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How to Write Dialogue: 8 Simple Rules (With Examples!)

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft on May 16, 2019 4 Comments 💬

Writing Dialogue

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 about the characters, involves distinct language depending on who’s speaking, and — perhaps most importantly — moves the story along. Without dialogue, you’d just have pages and pages of description without any character dynamics. How boring would that be?

Yes, the rare story can function without dialogue (such as Stephen King's short story "Battleground”), but such stories are exceptions that prove the rule. In 99% of cases, dialogue is absolutely essential to a strong narrative — which is why we want to help you get it exactly right. To that end, we’ve put together this list of rules and examples that will have you writing sparkling conversation in no time! Let’s jump right in with #1.

1. Dialogue Rule#1: Avoid having characters restate the obvious

“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 unnecessary back-and-forth is unfortunately pretty common. Watch a bad cop drama on TV and you’ll almost always see two characters discussing something they both already know, purportedly for the benefit of the viewer. However, as you can probably tell, this type of dialogue is more likely to insult the viewer's intelligence than to assist their understanding.

Author and book coach Bridget McNulty says this kind of info dumping is “a common crutch for beginning writers who want to insert backstory or plot point reminders.” She suggests a few alternatives to this “As You Know, Bob” dialogue in her course (which you can sign up for below), 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. Remember, Ma was on her way to see it when she went into labor with us?”

“That was Temple of Doom, Barry. No wonder we keep losing at trivia night.”

Now, this isn’t amazing 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).

And remember, it goes both ways!

In a similar vein, 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, you 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:

  1. Don’t have characters tell each other things they already know, and
  2. Don’t have characters tell each other things that the reader already knows.

The first is unbelievable, and the second is unbelievably boring. Steer clear of both and you'll be headed in the right direction.

How to master the art of dialogue

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2. Dialogue Rule #2: Don’t enter a scene at the start of a conversation

If you were to directly transcribe a real conversation, you wouldn’t exactly have masterpiece on your hands. Instead, you’d likely have incomplete sentences that express meandering thoughts.

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 most common ways to cut out the fluff is to enter the scene as late as possible, ideally right before the crux of the conversation.

Writing Dialogue from The Social Network

The Social Network. Image: Sony Pictures

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 — and again, the last thing you want to do is insult their intelligence! Sorkin's ability to give the audience just the right amount of detail is a huge strength, and something all writers should strive for.

3. Dialogue Rule #3: Use action beats

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 [to indicate] 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.”

“And...?”

“I'm in the clear.”

“Oh, thank God!” Sarah threw her arms around her husband.

When written well, these action beats fulfill the same purpose as 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 something specific (like a noise) mid-sentence is a better way to illustrate her state of mind than writing, “She paused, distracted.”

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4. Dialogue Rule #4: Speak your dialogue aloud

Most of us are able to detect really bad writing simply 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 the manuscript revision process. Writing a conversation that rolls easily off the tongue doesn't guarantee it will be good — but if you can’t read it out loud without stumbling and starting, then you know you’re in trouble.

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5. Dialogue Rule #5: Keep your tags simple

If any of these tips ought to be made into a writing law, it's 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 here is “intrusive.” You want to bring readers into your scene, making them feel like first-hand 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. Yes, the occasional other words than "said" is okay — but if you're using them every other sentence, you need to reel it waaaaay back.

Author Elmore Leonard

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 context wherein the reader can interpret the dialogue for themselves. If a line of speech comes after an action beat that describes a small, slow action — hair being 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 as well.

6. Dialogue Rule #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 with poor grammar and malapropisms? (See King's own rule in action here!)

Stephen King's The Green Mile. Image: Warner Bros

Strong 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 once again compel them to take an active role in figuring out the people on the page — which is much more rewarding than having it handed to them.

7. Dialogue Rule #7: Remove unnecessary dialogue

“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 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 pick and choose which techniques best tell your story, and present the interior life of your characters.

That might mean using tags, or 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. Just because dialogue can be brilliant, doesn't mean it's always paramount to a scene.

How to Punctuate Dialogue: A Guide for Writers
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8. Dialogue Rule #8: Format your dialogue properly

Punctuating and formatting your dialogue correctly helps keep your story clear and understandable, which is obviously key to readers enjoying 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.

Putting all that into practice could go something like this:

“Never underestimate me,” she said with a smirk.

“I wasn’t planning on it!” he replied. “You stole ‘The Unstealable Diamond,’ after all.”

As you can see, the standard formatting and punctuation for dialogue is pretty simple, and you've probably seen in innumerable times in other books. But here are four quick rules to remember just in case:

  1. Indent each new line of dialogue.
  2. Put quotation marks around the speech itself.
  3. Punctuation that affects the speech itself goes inside the quotation marks (i.e. the exclamation point after "I wasn't planning on it!") while all other punctuation goes outside.
  4. If you quote within a quote, use single rather than double quotation marks (i.e. 'The Unstealable Diamond').

For a more comprehensive overview of dialogue punctuation, check out this post on how to punctuate dialogue.

And now that we've gone over the rules for writing dialogue, let’s look at some examples from our favorite books!

Here are three examples of dialogue from classic literature. Each manages to accomplish a slightly different goal within the text and helps 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 Marley's same fate.

A Christmas Carol. Image: Disney

“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.

“It is.”

“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 huge role in conveying the characters’ traits. Just through conversation, readers can learn about a character’s background, education level, place of origin, and much more. Jane Austen evocatively introduces Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in this pithy exchange.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Image: BBC

“What is his name?”

“Bingley.”

“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 has little concern for this and enjoys teasing her. Those traits pretty much drive their arcs throughout the rest of the novel, and this great little scene sets it all up.

Humor: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Of course, 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. Here, Arthur Dent argues why his house should not be demolished by a wrecking crew.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Image: Touchstone Pictures

“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.’”

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 that Bridget McNulty course, Writing Dialogue That Develops Plot and Character. And if you're looking to improve your prose with general writing exercises, check out these ten!


If you have any more dialogue tips or examples to share with other writers, please drop us a comment below!

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Irion Nanne

Hm, a question:
In the upper part of this article you say you should format this way:
“I wasn’t planning on it!” he replied, “You stole ‘The Unstealable Diamond,’ after all.”
That is with a BIG Y after a comma.

But later on there is another formatting:
“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.”
That is with a SMALL h after a comma.

Which is right?

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