How to Write Dialogue: 3 Effective Ways to Write Dialogue

Gloria Russell
September 04, 2020 | 11 mins

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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! 

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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.

I know.

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.” 

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

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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