8 Simple Rules for Writing Dialogue (+ 4 BONUS Exercises)
Last updated: August 23rd, 2018
Writing dialogue does not come naturally to every writer. Nonetheless, it is a skill you should aim to master, regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. Just as great novelists can pull readers into a scene with a compelling conversation or argument, memoirists, business writers or historians can recreate dialogue exchanges in a faithful but narratively compelling way.
In this post, we share eight rules of dialogue-writing from famed writers and world-class editors. Or, if you’re ready to learn through practice, jump straight to four of our favorite dialogue writing exercises.
8 Rules for Writing 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 dialogue 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 writing dialogue. 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 dialogue — 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 dialogue 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, 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 great dialogue; 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 your dialogue’s 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 long list of “he said/she said” dialogue:
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 dialogue 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 dialogue 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.”
Speaking dialogue while you’re writing can be pretty daunting — especially when you’re working in a public space. The next best thing, as suggested by editor Andrew Lowe, is to make reading out loud an essential part of your manuscript revision process. Writing dialogue 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 dialogue 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 your dialogue 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 dialogue 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 dialogue 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. Use dialogue to show, not 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 dialogue tags; it might mean dialogue with action beats. Sometimes, dialogue 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 your dialogue 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. But if you want a few easy-to-remember rules for punctuating your dialogue the traditional way, here they are:
- If in doubt, use double “quotations marks” for dialogue, not single.
- Full stops, commas, question marks, and dashes should all remain inside the quotations marks if they’re part of the spoken quotation.
- Every time a new character speaks, start a new paragraph.
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, rules 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 dialogue course by author Bridget McNulty, so be sure to sign up to receive more of them in your inbox each morning.
1. Rewrite plot exposition as dialogue
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 the plausibility of the dialogue.
2. Use action beats to add depth to an exposition scene
Exercise: Write an exchange of dialogue 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 of our dialogue 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 glimpses of 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 subtext into your dialogue, 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 dialogue 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 dialogue 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.
If you’d like to learn more about improving your skill as a writer of great dialogue, we’d recommend a course called Writing Dialogue That Develops Plot and Character. It’s one of our latest offerings on Reedsy Learning and is free for anyone.
If you have any more tips or exercises for writing great dialogue to share with other writers, please drop a comment in the box below.