Writing dialogue is a challenge, even to the most experienced of writers.
Why? Because at its best, dialogue can bring life and vibrancy to your story. At its worst, your reader will just stop, drop the book, and move on to the next. So how do you get it right?
There are general rules and guidelines you should follow to write interesting dialogue. These guidelines will make dialogue writing (and English writing in general) easier – turning your character’s speech from something static and boring into something that leaps off the page.
Ready? Let’s jump into and talk about how to write good dialogue.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Sure. Let’s get started.”
What is good dialogue?
Good dialogue has the ability to transform characters into believable people, and readers into avid fans.
Using dialogue in your story allows you to explore characterization and push plot arcs forward. It can help you establish backstory, foreshadow upcoming events, and reveal important story details that the reader may not know about.
Good dialogue creates tension between your characters and helps create a mood. By playing off the characters’ conversations, you can set an atmosphere for each scene. Remember, there’s tension in what’s spoken, and there’s even more tension in what’s not.
A good dialogue must meet the following criteria:
- It must help the reader understand the connection between the characters.
- It must move the plot forward. Each conversation or verbal exchange should bring the reader closer to either the story’s climax or the conclusion.
- It should reveal some crucial information about the character. Having the right dialogue will give the reader an insight into how the characters feel and what motivates them to act.
If your dialogue doesn’t accomplish the criteria above, then chances are, you’re wasting your words. Perhaps the versatility of dialogue is what makes it intimidating to many writers. Every line in our stories must serve a purpose. We can’t just write senseless conversation, as it could spoil the flow of the story.
But how exactly could you write good dialogue?
How do you write effective dialogue?
Before we dive in with the steps, let me tell you a little secret. If you’re planning to publish a book, the dialogue is one of the first things a literary agent checks when evaluating its marketability. It also shows your skills as a writer.
It does take a lot of hard work and practice to master dialogue writing, but when you do, your credibility as an author will improve tremendously. So here are the tips to help you write good dialogue (and pass the literary agent litmus test with flying colors).
1. Cut to the chase and leave an impact
I mentioned how every line should have a purpose, and I’m stressing that again with this point. Keeping your dialogue free from unnecessary words is a must.
The best dialogues are brief and concise—no need to use greetings and small talk unless it’s vital for the scene. Skip the “um, ah, uh, etc.” and just cut it to the chase. It creates more impact on your readers.
You should also avoid lengthy exchanges between your characters. You don’t need long, tedious conversations to reveal an essential truth about the characters, their motivations, and how they view the world. The longer you go, the more exhausting it could get for the readers. So trim it down to the minimum of what you need the characters to say to each other.
Here’s an example from the book “Hills like White Elephants.” by Ernest Hemingway.
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”
“And you really want to?”
“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”
“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. you know how I get when I worry.”
“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”
“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”
2. Don’t explain your character’s feelings
When you write dialogue, a follow-up explanation is not necessary. Readers don’t need to read every bit of detail the character intends to do or feel. Take a look at this example:
“That sounds great!” he said happily.
This may sound tight to you, but it’s a great example of a common trap many writers fall into. Did you spot the problem? That’s right, in the sentence, the character’s feelings are revealed twice.
‘That sounds great!’ clearly conveys happiness, then the word happily was used again. It’s redundant.
Explaining dialogue can often frustrate your readers. They’re smart enough to understand what’s going on, so there’s no need to patronize them by highlighting the obvious.
This explanation also prevents your readers from getting to know your characters on a more deeper and personal level. If you openly state that your character did something happily, then they already know that your character was happy, which means nothing.
Next time, consider the following:
“That sounds great!” she said.
This example is short and has no explanation at all. A powerful dialogue delivers emotion through what’s said rather than how it’s said. If your character is happy, you have to show happiness and to show what’s happening that makes him/her happy. Secondly, it encourages the reader to imagine the character’s surprise, helping them get closer to the character.
3. Don’t info dump
While it’s perfectly okay to let your readers know more about your characters through dialogue, dumping a whole bunch of information on them is a big no-no. Giving out too much information in one go can quickly get boring and unrealistic, mostly when done repeatedly.
The story should unfold gradually to the reader through showing and not telling. Of course, sometimes dialogue is a good vehicle for literally telling. But mostly, dialogue should lead rather than tell to keep readers intrigued, continually working to figure out what it means.
If you must info dump, don’t do it in dialogue. Say only what’s necessary and use other worldbuilding methods to show your readers the realm you’ve created.
4. Keep your dialogue tags simple
Dialogue tags are the phrases that indicate who’s saying what. For example: “I’ve been waiting for so long.” Richard said. In this case, “Richard said” is the dialogue tag. This phrase identifies the speaker and clarifies the action.
Many writers try to add more flavor to their writing by putting many vigorous dialogue tags. Like this:
“It’s not,” she spat.
“I’m certain it is,” he roared.
“I know a common carp when I see it,” she defended.
“Oh. You’re a professional ichthyologist now?” he attacked, sarcastically.
The example above is weak dialogue, no matter how you read it. But the biggest problem here is that the dialogue tags (spat, roared, and so on) are so highly colored, they take away interest from the speech itself.
It’s best to stick to more simple words like:
- She said
- He answered
- She replied
You won’t even need to use tags too much, especially in a two-handed dialogue, as it’s obvious who’s speaking. The best option is to follow the simple rule: use dialogue tags as sparingly as you can. Keep it simple!
5. Follow the right format
The formatting of your dialogue is also crucial in making it more effective and comprehensive to your reader. You must follow the proper punctuation, indentation, paragraph formats, etc.
Here the most critical formatting rules you should keep in mind.
- Each new line of dialogue (each new speaker) starts as a new paragraph – even if it is very short.
- Action sentences within dialogue should be on a separate paragraph, except when the sentence interrupts a continuous line of dialogue.
- For example: “Yes,” she said. She brushed away a snowflake that had landed on her cheek. “Winter is my favorite season.”
- Each new paragraph should have an indentation.
- Use double quotation marks on sentences said by your character.
- When you end a dialogue with he said/she said, the sentence enclosed on quotation marks ends with a comma, not a period.
- For example: “Maybe,” she said.
- If your dialogue ends with an exclamation point or question mark, don’t capitalize the first letter of your dialogue tag.
- For example: “You like chocolate?” he said.
- If your dialogue tag is in the middle of one continuous dialogue, you need to place your commas accordingly.
- For example: “If you like chocolate,” he said, “then you should buy that huge chocolate bar.”
- When a character’s dialogue extends to more than one paragraph, start each paragraph with a double quotation mark. Place your closing double quotations at the end of the last paragraph.
- Put your punctuations inside the quotation marks and the dialogue tag outside.
- For example: “Someone came and dropped a package for you,” Bill said.
- Putting quotes inside a quote requires single quotation marks.
- For example: “Jennie, mom specifically said, ‘Do not cut your bangs,’ and you did it anyway!”
How do you write natural dialogue?
When writing dialogue, it’s crucial to make it sound believable and realistic. Natural dialogue can bring fictional characters to life.
Ironically, natural sounding dialogue doesn’t emulate real-life conversation. Why? Because in real-life conversation, people stammer, make small talk, repeat themselves, and otherwise fill the air with unnecessary words that don’t really fit in a book. You certainly wouldn’t want to bog down your story with a lot of nonsense, nor do your readers.
So, what should you do to make dialogue more realistic? Here are some tips on how to create dialogue that flows and sounds life-like.
6. Make each character sound distinct
Every character in a story has its own distinct voice and a unique way of speaking and delivering their thoughts. Some can be forceful and deliberate, while some are more passive and meandering.
With this, dialogue can also reveal the traits of a character. According to Roy Peter Clark’s book about Writing Tools, a dialogue is a useful writing tool to reveal character traits. The character’s expressions and tone in an exchange can be highly effective descriptive factors that indicate your character’s personality.
Regardless of who your characters are and what role they portray, they should have their own unique voices through your dialogue. You can achieve that by including several elements: diction and syntax, humor, levels of energy and formality, confidence, and any speech-related quirks (such as lisping, stuttering, or a tone similar to ending every line like a question).
These may change depending on the conversation’s circumstances, especially to whom each person is talking to. But there should be an underlying uniqueness in personality that identifies each speaker, no matter what.
Look at this example from the book Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? How can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! you must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”
“Is that his design in settling here?”
“Design? Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”
Between this short exchange, you can already see the difference in personality between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet is quite fluttery and excitable, while Mr. Bennet is a more serious, less-talkative kind of guy. This early exchange establishes these two characters’ persona, allowing the readers to identify them throughout the story.
7. Develop character relationships
Dialogue is an effective way to introduce relationship between your characters. Remember, good dialogue establishes relationships, and great dialogue adds to them even more.
Always consider your key players and how they are likely to react or communicate with each other. Examine their relationship and its dynamics as this can affect how they speak to one another.
If you’re writing a conversation between two people, surely an exchange between two strangers will be different from an established relationship. You need to present those dynamics through your dialogue.
There are writing exercises you can do to help improve your dialogue writing, especially in presenting relationships between your characters. Here’s a sample exercise from Reedsy:
“Pretend three of your characters have won the lottery. How does each character reveal the big news to their closest friend? Write out their dialogue with unique word choice, tone, and body language in mind.”
This exercise allows you to practice working on both voice and character relationships. In this specific scenario, several qualities will affect how a character perceives and delivers the news that they’ve won the lottery. It’s up to you to determine what personality you’d want them to portray and how they will interact with other characters.
8. Keep your dialogue consistent
Consistency is key to making an effective dialogue as well as an engaging story. Once you’ve established your character’s voice and persona, make sure you stick to it. If you portrayed a character as someone who speaks in a self-deprecating and shy demeanor, you shouldn’t suddenly turn them into a bold and acerbic individual on the next page.
Although some stories have characters who transform themselves throughout the story, changing a character’s persona should be prompted and not changed abruptly.
When you create a line for your character, make sure they stick to who they really are. This will make your characters more remarkable, allowing your readers to determine who’s the one speaking even without character tags.
9. Use descriptive action beats
An action beat (also known as an action tag) is the small attributive action, expression, or even internal thought that follows or precedes a line of dialogue. The action beat helps illustrate what’s happening in a scene, and can even replace dialogue tags.
Here is an example of descriptive action beats from the book The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty.
Laura shrugged. “If you came equipped with a bone saw—”
“Door opens, silenced 9mm in the brain, killer closes the door, cuts off Young’s hand and bags it, leaves the musical score in the other hand and gets out of there in, say, under five minutes?”
I turned to Crabbie, “And the rest of the house was untouched. No trophies taken, no money, nothing like that.”
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
Action beats, when used well, can replace dialogue tags. They fulfill the same purpose — letting the reader know who’s speaking while giving a sense of the character and setting. Using action tags is a great way to keep the readers engaged and add motion to the scene.
10. Read it aloud
Reading written dialogue is one of the key steps in learning how to write good dialogue. It’s always a challenge to create realistic dialogue, but reading one is a totally different story. You’ll probably spot bad dialogue when you hear it, so try reading what you’ve written aloud. If the conversation doesn’t have a good flow when spoken, you’ll know exactly which parts you must revise.
For instance, is it awkward or stiff? Do your jokes not quite land? Do your characters speak for an unusually long periods of time that you hadn’t noticed before, or maybe their distinct “voice” sounds inconsistent in one scene? All these mishaps and more can be addressed by simply reading your dialogue out loud.
How do you write dialogue pain?
Writing about pain is even more of a struggle, especially when you put it into dialogue. It’s even hard to articulate if you’re experiencing it physically because it’s a first-person kind of feeling. In other words, there will always be some people who won’t understand it.
However, if you want to know how to write good dialogue, you must learn some creative ways of writing about pain in a dialogue. Here are some of them:
11. Determine the degree of pain
Pain has various degrees. It can range from “ouch-that-finger-flick-hurts” to “it-hurts-so-bad-I-think-I’m-gonna-die.” Knowing the degree of pain is important when writing about it in a dialogue. Here is a pain scale you can use as a reference in writing:
- Minor/Mild: A kind of pain your character notices but isn’t really distracting them. Consider words like a sting, pinch, stiffness.
- Moderate: This type of pain distracts your character but doesn’t stop them from doing what they do. Consider words like ache, distress, throb, flare.
- Severe: This is the kind of pain your character couldn’t ignore. It could stop them from doing much of anything. Consider words like anguish, suffering, agony, torment, stabbing.
- Obliterating: This is the most intolerable kind of pain that prohibits anything else except being in pain (and doing anything to alleviate it). Consider words like ripping, writhing, tearing.
12. Consider the type of pain
Another pain variation to consider is the type of pain your character is going through. It can be physical, emotional, psychological, etc. Commonly used descriptors related to the kind of pain present in the situation can be useful when thinking about pain writing. Here are some examples.
|Type of pain||Commonly used words|
|Physical pain caused by striking sharp objects.||Sharp, cutting, piercing, lacerating, stabbing, lancinating|
|Physical pain caused inserting pointed objects.||Stinging, pricking, drilling ,boring, penetrating|
|Physical pain caused the application of pressure/weight.||Pinching, pressing, crushing, tight, heavy|
|Physical pain caused by pulling/tearing||Tugging, pulling, squeezing, wrenching, drawing,tearing|
|Physical pain caused by high and low temperatures||Hot, scalding, burning, searing; cool, cold, freezing|
|Physical pain caused by actions that may cause physical damage||Punishing, vicious, torturing, gnawing, killing|
|Meanings to do with movement||Beating, pounding, jumping, shooting|
|Emotional or affective dimensions||Wretched, depressed, annoyed, sad|
13. Focus on pain’s consequences
Consider showing physical and emotional reactions rather than describing the pain. You could use the descriptors given on the table above as nudges about what the responses may be.
For example, if your character’s pain is crushing; you might portray this by describing him struggling for breath. If it’s torturing, you might have him bent and holding his belly. Some of these reactions might look brutal, but the injury and consequent pain are themselves severe and should not be shied away from.
Similarly, emotional reactions are helpful with the writing of physical pain. How will your character feel when he/she loses a loved one? Depressed, hopeless, vulnerable, frightened, despairing, angry, humiliated?
14. Acknowledge pain limitations
Pain can only do so much to a person. Just because your character is an MI5 agent with advanced armed-combat skills and interrogation-resistance techniques doesn’t mean he/she is entirely invincible. Sure, that character may have a high tolerance of pain, but it won’t stop them from getting hurt or even killed.
Be realistic and acknowledge the pain imitations of your character. Some genres may have insane pain tolerance, mostly fantasy and sci-fi, just like superheroes who refuse to go down no matter what comes their way and seem to feel no pain at all.
But there’s always a line. There’s nothing wrong with escapist writing that allows for superhero-like brilliance and agony tolerance as long as that’s your intention and your reader’s expectation. If you’re aiming for authenticity and grit, always keep pain thresholds in mind, especially what’s possible when your character is in agony.
15. Avoid these common mistakes
Before you start writing the next scene, scan through your dialogue to make sure you’re not making any of these mistakes:
Using too many dialogue tags
We mentioned the use of dialogue tags, but overdoing it could spoil everything. Constantly using, “he said,” “she said,” and so on repeatedly is tedious and redundant for your readers. Remember, you can often remove dialogue tags if you’ve already established the speakers.
Lack of structural variation
Similar to using too many tags, the lack of structural variation can sometimes arise in dialogue. Action beats are great, but when used repeatedly in precisely the same way (first the dialogue, then the beat), it may sound odd and too unnatural.
Restating the obvious
Another common mistake in writing dialogue is reiterating the obvious information that either the characters themselves or the reader already knows. For example, look at the exchange between these two brothers:
“Say, Hannah, how long have we been sisters?”
“Thirty-six years, Jenna. We’ve been together since mom gave birth to us in ’84”
This is an example of repetitive information. (It’s also quite silly, since the characters probably know how old they are.)
If you want to convey this information in a more not-in-your-face kind of way, you might use a different style, like:
“Hey Hannah, Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in 1984, right? Wasn’t mom about to see it when she went into labor with us?”
“That was Temple of Doom, Jenna. No wonder we always end up losing at trivia night.”
This makes the conversation more about Indiana Jones than the sisters’ age. There’s a hint about the info so readers can figure it out for themselves.
Disregarding dialogue entirely
Finally, the last mistake you can make is to not write dialogue at all! To revisit the first point in this article — dialogue gives life to any story — that’s why it’s essential. We know that writing dialogue can be really intimidating, especially if you don’t have that much experience. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include it in your work! Just remember, the more you practice writing dialogue, the better you’ll get at it.
Time to apply these tips!
These tips on how to write good dialogue aren’t just quick fixes, they’re tools that will help you create more engaging stories. Don’t be overwhelmed; just take it one at a time and practice, practice, practice. You’ll get better in no time, that’s for sure.