How To Write Dialogue: 13 Best Tips And Tricks To Set You Up For A Win

What Is a Dialogue?

Every day, you are likely to communicate with people around you. You may smile at them in the morning, dine with them, and talk about certain things at work or when grabbing a coffee from your local coffee shop. Whatever the time of the day is, you may engage in conversations. These conversations you have with one another are called “dialogues.” Dialogue is simply a conversation between two or more people.

As a writer, you will often include dialogue between fictional characters as you portray them as if they were real. Dialogue makes stories relatable, meaningful, realistic, and heartwarming. Dialogue also give hints as to the characters’ personalities and feelings.

Writing dialogue for your characters in a novel or short story can sometimes be difficult. Writing dialogue means understanding and using dialogue tags, dialogue punctuation, quotation marks, and possibly the most daunting of all, formatting dialogue. Once you learn the basic dialogue rules, you will find that you can easily write dialogue. This article will help you understand the rules for writing dialogue.

Why Do You Need to Write Dialogue?

When you write fiction and create characters, you want those characters to be realistic. People speak and interact through speech in real life, so they need to do the same in any book you write. Unless you are writing about monks or clergy that do not speak, or there is only one character in your book, your characters will not seem realistic if they do not talk to each other. Learning how to write dialogue will make it a task that you, as a writer, will feel less reluctant to do.

Dialogue also needs to sound natural. Characters in your story need to talk the way real people talk, use diction that makes sense, and interact with people the way you would expect to get from a real person. If you do not practice and figure out how to write good dialogue, it will come across as forced or fake, and the reader will not be able to connect with the character or the story itself.

Dialogue, action, and good descriptions all aid in character development. Character development is essential to making your reader care about the content of your book. Readers do not decide to finish a book to determine how the plot affects the setting. Instead, they finish reading a book to discover the character’s journey. If you do not have characters going through a realistic situation, your dialogue may not be worth reading.

how to write dialogue, what's a dialog

What Is the Purpose of Dialogue in a Narrative Essay?

In a narrative essay, dialogue lessens the narrator’s lengthy explanations of the events that are occurring or have occurred. Through various dialogues, the characters can expose essential parts of the story, as well as, recreate and emphasize people’s thoughts and conversations, so the narrator does not have to describe, elaborate, or clarify every single detail. Dialogue also unveils the characters’ identities, motives, or even secrets, thus helping the character development flow smoothly.

How to Write Dialogue in a Story

Writing dialogue involves following specific rules of style, formatting, and grammar. These rules are not that many, and most of these rules come naturally to the writer to follow once they have put the rules into practice. Also, be sure to do a lot of reading. Reading great dialogue in other people’s books will help you and provide examples to reference when you start writing your dialogue. This article will now discuss and explain those rules.

1. Use Quotation Marks

You have to punctuate dialogue; otherwise, you will not know when a character speaks. Anything spoken by any character in a story must be inside quotation marks. This is called dialogue punctuation, and if you do not do it correctly, your story will confuse your audience. Below are dialogue examples that demonstrate this rule.

Dialogue Example: “Dad said he would go to the store and get more bread for our picnic sandwiches,” Sandy told her mom. “I hope he gets me a candy bar, too.”

Notice in the dialogue above that Sandy tells her mother where her father went and what he is doing. Each dialogue is contained within double quotation marks each time she speaks. This is how the reader knows that she is saying something.

Dialogue Example: “Don’t start that complaining, young lady. You knew that you would have a bedtime tonight because you have school tomorrow. I’m sorry that you’re upset about it and that you don’t want to go to bed, but rules are rules, and you’re going to have to follow them. Now go put on your pajamas and brush your teeth. It’s bedtime.”

In the example above, the speaker’s dialogue is not broken up. They speak continuously, and there are no dialogue tags in the middle to offset the speech. However, the words are still inside double quotation marks.

2. Single Quotation Marks

These are used when a speaker is quoting someone while speaking. The quote is placed inside of them. Below is an example of how this rule applies.

Dialogue Example: “When you told John, ‘I’m gonna have to let someone go, we’re overstaffed,’ I just knew I was going to be on the chopping block.”

Due to this punctuation, we know that the speaker is quoting someone else.

3. Dialogue Tags

When you format dialogue, you will learn that dialogue tags can be tricky because there are many options for which dialogue tag you use. Great dialogue should not force the author to specify everything the characters say. Be sure that you do not overuse dialogue tags. Otherwise, the writing will be clunky, and the speech and dialogue will not flow smoothly.

Dialogue tags tell you who did the speaking, and sometimes they tell you who the speaker is speaking to, what the speaker is doing, or how the speaker delivers the dialogue. Check out the following dialogue examples to see where and how they are used and written.

Dialogue Example: “I have to go to work. It’s an emergency. I need for you to walk down to the end of the street and wait for the school bus,” Harriet told Adrian while grabbing her purse from the side table and slipping her shoes on. “They won’t let Connor off the bus without an adult there waiting for him.”

In the above example, the dialogue tag is in bold. It tells us that Harriet is speaking. She is talking to Adrian and rushing to get out of the house. We know it because she is speaking while grabbing her things instead of focusing on her conversation with Adrian.

Although she told the other character that there was an emergency, the dialogue tag, including her actions, lends a sense of urgency to the text. We can picture her babbling because we know she is moving around and rushing while speaking. You can format dialogue in this way to help the reader get a clearer picture of the action, setting, tone, and relationship of your characters.

4. Same Paragraph for Action

Writing great dialogue means writing realistic dialogue, and in real life, characters do not stop everything they are doing and stand completely still when they speak to each other. If you want to write good, believable dialogue, it needs to mimic real life.

You can make the dialogue seem like something that could occur in real life is to make your characters move and physically interact with each other. When you do this, you break up the speech, describe the character’s action, and then continue and finish the dialogue. We will use the same example as before for this.

Dialogue Example: “I have to go to work. It’s an emergency. I need for you to walk down to the end of the street and wait for the school bus,” Harriet told Adrian while grabbing her purse from the side table and slipping her shoes on. “They won’t let Connor off the bus without an adult there waiting for him.”

In the example, Harriet is the only one speaking, although two characters are involved. If Harriet is in a hurry, it would not seem realistic for her to stop everything she does to get out of the house and work. Also, she gives Adrian simple instructions to wait for the child to get off the school bus, so she moves around while she speaks. We, as readers, can easily picture this in our minds because it is something that all of us do or have done in real life.

Because the description of Harriet’s initial dialogue follows a dialogue tag, you can add what she said after narrating her actions. The author paused to tell us what she was doing while speaking. This also helps to keep punctuation from being over the top. If she were not moving while speaking, the only way that the author could convey to the reader that the character of Harriet is in a hurry or is stressed would be to use punctuation marks, like an exclamation point.

The issue with this is that overuse or inappropriate exclamation points make the dialogue even less believable. When was the last time you were in a hurry, so you stood completely still and excitedly shouted instructions to someone? Then, after speaking, you resumed preparing to leave? Overuse of this sort of punctuation will not make for good dialogue.

5. New Paragraph When Writing Dialogue

When you write dialogue, two characters often speak to each other or have a conversation. Sometimes, it is even more complicated, and two or more characters share one conversation. Compelling dialogue moves the story forward and often engages in dialogue writing between more than one character.

When a new person speaks, you have to begin a new paragraph for the reader to recognize that another person is talking. In the example below, notice how effortless it is to tell that the speaker changes because the second speaker and subsequent speakers begin their dialogue in separate paragraphs.

Dialogue Example: “Hurry up!” Tricia shouted from the foot of the stairs. She could hear the stomping and shuffling of sneakers as they ran through the bedrooms, towards the doors, and then to the upstairs landing. “We’re going to be late for your first day at your new school!”

“Do we have to go to that new school?” Andrew asked, reaching to the top of the stairs and pouting dramatically.

“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t wanna, though,” he answered, trudging slowly down the stairs now. His sister appeared behind him, looking no more excited.

“I liked our old school better. This one sucks,” Molly added.

“Give it a chance,” Tricia replied, smiling as warmly as she could muster, “If you still hate it at the end of the day, I can ship you off to boarding school.”

There are three speakers in this round of dialogue above. We have Tricia, the mother, and her two children, Andrew and Molly. Each time one finishes speaking, that paragraph ends, and a new one starts. While this makes for short, choppy paragraphs, it makes it easier for the reader to follow the conversation.

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Tips to Write Effective Dialogue

There are a lot of tips that will help you create dialogue that flows well and does not make the story awkward and clunky. For example, if there are only two people having a conversation, you have to establish who the speakers are and write a conversation without dialogue tags. You do not have to say, “she said,” and, “he said,” every time the two characters speak to each other.

1. Write Varying Dialogue Formats

Dialogue formatting that stays the same throughout an entire novel or short story will get boring quickly. Switch it up after you have established the characters. Once the reader understands the way each character speaks, their diction, the slang unique they use, and overall demeanor, you can have a line of dialogue here and there with no tag.

Just remember that when you do this, the line of dialogue without a tag needs to be clear as to who the speaker is. This is usually only appropriate when two speakers are present. Any more than that without tags will get muddled.

2. Check for Bad Dialogue

A character’s dialogue may look fine in print, but that does not mean that it is good dialogue. The best way to screen for possible bad dialogue is to read it aloud. Put yourself in the role of each speaking character, and read through conversations out loud.

Change or replace words that sound stuffy or out of character, or just bad. Make sure that the speech flows, and the speaker is clear, with or without tags. Everything said should be like something someone would say in the real world.

3. Use a Comma

Any time a person in your story speaks and the dialogue ends with a tag, make sure that you end the speech before closing the quotation marks with a comma. The only exception to this rule is when the speech ends with a question or exclamation mark.

4. Use Speech Patterns to Make Your Story Interesting

Not every character is an English major or a writer. A lot of characters, just like real human beings, do not speak proper English. Other people use slang or have a speech impediment, a lisp, or even a cold that prevents them from enunciating well.

Using these speech patterns in your dialogue will improve the reader’s experience. Do not worry that dialogue will confuse your reader about the story or plot because dialogue shows real conversations. Readers do not always expect perfect grammar or spelling. This makes for a more realistic speech, like the example below.

Example: “Y’all git back inside this house now! Hear me? I said now!”

Nothing about the above dialogue is proper English, but it is very much how many people in the southern U.S. speak, especially the older generations. Including speech like this makes the character easier to picture, and in some cases, it can make the character more endearing due to the quirks of speech they have.

5. Do Not Use a Lot of Different Dialogue Tags

Do not worry that you need to use many different tags when you write dialogue—using too many takes away from the dialogue itself. Just because you can think of ten ways to say, “she asked,” does not mean you need to use ten different tags. If you are worried that you have used too many or do not know how many variations are appropriate, stick to “said” and “asked” and reserve other tags for more significant moments in speech, where the speech demands more description.

6. Inner Dialogue

Inner dialogue is precisely what it sounds the name implies. It is a character or narrator’s thoughts, but aloud so that the reader can “hear” or understand them. If you are writing your story from the first-person point of view, you can use the dialogue tag “I thought” to introduce inner dialogue. When narrating from any other point of view, you need to set inner dialogue apart from speech and storytelling. You do this by putting the inner dialogue in italics.

7. Be Careful About How a Character Responds

Serious writers understand that each character needs a unique or distinct voice in the dialogue. Giving each character their own identity and way of speaking, although tedious, will make you a better writer. When characters respond to each other in a conversation, the tone needs to be consistent with the speech pattern of each character.

If the character responds to a polite question with rudeness or sarcasm, stay consistent about it. Responding simply and with proper English will make the character feel less genuine to the reader. Also, do not forget to start a subsequent paragraph for the response.

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Do Not Forget Character Dynamics

Character dynamic is when characters change because of certain events they have witnessed or experienced in the story. Character dynamics mean that the story is moving forward. It also means that the dialogue of a dynamic character has to change.

For example, if a character starts as introvert and shy and slowly or suddenly changes in the middle of the story, her speaking patterns need to change. If she has gained confidence in herself by the end of the story, her dialogue needs to reflect it.

Try having real-life conversations with people of all personality types to see how they respond to you and carry the conversation to help you write dialogue for different characters. Even a fiction writer needs to have a baseline for the story to be realistic. Dynamic characters help the plot move forward, so adapting their dialogue as they change and evolve is key to writing good fiction.

How Dialogue Can Keep Your Readers Engaged

Make sure that the character is the one that should be speaking. Do not just fill space because you are unsure how to move forward with your plot. Small talk should be left out when you can manage it in fiction. It is no more pleasant to read a story than to experience it in real life.

It would be best to tell the character’s body language in the dialogue. If a character is a nervous type person, make sure that you mention that they fidget, twirl their hair, avoid eye contact, or bounce on the balls of their feet when they speak. Body language tells us just as much as the dialogue itself sometimes.

Make sure that you do not have too many long speeches in your story. Think of times when you have had conversations. It is relatively rare that someone speaking has the floor for a long enough time to give a long speech with no interruptions. Long speeches are boring to read, and they start to get overbearing and sound like a rant, ramble, or lecture. None of these things are what your reader wants to experience.

Include inner thoughts when you can. Inner dialogue makes the things the character says and does make sense. Knowing what the character is thinking and feeling will help us understand why the characters say things.

From the beginning of your story to the final paragraph, you should focus on characters, plot, conflict, and development. Knowing how to write dialogue that makes sense and seems real will help you focus on all of those elements you need to have a successful work of fiction.

Without good dialogue, you will not have good characters. Without good characters, you will not have a good story because your audience will not care about what happens to them, and then your plot and conflict will have been for nothing.

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