How to Write Dialogue: 8 Simple Rules and Exercises
No matter your genre, learning how to write dialogue effectively is a vital part of any writer’s career. Poor dialogue can make readers put your book down in disgust, but when it’s well executed, it can transform your characters into believable, unforgettable people. To help get your characters talking, we have put together a list of rules, exercises and examples that will have you writing sparkling conversations in no time.
- What Makes Good Dialogue Memorable?
- 8 Rules for Writing Believable, Compelling Dialogue
- Examples from Popular Books
- Writing Exercises
What Makes Good Dialogue Memorable?
While it's hard to imagine a story without character speaking to each other, they are out there — Laclos’ epistolary Dangerous Liaisons contains next to no quoted speech, nor does Stephen King's short story “Battleground”. That being said, most successful novels rely on dialogue as a powerful tool for story and character development. Here are four characteristics that a lot of memorable dialogue has in common:
1. It’s believable
In most cases, characters should speak naturally and not necessarily follow the rules of correct language use. There is a time and a place for proper grammar but writing dialogue is not it — that is, unless you have an officious grammar stickler as a character, of course.
2. It provides information
Regardless of the point of view in which you are narrating your story, there is information that your readers need to know. And if you do need to get this exposition across, who better to tell it than the character for whom this information matters?
3. It’s distinct for each character
Your characters should be unique, not just in the way they dress or look but also in the way they talk. The use of slang, unique pronunciations, and turns of phrase things helps readers learn about a character’s background, education level, place of origin, and more — all without being explicitly told.
4. It moves the story along
Having quick-moving exchanges can help increase the pace of your story — short, concise sentences make readers move faster through a text. But dialogue needs to be more than just that, it needs to add substance to the story and be necessary for the plot, otherwise, it runs the risk of disengaging readers.
Now that we’ve seen what makes memorable dialogue, let’s take a look at eight rules from famed writers and world-class editors.
8 Rules for Writing Believable, Compelling Dialogue
Let's kick things off with one of our biggest bugbears:
1. Don’t make your characters tell each other things they already know
“Say, Gary, how long have we been brothers?”
“Thirty-three years, Barry. Ever since Ma gave birth to two bouncing baby boys back in Eighty-Four.”
This kind of execrable back-and-forth is pretty common. Watch a bad cop drama on TV and you’re likely to see two characters tell each other things they are already aware of.
Author and book coach Bridget McNulty recently released a free course on this very topic. In it, she mentions the practice of “info-dumping.”
“In a typical info dump, characters discuss information they both already know, in a way that is clearly for the reader’s benefit (rather than their own). It’s a common crutch for beginning writers who want to insert backstory or plot point reminders.”
McNulty suggests a few alternatives to this “As You Know, Bob” dialogue in her course, but one of our favorite strategies is to throw the reader into the middle of an argument:
“No, you’re wrong, Gary! Raiders of the Lost of Ark came out in 1984. Ma crashed her car into a billboard for it when she was pregnant with us, remember?”
“That was Temple of Doom, Barry. Jesus, no wonder we keep losing at trivia night.”
Now, this isn’t great writing — but it offers the same information as the exchange above, plus a more dynamic picture of who Barry and Gary are (besides 33-year-old twins).
By the same token, be careful not to tell readers information they already know. If you establish in an early scene that Barry has been fired, we don't need another scene where he recounts the situation to his brother. Instead, we can skip ahead and write:
Gary was shocked to hear of Barry’s recent dismissal. "Let's say we go down to the office and show your boss what for!"
Revealing exposition through conversation is a bit of a balancing act, but one with two simple rules:
- Don’t have characters tell each other things they already know, and
- Don’t have characters tell each other things that the reader already knows.
The first is unbelievable and the second is unbelievably boring.
2. Don’t enter a scene at the start of a conversation
If you were to directly transcribe a real conversation, you wouldn’t have masterpiece on your hands; instead, you’d likely have incomplete sentences that express meandering thoughts.
Alfred Hitchcock is credited with saying that “drama is life with all the boring bits cut out.” We could just as easily say that good dialogue is like a real conversation without all the fluff. And one of the most common ways to cut out the boring stuff is to enter the scene as late as possible.
Here’s screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talking about the first scene of his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network:
“We started at 100 miles an hour in the middle of a conversation, and that makes the audience have to run to catch up. The worst crime you can commit with an audience is telling them something they already know. We were always running ahead.”
Few 'classic' scenes start with characters going, “Hey buddy! How are you doing? Wow, long time no see.” Readers enjoy piecing together clues based on details inferred through action or speech. This ability to give the audience just enough detail to catch up on the plot is part of Sorkin's strength as a writer — and something all writers should strive for.
3. Use action beats to control the pace
As editor Chersti Nieveen puts it: “The action beat is a description of the gestures, facial expressions, or even thoughts that accompany the speaker’s words. It is included in the same paragraph as the dialogue as an indication that the person acting is also the person speaking.”
Action beats can replace dialogue tags, avoiding the need for a long list of lines ending in “he said," or "she said.”
John took a deep breath and rested a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “I got a call from the hospital today.”
“I got the all-clear.”
“Oh, thank God.” Sarah dropped her wine glass and threw her arms around her husband.
When written correctly, these action beats fulfill the purpose of a tag — to let you know who’s speaking — while also giving a sense of the characters and setting. Furthermore, they allow the author to control the pace of the scene: a character becoming distracted by a clock mid-sentence is a better way to illustrate her state of mind than writing, “She paused, distracted.”
4. Speak your dialogue aloud to see if it works
Most of us are able to detect really bad writing using our voices and ears. “If you are using dialogue — say it aloud as you write it,” wrote John Steinbeck in a letter to actor Robert Wallston. “Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
For editor Andrew Lowe, reading out loud is an essential part of your manuscript revision process. Writing a conversation that rolls trippingly off the tongue doesn't guarantee it to be any good — but if you can’t read it out loud without stumbling and starting, then you know you’re in trouble.
5. Keep your tags simple
If one of these tips had to be made into a writing law, it would probably be this rule from the late Elmore Leonard:
“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". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.”
The key word that Leonard uses is “intrusive.” You want to bring readers into your scene — making them almost first-hand observers. 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.
Much like Leonard, Toni Morrison, author of the novel Beloved, finds adverbs in tags to be unnecessary.
“I never say ‘She says softly.’ If it's not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so that a reader can hear that it's soft.”
Once more, it’s all about creating a context where the reader will interpret the dialogue the way you intend. If a line of speech is preceded by an action beat that describes a small, slow action — hair being gently tucked behind an ear, for example — then the reader will infer not only the softness of the character’s speech but the character’s mood and emotion as well.
6. Show, don't tell
“You can tell me through straight narration that your main character [...] never did well in school, never even went to school, but you can convey the same thing, and much more vividly, by his speech … and one of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us, instead.”
— Stephen King, On Writing
Though it sounds counterintuitive at first, dialogue scenes can be excellent examples of “show, don’t tell.” As King suggests, why tell us that your character is uneducated when you can riddle his speech patterns with poor grammar and malapropisms?
Good dialogue gives readers the experience of overhearing a conversation or watching a scene unfold in front of their eyes. By not ‘telling’ the reader facts about certain characters, you also force readers to take an almost active role in figuring out the people on the page.
7. Remove dialogue where it’s not needed
“Many contemporary novels are so dialogue-heavy they seem all quotation marks — disembodied voices yaddering on in a void.”
— Ursula Le Guin
It’s worth remembering that writing dialogue is merely one part of your writer’s toolbox. It’s possible to write a novel composed entirely of disembodied conversations — but you need to choose the techniques that best tell your story and present the interior life of your characters. That might mean using tags; it might mean using action beats instead. 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.
8. Punctuate properly
Depending on your style guide, the country you’re in, and your own personal preference, there is more than one way to use punctuation in your writing. Punctuating your text correctly helps keep your story clear and understandable. And 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.
Putting that all into practice could go something like this:
“Never underestimate me,” she said with a smirk.
“I wasn’t planning on!” he replied, “You stole ‘The Unstealable Diamond’, after all.”
Now that we have gone over the rules for writing, let’s take a look at some examples from our favorite books.
Dialogue Examples from Popular Books
Here are three examples from classic literature. Each manages to accomplish a slightly different goal within the text and should help illuminate the power of the spoken word.
Exposition: A Christmas Carol
Exposition relays important information to the readers about the characters, their actions, or the plot. In this excerpt, Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge and tells him that he will be visited by three ghosts to avoid his same fate.
“I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
“You were always a good friend to me,” said Scrooge. “Thank’ee!”
“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three spirits.”
Scrooge’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done.
“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded, in a faltering voice.
“I-I think I’d rather not,” said Scrooge.
“Without their visits,” said the ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I thread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bells tolls One.”
“Couldn’t I take ‘em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?” hinted Scrooge.
“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look for that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”
Characterization: Pride and Prejudice
As we have seen, dialogue plays a big role in conveying the characters’ traits. This way, readers can learn about a character’s background, education level, place of origin, and more without being explicitly told. Jane Austen vividly introduces Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in this exchange that lasts no more than half a page.
“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.”
Mrs. Bennet is concerned about her daughters’ marriage prospects — with a focus on their material well-being, while her husband is not as preoccupied by this and enjoys teasing her. Those traits pretty much drive their arcs through the rest of the novel.
Humour: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Dialogue doesn’t always have to be serious and is often used for comedic relief. This also goes hand-in-hand with characterization, as it can show a character’s penchant for jokes or poking fun at others.
This rapid exchange from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy belies the novel's origins as a comedic radio play. Arthur Dent is in the middle of arguing why his house should not be demolished by a wrecking crew.
“But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”
We know, rules and examples are all well and good, but the best way to learn is by doing. With that in mind, who’s up for some practical exercises to build your dialogue-writing muscle?
4 Dialogue Writing Exercises for Authors
Some of these exercises are taken from our free course by author Bridget McNulty, so be sure to sign up to receive more of them in your inbox each morning.
1. Rewrite exposition as conversation
Exercise: Coworkers Alex and Dana are meeting at a bar after work to discuss a colleague who was fired that afternoon. Write this scene three times.
First: Intentionally write an “info-dump” in which both characters are relating information on the firing that the other person already knows.
Then: Rewrite the scene, but this time, both characters have an incomplete picture of how and why their colleague was fired. In this version, they are “comparing notes.”
Lastly: Write this scene as an argument where the facts are not in dispute, but where Alex and Dana have opposing views of whether their colleague should have been fired (while also revealing the plot details to the reader).
Objective: In the first version of this scene, you will write “As You Know, Bob” dialogue — where characters tell each other things they already know, for the benefit of the reader. In the second and third versions, you will work to find other ways to relate exposition to the reader without straining plausibility.
2. Use action beats to add depth to an exposition scene
Exercise: Write an exchange in which siblings Jay and Chris are finalizing plans for an upcoming trip. It could be a holiday to Spain or a mining trip to the planet Mars.
Rewrite the scene with identical dialogue — only this time, Jay and Chris are also packing their bags. They should not verbally acknowledge what they’re packing, or the fact that they’re packing at all. Instead, use brief action beats (see #5 from our tips above) to describe their actions and possessions.
Objective: By giving your characters something to do while discussing plot points, you can move the story forward and reveal their personalities. What can the reader learn by seeing the items they’re bringing? How do they go about the task at hand: Do they fold their clothes neatly, or just throw them in haphazardly?
3. Turn text into subtext
Exercise: Charlie and Kay are meeting for lunch. Charlie immediately confronts Kay about a major betrayal. This can be anything: marital infidelity, a lie about not “watching ahead” on a Netflix show.
Write this exchange again, this time without mentioning the betrayal at all. Show Charlie’s mental and emotional state in a way that would make the reader expect that a big revelation is just around the corner.
Objective: In real life, people will struggle to (or choose not to) say what’s on their mind. As you start working more with subtext, you will see how much of a story you can get across without having your characters explicitly state their feelings and thoughts.
4. Vary the pace of your dialogue
This final exercise is inspired by one of author Holly Lisle’s fantastic posts on writing dialogue.
Exercise: Take any of the exchanges you’ve drafted in the previous exercises and rewrite it, gradually amping up the pace. Start slowly, by allowing your characters to find their way and move from point to point — then begin to turn up the pacing by:
- Making your characters get to the point quicker
- Having them talk at cross-purposes, and cutting each other off
- Removing all unnecessary tags (he said, she said)
- Stripping back action beats and scene descriptions
Objective: By varying your characters’ directness, as well as how you present their exchanges through dialogue tags, action beats, and scene descriptions, you can control the pace of your scene. Tension can be built or dissipated to reflect the mental states of your characters and serve your scene better.
Learning how to write dialogue is one the most important parts of any writer’s career. If you’d like to learn more about improving your skill as a writer, we’d recommend a course called Writing Dialogue That Develops Plot and Character.
If you have any more tips or exercises to share with other writers, please drop a comment in the box below!