How to Write Dang Good Dialogue
Have you ever stopped to consider just how much speaking is going on in your book? Depending on your genre, your voice, your style, and the characters in your story, dialogue can take up a big ol’ chunk of your novel.
So it’s important that we, as writers of dialogue and other words, get this speaking thing right.
To some writers, dialogue might not seem that important in your book. After all, it’s about your story, right?
But dialogue can make or break your characters—and thus, your plot—or your author style..
That’s why we’re going to cover the why, what, and how of writing dialogue. That breaks down like this:
- The elements of successful dialogue (the why)
- Crafting dialogue (the what)
- Tips for writing dialogue (the how)
And by the time we’re done, you’re going to be an expert at writing dialogue in your story. So what do you say we get started?
Elements of Dialogue (The Why)
I said that dialogue can make or break some parts of your story, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t just take my word for it. Realistically, dialogue plays a major role in some key elements of your writing, which we'll discuss here.
Creating Realistic Characters
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been around enough folks to know that most people speak. In fact, some folks talk too much. But that’s a topic for another day.
When you’re creating characters, you’ll find your reader gravitates towards characters who are relatable and recognizable. There’s a reason character archetypes are such powerful tools (and you can read all about them here). A big part of making your characters realistic, relatable, and recognizable is through their dialogue.
Dialogue reveals traits - It’s through both dialogue and actions that we learn more about our character’s traits. Are they abrasive and bullish? Timid and withdrawn? The way a character speaks, who they speak to, and the words they use all come together to reflect various traits, including flaws, motivations, and backstory.
Dialogue can affect conflict - Not all conflict involves swords or violence, but a lot of it involves speaking. Your character’s dialogue could trigger or resolve a conflict, share information about an internal conflict, or add layers during a fight. When your characters are caught up in an event, think about what they would say and why that would add to the reader’s experience.
Dialogue makes characters real - Whether in a conference room or trying to save the world, people in the same situation or space tend to communicate. If your characters are sort of moving together but not speaking—or worse, their dialogue is wonky and weird—then your reader will put your book down for good.
Adding Emotion and Tension
Dialogue doesn’t just affect characters. What characters say (or don’t say) and the way they say it can completely change the tone or vibe of a scene.
Changing emotion with dialogue - Let’s say your characters are throwing a party after some big success. Everyone seems to be having a good time, including your reader. Then someone says, “I miss her.” Three simple words, but they totally change the emotion in the scene. Did she leave them? Did she die? Either way, appreciate how such a small snippet of dialogue impacts the scene and consider what an entire conversation can do.
Adding tension with dialogue - There are a few ways to add tension with dialogue. The first is a big juxtaposition like changing the emotion in the scene. Someone says “I hope we make it out alive.” and suddenly there’s an invisible element of danger. But you can also use dialogue as a reminder of danger (“There’s still a killer out there!”) or a sobering comment (“Don’t forget what the stakes are.”).
Using Dialogue to Move the Story Forward
Finally, dialogue should usually move the story forward. This means you don’t want to fill your conversations with a lot of meaningless small talk.
In general, everything you write should push the story towards its conclusion. That doesn’t mean your anti-hero protagonist isn’t allowed to start a conversation off with a sassy quip, but it’s a reminder to be cognizant of what you’re writing.
Ask yourself why - When you’re revising your draft, take a step back and try to be objective about the dialogue you’ve included. What does it do for characterization, the plot, your theme, or your conflicts?
Is there too much small talk? - Again, be objective about this. Do you find yourself making excuses about why certain conversations are included? If you removed some dialogue, would it hurt or benefit your story?
Crafting Dialogue (The What)
Now that we know why dialogue is important and ways you can use it to strengthen your story, let’s look at the what—actually crafting your dialogue.
Writing quality dialogue isn’t easy, and I’d argue it’s more difficult than writing exposition, action, or any other part of your story. We humans talk a lot, so we know what dialogue is supposed to sound and look like. Even if a scene takes place in a different time period or culture than the reader is used to, experience reading your genre has set up your readers with certain expectations.
On top of that, there’s a technical side to writing dialogue that you need to get right or you’ll leave readers saying “what the heck?”
Creating Concrete Dialogue
First up, we want to write dialogue that works for us and our story. There’s no magical formula I can share that will automatically generate conversations for you, but here are some tips for writing concrete dialogue.
Keep it brief - I know I’ve been hammering the idea that real people speak, but I have to digress a little and let you know that your characters won’t be speaking exactly like real people. Your dialogue shouldn’t be filled with “um” and “ah” and “like” as real speak is, unless you’re including it for a reason.
Limit long conversations - Sometimes a conversation will take a couple of pages if it’s really important. For the most part, long conversations lead to glazed eyes. While your dialogue should be tight and brief, the same should be applied to most conversations. Very few readers want to go through page after page after page after page of speaking.
Make each character unique - Each character should have their own voice, quirks, and tics that makes their dialogue unique. Dig deep when creating your characters (here’s a template with more than 100 traits to help you). Some of the best characters can be identified through their dialogue without any form of attribution or dialogue tag.
Be consistent - When you make those unique voices, make sure you’re consistent throughout. If your character goes through the first half of the story using a bunch of metaphors, they should continue using metaphors in their dialogue throughout the remainder of the book.
Limit greetings and names - Here’s another thing we do that our literary counterparts don’t. Yes, your characters can reference each other’s names every now and then, but usually as a way to clarify for the reader. Greetings, on the other hand, can be cut out unless they’re in there for another reason.
Don’t be too uptight about grammar - As an editor, this hurts me a little. But you don’t need to make dialogue 100% grammatically correct. Unless it’s in their character, most people don’t use “nor.” You can even have someone say “Me and her went to the store” vs. “She and I went to the store” if it sounds right with their voice.
Clichés should be avoided in general. I think that’s something we can all agree on, right?
The same goes for dialogue. In fact, clichés in dialogue are almost more of a sin than most other places.
That’s because dialogue is directly tied to your characters, so writing cheap dialogue is the same as writing cheap characters. It can be tough to identify clichés, though, and can be even more difficult to differentiate clichés and tropes.
Here are some ways to conquer clichés.
Get external feedback - Using beta readers and critique partners can get some objective feedback that will tell you if you’re using clichés. Give them free reign to be truthful and don’t get hurt by that feedback–it’s there to help you.
Add on an extra layer - Let’s say your character is like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory: very intelligent, a bit self-absorbed, and someone who disregards social cues. If you just copy that cliché, your reader will see through it. But if you add on an extra layer to their character through their backstory or motivation that will tweak that formulaic character enough that they feel fresh.
Read. A lot. - The best way to identify clichés and tropes is to read a lot of the genre you’re writing. You’ll quickly find what dialogue and personalities work well and which ones flop.
Now we’re getting to that technical element I mentioned before. There are rules for writing dialogue that can’t be broken without alienating your readers. Take these rules, internalize them, and use them to format great dialogue.
New paragraph for each speaker - This is pretty straightforward: every time a new character speaks, it should be on a new line to separate it from the previous speaker.
Quotation marks - In US English, double quotation marks (“like this”) surround what is being said. In UK English, use single quotation marks instead (‘like this.’) All punctuation marks go within the quotation marks.
Understand dialogue tags - Dialogue tags or attribution let the reader know who said something and how they said it. If you want to understand dialogue tags, check out our ultimate guide here.
Multi-paragraph speeches - In the case where a single character is speaking long enough that they need multiple paragraphs, only the final paragraph ends with a closing quotation mark. All paragraphs still begin with an opening quotation mark, however.
Interrupt with an em-dash - The greatest punctuation ever, the em-dash is your go-to for showing dialogue that’s interrupted by someone else or by an action.
Tips for Writing Dialogue (The How)
To wrap things up, here are a few extra tips to make writing dialogue easier.
Observe Natural Conversation
One more time for the people in the back, try to understand how people communicate and alter that to meet your dialogue needs. It’s much easier for you to be a pro at real-life communication and pare it back to make it more concise, edit out clichés, and add character-specific traits.
And remember that word choice isn’t the only aspect of communication we use. Body language, tone, annunciation, implications, and colloquialisms are all integrated into our speech. Just watch out for anachronisms if you’re writing in a different time period or culture.
Read Your Dialogue Aloud
One of the best things you can do to make sure your writing feels authentic is to read it aloud. This goes for dialogue, especially.
You’ll notice what feels wrong, which things don’t sound good together, and so on.
If you’re using Dabble, you can have your computer read your work aloud for you. Listen for any areas you can improve your dialogue!
Don’t Overuse Dialogue Tags
Finally, there is a fine line between over- and under-using dialogue tags.
Not every line of dialogue should have an attribution. Remember that you want your characters to each have a unique voice. This will help you skip dialogue tags altogether in back-and-forth conversations.
You can also use action to replace attributions, making your scene more dynamic. Consider this:
“I’m out of bullets,” I said. The magazine was empty.
“I’m out of bullets.” I released the empty magazine to reinforce my point.
One is more active and, even though it’s longer, reads easier.
There’s also the ongoing debate of using said or some other tag. If you check out our ultimate guide, you’ll see that we drive pretty deep on this topic. Long story short, though, aim for most of your dialogue tags to simply use “said” while sprinkling in a few other options like shouted, whimpered, mumbled, etc.
Bring Your Characters to Life With Dabble
At the core of writing dialogue is writing good characters. Yes, dialogue can help every aspect of your story, but it all comes from the characters who are actually speaking.
That’s why we continue to add regular resources you can access for absolutely free over at DabbleU. Check out our growing library of articles, from characters to plot to setting and more.
And, when you’re ready, bring those characters to life with Dabble. A novel-writing platform made by writers for writers, Dabble gives you all the tools you need to write your future bestseller, all while boasting a modern, sleek UI and automatic cloud syncing so you can write anywhere, from any device.
The best part? You can try Dabble for free, no credit card required, by clicking here. Happy writing!
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.