When it comes to writing dialogue in a story, even the best writers take a pause. How to write dialogue correctly? Let’s take a look at some rules of writing dialogue to find out how you should write conversations in a story. If you need some examples of dialogue writing to ease the process, we’ve got that covered too!
But before we learn how to write impactful dialogue, we need to know its purpose. Why is dialogue important? What does it achieve in a story?
Rules of writing dialogue
Writing dialogue in a story or a novel has a few basic rules. If you follow them well, you’ll have nothing to fear from writing dialogues. We’ve added some handy examples of dialogue writing so you can understand these rules better.
Here are the rules of writing dialogue that you should always keep in mind:
1. Use double quotation marks for your dialogue
It is the oldest rule of dialogue writing to enclose the spoken words in double quotation marks. Here’s a sample dialogue:
“Mr. Bennet, you have no compassion for my poor nerves!”
However, there is an exception to this rule. In British English, single quotation marks are used instead of double to show dialogue.
2. Use single quotation marks for quotes within a dialogue
In American English, single quotation marks are used to show a quote within a quote. So if your character is quoting someone else, that phrase should be enclosed within single quotation marks. For example:
“I heard Percy say, ‘the new teacher is absolutely brilliant!’”
3. Every new speaker gets a new paragraph
Every dialogue begins with a new paragraph. Each time a character says something, even if it is only a word, the dialogue should begin on a new paragraph. Here’s a dialogue writing example:
“Don’t worry, the information they have of our whereabouts is misleading.”
“So this was a trap, ma’am?”
4. Use dialogue tags
Dialogue tags are a means for you to connect the narration with the dialogue. The “he said” and “she said” you often come across? They’re the most widely used dialogue tags.
Take a look at this:
“Did you think it was over,” screeched Dr. Octavia. “My plan has just begun!”
In the above example of dialogue writing, the dialogue combines the narration and the speech to create the villain in our minds. However, it also provides an interruption in the character’s words. So, a dialogue tag is useful to add a pause in the dialogues.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered, “everything will be alright.”
If the dialogue tag ends the sentence, then use a period after it. But as in the example above, the tag can also occur in the middle of a dialogue to indicate a pause in speech. In that case, you can use commas to separate the speech from the narration.
5. Use action tags
Action tags, also called action beats or dialogue beats, are short descriptions of action that break up the dialogue. You can use them to avoid repeating the usage of dialogue tags.
When it’s established that only a certain number of characters are speaking, it’s safe to use an action tag without confusing the reader. Let’s have a look at this example:
“Don’t tell me you lost it again!” She rolled her eyes, flopping down on the bean bag chair. “We’re so grounded.”
6. Discard quotes in longer dialogues
When a character delivers a long monologue, you have to create multiple paragraphs for a single dialogue. This can happen when a character narrates a story within your story, or during a flashback sequence.
In this case, end quotes are not used at the end of every paragraph. They only appear at the very end, when the character stops speaking.
“It was a long time ago,” said the old man. “The forests were yet untouched and man hadn’t succumbed to greed. I remember going to forage for produce with my mother. And then the machines came.
“By the time I was a grown man, they had already cut a long line through the forest.”
7. Use italics for internal speech
Your characters’ thoughts and internal monologue is represented through italics. This helps readers differentiate between what is said and what is thought. This is useful when you narrate your novel in the third person or through an omniscient narrator.
“I have no idea where to go,” said Martha. But I will keep you all safe.
Note that the end punctuation mark of the inner speech is also italicized. Think of it like this: instead of enclosing the sentence in quotes, we’re italicizing it.
Some writers choose to use double or single quotation marks to represent inner thoughts as well as dialogue. The key thing is to maintain consistency in your novel, no matter what style you choose to follow.
As is clear from the above examples of dialogue writing, there is much room for error while writing dialogue. Simple mistakes in dialogue punctuation can hamper the reading experience and take your reader out of the fictional world you have created. This is where an expert proofreader comes in.
Of course, manuscript editingwill help ensure that you follow the important rules of writing dialogue. It’s their job to ensure consistency in your writing, even if you choose to deviate from the norm!
Now you understand the importance of dialogue and dialogue writing rules. It’s time to understand how to write conversations in a story.
How to write dialogue in a story
When it comes to writing dialogue in fiction, novelists and short story writers have a challenge at hand. They have to weave in dialogue while they construct scenes, setting, action, and context, also maintaining the flow and narrative of the story.
In his book The Anatomy of Story, John Truby says that dialogue is a “highly selective language that sounds like it could be real.” It is “always more intelligent, wittier, more metaphorical, and better argued than in real life.”
So, terrific dialogue isn’t just important when writing fiction— it’s essential. To impress the agent to win a book deal, and for your readers to keep coming back to your next book, you need to deliver superb dialogue in every scene.
So, how to write dialogue that always hits the mark? Here are some tips to write dialogue:
1. Punctuate your dialogue properly
Writing dialogue punctuation is tricky, but extremely important. How you punctuate your dialogue determines the tone and meaning of your sentences. More than that, your use of punctuation also reflects upon the characters’ personality.
Take note of the following examples of dialogue writing:
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I really don’t know!”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I really don’t know!”
“I— I really don’t know.”
“I don’t know… I don’t know, I really don’t know.”
All the variations create different images inside your head. This is because dialogue punctuation creates a speech pattern for your character, and all memorable characters have unique speech patterns.
After all, aren’t you immediately reminded of a certain Star Wars character when you read:
“Know that, I don’t.”
So, the key to writing successful dialogue is to format it properly. Dialogue formatting hinges on five essential punctuation marks. Let’s go through them one by one.
1. Quotation marks
Your dialogue, including all punctuation in the utterance, goes inside double quotations. If you’re in the UK, just replace this with single quotes.
US: “Whatever is said here— the deal, the discussions, the results, everything stays between us.”
UK: ‘Whatever is said here— the deal, the discussions, the results, everything stays between us.’
The end punctuation of a dialogue always goes inside quotation marks.
“When do we leave?” Fatima asked.
“Who goes there!” she challenged.
Note that the first word of the dialogue tag is in lowercase. This is because your sentence is a combination of the dialogue and the tag. Since the sentence isn’t complete when the dialogue ends, there is no reason to write the tag in uppercase.
Unless, of course, if the first word happens to be a proper noun!
2. Quotes within dialogue
When you’re quoting a complete sentence, the punctuation remains inside the quote. But when your quote is an incomplete sentence, a book title, or an explanation of something, the punctuation goes outside of the quote.
“Samantha called me up and said, ‘I want to see you right now!’”
“Samantha called me up and insisted on meeting ‘right now’.”
Commas appear with the dialogue tags. So, they connect the narration with the dialogue. Here is the correct way to punctuate with dialogue tags:
Tom said, “I will perform the main act tomorrow, when the time is right.”
“I will perform the main act tomorrow,” said Tom. “When the time is right.”
“I will perform the main act tomorrow,” said Tom, “when the time is right.”
Em-dashes are instrumental in setting a rhythm for dialogue. They represent disjointed speech or sentences that are abruptly broken off.
“I didn’t— I didn’t do anything!” Kyle was bewildered. “You— you have to believe me— I’m innocent!”
“They haven’t said—”
“We don’t have the time for this right now!” Anika yelled.
“I wish I could help—”
The alarm sounded: it was time for Wuxian to leave.
Aside from this, em-dashes can also be used to show when characters speak over each other. Here’s a dialogue writing example for overlapping speech:
“Mr. Jackson couldn’t see us—”
“Oh, thank god.”
“—but he’s headed over here within the next hour.”
Sometimes, action and dialogue overlap to an extent where neither action tags nor dialogue tags are sufficient. In this case, a couple of em-dashes help the writer sprinkle narration between the dialogue.
“Little does our little prince know” — the witch stirred her potion — “what I have in store for him!”
When a character gets stunned into silence or trails off while speaking, ellipses are the way to show it. Consider this:
“When did they…”
“Last night, when half our troops were asleep.”
He looked out at the distant stars. “I thought I had more time…”
It’s easy to deduce from the above examples of dialogue formatting that punctuation can make a huge difference. Different ways of writing dialogue in a story create different meanings. If you want to be a master dialogue writer, mastering dialogue punctuation is an absolute essential!
Also read: How to Punctuate Dialogue in Fiction
2. Make your dialogue character-specific
Obviously, writing effective dialogue requires a good understanding of your characters. Develop a speech pattern for your character that reflects their personality. Then, take into account their worldview, their present mental and emotional state, their accent, or some sayings they love to use.
Remember two things when you write dialogue for your characters:
Characters aren’t mouthpieces for the writer
Your characters have a life of their own. The dialogue you write for them needs to reflect this. Beware of setting two heads talking in space: scene and setting influence dialogue as much as they influence plot and story.
Dialogue between characters can engage with the surrounding to build tension and add drama. Don’t settle for anything less than the most character-specific, setting-influenced conversations between your characters!
All your characters shouldn’t sound the same
Some characters talk a lot, some talk a little. Some talk wisely, and some talk frivolously. Effective dialogue writing lets the readers know exactly who is speaking.
A stuttering child will obviously have a different style of talking from a hotheaded matriarch. Idioms, catchphrases, accent: it all goes into the making of great dialogue.
3. Balance dialogue with narration
Dialogue from stories and novels is always more intelligent, metaphorical, and sassy than it is in real life. The simple reason for this is that dialogue is not real talk. It is a highly vetted language that is cleverly constructed to depict action, movement, and conflict.
“Hey, Eric,” Wendy said.
“Oh, hi! What’s up?”
“Do you know where Kenny is? He hasn’t been home in two days!”
“I’ve been busy lately, don’t have a clue.”
Even your texts with colleagues are more interesting than this, right? The dialogue in this example sounds realistic, but it’s also boring because it has no weight.
It does not contain any tensions and adds nothing to the plot. It tells you nothing about the characters, aside from the surface information.
A dialogue writing sample
Dialogue and internal monologue are necessary to the story but can quickly turn boring. So, your dialogue needs to be rich in conflict. More than this, it needs to be balanced with conflict in action and narration!
Make sure that your dialogue has an impact. It should change the direction of the plot, the movement of the story, and the behavior of your characters. If characters talk and nothing happens, your readers will lose interest.
This is how you can achieve a balance between narration and dialogue to depict a better picture:
“Hey, Eric,” Wendy said, trying to play it cool.
“Oh, hi!” Eric said brightly, rubbing the back of his neck. “What’s up?”
“Do you know where Kenny is?” She observed his expression. “He hasn’t been home in two days.”
Eric won’t give away anything so casually, she thought. I must corner him after the meeting.
“I’ve been busy lately,” he smirked, shrugging. “No clue.”
See how some well-placed narration makes the same lines more engrossing? A drab conversation takes on more meaning if you use the right dialogue tags and action beats.
4. Avoid exposition
Exposition is the writer’s way of giving context to their readers. It tells the readers more about the setting, the backstory, and the recent or distant events before the story begins.
It’s important for the readers to know where the characters come from and where they are going. But this doesn’t have to be told through a dialogue between two characters. Too much exposition in dialogue makes your characters talking heads, rather than the real people they’re supposed to be.
Relying heavily on your dialogue is as harmful as not using it enough.
Ideally, a large part of the exposition should be set in the story’s narrative. Other developments like suspense, revelations, or secrets can unravel through dialogue. This adds dramatic effect to your narrative.
5. Revise your dialogue multiple times
No one can write good dialogue in one go. If it’s impactful, it tends to be unrealistic. If it’s believable, it becomes lackluster. This is why revising your dialogue is so important. Aside from the content, even changes in dialogue formatting and punctuation can make it more substantial.
It’s natural to come up with a clunky length of conversations in your first go at writing dialogue. But a round of revision helps you refine it by leaps and bounds.
Go through individual dialogue segments and inspect them carefully. Ask if the dialogue is logical for the character’s disposition. Is it true to the story’s time and character’s maturity? Does it fit the character’s credible thinking?
Create a list of such questions to suit your individual process. Include things that you often forget to consider. Add considerations like personality, slang, rhythm, mood, and emotion to your list.
If you lack the critical eye to examine and correct your writing, seek expert help.
6. Practice with dialogue writing prompts
Finally, the most important advice from anyone who has mastered any art: practice!
Observe how your favorite author writes dialogue in their books. Note down all remarkable examples of dialogue writing and study them for why they work. You can also make use of some dialogue writing exercises.
A dialogue writing exercise can be as simple as starting with a prompt and making it intriguing. Basic as it sounds, there’s nothing like some good old writing practice to get you going! So, here are some quick dialogue writing prompts that can help you practice:
- “I heard you’ve been missing something.”
- “Ah, how the mighty have fallen!”
- “I never said—”
- “Have you heard? Old man Lan is dead.”
- “Her mother knew. All this time.”
- “Did they help? You don’t look any better.”
- “It’s time to finish what we started.”
- “I never thought it could go this wrong.”
- “How did you…”
- “How old are you again? I keep forgetting!”
We hope these dialogue prompts get you excited to write. Of course, knowing what you need to do isn’t enough to make powerful dialogue. You also need to know what to avoid.
Mistakes to avoid
There are two reasons that dialogues become boring: either writers expect dialogue to do the heavy lifting, or they don’t rely on it at all. There is a fine balance for dialogue in a story: it needs to do enough, but never too much.
But how can you achieve this? Where does the limit lie? Now that we’ve told you how to write dialogue, we’ll also inform you about some common dialogue mistakes you need to avoid. It’s all about that balance, isn’t it!
Avoid these pitfalls in when you write dialogue in a story:
1. Boring dialogue tags
There is a wide variety of tags you can use, aside from “he said”, “she said”, and “they said”. The common mistake to make while writing dialogue in a story is using the same or similar tags too often. This gets repetitive and boring for the reader.
No one wants to read something like this:
“Barry,” said Melanie, “I didn’t know you were in town!”
“You hardly know yourself these days,” he said.
“Hey!” she said. “No fair!”
Let’s make some corrections:
“Barry,” beamed Melanie, “I didn’t know you were in town!”
“You hardly know yourself these days,” he mocked.
“Hey!” she protested. “No fair!”
You know what? This still feels like it’s lacking, and we’ll soon see why.
2. Too many tags, not enough beats
Using an abundance of dialogue beats and no action tags make for poor dialogue. The reverse is also true; what you need is a proper mix of both.
Tags tell you how the words are being said, but beats tell you what action is happening alongside the words. For engaging dialogue, you need both! Here’s our previous dialogue writing example, edited, proofread, and improved:
“Barry!” Melanie hugged him, smiling brightly. “I didn’t know you were in town!”
“You hardly know yourself these days,” he mocked.
“Hey!” She punched him on the shoulder. “No fair!”
3. An abundance of the same style
We’ve seen multiple ways to write and punctuate dialogue. You can write it with a tag, a beat, or an interruption. Find ways to mix and match between these styles, so the repetition doesn’t become boring.
Here’s an example that mixes various styles of dialogue writing:
“Barry!” — Melanie hugged him, smiling brightly — “I didn’t know you were in town!”
“You hardly know yourself these days,” he mocked.
“Hey!” She punched him on the shoulder. “No fair!”
A scene is a moment in your story: it includes action, conflict, and some immediate consequences. To maintain the flow of action, nothing should interrupt the scene.
Let dialogue build tension, and cut back on it when the tension is highest. Too much dialogue can dilute the scene and create no impact. Assess the needs of every scene, and write your dialogue accordingly.
Now that you’re equipped with the rules of writing dialogue, some tips to make it impactful, and some handy examples of dialogue writing, we’re eager to see your stories flourish. Happy writing!