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 list of rules, examples, and more that will have you writing sparkling conversation in no time! We’ll also cover how to format and punctuate dialogue, for those who aren’t sure exactly what goes where.
If you’re especially curious about formatting, go ahead and skip to #10 using the table of contents on the left — otherwise, let’s jump right in with dialogue rule #1.
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, 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.”
Sorkin’s ability to give the audience just the right amount of detail is a huge strength, and something all writers should strive for. So don’t slow down to accommodate your readers — make them catch up to you.
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.
In that vein, keep your tags simple — use “said” where you need to, and other dialogue tags even more sparingly. Luckily, much of the time you don’t even need a tag to show who’s speaking; either readers will already know, or you can imply it another way. Speaking of which…
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.” Here’s an example of action beats in, well, action:
John took a deep breath and rested a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “I got a call from the hospital today.”
“I’m in the clear.”
“Oh, thank God!” Sarah threw her arms around her husband.
When written well, action beats fulfill the same purpose as dialogue tags — letting the reader know who’s speaking while also giving a sense of the characters and setting. Furthermore, they allow the author to control the pace of a scene, which results in readers experiencing the scene more closely, as if they’re in the characters’ shoes.
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.
Here is a great example of distinct character voices, as demonstrated by Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice:
“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 clearly quite fluttery and excitable, while her husband is more serious (though he does enjoy poking fun at her). This early exchange establishes their verbal dynamic, which continues throughout the book and is complemented by the distinct voices of the other characters — quick-witted Lizzy, sweet Jane, ditzy Lydia, and so on.
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 greatdialogue 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. (This is done to magnificent effect at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Barty Crouch Jr. explains how he disguised himself as Mad-Eye Moody, manipulated Harry throughout the Tournament, and ultimately orchestrated Voldemort’s return.)
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. 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.
8. Say 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 saying 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.
Here’s a brief example of dialogue that exemplifies key formatting and punctuation:
“Never underestimate me,” she said with a smirk.
“I wasn’t planning on it!” he replied. “You stole ‘The Unstealable Diamond,’ after all.”
“Well,” she said, “I had to find a way to get your attention.”
“You got my attention, all right.”
“I think we should celebrate with a night out,” she said. “Dinner’s on me.”
He remarked, “Dinner can be on you for the rest of our lives.”
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 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.
5 dialogue mistakes to avoid
1. 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:
“Hey, how’s it going?” Billy said.
“Not bad,” said Ann. “Just warming up for the day.”
“Ah. Liquid courage,” said Billy.
“Yeah, those customers aren’t going to yell at themselves,” Ann said.
So keep in mind that you can often eschew dialogue tags if you’ve already established the speakers, like so:
Billy approached Ann as she was pouring a cup of coffee. “Hey, how’s it going?”
“Not bad.” She gestured to the cup. “Just warming up for the day.”
“Ah. Liquid courage.”
“Yeah, those customers aren’t going to yell at themselves.”
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.”
2. 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:
“This is going terribly. We need a new plan.” Sophie started erasing the blackboard.
“Wait, stop! I have another idea.” Ethan grabbed her hand to stop her.
“Oh yeah? When has that ever helped us before?” She glared at him, uncompromising.
“I mean it this time. I think this could really work.” He grabbed the chalk from the table and began to write.
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:
“This is going terribly. We need a new plan.” Sophie started erasing the blackboard.
“Wait, stop!” Ethan shouted, grabbing her hand. “I have another idea.”
“Oh yeah? When has that ever helped us before?”
“I mean it this time. I think this could really work.”
3. 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:
“Say, Gary, how long have we been brothers?”
“Thirty-five years, Barry. Ever since Ma gave birth to two bouncing baby boys in ‘84.”
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:
“Hey, Gary — Raiders of the Lost of Ark came out in 1984, right? Wasn’t Ma was about to see it when she went into labor with us?”
“That was Temple of Doom, Barry. No wonder we keep losing at trivia night.”
This makes the dialogue more about Indiana Jones than the brothers’ age, sneaking in the info so readers can figure it out for themselves.
4. 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, Sorkin-esque 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.
5. 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. 🗣