Writing Beginner

Writing Dialogue [20 Best Examples + Formatting Guide]

Have you ever found yourself cringing at clunky dialogue while reading a book or watching a movie? I know I have.

It’s like nails on a chalkboard, completely ruining the experience. But on the flip side, well-written dialogue can transform a story. It’s the magic that makes characters leap off the page, immersing us in their world.

As a writer, I’m fascinated by the mechanics of great dialogue.

So here are 20 of the best examples of writing dialogue that brings your story to life.

Example 1: Dialogue that Reveals Character

Writer at a computer working on dialogue

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One of the most powerful functions of dialogue is to shed light on your characters’ personalities.

The way they speak – their word choice, tone, even their hesitations – can tell us so much about who they are. Check out this example:

“Look, I ain’t gonna sugarcoat this,” the detective growled, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the chair. “You were spotted leaving the scene, and the murder weapon’s got your prints all over it.”

Without any lengthy description, we get a sense of this detective as a no-nonsense, direct type of guy.

Example 2: Dialogue that Builds Tension

Dialogue can become this amazing tool to ratchet up the tension in a scene.

Short, clipped exchanges and carefully placed silences can leave the reader on the edge of their seat.

Here’s how it might play out:

“Do you hear that?” Sarah whispered. “Hear what?” A scratching noise echoed from the attic. Sarah’s eyes widened. “It’s coming back.”

The suspense is killing me just writing that!

Example 3: Dialogue that Drives the Plot

Conversations aren’t just about characters sitting around and chatting.

Great dialogue should actively push the story forward. It can set up a conflict, reveal key information, or change the course of events.

Take a look at this:

“I’ve made my decision,” the king declared, the crown heavy on his brow. “We go to war.”

A single line, and the whole trajectory of the story shifts.

Formatting Tips: The Basics

Now, before we get carried away, let’s cover some essential dialogue formatting rules.

Think of these as the grammar of a good conversation.

  • Quotation Marks:  Yep, those little squiggles are your best friend. They signal to the reader: “Hey! Someone’s talking!”
  • New Speaker, New Paragraph:  Whenever a different character starts talking, give them a new paragraph. It’s all about keeping things easy to follow.
  • Dialogue Tags:  These are the little phrases like “he said” or “she replied.” Use them, but try not to overuse them. A well-placed action beat can often do a better job of showing who’s speaking.

Example 4: Dialogue that Creates Humor

Dialogue can be ridiculously funny when done well.

The key? Snappy exchanges, playful misunderstandings, and just a dash of absurdity. Consider this:

“I saw the weirdest thing at the grocery store today,” Tom said, “A woman arguing with a head of lettuce.” “Was she winning?” Lily asked, a grin playing on her lips.

You can almost hear the deadpan delivery, can’t you?

Example 5: Dialogue that Shows Relationships

The way characters speak to each other says a ton about the dynamics between them.

Is there warmth, hostility, an underlying power struggle? Dialogue can paint a crystal-clear picture. Imagine this exchange:

“You didn’t do the dishes again?” Sarah sighed, hands planted on her hips. “Aw, c’mon babe. I was busy,” Mike whined, avoiding her gaze.

We instantly sense the long-suffering tone from Sarah and the playful guilt from Mike.

Example 6: Dialogue with Subtext

The most interesting dialogue often has layers. What the characters say might not be exactly what they mean.

This is where subtext comes in – the unspoken thoughts and feelings bubbling beneath the surface.

Take this snippet:

“It’s a nice ring,” Emily said, her voice flat. “You don’t like it?” Mark’s brow furrowed. Emily shrugged. “It’s fine.”

Is Emily truly indifferent? Or is she masking disappointment, perhaps a sense of something not being quite right? Subtext makes us read between the lines.

Formatting Tips: Getting Fancy

Now, let’s spice things up with a few more advanced formatting tricks:

  • Ellipses (…):  These little dots are perfect for showing a character trailing off, hesitating, or searching for words. Example: “I…I don’t know what to say.”
  • Em Dashes (—):  These guys can interrupt a thought or indicate a sudden change in direction. Example: “I was going to apologize, but then — well, you’re still being a jerk.”
  • Internal Dialogue:  Instead of quotation marks, sometimes you’ll want to italicize a character’s inner thoughts. Example:  Why did I say that? I’m such an idiot.

Cautionary Note

It’s important to remember: dialogue shouldn’t feel like an interrogation. Avoid rigid “question-answer, question-answer” patterns. Real conversations flow and meander naturally.

Example 7: Dialogue with Dialects and Accents

Regional dialects and accents can bring so much flavor to your characters, but it’s a delicate balance.

You want to add authenticity without it becoming a caricature or making it hard to understand.

Here’s a subtle example:

“Well, I’ll be darned,” drawled the farmer, squinting at the sky. “Looks like a storm’s brewin’.”

Notice how just a few word choices and a slight change in pronunciation hint at the speaker’s background.

Example 8: Dialogue in Groups

Writing conversations with more than two people can get chaotic fast. The key is clarity.

Here are a few tips:

  • Strong Dialogue Tags:  Sometimes, you need to be more specific than just “he said” or “she said”. Example: “Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Sarah.
  • Action Beats:  Break up chunks of dialogue with actions that show who’s speaking. Example: Tom slammed his fist on the table. “I won’t stand for this!”

Example 9: Dialogue Over the Phone (or Other Technology)

Conversations where characters aren’t physically together pose unique challenges.

You can’t rely on body language cues. Instead, focus on conveying tone and potential misunderstandings.

For instance:

“Hello?” Sarah’s voice crackled through the phone. A long pause. “Sarah, is that you?” “Mom? Why are you whispering?”

Instantly there’s a sense of distance and something not being quite right.

Example 10: Inner Monologue with a Twist

We often think of internal dialogue as a single character reflecting, but sometimes our inner voices can argue.

This can be a powerful way to showcase internal conflict.

Here’s how it might look:

You should just tell him how you feel, one voice chimed. Are you crazy? the other shrieked back. He’ll never feel the same way .

This creates a vivid picture of a character torn between opposing desires.

Example 11: Dialogue With a Manipulative Character

Manipulative characters often use language as a weapon.

They might use guilt trips, flattery, or veiled threats to get what they want.

Consider this:

“After everything I’ve done for you…” The old woman sighed, a flicker of disappointment in her eyes. “Well, I guess I shouldn’t expect gratitude.”

Notice how she doesn’t directly ask for anything, instead hinting at a debt, leaving the listener feeling uneasy and obligated.

Example 12: Dialogue Across Time Periods

If you’re writing historical fiction or anything with time travel elements, you’ll need to capture the distinct speech patterns of different eras.

Imagine this exchange:

“Gadzooks! What manner of contraption is this?” The Victorian gentleman exclaimed, staring in bewilderment at the smartphone. “It’s a phone,” the teenager replied, barely suppressing a laugh. “Let me show you.”

This little snippet highlights the potential for both humor and linguistic challenges when worlds collide.

Formatting Tip: Dialogue Without Tags

Sometimes, for a rapid-fire or dreamlike effect, you might want to ditch the “he said” or “she asked” altogether.

It’s a bold move, but it can be effective if done sparingly.

Check this out:

“Where are you going?” “Away.” “When will you be back?” “I don’t know.” “Please don’t leave me.”

This creates a sense of urgency, the raw exchange forcing us to focus solely on the words themselves.

Example 13: Dialogue that Shows Transformation

A great way to showcase how a character develops is through shifts in how they speak.

Maybe they become bolder, quieter, or their vocabulary changes.

Let’s see an example:

Scene 1: “I-I don’t know,” Emily whimpered, cowering in the corner. Scene 2 (Later in the story): “That’s it. I’m not taking this anymore!” Emily declared, her chin held high.

The dialogue itself reflects her transformation from victim to someone ready to stand up for herself.

Example 14: Dialogue that’s Just Plain Weird

It’s okay to get strange sometimes.

Absurdist humor or unsettling conversations can add a unique flavor to your story. Just be sure it fits the overall tone.

“Do you believe in cucumbers?” the man asked, his eyes wide and unblinking. “Excuse me?” “Cucumbers, my dear. Agents of the underground vegetable kingdom.”

This immediately creates a sense of oddness and perhaps a touch of unease. Is this guy crazy, or is there something more going on?

Example 15: Dialogue with a Purpose

Remember, good dialogue isn’t just about being entertaining.

It should move your story along. Here are some functions dialogue can serve:

  • Providing Exposition:  Sometimes, you need to inform the reader of backstory or world-building details. Trickle information through natural conversation rather than an information dump.
  • Foreshadowing:  Subtle hints within a conversation can foreshadow future events or create a sense of unease for the reader.
  • Revealing a Twist:  A single line of dialogue can completely flip the script and reframe everything that came before.

Example 16: Dialogue with Non-Verbal Elements

So much of communication happens beyond just words.

Sighs, laughs, and gestures can add richness to dialogue on the page.

“I’m fine,” she said, crossing her arms and looking away.

Notice how the body language contradicts her words, hinting at inner turmoil.

Example 17: Silence as Dialogue

Sometimes, what isn’t said is the most powerful thing of all.

A pregnant pause or a character refusing to speak can convey volumes.

Imagine this:

“So, will you help me or not?” Tom pleaded. Sarah stared at him, her lips a thin line. Finally, she turned and walked away.

The lack of a verbal response speaks louder than any words could.

Example 18: Dialogue With Humorous Effect

A well-timed O.S. voice can deliver a funny remark or punchline, undercutting the seriousness of a scene or taking a moment in an unexpected comedic direction.

INT. CLASSROOM – DAY The teacher drones on about the causes of the American Revolution, his voice as dull as the worn textbook in front of him. KEVIN tries to stifle his yawns, failing miserably. STUDENT (O.S.) Is he ever going to stop talking? My brain just turned to mush. Snickers ripple through the class. The teacher pauses, a look of annoyance flickering across his face. Kevin shoots a desperate look towards the source of the O.S. voice.
  • Timing is everything. The best comedic O.S. lines act as a witty reaction to something else happening in a scene. The student’s comment comes right as Kevin’s boredom peaks.
  • Subverting expectations is funny. The audience expects the scene to continue with a stern reprimand for speaking out of turn, but the script doesn’t give us that. This leaves room for further humor.
  • Consider the tone of the voice – sarcastic, matter-of-fact, or outright whiny? This adds to the comedic effect.

Example 19: Dialogue With Unexpected Reveals

Think of this as a surprise twist using O.S. dialogue.

The audience (and maybe even some characters) are led to believe one thing, only for an O.S. voice to reveal something completely unexpected, shifting the scene’s dynamic.

INT. POLICE INTERROGATION ROOM – NIGHTDETECTIVE HARRIS paces in front of a nervous SUSPECT. Photos of the crime scene are scattered on the table. HARRIS Don’t lie to me! We’ve got witnesses who saw you at the scene. SUSPECT I – I swear, I had nothing to do with it! I was… I was with my girlfriend. Harris leans in, a triumphant glint in her eyes. She claps her hands sharply, startling the suspect. WOMAN (O.S.) That’s a lie! He was nowhere near me last night! The suspect whips around. His face pales as we hear the sound of the interrogation room door swinging open…
  • The power lies in the build-up. The initial dialogue and the characters’ reactions should lead the audience to believe one outcome, making the O.S. interruption all the more impactful.
  • Consider who speaks the O.S. line. Is it someone the audience recognizes, or a totally new character whose identity becomes a new mystery?
  • Play with the proximity of the voice. Is it right outside the room, adding to the dramatic reveal as the door opens, or is it more distant – perhaps a voice over an intercom – for an even more unsettling effect?

Example 20: Dialogue With a “Haunted” Feeling

Explanation: O.S. can be used to create an eerie or unsettling atmosphere, particularly in horror or psychological thrillers. This could be unexplained voices, creepy whispers, or sounds that hint at a supernatural (or simply unnerving) presence.

INT. OLD MANSION – NIGHTSARAH explores the abandoned mansion, flashlight cutting through the thick dust. Cobwebs cling to every surface. A faint WHISPER drifts through the air, seeming to come from everywhere at once. Sarah freezes. VOICE (O.S.) Get out… leave this place… Sarah’s breath catches in her throat. She hesitantly follows the direction of the voice, her flashlight beam trembling.
  • Less is more. The vaguer and more inexplicable the O.S. voice, the more chilling it becomes.
  • Layer sounds for a full creepy effect. Combine whispers with unexpected bangs, creaks, or the faint sound of footsteps following behind Sarah.
  • Play with audience expectations. If the script initially leads the audience to think the house is merely abandoned, the O.S. voices become that much more terrifying.

Here is a good video about writing dialogue:

Additional Dialogue Tips & Tricks

  • Read Your Dialogue Aloud:  This is the best way to catch awkward phrasing or unnatural rhythms. Our ears often pick up on what our eyes might miss.
  • Less is More:  Don’t feel the need to have every single interaction be profound. Sometimes a simple “Hey” or “Thanks” can do the job just fine.
  • Eavesdrop:  Paying attention to real-life conversations is fantastic research. Note the pauses, the filler words, the way people interrupt each other.

Final Thoughts: Writing Dialogue

Phew! We did it!

Does that feel like a solid collection of dialogue examples? We haven’t covered absolutely every scenario, but I hope these illustrate the vast potential within dialogue to bring your stories to life.

Read This Next:

  • How To Use Action Tags in Dialogue: Ultimate Guide
  • How Do Writers Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue? [7 Crazy Effective Ways]
  • Can You Start a Novel with Dialogue?
  • How To Write A Southern Accent (17 Tips + Examples)
  • How to Write a French Accent (13 Best Tips with Examples)


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.


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


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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 Guides

How To Write Dialogue In A Story (With Examples)

One of the biggest mistakes made by writers is how they use dialogue in their stories. Today, we are going to teach you how to write dialogue in a story using some easy and effective techniques. So, get ready to learn some of the best techniques and tips for writing dialogue!

There are two main reasons why good dialogue is so important in works of fiction. First, good dialogue helps keep the reader interested and engaged in the story. Second, it makes your work easier to write, read and understand. So, if you want to write dialogue that is interesting, engaging and easy to read, keep on reading. We will be teaching you the best techniques and tips for writing dialogue in a story.

Internal vs External Dialogue

Direct vs indirect dialogue, 20 tips for formatting dialogue in stories, step 1: use a dialogue outline, step 2: write down a script, step 3: edit & review your script, step 4: sprinkle in some narrative, step 5: format your dialogue, what is dialogue .

Dialogue is the spoken words that are spoken between the characters of a story. It is also known as the conversation between the characters. Dialogue is a vital part of a story. It is the vehicle of the characters’ thoughts and emotions. Good dialogue helps show the reader how the characters think and feel. It also helps the reader better understand what is happening in the story. Good dialogue should be interesting, informative and natural. 

In a story, dialogue can be expressed internally as thoughts, or externally through conversations between characters. A character thinking to themself would be considered internal dialogue. Here there is no one else, just one character thinking or speaking to themselves:

Mary thought to herself, “what if I can do better…”

While two or more characters talking to each other in a scene would be an external dialogue:

“Watch out!” cried Sam. “What’s wrong with you?” laughed Kate.

In most cases, the words spoken by your character will be inside quotation marks. This is called direct dialogue. And then everything outside the quotation marks is called narrative:

“What do you want?” shrieked Penelope as she grabbed her notebooks. “Oh, nothing… Just checking if you needed anything,” sneered Peter as he tried to peek over at her notes.

Indirect dialogue is a summary of your dialogue. It lets the reader know that a conversation happened without repeating it exactly. For example:

She was still fuming from last night’s argument. After being called a liar and a thief, she had no choice but to leave home for good.

Direct dialogue is useful for quick conversations, while indirect dialogue is useful for summarising long pieces of dialogue. Which otherwise can get boring for the reader. Writers can combine both types of dialogue to increase tension and add drama to their stories.

Now you know some of the different types of dialogue in stories, let’s learn how to write dialogue in a story.

Here are the main tips to remember when formatting dialogue in stories or works of fiction:

  • Always use quotation marks: All direct dialogue is written inside quotation marks, along with any punctuation relating to that dialogue.

example of dialogue 1

  • Don’t forget about dialogue tags: Dialogue tags are used to explain how a character said something.  Each tag has at least one noun or pronoun, and one verb indicating how the dialogue is spoken. For example, he said, she cried, they laughed and so on.

example of dialogue 2

  • Dialogue before tags: Dialogue before the dialogue tags should start with an uppercase. The dialogue tag itself begins with a lowercase.

example of dialogue 3

  • Dialogue after tags: Both the dialogue and dialogue tags start with an uppercase to signify the start of a conversation. The dialogue tags also have a comma afterwards, before the first set of quotation marks.

example of dialogue 4

  • Lowercase for continued dialogue: If the same character continues to speak after the dialogue tags or action, then this dialogue continues with a lowercase.

example of dialogue 5

  • Action after complete dialogue: Any action or narrative text after completed dialogue starts with an uppercase as a new sentence.

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Action interrupting dialogue: If the same character pauses their dialogue to do an action, then this action starts with a lowercase.

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Interruptions by other characters: If another character Interrupts a character’s dialogue, then their action starts with an uppercase on a new line. And an em dash (-) is used inside the quotation marks of the dialogue that was interrupted. 

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Use single quotes correctly: Single quotes mean that a character is quoting someone else.

how to write dialogue in stories

  • New paragraphs equal new speaker: When a new character starts speaking, it should be written in a new paragraph. 

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Use question marks correctly: If the dialogue ends with a question mark, then the part after the dialogue should begin with a lowercase.

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Exclamation marks: Similar to question marks, the next sentence should begin with a lowercase. 

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Em dashes equal being cut off: When a character has been interrupted or cut off in the middle of their speech, use an em dash (-).

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Ellipses mean trailing speech: When a character is trailing off in their speech or going on and on about something use ellipses (…). This is also good to use when a character does not know what to say.

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Spilt long dialogue into paragraphs: If a character is giving a long speech, then you can split this dialogue into multiple paragraphs. 

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Use commas appropriately: If it is not the end of the sentence then end the dialogue with a comma.

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Full stops to end dialogue: Dialogue ending with a full stop means it is the end of the entire sentence. 

how to write dialogue in stories

  • Avoid fancy dialogue tags: For example, ‘he moderated’ or ‘she articulated’. As this can distract the reader from what your characters are actually saying and the content of your story. It’s better to keep things simple, such as using he said or she said.
  • No need for names: Avoid repeating your character’s name too many times. You could use pronouns or even nicknames. 
  • Keep it informal: Think about how real conversations happen. Do people use technical or fancy language when speaking? Think about your character’s tone of voice and personality, what would they say in a given situation? 

Remember these rules, and you’ll be able to master dialogue writing in no time!

How to Write Dialogue in 5 Steps

Dialogue is tricky. Follow these easy steps to write effective dialogue in your stories or works of fiction:

A dialogue outline is a draft of what your characters will say before you actually write the dialogue down. This draft can be in the form of notes or any scribblings about your planned dialogue. Using your overall book outline , you can pinpoint the areas where you expect to see the most dialogue used in your story. You can then plan out the conversation between characters in these areas. 

A good thing about using a dialogue outline is that you can avoid your characters saying the same thing over and over again. You can also skim out any unnecessary dialogue scenes if you think they are unnecessary or pointless. 

Here is an example of a dialogue outline for a story:

dialogue outline example

You even use a spreadsheet to outline your story’s dialogue scenes.

In this step, you will just write down what the characters are saying in full. Don’t worry too much about punctuation and the correct formatting of dialogue. The purpose of this step is to determine what the characters will actually say in the scene and whether this provides any interesting information to your readers.

Start by writing down the full script of your character’s conversations for each major dialogue scene in your story. Here is an example of a dialogue script for a story:

write down your script

Review your script from the previous step, and think about how it can be shortened or made more interesting. You might think about changing a few words that the characters use to make it sound more natural. Normally the use of slang words and informal language is a great way to make dialogue between characters sound more natural. You might also think about replacing any names with nicknames that characters in a close relationship would use. 

The script might also be too long with plenty of unnecessary details that can be removed or summarised as part of the narration in your story (or as indirect dialogue). Remember the purpose of dialogue is to give your story emotion and make your characters more realistic. At this point you might also want to refer back to your character profiles , to see if the script of each character matches their personality. 

edit your script

Once your script has been perfected, you can add some actions to make your dialogue feel more believable to readers. Action or narrative is the stuff that your characters are actually doing throughout or in between dialogue. For example, a character might be packing up their suitcase, as they are talking about their holiday plans. This ‘narrative’ is a great way to break up a long piece of dialogue which otherwise could become boring and tedious for readers. 

add action to script

You have now planned your dialogue for your story. The final step is to incorporate these dialogue scenes into your story. Remember to follow our formatting dialogue formatting rules explained above to create effective dialogue for your stories!

format dialogue example

That’s all for today! We hope this post has taught you how to write dialogue in a story effectively. If you have any questions, please let us know in the comments below!

How To Write Dialogue In A Story

Marty the wizard is the master of Imagine Forest. When he's not reading a ton of books or writing some of his own tales, he loves to be surrounded by the magical creatures that live in Imagine Forest. While living in his tree house he has devoted his time to helping children around the world with their writing skills and creativity.

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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

Sign up for your free ProWritingAid account to check your dialogue tags today.

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:

Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore… or Despise!

Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore… or Despise!

This guide is for all the writers out there who want to create compelling, engaging, relatable characters that readers will adore… or despise., learn how to invent characters based on actions, motives, and their past..

how to write dialogue in stories

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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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How to Write Dialogue Examples Tips and Techniques Featured

  • Scriptwriting

How to Write Dialogue — Examples, Tips & Techniques

E very screenwriter wants to write quippy, smart dialogue that makes the page sparkle and keeps the actors inspired. But how do you do it? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of lists and guides that provide useful tips for how to write dialogue in a story. In this post, we’ll look at dialogue writing examples, examine a few tried-and-true methods for how to write good dialogue, and provide you with all the best dialogue writing tips. 

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How to Write Dialogue Format

1. study dialogue writing.

A good first step is to look to accomplished writers to see how they became skilled at how to write dialogue . But we have to know what we’re looking for. You can start by reading some dialogue examples from different mediums or practice with some dialogue prompts .

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino is as famous for his dialogue as he is for breaking the rules of screenwriting. Sure, to be able to craft dialogue that is so compelling it becomes a set piece unto itself, a la Tarantino, may be a good aesthetic model. 

But trying to emulate his more stream-of-consciousness approach to dialogue writing may prove disorienting. Check out our video below and see if you notice anything that stands out about his approach to writing dialogue.

Tarantino Dialogue  •   Subscribe on YouTube

Though Tarantino doesn’t necessarily write according to plotted out script templates, and he probably doesn't adhere to proper dialogue format all the time. His creative choices might be largely unconscious, and his secret weapon in how to write a good dialogue may be his well-developed characters. 

He knows who his characters are and what they want, and the characters’ desires shape his dialogue writing.

And as we will see when we look at other screenwriters’ methods, character is everything in how to write dialogue in a script. 

How to Write Dialogue Tarantino on set

Tarantino on set

As the old adage goes, learning the rules in order to break them can make you a stronger writer – and in this case, we want to look at some of the best writing dialogue rules. 

Writing from a structure can help make sure you don’t lose the thread of your story by getting too caught up in crafting clever, flashy dialogue that doesn’t connect to anything.

And, a good structure can provide the perimeters for your writing to flow within, so you don’t have to pause to remember fifteen different rules of how to do dialogue!  

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 have a better sense of how each scene connects to the larger unfolding of the story and, most importantly, what each character wants in a given scene. 

You may not need a “how to write good dialogue format” if you always keep in mind your larger story arc, how each scene drives the story forward, and what character motivations are in every scene. 

How to Write Dialogue An iconic dialogue scene from The Social Network

An iconic dialogue scene from The Social Network

A good starting place in thinking about how to write dialogue in a script is to remember that in a screenplay, dialogue is not mere conversation. It always serves a larger purpose, which is to move the story forward. 

The function of dialogue can be broken down into three purposes: exposition , characterization , or action. If we’re always clear on the larger purpose of a scene and we know each character’s motivations, we know what our dialogue is “doing” in that scene. 

When we know what a character wants, we don’t have to worry as much about how to write dialogue because the motivations of the characters drive what they say. See our post on story beats to dig into story beats, which help illuminate what each character wants, and when they want it.

Functions of Dialogue

Exposition (to relay important information to other characters) 

Characterization (to flesh out who a character is and what they want)

Action (to make decisions, reveal what they’re going to do)

The famous diner scene from Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally is an excellent example of both exposition and characterization, critical components of how to write dialogue between two characters. Here's a breakdown we did of the iconic When Harry Met Sally screenplay .

The ongoing question of the film, and of Harry and Sally’s relationship, is whether heterosexual women and heterosexual men can really be platonic friends. Every other character in the film and their issues (the friend in an affair with a married man, the friends who are in a happy couple and getting married) all support the driving dilemma of the film: the desire to partner and escape the presumed suffering of dating. 

Take a look at the scene:

When Harry Met Sally

Underneath this question of whether men and women can be friends is the subtext that they may ultimately end up together after all. The overriding question of the film is, after knowing each other, “how come they haven’t already?” The diner scene teases out the idea of sexual tension in a supposedly platonic friendship, raising the stakes. 

Here's a breakdown of subtext.

The Art of Subtext  •   Subscribe on YouTube

Remember, though the scene depicts Harry and Sally having a conversation in a diner, the words they are speaking are not mere “conversation” – it is dialogue written to sound like a natural conversation. There is a difference. 

Each word in Ephron’s dialogue writing has a purpose. Sally says she is upset about how Harry treats the women he dates and that she’s glad she never dated him (underscoring the ongoing conflict of the film). 

Harry defends himself, saying he doesn’t hear any of them complaining (alluding to how he wouldn’t disappoint her, either). When Sally suggests the women he dates might be faking orgasm, Harry doesn’t believe her.

This prompts her to fake an orgasm right there in the diner to make her point (ratcheting up the primary conflict, while also providing some comic relief). 

You can read the scene, which we imported into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software , below:

Training Day Script Teardown - Full Script PDF Download - StudioBinder Screenwriting Software

When Harry Met Sally script

This scene works so well because it serves a crystal clear purpose in driving the story forward. 

Great dialogue writing examples always drive the plot from one scene to the next. You may not like plotting out your story beats, thinking about story arcs in a methodological way, or approaching how to write dialogue between two characters systematically at all. 

Just remember, most professional screenwriters do, and Writing Dialogue rules might be an instance where it is worth learning the rules in order to break them. Check out more great dinner scenes to inspire how to tackle this awkward but important type of scene!

How to Write Dinner Dialogue  •   Subscribe on YouTube

How to write dialogue in a script , 3. give your dialogue purpose.

Finally, we’ve come to our favorite part. The lines. Famed playwright and screenwriter David Mamet says great dialogue boils down to this one concept:

David Mamet Headshot StudioBinder

“Nobody says anything unless they want something.” 

— David Mamet

This handy motto is one of the best dialogue writing tips, if not the only one you need. This principle encapsulates what many other rules of dialogue writing are getting at. What they want also may not be spoken aloud, which is where writing internal dialogue comes in handy.

The advice to use as few words as possible, to cut the fat, to arrive late and leave early, to write with subtext in mind, to show rather than tell – all of those goals can be met by keeping the focus on what the characters want. 

How to Write Dialogue David Mamet at work

David Mamet at work

If they don’t want anything, they don’t need to say anything. If you have a clear idea of who your characters are, and what the function of each scene is in the story, then your characters' agendas, conflicts, and obstacles, and their manner of speaking to express themselves, can come forward more naturally.

If you know what your characters want, you may find that you know how to write dialogue in a story very naturally! 

And yet, there is a caveat here: Screenwriter Karl Iglesias warns that it can be easy to have the character saying what you , the writer, want, not what they , the character, want. 

Below is a playlist from our 4 Endings video series where we look at how "wants and needs" play out in a screenplay.

Wants vs. Needs  •   Watch the entire playlist

Because what you , the writer, want them to do is of course to carry some part of the story for you. So another important tool to put in your toolbox of dialogue writing tips is to always zoom in on the character , and stay tuned into what they want at any given point in the story. 

Check out the last scene from Mamet’s  Glengarry Glen Ross , a film based on the screenplay, also by Mamet, and a gold standard of excellent movie dialogue. 

Mamet’s principle that each character has to show what they want is demonstrated brilliantly in the final scene. At the beginning of the film, everyone at a New York City real estate office learns all but the top two salesmen will be fired in two weeks. 

Levene (Jack Lemmon) is a salesman who wants to keep his job and survive. In the final scene, Williamson (Kevin Spacey) accuses Levene of stealing leads from the office. By this final scene, what Levene wants has shifted. Now he wants to convince Williamson of his innocence.

Take a look:

How to Write Dialogue Glendarry Ross Dialogue Example StudioBinder Screenwriting Software

                                                                                                   Final Scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992

Dialogue writing examples  , 4. edit and focus the dialogue.

Now it’s time to sculpt the general arc of your story into form – and the minimalist principles of how to write dialogue in a story can help bring your vision to life. 

You want to cast a harsh light on your text in order to whittle down everything you’ve written. Make sure every last word really needs to be there. You want to yank anything that gets in the way of telling the great story you want to tell. That way, the lines will be focused, compelling, and inspire great actors to want to bring them to life. 

Remember: We’re not yanking lines if they’re not sparkly or punchy enough, we’re yanking them if they don’t serve a purpose. 

Even the cutest remark can actually be clutter, and even the more mundane lines can play a vital role by elucidating our character’s motives, the conflict they’ve encountered, and where the story is going next. The more dialogue writing examples you read, the more you’ll see how the characters’ motivations are driving not only what is said, but how it is said. 

Related Posts

  • What is a Character Flaw →  
  • What is a Story Beat in a Screenplay? →
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Another approach for how to write great dialogue in a script is to read through every line of the script aloud to make sure it flows naturally. 

You could also try putting your hand or a piece of paper of the names of the characters. Can you tell who is saying what? 

If each character doesn’t have a discernible way of speaking, revisit your character development and really define who this person is, what they want, and all their quirks and characteristics. Then revamp their lines to make all of that come to the forefront in each line. And when in doubt, revisit dialogue writing examples from your favorite movies and shows to get the juices flowing. 

Another tip for how to properly write dialogue is to scan your script for “dialogue dumps.” The best way to avoid “As you know, Bob…” information dumps in your dialogue is to let the characters bat pieces of information back and forth. Check out our video on exposition below:

How to write good exposition  •   Subscribe on YouTube

Let them reveal bits of it over time, scattered throughout a scene like breadcrumbs. Let them argue about it, challenge what each other knows. Do they already know it, or are they wrestling with it?  

Assess your dialogue to make sure what you’re trying to accomplish with a line of dialogue couldn’t better be said with an action, an adjustment to scene or setting, a facial expression, or some other nonverbal detail. 

The “Good to See Another Brother” scene from Get Out is a great example of keeping the dialogue minimal and letting facial expression, costume, and tone convey the information: 

How to Write Dialogue Get Out Dialogue Example StudioBinder Screenwriting Software

Get Out screenplay

At this point in the story, Chris still thinks he is simply one of the few black people in his white girlfriend’s upper middle class white family and their social circle. 

We, the audience, still might think we’re watching a rom com that conveys only a mild awareness of race, somewhere off in the background of the story. But in this scene, race starts moving forward as a central plot point. 

Chris approaches Andre, because he wants to feel a sense of connection in an isolating environment. In order to convey layers of social anxiety and racial tension, all that Jordan Peele needs is the line, “It’s good to see another brother around here.”

Throughout the film, Peele exemplifies how spreading information out like bread crumbs can help build tension and curiosity about a scene. 

How to Write Dialogue Jordan Peele on the set of Get Out

Jordan Peele on the set of Get Out

Look at how much room Peele leaves in the script to describe how Andre’s character should convey his response (“soft-spoken,” “no trace of an urban dialect”). This helps load every word in the scene with more weight and purpose. When Andre does speak, his words are few.

He has visibly changed his style and manner of speaking since Chris first saw him, he won’t say much, and has a glazed over expression on his face. All of this raises the stakes: What is going on here? 

How to Write Dialogue Get Out still

Get Out still

In order to learn how to write dialogue, one of the most important writing dialogue rules is to stay in touch with where your characters are in the story at all times. 

Building your story, your character arcs, and your story beats before writing can help provide a structure that will give your writing a container in which to flow. Developing compelling characters and making sure that every bit of dialogue real estate on the page is devoted to serving a function in your screenplay can help streamline the whole dialogue writing process.

But regardless of which method you use, if anything, just remember the Mamet Motto: “Nobody says anything unless they want something.” 

Up Next 

How to introduce your characters.

Writing great dialogue is the icing on the cake of a great story. The importance of building out your story and really being clear on where we’re going, who wants what, and what the conflicts and motivations are the foundation beneath all the other writing dialogue rules. But having solid character descriptions is only the first step. You also have to give each one a great entrance. Check out our post to get some tips on how each compelling, amazing character you write can make their grand entrance. 

Up Next: Introducing Characters →

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Blogs / Character / How to Write Dialogue (with Examples)

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How to write dialogue (with examples).

Writing dialogue provides the subtext, irony, and complexity required for compelling characters and stories. Small words carry heavy loads, when skilfully handled.

“There is only one plot: things are not what they seem.” — Jim Thompson

However, writing dialogue precisely and getting the words right is challenging.

Let’s examine how to transform filler chat to fulfilling dialogue , starting with the basics.

What is Dialogue?

Dialogue is the reported speech between two or more characters in a book, poem, film, or play. In prose, it’s distinguished with apostrophes. When writing dialogue, Americans generally use “double” apostrophes, while Brits use ‘single’ ones.

What Is Dialogue in a Story?

In a story, dialogue is an excellent way to give a glimpse into the thoughts or a character. It can also be used to reveal the setting or actions to readers.

Dialogue can create tension, but too much dialogue can be boring and actually reduce the tension. Getting the balance right can be challenging, but there are a few things you can consider.

How to Use Dialogue

When writing dialogue, consider the following. Dialogue helps you:

  • Advance the plot whilst bringing a scene to life: readers ‘watch’ characters interact, feeling immersed.
  • Readers ‘hear’ individual characters’ voices, without narrative intrusion.
  • Writers ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ details of characters’ personalities, especially though subtext and irony: what characters don’t say is often as or more important than what they do .
  • With fictional world-building, e.g. when a seasoned character teaches an ingénue the ways of the world (but apply with caution!).

How to Format Dialogue

New writers may feel overwhelmed by the various rules. An in-depth examination of every rule is beyond this article’s scope, but here’s a brief run-down of the key rules.

  • In prose, we format dialogue with apostrophes .
  • Dialogue tags indicate who is speaking, and are formatted as follows:
‘I’m cold,’ Jasper said. Or: Jasper said, ‘I’m cold.’
  • You can replace dialogue tags with actions. Actions help readers ‘see’ the scene , like this:
Jasper shivered. ‘I’m cold.’
  • Or, to show a particular characteristic through subtext , you could write your dialogue this way:
Jasper steeled himself, gritting his teeth. ‘No need to put the central heating on yet.’
  • When writing dialogue, you don’t need dialogue tags for every line when context indicates who’s speaking. However, don’t go too long without a reminder. Consider this example:
The guests dispersed, leaving Jasper and Sasha in the room. ‘Aren’t you cold?’ asked Sasha. Jasper wrapped his arms around himself. ‘No.’ ‘Cheapskate. Just put the heating on!’ ‘It’s perfectly cosy in—’ Sasha stood up. ‘Fine. I’ll leave.’
  • When someone is interrupted, as above, place the ‘em’ dash (—) inside the apostrophes.
  • Always start a new paragraph for a new speaker, ensuring you close the apostrophes of the pervious person, as above.
  • But when the same speaker begins a new paragraph of speech, leave the apostrophes open at the paragraph’s end, indicating the speaker hasn’t changed.
  • Include an apostrophe opening the first line of dialogue in the new paragraph. This helps the reader know they’re still reading dialogue, not narration, like so:
Jasper drew the curtains. Silver frost carpeted the lawn outside.He glanced at Sasha. ‘I’m not cold at all.’ Sasha headed towards the door, briefcase under arm, buttoning her wool coat. ‘Don’t worry about me. Funny, I was just reading about the need to reduce carbon footprints. Ha! Easy enough when you can’t afford gas in the first place. ‘Change of subject, but talking about gas prices makes me remember the coldest I’ve ever been.’ She paused, hand on the doorknob. ‘That road trip I took. Winter of ‘99. Ran out of petrol on the motorway, didn’t have enough cash for more. A café owner let me wash dishes to cover the tank refill.’ Sasha’s voice grew dreamy. ‘Working for money – those were the days, eh?’ Jasper stomped out of the room without a word.

Sasha’s accusation here is implied through subtext and action , not directly stated.

Writing Dialogue Tip

Said and replied are generally better than exclaimed, protested, expounded , etc. Elaborate dialogue tags draw readers’ attention to your writing, thus taking them out of the story’s action.

For example:

‘I’m cold,’ whispered Sasha. ‘Stop moaning!’ yelled Jasper. ‘Go die of hypothermia,’ cursed Sasha.

Annoyingly melodramatic, right?

That said, exceptions exist for every rule, even when you’re writing dialogue.

Firstly, excessive use of said can be as distracting for the reader as elaborate tags:

‘I’m moving out tomorrow,’ said Sasha. ‘I don’t care,’ said Jasper. Sasha said, ‘You’ll miss me when I’m gone.’

That, in contrast, is annoyingly dull.

Hint: Reading your work out loud can help you hear when your dialogue tags might benefit from variation.

Secondly, your story’s narrative voice may lean towards using more grandiloquent speech tags.

Dialogue in a Story Example

In the Bridgerton Regency Romance novels, Julia Quinn often uses elaborate dialogue tags: flick through The Duke and I and you’ll find extensive use of tags such as shrieked, snapped, admitted, spat out , and so on.

But the elaborate dialogue tags here form part and parcel of the ironic narrative tone.

Quinn leans in to the 18 th Century inspired melodrama for comedic effect, having fun with her speech tags.

She layers her wry, Austen-inspired narrative voice over the characters’ individual voices, laughing good-naturedly at both them and herself.

This works brilliantly: sophisticated readers can excuse themselves for revelling in this historically-inaccurate melodrama by acknowledging that no-one, not even its (Harvard-educated) author, takes it too seriously.

But unless melodrama (whether real or ironic) is your intention, use elaborate dialogue tags sparingly.

Final Tips for How to Write Dialogue in a Narrative

When you’re putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and writing dialogue:

  • Avoid the dreaded ‘talking heads’ syndrome by interspersing dialogue with action/ setting, reminding the reader where the scene is playing out.
  • Expository dialogue (when ‘info-dumping’) can be dull and unrealistic, unless masterfully handled: use cautiously.
  • Avoid ‘holding’/ ‘filler’ dialogue: ‘Hi, how are you?’ etc. No-one cares about this.
  • Beware overusing (or underusing) dialogue. Stories need a balance of dialogue, action, thought and setting. The correct balance depends on your story and genre.
  • Never forget your characters’ goals when writing their dialogue. Simple, direct, honest communication – whilst an admirable goal in real life – often falls flat in fiction.

The strongest dialogue incorporates subtext and irony, giving us a deeper understanding of the characters than they themselves possess, whilst illuminating the story’s themes. In a skilled writer’s hands, fictional dialogue offers readers new perceptions of themselves and their place in the world.

Now, go have fun writing dialogue!


how to write dialogue in stories

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

How to Write Scenes Free Guide


Read a guide to writing scenes with purpose that move your story forward.

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 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


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

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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Last updated on Jul 24, 2023

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

Great dialogue is hard to pin down, but you know it when you hear or see it. In the earlier parts of this guide, we showed you some well-known tips and rules for writing dialogue. In this section, we'll show you those rules in action with 15 examples of great dialogue, breaking down exactly why they work so well.

1. Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered 

In the opening of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, we meet Willa Knox, a middle-aged and newly unemployed writer who has just inherited a ramshackle house. 

     “The simplest thing would be to tear it down,” the man said. “The house is a shambles.”      She took this news as a blood-rush to the ears: a roar of peasant ancestors with rocks in their fists, facing the evictor. But this man was a contractor. Willa had called him here and she could send him away. She waited out her panic while he stood looking at her shambles, appearing to nurse some satisfaction from his diagnosis. She picked out words.      “It’s not a living thing. You can’t just pronounce it dead. Anything that goes wrong with a structure can be replaced with another structure. Am I right?”      “Correct. What I am saying is that the structure needing to be replaced is all of it. I’m sorry. Your foundation is nonexistent.”

Alfred Hitchcock once described drama as "life with the boring bits cut out." In this passage, Kingsolver cuts out the boring parts of Willa's conversation with her contractor and brings us right to the tensest, most interesting part of the conversation.

By entering their conversation late , the reader is spared every tedious detail of their interaction.

Instead of a blow-by-blow account of their negotiations (what she needs done, when he’s free, how she’ll be paying), we’re dropped right into the emotional heart of the discussion. The novel opens with the narrator learning that the home she cherishes can’t be salvaged. 

By starting off in the middle of (relatively obscure) dialogue, it takes a moment for the reader to orient themselves in the story and figure out who is speaking, and what they’re speaking about. This disorientation almost mirrors Willa’s own reaction to the bad news, as her expectations for a new life in her new home are swiftly undermined.



How to Write Believable Dialogue

Master the art of dialogue in 10 five-minute lessons.

2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice  

In the first piece of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice , we meet Mr and Mrs Bennet, as Mrs Bennet attempts to draw her husband into a conversation about neighborhood gossip.

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

Austen’s dialogue is always witty, subtle, and packed with character. This extract from Pride and Prejudice is a great example of dialogue being used to develop character relationships . 

We instantly learn everything we need to know about the dynamic between Mr and Mrs Bennet’s from their first interaction: she’s chatty, and he’s the beleaguered listener who has learned to entertain her idle gossip, if only for his own sake (hence “you want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it”).

Dialogue examples - Mr and Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice

There is even a clear difference between the two characters visually on the page: Mr Bennet responds in short sentences, in simple indirect speech, or not at all, but this is “invitation enough” for Mrs Bennet to launch into a rambling and extended response, dominating the conversation in text just as she does audibly.

The fact that Austen manages to imbue her dialogue with so much character-building realism means we hardly notice the amount of crucial plot exposition she has packed in here. This heavily expository dialogue could be a drag to get through, but Austen’s colorful characterization means she slips it under the radar with ease, forwarding both our understanding of these people and the world they live in simultaneously.

3. Naomi Alderman, The Power

Dialogue examples - annotated passage of The Power by Naomi Alderman

In The Power , young women around the world suddenly find themselves capable of generating and controlling electricity. In this passage, between two boys and a girl who just used those powers to light her cigarette.

     Kyle gestures with his chin and says, “Heard a bunch of guys killed a girl in Nebraska last week for doing that.”      “For smoking? Harsh.”      Hunter says, “Half the kids in school know you can do it.”      “So what?”      Hunter says, “Your dad could use you in his factory. Save money on electricity.”      “He’s not my dad.”      She makes the silver flicker at the ends of her fingers again. The boys watch.

Alderman here uses a show, don’t tell approach to expositional dialogue . Within this short exchange, we discover a lot about Allie, her personal circumstances, and the developing situation elsewhere. We learn that women are being punished harshly for their powers; that Allie is expected to be ashamed of those powers and keep them a secret, but doesn’t seem to care to do so; that her father is successful in industry; and that she has a difficult relationship with him. Using dialogue in this way prevents info-dumping backstory all at once, and instead helps us learn about the novel’s world in a natural way.


Show, Don't Tell

Master the golden rule of writing in 10 five-minute lessons.

4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Here, friends Tommy and Kathy have a conversation after Tommy has had a meltdown. After being bullied by a group of boys, he has been stomping around in the mud, the precise reaction they were hoping to evoke from him.

     “Tommy,” I said, quite sternly. “There’s mud all over your shirt.”      “So what?” he mumbled. But even as he said this, he looked down and noticed the brown specks, and only just stopped himself crying out in alarm. Then I saw the surprise register on his face that I should know about his feelings for the polo shirt.      “It’s nothing to worry about.” I said, before the silence got humiliating for him. “It’ll come off. If you can’t get it off yourself, just take it to Miss Jody.”      He went on examining his shirt, then said grumpily, “It’s nothing to do with you anyway.”

This episode from Never Let Me Go highlights the power of interspersing action beats within dialogue . These action beats work in several ways to add depth to what would otherwise be a very simple and fairly nondescript exchange.  Firstly, they draw attention to the polo shirt, and highlight its potential significance in the plot. Secondly, they help to further define Kathy’s relationship with Tommy. 

We learn through Tommy’s surprised reaction that he didn’t think Kathy knew how much he loved his seemingly generic polo shirt. This moment of recognition allows us to see that she cares for him and understands him more deeply than even he realized. Kathy breaking the silence before it can “humiliate” Tommy further emphasizes her consideration for him. While the dialogue alone might make us think Kathy is downplaying his concerns with pragmatic advice, it is the action beats that tell the true story here.

Dialogue examples - Kathy and Tommy from Never Let Me Go

5. J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit  

The eponymous hobbit Bilbo is engaged in a game of riddles with the strange creature Gollum.

     "What have I got in my pocket?" he said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset.       "Not fair! not fair!" he hissed. "It isn't fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it's got in its nassty little pocketses?"      Bilbo seeing what had happened and having nothing better to ask stuck to his question. "What have I got in my pocket?" he said louder. "S-s-s-s-s," hissed Gollum. "It must give us three guesseses, my precious, three guesseses."      "Very well! Guess away!" said Bilbo.      "Handses!" said Gollum.      "Wrong," said Bilbo, who had luckily just taken his hand out again. "Guess again!"      "S-s-s-s-s," said Gollum, more upset than ever. 

Tolkein’s dialogue for Gollum is a masterclass in creating distinct character voices . By using a repeated catchphrase (“my precious”) and unconventional spelling and grammar to reflect his unusual speech pattern, Tolkien creates an idiosyncratic, unique (and iconic) speech for Gollum. This vivid approach to formatting dialogue, which is almost a transliteration of Gollum's sounds, allows readers to imagine his speech pattern and practically hear it aloud.

Dialogue examples - Gollum and Bilbo in the hobbit

We wouldn’t recommend using this extreme level of idiosyncrasy too often in your writing — it can get wearing for readers after a while, and Tolkien deploys it sparingly, as Gollum’s appearances are limited to a handful of scenes. However, you can use Tolkien’s approach as inspiration to create (slightly more subtle) quirks of speech for your own characters.

6. F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Dialogue examples - annotated passage of The Great Gatbsy by F Scott Fitzgerald

The narrator, Nick has just done his new neighbour Gatsby a favor by inviting his beloved Daisy over to tea. Perhaps in return, Gatsby then attempts to make a shady business proposition.

     “There’s another little thing,” he said uncertainly, and hesitated.      “Would you rather put it off for a few days?” I asked.      “Oh, it isn’t about that. At least —” He fumbled with a series of beginnings. “Why, I thought — why, look here, old sport, you don’t make much money, do you?”      “Not very much.”      This seemed to reassure him and he continued more confidently.       “I thought you didn’t, if you’ll pardon my — you see, I carry on a little business on the side, a little side line, if you understand. And I thought that if you don’t make very much — You’re selling bonds, aren’t you, old sport?”      “Trying to.” 

This dialogue from The Great Gatsby is a great example of how to make dialogue sound natural. Gatsby tripping over his own words (even interrupting himself , as marked by the em-dashes) not only makes his nerves and awkwardness palpable but also mimics real speech. Just as real people often falter and make false starts when they’re speaking off the cuff, Gatsby too flounders, giving us insight into his self-doubt; his speech isn’t polished and perfect, and neither is he despite all his efforts to appear so.

Fitzgerald also creates a distinctive voice for Gatsby by littering his speech with the character's signature term of endearment, “old sport”. We don’t even really need dialogue markers to know who’s speaking here — a sign of very strong characterization through dialogue.

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7. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet  

In this first meeting between the two heroes of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, John is introduced to Sherlock while the latter is hard at work in the lab.

      “How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”      “How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.      “Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself. “The question now is about hemoglobin. No doubt you see the significance of this discovery of mine?”     “It is interesting, chemically, no doubt,” I answered, “but practically— ”      “Why, man, it is the most practical medico-legal discovery for years. Don’t you see that it gives us an infallible test for blood stains. Come over here now!” He seized me by the coat-sleeve in his eagerness, and drew me over to the table at which he had been working. “Let us have some fresh blood,” he said, digging a long bodkin into his finger, and drawing off the resulting drop of blood in a chemical pipette. “Now, I add this small quantity of blood to a litre of water. You perceive that the resulting mixture has the appearance of pure water. The proportion of blood cannot be more than one in a million. I have no doubt, however, that we shall be able to obtain the characteristic reaction.” As he spoke, he threw into the vessel a few white crystals, and then added some drops of a transparent fluid. In an instant the contents assumed a dull mahogany colour, and a brownish dust was precipitated to the bottom of the glass jar.      “Ha! ha!” he cried, clapping his hands, and looking as delighted as a child with a new toy. “What do you think of that?”

This passage uses a number of the key techniques for writing naturalistic and exciting dialogue, including characters speaking over one another and the interspersal of action beats. 

Sherlock cutting off Watson to launch into a monologue about his blood experiment shows immediately where Sherlock’s interest lies — not in small talk, or the person he is speaking to, but in his own pursuits, just like earlier in the conversation when he refuses to explain anything to John and is instead self-absorbedly “chuckling to himself”. This helps establish their initial rapport (or lack thereof) very quickly.

Breaking up that monologue with snippets of him undertaking the forensic tests allows us to experience the full force of his enthusiasm over it without having to read an uninterrupted speech about the ins and outs of a science experiment.

Dialogue examples - Sherlock Holmes

Starting to think you might like to read some Sherlock? Check out our guide to the Sherlock Holmes canon !

8. Brandon Taylor, Real Life

Here, our protagonist Wallace is questioned by Ramon, a friend-of-a-friend, over the fact that he is considering leaving his PhD program.

     Wallace hums. “I mean, I wouldn’t say that I want to leave, but I’ve thought about it, sure.”     “Why would you do that? I mean, the prospects for… black people, you know?”        “What are the prospects for black people?” Wallace asks, though he knows he will be considered the aggressor for this question.

Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is drawn from the author’s own experiences as a queer Black man, attempting to navigate the unwelcoming world of academia, navigating the world of academia, and so it’s no surprise that his dialogue rings so true to life — it’s one of the reasons the novel is one of our picks for must-read books by Black authors . 

This episode is part of a pattern where Wallace is casually cornered and questioned by people who never question for a moment whether they have the right to ambush him or criticize his choices. The use of indirect dialogue at the end shows us this is a well-trodden path for Wallace: he has had this same conversation several times, and can pre-empt the exact outcome.

This scene is also a great example of the dramatic significance of people choosing not to speak. The exchange happens in front of a big group, but — despite their apparent discomfort —  nobody speaks up to defend Wallace, or to criticize Ramon’s patronizing microaggressions. Their silence is deafening, and we get a glimpse of Ramon’s isolation due to the complacency of others, all due to what is not said in this dialogue example.

9. Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants

Dialogue examples - annotated passage of Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

In this short story, an unnamed man and a young woman discuss whether or not they should terminate a pregnancy while sitting on a train platform.

     “Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”      “And you really want to?”      “I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”      “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”      “I love you now. You know I love you.”      “I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”      “I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”      “If I do it you won’t ever worry?”      “I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

This example of dialogue from Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants moves at quite a clip. The conversation quickly bounces back and forth between the speakers, and the call-and-response format of the woman asking and the man answering is effective because it establishes a clear dynamic between the two speakers: the woman is the one seeking reassurance and trying to understand the man’s feelings, while he is the one who is ultimately in control of the situation.

Note the sparing use of dialogue markers: this minimalist approach keeps the dialogue brisk, and we can still easily understand who is who due to the use of a new paragraph when the speaker changes .

Like this classic author’s style? Head over to our selection of the 11 best Ernest Hemingway books .

10. Madeline Miller, Circe

In Madeline Miller’s retelling of Greek myth, we witness a conversation between the mythical enchantress Circe and Telemachus (son of Odysseus).

     “You do not grieve for your father?”        “I do. I grieve that I never met the father everyone told me I had.”           I narrowed my eyes. “Explain.”      “I am no storyteller.”      “I am not asking for a story. You have come to my island. You owe me truth.”       A moment passed, and then he nodded. “You will have it.” 

This short and punchy exchange hits on a lot of the stylistic points we’ve covered so far. The conversation is a taut tennis match between the two speakers as they volley back and forth with short but impactful sentences, and unnecessary dialogue tags have been shaved off . It also highlights Circe’s imperious attitude, a result of her divine status. Her use of short, snappy declaratives and imperatives demonstrates that she’s used to getting her own way and feels no need to mince her words.

11. Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name

This is an early conversation between seventeen-year-old Elio and his family’s handsome new student lodger, Oliver.

     What did one do around here? Nothing. Wait for summer to end. What did one do in the winter, then?      I smiled at the answer I was about to give. He got the gist and said, “Don’t tell me: wait for summer to come, right?”      I liked having my mind read. He’d pick up on dinner drudgery sooner than those before him.      “Actually, in the winter the place gets very gray and dark. We come for Christmas. Otherwise it’s a ghost town.”      “And what else do you do here at Christmas besides roast chestnuts and drink eggnog?”      He was teasing. I offered the same smile as before. He understood, said nothing, we laughed.      He asked what I did. I played tennis. Swam. Went out at night. Jogged. Transcribed music. Read.      He said he jogged too. Early in the morning. Where did one jog around here? Along the promenade, mostly. I could show him if he wanted.      It hit me in the face just when I was starting to like him again: “Later, maybe.”

Dialogue is one of the most crucial aspects of writing romance — what’s a literary relationship without some flirty lines? Here, however, Aciman gives us a great example of efficient dialogue. By removing unnecessary dialogue and instead summarizing with narration, he’s able to confer the gist of the conversation without slowing down the pace unnecessarily. Instead, the emphasis is left on what’s unsaid, the developing romantic subtext. 

Dialogue examples - Elio and Oliver from Call Me By Your Name

Furthermore, the fact that we receive this scene in half-reported snippets rather than as an uninterrupted transcript emphasizes the fact that this is Elio’s own recollection of the story, as the manipulation of the dialogue in this way serves to mimic the nostalgic haziness of memory.


Understanding Point of View

Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.

12. George Eliot, Middlemarch

Dialogue examples - annotated passage of Middlemarch by George Eliot

Two of Eliot’s characters, Mary and Rosamond, are out shopping,

     When she and Rosamond happened both to be reflected in the glass, she said laughingly —      “What a brown patch I am by the side of you, Rosy! You are the most unbecoming companion.”      “Oh no! No one thinks of your appearance, you are so sensible and useful, Mary. Beauty is of very little consequence in reality,” said Rosamond, turning her head towards Mary, but with eyes swerving towards the new view of her neck in the glass.      “You mean my beauty,” said Mary, rather sardonically.       Rosamond thought, “Poor Mary, she takes the kindest things ill.” Aloud she said, “What have you been doing lately?”      “I? Oh, minding the house — pouring out syrup — pretending to be amiable and contented — learning to have a bad opinion of everybody.”

This excerpt, a conversation between the level-headed Mary and vain Rosamond, is an example of dialogue that develops character relationships naturally. Action descriptors allow us to understand what is really happening in the conversation. 

Whilst the speech alone might lead us to believe Rosamond is honestly (if clumsily) engaging with her friend, the description of her simultaneously gazing at herself in a mirror gives us insight not only into her vanity, but also into the fact that she is not really engaged in her conversation with Mary at all.

The use of internal dialogue cut into the conversation (here formatted with quotation marks rather than the usual italics ) lets us know what Rosamond is actually thinking, and the contrast between this and what she says aloud is telling. The fact that we know she privately realizes she has offended Mary, but quickly continues the conversation rather than apologizing, is emphatic of her character. We get to know Rosamond very well within this short passage, which is a hallmark of effective character-driven dialogue.

13. John Steinbeck, The Winter of our Discontent

Here, Mary (speaking first) reacts to her husband Ethan’s attempts to discuss his previous experiences as a disciplined soldier, his struggles in subsequent life, and his feeling of impending change.

     “You’re trying to tell me something.”      “Sadly enough, I am. And it sounds in my ears like an apology. I hope it is not.”      “I’m going to set out lunch.”

Steinbeck’s Winter of our Discontent is an acute study of alienation and miscommunication, and this exchange exemplifies the ways in which characters can fail to communicate, even when they’re speaking. The pair speaking here are trapped in a dysfunctional marriage which leaves Ethan feeling isolated, and part of his loneliness comes from the accumulation of exchanges such as this one. Whenever he tries to communicate meaningfully with his wife, she shuts the conversation down with a complete non sequitur. 

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We expect Mary’s “you’re trying to tell me something” to be followed by a revelation, but Ethan is not forthcoming in his response, and Mary then exits the conversation entirely. Nothing is communicated, and the jarring and frustrating effect of having our expectations subverted goes a long way in mirroring Ethan’s own frustration.

Just like Ethan and Mary, we receive no emotional pay-off, and this passage of characters talking past one another doesn’t further the plot as we hope it might, but instead gives us insight into the extent of these characters’ estrangement.

14. Bret Easton Ellis , Less Than Zero

The disillusioned main character of Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Clay, here catches up with a college friend, Daniel, whom he hasn’t seen in a while. 

     He keeps rubbing his mouth and when I realize that he’s not going to answer me, I ask him what he’s been doing.      “Been doing?”      “Yeah.”      “Hanging out.”      “Hanging out where?”      “Where? Around.”

Less Than Zero is an elegy to conversation, and this dialogue is an example of the many vacuous exchanges the protagonist engages in, seemingly just to fill time. The whole book is deliberately unpoetic and flat, and depicts the lives of disaffected youths in 1980s LA. Their misguided attempts to fill the emptiness within them with drink and drugs are ultimately fruitless, and it shows in their conversations: in truth, they have nothing to say to one another at all.

This utterly meaningless exchange would elsewhere be considered dead weight to a story. Here, rather than being fat in need of trimming, the empty conversation is instead thematically resonant.

15. Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Dialogue examples - annotated passage of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The young narrator of du Maurier’s classic gothic novel here has a strained conversation with Robert, one of the young staff members at her new husband’s home, the unwelcoming Manderley.

     “Has Mr. de Winter been in?” I said.      “Yes, Madam,” said Robert; “he came in just after two, and had a quick lunch, and then went out again. He asked for you and Frith said he thought you must have gone down to see the ship.”      “Did he say when he would be back again?” I asked.      “No, Madam.”      “Perhaps he went to the beach another way,” I said; “I may have missed him.”      “Yes, Madam,” said Robert.      I looked at the cold meat and the salad. I felt empty but not hungry. I did not want cold meat now. “Will you be taking lunch?” said Robert.      “No,” I said, “No, you might bring me some tea, Robert, in the library. Nothing like cakes or scones. Just tea and bread and butter.”      “Yes, Madam.”

We’re including this one in our dialogue examples list to show you the power of everything Du Maurier doesn’t do: rather than cycling through a ton of fancy synonyms for “said”, she opts for spare dialogue and tags. 

This interaction's cold, sparse tone complements the lack of warmth the protagonist feels in the moment depicted here. By keeping the dialogue tags simple , the author ratchets up the tension —  without any distracting flourishes taking the reader out of the scene. The subtext of the conversation is able to simmer under the surface, and we aren’t beaten over the head with any stage direction extras.

The inclusion of three sentences of internal dialogue in the middle of the dialogue (“I looked at the cold meat and the salad. I felt empty but not hungry. I did not want cold meat now.”) is also a masterful touch. What could have been a single sentence is stretched into three, creating a massive pregnant pause before Robert continues speaking, without having to explicitly signpost one. Manipulating the pace of dialogue in this way and manufacturing meaningful silence is a great way of adding depth to a scene.

Phew! We've been through a lot of dialogue, from first meetings to idle chit-chat to confrontations, and we hope these dialogue examples have been helpful in illustrating some of the most common techniques.

If you’re looking for more pointers on creating believable and effective dialogue, be sure to check out our course on writing dialogue. Or, if you find you learn better through examples, you can look at our list of 100 books to read before you die — it’s packed full of expert storytellers who’ve honed the art of dialogue.

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How to Write Dialogue: 3 Effective Ways to Write Dialogue

how to write dialogue in stories

Learning how to write dialogue is one of the hardest things to write well, but it’s also vital to telling an impactful story.

If you’re writing a novel or even if you're writing a nonfiction book , nailing dialogue is key to maintaining tone, characterization, and pacing in your story. 

We’re going to go over what dialogue is, how to hit it out of the park, and tips that you can apply to your own stories–no matter what genre you’re writing in! 

This guide teaches how to write a dialogue, including:

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What is dialogue?

Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more characters in a written work, be that a play, book, movie, or stage production. That’s it–if you’ve got characters in your story and they’re having a spoken conversation, you’ve got dialogue.

Here’s an example of a dialogue exchange between two imaginary characters: “How’s it goin’?” Smith asked.  

Rosa sighed. “I suppose I’m alright, but I’ve had a dreadful day.” 

“Aw, that’s too bad. C’mon, let’s get milkshakes.” 

As in the example above, quotation marks are often used to notate dialogue, but not always.

Some authors like James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy take the stylistic liberty of removing the quotation marks from their dialogue.

Here’s an example of dialogue without quotation marks from McCarthy’s novel, The Road. 

Hi, Papa, he said.

I'm right here.

Without the quotation marks, the reader uses context and voice to determine who’s talking, which we’ll talk about in more detail later on.

For new writers, it’s generally best to keep the quotations in, as it can become confusing to readers to take out punctuation without a clear reason for doing so. 

How to write dialogue

So, a conversation between characters. Easy, right? 

Many people think that learning how to write a dialogue is as simple as writing a descriptive paragraph about a character's appearance or even writing about the thoughts they are having in their head. But it's more than that.

If you've ever set down to write a dialogue and make it sound authentic, you already know that writing a conversation between multiple characters can be strangely challenging. So, now that we’ve talked about what dialogue is and what it’s for, let’s talk about how to write dialogue that actually sounds real – and true to your characters.

Related: Narrative Writing Prompts

1. Mimic real people… sort of 

Your characters should be fleshed out like real people, regardless of your genre, and they should act like real people in your story. By extension, they should also talk like real people. 

What’s the most effective way to convey dialogue that’s realistic? Mimic real conversations. 

Sort of. 

See, you should indeed listen to people talking to get an idea of how conversations flow, nonverbal cues, and voice. But if you were to write down word-for-word a conversation between two people, you’d likely find that it’s incoherent.

But real-world conversations go in circles, dive off on tangents, and ramble. Unless that's a character trait you want to intentionally include, we don’t want that stuff in our fiction. 

Not sure what I mean?

Go listen in to a conversation at your local coffee shop. Listen to how often someone gets interrupted or goes on a separate tangent. 

So yes, DO listen to real-world conversations for flow and voice to learn how to write dialogue like a pro. Different people from different backgrounds notice and observe things in unique ways. And this has the ability to enhance your characters' dialogue.

But pay attention to what can be cut out of those conversations. 

Then, find the best of both worlds. Take the body language, flow, and distinct voice from real-world conversations and apply them to fiction. Omit the changes in structure and lack of clarity that simply won't enhance your writing.

It’s a tough balancing act, but it makes for dynamic, realistic dialogue. 

Related: 4 Ways to Improve Your Writing Skills

2. Give each character a distinct voice 

Like we mentioned before, it’s important to use real-world examples of conversations to help you understand how to get across a character’s voice. 

But what is their voice? 

In this section, we aren’t talking about narrative voice or even the tones in your writing . The narrative voice is the prose itself, the narrative point of view that describes the events happening. Here, we’re talking about the voice that individual characters have. 

Let’s look at the example we used earlier when we discussed quotation marks. 

“How’s it goin’?” Smith asked.  

Rosa sighed. “I suppose I’m alright, but I’ve had a dreadful day.”  

These two characters have very different voices. The first speaker, Smith, uses slang and abbreviations when he talks. His manner of speech is much more casual and laid-back. Rosa, on the other hand, uses words with a more formal inflection. ‘Dreadful’ and ‘suppose’ point to someone who’s more uptight, more verbose. 

Without any extra background information on either character, we already have an idea of what they’re like based on their voice. And when we get to the last line, we know that it’s Smith talking, because it matches up with the voice we’ve established on the first line. 

One common mistake new writers make is having all their characters sound the same.

But people aren’t like that! Your characters are all different, unique people, and they should sound like it. A kid who grew up lower class in a big city will talk differently than a wealthy kid from a suburban town. A serf from the countryside won’t talk the same way as the king. 

Ideally, you should know which character is speaking based solely on the way they’re talking. 

Consider who your characters are. Where did they grow up? Who do they hang out with? What are the sorts of things they prioritize, and how does that impact not only what they talk about, but how they talk about it? 

3. Think about how the conversation moves the story forward

We talked about how learning how to write dialogue in fiction shouldn’t necessarily mirror the chaotic structure of real-world conversations. It needs to be believable, but in, truth, it will be more structured and planned.

Basically, this means you should treat your dialogue the same way you treat everything else in your story: it should serve a purpose, it should move the storyline forward, and it should be interesting. 

Dialogue should happen for a reason. It should be motivated.

Characters should have a reason to talk–this might sound obvious, but failing to recognize this can result in some clunky dialogue.

Take exposition, for example.

A common exposition mistake new writers make is having their characters deliver exposition–especially in fantasy, when the author is trying to impart details about their world to the reader.

Let’s take a look at an imaginary dialogue exchange: 

“We’re having wonderful weather,” Ava said. 

Ned nodded. “We always have wonderful spring weather. Our two suns make it so that it never gets too cold here on our planet, and our spring seasons are long and prosperous.” 

Take a look at Ned’s dialogue. If these characters are from this planet, they wouldn’t be talking like this. And even if they are, the sentence reads flat and stilted, more like an excerpt from an encyclopedia than a piece of dialogue. 

When you’re writing dialogue, consider what it is that the characters are trying to convey. If you’re just using them as a mouthpiece for your own exposition, maybe reconsider. 

It’s also okay to skip over some character interactions. You don’t have to document every single minute of an exchange. Instead of typing out everything two people say, stick to the specific interactions that have to do with the plot. 

We’ll talk more about small talk later, but as a rule of thumb for fiction that also applies to dialogue: if you’re bored writing it, the reader’s probably bored reading it. Keep your dialogue motivated and important. 

4. Cut the small talk 

This one builds on point three of learning how to write a dialogue. But we're going to stay here a bit because it's important – and because a common mistake of new authors is including too much small talk in their novel. 

When learning how to write dialogue, just remember that small talk is not necessary (and doesn't make for great writing).

When people get together, especially strangers, there’s often small talk involved. True. We ask each other questions about the weather and make idle conversation to break the ice for more important topics. 

But this is fiction. And in fiction, we get to skip all that! Yay! 

We don’t need to read every word your characters say to each other when they meet up. We don’t need to hear them describe the weather to each other, or try to talk about sports. Unless it’s absolutely vital to the scene, we don’t need to hear about it.

5. Remember to indent for clarity

This may seem like a simple thing, but your book formatting matters hugely when it comes to dialogue.

New authors often don’t know when to hit enter and start a new paragraph, and this can result in long paragraphs where multiple people are talking.

It becomes unclear who is saying what. 

Plus, usually, long paragraphs make reading retention difficult.

There’s a simple rule of thumb to keep in mind: you should start a new paragraph when a new idea is introduced. 

Let’s reference a quick made-up example: 

“I don’t know where he went,” said Clark. “Well, he couldn’t have gone far,” said Synthia. She looked over her shoulder. “Elizabeth! Do you know where Matt went?” “No,” said Elizabeth. “Drat.” Clark folded his arms. 

We have four characters here, three whom are in the scene. The lines of dialogue aren’t correctly spaced out, so it’s difficult to tell who’s talking – and when. On the last line, it’s entirely unclear who says “drat,” for example. 

So how do we fix this? Simple! Just add a new paragraph break every time a new character speaks. 

“I don’t know where he went,” Clark said. 

“Well, he couldn’t have gone far,” said Synthia. She looked over her shoulder. “Hey, Elizabeth! Do you know where Matt went?” 

“No,” said Elizabeth. 

“Drat.” Clark folded his arms. 

Because we’ve properly spaced out our dialogue, we can now clearly see who’s saying what. Not only that, but having it formatted like this is just plain easier on the eyes, and much more inviting to a reader than a block of text. 

Don’t make it harder than it has to be! Format your dialogue correctly. 

6. Be careful with dialogue tags 

Dialogue tags are super important. They let us know who’s talking, and they offer a space for characters to move around during conversations.

But abusing them can ruin the flow of dialogue. For example, let’s look at this exchange: 

“I can’t believe it,” Dennis said. 

“I thought you knew,” Sandra said. 

“I thought you loved me!” Dennis said. 

“I do still love you,” Sandra said. 

In this example, overusing the same dialogue tag and format makes the exchange dull when it should be dramatic.

If you have two characters talking for a prolonged period of time, try dropping dialogue tags altogether and punctuating with action to pack a bigger punch.

Let’s try that exchange again, but with a little more attention to dialogue tags: 

Dennis balled his fists. “I can’t believe it.” 

“I thought you knew.” Sandra blinked back tears. 

“I thought you loved me!” 

“I do still love you.” 

Taking out those dialogue tags makes the dialogue read much more smoothly, and the addition of action beats helps set the tone so the words themselves can carry more weight. 

Try practicing with removing your dialogue tags and letting your character’s voices and actions drive the scene! 

7. Approach accents and foreign languages with caution 

Before we wrap up, let’s touch briefly on accents and foreign languages. This is especially important when it comes to learning how to write dialogue, but most people miss the mark on this one.

First, accents. 

There’s a lot of debate surrounding accents. Some people believe they can be spelled phonetically, and some believe they should never be spelled out, ever. 

This depends largely on your story and on what the spelling achieves–if every character has an accent, for example, reading it spelled phonetically might become cumbersome to read. If only one character has a few lines in an accent, that might be less pervasive, but it might still be confusing or unintentionally comical. 

For an alternative to spelling out accents, try introducing the character’s accent when you introduce the character. For example: 

“Good morning,” John said. He spoke with a bright Irish accent. “How are you?” 

Another point of controversy is how foreign languages should be handled in dialogue: specifically, many writers wonder whether they ought to italicize words in other languages.

 This is a huge and ongoing debate, so we won’t get into all of it here, but if you’re wondering which route to take, do some research and reading within your genre to see what the conventions are, and why those conventions exist, so you can make an informed decision. 

Go write some dialogue!

Whatever your genre, keeping these tips and tricks in mind will help you make your dialogue shine.

If you’re a new writer, hopefully this has given you a great jumping-off point to improve your prose, and if you’re a seasoned expert, we hope you’ve found some great tips and tricks to take your dialogue up a notch. 

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

By Jarie Bolander

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

Learning how to write dialogue is an essential part of telling stories that work. Dialogue is a character’s verbal and non-verbal expression of what they are thinking and feeling. It’s through dialogue that other characters get a glimpse into what’s going on in each other’s minds. It’s also used to reveal to the reader those inner thoughts, feelings, and actions that want to come out. 

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

Contrast that with narration, which describes the world in which the characters find themselves in as well as the inner thoughts of potentially some of the characters. It’s through the balance of Dialogue and Narration that the story reveals itself to the readers and characters.

Dialogue is the Yin to narration’s Yang. They both must be present and strengthen each other. Without clear, concise, and compelling dialogue, your character’s authentic self won’t shine through, the tension in your scenes won’t progressively complicate , and all that great narration will be for nothing.

Dialogue must always serve a purpose. It intensifies the action as well as organizes it so that the emotion that people feel in a situation builds up while the characters are processing what’s going on. This real-time processing is important to remember since it’s these beats of processing that build great dialogue.

Types of Dialogue

There are two types of dialogue to think about when you’re writing a story — inner and outer dialogues. Both are important to understand and use depending on the type of characters and the story you’re trying to tell.

Outer Dialogue

Outer dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters. This is the type that is the easiest to identify since the tags and markers are present and it feels like a conversation.

Inner Dialogue

This type of dialogue is when the character speaks to themselves and reveals parts of their personalities or unburdens their soul. Inner dialogue is usually written as a stream of consciousness or dramatic monologue or just thoughts. Sometimes italicized, sometimes not. Sometimes with attributions, sometimes not. The way that inner dialogue is rendered on the page will depend on the POV/Narrative Device choice.

A stream of consciousness type dialogue describes the flow of thoughts in the mind(s) of the character(s). It borders on narration in that there are no dialogue markers or tags per se. It’s usually obvious when it’s happening. 

Dialogue Lives at the Beat Level

A story has a nested structure with the smallest level being a beat . The story then builds up to scenes, sequences, acts, subplots, and finally the global story. For dialogue, it’s important to start at the beat level because the action and reaction that the character(s) are doing, based on the dialogue, will change as the scene moves from beat to beat. In the Story Grid universe, we use the Five Commandments of Story to build up these different story parts since they all nest together as you go from micro to macro.

A Quick Review of the Five Commandments of Story

The five commandments of story make up the component parts of a story. These commandments must be present at all levels for each component to work and move the story forward. Briefly, these five commandments are:

  • Inciting Incident : upsets the life balance of your lead protagonist(s). It must make them uncomfortably out of sync for good or for bad.
  • Progressive Complication(s): move the story forward (never backward) by making life more and more complicated for the protagonist(s). The stakes must progressively get higher and higher until the turning point progressive complication that shifts the life value and prompts the crisis.
  • Crisis: the point where the protagonist(s) must make a decision by answering the best bad choice or irreconcilable goods question such as: do I go in the cave or not? Or do I share my true feelings or not?
  • Climax: is the answer (the decision plus the action) to the question raised by a crisis.
  • Resolution: the results (good or bad) from the answer in the climax

For dialogue, we’ll look at a similar set of commandments or tasks inspired by Robert McKee later on. We’ll also explore a way to analyze dialogue using the tasks and a few other techniques. As we go along, you’ll see why it’s important to think, write, and analyze dialogue at the beat level to build up great scenes, sequences, acts, sub-plots, and finally the global story.

Three Functions of Dialogue

According to Robert McKee, in his book Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen , dialogue has three functions: Exposition, Characterization, and Action.

“Exposition is a literary device used to introduce background information about events, settings, characters, or other elements of a work to the audience or readers. The word comes from the Latin language, and its literal meaning is ‘a showing forth.’ Exposition is crucial to any story, for without it nothing makes sense.” Literary Devices.net

This trick with exposition is that too much information is hard for our brains to process. That’s what gives rise to the exposition is ammunition recommendations all writers hear. A story needs exposition to drive the story forward yet too much will distract, especially in dialogue, from the pace and flow of the story. It’s these fictional or non-fictional facts of the set (character mindset) and setting (environment) that gives the reader what the characters are experiencing and reacting too. It’s important to pace and time your exposition to not reveal too much too soon. You also have to take great care and skill to make the details of the character come alive in unique and novel ways so you keep the reader interested, which leads to another tried and true piece of advice —  remember to show and not to tell.


The sum of a character’s traits, values, behaviors, and beliefs. It’s how the author creates the character(s) in the reader’s mind. It’s through characterization that we can see and feel how the character(s) will react and interact.

What a character does — mental, physical, and verbal. Action reveals what cannot be understood otherwise or would sound awkward to describe. Again show don’t tell. The action is what keeps the story interesting and moving along.

Six Tasks of Dialogue

All dialogue must have a purpose and perform one of the three functions. Within these functions, a great beat of dialogue will complete these six tasks (taken from McKee’s Dialogue):

  • Express Inner Action (Essential Action in Story Grid terms)
  • Action/Reaction
  • Conveys Exposition
  • Unique Verbal Style

Let’s take a look at each one to see how they build up to great dialogue. For each, I’ll give an example of dialogue that completes the task from this wonderful article Ten Authors Who Write Great Dialogue .

Task #1: Express Inner Action

Each verbal expression requires an internal action to make it happen. These inner actions or essential action in Story Grid terms are how the character responds to the outside world’s stimulus as well as their own past experiences. The interaction of external stimulus and character subtext (past experiences) will create this inner action. This would be the essential action that the character wants to express or the goal they are trying to achieve. The example is from Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy :

‘Drink up,’ said Ford, ‘you’ve got three pints to get through.’

‘Three pints?” said Arthur. ‘At lunchtime?’ 

The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, ‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’

‘Very deep,’ said Arthur, ‘you should send that in to the Reader’s Digest. They’ve got a page for people like you.’

‘Drink up.’

Ford’s goal is to get Arthur to ‘drink up’, for what reason we don’t know, but for this beat, it’s pretty clear.

Task #2: Action/Reaction

Once a character takes action, there will be a reaction. This action/reaction dance will lead to the ultimate turning point of the scene between the characters. As the tension in a scene builds from beat to beat, so should the dialogue. The dialogue should stir up the emotions of the characters so there will be a desire to express more and more extreme inner actions.

Let’s look again at the same example from Task #1. The Action/Reaction between Ford and Arthur escalates as Arthur complains that it’s too early to drink yet Ford prods him on by saying that ‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’

Task #3: Conveys Exposition

What a character says, does not say, and how they say it will reveal exposition. The revealing of exposition in unique and novel ways is what separates good dialogue from great dialogue. For example, Judy Blume does this to great effect in this piece of dialogue from her book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Nancy spoke to me as if she were my mother. ‘Margaret dear–you can’t possibly miss Laura Danker. The big blonde with the big you know whats!’

‘Oh, I noticed her right off,’ I said. ‘She’s very pretty.’

‘Pretty!’ Nancy snorted. ‘You be smart and stay away from her. She’s got a bad reputation.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘My brother said she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose.’

‘And,’ Janie added, ‘she’s been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period.’

To the teenage reader, the line ‘My brother said she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose’ says a lot about Laura Danker and why she has a bad reputation without saying what goes on behind the A&P.

Task #4: Unique Verbal Style

Each character will have a unique verbal style that they used to communicate their inner actions. This verbal style must be appropriate for the set and setting the characters find themselves in. This tone and tenor of their voice along with word choice (or lack of words) must be on theme for the character. The reader must say to themselves, “yeah, they would say that that way.” For this example, we’ll look at Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

With all due respect,’ my father said, ‘this is not the time or the place for that kind of business. Why don’t you sit down now, and announce your plans after I’ve finished with the sermon? Church is not the place to vote anyone in or out of public office.’

‘Church is the place for it,’ said Tata Ndu. ‘Ici, maintenant, we are making a vote for Jesus Christ in the office of personal God, Kilanga village.’

Father did not move for several seconds.

Tata Ndu looked at him quizzically. ‘Forgive me, I wonder if I have paralyzed you?’

Father found his voice at last. ‘You have not.’ 

Tata’s unique verbal style shows that English is his second language and as such, he means to not offend the priest giving the sermon. Equally unique is the priest that gives this dialogue the contrast it needs to know who is talking.

Task #5: Captivates

Dialogue must do work. It is not normal everyday speech. Great dialogue captivates the reader by being clear, concise, and compelling. There is no shoe leather or wasted words, movements, or expressions. It’s hyper speech in that, as the writer, you can think about every word. 

Looking at the example from Task #4, it’s clear that there is some tension between the characters. There are no wasted words in what Tata wants to accomplish and the tension between Tata and the priest is made more by Tata’s line ‘Forgive me, I wonder if I have paralyzed you?’

Task #6: Authentic

All dialogue must sound like the character would say it. Dialogue that falls flat or does no work will have readers saying “the character in the book would never say that.” An authentic character voice starts with a solid story and character design where the reader knows the character and will anticipate how they will express their inner/essential action. Inner/Essential action comes from a character’s authentic voice. For this task, we’ll look at some dialogue from Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight:

‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’

‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’

‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’

‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’

‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

‘I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.’

‘I believe it,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.’

She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.

‘I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they’re all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.’

‘The idea of going after guys like you,’ Karen said, ‘appealed to me.’

The man character in this dialogue is an outlaw who escaped from prison and would say and do what this character is doing. As for Karen, this bit of dialogue reveals a lot of exposition as well as the type of person a female federal marshal might be.

Five Stages of Talk (Dialogue)

All verbal action and behavior move through stages of steps to come to life. These stages go from desire to antagonism to choice to action to expression. For our purposes, we’re going to use these stages like the five commandments of story to ensure that as we analyze and write dialogue, we have an objective framework to apply (again from McKee’s Dialogue).

What the character wants to achieve in the scene or the essential action or the goal. Mostly, it’s to get back to a life balance that has been disrupted from the status quo or the character’s object of desire. Background desires will limit the character’s choice because they limit what the character will or will not do. More on background desires when we get into the analysis.

#2 Sense of Antagonism

What is preventing the character(s) from getting back to balance? What or who is in their way? The sense of antagonism is what the character is reacting to and is usually who they are dialoguing with.

#3 Choice of Action

The action the character wants to take to get to the desired scene intention based on their desires or inner actions. The choice of action has to be authentic to the character so that the series of possible actions or best bad choices make sense to the reader.

#4 Action/Reaction

The actual or literal action they take be it physical or verbal and the reaction that might occur. Desire is the source of action, and action is the source of dialogue. All are governed by the character’s subtext or past experiences. 

#5 Expression

The verbal action as dialogue coupled with any physical activity that might also express the actions of the character (e.g. narration of expression, physical act like screaming, stepping forward, clenching a fist, etc.). The expression must be authentic to the character and as such, the reaction to the expression by another character(s) will drive the action/reaction to the turning point, crisis, climax, and finally resolution.

Dialogue Analysis

Before we get to the mechanics of writing dialogue, let’s take a look at a framework to analyze existing dialogue so we can better understand its structure. This analysis framework consists of the following:

  • Character(s) Agenda + Voice (Macro)
  • Pre Beat/Scene Character(s) Subtext (Micro)
  • Five Stages of Talk (Micro)
  • Post Beat/Scene Character(s) Subtext (Micro)

The first item on this list operates at the macro-level (e.g. scene, sequence, etc) while the last three operate at the micro or beat level.

Character(s) Agenda/Subtext + Voice

Character subtext or past experiences are what drive the expression of dialogue since they are what generate the inner action. A character’s subtext, their authentic voice, and their abilities to manifest action will constrain their expression. These guardrails of expression are what have to be considered when writing character dialogue. This is why it’s vital to have a solid story structure and character studies to guide your character’s dialogue.

A character study is a description of the character that includes age, gender, physical appearance, internal and external struggles, quirks, etc. It’s a great way to ground a character’s dialogue since you want every word that comes out of a character’s mouth to be consistent with who they are and in their voice. It’s also their history along with character traits, values, beliefs, and skills that are the guardrails in which they can express their inner/essential actions. 

A character’s voice will also be unique to them. The more of a contrast in voice between characters, the more tension and the easier the reader can follow who is saying what. If characters have a similar voice (e.g. sound or act the same), it will be harder for readers to keep track. Of course, you can use tags and markers to set off who is talking but as the reader gets to know the characters, it should become extremely clear who the characters are based on what they say and do.

Pre Beat/Scene Character(s) Subtext

The character study above is a macro level synopsis of the traits, values, beliefs, quirks, and skills that a character has. All of these parameters may or may not come into play at the Pre Beat/Scene level since all characters arrive at a beat with a macro-history and micro-history. 

As I mentioned before, the macro history is the guardrails of their action or what will be in character for them to do while the micro-history what happened before the beat/scene they are about to come into. It’s these micro-histories that will shape how the character acts at the moment. For example, if the character comes to the beat tired or hungry, they will have a different action/reaction than if they were fed and well-rested.

Five Stages of Talk

Each beat of a scene should follow the five stages and build on each other. If one or more of the stages is missing or not as strong, the dialogue is not doing its job. Again, dialogue is not real-life speech and it must not meander or build up like people talk in real-life with all the um’s and likes and on the nose exposition that real-life speech can have when a person is trying to figure out what to say. For a character, the writer can bypass all that at the moment thinking to deliver what the character wants to say. Every word must be intentional and mean something to the characters and the story.

Post Beat/Scene Character(s) Subtext

After each beat, the character(s) subtext has changed in some way since their inner action has been expressed or some new exposition has been revealed. These new facts need to be considered for the next beat or scene since it’s the sum of the character(s) experiences. 

Dialogue Analysis Examples

Let’s take a look at a few examples of dialogue and how the analysis framework can be applied.

Example #1 — Fargo

For our first example, we’ll look at the movie Fargo that we analyzed on the Story Grid Roundtable Podcast. I picked this as the first one because it clearly shows the five tasks of dialogue as well as the pre and post beat subtext, which changes substantially from the start to the end of the scene. 

Character(s) Agenda + Voice: Carl and Gaear want to get to the hideout after kidnapping Jean. Carl is a highly-strung, talks too much know-it-all while Gaear is the strong/silent but deadly type.

Pre Beat Subtext: Kidnappers Carl and Gaear are taking their victim Jean to the hideout. They get pulled over on the highway for not having a license plate. Carl and Gaear want to deceive the trooper so he does not find Jean. This scene takes place at 0:27:33 after they get pulled over on the highway.

CARL: How can I help you, Officer?

TROOPER: Is this a new car then sir?

CARL: It certainly is, Officer. Still got that smell

TROOPER: You’re required to display temporary tags, either in the plate area or taped to the inside of the back window.

CARL: Certainly

TROOPER: Can I see your license and registration, please?

CARL: Certainly. Yeah, I was gonna tape up those … The tag. You know, to be in full compliance, but it must have [CARL shows a $50 to the TROOPER] … must have slipped my mind. So maybe the best thing to do would be to take care of that right here in Brainerd.

TROOPER: What’s this sir?

CARL: My license and registration. Yeah, I want to be in compliance. I was just thinking we could take care of it right here, in Brainerd.

TROOPER: Put that back in your pocket please, and step out of the car, please, sir.

[TROOPER hears Jean whimpering. Looks in the back and Gaear smashes his head then shoots him dead.]

CARL: “Whoa. Whoa, Daddy.”

Five Stages :

  • Desire: Carl wants to get to the hideout with Jean without being caught.
  • The Sense of Antagonism: The Trooper.
  • Choice of Action: Carl tries to talk his way out of the trooper sniffing around by hinting at a bribe.
  • Action/Reaction: Carl presents his wallet with a $50 sticking out of it. The Trooper senses the bribe and asks Carl to “put that back in your wallet and get out of the car.”
  • Expression: Carl looks at Gaear, wondering what to do. Gaear smashes the cop against the car and shoots him dead.

Post Beat Subtext: Gaear killed the trooper and now they need to take care of the body and get out of there quickly. Carl is clearly upset about what happened and now knows, more than before, that Gaear is a psychopath.

Example #2 — Pride & Prejudice

Jane Austin’s Pride & Prejudice is the masterwork in the Love > Courtship genre. Her use of dialogue makes the story flow and gives great scenes like the one below between Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Bennet.

Character(s) Agenda + Voice : Mrs. Bennet wants to marry off one of her daughters to Mr. Bingley. Mrs. Bennet is quite excitable so her voice is high pitched and fast. Mr. Bennet is a serious man but loves to give his wife a hard time since he knows that she’s a gossip.

Pre Beat Subtext : We are introduced to three of the Bennet sisters and how obsessed Mrs. Bennet is with marrying them off to good men so the family can be taken care of.

Dialogue : 

“What is his name?”

“Is he married or single?”

“Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

“How so? How can it affect them?”

“My dear Mr Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”

“Is that his design in settling here?”

“Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”

Five Stages:

  • Desire: Mrs. Bennet wants to know more about Mr. Bingley for her daughters.
  • The Sense of Antagonism: Mr. Bennet’s apathy to doing so
  • Choice of Action: Mrs. Bennet wants to know as much as she can about Mr. Bingley
  • Action/Reaction: Mrs. Bennet tells Mr. Bennet that she is thinking that Mr. Bingley would be a good match for one of her daughters. Mr. Bennet is skeptical.
  • Expression: Mrs. Bennet wants Mr. Bennet to inquire right away and is adamant about him doing it quickly.

Post Beat Subtext : Mr. Bennet will be pestered by Mrs. Bennet until he goes for a visit to inquire about Mr. Bingley’s status.

How to Format Dialogue

The rules for formatting dialogue are straightforward for 90% or so of the dialogue you’ll write. It’s best to start with the simple and expand as you get better at writing dialogue. There are two formats to consider when writing dialogue — what tag or markers to use and proper punctuation.

Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag is a small phrase either before, after, or in between the actual dialogue itself to communicate attribution of the dialogue (e.g. who is speaking). The most common tags are said and asked with the most common placement being after the dialogue as in:

“Can you come here?” Jane asked. “I’m on my way,” Jack said.

There is some debate as to the types of tags or a variety of tags that should be used. This centers around whether adding the actions to the characters as opposed to adding the narration after the tag as follows:

“Can you come here?” Jane yelled from the other room. “I’m on my way,” Jack shouted back.

Compare that to:

“Can you come here?” Jane asked. Her voice echoed as she yelled from her home office, which was added last summer. “I’m on my way,” Jack said. His low baritone rattled the windows in Jane’s office.

I don’t think there is any right answer to what to do but I would add that it will depend a lot on what type of pace you want your dialogue to take.

For rapid-fire dialogue, the amount of complexity in the tags and narration will slow it down but also can reveal exposition about the characters as illustrated in the last example.

The set and setting of where the dialogue takes place will affect the tone and tenor between the characters. These variables affect the pace and the variety of pace in a story makes it more interesting and engaging. We’ll talk more about that in how to write captivating dialogue.


Dialogue punctuation rules are simple. There are two parts that need to be punctuated: the actual dialogue, which identifies the words spoken, and the dialogue tag, which identifies who is speaking. The basic rules of dialogue punctuation are as follows:

  • Surround your dialogue with quote marks and add a comma before closing the quotes if you’re using tags.
  • Create a new paragraph for new speakers.
  • Put periods inside of quotation marks when not using dialogue tags.

These basic rules should get you most of the way to properly formatted dialogue. This excellent post from Thinkwritten will get you the rest of the way.

How to Write Dialogue That Captivates Readers

Captivating dialogue is effortless for the reader to read and digest. It never gets in the way, always feels natural, and is in the authentic voice of the character. In order to do that, we’ll apply the captivating dialogue framework to write the dialogue and if needed, we follow that up with the analysis. Not all dialogue you write will require analysis so don’t feel like you have to look at every single beat of dialogue. Rather, save the analysis method for when you’re stuck or the dialogue is not working.

Captivating Dialogue Creation Framework

At the Story Grid, we like frameworks and objective ways to craft stories. For us, this is the best way to have a consistent process of creation, where if we follow the process, we have a better shot at creating a story that works. The same goes for dialogue.

The importance of this process-driven methodology comes to light when a story or beat of dialogue has problems. Since we rely on objective measures, usually we can pinpoint the problem and provide a solution. For dialogue, I propose the following framework:

  • Genre Specific Conventions, Scenes, Tropes, and Styles
  • Character Studies + Annoying Quirks + Authentic Voice
  • Ramp up Conflict + Tension
  • Weave Subtext using Exposition
  • Balance Dialogue/Narration for Pace
  • Read it Aloud
  • Analysis when needed

#1 Genre Specific Conventions, Scenes, Tropes, and Styles

All writers need to pick a genre. Genre selection will then lead to the conventions, obligatory scenes, tropes, and styles that readers of the genre are expecting. This list of requirements allows the writer to already have scenes and tropes that will give hints for great dialogue.

For example, if your story is in the Love > Courtship genre, then one of the Obligatory Scenes is when the lovers meet — you can’t have a love story without lovers. The dialogue between the lovers needs to convey some form of either interest or hate or a combination of both. When they talk about the potential suitor to others, the exposition of interest or annoyance or lust comes through in the dialogue. Or in contrast between inner and outer dialogue: what they say to others versus what they admit to themselves. Much of this will depend on the POV you’re using.

In terms of scene tropes, any Crime story usually has a scene in a police car or station house. The words the police use will be in a certain style and readers will expect the good cop/bad cop or a police car ride or an integration scene trope.

#2 Character Studies + Annoying Quirks + Authentic Voice

Once you have settled on your genre, you’ll need to figure out the characters in your story. For convenience, we’ll assume that all stories will have at least a victim, a villain (antagonist), and a hero (protagonist). These three characters will clearly talk to each other at some point and need to have enough of a difference so that it’s clear who is talking even without dialogue tags.

A quick character study of a few paragraphs describing the character along with some character-specific quirks will set the tone for how they speak. It’s always a good idea to have character quirks that annoy other characters so that the tension is built into every interaction. 

For example, in the Fargo scene we looked at before, Carl and Gaear have quirks that get on each other’s nerves. Carl talks too much. He thinks he’s the smartest of the two. Gaear is quiet and reserved but will resort to violence when he is annoyed. This makes Carl nervous so he talks more thus annoying Gaear even more. As the movie progresses (spoiler alert), Carl annoys Gaear to the point where Gaear shoots and kills him. Talk about ramping up the conflict + tension.

#3 Ramp up Conflict + Tension

Dialogue should moderate the pace of the story and the best way to do that is to ramp up the conflict and tension between characters. All dialogue should perform the six tasks and conflict is the best way to accomplish that.

The true nature of a character (and frankly people in real life) are revealed under stress and strain. The inner action that’s under control one minute will suddenly explore out when the conflict or tension is ramped up. Great dialogue will masterfully “power of ten” the conflict and tension to a crisis and climax that will surprise and delight the reader (or viewer).

Another way to think of this conflict and tension ramp is to imagine you’re a director of a movie. The actors are in the scene and you’re trying to visually capture the energy of the scene. At your disposal is the shots the camera can get. Wide shots. Narrow shots. Split shots. Out of focus shots. All of these pieces of the scene can be used to reveal what the characters are doing. The same goes for written dialogue.

Being able to “move the shot” around in your dialogue will give different ways to ramp up the conflict or change the pace. Being specific about a certain detail or use of a word or even a group of people off in the distance can make a difference. That’s what’s done in this Die Hard Scene. Image how you would write this into a script or novel:

HAN GRUBER: [On the radio] You are most troublesome for a security guard.

JOHN MCLANE: [Imitates buzzer] Sorry, Hans. Wrong guess. Would you like to go for double jeopardy where the scores can really change?

HANS GRUBER: Who are you, then?

JOHN MCLANE: Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. A monkey in the wretch. A pain in the ass.

It’s a simple exchange but it ramps up the tension and also reveals John’s character, Han’s character and the exposition that John is going to cause all sorts of trouble for Hans. We don’t know how yet and that’s what makes us want to keep watching.

#4 Weave Subtext using Exposition

When characters are under stress and strain, it’s easier for them to reveal hidden secrets or details that they might not want to reveal. It’s these “oops” moments or a reflective moment that makes great dialogue. These moments are what is meant by using exposition as ammunition to reveal character quirks, subtext, and story details.

The challenge is to not make the exposition reveal too obvious or boring or “on the nose.” That type of dialogue will distract the reader from the story and harms the flow of the story. As an example, look at this passage from Little Red Riding Hood to see how exposition is used to reveal story details.

“You will need to wear the best red cloak I gave you,” the mother said to her daughter. “And be very careful as you walk to grandmother’s house. Don’t veer off the forest path, and don’t talk to any strangers. And be sure to look out for the big bad wolf!”

“Is grandmother very sick?” the young girl asked.

“‘She will be much better after she sees your beautiful face and eats the treats in your basket, my dear.”

“I am not afraid, Mother,” the young girl answered. “I have walked the path many times. The wolf does not frighten me.”

This beat of dialogue foreshadows what is to come and while maybe not as subtle as it could be, it gives the reader the necessary background to create tension as the girl sets off to grandma’s house.

#5 Balance Dialogue/Narration for Pace

Dialogue does not live in a vacuum. It needs narration to give subtext, explain the physical world, and to set up the situations our characters find themselves in. While there are no hard fast rules on the split between dialogue text and narration text, I did a brief study of 14 books from Project Gutenberg . See below for the statistics.

how to write dialogue in stories

A perfect split between dialogue words and narration words would be 50%. Anything below 50% would be more narration. Anything above 50% would be more dialogue. As you can see from the sample, there tends to be, on average, more narration than dialogue. This intuitively makes sense since narration sets up dialogue and most dialogue uses tags or markers to set it off. My guess is that the Dialogue/Narration ratio will depend on the genre, so take these numbers as such.

Another consideration on the Dialogue/Narration spectrum is the pace of the story. In general, the more narration in a scene, the slower the pace while more dialogue will tend to make the pace faster. That’s one of the reasons that dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech in which the author, through the characters, has a purpose for each word. When dialogue hits its mark, the pace of the story quickens because all of the sub-text, narration setup, and stylization reveals the character(s) inner action in the least amount of words.

When writing dialogue, it’s good to mix up the dialogue/narration ratio so that the reader can feel the pace quicken or take a break to internalize and synthesize what just happened. This variety in dialogue will keep readers interested and yearning to find out what happens next since story is about change and the way a story changes should be varied.

#6 Read it Aloud

Nothing gives you a better sense of the tone, tenor, and pace of dialogue like reading aloud, preferably in each character’s unique voice and accent (if present). Reading dialogue aloud will connect the words on the page with the processing in your brain. What I mean by this is that when you verbalize dialogue, your attention is heightened because you have to read then speak. That’s a different pathway than the normal shortcuts most people take while reading, skipping connector words or full-on sentences.

#7 Analysis When Needed

Not all of the dialogue you write will need a detailed analysis discussed above. My guess is that the more dialogue you write, the better you’ll naturally ask yourself the important questions about raising the conflict by power of ten, revealing exposition, keeping a consistent character voice, and distilling the words characters say into tight interactions.

If you do get stuck, then doing the analysis will get you unstuck. Remember that dialogue that’s not working is usually rooted in a fundamental story problem and my guess is that the analysis will reveal an underlying story problem that will need to be fixed.

Pitfalls to Look Out For

Most dialogue pitfalls come from not setting up the subtext enough so that the characters can express their inner action in their authentic voice. Usually, it’s obvious when the exchange is read aloud but sometimes the writer can get so consumed with the process that even an aloud read can’t find it.

The analysis framework will likely catch any problem but as I mentioned before, it can be cumbersome to apply to all your beats of dialogue. That’s why I have come up with a couple of spot checks for your dialogue to quickly catch the majority of the pitfalls that writers run into.

  • Confusion on Who’s Talking : This is especially problematic with more than two people talking. Use the tags liberally to get the flow and then fine-tune in later drafts.
  • Cursing : Too much cursing takes away from the power of the words and will bore the reader. That does not mean that a well-placed f-bomb will not hit the mark.
  • Improper use of Period Speech/Mixing of Speech: If you’re writing period pieces, then getting the words right matters.
  • Misusing Humor: Humor is hard to write and should be used sparingly unless you’re writing a comedy. Pay particular attention to jokes that are meant to break the tension since those are the hardest.
  • Variety of Dialogue Tags : Don’t get carried away with having to mix up different dialogue tags. When in doubt, use said and asked. Having too many different dialogue tags can wear out the reader.
  • On the Nose Dialogue: Avoid stating the obvious or what the characters already know. This is the classic telling problem where the action of the character is more important than them telling the other character what they are doing.

Your best tool for catching dialogue problems will be reading it aloud over and over again so that you get the tone and tenor of the character’s authentic voice down cold. It’s also good practice to step away from the dialogue so you can look at it fresh after doing something completely different.

Dialogue Writing Prompts

The framework above is a good way to create dialogue once you have an idea. Sometimes, those ideas are hard to come by. That’s why having a few go-to writing prompts will make the creation process a little easier. The best resource I found for prompts comes from Daily Writing Tips and their post 70 Dialogue Writing Prompts . At the end of the post, they also have a list of additional resources for even more prompts. The ones I have listed below are a sample of what Daily Writing Tips has as well as the other resources. The sources are denoted in brackets.

  • “Ma’am, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Please, sit down.” [Daily Writing Tips]
  • “This is going to be way harder than we thought.” [Daily Writing Tips]
  • “Oh man, I’ve had the worst day ever.” [Daily Writing Tips]
  • “You must have misheard me.” [Daily Writing Tips]
  • “If you could just set it down – very slowly – and then back away.” [Daily Writing Tips]
  • “Do you maybe think, in retrospect, that this was a terrible idea?” [Daily Writing Tips]
  • “I’m so sick of all this gloom and doom. Why can’t people just be happy?” [ Marylee McDonald ]
  • “You’re going in there right now and apologize.” [Marylee McDonald]
  • “I’m asking because I’ve seen the way you look at me.” [ A Cure for Writer’s Block ]
  • “Will you stay the night?” [A Cure for Writer’s Block]
  • “I want to spend the little time I have left with you and only you.” [A Cure for Writer’s Block]
  • “Sometimes, being a complete nerd comes in handy.” [ Chrmdpoet ]
  • “How much of that did you hear?” [Chrmdpoet]
  • “People are staring.” [Chrmdpoet]

Hopefully, you won’t need to use too many prompts. Again, dialogue problems are usually story problems so if your story structure and character design is solid, then your dialogue should follow. If you get stuck and can’t figure a way out, then read one of the masterworks in your genre for inspiration. Chances are, those stories will inspire you and get you past your block. 

The Golden Rule of Dialogue

Dialogue problems are story problems. If you feel that your dialogue is weak or lackluster, chances are, your story fundamentals are not in place. Luckily, you’re reading this on the Story Grid and we can help.

The Story Grid is a framework for telling better stories. It exists to help writers objectively evaluate their stories to see what’s working and what’s not. The best place to start is the editor’s six core questions and the five commandments of story . These macro and micro tools will give you some keen insights into where your dialogue problems are coming from.

If you’re like me, then most of your dialogue problems will come from not setting up scenes properly (five commandments), character development (wants and needs), and moving the story forward (conventions and obligatory scenes).

Clear, concise, and compelling dialogue is achievable the same way you write a great story — by starting out with a clear, concise, and compelling framework. A framework like the Story Grid can help give you objective measures of how well your story works so you can learn how to write dialogue that flows naturally from your character’s authentic voice.

Special thanks to Kim Kessler for reviewing this post and providing some great feedback.

  • Robert McKee: Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen
  • James Scott Bell: How to Write Dazzling Dialogue
  • Marcy Kennedy: A Busy Writer’s Guide to Dialogue
  • Sammie Justesen: Dialogue for Writers


how to write dialogue in stories

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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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When it comes to writing dialogue in a story, even the best of the best writers take a pause. How to write dialogue correctly? Let’s take a look at some rules of writing dialogue to find out how you should write conversations in a story. If you need some examples of dialogue writing to ease the process, we’ve got that covered too!

But before we learn how to correctly write dialogue, we need to know the purpose of dialogue. Why is dialogue important? What does it achieve in a story?

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Importance of dialogue in a book

A conversation between two characters brings them to life. It provides insight into their psyche and informs the reader what they feel in that moment. It is through dialogue that different types of characters reveal themselves, other characters, and events in the story.

Of course, the chief purpose of dialogue is to develop the story. For a novel to progress, the characters need to communicate with each other. This applies not only to short stories , but also to nonfiction books!

Here is the different ways in which dialogue is useful:

  • Helps develop characters and deepen their relationships with each other
  • Provides space to play around with the main ideas in your novel
  • Adds dramatic moments to your story, without which it is boring
  • Matches the rhythms of human speech, making your characters more real
  • Reveals the characters’ desires, fears, and motivations
  • Lends a tone to the story and the characters
  • Depicts, deepens, or reflects upon the theme of your story
  • Changes the direction of plot
  • Holds the reader’s attention

Knowing how dialogue is important to your book will help you better appreciate how it should be written. Now, there are a few rules of writing dialogue you must learn. Before you understand how to write character dialogue, you need to understand the rules that you need to follow.

Rules of writing dialogue

Writing dialogue in a story or a novel has a few basic rules. If you follow them well, you’ll have nothing to fear from writing dialogues. We’ve added some handy examples of dialogue writing so you can understand these rules better.

Here are the rules of writing dialogue that you should always keep in mind:

1. Use double quotation marks for your dialogue

It is the oldest rule of dialogue writing to enclose the spoken words in double quotation marks. Here’s a sample dialogue:

“Mr. Bennet, you have no compassion for my poor nerves!”

However, there is an exception to this rule. In British English, single quotation marks are used instead of double to show dialogue.

2. Use single quotation marks for quotes within a dialogue

In American English, single quotation marks are used to show a quote within a quote. So if your character is quoting someone else, that phrase should be enclosed within single quotation marks. For example:

“I heard Percy say, ‘the new teacher is absolutely brilliant!’”

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.”

“So this was a trap?”


4. When (and how) to use dialogue tags

Dialogue tags are a means for you to connect the narration with the dialogue. The “he said” and “she said” you often come across? They’re the most widely used dialogue tags.

Take a look at this:

“Did you think it was over,” screeched Dr. Octavia. “My plan has just begun!”

In the above example of dialogue writing, the dialogue combines the narration and the speech to create the villain in our minds. However, it also provides an interruption in the character’s words. So, a dialogue tag is useful to add a pause in the dialogues.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered, “everything will be alright.”

If the dialogue tag ends the sentence, then use a period after it. But as in the example above, the tag can also occur in the middle of a dialogue to indicate a pause in speech. In that case, you can use commas to separate the speech from the narration.

5. When (and how) to use action tags

Action tags, also called action beats or dialogue beats, are short descriptions of action that break up the dialogue. You can use them to avoid repeating the usage of dialogue tags.

When it’s established that only a certain number of characters are speaking, it’s safe to use an action tag without confusing the reader. Let’s have a look at this example:

“Don’t tell me you lost it again!” She rolled her eyes, flopping down on the bean bag chair. “We’re so grounded.”

6. How to write longer dialogues

When a character delivers a long monologue, you have to create multiple paragraphs for a single dialogue. This can happen when a character narrates a story within your story, or during a flashback sequence.

In this case, end quotes are not used at the end of every paragraph. They only appear at the very end, when the character stops speaking.

“It was a long time ago,” said the old man. “The forests were yet untouched and man hadn’t succumbed to greed. I remember going to forage for produce with my mother. And then the machines came.

“By the time I was a grown man, they had already cut a long line through the forest.”

7. Use italics for internal speech

Your characters’ thoughts and internal monologue is represented through italics. This helps readers differentiate between what is said and what is thought. This is useful when you narrate your novel in the third person or through an omniscient narrator.

“I have no idea where to go,” said Martha. But I will keep you all safe.

Note that the end punctuation mark of the inner speech is also italicized. Think of it like this: instead of enclosing the sentence in quotes, we’re italicizing it.

Some writers choose to use double or single quotation marks to represent inner thoughts as well as dialogue. The key thing is to maintain consistency in your novel, no matter what style you choose to follow.

As is clear from the above examples of dialogue writing, there is much room for error while writing dialogue. Simple mistakes in dialogue punctuation can hamper the reading experience and take your reader out of the fictional world you have created. This is where an expert proofreader comes in.

Of course, any manuscript editing service will help ensure that you follow the important rules of writing dialogue. It’s their job to ensure consistency in your writing, even if you choose to deviate from the norm!

Now you understand the importance of dialogue and rules of writing dialogue. It’s time to understand how to write conversations in a story.

How to write dialogue in a story?

When it comes to writing dialogue in fiction , novelists and short story writers have a challenge at hand. They have to weave in dialogue while they construct scenes, setting, action, and context, also maintaining the flow and narrative of the story.

In his book The Anatomy of Story , John Truby says that dialogue is a “highly selective language that sounds like it could be real.” It is “always more intelligent, wittier, more metaphorical, and better argued than in real life.”

So, terrific dialogue isn’t just important when writing fiction— it’s essential. To impress the agent to win a book deal, and for your readers to keep coming back to your next book, you need to deliver superb dialogue in every scene.

 So, how to write dialogue that always hits the mark? Here are some tips to write dialogue:

1. Punctuate your dialogue properly

Writing dialogue punctuation is tricky, but extremely important. How you punctuate your dialogue determines the tone and meaning of your sentences. More than that, your use of punctuation also reflects upon the characters’ personality.

Take note of the following examples of dialogue writing:

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I really don’t know!”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I really don’t know!”

“I— I really don’t know.”

“I don’t know… I don’t know, I really don’t know.”

All the variations create different images inside your head. This is because dialogue punctuation creates a speech pattern for your character, and all memorable characters have unique speech patterns.

After all, aren’t you immediately reminded of a certain Star Wars character when you read:

“Know that, I don’t.”

So, the key to writing successful dialogue is to format it properly. Dialogue formatting hinges on five essential punctuation marks. Let’s go through them one by one.

Don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of dialogue formatting examples in the infographic below!

1. Quotation marks

Your dialogue, including all punctuation in the utterance, goes inside double quotations. If you’re in the UK, just replace this with single quotes.

US: “Whatever is said here— the deal, the discussions, the results, everything stays between us.”

UK: ‘Whatever is said here— the deal, the discussions, the results, everything stays between us.’

The end punctuation of a dialogue always goes inside quotation marks.

“When do we leave ? ” Fatima asked.

“Who goes there ! ” s he challenged.

Note that the first word of the dialogue tag is in lowercase. This is because your sentence is a combination of the dialogue and the tag. Since the sentence isn’t complete when the dialogue ends, there is no reason to write the tag in uppercase.

Unless, of course, if the first word happens to be a proper noun!

2. Quotes within dialogue

When you’re quoting a complete sentence, the punctuation remains inside the quote. But when your quote is an incomplete sentence, a book title, or an explanation of something, the punctuation goes outside of the quote

“Samantha called me up and said, ‘I want to see you right now !’ ”

“Samantha called me up and insisted on meeting ‘right now ’. ”

Commas appear with the dialogue tags. So, they connect the narration with the dialogue. Here is the correct way to punctuate with dialogue tags:

Tom said , “I will perform the main act tomorrow, when the time is right.”

“I will perform the main act tomorrow , ” said Tom. “When the time is right.”

“I will perform the main act tomorrow , ” said Tom , “when the time is right.”

Em-dashes are instrumental in setting a rhythm for dialogue. They represent disjointed speech or sentences that are abruptly broken off.

“I didn’t— I didn’t do anything!” Kyle was bewildered. “You— you have to believe me— I’m innocent!”

“They haven’t said—”

“We don’t have the time for this right now!” Anika yelled.

“I wish I could help—”

The alarm sounded: it was time for Wuxian to leave.

Aside from this, em-dashes can also be used to show when characters speak over each other. Here’s a dialogue writing example for overlapping speech:

“Mr. Jackson couldn’t see us—”

“Are you being serious right now!”

“—but he’s headed over here within the next hour.”

Sometimes, action and dialogue overlap to an extent where neither action tags nor dialogue tags are sufficient. In this case, a couple of em-dashes help the writer sprinkle narration between the dialogue.

“Little does our little prince know” — the witch stirred her potion — “what I have in store for him!”

5. Ellipsis

When a character gets stunned into silence or trails off while speaking, ellipses are the way to show it. Consider this:

“When did they…”

“Last night, when half our troops were asleep.”

He looked out at the distant stars. “I thought I had more time…”

It’s easy to deduce from the above examples of dialogue formatting that punctuation can make a huge difference. Different ways of writing dialogue in a story create different meanings. If you want to be a master dialogue writer, mastering dialogue punctuation is an absolute essential!

Also read: How to Punctuate Dialogue in Fiction

2. Character-specific dialogue

Obviously, writing effective dialogue requires a good understanding of your characters. Develop a speech pattern for your character that reflects their personality. Then, take into account their worldview, their present mental and emotional state, their accent, or some sayings they love to use.

Remember two things when you write dialogue for your characters:

Characters aren’t mouthpieces for the writer

Your characters have a life of their own. The dialogue you write for them needs to reflect this. Beware of setting two heads talking in space: scene and setting influence dialogue as much as they influence plot and story.

Dialogue between characters can engage with the surrounding to build tension and add drama. Don’t settle for anything less than the most character-specific, setting-influenced conversations between your characters!

All your characters can’t sound the same

Some characters talk a lot, some talk a little. Some talk wisely, and some talk frivolously. Effective dialogue writing lets the readers know exactly who is speaking.

A stuttering child will obviously have a different style of talking from a hotheaded matriarch. Idioms, catchphrases, accent: it all goes into the making of great dialogue.

3. Balance dialogue with narration

Dialogue from stories and novels is always more intelligent, metaphorical, and sassy than it is in real life. The simple reason for this is that dialogue is not real talk. It is a highly vetted language that is cleverly constructed to depict action, movement, and conflict.

Consider this:

“Hey, Eric,” Wendy said.

“Oh, hi! What’s up?”

“Do you know where Kenny is? He hasn’t been home in two days”

“I’ve been busy lately, don’t have a clue”

Your texts with random colleagues are more interesting than this, right? The dialogue in this example sounds realistic, but it’s also boring because it has no weight.

It does not contain any tensions and adds nothing to the plot. It tells you nothing about the characters, aside from the surface information.

A dialogue writing sample

Dialogue and internal monologue are necessary to the story but can quickly turn boring. So, your dialogue needs to be rich in conflict. More than this, it needs to be balanced with conflict in action and narration!

Make sure that your dialogue has an impact. It should change the direction of the plot, the movement of the story, and the behavior of your characters. If characters talk and nothing happens, your readers will lose interest.

This is how you can achieve a balance between narration and dialogue to depict a better picture:

“Hey, Eric,” Wendy said, trying to play it cool.

“Oh, hi!” Eric said brightly, rubbing the back of his neck. “What’s up?”

“Do you know where Kenny is?” She observed his expression. “He hasn’t been home in two days.”

Eric won’t give away anything so casually, she thought. I must corner him after the meeting.

“I’ve been busy lately,” he smirked, shrugging. “No clue.”

See how some well-placed narration makes the same lines more engrossing? A drab conversation takes on more meaning if you use the right dialogue tags and action beats.

4. Avoid exposition

Exposition is the writer’s way of giving context to their readers. It tells the readers more about the setting, the backstory, and the recent or distant events before the story begins.

It’s important for the readers to know where the characters come from and where they are going. But this doesn’t have to be told through a dialogue between two characters. Too much exposition in dialogue makes your characters talking heads, rather than the real people they’re supposed to be.

Relying heavily on your dialogue is as harmful as not using it enough.

Ideally, a large part of the exposition should be set in the story’s narrative. Other developments like suspense, revelations, or secrets can unravel through dialogue. This adds dramatic effect to your narrative.

5. Revising your dialogue is important

No one can write good dialogue in one go. If it’s impactful, it tends to be unrealistic. If it’s believable, it becomes lackluster. This is why revising your dialogue is so important. Aside from the content, even changes in dialogue formatting and punctuation can make it more substantial.

It’s natural to come up with a clunky length of conversations in your first go at writing dialogue. But a round of revision helps you refine it by leaps and bounds.

Go through individual dialogue segments and inspect them carefully. Ask if the dialogue is logical for the character’s disposition. Is it true to the story’s time and character’s maturity? Does it fit the character’s credible thinking?

Create a list of such questions to suit your individual process. Include things that you often forget to consider. Add considerations like personality, slang, rhythm, mood, and emotion to your list.

If you lack the critical eye to examine and correct your writing, seek expert help. As always, your novel editors and proofreaders are here to help ! 

6. Study and practice 

Finally, the most important advice from anyone who has mastered any art: practice!

Observe how your favorite author writes dialogue in their books. Note down all remarkable examples of dialogue writing and study them for why they work. You can also make use of some dialogue writing exercises.

A dialogue writing exercise can be as simple as starting with a prompt and making it intriguing. Basic as it sounds, there’s nothing like some good old writing practice to get you going! So, here are some quick dialogue writing prompts that can help you practice:

  • “I heard you’ve been missing something.”
  • “Ah, how the mighty have fallen!”
  • “I never said—”
  • “Have you heard? Old man Lan is dead.”
  • “Her mother knew. All this time.”
  • “Did they help? You don’t look any better.”
  • “It’s time to finish what we started.”
  • “I never thought it could go this wrong.”
  • “How did you…”
  • “How old are you again? I keep forgetting!”

We hope these dialogue prompts get you excited to write. Of course, knowing what you need to do isn’t enough to make powerful dialogue. You also need to know what to avoid .

Avoid these dialogue writing mistakes

There are two reasons that dialogues become boring: either writers expect dialogue to do the heavy lifting, or they don’t rely on it at all. There is a fine balance for dialogue in a story: it needs to do enough, but never too much.

But how can you achieve this? Where does the limit lie? Now that we’ve told you how to write dialogue, we’ll also inform you about some common dialogue mistakes you need to avoid. It’s all about that balance, isn’t it!

Avoid these pitfalls in when you write dialogue in a story:

1. Boring dialogue tags

There is a wide variety of tags you can use, aside from “he said”, “she said”, and “they said”. The common mistake to make while writing dialogue in a story is using the same or similar tags too often. This gets repetitive and boring for the reader.

No one wants to read something like this:

“Barry,” said Melanie, “I didn’t know you were in town!”

“You hardly know yourself these days,” he said.

“Hey!” she said. “No fair!”

Let’s make some corrections:

“Barry,” beamed Melanie, “I didn’t know you were in town!”

“You hardly know yourself these days,” he mocked .

“Hey!” she protested. “No fair!”

You know what? I still feel like this is lacking, and we’ll soon see why.

2. Too many tags, not enough beats

Using an abundance of dialogue beats and no action tags make for poor dialogue. The reverse is also true; what you need is a proper mix of both.

Tags tell you how the words are being said, but beats tell you what action is happening alongside the words. For engaging dialogue, you need both! Here’s our previous dialogue writing example, edited, proofread, and improved:

“Barry!” Melanie hugged him, smiling brightly. “I didn’t know you were in town!”

“You hardly know yourself these days,” he mocked.

“Hey!” She punched him on the shoulder. “No fair!”

3. An abundance of the same style

We’ve seen multiple ways to write and punctuate dialogue. You can write it with a tag, a beat, or an interruption. Find ways to mix and match between these styles, so the repetition doesn’t become boring.

Here’s an example that mixes various styles of dialogue writing:

“Barry!” — Melanie hugged him, smiling brightly — “I didn’t know you were in town!”

4. Scene-blindness

A scene is a moment in your story: it includes action, conflict, and some immediate consequences. To maintain the flow of action, nothing should interrupt the scene.

Let dialogue build tension, and cut back on it when the tension is highest. Too much dialogue can dilute the scene and create no impact. Assess the needs of every scene, and write your dialogue accordingly.

Now that you know how to creatively use dialogue, you can create intriguing dialogues to hook the reader to your text. The next step after writing is editing. As experts in editing and proofreading services , we’d love to refine your text! 

Here are some other articles that you might find useful: 

  • How to Write a Novel in Past Tense? 3 Steps & Examples
  • How to Write Unforgettable Antagonists

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Home » Blog » How to Write Dialogue that Engages Readers in 9 Steps

How to Write Dialogue that Engages Readers in 9 Steps



As a writer, you need to constantly improve your writing and draft. You need to work on characters, plot, and story to create your best work. This includes how to develop characters, what writing software to use, and importantly, how to write dialogue.

Dialogues are essential for writing and are the backbone of your story. No New York Times bestseller ever made the list with bad dialogue.

Lauren Grodstein says:

“I like writing dialogue – I can hear my characters so clearly that writing dialogue often feels as much like transcribing something as it does like creating it.”

If you want to hear your characters and if you want to have your readers hear them, you should know how to write dialogue in a book, script, or short story. Dialogues make your story interesting, they hook readers, they make your writing reader-friendly, and have several other benefits (discussed below).

So how to incorporate dialogue in your book? How to write dialogue in a narrative? What steps you should follow to write a great book with compelling dialogue?

All these and many other questions will be answered in this in-depth and actionable guide on how to write dialogue, good dialogue examples, their benefits, and more.

By the time you’ll finish reading this guide, you’ll become a better writer than you are now as the writing tips are useful and valuable.

What is Dialogue?

Dialogue is a conversion between two or more characters. The purpose of dialogue is to exchange information. It isn’t meant to convince someone. Dialogue in writing is two-way communication that’s cooperative and is meant for the exchange of information.

two way vs one way communication

There are several reasons you should use dialogue in your book and how to write a conversation that will keep readers engaged and persuade them to keep reading.

The major benefits of using dialogue in your book are covered in the next section.

The Benefits of Writing Dialogue in Your Book

The leading benefits of writing dialogue in your book are:

  • Grabs attention
  • Character development
  • Information
  • Advance your story

1. Dialogue Grabs Attention

Using dialogue in your story helps you grab the reader’s attention. Interesting conversation is something that readers love. What you can achieve with a dialogue (even a short one), you can’t do the same without dialogue.

A story without dialogue will get boring. To hook readers, you have to add dialogue in your book. You need to master how to write a conversation in your book and that’s what makes all the difference.

Here is an example from The Secret History by Donna Tartt :

‘It was Julian and Henry. Neither of them had heard me come up the stairs. Henry was leaving; Julian was standing at the open door. His brow was furrowed and he looked very somber, as if he were saying something of the gravest importance […].

Julian finishes speaking. He looked away for a moment, then bit his lower lip and looked up at Henry.

Then Henry spoke. His words were low but deliberate and distinct. ‘Should I do what is necessary?’

To my surprise, Julian took both Henry’s hands in his own. ‘You should only, ever, do what is necessary,’ he said.’

The suspense Tartt developed with dialogue couldn’t be done without dialogue. It shows an agreement between Julian and Henry which, in the absence of dialogue, wouldn’t be possible to communicate effectively.

This is what makes dialogues so crucial for your story. If you’re ever stuck on finding a good piece of dialogue, try using a writing prompt generator . This will give you some random ideas that may just spark an entire scene or conversation.

2. Character Development

You can write pages upon pages to describe your character or you can use a simple dialogue to show readers everything about your character. Here is an example :

Reported speech: He asked her what she was doing. Dialogue 1: “What’cha doin’?” Dialogue 2: “What the bloody hell are you doing?” Dialogue 3: “W-w-w-what are y-y-you doing?” Dialogue 4: “If I may be so bold, may I ask what the young Miss is doing?” Dialogue 5: “By the bloody battleaxe of the war god Sarnis, what on earth are you up to now?”

You can describe your character in a single sentence with a dialogue. The way your characters speak, what language they use, what words they use, how often they speak, etc. helps you develop your characters and it helps your readers better understand the characters.

You don’t have to put a lot of hard work into explaining who, what, why, and how about your characters if you know how to write dialogue in a story.

3. Information

Dialogues let you share information with the readers. You can share information related to moods, personalities, history, and any other important or even unimportant information via dialogues. Readers get the information unconsciously while reading and they don’t feel burdened.

That’s the beauty of dialogues.

Most importantly, the back story can be best explained through dialogue. If you narrate a back story, it will get boring and readers might lose interest. On the other hand, if the same backstory is expressed in the form of a conversation between two characters, it gets a whole lot more interesting. It then becomes a story in the true sense.

Here is a perfect dialogue example by Tennessee Williams from A Streetcar Named Desire:

“Who do you think you are? A pair of queens? Now just remember what Huey Long said—that every man’s a king—and I’m the king around here, and don’t you forget it!” Again, Stanley wants to undermine Blanche to Stella when he reminds her of the good times the two had before Blanche arrived:

“Listen, baby, when we first met—you and me—you thought I was common. Well, how right you were! I was as common as dirt. You showed me a snapshot of the place with them columns, and I pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it, having them colored lights goin’! And weren’t we happy together? Wasn’t it all OK? Till she showed up here. Hoity-toity, describin’ me like an ape.”

Stanley is sharing information about his past and the writer uses dialogue to share the backstory and other relevant information that doesn’t sound like information. This is one powerful reason you should learn how to write dialogues.

4. Realistic

Dialogues make your story realistic. That’s how the world we live in works. We talk. We have conversations, big and small. Generally, we are always involved in some kind of conversation in our lives.

So if you wish to write a story that’s natural and depicts our real world, you need dialogues. It will make your story more organic and it will be easier for the readers to connect with your plot.

5. Advance Your Story

Perhaps the best feature of using dialogue in your writing is that it helps you move the story forward. When you narrate the story, it complicates it as compared to using dialogues that make your job easier.

Here is a dialogue example that moves the story forward by sharing important information with the readers:

dialogue example

The writer explained the situation and advanced the story in a few dialogues. The same could have taken two paragraphs or maybe more if it were to be done without dialogues.

Dialogues help you convey emotions and describe the complete scene without using too many words. This is the real beauty of using them and that’s why you need to know how to write dialogue in a book.

How to Write Dialogue in a Book

Follow these steps to write dialogue in your book:

  • Have a purpose for the dialogue
  • Differentiate characters
  • Use conflict
  • Be consistent
  • Keep dialogues natural
  • Keep dialogues short
  • Improve flow
  • Check formatting and punctuation
  • Recheck and edit

Step #1: Dialogue Purpose

You should use dialogues for a purpose. They should have a reason.

Not all types of writing need to have dialogues. You can’t fit them anywhere based on your liking. That’s not how it works and that’s not how it will work.

The decision to use dialogue in your writing should be logical and must be purpose-driven. The first thing you should do is ask yourself the following questions:

Do I really need a dialogue here?

If so, what is its purpose?

Can I go without a dialogue?

Will it make any difference if I add a dialogue?

Generally, novels and fiction writing need dialogues. Non-fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily need dialogues. But there isn’t any rule. You’re the best judge. It’s your book so you have to decide rationally what makes more sense – and why.

To make things simple for you, you should use dialogue in your book if it meets one of the conditions:

  • Dialogue should provide information that otherwise would be tough to narrate
  • Dialogue needs to improve the characterization
  • Dialogue is moving the story forward

These are the three primary purposes of using dialogue in your book. It should meet at least one of the conditions above. If it does none of the above, you don’t necessarily need dialogue and you’d be fine without it.

For instance, George Eliot in her novel Middlemarch used the following dialogue between the two sisters and set them apart. The following dialogue shows the difference between the two characters:

Celia was trying not to smile with pleasure. “O Dodo, you must keep the cross yourself.”

“No, no, dear, no,” said Dorothea, putting up her hand with careless deprecation.”

“Yes, indeed you must; it would suit you – in your black dress, now,” said Celia, insistingly. “You might wear that.” “Not for the world, not for the world. A cross is the last thing I would wear as a trinket.” Dorothea shuddered slightly. “Then you will think it wicked in me to wear it,” said Celia, uneasily. “No, dear, no,” said Dorothea, stroking her sister’s cheek.

This character differentiation couldn’t be achieved without dialogue. And that’s how you should ensure that dialogues in your story have a specific purpose.

The easiest way to figure out if your dialogue has a purpose is by removing it. If the story still makes sense after removing a specific dialogue, it has no purpose and should be removed. If, however, the story doesn’t make sense anymore or the message gets distorted, you should retain it.

As a writer, you’re the judge and you should define the purpose and reason of the dialogue before you initiate a conversation.

Step #2: Differentiate Characters

One of the first things you need to understand while learning how to write dialogue is to set your characters apart using dialogue. You can write several pages explaining different characteristics of the characters which might not work well as opposed to a dialogue.

You can express several types of important information about your characters via dialogue such as:

  • The character’s background and accent
  • Character’s personality, mood, feelings, thoughts, and other traits by the tone and word selection
  • How often a character speaks and information on whether he/she is introverted or extrovert

Dialogue helps you define your characters and differentiate them from one another. If you are writing a novel or a screenplay , I’m sure you know how important character development is and what role it plays in novel writing .

You should use dialogue to differentiate characters, set them apart, and for character development. You should also use dialogue to describe changes in motives, feelings, and intentions as the story moves forward. When these changes are conveyed via dialogue, it makes them more meaningful and notable as opposed to the writer narrating the changes a character is going through.

Here is an example from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White :

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hog house,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight. 

“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”

Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”

The difference in their personalities is evident- no line of dialogue is out of character. This is a perfect way to use dialogue to differentiate characters and who they are.

Use Squibler’s AI tools to create new characters, settings, and objects. You can also develop your elements by adding descriptions and visuals. Then Squibler lets you seamlessly integrate the characters into your dialogues and narrative as you create chapters and scenes.

Step #3: Use Conflict

Imagine your characters are sitting on a couch spending time watching birds in the sky. You can narrate the scene and explain it in detail. You can add dialogue but if everything is moving smoothly and there isn’t anything new or conflicting, what’s the point of having a dialogue?

It won’t add value.

When dialogue doesn’t add value, it should be removed. This is the first rule.

And when there is a conflict or disagreement between two or more characters at any level and of any kind, there has to be a dialogue. This rule is really important.

When there isn’t any conflict and everything is pleasing and normal, and the dialogue doesn’t raise the eyebrows of the readers, they will start losing interest. The fact is: We all do chitchat and conversations in our daily lives that have no purpose. That’s fine.

But if you do the same in your novel will bore your readers. It doesn’t just work.

This is why you must learn how to write dialogue that uses conflict between two characters. It doesn’t have to be severe conflict rather it should be two opposing views. If you’re not using conflict and the dialogue doesn’t advance the story, you don’t need one.

That makes sense, right?

Things, however, get challenging when there isn’t any conflict and the conversation is pleasant and lively. You can’t skip it. That’s also a part of the novel because removing these types of pleasant conversations from your story will ruin it.

What do you do to narrate lively conversations?

You need to keep these conversations brief. Better yet, narrate them. This is something you have to learn. This is why reading is crucial if you want to become a better writer. Check dialogue examples from other writers and see how they write dialogue when characters are happy and when there is a conflict.

You’ll notice that pleasant conversations are kept to a minimum while conflicts are covered in detail because stories rely on conflicts and that’s how it moves forward. When everything is fine and there aren’t any conflicts, that’s the end of the story.

Here is an example from Fat City by Leonard Gardner:

“That’s a good one.” Tully placed the meat in the black encrusted frying pan, pushing in the edge of fat until the steak lay flat.

“I heard what you said.”

“Then why’d you ask?”

“You think I’m lying to you.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You don’t trust me, do you?”

“All I’m trying to do,” said Tully, now opening a can of peas, “is make us our supper.”

It is a perfect example of how to use dialogue to create conflict in your characters and move the story forward.

Use Squibler if you lack at building more conflict and adding more depth. With advanced AI technology, you can select a certain section of your dialogue and command Squibler to add more conflict and intensity to it and see how your work unfolds before your eyes in a matter of seconds. 

Step #4: Be Consistent

One of the basic lessons of dialogue writing that you’ll learn in every book or screenwriting course on how to write dialogue and how to write a conversation is that dialogues need to be consistent. That is, it keeps characters consistent throughout the book unless you want to depict a change in a character’s behavior.

This means the words your character uses, his attitude, personality, taste, feelings, and language should be consistent. Make them as humane as possible. That’s the key to bringing a story to life.

After spending time with someone, you can anticipate their reaction to a situation and you can anticipate their behavior. This is what exactly readers do. They anticipate the reaction of your characters.

How do you get to know you’re being consistent in dialogue writing?

If readers can anticipate the reaction of your characters, you’re doing a great job. If dialogue surprises them, readers will lose interest. It will become confusing.

Sometimes, it’s essential to keep a character or two mysterious. And that’s fine. When you have such a character, readers expect a different response from him every time – and that’s what you should do.

The thing is: Readers expect characters to behave in a certain way. This expectation is developed by dialogue, narration, and the plot. You need to ensure that the dialogue is consistent and is as per readers’ expectations that you have developed in your book.

The tone, word choice, structure, language, voice, etc. need to be consistent with the character’s personality and with the situation they’re dealing with. If a character is talking to a stranger, he will use a different tone as compared to when he is talking to his wife. You can use the same tone.

Consistency isn’t just relevant to the character but it should be relevant to the situation, the character he is talking to, and the scenario.

Use Squibler to develop your writing piece and the AI technology lets you seamlessly maintain the consistency of character traits and plot elements. You can store all the characteristics in elements next to your editor and later recall the character with just their name and the AI will develop the content based on the ongoing dialogue and traits you provided. AI takes care of the matter, and this way you put less focus on maintaining consistency and more time into writing the story. 

Step #5: Keep Dialogues Natural

While you’re trying to be consistent with the character’s personality and scene, it is equally important to keep dialogues natural as people communicate generally daily.

For instance, you need to use slang appropriately as people use slang all the time. Here is an example of how to make dialogue appear natural and realistic:

dialogue example

Jenna Moreci has created a slang for the novel which fits perfectly.

Make sure dialogues don’t appear alien to the readers. For instance, if you use formal language, it won’t fit well because people don’t use formal language.

Here is an example :

dialogue example

People don’t talk like this. Writing dialogue like this will make readers roll their eyes from boredom.

An easy approach to keeping your dialogues natural and realistic is to listen to how people talk. Spend time in a park or a hotel lobby and record snippets of conversations people have. You can even visit a high school to learn how teenagers talk. You’ll be able to figure out how people talk and communicate. Alternately, check dialogue examples from top authors. See how they make dialogues realistic and world-like.

Needless to say, you don’t have to keep dialogues natural and realistic all the time. You have to, at times, switch to unrealistic dialogues. This is something that fiction writers do a lot especially when they build a new world.

Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you have to adjust dialogue accordingly. At the end of the day though, speech patterns need to stay consistent otherwise characters will lose believability.

Step #6: Keep Dialogue Short

If there is one thing all new writers should know about how to write dialogue, it’s this: Keep them short.

As much as you can.

Here is what Nigel Watts says about dialogues:

“Dialogue is like a rose bush – it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along.”

Why keep it concise?

To make it reader-friendly. When you cut the dialogue, it might not appear realistic because that’s not how people talk. So there is a fine line between realistic dialogues and short dialogues.

You have to write dialogue like it sounds in real life and then shorten it. Remove anything and everything excessive. Get rid of the unnecessary stuff, that once removed doesn’t change the meaning of the dialogue.

Try shortening the dialogue as much as you can. This is something that you’ll learn with time. Practice. Check dialogue examples.

Here is an example. Check the following dialogue that’s not shortened.

dialogue example

Now here is a revised version of the same dialogue:

dialogue example

Both versions have the same meaning. Readers don’t miss anything. That’s what you have to do with your dialogues. Keep them short. This is one of the basic lessons on how to write dialogue in a book.

Here is what you should do to make dialogue concise. Small talk may happen in real life, but it’s not necessary to include it in your novel. It halts the flow and doesn’t add much value.

Edit dialogues multiple times during the editing process. If you use editing software , make sure you edit dialogues manually and make them short. Once you’re done, ask someone else to reduce the word count of the dialogues. Finally, compare the original version with the new version and see if they still deliver the same message.

Avoiding common mistakes like fluffy dialogue is paramount to a good story. 

Use Squibler if you struggle with writing compact and natural dialogue. You can write however you want not worrying about the errors and mistakes, and then select the text and ask AI to rewrite it or summarize based on your instructions. It will generate the dialogue exactly according to your instructions. 

You can also generate the entire screenplay with Squibler. You need to decide the title of the screenplay and the number of pages and the software will generate the screenplay for you within minutes. You can also use an existing draft to generate the screenplay.

Step #7: Improve Flow

If you have ever written a book or a novel and have used book editing software , I’m sure you’ll know the importance of flow in writing. Dialogues are no different. The flow of the dialogues needs to be taken care of specifically. You need to master how to write dialogue that flows well and can be read effortlessly.

What does dialogue flow mean?

It means the dialogue should flow logically and the readers don’t have to put an effort to understand anything. It should move from one character to another smoothly.

There are several ways to improve the flow of the dialogues such as:

  • Improve dialogue tags. Too many or too few tags (e.g. she said, he asked, etc.) ruin the flow. Always tag a piece of dialogue when it’s the first time a character is speaking in the conversation, but refrain from adding tags in every single line as it gets too monotonous. Using too few dialogue tags isn’t a good idea either as readers will have to move back after a few lines to identify whose line they’re reading. There has to be a balance. Be smart with tags.
  • Describe the character’s actions as to what they’re doing. That makes dialogue natural and that’s the correct way on how to write a conversation in a book. Naturally, when people talk, they’re always doing something like staring at the wall, playing with the key, chopping vegetables, etc. These are the actions that you should explicitly mention to make dialogues appear natural and to improve flow.
  • Don’t add long lengthy paragraphs in dialogue. This ruins the flow. And it never happens. When a person is talking continuously, you have to mention the action of the other person. For instance, add umm, ahh, I see, etc. to maintain the flow and to avoid large paragraphs of text.

Follow these three steps to improve the flow of your dialogues and you’ll be able to write better dialogues that make sense.

If you want to enhance the flow in a matter of seconds without much effort, use Squibler’s advanced AI tools that are modeled in a way that maintains the integrity of the dialogue and keeps the plot binging. 

Step #8: Check Formatting and Punctuation

You can’t hook a reader with poorly formatted and punctually incorrect dialogue. It won’t happen. If you want to know how to write dialogue, you also need to learn how to format dialogue and how to punctuate dialogue.

Here are a few basic punctuating rules that you should always stick with when formatting dialogue:

  • Add comma and period within the quotation marks.
  • Use a comma between the dialogue and the tag.
  • Double quotation marks are used for regular dialogue.
  • Use single quotation marks if you have to use a quotation inside a dialogue. Single quotes help the quote stand out within the dialogue.
  • When quotations extend and move to another paragraph, don’t close it at the end of the first paragraph rather close it towards the end of the last paragraph.
  • Start a new paragraph for new lines of dialogue.
  • Em dashes can be used instead of a comma at times for extra emphasis. This also creates variety and improves readability. 
  • Pay attention to the proper use of uppercase and lowercase letters when appropriate.
  • If you’re ending the dialogue with ellipses, don’t add any other punctuation. 

dialogue formatting and punctuation

Poorly written dialogues don’t make sense. When the punctuation isn’t correct, it will ruin the flow and the meaning too. For instance, inner dialogues are put in italics and if you aren’t putting them in italics, readers won’t know if they’re inner dialogues.

Simple things like a period, question mark, and exclamation point all need to be placed perfectly. Basic errors like these are inexcusable.  These types of mistakes can change the meaning and context of the book altogether.

Great dialogue starts with perfect dialogue punctuation and formatting.

If you use an editing tool like Grammarly , it will identify the formatting and punctuation-related issues. However, you’ll still need to go through it manually because there are several errors that the software can’t identify and fix.

The best approach is to check dialogue formatting and punctuation as you write. Once you finish writing your novel or screenplay, you can then go through all the dialogues to check their formatting and punctuation.

Step #9: Recheck and Edit

This is the last step in the dialogue writing process where you have to check dialogues for errors. You can set a schedule as to when you need to recheck written dialogue. You can do it daily, weekly, monthly, or after completing a specific word count or chapter-wise.

But you should do it regularly as you write.

What to check?

Everything ranging from character development to story to flow to dialogue length to formatting. The best approach is to check dialogues individually for Step #1 to Step #8. This will perfect dialogues and your book leaving no room for errors.

Using a writing tool like Squibler will make it easier for you to recheck and edit dialogues as managing your draft gets easier. You can easily edit and tweak your document and keep track of the changes.

In the end, it all comes down to how you write dialogue and how you format dialogue. It’s difficult to tell if you’ve written effective dialogue until readers have gotten their hands on it. All you can do is arm yourself with the best information and write the best dialogue you can. 

Spice Up Conversations with Dialogue

Dialogue is essential for fiction writing and if you’re a fiction writer, you should master the art of writing dialogue. It’s an asset to your writing skills.

What you can achieve with dialogue can’t be achieved otherwise. Dialogue gives life to your manuscript. Dialogue gives life to your characters. Dialogue helps you grab the reader’s attention. Dialogue makes your story easy to understand.

You can’t ignore the importance and usefulness of dialogues in writing. I’m confident these 9 steps on how to write dialogue will help you write better novels , screenplays, and books for your readers.

The following are some commonly asked questions about writing dialogue in a narrative:

How do you write engaging dialogue?

To write engaging dialogue, focus on authenticity and purpose. Use a dialogue tag and opt for action beats to convey speakers’ emotions and movements. Keep exchanges concise, injecting tension and subtext where possible. Listen to real conversations to capture natural speech patterns and employ dialogue writing examples to refine your style. Strive for realism while ensuring each line drives the story forward or deepens character development.

How does dialogue engage the reader?

Dialogue engages readers by bringing characters to life through their unique voices and interactions. Realistic dialogue enhances immersion, making characters relatable and believable. Effective dialogue advances the plot, reveals character traits, and conveys emotions, thoughts, and conflicts. By crafting authentic conversations, writers establish connections between characters and readers, fostering empathy and investment in the narrative.

How do you write dialogue step by step?

To write effective dialogue, start by knowing your characters intimately, and understanding their backgrounds, motivations, and personalities. Next, consider the purpose of the conversation within the context of your story. Write dialogue that is concise, authentic, and moves the plot forward. Use tags and action beats judiciously to convey tone and emotion. Finally, revise and refine your dialogue, ensuring it sounds natural and serves the narrative.

How do you engage readers?

Engaging readers hinges on creating compelling characters whose dialogue feels authentic and resonates with the audience. Craft characters with depth, unique voices, and relatable traits. Ensure their dialogue is purposeful, advancing the plot, revealing insights into their personalities, and driving emotional connections. By making the character’s dialogue meaningful and believable, readers become invested in their journeys and the overall narrative.

Josh Fechter

Related Posts

Published in What is Dialogue?


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How to Format Dialogue in a Story

Last Updated: December 23, 2023 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Diya Chaudhuri, PhD . Diya Chaudhuri holds a PhD in Creative Writing (specializing in Poetry) from Georgia State University. She has over 5 years of experience as a writing tutor and instructor for both the University of Florida and Georgia State University. There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 453,739 times.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, satire or drama, writing the dialogue may have its challenges. The parts of a story where characters speak stand out from the other elements of a story, starting with the quotation marks that are nearly universally applied. Here are some of the most common and established steps for making sure that your story looks right when you have to figure out how to properly format dialogue.

Things You Should Know

  • Break and indent paragraphs involving 2 or more speakers.
  • Use quotation marks around all words spoken by a character.
  • Break a long speech into multiple paragraphs.

Getting the Punctuation Right

Step 1 Break and indent paragraphs for different speakers.

  • Even if a speaker only utters half a syllable before they’re interrupted by someone else, that half-syllable still gets its own indented paragraph.
  • In English, dialogue is read from the left side of the page to the right, so the first thing readers notice when looking at a block of text is the white space on the left margin. [2] X Research source

Step 2 Use quotation marks correctly.

  • A single set of quotation marks can include multiple sentences, as long as they are spoken in the same portion of dialogue. For example: Evgeny argued, "But Laura didn’t have to finish her dinner! You always give her special treatment!"
  • When a character quotes someone else, use double-quotes around what your character says, then single-quotes around the speech they’re quoting. For example: Evgeny argued, “But you never yell ‘Finish your dinner’ at Laura!”
  • The reversal of roles for the single and double-quotation mark is common outside of American writing. Many European and Asian languages use angle brackets (<< >>) to mark dialogue instead.

Step 3 Punctuate your dialogue tags properly.

  • Use a comma to separate the dialogue tag from the dialogue.
  • If the dialogue tag precedes the dialogue, the comma appears before the opening quotation mark: Evgeny argued, “But Laura didn’t have to finish her dinner!”
  • If the dialogue tag comes after the dialogue, the comma appears before (inside) the closing quotation mark: “But Laura didn’t have to finish her dinner,” argued Evgeny.
  • If the dialogue tag interrupts the flow of a sentence of dialogue, use a pair of commas that follows the previous two rules: “But Laura,” Evgeny argued, “never has to finish her dinner!”

Step 4 Punctuate questions and exclamations properly.

  • If the question or exclamation ends the dialogue, do not use commas to separate the dialogue from dialogue tags. For example: "Why did you order mac-and-cheese pizza for dinner?" Fatima asked in disbelief.

Step 5 Use dashes and ellipses correctly.

  • For example, use a dash to indicate an abruptly ended speech: "What are y--" Joe began.
  • You can also use dashes to indicate when one person's dialogue is interrupted by another's: "I just wanted to tell you--" "Don't say it!" "--that I prefer Rocky Road ice cream."
  • Use ellipses when a character has lost her train of thought or can't figure out what to say: "Well, I guess I mean..."

Step 6 Capitalize the quoted speech.

  • For example: Evgeny argued, "But Laura didn’t have to finish her dinner!" The “b” of “But” does not technically begin the sentence, but it begins a sentence in the world of the dialogue, so it is capitalized.
  • However, if the first quoted word isn’t the first word of a sentence, don’t capitalize it: Evgeny argued that Laura “never has to finish her dinner!”

Step 7 Break a long speech into multiple paragraphs.

  • Use an opening quotation mark where you normally would, but don’t place one at the end of the first paragraph of the character’s speech. The speech isn’t over yet, so you don’t punctuate it like it is!
  • Do, however, place another opening quotation mark at the beginning of the next paragraph of speech. This indicates that this is a continuation of the speech from the previous paragraph.
  • Place your closing quotation mark wherever the character’s speech ends, as you normally would.

Step 8 Avoid using quotation marks with indirect dialogue.

Making Your Dialogue Flow Naturally

Step 1 Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.

  • When you have a long dialogue that’s clearly being held between only two people, you can choose to leave out the dialogue tags entirely. In this case, you would rely on your paragraph breaks and indentations to let the reader know which character is speaking.
  • You should leave out the dialogue tags when more than two characters are speaking only if you intend for the reader to be potentially confused about who is speaking. For example, if four characters are arguing with one another, you may want the reader to get the sense that they’re just hearing snatches of argument without being able to tell who’s speaking. The confusion of leaving out dialogue tags could help accomplish this.

Step 2 Avoid using over-fancy dialogue tags.

  • Place dialogue tags in the middle of a sentence, interrupting the sentence, to change the pacing of your sentence. Because you have to use two commas to set the dialogue tag apart (see Step 3 in the previous section), your sentence will have two pauses in the middle of the spoken sentence: “And how exactly,” Laura muttered under her breath, “do you plan on accomplishing that?”

Step 4 Substitute pronouns for proper nouns.

  • Some examples of pronouns include I, me, he, she, herself, you, it, that, they, each, few, many, who, whoever, whose, someone, everybody, and so on.
  • Pronouns must always agree with the number and gender of the nouns they’re referring to. [9] X Research source [10] X Research source
  • For example, the only appropriate pronouns to replace “Laura” are singular, feminine ones: she, her, hers, herself.
  • The only appropriate pronouns to replace “Laura and Evgeny” are plural, gender neutral ones (because English loses gender when pluralized): they, their, theirs, themselves, them.

Step 5 Use dialogue beats to mix up your formatting.

Community Q&A

Community Answer

  • Remember that less is often more. One common mistake that writers make when creating dialogue is to write things in longer sentences than people would actually say them. For example, most people use contractions and drop inessential words in everyday conversation. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
  • Be very careful if you attempt to include an accent in your dialogue. Often, this will necessitate extra punctuation to show accent sounds ( danglin' instead of dangling , for example), and can end up visually overwhelming your reader. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0

how to write dialogue in stories

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Write Dates

  • ↑ http://edhelper.com/ReadingComprehension_33_85.html
  • ↑ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20space
  • ↑ https://stlcc.edu/student-support/academic-success-and-tutoring/writing-center/writing-resources/quotation-marks-dialogue.aspx
  • ↑ https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/how-to-write-dialogue/tags/
  • ↑ http://learn.lexiconic.net/dialoguepunctuation.htm
  • ↑ http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000106.htm
  • ↑ http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/propernoun.htm
  • ↑ http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/pronoun.asp
  • ↑ http://facweb.furman.edu/~moakes/Powerwrite/pronouns.htm
  • ↑ https://www.sjsu.edu/writingcenter/docs/handouts/Pronouns.pdf

About This Article

Diya Chaudhuri, PhD

To format dialogue in a story, insert a paragraph break and indent every time a new speaker starts talking. Then, put what they’re saying inside a set of double quotation marks. If you're using a dialogue tag, like "She said" or "He asked," follow it with a comma if it comes before the dialogue or a period if it comes after. Also, remember to put periods, question marks, and exclamation points inside the quotation marks. For more tips from our Creative Writing co-author, like how to write good, convincing dialogue, scroll down! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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how to write dialogue in stories

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May 18, 2020

John Shashenksi

John Shashenksi

Apr 25, 2017


Jun 17, 2016

Richard Jones

Richard Jones

May 18, 2017

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how to write dialogue in stories

10 Short Stories with Great Dialogue That Aren’t “Hills Like White Elephants”

Do you believe in life after hemingway.

Before you get excited: I have no problem with “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this classic story, Ernest Hemingway demonstrates a masterful, subtle use of dialogue—so much so that it has become, if not a totally clichéd, then at least a ubiquitous text in creative writing classrooms. I myself encountered it at least four times by the time I got to grad school—where I proceeded to teach it to my own Introduction to Creative Writing class. It’s the circle of life. This is only to say that I’m not immune—but I also know there are plenty of other stories with strong dialogue out there, and as another school year (such as it is, in 2021) gets going, they’re probably worth a look too. Just for fun, you know?

So I asked the Literary Hub staff to suggest some of their other favorite short stories that do cool things with dialogue, and I’ve collected a few of them here. Obviously this list is not exhaustive—among other things, we also shied away from some other tried-and-true dialogue-heavy classics, like “The Dead” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and “Steady Hands at Seattle General”—and of course these stories are mostly not doing the same thing as “Hills Like White Elephants,” but they’re all doing something interesting. Just in case you want to mix it up a little this year.

Sam Lipsyte, “ The Dungeon Master ,” from The Fun Parts

Sample Dialogue:

The Dungeon Master has detention. We wait at his house by the county road. The Dungeon Master’s little brother Marco puts out corn chips and orange soda.

Marco is a paladin. He fights for the glory of Christ. Marco has been many paladins since winter break. They are all named Valentine, and the Dungeon Master makes certain they die with the least possible amount of dignity.

It’s painful enough when he rolls the dice, announces that a drunken orc has unspooled some Valentine’s guts for sport. Worse are the silly accidents. One Valentine tripped on a floor plank and cracked his head on a mead bucket. He died of trauma in the stable.

“Take it!” the Dungeon Master said that time. Spit sprayed over the top of his laminated screen. “Eat your fate,” he said. “Your thread just got the snippo!”

The Dungeon Master has a secret language that we don’t quite understand. They say he’s been treated for it.

Whenever the Dungeon Master kills another Valentine, Marco runs off and cries to their father. Dr. Varelli nudges his son back into the study, sticks his bushy head in the door, says, “Play nice, my beautiful puppies.”

“Father,” the Dungeon Master will say, “stay the fuck out of my mind realm.”

“I honor your wish, my beauty.”

Dr. Varelli says things like that. It’s not a secret language, just an embarrassing one. Maybe that’s why his wife left him, left Marco and the Dungeon Master, too. It’s not a decent reason to leave, but as the Dungeon Master hopes to teach us, the world is not a decent place to live.

Danielle Evans, “ Virgins ,” from  Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

“Look what Eddie gave me,” said Cindy, all friendly. She pulled a pink teddy bear out of her purse and squeezed its belly. It sang “You Are My Sunshine” in a vibrating robot voice.

“That’s nice,” said Jasmine, her voice so high that she sounded almost like the teddy bear. Cindy smiled and walked off with Eddie, swinging her hips back and forth.

“I don’t have a teddy bear neither,” said Eddie’s friend Tre, putting an arm around Jasmine. She pushed him off. Tre was the kind of boy my mother would have said to stay away from, but she said to stay away from all men.

“C’mon, Jasmine,” Tre said. “I lost my teddy bear, can I sleep with you tonight?”

Jasmine looked at Tre like he was stupid. Michael put an arm around each of our shoulders and kissed us both on the cheek, me first, then Jasmine.

“You know these are my girls,” he said to Tre. “Leave ’em alone.”

His friends mostly left me alone anyway, because they knew I wasn’t good for anything but a little kissing. But I was glad he’d included me. Michael nodded good-bye as he and his friends walked toward their movie. Eddie and Cindy stayed there, kissing, like that’s what they had paid admission for. I grabbed Jasmine’s hand and pulled her toward the ticket counter.

“That’s nasty,” I said. “She looks nasty all up on him in public like that.”

“No one ever bought me a singing teddy bear,” said Jasmine. “Probably no one ever will buy me a singing teddy bear.”

“I’ll buy you a singing teddy bear, stupid,” I said.

“Shut up,” she said. She’d been sucking on her bottom lip so hard she’d sucked the lipstick off it, and her lips were two different colors. “Don’t you ever want to matter to somebody?”

“I matter to you. And Michael.”

Jasmine clicked her tongue. “Say Michael had to shoot either you or that Italian chick who’s letting him hit it right now. Who do you think he would save?”

“Why does he have to shoot somebody?” I said.

“He just does.”

“Well, he’d save me then. She’s just a girl who’s fucking him.”

“And you’re just a girl who isn’t,” Jasmine said. “That’s your problem, Erica. You don’t understand adult relationships.”

“Where are there adults?” I asked, turning in circles with my hand to my forehead like a sea captain looking for land.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’m tired of these little boys. Next weekend we’re going to the city. We’re gonna find some real niggas who know how to treat us.”

That was not the idea I meant for Jasmine to have.

Ottessa Moshfegh, “ The Beach Boy ,” from Homesick for Another World

The friends wanted to know what the prostitutes had looked like, how they’d dressed, what they’d said. They wanted details.

“They looked like normal people,” Marcia said, shrugging. “You know, just young, poor people, locals. But they were very complimentary. They kept saying, ‘Hello, nice people. Massage? Nice massage for nice people?’ ”

“Little did they know!” John joked, furrowing his eyebrows like a maniac. The friends laughed.

“We’d read about it in the guidebook,” Marcia said. “You’re not supposed to acknowledge them at all. You don’t even look them in the eye. If you do, they’ll never leave you alone. The beach boys. The male prostitutes, I mean. It’s sad,” she added. “Tragic. And, really, one wonders how anybody can starve in a place like that. There was food everywhere. Fruit on every tree. I just don’t understand it. And the city was rife with garbage. Rife! ” she proclaimed. She put down her fork. “Wouldn’t you say, hon?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘rife,’ ” John answered, wiping the corners of his mouth with his cloth napkin. “Fragrant, more like.”

The waiter collected the unfinished plates of pasta, then returned and took their orders of cheesecake and pie and decaffeinated coffee. John was quiet. He scrolled through photos on his cell phone, looking for a picture he’d taken of a monkey seated on the head of a Virgin Mary statue. The statue was painted in bright colors, and its nose was chipped, showing the white, chalky plaster under the paint. The monkey was black and skinny, with wide-spaced, neurotic eyes. Its tail curled under Mary’s chin. John turned the screen of his phone toward the table.

“This little guy,” he said.

“Aw!” the friends cried. They wanted to know, “Were the monkeys feral? Were they smelly? Are the people Catholic? Are they all very religious there?”

“Catholic,” Marcia said, nodding. “And the monkeys were everywhere. Cute but very sneaky. One of them stole John’s pen right out of his pocket.” She rattled off whatever facts she could remember from the nature tour they’d taken. “I think there are laws about eating the monkeys. I’m not so sure. They all spoke English,” she repeated, “but sometimes it was hard to understand them. The guides, I mean, not the monkeys.” She chuckled.

“The monkeys spoke Russian, naturally,” John said, and put away his phone.

Sarah Gerard, “ The Killer ,” from  Guernica

They paid the bill and left, gathering on the sidewalk.

Nathan said to them, “We live down the beach. Come over.”

Amy tried to decline. Benjamin held her by the elbow. She allowed him to lead her, and by the time they reached the sand behind the Pelican, she’d managed to free herself, and catch up with Carol.

They walked the waterline.

“There is another option if you don’t want to kill them yourself,” Carol told her. Then, turning to Nathan: “We can put them in touch with Chance.”

Nathan fell into step with them. He draped an arm around his wife’s waist.

“Is Chance an exterminator?” said Amy.

“I hesitate to tell you more about our relationship,” Nathan joked. “I don’t talk God or politics in mixed company.”

“I’m a registered Democrat,” said Benjamin.

“He comes out and shoots the iguanas, then disposes of the carcasses,” said Carol. “He charges a reasonable fee.”

Nathan smiled.

“He actually became somewhat notorious when he posted some pictures of one of his hunts on Facebook recently,” Carol continued. “He can guarantee up to one hundred iguanas in a single hunt. He had them all laid out in rows with their legs bound, and huge plastic bins of dead lizards, rooms and hallways full of them. Then these happy white men in t-shirts with the sleeves cut off, posing.”

“You can imagine,” said Nathan.

“Thousands of shares. People calling him a murderer.”

“He’s doing our community a service, really.”

They climbed a narrow path worn into the sea grass. It led to the screened-in pool of a stone lanai furnished in rattan. Nathan went behind the bar with his phone to his ear. He fixed their drinks out of earshot. Carol invited them to sit on a loveseat. She offered them each a cigarette. They declined.

“I suppose you know too much about the consequences of smoking.” She lit the cigarette and drew out the motion of removing it from her mouth. A slip of smoke hovered between her lips. “My father was a pack-a-day smoker until he died at ninety-two. I figure I’m immune.”

“I’m not sure that would stand up to peer review,” said Benjamin.

“You’re right. Too emotional.”

Kevin Barry, “ Fjord of Killary ,” from Dark Lies the Island

So I bought an old hotel on the fjord of Killary. It was set hard by the harbor wall, with Mweelrea Mountain across the water, and disgracefully gray skies above. It rained two hundred and eighty-seven days of the year, and the locals were given to magnificent mood swings. On the night in question, the rain was particularly violent—it came down like handfuls of nails flung hard and fast by a seriously riled sky god. I was at this point eight months in the place and about convinced that it would be the death of me.

“It’s end-of-the-fucking-world stuff out there,” I said.

The chorus of locals in the hotel’s lounge bar, as always, ignored me. I was a fretful blow-in, by their mark, and simply not cut out for tough, gnarly, West of Ireland living. They were listening, instead, to John Murphy, our alcoholic funeral director.

“I’ll bury anythin’ that fuckin’ moves,” he said.

“Bastards, suicides, tinkers,” he said.

“I couldn’t give a fuckin’ monkey’s,” he said.

Behind the bar: the Guinness tap, the Smithwicks tap, the lager taps, the line of optics, the neatly stacked rows of glasses, and a high stool that sat by a wee slit of window that had a view across the water toward Mweelrea. The iodine tang of kelp hung in the air always, and put me in mind of embalming fluid. Bill Knott looked vaguely from his Bushmills toward the water.

“Highish, all right,” he said. “But now what’d we be talkin’ about for Belmullet, would you say? Off a slow road?”

The primary interest of these people’s lives, it often seemed, was how far one place was from another, and how long it might take to complete the journey, given the state of the roads. Bill had been in haulage as a young man and considered himself expert.

“I don’t know, Bill,” I said.

“Would we say an hour twenty if you weren’t tailbacked out of Newport?”

“I said I really don’t fucking well know, Bill.”

“There are those’ll say you’d do it in an hour.” He sipped, delicately. “But you’d want to be grease fuckin’ lightnin’ coming up from Westport direction, wouldn’t you?”

“We could be swimming it yet, Bill.”

Toni Cade Bambara, “ The Lesson ,” from  Gorilla, My Love

“Will you look at this sailboat, please,” say Flyboy, cuttin her off and pointin to the thing like it was his. So once again we tumble all over each other to gaze at this magnificent thing in the toy store which is just big enough to maybe sail two kittens across the pond if you strap them to the posts tight. We all start reciting the price tag like we in assembly. “Hand-crafted sailboat of fiberglass at one thousand one hundred ninety-five dollars.”

“Unbelievable,” I hear myself say and am really stunned. I read it again for myself just in case the group recitation put me in a trance. Same thing. For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and she lookin at us, waiting for I dunno what.

“Who’d pay all that when you can buy a sailboat set for a quarter at Pop’s, a tube of glue for a dime, and a ball of string for eight cents? It must have a motor and a whole lot else besides,” I say. “My sailboat cost me about fifty cents.”

“But will it take water?” say Mercedes with her smart ass.

“Took mine to Alley Pond Park once,” say Flyboy. “String broke. Lost it. Pity.”

“Sailed mine in Central Park and it keeled over and sank. Had to ask my father for another dollar.”

“And you got the strap,” laugh Big Butt. “The jerk didn’t even have a string on it. My old man wailed on his behind.”

Little Q.T. was staring hard at the sailboat and you could see he wanted it bad. But he too little and somebody’d just take it from him. So what the hell.

“This boat for kids, Miss Moore?”

“Parents silly to buy something like that just to get all broke up,” say Rosie Giraffe.

“That much money it should last forever,” I figure.

“My father’d buy it for me if I wanted it.”

“Your father, my ass,” say Rosie Giraffe getting a chance to finally push Mercedes.

“Must be rich people shop here,” say Q.T.

“You are a very bright boy,” say Flyboy. “What was your first clue?” And he rap him on the head with the back of his knuckles, since Q.T. the only one he could get away with. Though Q.T. liable to come up behind you years later and get his licks in when you half expect it.

Ali Smith, “ The Child ,” from The First Person and Other Stories

You’re a really rubbish driver, a voice said from the back of the car. I could do better than that, and I can’t even drive. Are you for instance representative of all women drivers, or is it just you among all women who’s so rubbish at driving?

It was the child speaking. But it spoke with so surprisingly charming a little voice that it made me want to laugh, a voice as young and clear as a series of ringing bells arranged into a pretty melody. It said the complicated words, representative and for instance, with an innocence that sounded ancient, centuries old, and at the same time as if it had only just discovered their meaning and was trying out their usage and I was privileged to be present when it did.

I slewed the car over to the side of the motorway, switched the engine off and leaned over the front seat into the back. The child still lay there helpless, rolled up in the tartan blanket, held in place by it inside the seatbelt. It didn’t look old enough to be able to speak. It looked barely a year old.

It’s terrible. Asylum seekers come here and take all our jobs and all our benefits, it said preternaturally, sweetly. They should all be sent back to where they come from.

There was a slight endearing lisp on the “s” sounds in the words asylum and seekers and jobs and benefits and sent.

What? I said.

Can’t you hear? Cloth in your ears? it said. The real terrorists are people who aren’t properly English. They will sneak into football stadiums and blow up innocent Christian people supporting innocent English teams.

The words slipped out of its ruby-red mouth. I could just see the glint of its little coming-through teeth.

It said: The pound is our rightful heritage. We deserve our heritage. Women shouldn’t work if they’re going to have babies. Women shouldn’t work at all. It’s not the natural order of things. And as for gay weddings. Don’t make me laugh.

Then it laughed, blondly, beautifully, as if only for me. Its big blue eyes were open and looking straight up at me as if I were the most delightful thing it had ever seen.

I was enchanted. I laughed back.

ZZ Packer, “The Ant of the Self,” from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

My father just got a DUI—again—though that didn’t stop him from asking for the keys. When I didn’t give them up, he sighed and shook his head as though I withheld keys from him daily. “C’mon, Spurge,” he’d said. “The pigs aren’t even looking.”

He’s the only person I know who still calls cops “pigs,” a holdover from what he refers to as his Black Panther days, when “the brothers” raked their globes of hair with black-fisted Afro picks, then left them stuck there like javelins. When, as he tells it, he and Huey P. Newton would meet in basements and wear leather jackets and stick it to whitey. Having given me investment advice, he now watches the world outside the Honda a little too jubilantly. I take the curve around the city, past the backsides of chain restaurants and malls, office parks and the shitty Louisville zoo.

“That’s your future,” he says winding down from his rant. “Sound investments.”

“Maybe you should ask the pigs for your bail money back,” I say. “We could invest that.”

“You keep getting money from debate, we could invest.”

When most people talk about investing, they mean stocks or bonds or mutual funds. What my father means is his friend Splo’s cockfighting arena, or some dude who goes door to door selling exercise equipment that does all the exercise for you. He’d invested in a woman who tried selling African cichlids to pet shops, but all she’d done was dye ordinary goldfish so they looked tropical. “Didn’t you just win some cash?” he asks. “From debate?”

“Bail,” I say. “I used it to pay your bail.”

He’s quiet for a while. I wait for him to stumble out a thanks. I wait for him to promise to pay me back with money he knows he’ll never have. Finally he sighs and says, “Most investors buy low and sell high. Know why they do that?” With my father there are not only trick questions, but trick answers. Before I can respond, I hear his voice, loud and naked. “I axed you, ‘Do you know why they do that?'” He’s shaking my arm as if trying to wake me. “You answer me when I ask you something.”

I twist my arm from his grasp to show I’m not afraid. We swerve out of our lane. Cars behind us swerve as well, then zoom around us and pull ahead as if we are a rock in a stream.

“Do you know who this is ?” he says. “Do you know who you’re talking to ?”

I haven’t been talking to anyone, but I keep this to myself.

Jhumpa Lahiri, “ A Temporary Matter ,” from Interpreter of Maladies

The microwave had just beeped when the lights went out, and the music disappeared.

“Perfect timing,” Shoba said.

“All I could find were birthday candles.” He lit up the ivy, keeping the rest of the candles and a book of matches by his plate.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, running a finger along the stem of her wineglass. “It looks lovely.”

In the dimness, he knew how she sat, a bit forward in her chair, ankles crossed against the lowest rung, left elbow on the table. During his search for the candles, Shukumar had found a bottle of wine in a crate he had thought was empty. He clamped the bottle between his knees while he turned in the corkscrew. He worried about spilling, and so he picked up the glasses and held them close to his lap while he filled them. They served themselves, stirring the rice with their forks, squinting as they extracted bay leaves and cloves from the stew.

Every few minutes Shukumar lit a few more birthday candles and drove them into the soil of the pot.

“It’s like India,” Shoba said, watching him tend his makeshift candelabra. “Sometimes the current disappears for hours at a stretch. I once had to attend an entire rice ceremony in the dark. The baby just cried and cried. It must have been so hot.”

Their baby had never cried, Shukumar considered. Their baby would never have a rice ceremony, even though Shoba had already made the guest list, and decided on which of her three brothers she was going to ask to feed the child its first taste of solid food, at six months if it was a boy, seven if it was a girl.

“Are you hot?” he asked her. He pushed the blazing ivy pot to the other end of the table, closer to the piles of books and mail, making it even more difficult for them to see each other. He was suddenly irritated that he couldn’t go upstairs and sit in front of the computer.

“No. It’s delicious,” she said, tapping her plate with her fork. “It really is.”

He refilled the wine in her glass. She thanked him.

They weren’t like this before. Now he had to struggle to say something that interested her, something that made her look up from her plate, or from her proofreading files. Eventually he gave up trying to amuse her. He learned not to mind the silences.

“I remember during power failures at my grandmother’s house, we all had to say something,” Shoba continued. He could barely see her face, but from her tone he knew her eyes were narrowed, as if trying to focus on a distant object. It was a habit of hers.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. A little poem. A joke. A fact about the world. For some reason my relatives always wanted me to tell them the names of my friends in America. I don’t know why the information was so interesting to them. The last time I saw my aunt she asked after four girls I went to elementary school with in Tucson. I barely remember them now.”

Shukumar hadn’t spent as much time in India as Shoba had. His parents, who settled in New Hampshire, used to go back without him. The first time he’d gone as an infant he’d nearly died of amoebic dysentery. His father, a nervous type, was afraid to take him again, in case something were to happen, and left him with his aunt and uncle in Concord. As a teenager he preferred sailing camp or scooping ice cream during the summers to going to Calcutta. It wasn’t until after his father died, in his last year of college, that the country began to interest him, and he studied its history from course books as if it were any other subject. He wished now that he had his own childhood story of India.

“Let’s do that,” she said suddenly.

“Say something to each other in the dark.”

“Like what? I don’t know any jokes.”

“No, no jokes.” She thought for a minute. “How about telling each other something we’ve never told before.”

Grace Paley, “ My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age ,” from  Here and Somewhere Else

My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. I said O.K. My children didn’t think it was such a great idea. If I knew how, they thought, I might do so too easily. No, no, I said, it’s for later, years from now. And, besides, if I get it right it might be helpful to you kids in time to come.

They said, Really?

My father wanted to begin as soon as possible. For God’s sake, he said, you can talk to the kids later. Now, listen to me, send them out to play. You are so distractable.

We should probably begin at the beginning, he said. Change. First there is change, which nobody likes—even men. You’d be surprised. You can do little things—putting cream on the corners of your mouth, also the heels of your feet. But here is the main thing. Oh, I wish your mother was alive—not that she had time—

But Pa, I said, Mama never knew anything about cream. I did not say she was famous for not taking care.

Forget it, he said sadly. But I must mention squinting. don’t squint. Wear your glasses. Look at your aunt, so beautiful once. I know someone has said men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, but that’s an idea for a foolish person. There are many handsome women who are not exactly twenty-twenty.

Please sit down, he said. Be patient. The main thing is this—when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.

That’s a metaphor, right?

Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. He said tactfully. It’s probably easier for a man. Then talk softly, don’t yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart.

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Emily Temple

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How to write dialogue in a true story

How to write dialogue in a true story. Image of a group of mature friends having dinner, laughing and engaging in lively conversation.

Should you include dialogue in your memoir, autobiography, or family history? What if you don’t remember exactly what people said? In this article, we’ll address these questions with practical tips for how to write dialogue in a true story.

Dialogue can add such richness to a scene and flavor to a character’s personality that I try to use this technique often (but not too much). Another good reason to use dialogue is that it breaks up long pages. In The Memoir Workbook, C.S. Lakin says, “Dialogue adds ‘white space’ to our pages, makes the reading move quickly and helps keep our story from becoming cumbersome.” When done well, dialogue is rich, interesting, and keeps the pace of the story clipping along.

Here is an overview with quick rules for writing dialogue in true stories like memoirs . Keep reading for the ins and outs of each rule.

Rules for writing dialogue in a true story at a glance

  • Honor the emotional truth.
  • Trim the fat. Make it authentic for the person, only better.
  • Don’t cram back story into dialogue.
  • Break dialogue up with action.
  • Alternate direct quotes with summaries of the conversation.
  • Each character should have their own way of speaking (Stephen King’s dialogue test).
  • Include local vernacular and slang from a time and place.
  • Be careful with accents and phonetic spellings.
  • Each new speaker should appear on a new line.
  • Favor straightforward “said,” and “asked,” instead of fancy words.
  • Use dialogue to add white space to the page.
  • Mind what’s not being said as much as what is. Subtext is important and it’s an elegant way of leading the reader along and letting them figure it out.
  • Be careful if it’s a true story.
  • Write a disclaimer.

Related article: How to write an autobiography, a primer of the process

The 80 Percent Rule

Rachael Herron has the following to say (from her book Fast Draft your Memoir),

“When I recreate dialogue and action, I try to honor the room tone. When I write this scene, what I put on the page must match that tone. I might not remember exactly what we were eating that afternoon, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t ecstatically chowing down on rainbow-flavored cupcakes…Look at the room tone of the memory you’re pulling up. If it’s an important memory, one that you want to capture on the page, write down the tone so that you don’t overwrite it with some other emotion. And then honor that tone. The second thing that I advocate doing when writing down memories, be they dialogue or action, is to consider my 80 percent rule. If you have a memory of a conversation, even if you’re not sure word for word what was said, you get to recreate it IF you can be 80 percent (or more) certain that the person saying it would have said it the way you write that they did…You know the people you love. You know their syntax, their diction. You know how they react to certain stimuli, and you know how they will not react.” Rachael Herron, Fast draft your memoir

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Honor the Intent

In my own writings, I also like to sometimes us use journal entries, letters, oral history, and quotes from newspapers as source material, which I then adapt into dialogue. If the general rule of thumb is to make sure it’s authentic for what someone would have said, pulling from their own words feels like safe permission to me, even though they may have said it later or in a different context.

Marion Roach Smith from her book, The Memoir Project, says, “Since we rarely carry a notebook when we’re getting thrown out by the man we love, how do we resolve the dialogue use? How can you be accurate? Instead of replicating events, think about intent.”

She goes on to add that you can say, “The conversation went ‘something like this.” But the biggest rule of thumb is to never alter the intent of the exchange, “If there’s a moral responsibility in writing nonfiction, it favors the intent of life’s actual circumstances.”

Related video: a short primer on using dialogue in your story:

Trim the fat

Good dialogue sounds true to life, but it’s much shorter and punchier. A guideline is to trim all the fat. Don’t include warmup, small talk, or filler words. Get right to the heart of it. Have you ever noticed how in movies, they never say goodbye in phone calls, they always just hang up the phone? It’s kind of funny once you realize they do this, but it’s an example of trimming the fat.

Don’t cram back story into dialogue

Another rule is to not include a bunch of backstory in dialogue. If you are trying to cram details about what happened in the past, it will sound contrived. Think about what the characters already know at that point in the story. If they know a detail but you need to clue your readers in, you’ll have to figure out a more creative way to reveal that information than through dialogue. In short, make sure the words your characters speak sound like what they would actually say in the situation.

Break dialogue up with action

People don’t stand still, so include some movement. Show their body language, the way they pace, or fidget with the loose thread on their shirt. We never want to write static characters, that’s just not how humans act.

Click for printable of questions Everyone Should Ask

Alternate direct quotes with summarization

In a class I took from literary agent Tiffany Hawk , she coached us on ways to sharpen our writing for publication. One of her tips for dialogue was to alternate the direct quotes with times when you summarize what the characters said. This breaks up the text visually, makes it more interesting, and concise.

Each character should have their own way of speaking

Each character should have their own unique way of speaking. They should each have their own unique voice too, whether it’s by directness, brevity, loquaciousness, or the words they choose.

To figure out whether you’ve written everyone with the same voice, try the dialogue test set forth in Steven King’s book, On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft . Here’s what you do: Cover up the speaker’s name in the left-hand side. Can you tell who is saying what?

If you can’t, then you’ve written basically one vanilla character. You want to go back and figure out what makes each character unique. Give people verbal tics, or special slang. Add some punch to your dialogue until it feels full of life and personality.  

Include local vernacular and slang from a time and place

I would urge you to carry a notebook and listen for local slang or the unique dialogue of people from a certain time and place. In your own life story, don’t scrub your own voice so it sounds proper and perfect. Keep the personality rich and true to where you are from, both the place and your generation. When beginner writers take my classes, they often feel self-conscious that their writing doesn’t sound as professional as they think it should. But I often hear an authentic voice when I read these stories and I urge them to not polish it up so much that it loses the personality. The more you write, the more you’ll gain confidence in your authentic voice.

Related – Top 12 Best Books on Writing Storytelling and Me moir: https://evalogue.life/tools-and-resources/best-books-writing-storytelling-memoir/

But…be careful with accents and phonetic spellings

Although above I just said to keep regional and generational differences in your writing, do be careful using dialect and phonetic spellings. Some writers do this marvelously well, such as Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes. His book contains rich phonetic Irish dialect throughout the entire book, and it is just gorgeous. Reading it, you have no doubt he has an incredibly attuned ear to the language. He gets away with it because he does perfectly, throughout the entire book, (not just for one person or group of people). He gets away with it because it’s his own story and his own culture, and he’s placing you in the scene not trying to come off as smarter than the characters.

But just be careful about this because if you start including phonetic spellings it can seem condescending like you are making fun of someone. Worse, it can come across as racist. 

Formatting dialogue – each new speaker should be on a new line

Here’s a practical tip. Each new time someone starts to speak, it should appear on its own line. Enclose what was said with quote marks and periods should be inside the quotation marks.

If someone is thinking something, I like to italicize, but this is stylistic preference. Some people prefer to put thoughts in quote marks too.

Related article on how to format your book: https://evalogue.life/writing-a-book-template/

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Favor straightforward tags like said and asked

Don’t get all fancy with the tags. Instead, just use words like, “said,” and “asked.” These words are basically invisible, and they do not catch our attention. Creative words like extrapolated, cajoled, etc. can be distracting. Stephen King says this too, and then wryly quips that you really don’t want to use ejaculated. Indeed.

Case in point, I recently read a critical review of a New York Times bestselling novel in which the author used “murmured” constantly. The writer of the review did a wordcount and it was sort of staggering how many times this tag had been used. After she pointed it out, I noticed it constantly too. So, I’d say that “murmured” is fine here and there, but you don’t want to overuse this kind of tag.

Also, you don’t need to use a speech verb with every line if it is clear who is speaking.

Mind what’s not being said – subtext is powerful

Sometimes what isn’t being said is as important as what is. Consider subtext and leaving some things for the reader to figure out. This can be a powerful technique.

Be careful if it’s a true story

If you are wriring your own life story or memoir and dialogue is recalling scenes that you experienced, you can take more liberties. The truth is still a tricky subject because everyone who was there will remember an event differently. Caution is especially in order if you are writing someone else’s story, such as an ancestor. Dialogue can make a story much more engaging, but unless you are pulling form oral history, articles, or journals, your dialogue is likely pure fiction. That might be a great approach, but be honest with readers that it is a fictionalized account. Otherwise, you risk overstepping the truth.

Write a disclaimer

One of the things I do early on in any project is write my disclaimer for that project, and I will say something like, made up all the dialogue in this story. I mean, nobody knows. Nobody remembers exactly what was said in any real scene. Right? You don’t remember that. But I do know my personal family members very well. I frequently loved to take oral history and so I adapt what someone said in their recollections and create direct dialogue. 

If I compressed any timelines, if I changed names to protect identity, or anything like that, I will mention in a disclaimer. And then I feel like I have a lot of freedom to have fun with the writing, not being worried about if people are questioning my integrity because I made up a few words of dialogue. 

I like to write a disclaimer about what is the absolute truth, what my sources were, and where I took liberties.

I hope these rules are helpful to you in your dialogue writing. It’s worth the work to bring your family stories to life through interesting written conversations.

how to write dialogue in stories

Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Stor y . Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives. She believes that when you tell your story, it changes the ending., She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her books: How to Storyboard , and Every Essential Element . Most recently she was the writing coach of bestselling author, Rob A. Gentile, who wrote Quarks of Light, A Near-Death Experience: What I Saw That Opened My Heart .

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5 thoughts on “ How to write dialogue in a true story ”

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I love becoming a student of Evalogue–this from an engineer minded guy who didn’t finish freshman English until the week of graduating with my engineering degree. Thank you.

' src=

Jack it has been a delight having you here. You have lived a rich and colorful life and it’s now time for you to get it done. Honored to be part of your journey at this phase.

' src=

You are so helpful! I enjoy your hints. I have written stories of our family and am now working on my second children’s books. Of course they are not published but. Who knows!

It’s such important work you are doing, Sherrie. It sounds like you love it too. Yes, who knows, publishing is within reach now with so many options that didn’t exist in the past. Keep us posted on your progress.

' src=

Thanks for mentioning The Memoir Workbook. Here is the link to purchase if anyone is interested: https://www.amazon.com/Memoir-Workbook-Step-Brainstorm-Organize/dp/0986134791

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how to write dialogue in stories

Creative Screenwriting: How to Write Star-Worthy Stories

how to write dialogue in stories

In screenwriting, you only have two tools to tell a story:

What is said and what is seen.

With few exceptions, you can’t take your audience inside your characters’ minds. You can’t lean on paragraphs of narration explaining that your protagonist is masking their jealousy or that the chili cookoff feels like their last chance to prove their worth. 

You rely exclusively on external communication to help your audience understand and connect with your characters.

That’s beautiful. Because that’s life .

As viewers, film and television give us an opportunity to exercise empathy the way we have to in the real world: through compassionate observation.

And as writers, screenwriting invites us to flex a few muscles that might not get the same intense workout when we’re focused on prose . I’ve spent over a decade screenwriting with my brother, working in both film and television, and my prose definitely improved because of it.

I got better at writing subtext, managing my pace , and writing action. I learned how to separate impactful descriptive details from unnecessary fluff . 

Most importantly, I’ve had a lot of fun.

If you’re interested in giving screenwriting a whirl, you don’t have much to lose. Even if you ultimately decide this particular branch of creative writing isn’t for you, you’ll still sharpen valuable skills and have a good time doing it.

So follow that whim! And if you could use a little guidance along the way, keep reading. This article is packed with tips for mastering the craft of screenwriting. It will also clarify the specific skills you need to write a great script.

And that’s important because screenwriting is its own complicated animal.

How is Screenwriting Different From Other Types of Writing?

Screenwriting is the act of writing a story that will play out on screen. It includes screenplays (movie scripts), teleplays (television show scripts), and even scripts for video games.

A screenplay follows a scripted format that involves loads of dialogue and a limited amount of description. It looks very different from a novel or poem, and it's this distinction most people think of when they imagine screenwriting.

Hands hold a screenplay open on a desk beside a laptop.

But while the formatting is important, it’s probably the easiest change to make when you switch from prose to screenplays. What’s tougher is shifting the way you think about storytelling now that you’re in a visual medium. You’ll see what I mean as we go along. 

First, I’d like to emphasize one major distinction most first-time screenwriters either underestimate or aren’t even aware of.

The Collaborative Nature of Screenwriting

As a novelist, you expect input from agents and editors . As a screenwriter, however, there are dozens to hundreds of other people putting their stamp on your story.

It’s not just the producers and director. It’s also set designers, costume designers, make-up artists, sound designers, cinematographers, film editors, and actors. And here’s the kicker: very few screenwriters—especially first-timers—are invited to participate in the production process.

Unless you’re a respected writer-director or you go the indie route , you have little-to-no control over the visual interpretation of your story.

I don’t tell you this to discourage you. I tell you because anyone who’s serious about a creative screenwriting career must be able to delight in collaboration and let go if the finished product is wildly, even offensively different from the story in your head.

You should still write like a novelist, with a clear vision and an inextinguishable love for the characters and world you created. Just know that the business of screenwriting is an ongoing exercise in acceptance.

That said, it’s exhilarating to see your story on screen when all goes well. So let’s write a screenplay other brilliant artists will want to get their hands on.

Key Elements of Creative Screenwriting

We’ll skip over the primary storytelling elements like character development , conflict , and setting because they’re the same in creative screenwriting as they are in every other form of storytelling.

If you could use guidance in any of these areas, you’ll find a ton of it in DabbleU . While we frame a lot of our content around novel writing, the same principles apply to screenwriting. Here are some quick links to help you find articles on…

The bigger priority in this article is to explore the elements that aren’t exactly unique to screenwriting but are uniquely handled in this format. Elements like…

Story Structure

Hands arrange notecards on a table under a notecard reading "ACT 2."

Story structure refers to the way you lay out the events of your screenplay to achieve a certain narrative rhythm.

Sounds complicated, but it gets way simpler when you realize that there are pre-established story structures you can follow. To make things even easier, the film and television industry is deeply devoted to one structure in particular.

If you’ve got plans to be a screenwriter in the U.S., learn the three-act structure . Not only is it an intuitive and satisfying approach to story, it’s also the preferred structure in the film industry. 

You can get super familiar with the three-act structure here , but for now, here’s the basic gist:

Act One - This is where you set up your story, establishing the world, characters, and conflict. 

Act Two - This is where you throw your main character into new experiences and an ever-intensifying conflict that forces them out of their comfort zone. 

Act Three - Now all the struggle and suffering you’ve heaped onto your protagonist pays off when they fight their final battle (figuratively or literally). They either fail or prevail, and both they and their world are changed because of it. 

Even if you decide to rebel against convention, you should still be familiar with this structure. It’s the language producers speak. In fact, for a well-rounded film industry vocabulary, I suggest also learning Save the Cat! , The Hero’s Journey , and Dan Harmon’s Story Circle .

They’re more specific formats that plug right into the three-act structure, and Hollywood loves ‘em.

I don’t think I’m gonna blow your mind when I tell you that writing great dialogue is crucial in creative screenwriting. You already know most of your screenplay will be dialogue—engaging, realistic dialogue , ideally.

But even if you’ve mastered this skill in prose form, you might stumble across new challenges when you sit down to write a script.

In creative screenwriting, you don’t have paragraphs of narration to reveal character thoughts and explore abstract themes. You can use voiceover narration, but if you do, you’ll need to use it sparingly. Also, word of warning: voiceover is often seen as an unnecessary crutch in the world of screenwriting. 

For the most part, everything you want to say in a script must be expressed through dialogue or visuals. Once you realize that, writing realistic dialogue gets a lot harder. Don’t worry, though. We’re going to discuss this exact challenge later.

Scene Description

Also referred to as “action lines” or just “action,” scene description is the part of the script where you explain what the audience sees. You can use scene description to set the scene, describe a character , or indicate which actions a character should take.

Now, action lines in a screenplay are pretty different from the descriptive writing you’re likely to see in a book. Scene descriptions in screenwriting often read like this:

“Walsh shows him the photos. He looks at them. They are a series outside a restaurant showing Mulwray with another man whose appearance is striking. In two of the photos a gnarled cane is visible.” – Chinatown

In a novel, descriptive passages exist to draw the reader into the story. In a screenplay, the goal is to be clear and direct about your vision with the director, actors, and everyone else who brings your narrative to life. 

None of those people want you to fuss over lyrical prose and detailed imagery. They want you to get to the point because they’ve got a job to do.

There’s still an art to scene description. You want to set a tone and create vivid images. You’re just accomplishing those things more efficiently and with less abstraction. You’ll learn how as we discuss…

Tips for Writing a Great Screenplay

Three smiling people sit at an outdoor table writing on notepads and typing on a laptop.

All great stories, regardless of format, contain:

  • An engaging protagonist with a clear and specific goal driven by a compelling motivation
  • An external conflict that prevents the protagonist from reaching their goal and forces them to confront their greatest weaknesses
  • An internal conflict that heightens the external conflict (and vice versa)
  • A climactic scene and resolution in which we either see how drastically the protagonist has changed or how stubbornly they cling to their old ways

If you want tips for developing any of those storytelling skills, click the links above. 

From here on out, we’re focusing on creative screenwriting specifically. You’re about to learn tips that won’t just help you write a good story; they’ll help you write a screenplay that reads easily and makes you look like an old pro.

Let’s get to it.

Learn the Format

An agent or producer will recognize a formatting error at a glance. If it looks like you haven’t even bothered to learn the standards for the industry, they’ll assume you don’t know how to write a quality script, either.

Fortunately, there’s a ton of screenwriting software out there that automates all the formatting for you, so you don’t have to fuss over margins, spacing, or font.

But you should take the time to learn the names and functions of all the different screenplay elements, like slug lines and extensions . 

Screenplay format is a dense subject that’s beyond the scope of this article, but you can find a pretty helpful rundown of the topic here . 

Practice Visual Storytelling

In Roma , the complicated love between a family and their live-in maid is never discussed outright, but it’s constantly displayed. 

In several scenes, the housekeeper, Cleo, is physically with the family but never fully part of it. She watches TV with them but is the only one sitting on the floor. She eats ice cream with them, but they sit in a row on a bench as she stands beside them.

This repeated arrangement makes it all more impactful when a later scene positions her in the center of everyone. 

Creative screenwriting is the epitome of “ show, don’t tell .” Your characters’ emotions, motivations, and relationships all have to be expressed through concrete action, symbols, or dialogue. And the absolute best way to learn this skill is by reading a lot of screenplays and watching a lot of movies and television.

Read a screenplay and notice the concrete details that engage you emotionally. Then watch the movie with the script in front of you to see how the scene descriptions translate to the screen. 

Watch a movie or TV show you’ve never seen with the sound off and try to define the characters’ motivations, emotions, and relationships. Watch it again with the sound on to see if you interpreted it correctly. If you did, what visual details helped you get it right?

Not all of this stuff will come from the writing. Once again, there’s an entire team of artists at work here. But the more familiar you become with the art of visual storytelling, the faster you’ll build your screenwriting skills.

Avoid Abstract Direction

On that note, when you write scene descriptions, try to keep it as concrete as possible. Remember, the goal isn’t to dazzle a reader. It’s to help another artist bring your vision to life. 

“Her heart calls out for him” is not as helpful to an actor as, say, “She takes a step toward him, then, remembering what’s at stake, remains where she is.”

Now, to be honest, it’s okay to occasionally dabble in abstraction. Some screenwriting books will tell you it’s not, but read a few critically acclaimed screenplays and I guarantee you’ll see every one of them break the rule a few times. Sometimes a little internal direction can be helpful, like this:

“Sharply, Luisa disconnects [the call]. Pull it together. Do not cry. A deep breath. You can do this. And she enters Room 6.” –Jane the Virgin

The main thing is to prioritize external actions. After all, you’ve studied visual storytelling. You know how to communicate complex emotions through concrete details and dialogue. Leave it up to the actors to drive those feelings home. It’s their job, after all.

On that note… 

Know Your Role

A stack of name tags sits on a table beside black and silver Sharpies.

Remember how we talked about creative screenwriting as a collaborative craft? That means some of the details you imagine in your beautiful writer brain don’t belong on the page because they’re not really up to you.

Leave out close-ups, push-ins, push-outs, and camera angles unless they’re essential to the plot. For example, if it’s crucial that the audience doesn’t know a character is in the room, then it’s appropriate to include a shot direction that obscures that character from view. 

Otherwise, it’s not your job. The director will do what they want, anyway.

Same deal with super specific stage directions, set design, or clothing descriptions. Some basic descriptions are great for establishing a sense of place and character, which is part of your job as the story creator. 

But when it comes to creating a whole movie , you’re not the only one with a vision to contribute.

Master Subtext

Subtext refers to all the stuff that is meant, felt, or known but not said outright. This is the secret to mastering dialogue as a screenwriter.

Remember earlier when we talked about how writing dialogue is a little trickier in screenplays? You can’t lean on narration to clarify what your characters are thinking or feeling. But it’s also not realistic to have them walking around expressing themselves like they’ve just completed five years of very effective therapy.

That’s where subtext comes in. Your job as a writer is to figure out what each character would say when they can’t bring themselves to speak directly. 

Here are just a handful of ways famous writers have written the subtext “I love you”:

“I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.” – When Harry Met Sally
“You had me at ‘hello.’” – Jerry Maguire
“As you wish.” – The Princess Bride
“I’ve come here with no expectations, only to profess, now that I am at liberty to do so, that my heart is, and always will be, yours.” – Sense and Sensibility

You can learn tricks for nailing your subtext here .

Keep it Moving

Movement is everything in film and television.

This was something my brother had to teach me years ago when we first started writing together. As a new screenwriter who’d just spent four years earning a theatre arts degree, I was writing what I knew best: twenty-page conversations that take place in one location. 

You can get away with that in screenwriting if you’re writing a bottle episode or The Breakfast Club . But most of the time, you want to switch scenes at least once every three pages or so.

Think About White Space

Screenshot of a screenplay scene demonstrating what good white space looks like.

White space is exactly what it sounds like—the space on your script that isn’t covered in text.

Industry gatekeepers love white space. It tells them your screenplay isn’t bogged down by lengthy scene descriptions. And because agents and producers are inundated with scripts, some of them actually use this metric to weed out overwritten screenplays at a glance.

That brings me to another challenge of creative screenwriting: keeping your scene descriptions vivid, engaging, and succinct.

The key is to choose a few key details that encourage the brain to fill in a more specific picture. And don’t be afraid to add a little narrative voice . Just use a light touch and make sure your action lines aren’t so creatively written that they become distracting.

Actually, a lot of scene description reads like the writer is just telling the story to a friend, like this:

“Shelly and Miguel have the same asymmetrical hair-cut and ‘interesting’ piercings. Vaguely punk looking. Seem like they’re wearing black leather jackets even when they aren’t.” – Lady Bird

Clear. Colorful. To the point.

Of course, like many of the principles we’ve discussed in this article, the white space rule isn’t hard and fast. As you might guess, there are plenty of text-heavy pages in the Castaway script. 

The main point is to be aware of what industry decision-makers will be looking for, especially when you’re new to screenwriting.

Resources for Aspiring Screenwriters

For as much as we’ve covered in this article, we’ve barely scratched the surface of creative screenwriting. 

If you’re serious about exploring this craft in greater depth, I highly recommend checking out some books on the topic. Must-reads include Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder, Story by Robert McKee, The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, and Screenplay by Syd Field.

You’ll also want to find a screenwriting program that handles formatting for you. Trust me—it’ll make your life so much easier.

If you’re not sure how committed you are to this screenwriting thing, start with a program that has a free plan like WriterDuet . If or when you get serious about making movies, get Final Draft . That’s the industry standard. (WriterDuet exports Final Draft files, by the way.)

And of course, there’s always DabbleU for a wealth of information on the craft of writing. Browse hundreds of free articles, templates, and more in our library. Better yet, subscribe to our spam-free newsletter to have inspiration and information delivered right to your inbox every week.

Now get typin’. Those moving picture shows don’t write themselves.

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.


how to write dialogue in stories


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    Beware overusing (or underusing) dialogue. Stories need a balance of dialogue, action, thought and setting. The correct balance depends on your story and genre. Never forget your characters' goals when writing their dialogue. Simple, direct, honest communication - whilst an admirable goal in real life - often falls flat in fiction.

  10. How to Write Great Dialogue

    Great dialogue rings true and is appropriate to the speaker, and is what that person would say in those circumstances, while also furthering either the plot or your knowledge of the characters, or both; while at the same time not being tedious. Get started with these comprehensive good dialogue writing tips.

  11. Writing Dialogue: Complete Guide to Storied Speech

    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.

  12. 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.

  13. How to Write Dialogue: 7 Tips & Examples for Fiction Authors

    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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. How to Write Good Dialogue

    For the dialogue itself, start a new line on the document that is 2.5 inches from the left and 6 inches from the right. Here's an example from Christopher Nolan's " Oppenheimer " screenplay:

  17. How to Write Dialogue in a Story: 7 Rules, 5 Tips & 65 Examples

    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.".

  18. How to Write Dialogue that Engages Readers in 9 Steps

    As a writer, you need to constantly improve your writing and draft. You need to work on characters, plot, and story to create your best work. This includes how to develop characters, what writing software to use, and importantly, how to write dialogue. Dialogues are essential for writing and are the backbone of your story. No New York Times bestseller ever made the list with bad dialogue ...

  19. 19 Ways to Write Better Dialogue

    19 Ways to Write Better Dialogue. For years, I struggled deeply with the dialogue in my stories. I didn't have a natural knack for writing conversations that felt real and true to character, and I let this weakness deter me from striving to improve. But stories need dialogue, and my own was suffering for a lack of attention.

  20. How to Write Great Dialogue for Short Stories

    Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks: "I'd like a whiskey," he said. If you break up dialogue to indicate sho said what, use commas: "I don't know about you guys," Frank said, "but, I'm off to bed.". If you switch between speakers, always start a new paragraph. For more tips, I recommend this resource.

  21. How to Format Dialogue in a Story: 15 Steps (with Pictures)

    3. Vary the placement of your dialogue tags. Instead of starting every dialogue sentence with "Evgeny said," "Laura said," or "Sujata said," try placing some dialogue tags at the end of sentences. Place dialogue tags in the middle of a sentence, interrupting the sentence, to change the pacing of your sentence. Because you have to ...

  22. 10 Short Stories with Great Dialogue That Aren't "Hills Like White

    A slip of smoke hovered between her lips. "My father was a pack-a-day smoker until he died at ninety-two. I figure I'm immune.". "I'm not sure that would stand up to peer review," said Benjamin. "You're right. Too emotional.". *. Kevin Barry, " Fjord of Killary ," from Dark Lies the Island. Sample Dialogue:

  23. How to write dialogue in a true story

    Rules for writing dialogue in a true story at a glance. Honor the emotional truth. Trim the fat. Make it authentic for the person, only better. Don't cram back story into dialogue. Break dialogue up with action. Alternate direct quotes with summaries of the conversation. Each character should have their own way of speaking (Stephen King's ...

  24. Creative Screenwriting: How to Write Star-Worthy Stories

    Screenwriting is the act of writing a story that will play out on screen. It includes screenplays (movie scripts), teleplays (television show scripts), and even scripts for video games. A screenplay follows a scripted format that involves loads of dialogue and a limited amount of description.

  25. ‎Essential Guide to Writing a Novel: Episode 119

    Here is a technique--it's magical--to make our sentence-by-sentence writing instantly stronger; avoiding qualifiers. And how to use good dialogue tags so the reader hears the dialogue rather than the clunky tags. And important tips regarding back-story.How to Start a Podcast Guide: The Complete Gu…

  26. My Husband Pablo and His Other Women

    My Husband Pablo and His Other Women | FULL EPISODE | Dr. Phil Anna says her husband, Pablo, is a cheater who admits he only strayed once -- but she...