How to Write Natural Dialogue in 11 Steps!
No matter what your genre, learning how to write dialogue effectively is a vital part of any writer’s education. Poor dialogue can make readers put your book down in disgust — but great dialogue can transform your characters into truly believable people, and your readers into satisfied customers.
Of course, the best kind of dialogue isn’t just believable. It also provides exposition, involves distinct language depending on who’s speaking, and — perhaps most crucially — moves the story along. Without dialogue, you’d just have pages and pages of description with barely any character dynamics or interpersonal drama. How boring would that be?
Because dialogue is one of the essential components of strong writing, we want to help you get it exactly right. To that end, we’ve put together this series of articles covering all aspects of writing dialogue.
To navigate between any of the articles in this series, use the links in the sidebar.
1. Enter the conversation late
Alfred Hitchcock once said that “drama is life with all the boring bits cut out.” Comparably, we could say that good dialogue is like a real conversation without all the fluff. And one of the best ways to cut out that boring fluff is to enter the conversation as late as possible.
Think about it: few "classic" scenes start with characters going, “Hey buddy! How are you doing? Wow, long time no see.” This is because people enjoy making inferences based on details in action and speech — and the last thing you want to do is insult their intelligence by spelling everything out for them.
For a more tangible taste of this technique, check out the dialogue-driven opening to Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Unsheltered.
2. Keep dialogue tags simple
Dialogue tags are the phrases in your writing that indicate who’s saying what. For example: “I can’t wait to read this article,” Rita said. In this case, “Rita said” is the dialogue tag. It identifies the speaker and clarifies the action.
Of course, there are plenty of other dialogue tags besides “said”: stated, declared, proclaimed, the list goes on and on. But when writing dialogue, you generally want to keep these elaborate tags to a minimum.
As American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard put it:
“Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said' is far less intrusive than 'grumbled,' 'gasped,' 'cautioned,' 'lied.'”
The key word that Leonard uses here is “intrusive.” You want to bring readers into your scene and make them feel like firsthand observers, without drawing attention to the fact that they're actually not. When you raid your thesaurus for fancy dialogue tags, you risk taking readers out of the scene for a brief display of your verbal virtuosity.
Want to see this in practice? Check out this scene from Daphne du Maurier's bestselling Gothic novel, Rebeccca.
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3. Use descriptive action beats
An action beat is a description of the expressions, movements, or even internal thoughts that accompany the speaker’s words. It is included in the same paragraph as the dialogue to indicate that the person acting is also the person speaking.
Action beats help illustrate what’s going on in a scene, and can even replace dialogue tags, avoiding the need for a long list of lines ending in “he said," or "she said.” Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is an example of action beats used well!
4. Make each character sound distinct
Another key aspect of writing realistic dialogue is making each character sound distinctly “themselves.” This incorporates a number of elements: syntax and diction, levels of energy and formality, humor, confidence, and any speech-related quirks (such as stuttering, lisping, or ending every sentence like it’s a question).
Some of these may change depending on the circumstances of the conversation, especially to whom each person is speaking. But no matter what, there should be an underlying current of personality that identifies each speaker.
Jane Austen's Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice are great examples of distinct character voices.
5. Develop character relationships
Jumping off that, dialogue is an excellent tool to display and develop character relationships overall. Remember, good dialogue establishes relationships, and great dialogue adds to them even more.
One of the best ways to ensure your dialogue augments your characters’ relationships is to complete some dialogue writing exercises! In all likelihood, these conversations won’t actually end up in your story, so they’re a nice, low-pressure way to practice developing your characters and the relationships between them.
For this kind of practice, exercises like “What Did You Say?” are particularly helpful. We’ve copied this one for you below:
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 is a great opportunity to work on both voice and character relationships. In this specific scenario, a number of qualities will affect how a character perceives and delivers the news that they’ve won the lottery. These qualities might include whether a character:
- Is reserved and shy vs. confident and outgoing;
- Takes things seriously vs. in a lighthearted manner;
- Has lofty personal aspirations or doesn’t;
- Wants to help others or couldn’t care less;
- Thinks they deserve good fortune or not.
Think about each of your characters and which of these categories they fall into — it should help you determine how they relate and react to each other in the context of such news.
6. Show, don’t tell as much as possible
In terms of how you phrase your dialogue, you don’t want to just lay everything out on the table. Again, readers enjoy making inferences based on the clues you provide! This is where our next tip comes into play, as ironic as it might sound when applied to dialogue: show, don’t tell as much as possible.
The post linked above will give you a thorough overview of this strategy, but in the context of writing dialogue, it basically means that you should imply information rather than outright stating it.
For example, say two characters meet in a bar and have the following exchange:
“Hey, Jake. Long time no see.”
“Tell me about it, Ted. The precinct isn’t the same without you.”
“Well, you know I had good reason for leaving.”
“I do. But I also thought you might change your mind.”
Even if this is the first time we’re meeting Jake and Ted, we can deduce that they are police officers who used to work together, and that Jake misses Ted — and possibly wants him to come back, despite Ted’s resolve to stay away.
However, cloaking this information in dialogue is a lot more interesting than the narrator simply saying, “Jake and Ted used to work together on the force. Ted left after a grisly murder case, but now Jake needs his help to solve another.”
Of course, sometimes dialogue is a good vehicle for literally telling — for instance, at the beginning or end of a story, it can be used for exposition or to reveal something dramatic, such as a villain’s scheme. But for the most part, dialogue should show rather than tell in order to keep readers intrigued, constantly working to figure out what it means.
7. Bounce quickly back and forth
When writing dialogue, it’s also good to bounce quickly back and forth between speakers, like a tennis match. Just take a look at the ping-pong pace of this conversation between an unnamed man and a girl named Jig, from Hemingway's short story, "Hills Like White Elephants".
This rule might seem obvious, but it can be easy to forget when one speaker is saying something important — you forget that the other person still needs to respond!
To avoid this, take a close look at your dialogue to ensure there aren’t any long, unbroken blocks of text; these typically indicate lengthy monologues. Fortunately, they’re easily fixed by inserting questions, comments, and other brief interludes from fellow speakers.
Alternately, if there’s a scene wherein you feel a lengthy monologue is warranted, you can always break it up using small bits of action and description, or with standard paragraph breaks.
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8. Read your dialogue out loud
Most of us know bad dialogue when we hear it, so what better way to check your own dialogue than by reading it out loud? Though it might not be what you want to hear (literally), this tactic will help you get down to brass tacks and fix the real problems with your dialogue.
For instance, is it clunky or awkward? Do your jokes not quite land? Does one of your characters speak for an unusually long amount of time that you hadn’t noticed before, or does their distinct "voice" sound inconsistent in one scene? All of these problems and more can be addressed by simply speaking your dialogue out loud.
And if you don’t believe us, believe John Steinbeck! He once recommended this very strategy in a letter to actor Robert Wallston: “If you are using dialogue, say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
9. Remove unnecessary dialogue
It’s worth remembering that dialogue is merely one part of your writer’s toolbox, and that you don’t have to keep all the dialogue you write. Indeed, you need to pick and choose which techniques best tell your story and present the interior life of your characters.
That might mean using a great deal of dialogue, or it might not. Sometimes, having your characters speak might not be your best option at all; perhaps your scene is better off told through narration, or in a letter written by the protagonist. Just because dialogue can be brilliant, doesn't mean it's always paramount to a scene — so don’t be afraid to cut it where necessary.
10. Format and punctuate your dialogue properly
Punctuating and formatting your dialogue correctly makes your story clear and understandable, so readers can enjoy it. Not to mention that knowing when to use quotation marks and where to put commas, full stops, question marks, and dashes will make your text look polished and professional to agents and publishers.
The standard formatting and punctuation for dialogue is pretty simple, and you've probably seen in innumerable times before. But let’s break down the most important rules, just in case.
How to format dialogue
- Indent each new line of dialogue.
- Put quotation marks around the speech itself.
- Punctuation that affects the speech’s tone goes inside the quotation marks.
- If you quote within a quote, use single rather than double quotation marks.
- If you break up a line of dialogue with a tag (e.g. “she said”), put a comma after the tag:
However, if you put a tag in between two complete sentences, use a period:
- Speaking of tags, you don’t always need them, as long as the speaker is implied.
- If you start with a tag, capitalize the first word of dialogue.
Now that you know exactly what to do when it comes to writing dialogue, let’s talk about what not to do — with these five critical mistakes to avoid.
11. Check your dialogue for these major mistakes
Before you move on to the next scene, look over your dialogue to make sure you're not making any of these faux pas:
❌ Too many dialogue tags
As you may have already gathered, one of the most egregious errors you can make when writing dialogue is using too many dialogue tags. Constantly repeating “he said,” “she said,” and so on is boring and repetitive for your readers, as you can see here:
So keep in mind that you can often eschew dialogue tags if you’ve already established the speakers, like so:
One can tell from the action beats, as well as the fact that it’s a two-person back-and-forth conversation, which lines are Billy’s and which are Ann’s. Dialogue tags just distract from the conversation — although if you did want to use them, “said” would still be better than fancy tags like “announced” or “effused.”
❌ Lack of structural variety
Similar to the “too many tags” issue is the lack of structural variety that can sometimes arise in dialogue. Not sure what we’re talking about? Take a look at this:
Now, action beats are great, but here they’re used repeatedly in exactly the same way — first the dialogue, then the beat — which looks odd and unnatural on the page. Indeed, any recurrent structure like this (which also includes putting dialogue tags in the same place every time) should be vehemently avoided.
Luckily, it’s easy to rework repetitive structure into something much more lively and organic, just by shifting around some of the action beats and tags:
❌ Restating the obvious
Another common dialogue mistake is restating the obvious — i.e. information that either the characters themselves or the reader already knows. For example, say you want to introduce two brothers, so you write the following exchange:
This is clearly awkward and a bit ridiculous, as the characters obviously know how old they are. It also insults the reader’s intelligence — even if they didn’t already know that Barry and Gary were thirty-five-year-old brothers, they wouldn’t appreciate being spoon-fed like this.
If you wanted to convey the same information in a subtler way, you might write it into a different conversation, like:
This makes the dialogue more about Indiana Jones than the brothers’ age, sneaking in the info so readers can figure it out for themselves.
❌ Unrealistic smooth-talking and clichés
Though you want your dialogue to flow, you don’t want it to flow so smoothly that it sounds fake. Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between enthralling dialogue and unrealistic smooth-talking, so be careful!
Saying your dialogue out loud, as we mentioned in rule #8, should help with this problem. It can also be helpful to record dialogue (with the participants’ permission, of course) and study it for natural speech patterns and phrases. Of course, we’re not saying you should include every “um” and “er” that people say in real life — only that authentic-sounding written dialogue reflects real life.
In a similar vein, you want to watch out for clichés in your dialogue as much as in the rest of your writing. While it’s certainly true that people sometimes speak in clichés (though this is often tongue-in-cheek), if you find yourself writing the phrase “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” or “Shut up and kiss me,” you may need a reality check.
For a full roster of dialogue clichés, check out this super-helpful list from Scott Myers.
❌ Disregarding dialogue entirely
Finally, the last mistake you can make when writing dialogue is… well, not writing it! Circling back to one of the very first points we made in this article, dialogue is a super-important element in almost any story — it provides exposition, indicates personality and character relationships, and may even reveal a major plot twist during the climax. Suffice to say, if your story doesn’t have enough dialogue, it’s not going to have many readers either.
We know that writing dialogue can be intimidating, especially if you don’t have much experience with it. But that should never keep you from including it in your work! Just remember that the more you practice, the better you’ll get. And with the help of the tips and in this article, you should already be a little bit (if not a lot!) closer to writing dialogue that captivates your readers just as much as their real-life conversations. 🗣