Learning how to write dialogue in a story is crucial. Writing gripping conversations that include conflict and disagreement and further your story will make readers want to read on. Here are 7 steps to improve your dialogue writing skills:
1: Learn how to format dialogue
2: Cut filler
3: Include conflict and disagreement
4: Involve characters’ goals, fears and desires
5: Include subtext for subtle gestures and effects
6: Involve context for tone and atmosphere
7: Learn by copying out great dialogue
Let’s expand these ideas:
1. Learn how to format dialogue
You should always leave your reader caught up in your dialogue, not lost in it. Good formatting is key to making dialogue enjoyable and effortless to read [that’s why formatting is the focus of Week 1 of our writing course, How to Write Dialogue].
Here are some guidelines for how to write dialogue for maximum clarity:
a) Every time you change speaker, start a new, indented line
Follow this convention because it’s all too easy to lose track of who’s saying what in dialogue. An example of good format:
“What were you thinking?” Sarah frowned.
“I wasn’t. Thinking, I mean,” Tom admitted.
b) Always use opening and closing speech marks
If you write in US English, it’s standard to use double quotation marks for dialogue. In UK English, single quotation marks suffice.
There is an exception: If you have the same character speaking across multiple paragraphs, uninterrupted (if a character is telling a long story), use an opening speech mark for each paragraph and only use a closing speech mark at the end of the last paragraph before narration resumes or another character speaks.
c) Place all dialogue punctuation inside speech marks
- In the above example, the question mark in Sarah’s dialogue comes before the closing speech marks, not after.
- If the end of a line of dialogue is also the end of the sentence, place the period or full stop before the closing speech marks because it’s part of the rhythm of the speech. It’s part of character’s own coming to a stop (it doesn’t lie outside their speech):
- “That’s your problem,” Sarah chided, “you only ever rely on your gut.”
The best policy when formatting dialogue is to check published books and compare multiple dialogue extracts.
Investigate what the most common practice is in books by published authors in your country, and remember to be similarly consistent.
2. Cut filler
In strong dialogue, there is no filler. If characters speak on the phone, there are no ‘may I speak to’s’ or ‘Please hold’s’. Cut all filler from your dialogue. Launch straight into any phone conversation. For example:
The voice on the other end of the line was doubtful; suspicious.
Sometimes, filler material such as an introduction between characters, is necessary. Yet take the opportunity to weave in colourful character description. For example, here is an introduction in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations that is full of character:
‘…Joe was smoking his pipe in company with Mr. Wopsle and a stranger. Joe greeted me as usual with “Halloa, Pip, old chap!” and the moment he said that, the stranger turned his head and looked at me.
He was a secret-looking man whom I had never seen before. His head was all on one side, and one of his eyes was half shut up, as if he were taking aim at something with an invisible gun.’
Note that Joe’s greeting is just four words. Yet Dickens instead adds narration around Joe’s voice, giving detailed character description.
‘Filler’ includes unnecessary dialogue tags. Instead of an endless ‘he said, she said’, see where you can replace a tag with a gesture or motion that supplies more story information. Compare:
- “So you’re leaving…” he said.
- “I thought that much was obvious,” she said.
- The dialogue tags have a monotonous, repetitive effect. You could either leave them out entirely (if the preceding scene’s context makes it clear who says which line), or you could add gesture that attributes the dialogue the same:
- “So you’re leaving…” He folds his arms, standing in the doorway.
“I thought that much was obvious.” Pausing her packing, she looks over her shoulder at him, resisting the sudden impulse to turn and face him.
Here the dialogue supplies a lot more detail about the emotions of the scene, while avoiding clunky repetition of a standard dialogue writing device.
3. Include conflict and disagreement
Key to writing great dialogue is knowing how to write dialogue involving confrontation or disagreement. In real life, we might go weeks without a single terse or grumpy word to another person. Yet in stories, conflict and confrontation in dialogue supply narrative tension and this keeps the story compelling.
If everyone in your novel gets on swimmingly with everyone else, this could result in dull dialogue.
For example, the verbal sparring between Estella and Pip in Great Expectations creates tension, as we see Estella taunt and test Pip by insulting and goading him. Her dialogue and behaviour is consistent with Estella’s backstory. Her legal guardian, Miss Havisham, once jilted by a lover, has turned the young Estella against boys and sentimentality:
“Well, miss?” I answered, almost falling over her and checking myself.
“Am I pretty?”
“Yes; I think you are very pretty.”
“Am I insulting?”
“Not so much so as you were last time,” said I.
“Not so much so?”
She fired when she asked the last question, and she slapped my face with such force as she had, when I answered it.
“Now?” said she.
“You little coarse monster, what do you think of me now?”
“I shall not tell you.”
6 Tips for Writing Believable and Compelling Dialogue
There are essential dialogue writing rules to follow if one expects to write a good story. Dialogue is what keeps the story interesting and moving quickly for the reader. It’s essential to a good story. However, there are dialogue writing rules that must be followed otherwise nothing is going to work no matter how good your words may be
1. Use quotation marks
One of the absolute dialogue writing rules is using quotation marks. This is a must. If you think that you can get away without using those pesky little marks, try it. Try writing a story without using quotation marks then go back and read it to yourself. Quotation marks indicate what’s spoken and what’s not. It’s used to guide the reader in the story.
2. Each speaker gets their own paragraph
Each speaker needs to be given their own paragraph. This is another one of those dialogue writing rules that has to be followed to the letter.
Even if it’s only one line and they are talking about the same subject, they need to be separated.
This allows the reader to read along and know when one character is finished and the other is responding without the writing having to refer to them as he said, she said, constantly.
3. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking
Give life to the phrases not only by indicating who is speaking it but also by describing the character’s reaction or actions while speaking the words. This is one of those dialogue writing rules that a good writer will never ignore.
4. Vary speech tag use
Proper usage of the speech tag is one of those important dialogue writing rules. Some people tend to always use them at the end of sentences repetitively. This gets boring after a while.
A good writer will vary the use of the speech tags by placing them in different parts of the sentence. Some sentences can start off with a speech tag while still others can break in the middle with a speech tag.
The use of a speech tag can be eliminated altogether when a sentence is used identifying the actions of the speaker and leading up to their comment.
Many fledgling writers feel that they are overusing the word “said” as they add the speech tags. They feel that they need to vary by adding adverbs but in reality this only creates more problems.
A good writer will learn use one of the dialogue writing rules to convey those adverbs in the context of the actual dialogue eliminating the need for stating the adverbs.
By learning how to do this, one is truly becoming a master storyteller.
5. Use dialogue with a purpose
Don’t put in dialogue just for the sake of having your characters talk. They need to have a reason to speak. Good dialogue writing rules are that dialogue is used to move the plot along and reveal the characters. It needs to be a substitute for narration.
Never use dialogue and narration to tell the reader the same thing. It should also reveal the character’s intention in the story and also set the tone.
By asking yourself if your dialogue serves one of those purposes and having the answer come back as “yes”, then you’ll know that you are using dialogue correctly.
6. Written dialogue should sound real
Tips for Writing Great Dialogue | NY Book Editors
Writing dialogue is hard work.
You’re tasked with capturing the natural cadence of language and the reflexive dynamic of human conversation. That ain’t easy. And I’m sad to say that most writers don’t get it right.
You see, most writers fall into one of two groups: either they hate writing dialogue and try to avoid it as much as humanly possible or they love writing dialogue and fill their entire novel with mostly useless exchanges.
But there’s a third group that few writers join. It’s the group of writers who understand the importance of dialogue in a story. They know how to use dialogue as a tool to enhance their storytelling. That’s the group that you want to be a part of, and in this post, I’m showing you exactly how to join them.
Let’s get started.
Most novels can benefit from well-written dialogue.
Dialogue is a useful tool for developing your characters and moving your plot forward. Dialogue can help you establish the backstory, and it can reveal important plot details that the reader may not know about yet.
Dialogue is great for ratcheting up the tension between characters.
Dialogue can also establish the mood. By playing off characters’ verbal exchanges, you can set an atmosphere for each scene. Remember that there’s tension in what’s spoken, and especially in what’s not spoken.
All dialogue should pass the following criteria:
- It must move the story forward. After each conversation or exchange, the reader should be one step closer to either the climax or the conclusion of your story.
- It should reveal relevant information about the character. The right dialogue will give the reader insight into how the character feels, and what motivates him or her to act.
- It must help the reader understand the relationship between the characters.
If your dialogue doesn’t accomplish all of the above, it is a waste of words.
Now, let’s take a look at how to write the best dialogue for your story.
Top Tips for Better Dialogue
Here’s what you need to know to write forward-focused dialogue:
Keep it brief
Dialogue shouldn’t go over for pages and pages. If that happens, you should probably be writing a play, and not a novel.
The best dialogue is brief. It’s a slice and not the whole pizza. You don’t need to go into lengthy exchanges to reveal an important truth about the characters, their motivations, and how they view the world.
The Art of the Paragraph: How to Write Dialogue in Fiction
Paragraph writing in fiction doesn’t follow traditional rules. Like storytelling itself, it is artistically liberated, and that liberation gives it the potential to contribute to the story’s aesthetic appeal. Paragraphs build a story segment-by-segment. They establish and adjust the pace while adding subtle texture. They convey mood and voice. They help readers visualize the characters and the way they think and act by regulating the flow of their thoughts and actions.
In this series, adapted from “The Art of the Paragraph” by Fred D. White in the January 2018 issue of Writer's Digest, we cover paragraph writing, how to write dialogue and more by exploring different lengths and kinds of paragraphs—and when to use each one. [Subscribe to Writer's Digest today.]
How to Write Dialogue-Based Paragraphs
In general, dialogue is presented as separate paragraphs for each person speaking. But some writers—Franz Kafka, for example—occasionally merge different voices together to give the impression of hurried conversation, as Kafka did in this sprawling paragraph from The Castle:
“I don’t go to the Castle till the early morning, I never sleep there” [said Barnabas]. “Oh, said K., “so you weren’t going to the Castle, but only here. … Why didn’t you say so?” “You didn’t ask me, sir,” said Barnabas, “you only said you had a message to give me.”
Separate paragraphs per speaker, however, is the favored custom. It’s easier to follow along, as you can see in this example from Robert B. Parker’s Crimson Joy:
“As you can see, ma’am, the target consists of the silhouette of a man surrounded by increasingly concentric circles; the smallest circle, around the man’s head and heart, is worth 10 points. The next circle is worth nine, and so on until the last circle, outside of which there is no score.”
“Please call me Susan.”
“OK, Susan. In order to qualify for a license to carry firearms you have to score 70, firing a maximum of 30 rounds.”
- “Fine,” Susan said.
- “Want to fire some for practice, Susan?”
- “No, thank you.”
Notice how Parker informs you about firearm qualifying criteria while simultaneously moving the story along and depicting the characters’ natures.
Write a page of conversation between two or more people sharing conflicting opinions about an issue, using conventional dialogue-paragraph format. If you feel adventurous, try putting the entire conversation into one paragraph.
This is one of five basic kinds of paragraphs and their respective functions in fiction. Learn about each type of paragraph writing—and how to apply what you've learned—in these articles:
Fred D. White is the author of The Writer’s Idea Thesaurus, Where Do You Get Your Ideas? and The Daily Writer. His latest, Writing Flash, will be published this spring.
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Everything you need to know about how to write dialogue in a story
How do you write convincing dialogue and structure it correctly in your story? We show you how!
Fiction needs characters, and characters in fiction need to talk to each other. It’s one of the vital ways readers get to know the people in your story, and find out about them and the world you’ve created round them. This means that anyone who wants their fiction to read well needs to know how to write dialogue in a story.
What does dialogue do?
Good dialogue engages the reader. Conversation between characters brings stories to life. Dialogue breaks up blocks of text and allows writers to change the pace of their narrative. Well-written dialogue informs readers about the character of the people speaking it, and knowing how to use dialogue in a story allows the writer to progress the narrative.
What dialogue should be
Good dialogue is an exchange between characters that adds to the reader’s enjoyment, tells them something about the characters and in some way progresses the narrative.
Good dialogue drives a plot but it also allows readers to connect emotionally with the characters speaking it, which deepens their understanding and enjoyment of the fictional world you have created for them. Similarly to the way we get to know people by talking to them, readers get to know characters by engaging with their dialogue.
Knowing how to write dialogue in a story is a way for you, the writer, to show readers who your characters are without telling them through lengthy blocks of description.
What dialogue should not be
Bad dialogue is clunky, unrealistic and used by the author as a vehicle for infodumping:
‘Hello Arthur, how nice it is to see you after all these years. After spending such a long time in prison you must be pleased to be out. It was terrible how you got stitched up for a crime you didn’t commit.’ If that was in a book no-one would blame you for not reading any further. You want to read (and write!) dialogue that sparkles, not that feels heavy and weighs the story down.
Dialogue should never be used as ‘filler’ content, which is why it’s really useful to know how to structure dialogue in your story. Writers love writing dialogue because it’s fun and it fills pages. That’s all great – but if it’s there as padding or for self-indulgent reasons it will detract from the forward motion of your story and readers will lose interest.
Read these four short stories by some of the most famous short story writers. Do you think the dialogue works well?
How to write dialogue that feels realistic
Note that we said ‘feels’. There is an art to writing dialogue and a lot of it is more about knowing what to take out that what to put in.
Think of film scripts. You don’t want any unnecessary words. You only want the words that really matter.
• No-one in real life talks in speeches, unless they’re exceptionally boring. Characters in fiction don’t have to hold forth and explain themselves at length. Your dialogue needs to contain only what is really necessary.