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How to Write Dialogue: Tips & Examples

writing dialogue

18 May 2023

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Great dialogue can drive the story forward, heighten tension and emotionally charge the scene.

But writing dialogue can be challenging—especially great dialogue. Though it’s essential for your book because stiff and unnatural dialogue can make the characters and the story feel less believable. And nobody wants that.

So, where do you start writing natural conversations that engage readers? In this article, we’ll look at some tips and tricks on how to write good dialogue, as well as some dialogue examples from well-known literature.

Why dialogue is important

Dialogue is a crucial element of storytelling that helps bring characters to life and move the plot forward. Readers can gain insight into a character’s thoughts, emotions and motivations through dialogue.

Well-crafted dialogue can add tension, conflict or humour to a story, making it more engaging and memorable.

Dialogue can convey information and build relationships between characters—which is essential for creating a rich and immersive narrative.

Take a look at this dialogue example from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens:

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

That right there pulls me in. Magwitch’s first words to Pip—a deadly threat. The scene takes place in a graveyard, which adds to the sinister feeling. You’ve also got a great sense of Magwitch immediately. It reads beautifully and naturally, and it’s memorable.

Formatting dialogue in your novel

Here are five steps to remember when it comes to formatting your dialogue:

1. Characters’ dialogue goes within quotation marks. Everything else, such as description and dialogue tags, go outside quotation marks.

“Hiya, Kate,” Ben said, grinning. “Fancy a swim?”

2. A new line shows a change of speaker.

“Hiya, Kate,” Ben said, grinning. “Fancy a swim?”
“Not today,” Kate said. “I’m helping out Matt at the farm.”

3. Punctuation stays inside quotation marks.

4. You can use double or single quotation marks, but stay consistent.

5. Dialogue begins with a capital letter unless it’s interrupted by a tag or action, in which case the same sentence continues, and lowercase is used to continue the dialogue.

9 tips for writing natural-sounding dialogue

So, back to that big question—how do you write dialogue that sounds natural? Let’s dive into my nine top tips.

1. Use contractions

Casual speech comes with contractions—shortened phrases like “it’s”, “isn’t” and “wouldn’t”.

Without contractions, dialogue can sound stiff and formal, making it difficult for readers to connect with the characters.

Contractions help us communicate faster and speed up the flow of conversations. They can also make dialogue more realistic because you can mimic how people really speak.

2. Vary sentence length and structure

We often use short, straightforward sentences that are easy to understand. But we can also speak in long, complex sentences when the situation calls for it.

With that in mind, mix up sentence lengths and structures to create a natural flow. Remember, consistently short sentences or long sentences can become quite rigid and monotonous.

3. Include pauses and interruptions

Real-life conversations are rarely scripted. Introduce pauses and interruptions to make dialogue feel spontaneous.

Interruptions and pauses can emphasise crucial points or build tension.

However, too many pauses can cause the writing to appear disjointed or confusing. Strike a balance between using pauses and interruptions effectively to maintain the structure and coherence of the writing.

4. Use regional accents sparingly

Accents are hard to write. They’re even harder to read. That’s why you should use them with caution.

Dialogue is a report of what words are spoken, and not necessarily how they’re spoken. And while accents might add authenticity, they can also pull the reader out of the action.

So, if you’re tempted to write dialogue using phonetic spelling, make sure it has a purpose. But more than that—does the character’s accent drive the plot forward? Is the dialect enriching the story? If it’s essential, consider other techniques that convey a character’s accent. For example, sprinkle colloquial language or words from their native language into the character’s dialogue.

5. Keep your dialogue tags simple

Elaborate dialogue tags help express additional information or create a specific tone or mood in some situations. However, more complex dialogue tags might distract readers from the scene.

Using simple dialogue tags such as “said,” “asked,” or “replied” can help to keep the focus on the dialogue itself and allow the reader to follow the conversation more easily.

6. Show, don’t tell

Dialogue can convey much more than just information. It can reveal character traits and emotions.

You could achieve this by displaying a character’s feelings through action, sensory elements and language. When a character is upset, they may clench their fists, raise their voice and speak in short, sharp words. You could show a character with anxiety through fidgeting, avoiding eye contact and stumbling over their words.

Subtext—the underlying meaning beneath the words spoken—can also be conveyed through dialogue. You can create a sense of ambiguity or irony, allowing readers to interpret the conversation in multiple ways and pulling them further into the story.

Find out more information in our guide to Show, Don’t Tell.

7. Avoid exposition dumps

Exposition dumps (otherwise known as info dumps) give readers a lot of information in dialogue. It can feel forced, leaving readers confused and overwhelmed.

Integrating exposition naturally can better engage readers without disrupting the flow of the narrative.

Instead, find ways to reveal information through actions and reactions.

You can also provide details gradually rather than all at once. And, as we looked at earlier, showing, rather than telling, the reader crucial information about characters, places and events, allows them to discover things for themselves and remain engaged in the story.

8. Small talk isn’t always engaging

Small talk adds authenticity, but too much can slow down the story and bore readers.

It’s important to strike a balance between using small talk to add depth to the characters and keeping the dialogue focused while moving the story on.

Establishing the personality of a specific character is one way to use short talk effectively. For example, an assertive character may use small talk to assert authority, while a shy character may use it to avoid feeling too awkward.

9. Cut clichés

Encountering a cliché in a story can throw readers off the narrative’s flow and create a sense of unoriginality or lack of creativity in the writing.

To prevent your characters from feeling predictable and one-dimensional, it’s crucial to steer clear of using stereotypes or clichés in your dialogue. This helps to ensure that the dialogue is fresh, original and authentic to each character’s unique voice and perspective.

How dialogue reveals character

Dialogue reveals a character’s thoughts, emotions and motivations. A character’s speech can even indicate their background, education and personality.

Imagine a character who speaks in a formal and polite tone. Do you consider them respectful, courteous and well-educated? Let’s say a character talks in a bold and vulgar manner. Would you consider them to be rude and insensitive? Possibly.

It would be difficult to tell who was who if everyone talked in the same formal and courteous tone. That’s why dialogue also helps to distinguish your characters from one another.

Physical acts and gestures can strengthen or contradict the way a character communicates. A person who speaks boldly and assertively may appear powerful and in control, but nervous twitches may indicate underlying fears.

Dialogue helps to build a sense of the character and helps to drive the plot. Consider a character who avoids direct questions or changes the subject. They may be hiding something.

Other words for said

While plenty of substitutes for “said” can be used to spice up your dialogue, use them with moderation to avoid drawing attention away from the conversation.

With this in mind, here are some of my favourite alternatives for the dialogue tag:

  • Whispered
  • Shouted
  • Murmured
  • Sighed
  • Muttered
  • Pleaded
  • Asked
  • Replied
  • Continued
  • Explained

Frequently asked questions about great dialogue in fiction

How do you start dialogue?

When starting a line of dialogue, the first word within the quotation marks should be capitalised.

For example:
He asked, “What day is it?”

You may consider beginning a conversation with a statement or question that grabs the reader’s attention and draws them into the scene.

What is an example of a dialogue?

Pick up a book and start flipping through the pages. You’ll quickly come across several passages containing characters’ dialogue.

Here’s one example of brilliant dialogue from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

“You’re a rotten driver,” I protested. “Either you ought to be more careful, or you oughtn’t to drive at all.”
“I am careful.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Well, other people are,” she said lightly.
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“They’ll keep out of my way,” she insisted. “It takes two to make an accident.”
“Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself.”
“I hope I never will,” she answered. “I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.”
Her gray, sun-strained eyes stared straight ahead, but she had deliberately shifted our relations, and for a moment I thought I loved her.

What is another word for said?

There are plenty of other words for said that you can use to add variation to your writing.

Some examples include “whispered”, “murmured” and “yelled”. Using a variety of dialogue tags can help to create more dynamic and engaging conversations, and can also help to convey different emotions or tones.

Remember, it’s important to use dialogue tags in moderation and to avoid overusing them in a way that feels forced or unnatural.

Get fresh eyes on your writing

Writing great dialogue is crucial to creating engaging and memorable stories.

Crafting natural dialogue involves consideration of the characters’ personalities, goals and motivations, and the setting of the scene.

However, even the most skilled writers may miss mistakes and typos in their dialogue. That’s where my proofreading services can help. Don’t let errors distract from the power of your dialogue.

For more information, take a look at my Proofreading Services.

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Written By Eira Edwards

Eira is a writer and editor from the South of England with over five years of experience as a Content Manager, helping clients perfect their copy.

She has a degree in English Literature and Language, which she loves putting to work by working closely with fiction authors.

When she’s not working on manuscripts, you can find her in the woods with her partner and dog, or curling up with a good book.

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