how to write dialogue

How to write better dialogue

Writing great dialogue is hard.

You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. People talk – some people constantly. From parties with friends to the dinner table with family, from our own inner thoughts to the media we consume, our lives are filled with endless chatter.

But dialogue isn’t idle chatter. Dialogue has to propel your plot and reflect your characters’ desires, or your readers will get bored – or worse, abandon your story and mock you on social media.

This article will discuss techniques and tricks to help you better your dialogue craft.

What makes dialogue believable

Character drives dialogue

“If we are to care about your characters we must believe in them.” – Jack Hodgins, A Passion for Narrative

In real life, everybody wants something. The same should be true for all the characters in your story; this motivation is key to creating believable characters. The actions they take should be designed around each character trying to fulfill their want, bringing them into conflict or agreement with one another and other forces. In each scene your characters either achieve something or fail, and this brings them closer to or further from their desire.

Dialogue is one action your characters take to achieve their desires. Characters may lie or be honest, coerce or comfort, seduce or insult, brag or indulge in self-pity, nag like your parents or tell a joke like your best friend, all to get other characters (or whatever antagonistic forces are at play) to align with their values and their quest.

Each character’s tactics are defined by who that character is: their childhood experience, their culture, their education, their friends and family, their successes and failures. These influences are bundled together to shape what your character chooses to say and how they say it, what they don’t say, and what they cannot say.

Dialogue conveys character by ‘what is said’ and ‘what is not said’

Image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay

“A character who is able to say, ‘I hate you!’ hates less than the character who bottles up their fury and pretends to submit, unwilling to reveal the truth.” – Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction

Characters whose dialogue reflects with perfect accuracy their deepest desires or faults come off as flat – quite literally, they have no depth.

Great dialogue balances the literal meaning of what a character says with what a character doesn’t say, or the subtext behind the words. People hide their true feelings for any number of conscious or unconscious reasons, but in a story, these reasons should be tied to your character trying to get what they want (even if they are going about it the wrong way).

Many people cannot even begin to express what they are thinking and feeling; their goals run so deep they become what Robert McKee in Dialogue calls ‘the unsayable’. Readers get to see these unconscious fears and desires manifest in your character’s actions, whether spoken or unspoken, forming yet another layer of subtext and enriching your dialogue.

Believable dialogue requires your characters’ chosen words and silences to reflect who they truly are. It is your job, as writer, to develop a god-like understanding of your characters to determine what they would say (or not say) in any given situation, in order to get what they want, whether or not they know they want it (for a good start try this questionnaire).

How to format dialogue

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Before you can craft great dialogue, you need to know how to write it on the page.

Use the following rules to show your reader when and how your characters are speaking.

1. Quotation marks

All dialogue should be enclosed in either double quotes (North American style) or single quotes (European style):

“This is a simple dialogue example.”

‘We hope you enjoy our guide.’

2. Dialogue tags

Tags indicate who is speaking and may also show how they speak. Examples include: ‘she said’, ‘he asked’ and ‘they shouted’.

When tags follow dialogue, the tag and the spoken words form part of a complete sentence. A comma is used inside the quotes, followed by a lower-case tag outside the quotes (unless it’s a name or the pronoun I):

“I’d like a coffee,” she said.

“I’d like a coffee,” I said.

Tags that come before dialogue also use a comma, but the first word of dialogue is capitalised as it’s the first thing the character is saying:

He said, “Just a moment.”

Tags that break apart dialogue, known as a beat, form part of a complete sentence with the first words spoken. The next words spoken start a new sentence:

“Thanks,” she said. “I’m at table three.”

3. Punctuation: questions and exclamations

Question marks and exclamation marks follow the same rules as the comma. They go inside the quotes, and the tag following the dialogue is still part of the same sentence, so stays lowercase:

“Do you like my hat?” he asked.

“Love it!” she replied.

4. Action beats

Action beats enhance dialogue by showing your character’s behaviour.

Unlike tags, they don’t describe what’s being spoken, so a period is used inside the quotes. The beat outside the quote starts a new sentence:

“I’ll be back tomorrow.” She threw open the door.

The same applies to action beats used before or during dialogue:

He leaned down to pet the cat. “Do you have to leave?”

“They need me!” She stepped onto the porch. “This is an important meeting.”

5. New paragraph for each speaker

While tags and action beats help readers see who is speaking, if everything were written in a single long paragraph, it would be hard to figure out whether the tag or beat belonged with the dialogue before or after it.

To indicate a new speaker, always use a new paragraph:

“I’m going to grab some milk on the way home,” he called from the door. “Maybe some snacks too. Need anything?”

She leaned against the wall. “We haven’t had any party mix for a while. What about the ones with the little crunchy cheese bits?

“Too expensive,” he said. “I’ll get you something else.”

6. Multi-paragraph dialogue

When a character is giving a long speech (more than a few sentences), breaking it up into multiple paragraphs helps readers follow along. To carry over the dialogue, don’t close the quote on the first paragraph. Only use a closing quote on the last paragraph (abbreviated example):

“…and so ends the first paragraph of dialogue.

“And so ends the second paragraph.”

7. Em dashes

Em dashes (so named because they are the same width as the upper-case letter M) are used to indicate an interruption to spoken dialogue:

“You never listen to—”

“I’m listening now!”

The em dash can also indicate when a character is doing something as they are speaking:

“I don’t want” —she threw the bag to the floor— “any more of this garbage.”

8. The ellipsis

An ellipses, or three periods, is used to indicate a character trailing off. Like other punctuation, a tag following the ellipsis is lower-case. You do not need any other punctuation with an ellipsis:

“I’m not so sure about that…” he said.

9. Internal dialogue

When a character speaks to themselves through their thoughts, the formatting is handled mostly like dialogue, except rather than using quotes, thoughts are most often written in italics.

No way was I going in there, she thought.

He thought, Can’t possibly tell them that.

The technique is common in third person narration, to give the reader a direct glimpse into your character’s mind (or, in the case of omniscient third, into many characters’ minds). It’s less common in first person, as the narration is your character’s thoughts.

10. Indirect dialogue

Sometimes characters talk about an event or describe a story that happened to them. The way they remember what happened might not be accurate, so don’t write everything out in full dialogue, but rather as narrative summary. In this case, regular rules of grammar apply:

I asked him for some licorice. He told me I couldn’t have any, and I told him to stuff it. He hasn’t spoken to me since.

Characters might also render (however imperfect) direct retellings of what someone else said. To quote dialogue within dialogue, use the opposite set of quotations from whatever you’re using regularly, whether double for North American style or single for European style:

“I asked her, ‘Hey, give me some licorice.’” (Single quotes within double, North American style)

‘“Not a chance,” she said to me.’ (Double quotes within single, European style)

How to make your dialogue better

Image by Petra from Pixabay

It takes time and practice to craft great dialogue. Use these tips and tricks to help you improve, no matter what your level of skill, to produce the best dialogue you can.

1. Read it out loud

Conversations between people do not happen inside our heads (at least, I don’t know any telepaths). It makes sense to edit dialogue in the way it’s meant: spoken out loud.

When you read something you recently wrote, you gloss over small mistakes because you know what you wanted to say and tend to hear that version in your head. Reading it out loud lets your brain hear these mistakes, as if someone else is reading to you, as David Ferris suggests in this article.

Reading out loud also lets you experience the physical limitations of dialogue: sentences too long to say in one breath, or word combinations that would tie a snake’s tongue in knots. Hearing where you stumble helps smooth your dialogue’s rhythm.

If you have acting skills that don’t make even your own mother cringe, consider playing the parts of your characters as you read, speaking in their voices and getting into their heads.

It also helps to find someone to read to, whether a patient friend or family member, or even a pet willing to sit still. The act of reading to someone changes the way we read, and will help you spot all the issues discussed in this article.

2. Use quotations marks

Yes, it’s possible to write dialogue without quotes. Cormac McCarthy accomplished it in The Road. But it takes an expert eye for characterisation and a very strong understanding of craft. If you’re just starting out or you’re building your craft, stick to using quotes so you can focus on addressing other issues within your dialogue.

3. Don’t be afraid of using said (and only said)

“Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom ‘say’ anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: ‘”I repeat,” repeated Alex.’” – Newgate Callendar, New York Times book review, March 1990

One way amateur (and even some professional) writers try to spice up poor dialogue is by using an abundance of dialogue tags, as in the above example, so much as to make a thesaurus blush. Or, sometimes their characters laugh their words, spit them, or any number of other physical impossibilities (you cannot, for example, hiss anything that doesn’t have an “s” sound – go on, try it).

The argument goes that repetition in writing is bad (a mostly valid point), therefore repeating “said” is also bad. However, by that logic you could argue that using a period at the end of every sentence is annoying, and invent all kinds of unnecessary punctuation to fill the void.

Said (or say/says if writing in present tense) behaves almost as if it is invisible, much like the period. When you use something other than said, you draw attention to your writing, especially when you try for a verb most people would have to look up.

That’s not to say you can’t use alternatives. Shouted and whispered are useful tools to show how something is being spoken (if it isn’t already clear from the context). Asked and answered are almost as invisible as said. But use alternatives all the time, and they lose their power, becoming comical.* Reserve those attention-grabbing verbs — a well-placed whine, for example — for those circumstances when you want your reader to pay attention.

The same is true for adverbs that sometimes follow said: softly, loudly, caringly, angrily, or anything else ending in -ly. In your writing, you should aim for strong verbs rather than weak verbs supported by a basket of adverbs. Likewise, you aim for strong dialogue. If what your character says and how they act doesn’t show your reader their anger, writing “he said angrily” won’t make it any better. And if you’ve already shown your character to be angry, using “angrily” is repeating yourself (which we’ve already established is bad).

*Want to have some fun with dialogue? Look up examples of Tom Swifties, or intentional dialogue puns. Some fun examples include: “My steering wheel won’t turn,” Tom said straightforwardly. Or, “I’ve lost a lot of weight,” Tom expounded.

4. Avoid Repetitive Dialogue Constructions

We’ve already conceded that those arguing against using “said” have a point about repetition, just not the point they think they have. Repetition in your dialogue is almost always bad, and it comes in a few forms.

The first is in repeatedly using the same structure for your dialogue, line after line. Some authors, when they hear they should use an action beat with their dialogue, take the practice to an extreme:

She dashed into the room. “The house is on fire!”

He jumped from his chair. “Where’s the extinguisher?”

She glanced around, horrified. “You said it wasn’t any good and threw it out!”

This also includes using a tag in the same place repeatedly within your dialogue. Any repeated construction will grate on your readers’ minds until they start skimming or give up entirely.

Instead, aim for a balanced use of dialogue techniques – tags, action beats, or just straight dialogue – that help your readers see what your characters are saying and doing while maintaining flow and rhythm.

The same is true for the ways your characters try to get what they want. If a character asks for the last piece of pizza and their partner says no, this is one attempt that character has made to get what they want. In real life, these two might go back and forth a dozen times asking and denying the same question using different words. In a book, this repetition is boring, as it doesn’t drive the plot. Instead, what else might your character try? Reminding their partner about the last pizza they ate? Guilt tripping about how their partner always gets the last bite? Waxing philosophical over whether the toppings go under or over the cheese as a distraction? Whatever you do, keep your story moving forward.

5. Avoid Constant Use of Names

Try reading this conversation:

“Don’t stay out too late, Charlie.”

“Ten thirty isn’t too late, Mum. I’m fourteen!”

“Charlie, it’s more than enough time for you to get home.”

“Thanks, Mum, for ruining my social life.”

Likely you picked up on an awkward rhythm (and it’s even more obvious if you read it out loud). When we speak, we rarely use each other’s names. That’s what dialogue tags and action beats are for; character name-dropping is no replacement.

Only use a name when you need to draw attention to who a character is speaking to, or about, such as in a group conversation when a character needs to specifically address only one other character.

6. Avoid exposition disguised as dialogue

The way characters in your story speak should sound like a natural part of your world. Characters shouldn’t speak for the reader’s benefit (unless you are doing it as part of a gag, like Deadpool).

When you have your characters tell each other things they already know, or explain things from their pasts with great clarity and detail, you break the link between what a character wants and what they choose to say in order to get it.

A quick cue for when you are veering into exposition: if your characters start speaking in overly-formal, information-heavy dialogue, or start saying things like, “As you know…” then you’ve got to find another way to convey that information.

7. Model dialogue on real life (but don’t duplicate real life)

“Don’t copy life – express it.” – Robert McKee, Dialogue

To craft great dialogue, you need to listen to people. Try to hear what they aren’t saying as well as what they are – to spot the layers their words are hiding. Feel the rhythm of the words they choose, and try to understand how these choices are motivated by their backgrounds and their current situation. Use what you hear to build natural, unique characters — but don’t just duplicate what people say.

Clean up your writing by cutting out small talk, getting rid of filler words, and removing redundancies (where people repeat part of what another person just said, for example). Aim for shorter dialogue, rather than long rambles. People don’t speak in speeches. Like the advice given in writing scenes, with dialogue, you want to come in late and get out early, and streamline as much as possible.

Consider the following snippet of conversation, where two parents meet after dropping their children off at school:

Parent A: “Hey!”

Parent B: “Morning, uh, how’s it going?”

Parent A: “Just great! How about you?”

Parent B: “Ah, fine, thanks. Busy lately.”

Parent A: “Me too. Kids, yeah?”

Parent B: “Yeah, kids…”

Yes, the above passage might be realistic, but dialogue’s purpose is to forward your plot and reveal character. All those fluffy bits do none of that – most of the time. Like anything else, a little goes a long way. Want to show a nervous character? A few scattered filler words work wonders. Have two characters who must talk about something but want to avoid it? Show them making limited small talk before one of them finally takes the plunge. Use conversational quirks to show your reader something valuable about your characters or your plot.

8. Show don’t tell

Image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay

“Good dialogue conveys how a character wants to be seen while betraying the flaws they want to hide.”
– John York, Into the Woods

‘Show don’t tell’ is perhaps one of the most repeated (and most often misunderstood) pieces of advice for readers. In essence, showing is when you allow your readers to come to their own conclusions, while telling is when you state something explicitly.

When a character is angry, you could ‘tell’ your reader by stating, “he said angrily”. Alternatively, you could ‘show’ your reader through your character’s aggressive actions and word choices, like this example from The Barren Grounds by David A. Robertson, in which Morgan has come home to discover a small celebration and gifts:

“I don’t even know my culture.” Morgan put her hands against her chest, and she could feel her heart pounding. “I’ve literally been away from my home since I was a toddler. Being a kid with no real home? With no real parents? Accepting the fact that there probably won’t be a three- or four-mouth anniversary with a cake and moccasins? That’s my culture.”

Morgan’s anger is communicated through her pounding heart, her choppy sentences, and her (kid-friendly) aggressive words. You have likely understood that she’s a foster child, that she’s Native American, and that her foster parents are trying to help her fit into their family — even though none of this information has been ‘explained’. Showing allows your reader to reach their own conclusions, based on your characters’ actions and dialogue, without you explicitly telling them.

9. Use dialogue to create unique characters

Dialogue is driven by character – Morgan’s outburst in the example above fits her character’s motivation, having been passed from one foster family to another, which she believes is her fault because of her anger.

While there are many aspects to creating believable characters, one of the most important is for each of your characters to have a unique voice. To achieve this, you can use a variety of dialogue techniques:

  • Avoid perfect speech – play with grammar to create a unique rhythm.
  • Have your character’s voice reflect their place and time, whether in the real world or in your created fantasy world.
  • Avoid writing dialogue exactly as you hear it. Have a go at deciphering this bit from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n. Well, I know what I’s gwyne to do: I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it ag’in.” You probably figured it out in the end, but it’s an unnecessary effort for your reader. (True, you’ve probably seen talented writers use this to powerful effect, but you need to really know what you’re doing.)
  • Instead, use world-appropriate anachronisms and limited slang to give a sense of your character’s background. A highly educated geologist may use specific jargon within their field, referring to a rock as anhydrite, when to everyone else it’s just another speckled white rock.
  • Avoid clichés. These tired phrases were once the best thing since sliced bread, but now they are old hat. See my point? Come up with unique phrases that only your character could say.
  • Choose between passive or active phrasing – a character who says, “war causes death” thinks differently than one who phrases it as, “death is caused by war”.
  • Use different modal verbs (could, should, must, etc.) to convey a sense or lack of certainty or confidence – a character who proclaims, “We must wear hats!” has a very different worldview than one who suggests, “We could wear hats.”
  • Consider who a character is speaking to: someone talking to their boss or their mother chooses different language than with their friends (or maybe not, and that says a lot about their character too).
  • Likewise, distinct groups of people should have similar speech patterns: children vs. teachers; bankers vs. doctors; athletes vs. mathletes, and so on, even as they are all unique.
  • Use a shibboleth – a word or phrase that is only understandable to a knowledgeable few – to distinguish between the in-crowd and the out-crowd. Michael Carlone’s “an offer that couldn’t be refused” comment in The Godfather is perhaps the most enduring example of this. To everyone in the Carlone family, it’s clear this comment means the threat of violence and torture. But Michael needs to explain it to his date, Kay, as she is an outsider.
  • Consider a character’s emotional state. Frantic, worried characters tend to use short, snappy words and phrases, and react quickly and viscerally. Characters at peace or at rest tend toward longer words and sentences, and have the opportunity to be more thoughtful. The higher the emotional tension, the more clipped a character’s tone becomes.

10. Dialogue Moves the Story Forward

“Dialogue should be the character in action.” – John York, Into the Woods

Every line must earn its place.

Your characters have desires they are chasing, goals to achieve, and fears to avoid. Their dialogue should be motivated by these desires and fears: your characters act to get what they want.

Misdirection and conflict are key; don’t have your characters easily agree with one another, or say explicitly what they want, or they will not be believable.

11. Bend the Rules

Image by twg studyabroad from Pixabay

“Hang the Code, and hang the rules! They’re more like guidelines anyway.” – Elizabeth Swan (Pirates of the Caribbean)

Every writing rule has exceptions, if you look hard enough. Your story is your own, and you must respect the needs of your world, your scene, your characters, and yourself as author – but do so consciously and with purpose. Learn the rules so you may bend them to your will.

12. Practise, Practise, Practise

No artist ever masters their craft without practice. Want to write great dialogue? Then you have to write great dialogue.

A fantastic way to practise is to rewrite bad dialogue. We’ve all read books (or seen movies) where we cringe at the characters, fall asleep midway through a scene, or toss the book down in disgust, thinking, “how did this idiotic trite* get published?”

The next time you encounter such a monstrosity, do something about it. Analyse and rewrite the scene the way you think it should be, employing all the elements of great dialogue. Try your hand at a few of these scenes, and before you know it, great dialogue will come much more naturally.

*Edited to maintain a pg-13 rating.


All dialogue is motivated by character. Every rule, tip, or technique covered here ultimately comes down to knowing who your characters are and what they want, often better than they know themselves. Build your dialogue to help your characters in the pursuit of their desires.

Above all, enjoy your writing – live in your scenes, love your story, embrace your characters and their motivations, and your dialogue will shine.


Author bio: Adam Jarvis writes fantasy for all ages. He has a handful of short stories published (along with the occasional poem), including in DreamForge Magazine and the Summer of Sci-Fi and Fantasy anthologies. He is working towards publishing his debut novel.