BlogThe Writing ProcessGreat Dialogue Can Make Your Story Sing! Learn Our 7 Favorite Tips for Writing Dialogue

Great Dialogue Can Make Your Story Sing! Learn Our 7 Favorite Tips for Writing Dialogue

Hannah Yang

Hannah Yang

Speculative Fiction Author

Published Sep 28, 2021

How to write dialogue

Great dialogue serves multiple purposes. It moves your plot forward. It develops your characters. And it makes the story more engaging.

It’s not easy to do all these things at once, but when you master the art of writing dialogue, readers won’t be able to put your book down.

In this article, we answer seven common questions about how to write dialogue and share our top dialogue tips that will make your story sing.

The three purposes of dialogue

Contents:
  1. How Do I Create Character Voice Using Dialogue?
  2. How Do I Write Realistic Dialogue?
  3. Is It Bad to Use Said in Dialogue?
  4. How Do I Balance Action and Dialogue in My Writing?
  5. How Do I Write Dialogue with Subtext?
  6. How Do I Show Not Tell in Dialogue?
  7. How Do I Edit Dialogue?
  8. Last Words

How Do I Create Character Voice Using Dialogue?

Dialogue is a great way to reveal your characters. What your characters say, and how they say it, can tell us so much about what kind of people they are.

Some characters are witty and gregarious. Others are timid and unobtrusive.

Speech patterns vary drastically from person to person. To make someone stop talking to them, one character might say “I would rather not talk about this right now,” while another might say, “Shut your mouth before I shut it for you.”

When you’re writing dialogue, think about your character’s education level, personality, and interests. What kind of slang do they use? Do they prefer long or short sentences? Do they ask questions or make assertions?

Factors that affect character voice

Each character should have their own voice. Ideally, you want to write dialogue that lets your reader identify the person speaking at any point in your story just by looking at what's between the quotation marks.

Let’s look at an example of a character with a distinct voice from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling.

Dialogue Example: How to Give Each Character a Distinct Voice

“What happened, Harry? What happened? Is he ill? But you can cure him, can’t you?” Colin had run down from his seat and was now dancing alongside them as they left the field.

Ron gave a huge heave and more slugs dribbled down his front.

“Oooh,” said Colin, fascinated and raising his camera. “Can you hold him still, Harry?”

“Get out of the way, Colin!” said Harry angrily.

Most readers could figure out that this was Colin Creevey speaking, even if his name hadn’t been mentioned in the passage.

This is because Colin Creevey is the only character who speaks with such extreme enthusiasm, even at a time when Ron’s belching slugs.

This snippet of written dialogue does a great job of showing us Colin’s personality and how much he worships his hero Harry.

How Do I Write Realistic Dialogue?

Good dialogue should sound natural. Listen to how people talk in real life and try to replicate it on the page when you write dialogue.

Don’t be afraid to break the rules of grammar, or to use an occasional exclamation point to punctuate dialogue. It’s okay to use contractions, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences, even if you wouldn’t use them in other parts of the story.

Examples of contractions, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences

This doesn’t mean that realistic dialogue should sound exactly the way people speak in the real world. If you’ve ever read a court transcript, you know that they’re riddled with “um's” and “ah's” and repeated words and phrases. A few paragraphs of bad dialogue might put your readers to sleep.

Compelling dialogue should sound like a real conversation, while still being wittier, smoother, and better worded than real speech.

Here’s an example of realistic dialogue that isn’t too realistic from A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

Dialogue Example: How to Make Dialogue Realistic—But Not Too Realistic

"As much as I love this land, some days I think about leaving it," Babi said.

"Where to?"

"Anyplace where it’s easy to forget. Pakistan first, I suppose. For a year, maybe two. Wait for our paperwork to get processed."

"And then?"

"And then, well, it is a big world. Maybe America. Somewhere near the sea. Like California."

Notice the dialogue punctuation and the grammar that these two characters use when they speak. There are many sentence fragments in this conversation, like “Anyplace where it’s easy to forget” and “Somewhere near the sea.”

Babi often omits the verbs from his sentences, just like people do in real life. He speaks in short fragments instead of long, flowing paragraphs.

This dialogue shows who Babi is and feels similar to the way a real person would talk, while still remaining concise and cogent.

Is It Bad to Use Said in Dialogue?

A dialogue tag is anything that tells the reader which character is talking within that same paragraph, such as “she said” or “I asked.” When you’re writing dialogue, remember that simple dialogue tags are the most effective.

Often, you can omit dialogue tags after the conversation has started flowing, especially if only two characters are participating in the conversation. The reader will be able to keep up with who’s speaking as long as you start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes.

When you do need to use a dialogue tag, a simple “he said” or “she said” will do the trick. Our brains generally skip over the word “said” when we’re reading, while other dialogue tags are a distraction.

Examples of good and bad dialogue tags

A common mistake beginner writers make is to avoid using the word “said.” Characters in amateur novels tend to mutter, whisper, declare, or chuckle at every line of dialogue. This feels overblown and distracts from the actual story.

Another common mistake is to attach an adverb to the word “said.” Characters in amateur novels rarely just say things—they have to say things loudly, quietly, cheerfully, or angrily.

If you're writing great dialogue, readers should be able to figure out whether your character is cheerful or angry from what’s within the quotation marks.

The only exception to this rule is if the dialogue tag contradicts the dialogue itself. For example, consider this sentence:

“You’ve ruined my life,” she said angrily.

The word “angrily” is redundant here, because the words inside the quotation marks already imply that the character is speaking angrily.

In contrast, consider this sentence:

“You’ve ruined my life,” she said thoughtfully.

Here the word “thoughtfully” is well-placed, because it contrasts with what we might otherwise assume. It adds additional nuance to the sentence inside the quotation marks.

Contradictory and redundant adverbs

You can use the ProWritingAid dialogue check when you write dialogue to make sure your dialogue tags are pulling their weight and aren't distracting readers from the main storyline.

ProWritingAid's dialogue checker

Sign up for your free ProWritingAid account to check your dialogue tags today.

Here’s an example of effective dialogue tags from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. In this passage, the narrator’s been caught exploring the forbidden west wing of her new husband’s house, and she’s trying to make excuses for being there.

Dialogue Example: How to Use Dialogue Tags

“I lost my way," I said, "I was trying to find my room."

"You have come to the opposite side of the house," she said; "this is the west wing."

"Yes, I know," I said.

"Did you go into any of the rooms?" she asked me.

"No," I said. "No, I just opened a door, I did not go in. Everything was dark, covered up in dust sheets. I’m sorry. I did not mean to disturb anything. I expect you like to keep all this shut up."

"If you wish to open up the rooms I will have it done," she said; "you have only to tell me. The rooms are all furnished, and can be used."

"Oh, no," I said. "No. I did not mean you to think that.”

In this passage, the only speaker tags du Maurier uses are “I said,” “she said,” and “she asked.” Even so, you can feel the narrator’s dread and nervousness. Her emotions are conveyed through what she actually says, rather than through the dialogue tags.

This is a splendid example of evocative dialogue that doesn’t need fancy dialogue tags to make it come to life.

How Do I Balance Action and Dialogue in My Writing?

When you’re writing dialogue, you can use action beats—descriptions of body language or physical action—to show what each character is doing throughout the conversation.

Learning how to write action beats is an important component of learning how to write dialogue. Good dialogue becomes even more interesting when the characters are doing something active at the same time.

You can watch people in real life, or even characters in movies, to see what kinds of body language they have. Some pick at their fingernails. Some pace the room. Some tap their feet on the floor.

Common Action Beats

Including physical action when writing dialogue can have multiple benefits:

  • It changes the pace of your dialogue and makes the rhythm more interesting

  • It prevents “white room syndrome,” which is when a scene feels like it’s happening in a white room because it’s all dialogue and no description

  • It shows the reader who’s speaking without using speaker tags

You can decide how often to include physical descriptions in each scene. All dialogue has an ebb and flow to it, and you can use beats to control the pace of your dialogue scenes.

If you want a lot of tension in your scene, you can use fewer action beats to let the dialogue ping-pong back and forth.

If you want a slower scene, you can write dialogue that includes long, detailed action beats to help the reader relax. You should start a separate sentence, or even a new paragraph, for each of these longer beats.

Action beats change the pace

Let’s look at a passage from The Princess Bride by William Goldman, where dialogue is melded with physical action.

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Dialogue Example: How to Use Action Beats with Dialogue

With a smile the hunchback pushed the knife harder against Buttercup’s throat. It was about to bring blood. "If you wish her dead, by all means keep moving," Vizzini said.

The man in black froze.

"Better," Vizzini nodded.

No sound now beneath the moonlight.

"I understand completely what you are trying to do," the Sicilian said finally, "and I want it quite clear that I resent your behavior. You are trying to kidnap what I have rightfully stolen, and I think it quite ungentlemanly."

"Let me explain," the man in black began, starting to edge forward.

"You’re killing her!" the Sicilian screamed, shoving harder with the knife. A drop of blood appeared now at Buttercup’s throat, red against white.

In this passage, William Goldman brings our attention seamlessly from the action to the dialogue and back again.

This makes the scene twice as interesting, because we’re paying attention not just to what Vizzini and the man in black are saying, but also to what they’re doing.

This is a great way to keep tension high and move the plot forward.

How Do I Write Dialogue with Subtext?

Every conversation has subtext, because we rarely say exactly what we mean. The best dialogue should include both what is said and what is not said.

I once had a roommate who cared a lot about the tidiness of our apartment, but would never say it outright. We soon figured out that whenever she said something like “I might bring some friends over tonight,” what she meant was “Please wash your dishes, because there are no clean plates left for my friends to use.”

The subtext of sentences

When you’re writing dialogue, it’s important to think about what’s not being said. Even pleasant conversations can hide a lot beneath the surface.

Is one character secretly mad at the other?

Is one secretly in love with the other?

Is one thinking about tomorrow’s math test and only pretending to pay attention to what the other person is saying?

Personally, I find it really hard to use subtext when I write dialogue from scratch. In my first drafts, I let my characters say what they really mean. Then, when I’m editing, I go back and figure out how to convey the same information through subtext instead.

dialogue tip: add subtext later

Let’s look at an example of subtext in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Here is the scene when Ender and his sister Valentine are reunited for the first time, after Ender’s spent most of his childhood away from home, training to be a soldier.

Dialogue Example: Using Subtext

Ender didn’t wave when she walked down the hill toward him, didn’t smile when she stepped onto the floating boat slip. But she knew that he was glad to see her, knew it because of the way his eyes never left her face.

"You’re bigger than I remembered," she said stupidly.

"You too," he said. "I also remembered that you were beautiful."

"Memory does play tricks on us."

"No. Your face is the same, but I don’t remember what beautiful means anymore. Come on. Let’s go out into the lake."

In this scene, we can tell that Valentine’s missed her brother terribly, and that Ender’s been through a lot of trauma at Battle School, without either of them saying it outright.

The conversation could have started with Valentine saying “I missed you,” but instead, she goes for a subtler opening: “You’re bigger than I remembered.”

Similarly, Ender could say “You have no idea what I’ve been through,” but instead he says, “I don’t remember what beautiful means anymore.”

We can deduce what each of these characters is thinking and feeling from what they say and from what they leave unsaid.

How Do I Show Not Tell in Dialogue?

When I was in high school, I once wrote a story in which the protagonist’s mother tells her: “As you know, Susan, your dad left us when you were five.”

I’ve learned a lot about the writing craft since high school, but it doesn’t take a brilliant writer to figure out that this is not something any mother would say to her daughter in real life.

Characters should talk to each other and not the reader

The reason I wrote that line of dialogue was because I wanted to tell the reader when Susan last saw her father, but I didn’t do it in a realistic way. Don’t shoehorn information into your characters’ conversations if they’re not likely to say it to each other.

One useful trick is to have your characters get into an argument. You can convey a lot of information about a topic through their conflicting opinions, without making it sound like either of the characters is saying things for the reader’s benefit.

Here’s one way my high school self could have conveyed the same information in a more realistic way in just a few lines:

Susan: “Why didn’t you tell me Dad was leaving? Why didn’t you let me say goodbye?”

Mom: “You were only five. I wanted to protect you.”

Let’s look at an example from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This scene is our first introduction to the group of creatures called the Chandrian.

Dialogue Example: How to Give Readers Information Through Dialogue

“I din’t know the Chandrian were demons,” the boy said. “I’d heard—”

“They ain’t demons,” Jake said firmly. “They were the first six people to refuse Tehlu’s choice of the path, and he cursed them to wander the corners—”

“Are you telling this story, Jacob Walker?” Cob said sharply. “Cause if you are, I’ll just let you get on with it.”

The two men glared at each other for a long moment. Eventually Jake looked away, muttering something that could, conceivably, have been an apology.

Cob turned back to the boy. “That’s the mystery of the Chandrian,” he explained. “Where do they come from? Where do they go after they’ve done their bloody deeds? Are they men who sold their souls? Demons? Spirits? No one knows.” Cob shot Jake a profoundly disdainful look. “Though every half-wit claims he knows...”

The three characters taking part in this conversation all know what the Chandrian are. Imagine if Cob had said “As we all know, the Chandrian are mysterious demon-spirits.” We would feel like he was talking to us, not to the two other characters.

Instead, Rothfuss has all three characters try to explain their own understanding of what the Chandrian are, and then shoot each other’s explanations down.

When Cob reprimands Jake for interrupting him and then calls him a half-wit for claiming to know what he’s talking about, it feels like a realistic interaction.

This is a clever way for Rothfuss to introduce the Chandrian in a believable way.

How Do I Edit Dialogue?

Dialogue tends to flow out easily when you’re drafting your story, so in the editing process, you’ll need to be ruthless. Cut anything that doesn’t move the story forward.

Try not to write dialogue that feels like small talk. You can eliminate most hellos and goodbyes, or summarize them instead of showing them. Readers don’t want to waste their time reading dialogue that they hear every day.

In addition, try not to write dialogue with too many trigger phrases, which are questions that trigger the next line of dialogue, such as:

  • “Really?”

  • “And then what?”

  • “What do you mean?”

It’s tempting to slip these in when you’re writing dialogue, because they keep the conversation flowing. I still catch myself doing this from time to time.

Remember that you don’t need three lines of dialogue when one line could accomplish the same thing.

Here’s an example of concise dialogue from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Dialogue Example: How to Keep Dialogue Concise

"Do you blame me for flunking you, boy?" he said.

"No, sir! I certainly don’t," I said. I wished to hell he’d stop calling me "boy" all the time.

He tried chucking my exam paper on the bed when he was through with it. Only, he missed again, naturally. I had to get up again and pick it up and put it on top of the Atlantic Monthly. It’s boring to do that every two minutes.

"What would you have done in my place?" he said. "Tell the truth, boy."

Well, you could see he really felt pretty lousy about flunking me. So I shot the bull for a while. I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff. I told him how I would’ve done exactly the same thing if I’d been in his place, and how most people didn’t appreciate how tough it is being a teacher. That kind of stuff. The old bull.

This is one of our most interesting dialogue examples. Here, the last paragraph diverges from the prior ones. After the teacher says “Tell the truth, boy,” the rest of the conversation is summarized, rather than shown.

The summary of what the narrator says in the last paragraph—“I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff”—serves to hammer home that this is the type of “old bull” that the narrator has fed to his teachers over and over before. It doesn’t need to be shown, because it’s not important to the narrator—it’s just “all that stuff.”

Salinger could have written out the whole conversation in dialogue, but instead, he chose to keep the dialogue concise.

Last Words

Here you have it. Our seven favorite tips for how to write dialogue, along with our favorite dialogue examples. Which ones did you find the most helpful? Let us know in the comments below.

Do you know how to craft memorable, compelling characters? Download this free book now:

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This guide is for all the writers out there who want to create compelling, engaging, relatable characters that readers will adore… or despise.

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Hannah Yang

Hannah Yang

Speculative Fiction Author

Hannah is a speculative fiction writer who loves all things strange and surreal. She holds a BA from Yale University and lives in Colorado. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her painting watercolors, playing her ukulele, or hiking in the Rockies. Follow her work on hannahyang.com or on Twitter at @hannahxyang.

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