objects how even a simple conversation between reporter Camille Preaker and her editor at the St. Louis Chronicle who sends her back to her hometown on assignment is laced with a sense of tension and avoidance:

“Tell me about Wind Gap.” Curry held the tip of a ballpoint pen at his grizzled chin. I could picture the tiny prick of blue it would leave among the stubble. “It’s at the very bottom of Missouri, in the boot heel. Spitting distance from Tennessee and Arkansas,” I said, hustling for my facts. Curry loved to drill reporters on any topics he deemed pertinent – the number of murders in Chicago last year, the demographics for Cook County, or, for some reason, the story of my hometown, a topic I preferred to avoid. Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects (2006).

6. Humor dialogue example ( Lessons in Chemistry )

See here how Bonnie Garmus weaves together humorous dialogue and character description to create the portrait of a man who does not have much luck in love:

“I can’t believe you’re having trouble,” his Cambridge teammates would tell him. “Girls love rowers.” Which wasn’t true. “And even though you’re an American, you’re not bad looking.” Which was also not true. Part of the problem was Calvin’s posture. He was six feet four inches tall, lanky and long, but he slouched to the right – probably a by-product of always rowing stroke side. Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry (2022).

7. Historical/fantasy dialogue example ( The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue )

V.E. Schwab creates a sense of early, 17th Century times in this conversation about prayer and witches’ fates in her historical fantasy novel that involves immortality and contemporary romance:

“How do you talk to them?” she asks. “The old gods. Do you call them by name?” Estele straightens, joints cracking like dry sticks. If she’s surprised by the question, it doesn’t show. “They have no names.” “Is there a spell?” Estele gives her a pointed look. “Spells are for witches, and witches are too often burned.” V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020).

8. Literary fiction dialogue example ( Home )

Toni Morrison is a master of capturing the authentic ring of a real human voice. See the difference between the Reverend and his wife who dismisses his jaundiced view of the world as ‘foolishness’ in this dialogue example:

“You from down the street? At that hospital?” Frank nodded while stamping his feet and trying to rub life back into his fingers. Reverend Locke grunted. “Have a seat,” he said, then, shaking his head, added, “You lucky, Mr. Money. They sell a lot of bodies out of there.” “Bodies?” Frank sank down on the sofa, only vaguely caring or wondering what the man was talking about. “Uh-huh. To the medical school.” “They sell dead bodies? What for?” “Well, you know, doctors need to work on the dead poor so they can help the live rich.” “John, stop.” Jean Locke came down the stairs, tightening the belt of her robe. “That’s just foolishness.” Toni Morrison, Home (2012).

What is a favorite section of dialogue from a book in your favorite genre? Share in the comments below.

Join The Process for weekly feedback on dialogue and other writing, webinars on dialogue writing and other writing craft topic, and structured writing tools to brainstorm and develop your story.

Now Novel has been invaluable in helping me learn about the craft of novel writing. The feedback has been encouraging, insightful and useful. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got as far as I have without the support of Jordan and the writers in the groups. Highly recommend to anyone seeking help, support or encouragement with their first or next novel. – Oliver

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Recommended Reading

Read further examples of effective dialogue:

  • Dialogue writing examples from top books vs AI (2023)
  • Writing conversations using setting (examples)
  • 5 types of dialogue your novel needs

Related Posts:

  • Realistic dialogue: Creating characters' speech patterns
  • Writing process: From discovery to done (complete guide)
  • Tags dialogue examples , dialogue tags , how to write dialogue

how to write dialogue in stories

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

37 replies on “Writing dialogue: Complete guide to storied speech”

Thank you for this! I notice these are all first person narratives; could you do something also with stories told in third person?

It’s a pleasure! Happily. While not on dialogue specifically, you might find this post on starting a story in third person helpful: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-start-a-novel-in-third-person/

“Very illuminating,” I said.

Thanks, Rob!

thanks this really helped

I’m thrilled to hear that, Randolyn. Thank you for the feedback.

As Rob said, very illuminating!

Do you have any recommendations on books with similar dialogue? Or should I give Tartt’s whole bibliography a go?

Thanks for the insight! Dialogue is one of my worker points in writing and I aim to correct that.

Hi Marco! It’s a pleasure. Tartt’s writing is very punchy, but there are many authors who write fantastic dialogue. Another great one is Toni Morrison – she’s a great master of every element of story, from exposition to dialogue to description and more.

Good luck, with focus I’m sure it’ll improve to the level you want it to be quickly.

This was immensely helpful. I’ve always handed dialogue fairly well, I think, but these tips will help me clean it up and use it to move the story forward, rather than just using it as page filler.

That’s great to hear, Brianna. I hope your current WIP is coming along well 🙂

yes helpfull

Hi Umer, thank you for the feedback. Good luck with your story!

Hello this is a nice example…….

Thanks, Joel!

This is truly helpful. Thanks!

I’m glad to hear that, April. It’s a pleasure! I hope you’re writing great dialogue.

I am doing a class project on figurative language and i need examples but short ones do you have any i could use

This was surprisingly helpful. I’m so glad I came across this website. Writing dialogue has always been something I’ve had difficulty doing, but these tips have significantly improved my dialogue writing. Thank you so much.

We’re glad to hear that, Prakhar! Keep writing 🙂

it is really usefull to me madam thank u so much

I’m glad to hear that, Manjunatha. Have a great weekend!

Thanks, Nathan, I’m glad to hear that.

kinda helpful to me 😀

I got my 18,5 mark from this Amazing ?

Fantastic, Chihab – do give yourself some of the credit! Well done.

Very useful to me… Thanks !!☺☺

It’s a pleasure, thank you for reading our articles and taking the time to share your feedback ?

[…] some dialogue writing tips at the following blog and evaluate them with some fellow […]

I want to know about the rule of using open quotation mark at the end of the dialogue 1 ‘We are not allowed to-‘

Hi Jagadishkk, thank you for sharing your question. From the example you’ve written, do you mean using interruption at the end of a line of dialogue? The way you’ve written that example is correct, you would usually use a dash with the interrupting person’s dialogue appearing immediately below on a new line (with indentation if indenting changes of speaker as is a common formatting style choice).

Hi I want you to help me with dialogue first draft

Hi Peggy, you can get constructive feedback from our community in our writing groups, they’re free to join. You can sign up here .

What is a favorite section of dialogue from a book in your favorite genre? Here is one of mine from “Bring up the bodies” by H. Mantel.

“Majesty, the Muscovites has taken three hundred miles of Polish territory. They say fifty thousand men are dead.” “Oh,” Henry says. “I hope they spare the libraries. The scholars. There are very fine scholars in Poland.” “Mm? Hope so too.”

Tells us something about Henry VIII — he “doesn’t give a hoot” about libraries and scholars in Poland or dead men.

Hi Nara, thanks so much for sharing that dialogue example. I like that Henry VIII seems preoccupied or disinterested in his responses, the simplicity of monosyllabic words and even how Mantel has him drop the subject ‘I’ to make it read more cursory, saying the bare minimum. He was probably too busy marrying and remarrying (and beheading) 🙂

Hey Jordan,

fantastic article, thank you very much – it helped me a lot, especially because i am translating my German Novel into English right now! However there is still an open question to me:



Here is an example/ little excerpt of my novel, which I already translated but kept the original German Formatting. I am asking myself if the colon can stay like this ( Then she said: ) or do I have to replace it with a comma ( Then she said, ) and begin with the dialogue in the next line. 
Here is the example ->>

After my mother echoed Michael’s exact words, she looked at me with a fixed gaze for several seconds. Then she said: “Do you understand now, Jordan, why I opened my eyes so wide just now?” “Yes… I feel as if he is here right now, Mother. I know him, but I don‘t know where…” “But now I really want to ask you, were you aware of his words, Jordan?”

I really hope you can help me with this little question. Thank you in advance 🙂



Greetings from Germany
 Yannic

Hi Yannic, thank you for your kind feedback, I’m glad you found this guide to dialogue helpful. One can use a colon or a comma to precede quoted speech. Technically, it is usual to only use a colon if the introductory words form an independent clause or the quotation is a complete sentence. Because the mother’s words fit this rule, a colon is totally acceptable in this case.

Good luck with your translation, that is quite the undertaking.

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Writing Dialogue That Develops Plot and Character

Writing Dialogue That Develops Plot and Character

Taught by: Bridget McNulty

Dialogue can make or break your book. At its best, it can transform your story into a gripping tale populated with interesting, layered characters; when dialogue is bad, it can be downright unreadable.

This course will focus on two specific aspects of dialogue that can seriously improve your readers' experience: character expression and plot development.

What you'll learn in this course

  • How to convey plot information through dialogue (without "info-dumping")
  • Methods for illustrating character and setting through dialogue
  • When and where to use accents and dialects
  • How to add subtext to dialogue
  • How to control your story's pace with dialogue.

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How to Write Dialogue

How to Write Dialogue That Captivates Your Reader

If your writing bores you, it’ll put your reader to sleep. 

And unfortunately, your first reader will be an agent or an editor. 

Your job is to make every word count—the only way to keep your reader riveted until the end, which is no small task.

Riveting dialogue is your friend because it can accomplish so many things:

  • It breaks up narrative summary.
  • It differentiates characters (through dialect and word choice ).
  • It moves the story, showing without telling.

But writing dialogue well is not easy. If your dialogue is bloated or obvious or telling, readers won’t stay with you long.

  • How to Write Effective Dialogue in 6 Steps
  • Cut to the Bone
  • Reveal Backstory
  • Reveal Character
  • Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
  • Create a “Make My Day” Moment

How to Write Dialogue: Step 1. Cut to the Bone

Unless you’re including them to reveal a character as a brainiac or a blowhard, omit needless words from dialogue.

Obviously, you wouldn’t render a conversation the way a court transcript includes repetition and even um, ah, uh, etc.

See how much you can chop while virtually communicating the same point. It’s more the way real people talk anyway.

“What do you want to do this Sunday? I thought w We could go to the amusement park.”

“I was thinking about renting a rowboat,” Vladimir said. “On one of the lakes.”

“Oh, Vladimir, that sounds wonderful! I’ve never gone rowing before.”

That doesn’t mean all your dialogue has to be choppy—just cut the dead wood.

You’ll be surprised by how much power it adds.

How to Write Dialogue Step 2. Reveal Backstory

How to write dialogue with backstory

Layering in backstory via dialogue helps keep your reader engaged.

Hinting at some incident introduces a setup that demands a payoff.

As they headed toward the house, Janet whispered, “Can we not bring up Cincinnati?”

Maggie shot her a double take. “Believe me, I don’t want that any more than you do.”

“Good,” Janet said. “I mean—”

“Can we not talk about it, please?”

What normal reader wouldn’t assume they will talk about it and stay with the story until they do?

As the story progresses , reveal more and more about your protagonist’s past.

This offers setups that should engage your reader, and it allows you to avoid relying on cliched flashbacks .

How to Write Dialogue Step 3. Reveal Character

Your reader learns a lot about your characters through dialogue.

You don’t have to TELL us they’re sarcastic, witty, narcissistic, kind, or anything else.

You can SHOW us by how they interact and by what they say.

How to Write Dialogue Step 4. Be Subtle

Dialogue offers a number of ways to powerfully understate things.

Here are three:

1. Subtext: Where people say other than what they mean.

Cindy falls in love with the slightly older boy next door, who sees her as just a little sister type.

When she gets to high school, Tommy is already captain of the football team, dating the head cheerleader, and largely ignoring Cindy. 

Tommy leaves for college and word soon gets back to Cindy during her senior year of high school that he and his girlfriend have broken up.

So when he comes home after his freshman year of college and is changing a tire on his car, Cindy just happens to walk outside. She strikes up a conversation with Tommy, and he looks up, stunned. Who is this beauty—little Cindy from next door?

She says, “Making a change, are you?”

Tommy looks at the tire and back at her and says, “Yeah, I actually am making a change.”

Cindy says, “Well, I’ve heard that rotating can be a good thing.”

And he says, “Yeah, I’ve heard that too.”

That’s subtext . They’re not saying what they really mean. They’re not really talking about changing the tire, are they?

2. Sidestepping: When a character responds to a question by ignoring it.

Instead, he offers a whole new perspective.

In the movie Patch Adams , the late Robin Williams played a brilliant young doctor who believes the Old Testament adage that “laughter is the best medicine.”

In the children’s cancer ward he wears an inflated surgical glove on his head, making him look like a rooster. He wears bedpans for shoes and stomps about, flapping his arms and squawking.

The children find it hilarious, but hospital directors consider it undignified and demand he stop.

Patch is trying to make one girl in particular—a hospital volunteer—laugh. But while everyone else thinks he’s funny, she never cracks a smile.

Finally, Patch leaves the hospital to open a clinic in the country. Imagine his surprise when that humorless young lady appears to help him set up.

At one point, she goes outside to rest, so Patch follows and sits opposite her. He says, “I’ve got to ask. Everybody thinks I’m hysterical, but you. I’ve tried everything. Why don’t you ever think anything I say is funny?”

After several seconds, she says, “Men have liked me all my life…all my life…” And we realize by the way she says it, she was abused as a child.

Suddenly, we understand what this girl is all about. She doesn’t trust men, and she doesn’t laugh, because life isn’t funny.

She had not really answered his question. Her problem had nothing to do with him or his humor.

Finally, Patch realizes that some things aren’t funny. Some things you just don’t make fun of. 

It’s a great turnaround in the story. And an example of sidestep dialogue.

Silence truly can be golden.

Many, including Abraham Lincoln, have been credited with the line: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

One of the toughest things to learn as a writer is to avoid filling silent gaps.

Just like we shouldn’t tell what’s not happening in a story, neither do we need to write that someone didn’t respond or didn’t answer.

If you don’t say they did, the reader will know they didn’t.

“Well, John,” Linda said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

John set his jaw and stared out the window.

“I’m waiting,” she said.

He lit a cigarette.

Linda shook her head. “I swear, John, honestly.”

Too many writers feel the need to write here, “But he refused to say anything,” or “But he never responded.”

Don’t! We know, we get it—and it’s loud, effective, silent dialogue.

Saying nothing, John is actually saying everything.

How to Write Dialogue Step 5. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud

Reading Your Dialogue Out Loud

One way to be certain your dialogue flows is to read it aloud or even act it out.

Anything that doesn’t sound right won’t read right either, so rewrite it until it does.

How to Write Dialogue Step 6. Create a “Make My Day” Moment

Certain iconic lines of dialogue have become as legendary as the films and books they originate from:

  • “Frankly my dear…”
  • “There’s no place like home.”
  • “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
  • “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
  • “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
  • “Go ahead, make my day.”
  • “May the force be with you.”
  • “Houston, we have a problem.”
  • “Run, Forrest, run!”
  • “You had me at hello.”

Most writers—even bestselling novelists—never create such an unforgettable line of dialogue. But striving to create one is worth the effort.

Ironically, iconic dialogue should fit so seamlessly it doesn’t draw attention to itself until fans begin quoting it.

  • How to Format Dialogue

1. Use Dialogue Tags

Attribution tags— he said, she said, etc.—are usually all you need to indicate who’s speaking, so resist the urge to get creative.

Teachers who urge you to find alternatives are usually unpublished and believe agents and editors will be impressed.

Trust me, they won’t be.

Avoid mannerisms of attribution. People say things. They don’t wheeze, gasp, sigh, laugh, grunt, or snort them.

They might do any of those things while saying them, which might be worth mentioning, but the emphasis should be on what is said, and readers just need to know who is saying it.

Keep it simple. All those other descriptors turn the spotlight on an intrusive writer.

Sometimes people whisper or shout or mumble , but let their choice of words indicate they’re grumbling, etc.

If it’s important that they sigh or laugh, separate that action from the dialogue.

Jim sighed. “I can’t take this anymore.”

Not: Jim sighed, “I can’t take this anymore.”

Though you read them in school readers and classic fiction, attribution tags such as replied , retorted , exclaimed, and declared have become clichéd and archaic.

You’ll still see them occasionally, but I suggest avoiding them.

Often no attribution is needed.

Use dialogue tags only when the reader wouldn’t otherwise know who’s speaking.

I once wrote an entire novel , The Last Operative , without attributing a single line of dialogue. 

Not a said , an asked , anything.

I made clear through action who was speaking, and not one reader, even my editor, noticed.

Jordan shook his head and sighed. “I’ve had it.”

Another common error is having characters address each other by name too often.

Real people rarely do this, and it often seems planted only to avoid a dialogue tag. Fictional dialogue should sound real.

Don’t start your dialogue attribution tag with said. 

…said Joe or … said Mary reads like a children’s book. Substitute he and she for the names and that will make it obvious: …said he or said she just doesn’t sound right.

Rather, end with said for the most natural sound: …Joe said or …Mary said.

Resist the urge to explain, and give the reader credit.

The amateur writer often writes something like this:

“I’m beat,” exclaimed John tiredly.

Besides telling and not showing—violating a cardinal rule of writing—it uses the archaic exclaimed for said , misplaces that before the name rather than after, and adds the redundant tiredly (explaining something that needs no explanation) .

The pro would write:

John dropped onto the couch. “I’m beat.”

That shows rather than tells, and the action ( dropped onto the couch ) tells who’s speaking.

2. How to Punctuate Dialogue

Few things expose a beginner like incorrect punctuation, especially in dialogue.

Agents and editors justifiably wonder if you read dialogue, let alone whether you can write it, if you write something like: “I don’t know.” she said. Or, “What do you think?” He said.

To avoid common mistakes:

  • When dialogue ends with a question or exclamation mark, the dialogue tag following the quotation marks should be lowercase:  “I’m glad you’re here!” she said.
  • When one character’s dialogue extends to more than one paragraph, start each subsequent paragraph with a double quotation mark, and place your closing double quotation mark only at the end of the final paragraph.
  • Place punctuation inside the quotation marks, the dialogue tag outside: “John was just here asking about you,” Bill said.
  • Put the attribution after the first clause of a compound sentence: “Not tonight,” he said, “not in this weather.”
  • Action before dialogue requires a separate sentence: Anna shook her head. “I can’t believe she’s gone!”
  • Quoting within a quote requires single quotation marks: “Lucy, Mom specifically said, ‘Do not cut your bangs,’ and you did it anyway!”
  • When action or attribution interrupts dialogue, use lowercase as dialogue resumes: “That,” she said, “hurt bad.”

3.  Every New Speaker Requires a New Paragraph

Here’s how I handled a conversation between Brady, one of my lead characters, and his attorney, in my novel Riven :

Ravinia sat shaking her head and telling him all the reasons it would never fly. Rules, regulations, protocol, procedure, no exceptions, and the list went on and on. “I’m not going to pursue this for you, Brady.”

“Yes, you are. I can tell.”

“You can’t tell it by me. Have you been listening? It’s impossible…”

“But you’ll try.”

Ravinia rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.” 

“Sure you would. You know everything, and you’ve been working inside the system a long time.”

“I’d be laughed out of here,” she said.

“Just tell me you’ll try.”

“Brady, really, be serious. Think this through. Can you imagine the warden going for this? Huh-uh. No way.”

“I like your idea of starting with the warden,” he said.

“I said no such thing.”

“Start at the top; go right to the man.” …

“Brady, don’t ask me to do this.”

“I’m asking.”

  • Additional Dialogue Examples

Example #1  

If you’re old enough to remember the original Twilight Zone (hosted by Rod Serling) or Dragnet (starring and narrated by Jack Webb), you know how dialogue set the tone for their shows.

Serling was sometimes whimsical, sometimes mysterious, but always provocative. “Consider one middle-aged adult, lost in space and time…”

Jack Webb, as L.A. police detective Sergeant Joe Friday, was always deadly serious and monotone. “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Contrast those with the dialogue between Tom and his Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

“There! I mighta thought of that closet. What you been doing in there?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing! Look at your hands. And look at your mouth. What IS that truck?”

“I don’t know, aunt.”

“Well, I know. It’s jam—that’s what it is. Forty times I’ve said if you didn’t let that jam alone I’d skin you. Hand me that switch.”

The switch hovered in the air—the peril was desperate—

“My! Look behind you, aunt!”

The old lady whirled round and snatched her skirts out of danger. The lad fled on the instant, scrambled up the highboard fence, and disappeared over it.

Such dialogue sets the tone for the entire story and clearly differentiates characters.

Example #3 

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain delineates between the Southern white boy and Jim, the runaway slave, by hinting at their respective accents.

Twain doesn’t need to tell who’s speaking, yet the reader never confuses the two.

“Jim, did y’all ever see a king?”

Y’all is the only word in that sentence that implies a Southern accent, but it’s enough.

“I sho enough did.”

“You liar, Jim. You never seen no king.”

“I seen foh kings in a deck of cards.”

Huck’s grammar and Jim’s sho and foh are the only hints of their dialects.

Too much phonetic spelling would have slowed the reading.

Good dialogue can condense a character’s backstory:

A woman in a restaurant whispers to her lunchmate, “You know who that is over there, don’t you?” 

The other says, “No, who?” 

“That’s just it. She’s had so much work done, you don’t recognize her. That’s Betty Lou Herman.” 

“No.” 

“Yeah, she’s had her nose done, her cheeks lifted, and a hair transplant.” 

“Why?” 

“She’s going into politics.” 

“Seriously, that’s really her?” 

In that brief exchange, backstory is layered in, showing where there would otherwise have been too much narrative summary in the form of telling. 

Example #5  

Allow readers to experience the enjoyment of having a story naturally emerge rather than spelling out every detail. 

Instead of writing clunky dialogue like this: 

“Just because you’re in this hospital because you were nearly killed in that wreck when Bill was driving, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t forgive him.”

“What are you going to do about Bill? He feels terrible.” 

“He ought to.” 

“Well, has he visited?” 

“He wouldn’t dare.” 

What actually happened, and why, can emerge in further realistic dialogue as the story progresses. If you were walking past a hospital room and heard this conversation, they wouldn’t be spelling the whole thing out like the first example did. In a normal conversation between two characters — not there only to dump information on the reader — you’d have to deduce what’s going on. 

That’s part of the fun of being a reader — participating in the experience.

In real life, we repeat ourselves for emphasis, but that should be trimmed from written dialogue. 

Instead of a wordy exchange like this:

“Well, this may be one of my craziest mistakes ever.”

“Why is that, Pa?”

“This may be my craziest mistake ever.”

“Why, Pa?”

The words are virtually the same, in the same order, but there are fewer of them, rendering the sentences more powerful.

  • The Cardinal Sin of Dialogue

No shortcuts will turn you into a bestselling author, but writers often ask me for that Yoda-esque bit of wisdom “you’d give me if you could tell me only one thing…”

So here it is: avoid on-the-nose dialogue .

It’s not magic, but if you can get a handle on this amateur writing pitfall, you’ll instantly have a leg up on your competition.

On-the-nose may sound like a positive thing — which it would be if related to marksmanship or  academics, but for our purposes it’s a term coined by Hollywood producers and scriptwriters for prose that mirrors real life without advancing the story. It’s one of the most common mistakes I see in otherwise good writing. Even the pros often fall into it.

An example:  

Paige’s phone chirped, telling her she had a call. She slid her bag off her shoulder, opened it, pulled out her cell, hit the Accept Call button, and put it to her ear.

“This is Paige,” she said.

“Hey, Paige.”

She recognized her fiancé’s voice. “Jim, darling! Hello!”

“Where are you, Babe?”

“Just got to the parking garage.”

“No more problems with the car then?”

“Oh, the guy at the gas station said he thinks it needs a wheel alignment.”

“Good. We still on for tonight?”

“Looking forward to it, Sweetie.”

“Did you hear about Alyson?”

“No, what about her?”

  • How to Write More Believable Dialogue

Here’s the way that scene should be rendered:

Paige’s phone chirped. It was her fiancé, Jim, and he told her something about one of their best friends that made her forget where she was.

“Cancer?” she whispered, barely able to speak. “I didn’t even know Alyson was sick. Did you?”

Trust me, not a single reader will wonder how she knew the caller was Jim. Does anyone need to be told that:

  • the chirp told her she had a call? 
  • her phone is in her purse?
  • her purse is over her shoulder?
  • she has to open it to get her phone?
  • she has to push a button to take a call?
  • one needs to put the phone to her ear to hear and to speak? 
  • she identifies herself to the caller?

Those who love you might also love that kind of writing, praising you for describing every real life detail of answering a cell phone.

It shows you can exactly mirror real life. Good for you. Don’t beat yourself up over it; we’ve all done it. Just quit it. :) Leave it to the amateurs. 

Separate yourself from your competition by recognizing and deleting minutiae like that.

Dig deep. Go past the surface. Mine your emotions, your mind and heart and soul.

Remember what it felt like when you got news like that about someone you deeply cared about, and take the reader with you on the journey you promised them when they picked up your story. Let them hear Paige’s response: “Jim, let me give you a raincheck on tonight. I need to see her.” 

Apply to your own dialogue the principles and tools I’ve outlined here, and I believe you’ll immediately see a compelling difference in your own prose. 

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Debra Spark First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing

Debra Spark is the award-winning author of five novels, including Unknown Caller, which was picked for Maine’s statewide summer READ ME program.  She has also published two collections of short stories; and two books of essays on fiction writing called And Then Something Happened and Curious Attractions.   Her book reviews, short fiction, articles, op-eds, and essays have appeared in Agni, American Scholar, AWP Writers’ Chronicle, and the Boston Globe among others.  Her new novel is Discipline.  She is the Zacamy Professor of English at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. We talked about the value of art, if beauty can save people, the real and fictional boarding school in Maine that used abusive techniques on teenagers, the role of women in the art world usually being in service to men, parenting, and creating parallel lines in a narrative piece of creative writing. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices

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COMMENTS

  1. How to Format Dialogue in Your Novel or Short Story

    1. Use Quotation Marks to Indicate Spoken Word. Whenever someone is speaking, their words should be enclosed in double quotation marks. Example: "Let's go to the beach.". 2. Dialogue Tags Stay Outside the Quotation Marks. Dialogue tags attribute a line of dialogue to one of the characters so that the reader knows who is speaking.

  2. 15 Examples of Great Dialogue (And Why They Work So Well)

    Enroll now. 4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. Here, friends Tommy and Kathy have a conversation after Tommy has had a meltdown. After being bullied by a group of boys, he has been stomping around in the mud, the precise reaction they were hoping to evoke from him. "Tommy," I said, quite sternly.

  3. How to Write Fabulous Dialogue [9 Tips + Examples]

    5. Write scene-based 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 ...

  4. How to Write Dialogue: Formatting, Examples, & Tips

    Format & Punctuation. Examples. 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.

  5. How to Write Dialogue: Rules, Examples, and 8 Tips for ...

    8 tips for creating engaging dialogue in a story. Now that you've mastered the mechanics of how to write dialogue, let's look at how to create convincing, compelling dialogue that will elevate your story. 1. Listen to people talk. To write convincingly about people, you'll first need to know something about them.

  6. How to Write Dialogue in a Story

    The following devices and exercises will help you master the art of writing dialogue in a story. 9 Devices for Writing Dialogue in a Story. An important consideration for your characters is giving them distinct speech patterns. In real life, everyone talks differently; in fiction it's much the same. The following devices will help you write ...

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    How to Write a Good Dialogue. 2. Make your character's wants clear. In a post about how to approach how to write dialogue it may seem contradictory to say this, but a good rule for dialogue writing in a scene is to write the dialogue last. After building out the other elements of your story (your arcs, acts, scenes, and story beats) you will ...

  8. How to Write Dialogue: 7 Great Tips for Writers (With Examples)

    Tip #1: Create Character Voices. Dialogue is a great way to reveal your characters. What your characters say, and how they say it, can tell us so much about what kind of people they are. Some characters are witty and gregarious. Others are timid and unobtrusive. Speech patterns vary drastically from person to person.

  9. How To Write Dialogue: The Best Examples And Formatting Tips

    A story with little or no conversation between characters can sometimes make the eyelids flicker. Too much may leave the reader breathless. Writing dialogue is tough and a skill that takes time to master. However, there are plenty of useful tips, tools and methods to help you learn how to write dialogue in a story and how to format it too.

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  11. How to Write Dialogue: Step-by-Step and Infographic

    This type of dialogue is when the character speaks to themselves and reveals parts of their personalities or unburdens their soul. Inner dialogue is usually written as a stream of consciousness or dramatic monologue or just thoughts. Sometimes italicized, sometimes not. Sometimes with attributions, sometimes not.

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  14. 19 Ways to Write Better Dialogue

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    3. Every new speaker gets a new paragraph. Every dialogue begins with a new paragraph. Each time a character says something, even if it is only a word, the dialogue should begin on a new paragraph. Here's a dialogue writing example: "Don't worry, the information they have of our whereabouts is misleading.".

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    5. Think about how the conversation moves the story forward. 6. Cut the small talk. 7. Remember to indent for clarity. 8. Be careful with dialogue tags. 9 Approach accents and foreign languages with caution.

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  20. ‎First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing: Debra Spark on Apple Podcasts

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