How to Write Dialogue: 9 Practical Tips for Writers (+ Examples)
Good dialogue matters in a book — it propels the story forward, pulls the reader along, and allows you to flesh out characters and their dynamics right in front of the readers. It has the potential to take your story to a whole new level, which is why knowing how to write dialogue is truly important. To help you out, here are 9 steps for writing great dialogue:
- Skip the greetings and small talk
- Keep to three dialogue beats
- Use action beats
- Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’
- Add variety to your dialogue scenes
- Avoid excessive exposition
- Use catchphrases or quirks in moderation
- Know that characters don’t always mean what they say
- Remember that less is more
1. Skip the greetings and small talk
Alfred Hitchcock once said that “drama is life with all the boring bits cut out.” Similarly, we could say that good dialogue is like a real conversation without all the fluff.
Think about it: very few “classic” scenes start with characters saying “Hey buddy! How are you doing? Wow, long time no see. Parking was a nightmare.” These lines don’t add anything to the story, and they are said all the time. Are you willing to repeat this prelude for every scene where the characters meet? Probably not, nor do your readers want to sit through it. Readers can infer that all these civilities occur, so you can go ahead and skip forward to get to the meat of the conversation.
For a more tangible example of this technique, check out the dialogue-driven opening to Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Unsheltered.
2. Keep to three dialogue beats
Outlined by screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb, the Three-Beat Rule advises writers to have a maximum of three dialogue beats at a time, after which you should insert a dialogue tag, action beat, or another character’s speech. Dialogue “beats” can be understood as the short phrases in speech that you can say without pausing for breath. Sometimes they correlate with actual sentences, sometimes they don’t.
Here’s an example from Jane Gardam’s short story, “Dangers”, in which the boy Jake is shooting an imaginary gun at his grandmother:
Now, you may point out that classic books often don’t follow this rule — that’s because dialogue conventions have changed over time. Nowadays, a lengthy and unbroken monologue (unless it’s been effectively built up to be an impassioned outburst or revelation) tends to feel dated and awkward. Readers also lose their attention and interest easily in the face of long speeches, so the Three-Beat Rule is definitely one to follow!
3. Use action beats
While we’re on the topic of beats, let’s take a look at another kind — action beats. These are descriptions of the expressions, movements, or even internal thoughts that accompany the speaker’s words. They’re included in the same paragraph as the dialogue, to indicate that the person acting is also the person speaking.
Action beats can keep your writing varied, avoiding the need for a long list of lines ending in ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. They can also be used to manage the pace of a dialogue-heavy scene. Furthermore, they can illustrate and add context to the conversation, so that readers can gauge the significance of the scene beyond what was being said.
These beats are a commonly used technique so you can find plenty of examples — here’s one from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
4. Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’
‘Said’ gets a bad rap for being boring and overused as a dialogue tag, especially in school. But in the book-writing world, this simple tag is favored over more descriptive ones like ‘exclaimed,’ ‘declared,’ or the many other words used to replace ‘said.’
The thinking goes that most of the time, readers don’t notice words like ‘said’ because their attention is (rightfully) on what’s actually being spoken. As writer Elmore Leonard puts 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.’”
To never use other verbs might be a drastic measure, but you definitely do not want to overcrowd your dialogue with fancy tags and risk taking readers out of a scene for a brief display of verbal virtuosity. If bestsellers like Daphne du Maurier's Gothic novel, Rebecca, features ‘said’ on a regular basis, then your book can, too.
5. Add variety to your dialogue scenes
This tip is all about exceptions to some of the tips we’re sharing here. Learning how to write good dialogue isn’t about strictly following rules but rather learning what technique to use when, and emphasizing what's actually being said between characters.
If you stick to one rule the whole time — i.e. if you only use ‘said,’ or you finish every dialogue line with an action beat — you’ll quickly wear out readers. See how unnaturally it plays out in the example below with Sophie and Ethan:
The key, then, is to have variety in structure and use of dialogue tags or action beats throughout a scene — and by extension, throughout your book. Make ‘said’ the default, but be flexible about changing it whenever a description of the characters or a more elaborate dialogue tag can add nuance to the scene!
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6. Avoid excessive exposition
Exposition is always a tough nut to crack when writing — finding an organic, timely, and digestible way to reveal important background information can be quite the challenge. It might seem natural to slot some exposition into dialogue in order to avoid overt narrative digressions, but it’s far from a sure-fire solution to your problem.
This is mostly because speech-based explanations can quickly become unnatural. Characters might speak for too long, with too much detail on things that they really might not think about, remember, or comment on in the story’s context (think “I’m just going to the well, mother — the well that my brother, your son, tragically fell down 5 years ago…”). Just because it’s a conversation doesn’t mean that info-dumps can’t happen.
As such, be careful when carrying out dialogue-based exposition. It’s usually good to have at least one character who doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, so that you can offer explanations relatively naturally — rather than explaining things just for the sake of the readers. For instance, in The Godfather, readers get their first look at the Corleones through Michael's introduction of his family to his girlfriend.
Kay Adams is Michael’s date at his sister’s wedding in this scene. Her interest in his family is natural enough that the expository conversation doesn’t feel shoehorned in.
7. Use catchphrases or quirks in moderation
Giving a character a catchphrase or quirk — like Jay Gatsby’s “old sport” or Dolores Umbridge’s “hem hem” — can give them a distinctive, recognizable voice. But as with all character quirks, they work best when you don’t go overboard with them.
Firstly, you don’t want your character to repeat this catchphrase too frequently, otherwise, readers might find it jarring. Remember what Elmore Leonard said about the writer intruding? If you inject the quirk too much, you might become visible on the page.
Secondly, you also want to avoid giving too many characters their own quirks. Gatsby and Umbridge’s voices stand out because no one else has something as memorable about their speech. Moreover, each quirk reveals something about the character: Gatsby impersonates a gentleman in his speech and lifestyle; Umbridge works to maintain her image of composure in contrast to the disarray of Hogwarts under the direction of Dumbledore.
You therefore want to think carefully about your character’s voice, and use catchphrases and quirks only when they really have something to say about your character.
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8. Know that characters don’t always mean what they say
Just as “I’m good” in response to a friendly “How are you?” might not actually mean that you’re good, characters can also say things that don’t reflect the truth. Creating dialogue that places emphasis on what’s not said (i.e. the subtext) can make your story that much more realistic and compelling.
To do this, you can apply the classic rule of “show, don’t tell”. Use action beats and descriptions to provide clues that can be read between the lines. Let’s revisit Sophie and Ethan in this example:
While Sophie claims she hasn’t been obsessing over this project all night, the actions in between her words indicate that there’s nothing on her mind but work. In weaving personality traits into the conversation through action beats, rather than describing Sophie as hardworking or using a “she lied” dialogue tag, you give readers a chance to organically get to know the characters
9. Remember that less is more
Our final tip is more of a reminder than anything. With a “less is more” mentality, you can cut out unnecessary bits of dialogue (the “boring bits” from tip #1) and focus on making sure the dialogue you do keep matters. Good writing is intentional and purposeful — it always strives to keep the story going and readers engaged — so the importance lies in quality rather than quantity.
One particular point we haven’t really addressed is repetition. If used well (i.e. with clear intentions), repetition is a literary device that can help you build motifs and flesh out themes in your writing. But when you’re writing dialogue and find yourself repeating well-established pieces of information, it might be a good time to step back and revise your work.
For instance, here’s a scene with Sophie and Ethan later on in the story:
Having Sophie mention that they’ve been working together since the transfer feels repetitive without really adding anything to the conversation. Instead of rephrasing this bit of info, consider cutting Sophie’s line altogether or adding something else, like “I can’t believe we’re talking about this again”, to increase the tension between the characters.
The point is, a good dialogue is often a place where character dynamics can play out. Including needless phrasings or repetitions may decrease the strength of that interaction, and waste valuable space in a scene. If you’re verging on repeating yourself, it’s better to write less and let the readers infer more.
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 — especially with the help of these tips — the better you’ll get.
And once you’re confident with the conversational content you can conjure up, follow along to the next part of our guide to see how you can punctuate and format your dialogue flawlessly.