Writing effective dialogue can make all the difference between a bestseller and a door stopper. Learn about how to write dialogue in this article.
Writing dialogue is one of the essentials for producing good books, regardless of whether it's fiction or non-fiction. But the difference between good and bad dialogue comes down to the right word choices and how realistic it would sound if played out in real life.
Like everything else in life, there are established rules and norms for creating effective dialogue in your creative writing. Let's take a look at how we can boost your dialogue writing skills from zero to a hundred in ten seconds.
- 1. Give Each Speaker A New Paragraph
- 2. Start Every Dialogue Paragraph With An Indent
- 3. Long Dialogue Paragraphs Don’t Have End Quotations
- 4. Use Single Quotes If The Person Speaking Is Quoting
- 5. Separate Actions From Dialogue
- 6. Be Sparing With The Commas and Dashes
- 7. Avoid Punctuation After Ellipses
- 8. Study Similar Books And Scripts
- 9. Consider How People In Real Life Use Dialogue
- 10. Keep Language Punchy And Edit Small Talk
- 11. Use Dialogue Tags
- 12. Read The Spoken Words Out Loud
- 13. Give Your Characters Unique Dialogue Traits
- 14. Don't Info-Dump In The Dialogue
- The Final Word On How To Write Dialogue
1. Give Each Speaker A New Paragraph
Every time a character says something, you need to create a new paragraph. It doesn't matter if they're only saying one word or revealing how they caught the murderer. When there's a new speaker, a new line starts. No exceptions.
“As of now, you are suspended Captain” he said stiffly, “pending further enquiries of your actions. When I am asked, I will be recommending your dismissal from the service. Get out of my office.”
“Yes sir” said Decker, saluting. “thank you sir. Nice day to work on the tan, sir.”
2. Start Every Dialogue Paragraph With An Indent
An indent is when you start a paragraph a couple of spaces further than where the sentence starts typically. So while the rest of the paragraph is lined up neatly against the margin, the indented paragraph has a space at the beginning.
The only time you never start a paragraph with an indent is if it’s the start of a chapter or after a scene break. The first line is never indented in these cases, even if it starts with a dialogue scene.
3. Long Dialogue Paragraphs Don’t Have End Quotations
If one character speaks for an extended period, they need separate paragraphs to break up the text. In these situations, the quotation marks at the end of each paragraph are removed – but you use quotation marks at the start of the next paragraph. The closing quotation marks go at the end.
“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”
4. Use Single Quotes If The Person Speaking Is Quoting
If the character speaking is quoting someone else, that quote needs to be in single quotation marks, which then goes between double quotation marks.
“As the saying goes” he said, “‘treat others like you'd like them to treat you'.”
5. Separate Actions From Dialogue
If an action precedes a line of dialogue, place it on separate lines.
He crouched into attack mode, his pistol drawn.
“Drop your weapon and surrender now!”
6. Be Sparing With The Commas and Dashes
The worst thing you can do is go completely overboard with the commas and the dashes. As the saying goes “if in doubt, leave it out.”
The same can be said for commas and dashes. Unless you're sure a comma or a dash is needed, do your dialogue a favour and leave them out. If you have a good editor, they'll likely take them out for you, but doing it yourself is a good habit to have. Plus it makes your editor bill cheaper.
7. Avoid Punctuation After Ellipses
Ellipses are the dots at the end of a sentence that indicates a character's voice is trailing off after saying something.
“I hope we caught all of the terrorists” he said, “but you never know……”
If you have ellipses at the end of a sentence, there shouldn't be any other punctuation such as commas, question marks, or exclamation points. In fact, exclamation points should be used extremely rarely overall. Let your dialogue show the reader the tone of the character's voice. If you feel the need to add exclamation points to the end of a sentence, your dialogue isn't very good.
Now that we've covered grammar, let's look at other areas for improving your dialogue writing. Whether it's a book or a short story, these following steps will turbocharge your writing dialogue in no time.
8. Study Similar Books And Scripts
An author should always be reading, especially books and scripts in their genre. They need to see what their competitors are up to and study what's working and what's not. One of the things that should be closely studied is good dialogue, especially dialogue formatting.
Pick up a book or a script by a popular author or screenwriter in your genre and closely study each line of dialogue, the character's voice and the character's personality. See how the author or screenwriter has constructed the dialogue and what makes it work.
There's a reason that author is successful, so you should be taking copious notes on their style and examples of dialogue and working it into your prose.
9. Consider How People In Real Life Use Dialogue
The best place to hear realistic dialogue is out in real life. So get outside for a walk and start listening to people's conversations.
Look out for body language, speech patterns, mannerisms, local slang, and small talk. Noticing how two people interact with one another in real life ensures a higher degree of authenticity when writing your own dialogue. Notice if they use contractions (most likely, they are unless they're speaking English as a foreign language). Listen out for common greetings, catchphrases, and pithy comebacks.
Whether you write in the first or third person, the best exchanges worth listening to are arguments. If you want to hear snappy, realistic dialogue, you can't go wrong with a fight. Just don't get involved in it.
10. Keep Language Punchy And Edit Small Talk
Nobody likes long tedious sermons and monologues. If they wanted that, they'd talk to their parents. There are rare occasions when an author can get away with it, but on the whole, avoid long diatribes like the plague.
Keep the language short, snappy, and punchy. Readers love verbal exchanges, especially if it resembles two boxers taking jabs at one another. Cut out all unnecessary words (for example, use “very” instead of “very, very”), and don't use a complicated word when a simpler one will do. One classic example of this is “utilise” when you could just say “use”, or my special pet hate which is “plethora” when you can say “lots”.
Remember, the whole point of a story is to keep the reader hooked. Once you start slowing down the story with turgid prose and thesaurus-level words, the reader will start to get bored and look for something more exciting to read.
11. Use Dialogue Tags
A dialogue tag is a part of the sentence that indicates who's talking. So things like “he said”, “she said”, “Martin said”, and so on. These are essential to help the reader keep track of who's saying what. However, if there are only two people in the conversation, dialogue tags only need to be used the first time to show who started the exchange.
There are three important rules to remember though about dialogue tags. The first is, don't overuse them. Every line of dialogue doesn't have to end with a “He said” or “She said”. That drags the conversation down.
Second, when using a dialogue tag, try to stick to “he said” and “she said”. Or instead of he and she, use the character's name. Try to avoid using other words in place of “said”, such as “shouted”, “mused”, “muttered”, and “exclaimed”. I'm guilty of the odd shouting, musing, and exclaiming myself, but on the whole, I try to cut it out of my writing.
The third rule is that whenever a dialogue tag splits up a line of dialogue in the middle, the tag must be in lowercase letters. So, for example:
“I want to believe you” she said, “but you're not making it easy for me.”
12. Read The Spoken Words Out Loud
If you get into the flow while writing dialogue, you may inadvertently write something that doesn't make sense. It happens – when the words are flying out of your head and onto the page, it doesn't always make sense.
That's why I always like to read back aloud the dialogue I've just written. I can see if the words flow smoothly, if the words and tone match the characters' intended moods, and if something sounds a bit out of place. I've quite often written my best dialogue after reading back aloud the first draft to myself and thinking “THAT doesn't sound right.”
13. Give Your Characters Unique Dialogue Traits
Character development is what matures your book series. In book one, your characters may start off being a bit one-dimensional, but as the series progresses, they develop into something a bit more three-dimensional. Eventually, your readers are so attached to them that they're buying the next book because they miss your characters.
One of the things you can do to develop your foil characters is to give them unique dialogue traits. In other words, every person speaks in different ways, whether it's a posh accent, tone of voice, or a favourite catchphrase.
Some people stutter some are always sarcastic, others are constantly joking, while a few are deadly serious. These characteristics will determine how they talk and the phrases they come out with.
So try and give each of your characters a unique way of talking. It helps to broaden their persona and make them either more likeable or more detestable.
14. Don't Info-Dump In The Dialogue
This is a trap that many authors fall into, especially if they need to give the reader a lot of back-stories. It's similar to what I was saying about lengthy monologues – nobody wants vast amounts of information dumped on them in the story, and this applies to dialogue.
Your characters shouldn't start lengthy speeches where they offer lots of back-story to the reader. It's too much to take in at once and it halts the story's momentum if the reader is having to process the back-story.
Instead, gradually work the back-story in via things like flashbacks. A couple of paragraphs. can be dedicated to one flashback, then it's back to the main story again. Don't set up a character to begin a two-chapter detailed sermon on how they managed to escape Planet Earth before the Apocalypse.
The Final Word On How To Write Dialogue
You can learn the art of writing dialogue by observing real life. We talk every day in various situations, and if you have a notebook handy, you can record some useful exchanges for your next short story or book.
Remember, however, there's good dialogue and bad dialogue. The difference can either make your book a success or sink it without a trace. So it's worth the time investment in getting it perfect.
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