How to Write Dialogue

Article written by Sable Aradia, Eli Kwake, ECC Books, Dazzlinkat, Siobhan the Writer, Gwenefre and the Game of Tomes community.

What is dialogue?

Dialogue is a conversation between characters, although that conversation can take a variety forms.  

What is the purpose of dialogue?

Dialogue serves one of three purposes:
  • Conveys important information the reader needs at that moment
  • Advances the plot
  • Offers insight into the characters
  • From Janet Burroway:
  • set scene
  • set mood
  • reveal theme
  • reveal the past (but only if it's logical to do so; don't have characters discuss things they both know just for the reader's benefit)
  • advance the action
  • "Dialogue must do more than one thing at a time or it is too inert for the purposes of fiction" - Janet Burroway - Try to do a few of these things at once if you can
  • If it is not serving one of these purposes, you probably don't need it.  

    What are some of the qualities of "good dialogue?"

  • Moves the story along using the principle of "show, don't tell"
  • Immerses the reader in the action or the story
  • Tells part of subtext
  • Can be used effectively for comedic or dramatic effect
  • Maintains or breaks tension
  • Shows differences in the way the characters think, feel, and act
  • Wit and repartee (subject to limits of the characters)
  • Character agency
  • Includes character actions and body language
  • Conveys tone
  • There is "give and take" between characters. One character says or communicates something; the other character(s) respond(s) ; and vice versa. If one person is giving speech, either they should be actually conducting a formal lecture before an audience, or you must be intending to portray the character as arrogant or pedantic. If one person is talking and the other is only listening, this indicates an unequal power relationship between two characters. ie. teacher to student, parent to child, "Karen" to the wait staff.
  • Characters speak how people actually talk. Characters may:
  • Use poor grammar
  • Have an accent
  • Hum and haw
  • Use contractions
  • Go slightly off-topic
  • BUT! A word of caution: don't overdo any of this! If you do, your dialogue will simply be confusing in print.
  • Consider what your dialogue may reveal about your character. They might use the vernacular of their profession or social class. Some people will speak a lot at once, or really fast. Some characters will hardly say a word, either due to shyness or just being laconic. Some characters will fidget and do a lot of things as they speak, or shift from topic to topic, or perhaps talk about things that seem to have little to do with the ongoing conversation. Social aptitude and neurodiversity can be demonstrated in this way. Think about how your character thinks about and interacts with the world, and then express it in what they do and say in dialogue.
  • Rules of Dialogue

  • Use quotations marks to indicate where what is spoken begins and ends
  • In the United States and Canada, the outer quotation uses double quotes, and the inner quotation uses single quotes.
  • Graeme sighed. "Well, Uncle Haywood always says, 'Never spit at a rattlesnake'."
    or:
    Graeme sighed. "Well, Uncle Haywood always says, 'Never spit at a rattlesnake.'"
  • In the UK and Australia, the outer quotation uses single quotes, while the inner quotation uses double quotes.
  • Graeme sighed. 'Well, Uncle Haywood always says, "Never spit at a rattlesnake."'
  • The most important thing is to be consistent—and to follow a publication's style guide if you're seeking publication from someone else.
  • When the speaker changes, so does the paragraph
  • Graeme sighed. "Well, Uncle Haywood always says, 'Never spit at a rattlesnake'."   Piper giggled. "That never made no sense to me until just now. Why would you spit at a rattlesnake?"
  • The exception is if the characters are saying the same thing at the same time, you don't need to write it twice.
  • Graeme sighed. "Well, Uncle Haywood always says..." and Piper chimed in, "'Never spit at a rattlesnake'."
    "Are we there yet?" hollered the unwashed little ones from the back seat of the jalopy.
     

    Dialogue Tags

    What is a dialogue tag?

  • Dialogue tags are the little elements that designate whom is speaking. Most commonly, "He said," "She said," or "They said."
  • Editors have OPINIONS about dialogue tags and you should try to get a sense of what those opinions are.
  • Some editors prefer you try to avoid them entirely.
  • Some editors do not want you to use a word that is not specifically a way of speaking when using them. ie. "whispered" may be fine, but "sighed" or "yelped" may not be.
  • "I am cold," Judy shuddered. — this makes no logical sense. There should be a period after "cold" because "shuddered" isn't producing the sounds, "I am cold."
  • Some editors ONLY want you to use "said" if you must use them.
  •  
    What do you do to avoid using dialogue tags?
  • Make sure to change the paragraph every time the speaker changes. Note that when you have only two characters speaking, you can often get away with simply quoting their speech, once you have established who the speakers are. This is especially useful when you are trying to keep the pacing rapid, like in an action scene.
  • "You notice that chill?" Graeme asked, looking around for the source.   Aquilla shuddered. "Yeah, I noticed."   "Think our friend is about to pay us a visit?"   "I think he ain't our friend."
     

    A Note About Adverbs

    Adverbs are the words that describe a verb. They often end with "ly" - ie. slowly, quietly, roughly, etc.
  • Some editors NEVER want to see these words. Others will tolerate them in moderation.
  • Regardless of your opinion on adverbs, try not to use them repeatedly. This will sound repetitious and dull, and will diminish their impact.
  • While some editors take this to extremes, the intention of this advice is to train you, as a writer, to use stronger, more specific verbs, which avoids passive voice and comes across as more impactful.
  • What do you do to avoid using adverbs in dialogue tags?
  • Use stronger, more specific verbs. ie. "whispered" as opposed to "said quietly."
  • Use actions and body language to replace the descriptor.
  • Graeme spoke into Piper's ear. "We need to get up to that ledge over there."
     

    Pacing

    Pacing, put roughly, is about how quickly the action and story moves along at a particular point. This can shift and change through the course of the story; and indeed, it should.
  • Action scenes tend to be fast-paced
  • Character descriptions and thoughts tend to move more slowly
  •   Your dialogue should reflect the pacing you're going for. In a nutshell, the longer it takes to read, the slower the pacing. So, the more action and description you have around what is actually being said, the slower the pacing will be.
  • During the action, you want things to move quickly, so dialogue should have little to frame it, and be as short as it can be.
  • Graeme asked the elf boy, “She didn’t tell you to do anything about the curtains, did she?”   He smiled and shook his head.   “Then give it about thirty seconds, and pull both curtains open at once.”   Now?   “Now.”   The boy saluted him. Good luck to us all, Slinger. He disappeared back into the dining car.   Graeme cocked the hammers of his pistols. “Ready, Sandy?”   Sandy whimpered and scratched at the carpet.   The curtain flew open.
    "Fine." Coppelius blinked. It was his voice that came out, not sand!   He stared at the stranger. "How?"   "<You're asleep>."   "What?"   "<Well, it's only a little nap, and you're having a daydream>."   "I'm dreaming." Coppelius slumped in his chair.   "<You really need to read your tome>."   "I can't. I've tried."   "<You have tried to read it as Coppelius. You need to read it as Morpheus. It will teach you all you need to know.>"   "I don't want to stop being me!"
  • During the aftermath and in-between moments, especially when the characters are processing a situation, you want the pacing to be slower, so framing the dialogue with character actions and description can help convey that process, either through mood or tone.
  • After a few moments, they dropped their paws to the ground and let out a raucous cry of mourning. The eerie sound disturbed the silence of the forest. A silence Eldrick hadn't noticed until now. A few glanced from Eldrick to the form of Victor. Eldrick, following their gaze once again, saw the corpse of his master's murderer. "I don't care what happens to that," he spat, pointing at the dead body.
     
    Graeme nodded again. "Right. Sometimes if you mention somethin' like that, you get its attention." She nodded and he smiled. “But that right there is a lot of help already. I got the Whistler library here… might be I can find some references. If not, I can ask my local Elders, see if they know.”   He seemed to look her up and down, then nodded to her seriously. “All right, I’ll come. Soon as I can. I think I can leave tomorrow… if we meet again, maybe we can talk more.” He tipped his hat again to her. “You let Elder Perez and Dame Esther know we’re comin’. I’m Graeme Walsh; my sister’s name is Piper. Dame Esther may’ve heard of our father, Colin Walsh. That way they know this is for real and not just a dream. I doubt your Elder would think so, but best make sure.”   She nodded. If he was going to tell her his name... “I’m Aquilla Levan. If’n anybody outside of the valley here knows about the Windwalker, they’ll know my last name. I’ll tell folk you’re comin’. Thank you, Sir Graeme.” She clutched her hands together and bowed again, grateful beyond measure. She almost wanted to cry, she was so relieved.   He grinned. “Thank you for bein’ brave, Miss Levan. We’ll see you soon.”
  • When the scene contains elements of processing during the action, you can, with a deft hand, incorporate both in a medium-range pacing. This is often effective for building tension.
  • Aquilla and the other townsfolk advanced on the shambling child, each holding a palm frond. Aquilla stepped up to them uncertainly and shoved them lightly back with the palm frond. The child stumbled back half a step and grinned.   "Are you thinking you can take me, seer-child?" the shambling child hissed. Aquilla could see blood on their teeth. She tried not to recoil and pressed forward to shove the child again.   "I ain't thinkin' nothin'," she said calmly. "Nothin' 'cept that you ain't welcome here, Shadow Man, no matter who you're hidin' in."   The shambling child laughed. "I'm older than you! I'm older than your precious Windwalker! I tempted them in the desert and found them... obstinate. Don't tell me you think you can stop me!"   She shook her head and shoved forward again. "I ain't tryin' to stop you from shakin' the ground, Shadow Man. You can shake all you like. But you can't have them. Get out, or we'll set to makin' you get out."
  • Consider the timing. In a swordfighting scene, for example, there's no time for characters to deliver long sentences as they're dodging, lunging, parrying and reposting. Keep the sentences short and sweet, or break them up with the action. If, on the other hand, the characters are sitting on the edge of a dock chatting about their thoughts, sentences might be longer and involve more descriptors.
  • Another paraphrase from Burroway that might useful here about pacing:
  • Speech can be
  • Summarized
  • Reported by another character as indirect speech
  • A direct quotation
  • A combination of the above is often useful in getting us quickly to the meat of a scene, but too much summary can feel stingy.  

    Things to Avoid

    "As you know, Bob..."

    This is when you use dialogue like an infodump. One character speaks at length about something they and the other characters they are speaking to already know, so that the reader is informed. This usually comes across as stilted, awkward, and disingenuous. Remember the rule that characters should speak like people actually do.
  • Instead, consider having two or more characters come together to share bits and pieces of the information they know so that they can work out what it all means together. If no one character has all the information, this is how people actually find solutions or figure things out.
  • Another alternative, and the one that is most popular among editors, is to dribble bits and pieces of information out over the course of the story.
  •  

    Speeches

    Don't have one character talk for extended periods without interruption or interaction, unless you have a specific reason for it. People don't just sit and listen to a single person without asking questions, disagreeing, or outright arguing in real life, even if they are only making nods, hums, or grunts of disapproval. In this example, one character is a teacher, the other is a student, and the student still interrupts:
    “So, where do we start?”  We start at the beginning, as all things must,— he said quietly in my mind. —In the beginning, there was nothing, only a darkness deeper than the blackest of nights, and the Powers That Be.  “Are you telling me a story?” I asked, aghast.  Do not interrupt your teacher,— he chided gently. —From that darkness, the Powers That Be made the first light, and that first light became all that is, all that was, and all that ever will be. Time passed, and the Powers That Be became bored of playing with the light and the elements it bore. They created the first worlds of the living and the first worlds of the dead.  “Worlds of the living?” I asked. “I thought there was just the one world of the living.”   Cain shook his head. —Outside, if there were no clouds, and it was not raining, what would you see?  I shrugged, not understanding the point of the question. “Stars, I guess? Maybe the moon?”
  • As a rule, never allow a character to speak for more than two-three sentences at a time without another character reacting.
  • If there is a high-intensity action scene going on, more than a single sentence at once is probably too much.
  •  

    Overblown Dialogue Tags

  • While it was much more common in the past to use larger words with more specific meanings as dialogue tags (ie. Lovecraft, Tolkien) this has fallen out of fashion.
  • You should probably avoid words like "gesticulated," "elucidated," and above all, please avoid "ejaculated" because we are all mentally in kindergarten.
  • Words such as "opined" should be used sparingly.
  • Genre may affect these choices.
  • Body Language, Subtext, and Non-Verbal Characters

    Much of our communication does not use words. We also communicate information through our actions, our mannerisms, and by subconscious gestures and body language. These are effective tools that as writer, you should not ignore.
  • Body language can provide a language of non-verbal communication. Entire conversations can be held without speaking a single word.
  • If the body language differs from the spoken conversation, this can also be used to communicate subtext or mood. In the below example, Janice Brinks, an attractive woman, is attempting to sell stolen or contraband items in a hurry. She is not experienced in dealing with these matters. Mr. Dunn, the fence, is, but he is also distracted by the widow's charms.
  • The Widow Brinks tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for her contact. He was late. She could feel frustration simmering in her belly, but tried not to pay it any heed. She couldn’t afford it. It would colour her negotiations with the antiques fence, and she needed to be as charming as possible to assure the best deal.   He finally arrived at two-thirty. It was all Janice could do not to bark at him in a rage. “Mr. Dunn. How do you do?” she said instead, and simpered.   The squat little man, who perhaps had dwarf or gnome blood, took her offered hand and lingered over it longer than was proper. “Delighted to meet you at last, Mrs. Brinks. Please forgive my tardiness. It couldn’t be avoided.”   “I understand,” she said graciously. They took seats at a cozy reading nook that Lawrence kept for his customers in the front room. Lawrence served them tea and vanished with all the timely and discrete grace of a professional manservant.   Dunn splashed three sugar cubes into his tea and filled it near to the brim with cream. “I understand you have some things that I may be interested in purchasing,” he said as he stirred it carefully with a silver spoon. It was too full to avoid slopping over the side of his cup anyway.   She pretended not to notice. “I have acquired several antiques that I find myself in need of liquidating."
  • Non-verbal characters can communicate a great deal without having to say a word. This applies to characters on the autistic spectrum, those who are mute, and possibly, sentient animal characters or extraterrestrial aliens.
  • Zaza hadn't said much, just a quiet, mumbled, "Seatbelt," when Chara had strapped her in.   "So, what kind of music do you like, Zaza?" she asked gently.   Zaza's answer was to flick at her Fixation Gyration again, her mouth slightly ajar as she stared at it spinning in her hands. She was listing a little bit closer to the door, but didn't seem agitated or like she wanted out. Her gaze was still engrossed in the nearly endless whirling. Chara waited to see if she would answer a moment or two later, but Zaza said nothing. Well, Zachariah had said Zaza was mostly non-verbal... So that made sense.   "Do you mind if I turn some on?" she tried again.   No answer.   Chara sighed. "I guess not..." She fumbled for a moment with a CD, popping it into the player. It wasn't her usual fare, but it was soothing and jingly. Good entrance and exit music if she was going on or off stage... She hit play.   Zaza immediately screeched and clapped her hands over her ears, moaning. Chara waited a moment, but Zaza started to kick the dashboard.   She quickly slapped the stop button and Zaza stopped. She rocked in the passenger seat for a long moment, then picked up her Fixation Gyration and sent it spinning as though nothing had happened.   "Right," Chara said, a little shaken. "No music, then."   "Right, no music," Zaza mumbled, as though in agreement.
    Instead he busied himself by checking Lightning’s hooves for stones. One had wedged itself under a shoe. As he worked to pry it loose, he chattered at his friend. “Think they were mutants or kelpies?” he asked the horse rhetorically. “I’m thinkin’ they looked like fey, but I suppose you never can tell.”   The stallion snorted. Sometimes it was challenging to read his friend’s reactions, but it sounded like disgust to him.   “You’re right, I reckon it don’t really matter much,” he agreed, though of course he couldn’t be certain that was what he’d meant. “Darned shame, all the same. Guess we should put up some warnin’ signs along the route.” The stone popped loose. “There, that’s got ‘er. You want a good brushin’? You deserve it!”   The horse looked at him and offered an unmistakeable nod. Graeme chuckled and got out the curry combs and set to work. Lightning folded his ears back and closed his eyes. He made a wuffling noise of obvious enjoyment. The brushes whisked away the last of the sweat and a whole lot of loose hair.   He set to mane and tail next, cursing under his breath at the tangles and the ubiquitous grass seeds that managed to work their way into the heart of the knots. “How you manage this, I can’t imagine,” Graeme fretted as he worked. The horse declined to comment.   Suddenly Lightning’s eyes popped open and his ears twitched. “What?” Graeme asked him, but then he heard it too. A snippet of distant voices on the wind.   He tilted his head to try to listen to it, but it didn’t help because it was blended into the sound of the wind itself. Perhaps it was coming from a long way off, and they were only catching it when the wind was blowing just the right way. “I doubt that’s from around here,” he said to Lightning, but it was halfway a question.   Lightning raised his head to the wind and his nostrils flared. Then he snorted and lowered his head to graze. Clearly nothing to worry about then.
  • Point of View: When using non-verbal communication, much is subject to interpretation. Keep in mind which character you are using to observe the scene. That character may have different interpretations than other people, and might even get it wrong. That will have consequences.
  • Exclusively Non-Verbal Communication

    Sometimes you can have a conversation that involves only gestures, facial expressions, and body language:
  • In this example, the characters have noticed enemy soldiers in the jungle, and as far as they know, they have not been noticed in return:
  • Shaundar looked around at the group and made a fist to indicate that they should form up. Since Lana was the quietest, he pointed at her and then made a stabbing V gesture at his eyes. She nodded, flattened out and began to make a slow, crawling crab-like advance through the foliage to get a closer look at their enemies....   Lana came shuffling back. Shaundar looked at her expectantly. She held up four fingers. No more than they had heard, then. That was good.   She drew a glyph in the mud at their feet. It was a thin arrow shape on a stick; the rune of the Doomspear clan. Shaundar tried to remember what he been told about them. He thought they’d been described as solid ground pounders. Not known for their creativity, however. But they were indeed Balorians, not common orcs, and therefore could not be underestimated.   Shaundar was torn. They must be looking for a larger group. Smelling for smoke and looking for lights suggested a sizeable encampment to him. Were their enemies amassing here?   It was possible that Madrimlian had known—Shaundar would not put it past him to arrange something like this—but he didn’t think so. Unless those Balorians were more advanced Permafrost trainees, he didn’t believe that Madrimlian would risk his whole project on such an encounter.   More likely, the Navy really didn’t know they were here.   Shaundar indicated for his team to fall back, and then he wrote some coordinates in the mud with his finger and promptly wiped a leaf over it and camouflaged the spot. He was bringing them back to a berry bush near the river they had followed from the marsh pool their ship had made planetfall in.
     

    Telepathy

    Sometimes, especially in science fiction and fantasy, there is direct communication that has the qualities of verbal communication, but it is not spoken. These are telepathic conversations, or perhaps conversations in text, or with an artificial intelligence. The convention is to write these in similar ways to a verbal dialogue, but to punctuate it differently.
  • In this first example, the italics indicate telepathic communication from a ghost.
  • Graeme asked the elf boy, “She didn’t tell you to do anything about the curtains, did she?”   He smiled and shook his head.   “Then give it about thirty seconds, and pull both curtains open at once.”   Now?   “Now.”   The boy saluted him. Good luck to us all, Slinger. He disappeared back into the dining car.
  • In this second example, the lines framed by <chevrons> and quotation marks are telempathic communication from a deity:
  • "Fine." Coppelius blinked. It was his voice that came out, not sand!   He stared at the stranger. "How?"   "<You're asleep>."   "What?"   "<Well, it's only a little nap, and you're having a daydream>."
  • In this third example, the italicized text framed between em-dashes is telempathic communication from a spirit entity who is probably the Grim Reaper:
  • “So, where do we start?”  We start at the beginning, as all things must,— he said quietly in my mind. —In the beginning, there was nothing, only a darkness deeper than the blackest of nights, and the Powers That Be.  “Are you telling me a story?” I asked, aghast.
  • This final example is a conversation taking place in text messages on a phone:
  • So, where are we meeting again?
      Dani's Diner. It's just down the street from the uni.  
    West or east?
      I dunno; what direction do the avenues run in again? It's on 30th Ave
     

    Internal Dialogue

    In internal dialogue, a character is having a conversation with themself. They are usually working something out in their own heads, and this is usually used to either figure something out, or to process something emotionally.
    But sitting there crying about how everything was different was not getting me back to Sky City. It wasn’t getting me back to Andrew, who was my father in every way but blood. He was still alive, and he probably thought I was dead. I needed to get back. I wiped away my tears and stood. I walked to the door and looked around once more before closing the door behind me. I didn’t look back.   There was nothing there for me anymore. I hadn’t even wanted the cider press, not really. It was something Andrew would have liked, maybe, but the traditions I’d had with Da, I left behind when I had left Dansville at fourteen. I felt kind of sad; I had been thinking about that house as my home for four years. But it was just an empty building. There wasn’t anything there for me anymore. The one thing that had made it home was gone.   My Da wasn’t there anymore.   It was Da that had made the house a home. It was Da who had always been there. That question I hadn’t been able to ask Casey...it didn’t matter. My Da, the one I had always known and loved, he had died that day, whether Casey had buried him or not. Lenore had died that day too. I was a different person now than that scared kid Cain had trapped in that house for three days. He couldn’t do that to me now if he tried.
     

    Recommended Reading:

    Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction   Patrick Rothfuss, The Slow Regard of Silent Things - for internal dialogue, POV, and non-verbal communication


    Cover image: Iron Tome by Misades

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