Dialogue is one of the main three parts of fiction writing, along with action and description. Dialogue is everything that people say, either to themselves or to others. We’re going to look at how to write dialogue and some things you should (and shouldn’t) do when writing it.
This is a short section on the mechanics of dialogue.
In American English, any dialogue that is spoken out loud is put in double quotation marks “ ”. Other countries use single quotation marks more often ‘ ’, so it might depend on where you live, which is more common.
These are words like said and asked that are used to connect the dialogue to the person. Said is used for statements and asked is used for questions. These words can come before or after the dialogue, or even in the middle.
At the beginning:
Jerry asked, “What are you doing with that porcupine?”
The teacher said, “Please sit down, class. The rocket is about to take off.”
In the middle:
“What I’m wondering,” the robot said, “is why you’re naked.”
“Do you think it’s good,” I asked, “when your computer swears at you?”
At the end:
“I like fish ice cream,” the penguin said.
“Where is Platform 9¾?” the wizard asked.
Of these, it is most common to put them at the end, but it is good to use some variety. There are other words you can use besides said and asked, but you should use them very rarely unless they are words on how you are saying it, such as whisper and shout. A good rule of thumb of how often to use these words with dialogue is:
Usually: say, ask
Sometimes: reply, whisper, shout, yell, scream, moan, cry, read (if they’re reading something out loud)
Almost never: explain, announce, answer, assert, claim, declare, reveal, suggest, guess, remark, utter
A few other quick dialogue rules
1.You don’t need a dialogue tag if we know who is speaking.
My father walked in and sat down. “Well, we’re broke.”
2. Start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes.
“Are you saying the dragon was blue?” the king asked.
The knight nodded. “It was blue,” he said. “As blue as the queen’s eyes.”
“Hmm,” the king said.
3. You don’t need dialogue tags every time for conversation between two people but make sure you put them in occasionally so we don’t get confused about who is talking.
“Give me your money,” the thief said.
“I don’t have any money,” I said.
“No cash, at least.”
“Do you have a credit card, at least?”
I looked at him. “Do you have a credit card machine?”
The thief pulled out an old machine and typed in $200.00 “Swipe your card!” he shouted.
4. Instead of using dialogue tags, you can also use description or action to show who is speaking.
The teacher walked into the class. “Stand up,” she said.
Becky raised her hand. “Where are we going?”
Hamid was looking out the window. “I think the principal is an alien and we’re all getting on his ship.”
The teacher sighed. “Yeah. Come on, class. Before he uses the death ray again.”
Other Kinds of Dialogue
We usually think of dialogue as speaking out loud, but there are other kinds as well. These can include:
- a character talking to themselves silently or just thinking
- talking by text message or other written message
- telepathic communication
- sign language
- other magical/technological ways of communicating
How you show these (if they come up in your story) is up to you as long as you are clear about what it means and you are consistent (do the same thing every time). You can write it as normal dialogue;
“The guards don’t suspect a thing,” Alabaster said mentally.
The problem with this is that it can be confusing if people are speaking by telepathy and out loud and the worst thing you can do is confuse your reader. Other ways are with italics or with small caps. Italics are the best way since they are common. Small caps are like capital letters but are smaller. They are not available everywhere (these are not small caps since this website does not have that option).
How many soldiers are there? Angie texted.
“What are you doing?” the guard yelled.
“Nothing,” Henry said.
Six, he replied.
Here we have two types of dialogue going on at once, the out loud dialogue between Henry and the guard and then text messages between Angie and Henry. This would be very confusing if it was all with quotation marks.
How to Write Good Dialogue
Writing good dialogue is hard because it has to sound natural but also has to help to tell the story efficiently. Here are some things to think of when writing dialogue.
1. It’s okay to break the rules…
People don’t always follow grammar rules when they speak, so dialogue can break some rules to make it more natural.
“So I was walking along the road, right? And this guy stops me and asks for directions to the mall. I ain’t sure but I just make something up. Then he starts goin’ on and on about forgetting his wife’s birthday and he’s telling me this and that and I just want to go. Finally I just fake a heart attack and he drives away embarrassed.”
This example breaks a lot of grammar rules but it is (or might be) how someone could really talk.
2. …But don’t break too many rules
Natural speaking is good, but the most important thing is that your story is clear to the reader. Real people sometimes speak in a way that is hard to follow so unless you really need that for some reason, it is best to not break too many grammar and spelling rules.
For example (of what not to do).
“So I’us tinkin’, like maybe—hold on, I got a text—anyway, maybe we could, like, go out somewhere sometime. That’d be pretty sweet, y’know.”
I’m sure someone in the world speaks like this but it is very difficult to read. If the reader can’t understand your story, that’s not good.
3. Use dialogue to tell the story…
Since dialogue is one of the main parts of fiction, it is good for telling the story through the characters.
For example, look at this short scene with no dialogue and then same one with dialogue.
Amber and Stanley were studying the map when Amber noticed something. One of the mountains named Mt. Vermillion was drawn in red, unlike all the other ones that were black. It must be important. Stanley agreed and they started looking for others that were the same.
“Oh, fuzzballs!” Amber shouted.
Stanley jumped. “What? What is it?”
“Look at this mountain.” She pointed to the middle of the map where one cluster of mountains stood alone. “This mountain here, the one marked Mt. Vermillion. It’s drawn in red. All the others are black.”
“That’s gotta be important,” Stanley said. “Are there any more like it?” The two adventurers started searching the map, looking for other clues.
4. …But don’t tell your whole story through dialogue
The previous example shows that dialogue can be much more interesting to read since we get to hear the characters talking and get some of their personality. It might be tempting to just get the characters to explain everything through their words. Do not do this! Anytime characters are saying things just for the reader and not for the other person, it is bad writing.
For example (of what not to do):
“Let’s go up to the Marbury mansion,” Jessica said.
“What, you mean the haunted mansion on the hill?” Billy asked. “But that’s been abandoned for 25 years. Actually, the whole family was killed 25 years ago tonight. People have been hearing weird sounds there lately.”
“Come on, it will be fun,” Jessica said. “Plus, as you know the local paper is giving a $10,000 prize to anyone who can survive there for a whole night.”
These characters are just explaining everything for the reader’s benefit. Two people would never say these kinds of things to each other in real life. If you have to give these kind of details, do it outside of dialogue. Here is a slightly better version.
“Let’s go up to the Marbury mansion,” Jessica said.
Even the name made Billy shiver. It had been abandoned his whole life, probably longer, and people were always claiming to hear weird noises coming from it.
“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Jessica said, sensing his hesitation. “Plus, think about the Herald’s offer.”
That was true. The local paper, the Bungleburg Herald, had offered $10,000 to anyone who could stay inside the house for a whole night. What could he do with that much money? It was almost worth risking it.
The second one isn’t perfect, but at least the characters aren’t saying anything to each other they wouldn’t normally say. Instead, the storyteller explains it to the reader outside of dialogue. Plus, we don’t mention details that they probably wouldn’t know, like the family had been killed 25 years ago that night.
5. Use dialogue to show character
Everyone has their own special way of talking, which means that you can use dialogue to show things about a character. It is usually better to show what a character is like than to just tell the reader that.
For example, we could write:
Jin-Young was an enthusiastic, excited person
Or we could write:
“Wow, that’s great!” Jin-Young said. “Let’s do this!”
Maybe we can’t get personality from just one thing they say but over the course of a story, you can show what a person is like just by what they say and how they say it, instead of just telling us outright.
Now it’s your turn
- Look at the dialogue in a book you are reading. How does the writer use the character’s words to tell the story? Does each characters have a specific voice or way of talking?
- Think about a story you have written. Does the dialogue help tell the story and tell about the characters? Are there places where the dialogue does too much explaining?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.