Often, what makes a story memorable is its characters. Great characterization comes from great dialogue writing, which is why learning how to write good dialogue is essential for story writers of any genre.
We’ve packed this article with dialogue writing tips and dialogue writing examples. Carry it with you like a suitcase on every writing journey you take, and all of your characters will gleam with originality.
The Elements of Good Dialogue Writing
Every story needs dialogue. Unless you’re writing absurdist, experimental fiction, your story will have main characters, and those characters will interact with the world and the people inside it.
That being said, there’s no “correct” way to write dialogue. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve with your characters and your story. For us to discuss how to write dialogue in a story, we need to mention all the possibilities that dialogue can achieve.
Good dialogue writing examples should do one or more of the following:
How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Characterize
Learning how to write dialogue in a story means learning characterization. Your characters will often reveal key aspects of their personality through dialogue—both directly and indirectly.
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, Holden’s internal 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 or hate him!
How to Write Dialogue in a Story: 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, 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. Or, 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 setting but also characterization: the speaker is innocent and operating from a limited frame of reference, and the setting could not be more different from that frame of reference.
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 a more reliable voice.
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How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Advance the Plot
Dialogue doesn’t just tell us about the story and the people inside it; good dialogue also advances the plot. We often need dialogue to reveal important details to the protagonist, and sometimes, an emotionally tense conversation can also 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.”
Your story shouldn’t rely on twists of dialogue to advance the plot, but it can make for engaging writing.
How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Foreshadow
Just like in real life, your characters don’t always say what they mean. Characters can lie, hint, suggest, confuse, conceal, and deceive. As a result, one of the most powerful dialogue writing tips 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, he 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 or provoke your readers, but definitely use foreshadowing to keep them reading.
4 DOs of Dialogue Writing
We’ve talked about what dialogue should accomplish, but that doesn’t answer the question of how to write good dialogue. Let’s answer that question now, including more dialogue writing examples.
1. DO Differentiate Each Character
Each character will have their own style of speaking, and will emphasize different things when they talk.
Your dialogue should be like thumbprints, because no two characters 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 dialogue styles:
- Sentence length: Some people are verbose and loquacious, others terse and stoic.
- 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.
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 being different from one another, Salinger’s characters speak extremely differently from people in other works of fiction. Can you imagine Holden Caulfield being Romeo in R&J? He’d say something like “Juliet’s family are all phonies, but the funny thing is you can’t help but fall half in love with her.”
2. DO Consider the Context
One mistake writers often make when writing dialogue is that 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. DO 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 participating in the conversation, which is why this is an excellent balance of the two.
Simply put: balance your dialogue with your narrator’s voice, or else the reader might lose valuable information.
4. DO Stay Consistent with Dialogue Writing Format
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.
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 good dialogue: we’ll dive into what you shouldn’t do when writing dialogue, alongside some more dialogue writing 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.”
Oh, man—I have a feeling like, a feeling 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. See 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. Use dialogue tags wisely.
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 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 very fictional character: a dog with the ability to speak English. Here is writing that makes some effort to consider how a dog might experience and express reality:
“The whole house smells like the ribs on the kitchen counter,” said Max, the talking dog. “Honestly, it’s distracting, and if you could either share some with me or put them in the fridge I’d be grateful.”
And here is lazy writing that takes no real interest in the character beyond one-dimensional surface traits:
“Woof! Woof! I’m a dog!” said Max, the talking dog. “I love to nap and play, but don’t let me see a squirrel or a tennis ball or I’ll go crazy!”
Writing a talking dog badly is disappointing; writing a human being badly is much worse than disappointing. Stereotypical dialogue represents bad writing. Not only does it make your characters one-dimensional, it’s also offensive to whomever your character resembles. If you’re going to be writing your characters from a careless surface take on them, you might reconsider whether you want to write them at all.
What to do about this? The safest way to avoid stereotyping is to preference writing identities that you personally know 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’re considering writing about.
4. DON’T Get Discouraged
For some writers—myself included—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. Every writer has their strengths and their kryptonite, and dialogue is difficult! Try the following tips if you can’t get your dialogue right:
A Few Dialogue Writing Exercises
Below are some dialogue writing exercises to try yourself.
Dialogue Writing Exercise: Revisit your character development.
You might not know your characters as well as you think, so get to the core of their desires, motivations, fears, flaws, and personal background. You might find the right dialogue simply by thinking about your characters in a more general context!
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.)
Dialogue Writing Format Examples
We’ve covered how to write dialogue in a short story, but not how to format dialogue. Many writers get tripped up over how they should format their 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 just to fix formatting errors.
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 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 internal thoughts, 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.
You’re gonna need a bigger boat, said Chief Brody.
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 won’t accept that kind of formatting.
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.”
And, if your dialogue spans multiple paragraphs, don’t 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 good dialogue, check out our online fiction writing courses for dialogue writing tips from the best instructors on the net!
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