As a writer, you need to constantly improve your writing and draft. You need to work on characters, plot, and story to create your best work. This includes how to develop characters, what writing software to use, and importantly, how to write dialogue.
Dialogues are essential for writing and are the backbone of your story. No New York Times bestseller ever made the list with bad dialogue.
Lauren Grodstein says:
"I like writing dialogue - I can hear my characters so clearly that writing dialogue often feels as much like transcribing something as it does like creating it."
If you want to hear your characters and if you want to have your readers hear them, you should know how to write dialogue in a book, script, or short story. Dialogues make your story interesting, they hook readers, they make your writing reader-friendly, and have several other benefits (discussed below).
So how to incorporate dialogue in your book? How to write them? What steps you should follow to write a great book with compelling dialogue?
All these and many other questions will be answered in this in-depth and actionable guide on how to write dialogue, good dialogue examples, their benefits, and more.
By the time you'll finish reading this guide, you'll become a better writer than you are now as the writing tips are useful and valuable.
What is Dialogue?
Dialogue is a conversion between two or more characters. The purpose of dialogue is to exchange information. It isn’t meant to convince someone. Dialogue in writing is two-way communication that’s cooperative in nature and is meant for the exchange of information.
There are several reasons you should use dialogue in your book and how to write a conversation that will keep readers engaged and persuade them to keep reading.
The major benefits of using dialogue in your book is covered in the next section.
The Benefits of Writing Dialogue in Your Book
The leading benefits of writing dialogue in your book are:
- Grabs attention
- Character development
- Advance your story
1. Dialogue Grabs Attention
Using dialogue in your story helps you grab the reader’s attention. Interesting conversation is something that reader’s love. What you can achieve with a dialogue (even a short one), you can’t do the same without dialogue.
A story without dialogues will get boring. To hook readers, you have to add dialogues in your book. You need to master how to write a conversation in your book and that’s what makes all the difference.
Here is an example from The Secret History by Donna Tartt:
‘It was Julian and Henry. Neither of them had heard me come up the stairs. Henry was leaving; Julian was standing in the open door. His brow was furrowed and he looked very somber, as if he were saying something of the gravest importance […].
Julian finish speaking. He looked away for a moment, then bit his lower lip and looked up at Henry.
Then Henry spoke. His words were low but deliberate and distinct. ‘Should I do what is necessary?’
To my surprise, Julian took both Henry’s hands in his own. ‘You should only, ever, do what is necessary,’ he said.’
The suspense Tartt developed with dialogue couldn’t be done without dialogue. It shows an agreement between Julian and Henry which, in the absence of dialogue, wouldn’t be possible to communicate effectively.
This is what makes dialogues so crucial for your story. If you're ever stuck on finding a good piece of dialogue, try using a writing prompt generator. This will give you some random ideas that may just spark en entire scene or conversation.
2. Character Development
You can write pages upon pages to describe your character or you can use a simple dialogue to show readers everything about your character. Here is an example:
Reported speech: He asked her what she was doing.
Dialogue 1: "What'cha doin'?"
Dialogue 2: "What the bloody hell are you doing?"
Dialogue 3: "W-w-w-what are y-y-you doing?"
Dialogue 4: "If I may be so bold, may I ask what the young Miss is doing?"
Dialogue 5: "By the bloody battleaxe of the wargod Sarnis, what on earth are you up to now?"
You can describe your character in a single sentence with a dialogue. The way how your characters speak, what language they use, what words they use, how often they speak, etc. helps you develop your characters and it helps your readers better understand the characters.
You don’t have to put a lot of hard work in explaining who, what, why, and how about your characters if you know how to write dialogue in a story.
Dialogues let you share information with the readers. You can share information related to moods, personalities, history, and any other important or even unimportant information via dialogues. Readers get the information unconsciously while reading and they don’t feel burdened.
That’s the beauty of dialogues.
Most importantly, the back story can be best explained through dialogues. If you narrate back story, it will get boring and readers might lose interest. On the other hand, if the same back story is expressed in the form of a conversation between two characters, it gets a whole lot more interesting. It then becomes a story in the true sense.
Here is a perfect dialogue example by Tennessee Williams from A Streetcar Named Desire:
“Who do you think you are? A pair of queens? Now just remember what Huey Long said—that every man’s a king—and I’m the king around here, and don’t you forget it!” Again, Stanley wants to undermine Blanche to Stella when he reminds her of the good times the two had before Blanche arrived:
“Listen, baby, when we first met—you and me—you thought I was common. Well, how right you was! I was common as dirt. You showed me a snapshot of the place with them columns, and I pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it, having them colored lights goin’! And wasn’t we happy together? Wasn’t it all OK? Till she showed up here. Hoity-toity, describin’ me like an ape.”
Stanley is sharing information about his past and the writer used dialogues to share the backstory and other relevant information that doesn’t sound as information. This is one powerful reason you should learn how to write dialogues.
Dialogues make your story realistic. That’s how the world we live in works. We talk. We have conversations, big and small. Generally, we are always involved in some kind of conversation in our lives.
So if you wish to write a story that’s natural and depicts our real world, you need dialogues. It will make your story more organic and it will be easier for the readers to connect with your plot.
5. Advance Your Story
Perhaps the best feature of using dialogues in your writing is that it helps you move the story forward. When you narrate the story, it complicates it as compared to using dialogues that make your job easier.
Here is a dialogue example that moves the story forward by sharing important information with the readers:
The writer explained a situation and advanced the story in a few dialogues. The same could have taken two paragraphs or maybe more if it were to be done without dialogues.
Dialogues help you convey emotions and describe the complete scene without using too many words. This is the real beauty of using them and that’s why you need to know how to write dialogue in a book.
How to Write Dialogue in a Book
Follow these steps to write dialogue in your book:
- Have a purpose for the dialogue
- Differentiate characters
- Use conflict
- Be consistent
- Keep dialogues natural
- Keep dialogues short
- Improve flow
- Check formatting and punctuation
- Recheck and edit
Step #1: Dialogue Purpose
You should use dialogues for a purpose. They should have a reason.
Not all types of writings need to have dialogues. You can’t fit them anywhere based on your liking. That’s not how it works and that’s not how it will work.
The decision to use dialogues in your writing should be logical and must be purpose-driven. The first thing you should do is ask yourself the following questions:
Do I really need a dialogue here?
If so, what is its purpose?
Can I go without a dialogue?
Will it make any difference if I add a dialogue?
Generally, novels and fiction writing need dialogues. Non-fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily need dialogues. But there isn’t any rule. You’re the best judge. It’s your book so you have to decide rationally what makes more sense – and why.
To make things simple for you, you should use dialogue in your book if it meets one of the conditions:
- Dialogue should provide information that otherwise would be tough to narrate
- Dialogue needs to improve characterization
- Dialogue is moving the story forward
These are the three primary purposes of using dialogue in your book. It should meet at least one of the conditions above. If it does none of the above, you don’t necessarily need dialogue and you’d be fine without it.
For instance, George Eliot in her novel Middlemarch used the following dialogue between the two sisters and set them apart. The following dialogue shows the difference between the two characters:
Celia was trying not to smile with pleasure. “O Dodo, you must keep the cross yourself.”
“No, no, dear, no,” said Dorothea, putting up her hand with careless deprecation.”
“Yes, indeed you must; it would suit you – in your black dress, now,” said Celia, insistingly. “You might wear that.”
“Not for the world, not for the world. A cross is the last thing I would wear as a trinket.” Dorothea shuddered slightly.
“Then you will think it wicked in me to wear it,” said Celia, uneasily.
“No, dear, no,” said Dorothea, stroking her sister’s cheek.
This character differentiation couldn’t be achieved without a dialogue. And that’s how you should ensure that dialogues in your story have a specific purpose.
The easiest way to figure out if your dialogue has a purpose is by removing it. If the story still makes sense after removing a specific dialogue, it has no purpose and should be removed. If, however, the story doesn’t make sense anymore or the message gets distorted, you should retain it.
As a writer, you’re the judge and you should define the purpose and reason of the dialogue before you initiate a conversation.
Step #2: Differentiate Characters
One of the first things you need to understand while learning how to write dialogue is to set your characters apart using dialogue. You can write several pages explaining different characteristics of the characters which might not work well as opposed to a dialogue.
You can express several types of important information about your characters via dialogue such as:
- Character’s background and accent
- Character’s personality, mood, feelings, thoughts, and other traits by the tone and word selection
- How often a character speaks and information on whether he/she is introvert or extrovert
Dialogue helps you define your characters and differentiate them from one another. If you are writing a novel or a screenplay, I'm sure you know how important character development is and what role it plays in novel writing.
You should use dialogue to differentiate characters, set them apart, and for character development. You should also use dialogue to describe changes in motives, feelings, and intentions as the story moves forward. When these changes are conveyed via dialogue, it makes them more meaningful and notable as opposed to the writer narrating the changes a character is going through.
Here is an example from Charlotte's Web by E.B. White:
"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."
"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight.
"Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."
"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?"
Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. "Don't yell, Fern!" she said. "Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway."
The difference in their personalities is clearly evident- no line of dialogue is out of character. This is a perfect way to use dialogue to differentiate characters and who they actually are.
Step #3: Use Conflict
Imagine your characters are sitting in a couch spending time watching birds in the sky. You can narrate the scene and explain it in detail. You can add dialogue but if everything is moving smoothly and there isn’t anything new or conflicting, what’s the point of having a dialogue?
It won’t add value.
When dialogue doesn’t add value, it should be removed. This is the first rule.
And when there is a conflict or disagreement between two or more characters at any level and of any kind, there has to be a dialogue. This rule is really important.
When there isn’t any conflict and everything is pleasing and normal, and the dialogue doesn’t raise the eyebrows of the readers, they will start losing interest. The fact is: We all do chitchat and conversations in our daily lives that have no purpose. That’s fine.
But if you'll do the same in your novel will bore your readers. It doesn’t just work.
This is why it’s important that you must learn how to write dialogue that uses conflict between two characters. It doesn’t have to be severe conflict rather it should be two opposing views. If you’re not using conflict and the dialogue doesn’t advance the story, you don’t need one.
Makes sense, right?
Things, however, get challenging when there isn’t any conflict and the conversation is pleasant and lively. You can’t skip it. That’s also a part of the novel because removing these types of pleasant conversations from your story will ruin it.
What do you do to narrate lively conversations?
You need to keep these conversations brief. Better yet, narrate them. This is something you have to learn. This is why reading is crucial if you want to become a better writer. Check dialogue examples from other writers and see how they write dialogues when characters are happy and when there is a conflict.
You'll notice that pleasant conversations are kept to a minimum while conflicts are covered in detail because stories rely on conflicts and that’s how it moves forward. When everything is fine and there aren’t any conflicts, that’s the end of the story.
Here is an example from Fat City by Leonard Gardner:
“That’s a good one.” Tully placed the meat in the black encrusted frying pan, pushing in the edge of fat until the steak lay flat.
“I heard what you said.”
“Then why’d you ask?”
“You think I’m lying to you.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t trust me, do you?”
“All I’m trying to do,” said Tully, now opening a can of peas, “is make us our supper.”
It is a perfect example of how to use dialogue to create conflict in your characters and move the story forward.
Step #4: Be Consistent
One of the basics lessons of dialogue writing that you'll learn in every book or screenwriting course on how to write dialogue and how to write a conversation is that dialogues need to be consistent. That is, it keep characters consistent throughout the book unless you want to depict a change in a character’s behavior.
This means the words your character use, his attitude, personality, taste, feelings, and language should be consistent. Make them as humane as possible. That’s the key to bringing a story to life.
After spending time with someone, you can anticipate their reaction to a situation and you can anticipate their behavior. This is what exactly readers do. They anticipate the reaction of your characters.
How you'll get to know you’re being consistent in dialogue writing?
If readers can anticipate the reaction of your characters, you’re doing a great job. If dialogue surprises them, readers will lose interest. It will become confusing.
Sometimes, it’s essential to keep a character or two mysterious. And that’s fine. When you have such a character, readers expect a different response from him every time – and that’s what you should do.
The thing is: Readers expect characters to behave in a certain way. This expectation is developed by dialogue, narration, and the plot. You need to ensure that dialogue is consistent and is as per readers’ expectation that you have developed in your book.
The tone, word choice, structure, language, voice, etc. need to be consistent with the character’s personality and with the situation they're dealing with. If a character is talking to a stranger, he will use a different tone as compared to when he is talking to his wife. You can use the exact same tone.
Consistency isn’t just relevant to the character but it should be relevant to the situation, the character he is talking to, and the scenario.
Step #5: Keep Dialogues Natural
While you’re trying to be consistent with the character’s personality and scene, it is equally important to keep dialogues natural as people communicate generally on a daily basis.
For instance, you need to use slang appropriately as people use slang all the time. Here is an example of how to make dialogue appear natural and realistic:
Jenna Moreci has created a slang for the novel which fits perfectly.
Make sure dialogues don’t appear alien to the readers. For instance, if you'll use formal language, it won’t fit well because people don’t use formal language.
Here is an example:
People don’t talk like this. Writing dialogue like this will make readers roll their eyes from boredom.
An easy approach to keeping your dialogues natural and realistic is to listen to how people talk. Spend time in a park or a hotel lobby and record snippets of conversations people have. You can even visit a high school to learn how teenagers talk. You'll be able to figure out how people talk and communicate. Alternately, check dialogue examples from top authors. See how they make dialogues realistic and world-like.
Needless to say, you don’t have to keep dialogues natural and realistic all the times. You have to, at times, switch to unrealistic dialogues. This is something that fiction writers do a lot especially when they build a new world.
Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you have to adjust dialogue accordingly. At the end of the day though, speech patterns need to stay consistent otherwise characters will lose believability.
Step #6: Keep Dialogue Short
If there is one thing all new writers should know about how to write dialogue, it’s this: Keep them short.
As much as you can.
Here is what Nigel Watts says about dialogues:
“Dialogue is like a rose bush – it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along.”
Why keep it concise?
To make it reader-friendly. When you cut the dialogue, it might not appear realistic because that’s not how people talk. So there is a fine line between realistic dialogues and short dialogues.
You have to write dialogue like it sounds in real life and then shorten it. Remove anything and everything that’s excessive. Get rid of the unnecessary stuff, that once removed doesn’t change the meaning of the dialogue.
Try shortening the dialogue as much as you can. This is something that you'll learn with the passage of time. Practice. Check dialogue examples.
Here is an example. Check the following dialogue that’s not shortened.
Now here is a revised version of the same dialogue:
Both versions have the same meaning. Readers don’t miss anything. That’s what you have to do with your dialogues. Keep them short. This is one of the basic lessons on how to write dialogue in a book.
Here is what you should do to make dialogue concise. Small talk may happen in real life, but it's not necessary to include in your novel. It halts the flow and doesn't add much value.
Edit dialogues multiple times during the editing process. If you use editing software, make sure you edit dialogues manually and make them short. Once you’re done, ask someone else to reduce the word count of the dialogues. Finally, compare the original version with the new version and see if they still deliver the same message.
Avoiding common mistakes like fluffy dialogue is paramount to a good story.
Step #7: Improve Flow
If you have ever written a book or a novel and have used a book editing software, I'm sure you'll know the importance of flow in writing. Dialogues are no different. In fact, the flow of the dialogues needs to be taken care of specifically. You need to master how to write dialogue that flows well which can be read effortlessly.
What does dialogue flow mean?
It means the dialogue should flow logically and the readers don’t have to put an effort to understand anything. It should move from one character to another smoothly.
There are several ways to improve the flow of the dialogues such as:
- Improve dialogue tags. Too many or too few tags (e.g. she said, he asked, etc.) ruins the flow. Always tag a piece of dialogue when it's the first time a character is speaking in the conversation, but refrain from adding tags in every single line as it gets too monotonous. Using too few dialogue tags isn’t a good idea either as readers will have to move back after a few lines to identify whose line they're reading. There has to be a balance. Be smart with tags.
- Describe the character’s action as to what they're doing. That makes dialogue natural and that’s the correct way on how to write a conversation in a book. Naturally, when people talk, they're always doing something like staring at the wall, playing with the key, chopping the vegetable, etc. These are the actions that you should explicitly mention to make dialogues appear natural and to improve flow.
- Don’t add long lengthy paragraphs in dialogue. This ruins the flow. And it never happens. When a person is talking continuously, you have to mention the action of the other person. For instance, add umm, ahh, I see, etc. to maintain the flow and to avoid large paragraphs of text.
Follow these three steps to improve the flow of your dialogues and you'll be able to write better dialogues that make sense.
Step #8: Check Formatting and Punctuation
You can’t hook a reader with poorly formatted and punctually incorrect dialogue. It won’t happen. If you want to know how to write dialogue, you also need to learn how to format dialogue and how to punctuate dialogue.
Here are a few basic punctuating rules that you should always stick with when formatting dialogue:
- Add comma and period within the quotation marks.
- Use a comma between dialogue and the tag.
- Double quotation marks are used for regular dialogue.
- Use single quotation marks if you have to use a quotation inside a dialogue. Single quotes help the quote stand out within the dialogue.
- When quotations extend and move to another paragraph, don’t close it at the end of the first paragraph rather close it towards the end of the last paragraph.
- Start a new paragraph for new lines of dialogue.
- Em dashes can be used instead of a comma at times for extra emphasis. This also creates variety and improves readability.
- Pay attention to the proper use of uppercase and lowercase letters when appropriate.
- If you're ending the dialogue with ellipses, don't add any other punctuation.
Poorly written dialogues don’t make sense. In fact, when the punctuation isn’t correct, it will ruin the flow and the meaning too. For instance, inner dialogues are put in italics and if you aren’t putting them in italics, readers won’t know if they're inner dialogues.
Simple things like a period, question mark, and exclamation point all need to be placed perfectly. Basic errors like these are inexcusable. These types of mistakes can change the meaning and context of the book altogether.
Great dialogue starts with perfect dialogue punctuation and formatting.
If you use an editing tool like Grammarly, it is highly likely that formatting and punctuation related issues will be identified by it. However, you'll still need to go through it manually because there are several errors that software can’t identify and fix.
The best approach is to check dialogue formatting and punctuation as you write. And once you finish writing your novel or screenplay, you can then go through all the dialogues to check their formatting and punctuation.
Step #9: Recheck and Edit
This is the last step in the dialogue writing process where you have to check dialogues for errors. You can set a schedule as to when you need to recheck written dialogue. You can do it daily, weekly, monthly, or after completing a specific word count or chapter-wise.
But you should do it regularly as you write.
What to check?
Everything ranging from character development to story to flow to dialogue length to formatting. The best approach is to check dialogues individually for Step #1 to Step #8. This will perfect dialogues and your book leaving no room for errors.
Using a writing tool like Squibler will make it easier for you to recheck and edit dialogues as managing your draft gets easier. You can easily edit and tweak your document and keep track of the changes.
In the end, it all comes down to how you write dialogue and how you format dialogue. It's difficult to tell if you've written effective dialogue until readers have gotten their hands on it. All you can do is arm yourself with the best information and write the best dialogue you can.
Spice Up Conversations with Dialogue
Dialogue is essential for fiction writing and if you’re a fiction writer, you should master the art of writing dialogue. It's an asset to your writing skills.
What you can achieve with dialogue can’t be achieved otherwise. Dialogue gives life to your manuscript. Dialogue gives life to your characters. Dialogue helps you grab the reader’s attention. Dialogue makes your story easy-to-understand.
You can’t ignore the importance and usefulness of dialogues in writing. I'm confident these 9 steps on how to write dialogue will help you write better novels, screenplays, and books for your readers.