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.
Learn more about writing conversations that feel real and draw on cause and effect, call and response:
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 …’Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double, trans. Ronald Wilks (1846, 2009), p. 11
‘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.)
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.
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
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:
10 dialogue tips to hook readers
Hook readers into your story with dialogue that catches their attention.
Writing movement and action in dialogue: 6 tips
How can movement and action make your dialogue more immersive? Find out.
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:
“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 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).
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
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:
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:
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:
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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.”Rick Riordan, The Mark of Athena (2012).
“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.”
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.Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002), p. 10.
“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.
Read more on devices in dialogue, including dialogue tags vs action tags and how to create tension:
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.”George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (1996).
“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.”
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.Julia Quinn, The Duke and I (2000).
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?”
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.Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
“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.”
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.Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects (2006).
“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.
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?”V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020).
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.”
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?”Toni Morrison, Home (2012).
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.”
What is a favorite section of dialogue from a book in your favorite genre? Share in the comments below.
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Read further examples of effective dialogue: