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5 Techniques for Amazing Internal Dialogue
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If I took a survey asking writers what the most important elements of fiction were, I’d probably end up with a few consistent answers—plot, characters, dialogue, showing rather than telling.
We might not automatically think of including internal dialogue on the list, but we should.
Internal dialogue is the heartbeat of fiction. It serves practical purposes, like helping us control our pacing, but it serves deeper, more subtle roles as well. Without enough internal dialogue or without strong internal dialogue, our fiction can end up confusing and emotionless. We have people randomly acting, like we’re watching a TV show without any sound.
Unfortunately, too much internal dialogue or poor internal dialogue can make our fiction feel immature, slow, or claustrophobic.
So to help you develop the right kind of internal dialogue, I wanted to share a few of my favorite ways to make sure my internal dialogue is enhancing my story rather than detracting from it.
Technique #1 – Alternate between paragraphs focused on the POV character and paragraphs focused elsewhere.
This topic could be a whole post in itself, but basically paragraphs in fiction should focus on one of two different areas. Either you have a paragraph focusing away from your point-of-view character and onto dialogue spoken by others, action in the environment around them, or description. Or you have a paragraph focusing on the point-of-view character. A paragraph focusing on your point-of-view character includes your POV character acting, thinking (a.k.a. internal dialogue), feeling, or speaking.
We should try to alternate evenly between the two. Alternating evenly makes sure that we keep the reader grounded in the external environment, while also keeping them emotionally connected to the character. The added bonus is that if you’re working on alternating, you’ll be less likely to create the “floating head” syndrome where your POV character thinks to themselves for paragraphs (or pages!) at a time and puts your reader to sleep.
Technique #2 – Use thoughts that sound like dialogue.
All the techniques that we can use for making dialogue sound more natural—like sentence fragments, dropped words, and contractions—should also be used in internal dialogue. A quick way to check for this is to imagine quotation marks around your internalization. If your character said this out loud, would it sound natural or would it sound strange and awkward? (For the really personal items, imagine they’re speaking to their therapist.)
If you’re not sure, speak them aloud yourself. You can change the tense to first person from third person if you need to. If it sounds fine in first person, it’s also fine the way you’ve written it in third person.
Technique #3 – Make sure you’re using your character’s voice and not your own.
This is true no matter what narrative distance you’re using (i.e., omniscient, distant third person, or deep POV). Internal dialogue is your point-of-view character thinking to themselves, so it needs to sound as much like them as their spoken dialogue. What words would your character (rather than you) use in this situation?
I’ll give you an example. If someone cut me off in traffic and nearly caused an accident, I’d call them an idiot. My husband would call them a douchebag. If your character wouldn’t use a word like prudent (maybe they’d say wise instead) then you shouldn’t make them think prudent , even if that’s how you want to say it.
Whatever your character’s personality, it should come through in their internalization just as much—or more—than it does in their spoken dialogue and actions.
Technique #4 – Save direct internal dialogue for the most important thoughts.
Direct internal dialogue is dialogue that’s written in first person, present tense. I’ll show you an example to make sure it’s clear what I mean.
Emily pasted a smile on her face. I still hate you. I’ll never stop hating you. “Long time no see. How have you been?”
Because direct internal dialogue is in first person, present tense—even when we’re writing in a third person, past tense story—we need to italicize it. But the italics draw a lot of attention to it.
Most internal dialogue can be written as indirect internal dialogue (where we stay in the same person and tense as the story). I’ll give you another quick example so you can see the difference.
Emily pasted a smile on her face. She still hated him. She’d never stop hating him. “Long time no see. How have you been?”
That’s indirect internal dialogue, and staying in the same tense helps it flow naturally with what’s around it.
Emphasizing a thought through direct internal dialogue should be done sparingly, when we really need to draw attention to an important thought. It’s like exclamation marks. They lose their oomph if you pepper your pages with them.
Technique #5 – Make sure you don’t repeat the same thing in internal dialogue that you’re also showing through spoken dialogue or action.
You might occasionally hear someone complain about internal dialogue—there’s too much of it or it isn’t advancing the story. What they’re usually complaining about is actually repetitious internal dialogue. Repetitious internal dialogue makes for boring, flabby reading.
So, for example, if we use internal dialogue to show a character thinking about how she wants to cry or how she wants to slap the person who stole her job, and then we show her crying or show her slapping, our internal dialogue and action overlap.
What we want to do instead is to use one or the other (not both) or to add some variety to either the internal dialogue or action. Continuing with our example above, perhaps our character wants to cry, but she’s been told her whole life that crying is weak. We could have her express her deep sadness externally in a different way, like running until her body collapses.
Or we could add variety by showing that the way our character imagined something happening is very different from the way it actually happens. Perhaps, in her internal dialogue, she thinks about how good it will feel to slap him, but when she does, both her hand and her heart end up hurting.
It might seem obvious, but we also shouldn’t double up on what’s said in internal dialogue and in spoken dialogue. You’d be surprised how often I see something like this…
Who did he think she was, Houdini? She didn’t know how to pick a lock. “I don’t know how to pick a lock.”
The fix for this involves us deciding where that dialogue actually needs to be—inside or outside.
What do you struggle with most when it comes to internal dialogue?
Marcy Kennedy is a science fiction, fantasy, and suspense author, freelance fiction editor, and writing instructor who believes there’s always hope. Sometimes you just have to dig a little harder to find it. She’s the author of the bestselling Busy Writer’s Guides series, which focuses on giving authors deep teaching while still respecting their time. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her website . To subscribe to her free newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/Bk2Or . New subscribers receive a copy of her mini-book Strong Female Characters as a thank-you gift!
32 comments on “5 Techniques for Amazing Internal Dialogue”
Love number 5, Marcy - it makes me crazy to find that in others' work - but even more, in mine!!!!
I notice that in direct internal dialogue, you use italics, and in indirect, you don't. Is that a rule? I've always just used it when it felt right, but never have seen it explained before. I'd love to hear your take on that.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us!
I'm really hesitant to call things "rules," but I would call it a highly recommended guideline 🙂 It's the generally accepted way of handling it. You never need italics in indirect internal dialogue, and the most common practice is to use them for direct internal dialogue because it's less jarring for the reader when you're switching person and tense.
And thank you for having me here! I love WITS and so it's always an honor to visit.
Really good article! I struggle with too much internal dialogue, this has really helped me see how I can use it more effectively. Thanks!
I wrote a different post on my site with some clues you're overusing internal dialogue. You mist also find that helpful in your self-editing: http://marcykennedy.com/2015/07/6-clues-youre-overusing-internal-dialogue-in-your-fiction/
Terrific article, Marcy. I've been trying to master this whole internal dialogue thing, and I really love tip #4. I love the indirect internal dialogue technique--you can speed up a story and really bring the character's conflicts alive this way.
Hi Marcy. Great post, but I beg to differ with you on the italics for direct internal thought. I know it's been the "rule" traditionally, but with internal dialogue becoming more and more prevalent in fiction, I follow Suzanne Brockmann's thinking: NO italics.
In her "Deep POV" seminars/articles, she explains why she doesn't use italics (distracting, speed bumps), and how every time she gets a new editor, she has a fight on her hands to convince them she doesn't want italics. Instead, she sets direct internal dialogue off on a new line. She reserves italics for emphasis.
I agree, and utilize that style in my own work. My first publisher rejected it as "against house policy," but the second publisher is leaving it as is. Try picking up a Brockmann book and see how the technique draws you right into the character's head. It's really quite effective.
All your other points are spot on. Thanks so much for this post!
Hi Frances 🙂 Thanks for sharing! I like to call things guidelines rather than rules because guidelines are best practices for what works 99% of the time. That allows room for exceptions..
That said, even in deep POV (maybe especially in deep POV), it's much too jarring to have a switch to first person present tense when the rest of the story is in a different person and tense. I've seen it done, and I stumble over it every time. It's less immersive. It can also be less than ideal to always set your internal dialogue off in its own paragraph.
Setting internal dialogue off in its own paragraph every time (rather than simply making sure it's in a paragraph with other internals) can give your writing a choppy feel. It does so for the same reason that too many italics can become speed bumps--it emphasizes the internal dialogue to always set it apart. It also forces you to create a short paragraph, changing the pace and rhythm, where it might not otherwise be ideal to do so. In deep POV especially that makes it feel different, and therefore, more shallow.
I actually advise writers to use direct internal dialogue sparingly because indirect, in most cases, flows better and more smoothly. Indirect also, most of the time, feels deeper because it doesn't call attention to itself.
By mostly using indirect internal dialogue, you can save direct internal dialogue, with italics, for those moments of great emphasis.
I love internal dialogue. I've followed Browne & King's examples of moving to second person, which is (at least for me) how people might talk to themselves. Also, those thoughts go into italics, while the general 'thinking' thoughts are left in my normal 3rd person past writing and not italicized (or tagged with 'he thought)! And since I never remember whether or not there are terms for these (much less what they are), here's an example of what I mean (and of course italics don't show up in formatting here, so I've resorted to using **):
No response. Derek cupped his free hand against the window and peered inside. Empty except for a small backpack on the passenger seat and two cardboard cartons on the rear. A slight rocking of the car set his senses on alert. Could someone be trapped in the trunk?
**It's late, you're tired, and expecting the worst. Check it out, dimwit.**
I love internal dialogue too. It adds such richness to a story.
Many times we do talk to ourselves using the second person (e.g., Why did you do that? Now you're definitely getting fired.) And you're right, we'd want to put those in italics. (And use it sparingly.)
Not all internal dialogue works in second person though. For example, when we're saying something in our head in response to spoken dialogue that we can't say out loud. (I've used to indicate italics)
"Now," he said in the same tone she'd use with a three-year-old child. "Don't touch this red button that says Detonate." I'm not an idiot. She slapped on her best compliant smile. "I'll make sure to avoid that one."
And apparently by doing so, I've figured out that you can add html to these comments and accidentally italicized my whole example. I'll fix it.
“Now,” he said in the same tone she’d use with a three-year-old child. “Don’t touch this red button that says Detonate.” I’m not an idiot. She slapped on her best compliant smile. “I’ll make sure to avoid that one.”
I agree, Marcy - and the sample I snipped from my WIP has the 'non-italics' internal dialogue (Could someone be trapped in the trunk?) AND then the 'talking to myself' in italics' kind. And yes, by reserving the italics for those 'talking to myself' lines automatically makes for more sparing usage. I also like Suzanne Brockmann's approach, but I still do the second person thing when appropriate.
My editor was an "all thoughts in italics" person, but I convinced her to let my system stand.
Oh, this is great! Thanks so much, Marcy. I'm Tweeting and emailing this one to lots of people. I especially like Technique #1, which applies to both internal and external dialogue...and this also looks like a very useful road map out of the endless, angsty ruminations that can suck the life out of an otherwise great story.
[…] 5-techniques-for-amazing-internal-dialogue/ […]
Great blog!! I gathered some invaluable tips. Re-blogging!
Thanks for the second tip on having internal thoughts sound like dialogue!
Very helpful post. Thank you, Marcy. I especially love tip #1. I struggle with that one and this will make it easier to go in and clean up my first draft full of talking heads. 🙂
Excellent post. Number one is something I haven't thought about. I'm starting the 2nd draft of my WIP - a perfect opportunity to see what I did and apply the rule. Great timing!
Marcy, I use deep POV and, consequently, internal dialogue in my WIP precisely to capture the emotional impact of my 3 MCs. I use indirect discourse but have 2 issues to raise with the points you've made.
The first is using the voice of character. I'm writing historical fiction and one of the characters is an illiterate African American. I am dead set against dialect in my prose but do alter speech patterns and use word selection to reflect the style of speaking of each character. Some readers have problems with the internal dialogue of the illiterate character. I try to be careful with transitions of narrative distance, etc. but eventually modified some of his internal thoughts to be a little less like his dialogue. Maybe you have thoughts about that?
The second is the POV character remembering something someone said to him. I always put that in italics, feeling a need to distinguish it from other thoughts.
Great post and very good discussion thus far.
Dialect. *shudder* Dialect almost never benefits a story. I think you went the right path by playing with speech patterns. The best example of this done well is Kathryn Stockett's The Help . Because it's written in first person, each chapter is in the voice of the character it belongs to and so Abileen's chapters sound extremely different from Skeeter's chapters. Stockett doesn't have to use dialect because she plays with syntax and word selection instead. You can reflect a character's voice without having to rely on dialect and without making it impossible for the reader to comfortably read.
You could also choose a more distant POV which allows you to tone down the voice of your character if that voice would make reading awkward. If you're using a more distant POV, then the internal dialogue will still reflect the voice of your character more strongly but the rest of the writing will sound more like you. Selecting the right narrative distance is important to making our story as good as it can possibly be.
Putting remembered dialogue in italics is also a good choice.
Sounds like you're on the right track with everything!
What do I struggle with the most? Well, once upon a time, my manuscript was peppered with italicize. I was very proud of it, actually. I told myself I was writing from the inner character out. I ignore authors who told me pointed out that there was too much italicizes. They don't get it, I told myself. It wasn't until very recently that there was a better way. Your article is an excellent reminder, Marcy. In fact, I've taken detailed notes. I'm sure they will help strengthen my writing.
Such excellent tips! Thank you for sharing, Marcy.
Thank you for the excellent post, Marcy. Have to remember it. and re-posted it.
The tips you've given us are invaluable. Taking notes.
[…] How to Write Internal Dialogue | Writers In The Storm. […]
Did you write this for me? lol. Bookmarking! A most excellent post Marcy. Thank you. 🙂
I like to write about what I see a lot of writers struggle with 🙂 You're in good company.
[…] If you’d like to read the rest of this post, please swing by Writers in the Storm where I’m guest posting about internal dialogue! […]
I loved this post and I'm really looking forward to the webinar. So many useful tips that I went away and bought "The Busy Writer's Guide: Showing and Telling". Also packed with helpful tips.
I would love to see a full blog post on technique #1. I think I must've always intuited it - that stories work when I do this and suffer when I don't. I just didn't know why. I suspect that is why. You've made me see what's wrong in a current story I'm working on. HUGE lightbulb moment. Will you write more on it? With examples??
Just edited my w I p and tried to discern whether to use italics or not. This post is very helpful. Thank you.
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- Literacy Tips
How To Write Dialogue In A Story (With Examples)
One of the biggest mistakes made by writers is how they use dialogue in their stories. Today, we are going to teach you how to write dialogue in a story using some easy and effective techniques. So, get ready to learn some of the best techniques and tips for writing dialogue!
There are two main reasons why good dialogue is so important in works of fiction. First, good dialogue helps keep the reader interested and engaged in the story. Second, it makes your work easier to write, read and understand. So, if you want to write dialogue that is interesting, engaging and easy to read, keep on reading. We will be teaching you the best techniques and tips for writing dialogue in a story.
Internal vs External Dialogue
Direct vs indirect dialogue, 20 tips for formatting dialogue in stories, step 1: use a dialogue outline, step 2: write down a script, step 3: edit & review your script, step 4: sprinkle in some narrative, step 5: format your dialogue, what is dialogue .
Dialogue is the spoken words that are spoken between the characters of a story. It is also known as the conversation between the characters. Dialogue is a vital part of a story. It is the vehicle of the characters’ thoughts and emotions. Good dialogue helps show the reader how the characters think and feel. It also helps the reader better understand what is happening in the story. Good dialogue should be interesting, informative and natural.
In a story, dialogue can be expressed internally as thoughts, or externally through conversations between characters. A character thinking to themself would be considered internal dialogue. Here there is no one else, just one character thinking or speaking to themselves:
Mary thought to herself, “what if I can do better…”
While two or more characters talking to each other in a scene would be an external dialogue:
“Watch out!” cried Sam. “What’s wrong with you?” laughed Kate.
In most cases, the words spoken by your character will be inside quotation marks. This is called direct dialogue. And then everything outside the quotation marks is called narrative:
“What do you want?” shrieked Penelope as she grabbed her notebooks. “Oh, nothing… Just checking if you needed anything,” sneered Peter as he tried to peek over at her notes.
Indirect dialogue is a summary of your dialogue. It lets the reader know that a conversation happened without repeating it exactly. For example:
She was still fuming from last night’s argument. After being called a liar and a thief, she had no choice but to leave home for good.
Direct dialogue is useful for quick conversations, while indirect dialogue is useful for summarising long pieces of dialogue. Which otherwise can get boring for the reader. Writers can combine both types of dialogue to increase tension and add drama to their stories.
Now you know some of the different types of dialogue in stories, let’s learn how to write dialogue in a story.
Here are the main tips to remember when formatting dialogue in stories or works of fiction:
- Always use quotation marks: All direct dialogue is written inside quotation marks, along with any punctuation relating to that dialogue.
- Don’t forget about dialogue tags: Dialogue tags are used to explain how a character said something. Each tag has at least one noun or pronoun, and one verb indicating how the dialogue is spoken. For example, he said, she cried, they laughed and so on.
- Dialogue before tags: Dialogue before the dialogue tags should start with an uppercase. The dialogue tag itself begins with a lowercase.
- Dialogue after tags: Both the dialogue and dialogue tags start with an uppercase to signify the start of a conversation. The dialogue tags also have a comma afterwards, before the first set of quotation marks.
- Lowercase for continued dialogue: If the same character continues to speak after the dialogue tags or action, then this dialogue continues with a lowercase.
- Action after complete dialogue: Any action or narrative text after completed dialogue starts with an uppercase as a new sentence.
- Action interrupting dialogue: If the same character pauses their dialogue to do an action, then this action starts with a lowercase.
- Interruptions by other characters: If another character Interrupts a character’s dialogue, then their action starts with an uppercase on a new line. And an em dash (-) is used inside the quotation marks of the dialogue that was interrupted.
- Use single quotes correctly: Single quotes mean that a character is quoting someone else.
- New paragraphs equal new speaker: When a new character starts speaking, it should be written in a new paragraph.
- Use question marks correctly: If the dialogue ends with a question mark, then the part after the dialogue should begin with a lowercase.
- Exclamation marks: Similar to question marks, the next sentence should begin with a lowercase.
- Em dashes equal being cut off: When a character has been interrupted or cut off in the middle of their speech, use an em dash (-).
- Ellipses mean trailing speech: When a character is trailing off in their speech or going on and on about something use ellipses (…). This is also good to use when a character does not know what to say.
- Spilt long dialogue into paragraphs: If a character is giving a long speech, then you can split this dialogue into multiple paragraphs.
- Use commas appropriately: If it is not the end of the sentence then end the dialogue with a comma.
- Full stops to end dialogue: Dialogue ending with a full stop means it is the end of the entire sentence.
- Avoid fancy dialogue tags: For example, ‘he moderated’ or ‘she articulated’. As this can distract the reader from what your characters are actually saying and the content of your story. It’s better to keep things simple, such as using he said or she said.
- No need for names: Avoid repeating your character’s name too many times. You could use pronouns or even nicknames.
- Keep it informal: Think about how real conversations happen. Do people use technical or fancy language when speaking? Think about your character’s tone of voice and personality, what would they say in a given situation?
Remember these rules, and you’ll be able to master dialogue writing in no time!
How to Write Dialogue in 5 Steps
Dialogue is tricky. Follow these easy steps to write effective dialogue in your stories or works of fiction:
A dialogue outline is a draft of what your characters will say before you actually write the dialogue down. This draft can be in the form of notes or any scribblings about your planned dialogue. Using your overall book outline , you can pinpoint the areas where you expect to see the most dialogue used in your story. You can then plan out the conversation between characters in these areas.
A good thing about using a dialogue outline is that you can avoid your characters saying the same thing over and over again. You can also skim out any unnecessary dialogue scenes if you think they are unnecessary or pointless.
Here is an example of a dialogue outline for a story:
You even use a spreadsheet to outline your story’s dialogue scenes.
In this step, you will just write down what the characters are saying in full. Don’t worry too much about punctuation and the correct formatting of dialogue. The purpose of this step is to determine what the characters will actually say in the scene and whether this provides any interesting information to your readers.
Start by writing down the full script of your character’s conversations for each major dialogue scene in your story. Here is an example of a dialogue script for a story:
Review your script from the previous step, and think about how it can be shortened or made more interesting. You might think about changing a few words that the characters use to make it sound more natural. Normally the use of slang words and informal language is a great way to make dialogue between characters sound more natural. You might also think about replacing any names with nicknames that characters in a close relationship would use.
The script might also be too long with plenty of unnecessary details that can be removed or summarised as part of the narration in your story (or as indirect dialogue). Remember the purpose of dialogue is to give your story emotion and make your characters more realistic. At this point you might also want to refer back to your character profiles , to see if the script of each character matches their personality.
Once your script has been perfected, you can add some actions to make your dialogue feel more believable to readers. Action or narrative is the stuff that your characters are actually doing throughout or in between dialogue. For example, a character might be packing up their suitcase, as they are talking about their holiday plans. This ‘narrative’ is a great way to break up a long piece of dialogue which otherwise could become boring and tedious for readers.
You have now planned your dialogue for your story. The final step is to incorporate these dialogue scenes into your story. Remember to follow our formatting dialogue formatting rules explained above to create effective dialogue for your stories!
That’s all for today! We hope this post has taught you how to write dialogue in a story effectively. If you have any questions, please let us know in the comments below!
Marty the wizard is the master of Imagine Forest. When he's not reading a ton of books or writing some of his own tales, he loves to be surrounded by the magical creatures that live in Imagine Forest. While living in his tree house he has devoted his time to helping children around the world with their writing skills and creativity.
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How to Punctuate and Format Inner Dialogue
The ProWritingAid Team
Inner dialogue is an excellent way to give your readers a peek inside the heart and mind of your characters. Readers can’t get this depth of character strictly from the actions you include in your story. You should give them inner thoughts to create 3-D characters with which your readers will fall in love.
We have an excellent article, What’s She Thinking? How to Use Inner Dialogue , that will give you a more in-depth understanding of the mechanics of using inner dialogue.
Now let’s talk about how to format inner dialogue.
The Bad News
There is no hard and fast rule about formatting inner dialogue. Depending on which author, editor, or publisher you talk to, there are as many ways to handle inner dialogue as there are people writing it.
The one thing that needs to be pointed out, however, is that you shouldn’t use quotation marks for inner dialogue. The majority of experts agree that punctuation should be reserved for regular dialogue because it would get too confusing for your reader to try to figure out if the character is thinking or actually saying it out loud.
The Good News
Formatting inner dialogue is a stylistic choice, for the most part. Here are 3 different ways you can handle it, depending on what you’re trying to do with the inner dialogue.
1) Use both italics and thought dialogue tags . Combining italics with thought tags is a clear and definite signal to your reader that your character is thinking something. Consider the following example:
- Geneva bent down to pick up the sliver of metal. What could this possibly be from? she thought.
Your reader wouldn’t misconstrue what you have in mind here, so if you need it to be readily apparent that you’re inside a character’s head, this is the method to use.
2) Use italics without thought dialogue tags . A lot of authors nowadays use italics to denote inner dialogue, like Stephen King. I think he is one of the most adept authors out there at writing compelling inner dialogue. So if he uses italics, so do I.
- Geneva bent down to pick up the sliver of metal. What could this possibly be from?
3) Use neither italics nor thought tags . If you want the least intrusive way to present your character’s thoughts that won’t pull your reader’s attention away from the words on the page, use this method. Compare this to the other examples listed above:
Further examples for effect
Depending on the method you choose to punctuate, you can bring your reader closer in with the least amount of narrative distance. Here are 3 examples that have very different effects:
Margaret watched the man amble over to her side of the bar. He looks nothing like my usual choice of male companions , she thought. I should’ve never made eye contact. (Use this to give your reader some distance if you’re using an omniscient third-person narrator who can see inside everyone’s thoughts.)
Margaret tilted her head as the man ambled over to her at the bar. He looks nothing like what I’m interested in. She glanced around quickly. Is there anyone else I can talk to instead of this man? (This gets your reader a little closer to your character.)
Margaret saw with some alarm that the man was making his way to her side of the bar. Damn, why did I make eye contact? She jerked her head around, trying to find someone else to talk to. Maybe he’ll go away if he sees me talking to another man.
See how the third method keeps the reader firmly inside Margaret’s head with nothing to break the focus? There’s nothing to signal to your reader that something else is going on besides what you want them to know. The reader is firmly inside your character’s head at this point.
Imagine the impact the third method would have if you were using first-person narration. Your reader would be inside your main character’s head. Good stuff.
I started to hyperventilate when I saw him grab his beer and head my way. Damnit, why did I make eye contact? I searched desperately around the bar. I’ve got to find someone else to talk to so this guy goes away.
Again, it’s a stylistic choice how you punctuate your inner dialogue. Just make sure you’re consistent. Whatever method you choose, stick with it throughout your novel. Using various methods will frustrate your reader, the last thing you want to do.
Love grammar? Check out our Grammar Rules Blog and these great posts from our archive:
- What’s She Thinking? How to Use Inner Dialogue…
- Infographic: What are Homophones, Homographs, and Homonyms?
- What is a Cliché? And Why Should You Avoid Them?
- What are the Different Types of Verbs?
- What are Overused Words?
- What is a Clause?
- Hyphen, En Dash & Em Dash: Do You Know the Difference?
- MLA Format: Headings to Citations
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How to Write Dialogue — Examples, Tips & Techniques
E very screenwriter wants to write quippy, smart dialogue that makes the page sparkle and keeps the actors inspired. But how do you do it? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of lists and guides that provide useful tips for how to write dialogue in a story. In this post, we’ll look at dialogue writing examples, examine a few tried-and-true methods for how to write good dialogue, and provide you with all the best dialogue writing tips.
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How to Write Dialogue Format
1. study dialogue writing.
A good first step is to look to accomplished writers to see how they became skilled at how to write dialogue . But we have to know what we’re looking for. You can start by reading some dialogue examples from different mediums or practice with some dialogue prompts .
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino is as famous for his dialogue as he is for breaking the rules of screenwriting. Sure, to be able to craft dialogue that is so compelling it becomes a set piece unto itself, a la Tarantino, may be a good aesthetic model.
But trying to emulate his more stream-of-consciousness approach to dialogue writing may prove disorienting. Check out our video below and see if you notice anything that stands out about his approach to writing dialogue.
Tarantino Dialogue • Subscribe on YouTube
Though Tarantino doesn’t necessarily write according to plotted out script templates, and he probably doesn't adhere to proper dialogue format all the time. His creative choices might be largely unconscious, and his secret weapon in how to write a good dialogue may be his well-developed characters.
He knows who his characters are and what they want, and the characters’ desires shape his dialogue writing.
And as we will see when we look at other screenwriters’ methods, character is everything in how to write dialogue in a script.
Tarantino on set
As the old adage goes, learning the rules in order to break them can make you a stronger writer – and in this case, we want to look at some of the best writing dialogue rules.
Writing from a structure can help make sure you don’t lose the thread of your story by getting too caught up in crafting clever, flashy dialogue that doesn’t connect to anything.
And, a good structure can provide the perimeters for your writing to flow within, so you don’t have to pause to remember fifteen different rules of how to do dialogue!
How to Write a Good Dialogue
2. make your character's wants clear.
In a post about how to approach how to write dialogue it may seem contradictory to say this, but a good rule for dialogue writing in a scene is to write the dialogue last.
After building out the other elements of your story (your arcs, acts, scenes, and story beats) you will have a better sense of how each scene connects to the larger unfolding of the story and, most importantly, what each character wants in a given scene.
You may not need a “how to write good dialogue format” if you always keep in mind your larger story arc, how each scene drives the story forward, and what character motivations are in every scene.
An iconic dialogue scene from The Social Network
A good starting place in thinking about how to write dialogue in a script is to remember that in a screenplay, dialogue is not mere conversation. It always serves a larger purpose, which is to move the story forward.
The function of dialogue can be broken down into three purposes: exposition , characterization , or action. If we’re always clear on the larger purpose of a scene and we know each character’s motivations, we know what our dialogue is “doing” in that scene.
When we know what a character wants, we don’t have to worry as much about how to write dialogue because the motivations of the characters drive what they say. See our post on story beats to dig into story beats, which help illuminate what each character wants, and when they want it.
Functions of Dialogue
Exposition (to relay important information to other characters)
Characterization (to flesh out who a character is and what they want)
Action (to make decisions, reveal what they’re going to do)
The famous diner scene from Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally is an excellent example of both exposition and characterization, critical components of how to write dialogue between two characters. Here's a breakdown we did of the iconic When Harry Met Sally screenplay .
The ongoing question of the film, and of Harry and Sally’s relationship, is whether heterosexual women and heterosexual men can really be platonic friends. Every other character in the film and their issues (the friend in an affair with a married man, the friends who are in a happy couple and getting married) all support the driving dilemma of the film: the desire to partner and escape the presumed suffering of dating.
Take a look at the scene:
When Harry Met Sally
Underneath this question of whether men and women can be friends is the subtext that they may ultimately end up together after all. The overriding question of the film is, after knowing each other, “how come they haven’t already?” The diner scene teases out the idea of sexual tension in a supposedly platonic friendship, raising the stakes.
Here's a breakdown of subtext.
The Art of Subtext • Subscribe on YouTube
Remember, though the scene depicts Harry and Sally having a conversation in a diner, the words they are speaking are not mere “conversation” – it is dialogue written to sound like a natural conversation. There is a difference.
Each word in Ephron’s dialogue writing has a purpose. Sally says she is upset about how Harry treats the women he dates and that she’s glad she never dated him (underscoring the ongoing conflict of the film).
Harry defends himself, saying he doesn’t hear any of them complaining (alluding to how he wouldn’t disappoint her, either). When Sally suggests the women he dates might be faking orgasm, Harry doesn’t believe her.
This prompts her to fake an orgasm right there in the diner to make her point (ratcheting up the primary conflict, while also providing some comic relief).
You can read the scene, which we imported into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software , below:
When Harry Met Sally script
This scene works so well because it serves a crystal clear purpose in driving the story forward.
Great dialogue writing examples always drive the plot from one scene to the next. You may not like plotting out your story beats, thinking about story arcs in a methodological way, or approaching how to write dialogue between two characters systematically at all.
Just remember, most professional screenwriters do, and Writing Dialogue rules might be an instance where it is worth learning the rules in order to break them. Check out more great dinner scenes to inspire how to tackle this awkward but important type of scene!
How to Write Dinner Dialogue • Subscribe on YouTube
How to write dialogue in a script , 3. give your dialogue purpose.
Finally, we’ve come to our favorite part. The lines. Famed playwright and screenwriter David Mamet says great dialogue boils down to this one concept:
“Nobody says anything unless they want something.”
— David Mamet
This handy motto is one of the best dialogue writing tips, if not the only one you need. This principle encapsulates what many other rules of dialogue writing are getting at. What they want also may not be spoken aloud, which is where writing internal dialogue comes in handy.
The advice to use as few words as possible, to cut the fat, to arrive late and leave early, to write with subtext in mind, to show rather than tell – all of those goals can be met by keeping the focus on what the characters want.
David Mamet at work
If they don’t want anything, they don’t need to say anything. If you have a clear idea of who your characters are, and what the function of each scene is in the story, then your characters' agendas, conflicts, and obstacles, and their manner of speaking to express themselves, can come forward more naturally.
If you know what your characters want, you may find that you know how to write dialogue in a story very naturally!
And yet, there is a caveat here: Screenwriter Karl Iglesias warns that it can be easy to have the character saying what you , the writer, want, not what they , the character, want.
Below is a playlist from our 4 Endings video series where we look at how "wants and needs" play out in a screenplay.
Wants vs. Needs • Watch the entire playlist
Because what you , the writer, want them to do is of course to carry some part of the story for you. So another important tool to put in your toolbox of dialogue writing tips is to always zoom in on the character , and stay tuned into what they want at any given point in the story.
Check out the last scene from Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross , a film based on the screenplay, also by Mamet, and a gold standard of excellent movie dialogue.
Mamet’s principle that each character has to show what they want is demonstrated brilliantly in the final scene. At the beginning of the film, everyone at a New York City real estate office learns all but the top two salesmen will be fired in two weeks.
Levene (Jack Lemmon) is a salesman who wants to keep his job and survive. In the final scene, Williamson (Kevin Spacey) accuses Levene of stealing leads from the office. By this final scene, what Levene wants has shifted. Now he wants to convince Williamson of his innocence.
Take a look:
Final Scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992
Dialogue writing examples , 4. edit and focus the dialogue.
Now it’s time to sculpt the general arc of your story into form – and the minimalist principles of how to write dialogue in a story can help bring your vision to life.
You want to cast a harsh light on your text in order to whittle down everything you’ve written. Make sure every last word really needs to be there. You want to yank anything that gets in the way of telling the great story you want to tell. That way, the lines will be focused, compelling, and inspire great actors to want to bring them to life.
Remember: We’re not yanking lines if they’re not sparkly or punchy enough, we’re yanking them if they don’t serve a purpose.
Even the cutest remark can actually be clutter, and even the more mundane lines can play a vital role by elucidating our character’s motives, the conflict they’ve encountered, and where the story is going next. The more dialogue writing examples you read, the more you’ll see how the characters’ motivations are driving not only what is said, but how it is said.
- 22 Essential Screenwriting Tips →
- What is a Story Beat in a Screenplay? →
- FREE: Search StudioBinder’s Database of Film & TV Screenplays →
Another approach for how to write great dialogue in a script is to read through every line of the script aloud to make sure it flows naturally.
You could also try putting your hand or a piece of paper of the names of the characters. Can you tell who is saying what?
If each character doesn’t have a discernible way of speaking, revisit your character development and really define who this person is, what they want, and all their quirks and characteristics. Then revamp their lines to make all of that come to the forefront in each line. And when in doubt, revisit dialogue writing examples from your favorite movies and shows to get the juices flowing.
Another tip for how to properly write dialogue is to scan your script for “dialogue dumps.” The best way to avoid “As you know, Bob…” information dumps in your dialogue is to let the characters bat pieces of information back and forth. Check out our video on exposition below:
How to write good exposition • Subscribe on YouTube
Let them reveal bits of it over time, scattered throughout a scene like breadcrumbs. Let them argue about it, challenge what each other knows. Do they already know it, or are they wrestling with it?
Assess your dialogue to make sure what you’re trying to accomplish with a line of dialogue couldn’t better be said with an action, an adjustment to scene or setting, a facial expression, or some other nonverbal detail.
The “Good to See Another Brother” scene from Get Out is a great example of keeping the dialogue minimal and letting facial expression, costume, and tone convey the information:
Get Out screenplay
At this point in the story, Chris still thinks he is simply one of the few black people in his white girlfriend’s upper middle class white family and their social circle.
We, the audience, still might think we’re watching a rom com that conveys only a mild awareness of race, somewhere off in the background of the story. But in this scene, race starts moving forward as a central plot point.
Chris approaches Andre, because he wants to feel a sense of connection in an isolating environment. In order to convey layers of social anxiety and racial tension, all that Jordan Peele needs is the line, “It’s good to see another brother around here.”
Throughout the film, Peele exemplifies how spreading information out like bread crumbs can help build tension and curiosity about a scene.
Jordan Peele on the set of Get Out
Look at how much room Peele leaves in the script to describe how Andre’s character should convey his response (“soft-spoken,” “no trace of an urban dialect”). This helps load every word in the scene with more weight and purpose. When Andre does speak, his words are few.
He has visibly changed his style and manner of speaking since Chris first saw him, he won’t say much, and has a glazed over expression on his face. All of this raises the stakes: What is going on here?
Get Out still
In order to learn how to write dialogue, one of the most important writing dialogue rules is to stay in touch with where your characters are in the story at all times.
Building your story, your character arcs, and your story beats before writing can help provide a structure that will give your writing a container in which to flow. Developing compelling characters and making sure that every bit of dialogue real estate on the page is devoted to serving a function in your screenplay can help streamline the whole dialogue writing process.
But regardless of which method you use, if anything, just remember the Mamet Motto: “Nobody says anything unless they want something.”
How to introduce your characters.
Writing great dialogue is the icing on the cake of a great story. The importance of building out your story and really being clear on where we’re going, who wants what, and what the conflicts and motivations are the foundation beneath all the other writing dialogue rules. But having solid character descriptions is only the first step. You also have to give each one a great entrance. Check out our post to get some tips on how each compelling, amazing character you write can make their grand entrance.
Up Next: Introducing Characters →
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How To Write Dialogue: The Best Examples And Formatting Tips
One of the writer’s most effective tools is dialogue. A story with little or no conversation between characters can sometimes make the eyelids flicker. Too much may leave the reader breathless. Writing dialogue is tough and a skill that takes time to master.
However, there are plenty of useful tips, tools and methods to help you learn how to write dialogue in a story and how to format it too.
And for your benefit, you can find them all in this comprehensive guide.
Below, you can find the definition of dialogue, tags and formatting guidelines and a discussion on the different ways characters speak and converse.
And you can also find plenty of illuminating dialogue examples to help you gain a clear understanding of the mechanics and how you can apply it to our own writing.
You can jump through this guide by clicking below:
Choose A Chapter
What is dialogue, how to format dialogue.
- Should I Use ‘Said’ And Asked?
How To Write Dialogue Between Two Characters
How to write dialogue readers love, how to write internal dialogue, an exercise on how to write dialogue in a story, good dialogue examples from fiction, technical writing tip – how does dialogue impact the pacing of a story, how do you edit dialogue, more guides on creative writing.
Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more characters , particularly in the context of a book, film or play.
Specific to writing, dialogue is the conversation between characters.
A n author may use dialogue to provide the reader with new information about characters or the plot, delivered in a more natural way. They may also utilise it to speed up the pace of the story.
As we’ll see below, there seems to be one pervading guideline when it comes to writing great dialogue and that is clarity reigns supreme.
What Is Internal Dialogue?
Internal dialogue is that which happens within a character’s mind . This can sometimes be reflected in fiction with the use of italics. For example:
I hope they don’t come down here, Mycah thought.
Internal dialogue is a great way of delving deeper into a character’s mind and perspective and is a powerful weapon when it comes to characterization. We explore it in more detail below.
Writers have different stylistic preferences when it comes to dialogue. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the best practices and common literary conventions, such as the use of a dialogue tag and quotation marks.
Using Quotation Marks
If sticking to the principle of clarity reigns supreme, then for me, using double quotation marks is the most effective way of communicating dialogue.
They’re universally recognised as a means of conveying dialogue, and they stand out more on the page in contrast to single quotation marks. There are more reasons for using them, however, and that involves a criqute of the single quotation mark.
Writing Dialogue With Single Quotation Marks
This does come down to a matter of style.
The best format I’ve found, and by best I mean the approach readers find clearest, is to use speech marks (“) as opposed to a single apostrophe (‘).
If, for instance, a character is speaking and quotes someone else, single quotation marks can be used within the speech marks, therefore avoiding any confusion, for example:
“I can’t believe she called me ‘an ungrateful cow.’ She’s got some nerve.”
Format Dialogue On A Single Line
Another helpful approach to help maintain clarity is to begin a piece of dialogue on a new line whenever a new character speaks. For instance:
“Who was at the door?” Nick asked. “A couple of Mormons,” Sarah said.
Adding Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags are simply a piece of prose that follows a piece of speech that identifies who spoke. You can see it in the example above featuring Nick and Sarah.
You can use a dialogue tag in lots of useful ways. For example body language.
If a character reacts to something another character says or does, to maintain clarity, pop the reaction on a new line, followed by dialogue. So for example:
“We’re all sold out,” Dan said. Jim sighed. “Have you not got any in the back?”
Do You Always Need To Use Dialogue Tags?
Something I’ve noticed some of my favourite writers doing—James Barclay and George R.R. Martin, in particular—is, when possible, avoid using an attribution altogether. Less is more, as they say. If just a couple of people are talking, it may already be clear from the voices and language of the characters who exactly is speaking.
Again, to aid clarity, if there are a number of people involved in a conversation, it helps to use an attribution whenever a different character speaks. Nobody wants to waste time re-reading passages to check who’s speaking. I don’t enjoy it and I’m sure others don’t either.
Repetitive use of attribution may grate on a reader. It can suggest a lack of trust in them to follow the story. It helps when editing to look for moments where it’s unclear who’s speaking and if necessary add an attribution.
A brief point on the styles of attribution. If you read a lot, you may notice some writers prefer the order “John said,” and some prefer “said John”. Sanderson is of the view that the character’s name should come first because that’s the most important bit of information to the reader. But the likes of Tolkien adopted the latter version. It’s all personal preference. Why not mix and match?
Should I Use “Said” And “Asked”?
When it comes to the questions I often see asked on how to write dialogue, this is perhaps the most common.
An attribution, also known as an identifier or tag, is the part of the sentence that follows a piece of dialogue. For example: “John said.” In his creative writing lectures, Brandon Sanderson shares a few useful tips.
- Try to place the attribution as early as possible to help make it clear in the reader’s mind who is speaking. This can be done mid-sentence, such as: “I don’t fancy that,” Milo said. “What else do you have?” Breaking away like this works well if a character is going to be speaking for a few lines or paragraphs. You can also use an attribution before the dialogue, though there’s something about this that I find jarring. Used sparingly it works well, but too often just seems annoying and archaic. It’s all personal preference though.
- Try using beats, but not too many. What’s a beat? A beat is a reaction to something said or done. So for example facial expressions like frowning, smiling, narrowing of the eyes, biting of the lip, and hand gestures such as pointing, clenching fists, and fidgeting. And then you’ve got physical movements, like pacing up and down, smashing a glass, punching a wall.
- Don’t worry about using ‘said’ and ‘asked’. To the reader, these words are almost invisible. What they care about is who exactly is speaking.
- When a character first speaks refer to them by name, but after that, it’s fine to refer to them as he or she, provided they’re still the one speaking. It’s even desirable to use the pronoun; repeating a name over and over can irritate a reader.
Remember the overarching principle for when it comes to writing dialogue: clarity reigns supreme. Using ‘said’ and ‘asked’ is often the clearest way of getting your point across.
What To Use Instead Of Said In Dialogue
Remember, there’s no problem with using the word ‘said’ after a piece of dialogue. But if you find when reading your piece aloud that the repeated use jars, especially in a dialogue-rich scene, you may want to mix things up.
Using words other than ‘said’ can help to characterize too—everybody reacts differently to things and those reactions reveal a lot about a person.
So, here’s a list of twenty words that you can use instead of ‘said’ when writing dialogue:
- Pointed out
So, let’s take a look at how to write dialogue between two characters. If you’d rather have a visual explainer, check out this informative video below.
A useful distinction to make is between everyday dialogue and the dialogue we find in fiction.
The chatter we hear in real life is full of rambling, repetitive sentences, grumbles, grunts, ‘erms’ and ‘ahs’, with answers to questions filled with echoes (repeating a part of the question posed, e.g. “How are you?” asked A. “How am I?” B answered).
When we think of the dialogue we read in books, it contains little of the things we find in these everyday exchanges. According to Sol Stein, there’s a reason for this—it’s boring to read.
If it holds no relevance to the story, we don’t care if a character’s cat prefers to eat at your neighbour’s house instead of your own, or if they think their nail job isn’t worth the money they paid, or if they think the window cleaner isn’t cleaning their windows. There are some snippets we overhear on the street that are interesting—an unusual name, a section of a story we want to know more about. Rare diamonds in a mine miles deep. I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to achieve realistic dialogue and it makes for drawn-out scenes and boring exchanges.
According to Stein, dialogue ought not to be a recording of actual speech, but rather a semblance of it.
What is this semblance of dialogue why should we try and achieve it?
So, how do we write good dialogue?
When we scrutinise a person as they’re talking (all the boring stuff aside) we discover a lot about their character: who they are, what they believe in, and sometimes, if they reveal them, their motives. We glean all this from word choice, sentence structure, choice of topic, their behaviour as they say something.
It’s these little details we as writers must dig for, so when it comes to writing our own dialogue, we can use them to help characterise our own characters and, if possible, develop the plot. The key to mastering dialogue, according to Stein, is to factor in both characterisation and plot.
How do we do it? Let’s look at some dialogue writing examples:
Milford: How are you? Belle: How am I? I’m fine. How are you? Milford: Well thanks. And the family? Belle: Great
I had to stop myself from stabbing my eyes out with my pen. This example is mundane, riddled with echoes, and gives us no imagery about the characters involved. How about this version?
Milford: How are you? Belle: Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t see you there. Milford: Is this a bad time? Belle: No, no. Absolutely not.
See the difference? Milford asks Belle a question, which Belle doesn’t answer. This is an example of oblique dialogue . It’s indirect, evasive, and creates conflict.
It’s a great tool for when it comes to looking at how to write dialogue in a story using different approaches. Our character is not getting answers. Oblique language helps to reveal a bit about the characters and the plot, namely that Belle could be a bit shifty and up to something unsavoury.
Writing Realistic Dialogue
When it comes to knowing how to write natural dialogue, the question to ask yourself is whether or not this style is going to fit your story.
Natural dialogue suits some stories wonderfully. However, it can also work against your story, maybe confusing things for your readers or making it too difficult to read.
When it comes to writing natural dialogue, it’s important to bear in mind the principles discussed here. Give your conversations purpose, make them oblique or intriguing, and don’t give information up cheaply.
You can achieve this in a natural or more casual or informal style.
If you’re looking for more visual tips and advice on writing dialogue, check out this excellent video below:
Say It Aloud
When you’ve written a piece of dialogue, one of the best and simplest techniques to check how it works is to say it out loud.
In doing so you’ll get a sense of how natural it is or whether it jars, or even if it’s cringy or cliche—we’ve all been there.
If you don’t feel comfortable speaking it aloud, you can use a Text to Voice function, like on a website like Natural Readers which allows you to paste in text and then have it read it back to you (it’s free).
Add Slang From Your World
An effective way to write good dialogue that not only characterizes and drives the plot but adds to your world, is to use slang or world-specific references. This can be particularly useful in the fantasy and sci-fi genres .
For example, in my novel Pariah’s Lament , I refer to the world in place of phrases that refer to our own. So instead of “What in the world was that?” I’d say something like “What in Tervia was that?”
Small Talk And Hellos And Goodbyes
As a general rule, there’s no need to include small talk, hellos and goodbyes. The reader isn’t really too bothered about these niceties. They just want to get to the action, the conflict.
You can brush over things like small talk and hellos with short descriptions in your prose. For instance:
Stef and John stepped into the room. A sea of smiling faces welcomed them and before they knew it, they were shaking hands and embracing. “I wasn’t expecting such a warm welcome,” Stef said. “It’s like they have no idea what we’ve done,” John replied. “Maybe they don’t.” “Or maybe they do, and it’s all a ruse.” Stef looked at him a moment, thoughtful. “You’re getting paranoid.”
See here how the hellos were glided by and we’re straight into more interesting dialogue? You can also cut back on the odd superfluous dialogue tag too if it doesn’t add to your story.
Give Your Characters Their Own Voice
A character’s voice is an important factor in dialogue. Nobody speaks in the same way. Some people have lisps, some people say their ‘r’s’ like ‘w’s’, some people don’t enunciate properly, say words differently, speak in accents, and have a nasal twang. There are so many variables.
Introducing these features to some or all of your characters can help to make them more memorable and distinct.
How To Write Dialogue For A Drunk Character
When we’re writing our stories it’s likely that some of our characters may become intoxicated with alcohol or drugs. This creates the question in a writer’s mind, how do you write dialogue for a drunk character?
We can fall into the trap of spelling out the words that they try to say, factoring in the slurs, the missed words and the mispronunciations. The problem this can create is that it can go against our overarching principle of clarity reigns supreme.
Dialogue that’s too difficult to read can cause frustration in the reader. They may get fed up and stop reading altogether—the last thing we want.
The best technique is to provide a description of how the person is talking. Describe how they slur their words, how certain letters sound in their drunken state and so on. Including body language in this will help a great deal too. You can then write dialogue in a more natural and understandable way.
The same applies to the likes of writing stuttering in dialogue. It can be very frustrating for a person to listen to a person with a stutter. To include it in your writing can cause problems too. So again one of the best solutions is to describe the stutter first and then write dialogue naturally.
Hopefully, these tips will help you with how to write dialogue for our intoxicated characters.
An Author May Use Dialogue To Provide The Reader With Information, But Don’t Info Dump
An author may use dialogue to provide the reader with useful information. However, if done incorrectly it can have a negative effect.
In his book The First Five Pages , Noah Lukeman says that one of his biggest reasons for rejecting a manuscript is the use of informative dialogue. In other words, using dialogue as a means for conveying information, or info-dumping . He says it suggests the writer is lazy, too unimaginative to convey the information in a subtler way. If you’d like to learn more about avoiding info dumps, check out my guide on natural worldbuilding .
Sometimes dialogue will give us no information at all. Sometimes snippets. Often if you overhear a conversation between two people you’ll find you understand little of what they discuss. It’s the little details they reveal that are most interesting. Take the example of someone mentioning they went to the hospital. The person they’re with may know why they went, but you don’t. Give the reader pieces of the giant puzzle and leave them wanting more.
Lukeman suggests a few solutions to mend instances of informative dialogue. One is to highlight pieces of dialogue that merely convey information and do not reveal or suggest the character’s personality or wants. Break them apart and find a way to let them trickle into the story.
Understanding how to write internal dialogue can prove a key weapon in your writing arsenal.
This style of dialogue can be employed effectively in scenes or stories focused on lone characters. It can break up the monotony of long paragraphs of exposition, which provides welcome relief to readers. Unlike other forms, you don’t need to use a dialogue tag as such.
There are a couple of common ways that you can employ internal dialogue in writing:
- The first option is to italicise the comments made by your character internally. For example: “A door downstairs slammed shut. It’s not windy tonight. How the hell could that have happened?” The main idea here is that the italicised words make it clear to the reader that this is internal dialogue.
- Another option is to write internal dialogue as you would normal dialogue, with speech marks. The difference is what follows that passage of conversation. Usually, it’s something like, “I really do need to get that fixed,” Halle thought to herself. Here, you simply identify that the dialogue was spoken in the mind and not aloud.
As for which is best for how to write effective dialogue for internal thoughts, it’s all a matter of style. However, my personal preference is using italics. To me, it’s just clearer to readers, and that’s the main aim. So that is how to write internal dialogue.
As a little exercise, try and think of some oblique responses to the following line. I’ll give you an example to start. Remember to factor in Stein’s key ingredients— characterisation and plot:
Exercise: “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
Example: “Did you say the same thing to that blonde girl behind the bar?”
In this example of how to write dialogue, we get a response that avoids answering the statement. She could quite easily turn around and say “Thank you,” but that’s boring. Instead, we’re wondering about this man and what he’s about, and a bit more about the woman too, namely that she’s observant.
Let’s take a look at some good dialogue examples from some of the finest pieces of fiction to grave our bookshelves:
Dialogue Example #1 “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
“Good morning, Dr. Lecter. How are you feeling?”
“Better than your last visit, Clarice. Shall I have a chair brought in for you?”
“No thank you, I’d rather stand.”
“Please, sit. That’s better. You know, you remind me of someone. A young man I met long ago. He was a student like yourself, with a quick mind and a charming smile. I wonder what became of him.”
“I don’t know, Dr. Lecter. I’m here to ask you about Buffalo Bill.”
Dialogue Example #2 “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger
“You’re lucky. You’re really lucky. You know that, don’t you?” I said.
“Don’t worry about me,” Sally said. “I’ll be all right. I’m serious.”
“I know you will,” I said. “That’s why I’d like to talk to you for just a minute. This is no kidding. You’re going to have to have yourself a grand time this summer. Especially this summer. Have yourself a real need. Because you’re going to go to a lot of parties, and some of them are going to be quite grim, and you’re going to need that need.”
“I know I will,” Sally said. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I know you will,” I said. “But do it anyway. Do it for me. Okay?”
Dialogue Example #3 “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
“Atticus, are we going to win it?”
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” Atticus said.
One of the most important things to know when it comes to looking at dialogue is the impact it has on pacing.
Dialogue has a knack for increasing the pace and moving the story forward. Readers can find themselves tearing through pages laden with dialogue. As if with all tools of the craft, it pays to know how best to use it. Literary agent Noah Lukeman said a writer must learn how to use restraint when it comes to dialogue, “to sustain suspense and let a scene unfold slowly.”
Again, it’s all a matter of preference.
It’s one thing to know how to write dialogue, it’s another to know how to edit it.
For sound editing advice a good person to turn to is a master editor. In his book on the craft of writing, Sol Stein provides a very helpful checklist when going over passages of conversation:
- What is the purpose of this exchange? Does it begin or heighten an existing conflict, for example?
- Does it stimulate curiosity in the reader?
- Does it create tension?
- What is the outcome of the exchange? Builds to a climax, or a turn of events in the story, or a change in relationship with the speakers?
- Has the correct dialogue tag been used for each character, one that enhances the tale.
One additional step Stein recommends is reading dialogue aloud in a monotone expression. Listen to the meaning of the words in your exchanges.
“What counts is not what is said but the effect of what it means… The reader takes from fiction the meaning of words. And above all, they take the emotion that meaning generates.”
So these are a few things that I’ve found helpful when it comes to writing dialogue. As we’ve seen, an author may use dialogue to provide the reader with interesting information, delivered in a compelling and intriguing way.
Perhaps the most important advice I’ve taken away from them all is to always maintain clarity while using obliqueness to give dialogue that snappy, enticing edge. It’s easier said than done, mind.
Before I leave you, I wanted to point you in the direction of some other guides I think you may find useful.
- Great Examples Of The 5 Senses In Writing
- Men Writing Women
- How To Avoid Duplicate Content Issues – if you need help with plagiarism or making your content unique, head here
- How To Plot A Story
- More Dialogue Writing Examples from Florida Gulf Coast University, with useful advice on making the best use of a dialogue tag
For more writing tips and guides , head here. Or you can find lots of links on all types of creative writing topics on my home page . Thanks for reading this guide on how to write dialogue that readers will love.
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8 thoughts on “how to write dialogue: the best examples and formatting tips”.
I think crafting one’s own “book on writing” is a great exercise for any writer, regardless of whether or not they want to publish it. The act itself is a great way to organize one’s thoughts and ideas about writing, and compare one’s existing ideas to those one may encounter through others (books, blogs, interviews, etc.). I don’t know if mine will ever be fit for publication, but I find it very helpful to write such things down, instead of worrying about whether or not I’ll remember it.
Definitely! That’s one of the main reasons I’m doing it. We’ve got nothing to lose!
Mmm. And writing it out, organizing it, really helps us retain it afterwards. I feel like I rarely need to consult my notes, but the act of writing them out really helps.
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How to Write Effective Dialogue, with Examples
by Chris Snellgrove
Good dialogue can help elevate your story while making your characters seem realistic and relatable. Bad dialogue, though, can turn even the coolest literary concept into a poorly executed mess.
To help you better understand how to write dialogue in your story, let’s take a look at why it’s important and how you can make your story’s dialogue really shine.
Why is effective dialogue important?
Effective dialogue is important because it brings your characters to life, helps readers relate to the character, and helps to move the story along.
On the most basic level, dialogue is what animates your characters. Just think: without dialogue—the kind between two characters who speak to each other, as well as the “dialogue” of body language—your characters would just be random people undertaking a series of different actions.
Realistic dialogue is also how readers relate to and understand character dynamics—dialogue give characters depth. Has a character suffered some kind of defining trauma? Or do they have a special code of honor that dictates their behavior? Revealing these things through a few lines of dialogue rather than exposition helps your story live up to the old chestnut: show, don’t tell!
Good dialogue serves other story functions as well: It helps to break up action and exposition, giving your story time to breathe; it’s the primary way to add emotion to a scene; and dialogue helps to establish character relationships. Are these two characters secretly in love, or maybe they openly hate each other? Or both ?? Good dialogue helps reveal who these characters are as well as their primary motivations.
Dialogue helps break up the action
A key factor in any story is pacing. If the characters do little else but talk to each other, then your story can come across as boring instead of engaging.
However, it’s possible to have too much action and too little dialogue. Readers love it when a story moves quickly, but maintaining a constant breakneck pace can leave readers exhausted. You can use dialogue tags to identify speakers as well as speed up or slow down moments of a story.
By having your characters speak to one another between and even during action, you can maintain upbeat pacing without tiring your readers out.
Dialogue helps establish character relationships
One of the biggest challenges for any writer is creating convincing relationships between characters—and better dialogue is the single best way to do that!
For example, when readers see one character speak lightly and casually to one person, and gruffly angrily to another, they instantly understand from a line of dialogue how the one character feels about the two others. In turn, the speech patterns and inflections that respond to the first character’s dialogue let readers see whether these relationships (friendly in one case and antagonistic in the other) are one-sided or mutual.
Dialogue creates relatable characters
Something beginning writers often struggle with is that description can only tell us what a character is. It’s only through writing great dialogue that the writer tells us who a character is.
That’s because readers relate to characters based on their personalities, and personalities are most apparent in characters’ voices, or the way the dialogue sounds. One reader may love sarcastic characters and another may love noble characters, but these readers won’t really understand the character personalities until those characters are speaking to one another.
Think about some of your favourite moments throughout literary and film history. These lines of dialogue define the person speaking and help define how we relate to the characters. A relatable character without realistic dialogue is, simply put, not relatable at all!
How story dialogue differs from real-life dialogue
Story dialogue differs from dialogue you might hear in your own life because characters in a story typically skip small talk, avoid speaking over one another, and have a clear motivation for everything they say, whereas dialogue in real life is filled with polite chatter, crosstalk, and completely random points of conversation.
The earliest advice most writers get is “write what you know.” This may explain why learning to write dialogue is so difficult: we naturally learn how to speak to others, but we don’t naturally learn how characters should communicate in a well-crafted story.
A line of dialogue should always help to move a story forward. In real life, two people who know each other might engage in half an hour of small talk before getting down to business. But in a story, your characters should skip things like greetings and small talk and get down to business right away.
In real life, characters talk over each other constantly. But that would create chaos in a book or short story. Instead, characters should mostly speak one at a time. If you rarely have characters speaking over one another, then it’ll have more impact on your readers when it does happen.
Finally, in real life, we don’t actually know the motivations of different people. It’s why we so often ask ourselves “why the heck did he say that?” after a weird conversation with a real-life person. But within the confines of your story, you should know what motivates every single character. This can help you craft dialogue that fleshes those characters out and moves the story along without breaking the readers’ internal understanding of the characters. That way, your readers will never wonder why a character uttered a specific bit of dialogue.
Examples of great dialogue
To really understand great dialogue, you must do more than learn about different writing techniques. Instead, you must study great dialogue directly. As T. S. Eliot famously wrote, “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.”
Many examples of amazing dialogue and dialogue tags can be found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby . Let’s take a closer look at this scene, in which Gatsby tries to invite the naive Nick into a less-than-savory business.
“There’s another little thing,” he said uncertainly, and hesitated. “Would you rather put it off for a few days?” I asked. “Oh, it isn’t about that. At least—” He fumbled with a series of beginnings. “Why, I thought why, look here, old sport, you don’t make much money, do you?” “Not very much.” This seemed to reassure him and he continued more confidently. “I thought you didn’t, if you’ll pardon my—you see, I carry on a little business on the side, a little side line, if you understand. And I thought that if you don’t make very much—You’re selling bonds, aren’t you, old sport?” “Trying to.”
Imagine that you’ve never read The Great Gatsby before. What does this dialogue exchange tell you about the characters?
We instantly see that Gatsby is uncertain about various things despite his material success. Though this dialogue doesn’t spell out the unsavory nature of Gatsby’s business, the circumspect way he brings it up shows that he seems to be ashamed of it.
Nick, for his part, comes across as both conscientious and easy to please. Finally, the dialogue includes character markers (like Gatsby calling others “old sport”) so that we never lose track of who’s talking, even as Gatsby manages to interrupt himself.
Part of what makes Fitzgerald such a skilled writer is that he threads the needle between realistic writing and literary writing. Gatsby’s fumbling dialogue is realistic because everyone knows what it’s like to get nervous and trip over our own words. At the same time, Fitzgerald keeps the dialogue short and to the point, which moves the plot along.
Another great inspiration for dialogue is Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s a master of sparse dialogue. As you’ll see, Heh keeps dialogue tags and lets the words speak for themselves. While your dialogue doesn’t have to be as sparse as Hemingway’s was, the famous author shows us how much you can say without saying much. This is especially true in this passage from his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which a man and a woman discuss whether the woman should abort their baby:
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.” “And you really want to?” “I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.” “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” “I love you now. You know I love you.” “I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?” “I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.” “If I do it you won’t ever worry?” “I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”
What does this passage reveal about these characters? For one thing, despite the male character’s reassurances that he cares about what the woman wants, it’s perfectly clear that he maintains control within the relationship. It’s equally clear that she’s emotionally dependent on the man, relying on him for reassurance about their love and their relationship.
The dialogue also reveals dark and tragic overtones. For example, we as readers understand how traumatic an abortion can be on the woman, so the man’s frequent insistence that it’s “perfectly simple” reveals that he may not care much about her thoughts and feelings.
Meanwhile, the woman has realized their love isn’t as idyllic as she once imagined, but is convinced that an abortion can return things to the way they are. As readers, we can imagine how depressing the status quo of this codependent relationship is, while immediately understanding that things will probably never be the same for these characters again. This is why good dialogue is such a useful tool in character development.
Examples of bad dialogue
As writers, it’s often easier to learn from our own mistakes rather than our successes. When it comes to writing better dialogue, it’s surprisingly easy to learn how to write dialogue by studying the mistakes of others!
Let’s take a look at examples of bad dialogue from famous authors and what we can learn from these mistakes. We’ll start with an excerpt from Frank Herbert’s Dune :
A chuckle sounded beside the globe. A basso voice rumbled out of the chuckle: “There it is, Piter—the biggest mantrap in all history. And the Duke’s headed into its jaws. Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?’
Dune may be one the most influential books ever written, but this bit of dialogue is one clunker after another. The fact that Harkonnen drops his own name like this is cringe-inducing; since the reader already knows who he is, this information is redundant. Nobody actually talks like that, so Harkonnen’s dialogue makes him come across like a reject from a bad B-movie.
Additionally, Herbert is violating the “show, don’t tell” rule. It’s much more effective when readers can gauge the danger in a situation themselves based on description and well-written dialogue. Instead, here we must either dismiss the claim of “the biggest mantrap in all history” as hyperbole because we can’t actually gauge the magnitude of the threat for ourselves, or just take this repetitive villain at his word.
Another major dialogue offender in the world of science fiction is Neal Stephenson. His novel Snow Crash helped to predict our modern digital world, but it didn’t always reflect how people actually talk. Just look at this excerpt:
“‘Ninety-nine percent of everything that goes on in most Christian churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religion. Intelligent people all notice this sooner or later, and they conclude that the entire one hundred percent is bullshit, which is why atheism is connected with being intelligent in people’s minds.” ”So none of that stuff I learned in church has anything to do with what you’re talking about?” Juanita thinks for a while, eyeing him. Then she pulls a hypercard out of her pocket. “Here. Take this.”
What’s so bad about this dialogue? For one thing, it’s didactic in a very off-putting way. As readers, we can practically feel Stephenson grabbing us by our lapels to yell at us about religion.
This is underscored by the fact that the character speaking doesn’t really answer the question. We can see that the rant about faith, religion, and intelligence isn’t important, and it’s not going to move the plot forward.
Finally, this dialogue “exchange” is a great example of characters talking at each other rather than to each other. It’s tough to imagine anyone just sitting there while Juanita blithely says that everyone of faith is an idiot. In a science fiction story meant to be very immersive, stilted and didactic dialogue quickly takes the reader out of the moment and out of the narrative.
Writing internal dialogue
There are two basic styles of writing internal dialogue: indirect internal dialogue, which doesn’t directly draw the reader’s attention, and direct internal dialogue, which is marked with special dialogue tags.
Indirect internal dialogue is what readers are most familiar with. In this case, “indirect” simply means you don’t draw attention to the dialogue through italics or a dialogue tag. Instead, you simply write out what the character is thinking to themselves as a description, the same way that you’d write out what they’re doing. For example:
Tommy peered through the abandoned room with his flashlight, the electricity having long since been turned off. He couldn’t help but feel like the last ghost haunting the abandoned building long after the other spirits had moved on.
See how we’re privy to his internal thoughts, which are told to the reader as part of the narrative?
On the other hand, with direct internal dialogue you highlight internal thoughts in a way that’s distinct from spoken dialogue. The most common way to do this is to place the internal thoughts in italics. For example:
This is crazy , Tommy thought, shining his flashlight over the darkened room. What did I ever expect to find in here ? Wind howling through a broken window was the only answer to his thoughts.
Here the thoughts are set apart from the narrative by a dialogue tag, “Tommy thought.”
Which method of expressing internal dialogue you use mostly comes down to your own personal style. Just keep in mind that readers place special attention to text that has been italicized. So if you put internal dialogue in italics, make sure it counts!
Writing first-person dialogue
Writing in first person PoV is fairly easy: you simply use first-person pronouns to create statements about what your character has seen and said. Then why do some writers struggle with learning to write dialogue in the first person?
Firstly, some writers struggle with incorporating their character’s feelings and emotions into first-person dialogue. Without dialogue that conveys emotion, the first-person narrator may come across as a floating camera simply recording events rather than a real person having real thoughts and feelings about different events.
Secondly, it’s easy to accidentally slip into the passive voice. As with any other kind of writing, first-person dialogue should remain in the active voice to keep the reader engaged.
Finally, it’s easy to be annoyingly repetitive, like including countless instances of “I said” and “I felt.” To really make first-person dialogue work, you’ll need to change things up to keep the narrative exciting.
How, then, can we avoid these mistakes and craft better first-person dialogue?
When you’re writing first-person internal dialogue, make sure that it’s consistent with the character’s previous characterization and motivation. Readers should be able to distinguish the internal voice of different characters because no two characters should have the same internal voice.
It’s also important for internal dialogue to stay in the active voice. This helps it seem more dynamic and also keeps you from bogging down your narrative with confusing passive text.
To avoid constantly writing “I said” and “I felt,” you’ll need to convey to the reader how characters feel by expressing it in the dialogue. For example, if a character’s dialogue is is using angry vocabulary and expressions, then writing “I felt angry” or “I thought angrily” is unnecessary.
You can also experiment with having characters communicate using fewer words. For instance, writing “I touched the wall. Cold. Slimy. Pulsating,” communicates the same idea as saying “it felt cold, slimy, and pulsating,” but in a more concise and captivating way.
Ultimately, whether it’s said out loud or only in their heads, the real trick to character dialogue is using it to give your characters their own definitive voice.
Using dialogue to establish your protagonist’s voice
Through dialogue, you give your characters a literal voice. With the right dialogue techniques, you can give each character their own metaphorical voice that helps make each character distinct.
A metaphorical voice refers to things like a character’s inflection, speech pattern, temperament, slang, and other ways of speaking. Think about some of your favorite literary characters: chances are you have a firm idea of the kinds of things they would and wouldn’t say, and that’s because the characters’ voices are written well enough that you’ve internalized their voice.
The best way to make character’s voices unique is to make sure the character’s voices fit their personality. For example, if a character is a college professor, they’re likelier to speak in a formal way and to use precise and technical terminology. That same character’s students, however, are likelier to speak informally, using shorter sentences and less precise language.
As an added bonus, saying various characters’ dialogue in your own voice helps you workshop creative ways to avoid having too many “so-and-so said” dialogue tags . You’ll know your characters all have unique voices when reading them out loud makes your home sound like a one-person stage play!
Finally, don’t forget that how a character speaks helps flesh out their personality for readers. A character who’s always shouting, for example, will come across as nervous and excitable. A character who’s always giving advice to others will come across as wiser or maybe even as a bit of a know-it-all.
Writing dialogue between characters
Writing characters who speak to each other through effective dialogue is the key to crafting realistic stories that helps keep the plot moving. Here’s how to approach a few different common dialogue situations:
Dialogue between two characters
Remember when we said that dialogue in writing should skip the small talk? When two of your characters are talking to each other, you should have a clear idea of their individual motivations. These motivations should help propel the conversation and inform how they talk to each other, avoiding the small talk that happens in real life but that would bore a reader.
Another major factor informing character dialogue is how the characters feel about each other. If they’re joking and laughing together, we can infer they have a positive relationship. If they’re speaking formally and get right to the point, we can infer they have a more transactional relationship.
What if the characters are enemies? In that case, their exchanges might be short and tense, and the characters might be more likely to interrupt each other. Someone should be able to read the exchange without looking at the rest of your story and instantly understand that these characters don’t like each other.
Dialogue between more than two characters
Dialogue between more than two characters can become chaotic and confusing to readers. However, you can take a few easy steps to help clarify things.
For example, your initial dialogue will need to have the “X said” and “Y said” dialogue tags so the reader can keep the characters straight. But a constant onslaught of “he said” and “she said” can quickly get boring. Instead of using a new dialogue tag every time, you should sometimes have your characters address each other by name, and you should give each character a unique dialogue style that stands out on its own.
It’s also important that these scenes don’t feel like characters sitting perfectly still. Make sure the reader knows where each character is within the room and pepper the dialogue with actions the characters are taking. This further distinguishes one character from another while breaking up the dialogue and helping to move the story along.
“I can’t believe this is taking so long,” Joseph said, nervously pacing around the room. “Everyone should be here by now.”
“You really need to relax,” Morgan told him, crossing the room to pour herself a drink. “Take the edge off.”
“I’ll relax when they’re here,” Joseph pouted, plopping down into the beat-up recliner in the corner of the room.
“You’ll relax when you’re dead!” Stacy laughed as she walked into the room. “The rest of us would like to start a bit earlier.
Finally, never forget that stories are driven by conflict . By giving your characters unique motivations that sometimes oppose one another, you can create the kind of tension that really transforms a scene.
Writing overlapping dialogue
Sometimes, characters are going to talk over each other. This is likelier when more than two characters are talking. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to craft convincing overlapping dialogue.
One classic way of writing overlapping dialogue is the use of the em-dash . You can prematurely end one character’s dialogue with the dash and then have another character begin speaking. This clearly shows that the second character cut the first character off.
Billy tentatively spoke up. “Look, I’m ready to do my part, I just—” “You just what?” Sally barked. “You’re finally ready to do your part? Well, I’m ready to stop hearing excuses!”
An alternative way to express overlapping dialogue is to separate different characters’ dialogue into short phrases, with each phrase on its own line and dialogue tag. Between this formatting and the use of ellipses, you can easily show how the dialogue overlap. This technique is particularly handy for ongoing dialogue in which the characters keep cutting each other off.
Writing dialogue interruptions
Characters speaking over other characters is only one kind of dialogue interruption. But how should you write other events, including dialogue being cut off by action?
If the character is interrupting themselves, you can express this with a hyphen. If a character is interrupted by an action, we recommend ending their dialogue with an em dash and then providing a description of the action.
You may be tempted to use punctuation for an interruption followed by a comment such as “he suddenly stopped.” However, your reader will understand that an interruption has taken place. Following the em dash with a specific action is much more dynamic and helps readers learn more about your characters by seeing how they react to the interruption. For example:
“Look, you need to all pay attention. It’s very important that—”
Suddenly, she whirled around and looked all of us directly in the eye. I felt my skin crawl as she continued.
“It’s very important that you treat this as a matter of life and death. Because now, it really is.”
In this case, the character interrupting her own dialogue to stare at everyone stands out because she stopped her own speech to do so.
Writing pauses into your dialogue
Sometimes, your characters may pause in their dialogue even if they’re not interrupted. When this happens, you can use the techniques we already described (such as cutting certain words off with hyphens) to express the pause.
Ellipses (better known as the three dots, or “…”) are a great way to show that a character has trailed off. This may indicate they’re deep in thought or having an emotional reaction to what they’re thinking.
Likewise, the em-dash is a great way to express a sudden pause in what a character is saying. While ellipses indicate a slow trailing off, an em dash indicates a sudden stop. This may indicate that a character had a sudden thought or is beginning to react to something that another character said or did.
Writing dialogue for specific scenarios
So far, we’ve focused primarily on basic dialogue tips that apply to almost any scenario. However, different scenarios sometimes call for a different way of writing dialogue. Let’s review a few different scenarios and how to structure your dialogue for each one.
Writing military dialogue
Military dialogue is often difficult for writers. That’s mostly because unless the writer has been in the military before, they probably have a distorted view of how soldiers actually speak.
For example, we’ve all read a book or watched a movie that involves a hardened soldier giving a deep and introspective speech. For fantasy fans, perhaps the most famous version of this comes from Aragorn in the movie adaptation of Return of the King :
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers, I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!
However, soldiers are typically very direct and goal-oriented in conversations as well as action and speech. Your average soldier is far likelier to engage in quick banter and dirty jokes with a colleague than to get seriously introspective.
Additionally, your military characters should use slang and acronyms correctly. For example, a World War II soldier is far likelier to call white phosphorous by its nickname “Willy Pete” than by its proper name. Modern soldiers are likelier to phonetically say an acronym rather than spell it out (i.e., a soldier would say “Dima” rather than spell out “D-M-A” in speech when referring to a “defense media activity.”) It’s important to get this right because soldiers are likelier to use specialized terms and acronyms than civilians are.
Finally, try to avoid using military cliches whenever possible. Such cliches may include famous movie lines like “stay frosty” or generic action lines like “come get some” or “lock and load.” These cliches can make your fictional soldiers sound more like generic action heroes, and this really takes readers out of the story.
Writing scientific dialogue
Interestingly, there’s some overlap between writing military dialogue and writing scientific dialogue. That’s because scientists, too, are likely to use a variety of specialized terms and acronyms. On top of that, their dialogue should be informed by actual science, so you’ll need to do extra research to make these characters sound authentic.
One tip for writing dialogue between scientists or any other specialists is to make sure they aren’t explaining things to each other that they should already know. For instance, if you’re writing a conversation between two accomplished scientists, one of them explaining what the Big Bang Theory is to the other would be completely absurd. If you must explain concepts to your readers, do so via narration rather than dialogue.
Finally, if your story is more of a science fiction story, try to make sure that conversations about your future technology are consistent with modern science. This helps to ground the narrative, and this grounding is doubly important in a fictional world full of futuristic wonders.
Writing drunk dialogue
Writing drunk characters is harder than you might imagine. There are multiple approaches you might take.
One of these approaches is to visually show that being drunk is affecting how someone speaks. You can do this by stretching out words with hyphens and extra letters (like turning “hey” into a “h-h-h-eeeeeyyyy”), or by having the character frequently trailing off or cutting themselves off with ellipses and em dashes (refer to our interrupted dialogue section for help with this). You might also turn short phrases into a single word (like turning “how are you doing” into “howryadoing”) to show slurred speech.
If you don’t want to visually represent drunken dialogue, you can always write the dialogue normally and use actions to indicate the character is drunk. For example:
“No, I’m fine,” he said, his body slightly lurching as soon as he stood up. “Stop bothering me.” It wasn’t clear who he was talking to because he couldn’t seem to focus on any one person.
This works especially well if you can accurately write the body language of a drunken person.
Writing slang in dialogue
Think of slang as a kind of “secret sauce” for your dialogue. This sauce can add a lot of flavor, but the last thing you want to do is use too much of it!
First, make sure you’re using slang accurately. Websites like Urban Dictionary can help you verify the exact meaning of a term. Urban Dictionary can also help you understand whether to use this bit of slang as a noun, a verb, or something else entirely.
Second, choose the right moments to use slang. Overusing slang is one of the quickest ways to annoy your readers, so it needs to be sprinkled into your story rather than poured.
Finally, make sure slang fits the character using it and fits into your existing dialogue. The last thing you want is for weirdly-placed slang to take the reader out of the story.
Writing child dialogue
Writing dialogue for children can be especially difficult. Tthe only way to really make it easier is to try to match the dialogue to the age and development of your characters.
For example, very young children (think two years old or younger) will communicate in short bursts of badly-spelled dialogue (“daddy” becoming “dadda,” for instance). When that same child is a little older, their dialogue should no longer be misspelled, but the sentences are still likely to be very short.
In later years, child dialogue may also reflect other developments. For example, a teenage character might alternate between short, sarcastic sentences and emotional outbursts. That’s because puberty, and the complex mix of emotions it engenders, can hover over a teenager like a cloud of radiation.
It may be helpful to read passages of short stories and books written for the age of the children you’re writing for. YA authors are typically more tuned into how children actually speak.
You can also research letters and other writings that children have written. A quick Google search for “letters written by children” will reveal some interesting examples that can give you an idea of what a child’s voice sounds like.
Finally, if possible, you should have your children’s dialogue reviewed by parents, teachers, and others who work with children. They can give you a better idea of whether you’re on target or far off the mark.
Adding emotion to dialogue
Of course, teenagers aren’t the only characters who might be prone to emotional outbursts. Your characters should all experience a full range of emotions, and these emotions may dictate how they communicate. Here are some ideas on how to incorporate anger, distress, and joy into your dialogue:
Writing screaming in dialogue
By the time a character is screaming, it’s safe to say they’ve lost control of themselves. There are different ways to express that loss of control in dialogue.
The most basic option is to end the character’s lines with exclamation points. As an additional flourish, you can describe what the character is doing while they’re talking (such as pacing, frantically looking around, and so on).
You can also visually set the screaming dialogue apart. Italics work best for this, though you shouldn’t overuse either technique.
Finally, be sure to showcase how others react to the scream. This helps convince the reader of how intense the noise really was.
Writing laughter in dialogue
Your characters are going to laugh from time to time. You have a few different options for showing that laughter in your dialogue.
The first option is to mix amused dialogue with action indicating laughter, such as “she laughed” or “he chuckled.” If the characters will be laughing a lot, make sure to change up the verbiage you use for the sake of variety.
Another option is to actually write the laughter out, such as writing out “ha ha.” Visually, this really stands out, so using it too often may become disruptive to your reader.
The third option is to write a shortened form of the laughter, such as a singular “ha.” This is useful for expressing dry amusement or showing that a character was mildly amused but didn’t break into full-throated laughter.
Mixing dialogue with actions
Even though you’re writing a story and not a screenplay, your characters should often be in motion. Showing characters taking action helps them appear more dynamic and helps to break up the dialogue.
Here are a few methods for incorporating common character actions into your dialogue:
Writing coughing in dialogue
A character may cough in the middle of speaking. This can indicate things like illness or a reaction to the environment. As usual, you have multiple options for writing coughing in dialogue.
The first option is to simply describe the cough. After a character speaks, and possibly after they cut themselves off, you can write a vivid description of the cough. The advantage of this approach is that you can flesh out whether this was a wet cough, a hacking cough, and so on.
The second option is to express the cough within the dialogue itself as a form of onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia refers to words that are spelled like how they sound. For example, “buzz” and “hum.” With some creativity, you can create unique words to indicate that a character’s dialogue suddenly turned into a cough.
Writers may use words like “ahem” to show a character clearing their throat (and probably getting the attention of the room). To express more sudden and violent coughs, you could always write out kaff , khoff , khak , and so on, with the sound written as a word in italics.
Writing stuttering in dialogue
Whether it’s due to fear, excitement, or a speech condition, our characters sometimes stutter. The only real way to express this in dialogue is to have the first letter or consonant followed by hyphens. Do this multiple times and then complete the word, like “h-h-how’s it going?”
Don’t overuse stuttering in your dialogue. Otherwise, instances of stuttering will lose their impact.
Writing eating in dialogue
One of the most common actions your characters can take is eating. This means you must know how to properly write eating into your dialogue.
The most basic way of doing this is to describe the characters’ eating in actions between dialogue. For example, after a character finishes a sentence, you may write that “He then forked the remains of the last pancake through the syrup on his plate with deliberate intensity.”
While it’s not polite, our characters may sometimes end up speaking with their mouths full. To express this, you can merge words in creative ways, similar to slurred speech. From a person eating, “stop it” may come out more like “stoppid.” Depending on what the character is eating and saying, you may need to replace various syllables (for example, “cutting” may sound like “cuhhing” from a character who is biting down on something and can’t use their tongue).
Another option is to express the act of eating within the dialogue itself. For example:
“Wow, these tacos”— crunch —“you can really taste every flavor”— slorp —“I could eat these all day!”
If you want to sound convincing, research isn’t very hard to do. Just record yourself talking with your mouthful as you try to say the dialogue in question. This gives you a perfect reference as you write!
How to write better dialogue every time
Dialogue is hard to learn and even harder to master. But serious writers know that mastery is rewarding because it helps you craft the most convincing characters and the most compelling stories!
Now that you know a few of our best tips for writing dialogue, it’s time to put those skills to use. Next time you sit down to write, you can begin using these dialogue tips and tricks to create exchanges between your characters that practically leap off the page.
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How to Format Dialogue in a Story
Last Updated: May 17, 2023 Fact Checked
This article was co-authored by Diya Chaudhuri, PhD . Diya Chaudhuri holds a PhD in Creative Writing (specializing in Poetry) from Georgia State University. She has over 5 years of experience as a writing tutor and instructor for both the University of Florida and Georgia State University. There are 12 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 449,701 times.
Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, satire or drama, writing the dialogue may have its challenges. The parts of a story where characters speak stand out from the other elements of a story, starting with the quotation marks that are nearly universally applied. Here are some of the most common and established steps for making sure that your story looks right when you have to figure out how to properly format dialogue.
Things You Should Know
- Break and indent paragraphs involving 2 or more speakers.
- Use quotation marks around all words spoken by a character.
- Break a long speech into multiple paragraphs.
Getting the Punctuation Right
- Even if a speaker only utters half a syllable before they’re interrupted by someone else, that half-syllable still gets its own indented paragraph.
- In English, dialogue is read from the left side of the page to the right, so the first thing readers notice when looking at a block of text is the white space on the left margin.  X Research source
- A single set of quotation marks can include multiple sentences, as long as they are spoken in the same portion of dialogue. For example: Evgeny argued, "But Laura didn’t have to finish her dinner! You always give her special treatment!"
- When a character quotes someone else, use double-quotes around what your character says, then single-quotes around the speech they’re quoting. For example: Evgeny argued, “But you never yell ‘Finish your dinner’ at Laura!”
- The reversal of roles for the single and double-quotation mark is common outside of American writing. Many European and Asian languages use angle brackets (<< >>) to mark dialogue instead.
- Use a comma to separate the dialogue tag from the dialogue.
- If the dialogue tag precedes the dialogue, the comma appears before the opening quotation mark: Evgeny argued, “But Laura didn’t have to finish her dinner!”
- If the dialogue tag comes after the dialogue, the comma appears before (inside) the closing quotation mark: “But Laura didn’t have to finish her dinner,” argued Evgeny.
- If the dialogue tag interrupts the flow of a sentence of dialogue, use a pair of commas that follows the previous two rules: “But Laura,” Evgeny argued, “never has to finish her dinner!”
- If the question or exclamation ends the dialogue, do not use commas to separate the dialogue from dialogue tags. For example: "Why did you order mac-and-cheese pizza for dinner?" Fatima asked in disbelief.
- For example, use a dash to indicate an abruptly ended speech: "What are y--" Joe began.
- You can also use dashes to indicate when one person's dialogue is interrupted by another's: "I just wanted to tell you--" "Don't say it!" "--that I prefer Rocky Road ice cream."
- Use ellipses when a character has lost her train of thought or can't figure out what to say: "Well, I guess I mean..."
- For example: Evgeny argued, "But Laura didn’t have to finish her dinner!" The “b” of “But” does not technically begin the sentence, but it begins a sentence in the world of the dialogue, so it is capitalized.
- However, if the first quoted word isn’t the first word of a sentence, don’t capitalize it: Evgeny argued that Laura “never has to finish her dinner!”
- Use an opening quotation mark where you normally would, but don’t place one at the end of the first paragraph of the character’s speech. The speech isn’t over yet, so you don’t punctuate it like it is!
- Do, however, place another opening quotation mark at the beginning of the next paragraph of speech. This indicates that this is a continuation of the speech from the previous paragraph.
- Place your closing quotation mark wherever the character’s speech ends, as you normally would.
Making Your Dialogue Flow Naturally
- When you have a long dialogue that’s clearly being held between only two people, you can choose to leave out the dialogue tags entirely. In this case, you would rely on your paragraph breaks and indentations to let the reader know which character is speaking.
- You should leave out the dialogue tags when more than two characters are speaking only if you intend for the reader to be potentially confused about who is speaking. For example, if four characters are arguing with one another, you may want the reader to get the sense that they’re just hearing snatches of argument without being able to tell who’s speaking. The confusion of leaving out dialogue tags could help accomplish this.
- Place dialogue tags in the middle of a sentence, interrupting the sentence, to change the pacing of your sentence. Because you have to use two commas to set the dialogue tag apart (see Step 3 in the previous section), your sentence will have two pauses in the middle of the spoken sentence: “And how exactly,” Laura muttered under her breath, “do you plan on accomplishing that?”
- Some examples of pronouns include I, me, he, she, herself, you, it, that, they, each, few, many, who, whoever, whose, someone, everybody, and so on.
- Pronouns must always agree with the number and gender of the nouns they’re referring to.  X Research source  X Research source
- For example, the only appropriate pronouns to replace “Laura” are singular, feminine ones: she, her, hers, herself.
- The only appropriate pronouns to replace “Laura and Evgeny” are plural, gender neutral ones (because English loses gender when pluralized): they, their, theirs, themselves, them.
- Remember that less is often more. One common mistake that writers make when creating dialogue is to write things in longer sentences than people would actually say them. For example, most people use contractions and drop inessential words in everyday conversation. Thanks Helpful 1 Not Helpful 0
- Be very careful if you attempt to include an accent in your dialogue. Often, this will necessitate extra punctuation to show accent sounds ( danglin' instead of dangling , for example), and can end up visually overwhelming your reader. Thanks Helpful 1 Not Helpful 0
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- ↑ http://edhelper.com/ReadingComprehension_33_85.html
- ↑ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20space
- ↑ https://stlcc.edu/student-support/academic-success-and-tutoring/writing-center/writing-resources/quotation-marks-dialogue.aspx
- ↑ https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/how-to-write-dialogue/tags/
- ↑ http://learn.lexiconic.net/dialoguepunctuation.htm
- ↑ http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000106.htm
- ↑ http://www.writersdigest.com/uncategorized/writing-dialogue-the-5-best-ways-to-make-your-characters-conversations-seem-real
- ↑ http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/propernoun.htm
- ↑ http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/pronoun.asp
- ↑ http://facweb.furman.edu/~moakes/Powerwrite/pronouns.htm
- ↑ https://www.sjsu.edu/writingcenter/docs/handouts/Pronouns.pdf
- ↑ http://www.whoosh-editing.com/writing-believable-dialogue/
About This Article
To format dialogue in a story, insert a paragraph break and indent every time a new speaker starts talking. Then, put what they’re saying inside a set of double quotation marks. If you're using a dialogue tag, like "She said" or "He asked," follow it with a comma if it comes before the dialogue or a period if it comes after. Also, remember to put periods, question marks, and exclamation points inside the quotation marks. For more tips from our Creative Writing co-author, like how to write good, convincing dialogue, scroll down! Did this summary help you? Yes No
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Last updated on Jul 24, 2023
15 Examples of Great Dialogue (And Why They Work So Well)
Great dialogue is hard to pin down, but you know it when you hear or see it. In the earlier parts of this guide, we showed you some well-known tips and rules for writing dialogue. In this section, we'll show you those rules in action with 15 examples of great dialogue, breaking down exactly why they work so well.
1. Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered
In the opening of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, we meet Willa Knox, a middle-aged and newly unemployed writer who has just inherited a ramshackle house.
“The simplest thing would be to tear it down,” the man said. “The house is a shambles.” She took this news as a blood-rush to the ears: a roar of peasant ancestors with rocks in their fists, facing the evictor. But this man was a contractor. Willa had called him here and she could send him away. She waited out her panic while he stood looking at her shambles, appearing to nurse some satisfaction from his diagnosis. She picked out words. “It’s not a living thing. You can’t just pronounce it dead. Anything that goes wrong with a structure can be replaced with another structure. Am I right?” “Correct. What I am saying is that the structure needing to be replaced is all of it. I’m sorry. Your foundation is nonexistent.”
Alfred Hitchcock once described drama as "life with the boring bits cut out." In this passage, Kingsolver cuts out the boring parts of Willa's conversation with her contractor and brings us right to the tensest, most interesting part of the conversation.
By entering their conversation late , the reader is spared every tedious detail of their interaction.
Instead of a blow-by-blow account of their negotiations (what she needs done, when he’s free, how she’ll be paying), we’re dropped right into the emotional heart of the discussion. The novel opens with the narrator learning that the home she cherishes can’t be salvaged.
By starting off in the middle of (relatively obscure) dialogue, it takes a moment for the reader to orient themselves in the story and figure out who is speaking, and what they’re speaking about. This disorientation almost mirrors Willa’s own reaction to the bad news, as her expectations for a new life in her new home are swiftly undermined.
How to Write Believable Dialogue
Master the art of dialogue in 10 five-minute lessons.
2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
In the first piece of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice , we meet Mr and Mrs Bennet, as Mrs Bennet attempts to draw her husband into a conversation about neighborhood gossip.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?” Mr. Bennet replied that he had not. “But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.” Mr. Bennet made no answer. “Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently. “You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” This was invitation enough. “Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
Austen’s dialogue is always witty, subtle, and packed with character. This extract from Pride and Prejudice is a great example of dialogue being used to develop character relationships .
We instantly learn everything we need to know about the dynamic between Mr and Mrs Bennet’s from their first interaction: she’s chatty, and he’s the beleaguered listener who has learned to entertain her idle gossip, if only for his own sake (hence “you want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it”).
There is even a clear difference between the two characters visually on the page: Mr Bennet responds in short sentences, in simple indirect speech, or not at all, but this is “invitation enough” for Mrs Bennet to launch into a rambling and extended response, dominating the conversation in text just as she does audibly.
The fact that Austen manages to imbue her dialogue with so much character-building realism means we hardly notice the amount of crucial plot exposition she has packed in here. This heavily expository dialogue could be a drag to get through, but Austen’s colorful characterization means she slips it under the radar with ease, forwarding both our understanding of these people and the world they live in simultaneously.
3. Naomi Alderman, The Power
In The Power , young women around the world suddenly find themselves capable of generating and controlling electricity. In this passage, between two boys and a girl who just used those powers to light her cigarette.
Kyle gestures with his chin and says, “Heard a bunch of guys killed a girl in Nebraska last week for doing that.” “For smoking? Harsh.” Hunter says, “Half the kids in school know you can do it.” “So what?” Hunter says, “Your dad could use you in his factory. Save money on electricity.” “He’s not my dad.” She makes the silver flicker at the ends of her fingers again. The boys watch.
Alderman here uses a show, don’t tell approach to expositional dialogue. Within this short exchange, we discover a lot about Allie, her personal circumstances, and the developing situation elsewhere. We learn that women are being punished harshly for their powers; that Allie is expected to be ashamed of those powers and keep them a secret, but doesn’t seem to care to do so; that her father is successful in industry; and that she has a difficult relationship with him. Using dialogue in this way prevents info-dumping backstory all at once, and instead helps us learn about the novel’s world in a natural way.
Show, Don't Tell
Master the golden rule of writing in 10 five-minute lessons.
4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Here, friends Tommy and Kathy have a conversation after Tommy has had a meltdown. After being bullied by a group of boys, he has been stomping around in the mud, the precise reaction they were hoping to evoke from him.
“Tommy,” I said, quite sternly. “There’s mud all over your shirt.” “So what?” he mumbled. But even as he said this, he looked down and noticed the brown specks, and only just stopped himself crying out in alarm. Then I saw the surprise register on his face that I should know about his feelings for the polo shirt. “It’s nothing to worry about.” I said, before the silence got humiliating for him. “It’ll come off. If you can’t get it off yourself, just take it to Miss Jody.” He went on examining his shirt, then said grumpily, “It’s nothing to do with you anyway.”
This episode from Never Let Me Go highlights the power of interspersing action beats within dialogue. These action beats work in several ways to add depth to what would otherwise be a very simple and fairly nondescript exchange. Firstly, they draw attention to the polo shirt, and highlight its potential significance in the plot. Secondly, they help to further define Kathy’s relationship with Tommy.
We learn through Tommy’s surprised reaction that he didn’t think Kathy knew how much he loved his seemingly generic polo shirt. This moment of recognition allows us to see that she cares for him and understands him more deeply than even he realized. Kathy breaking the silence before it can “humiliate” Tommy further emphasizes her consideration for him. While the dialogue alone might make us think Kathy is downplaying his concerns with pragmatic advice, it is the action beats that tell the true story here.
5. J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit
The eponymous hobbit Bilbo is engaged in a game of riddles with the strange creature Gollum.
"What have I got in my pocket?" he said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset. "Not fair! not fair!" he hissed. "It isn't fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it's got in its nassty little pocketses?" Bilbo seeing what had happened and having nothing better to ask stuck to his question. "What have I got in my pocket?" he said louder. "S-s-s-s-s," hissed Gollum. "It must give us three guesseses, my precious, three guesseses." "Very well! Guess away!" said Bilbo. "Handses!" said Gollum. "Wrong," said Bilbo, who had luckily just taken his hand out again. "Guess again!" "S-s-s-s-s," said Gollum, more upset than ever.
Tolkein’s dialogue for Gollum is a masterclass in creating distinct character voices . By using a repeated catchphrase (“my precious”) and unconventional spelling and grammar to reflect his unusual speech pattern, Tolkien creates an idiosyncratic, unique (and iconic) speech for Gollum. This vivid approach to formatting dialogue, which is almost a transliteration of Gollum's sounds, allows readers to imagine his speech pattern and practically hear it aloud.
We wouldn’t recommend using this extreme level of idiosyncrasy too often in your writing — it can get wearing for readers after a while, and Tolkien deploys it sparingly, as Gollum’s appearances are limited to a handful of scenes. However, you can use Tolkien’s approach as inspiration to create (slightly more subtle) quirks of speech for your own characters.
6. F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The narrator, Nick has just done his new neighbour Gatsby a favor by inviting his beloved Daisy over to tea. Perhaps in return, Gatsby then attempts to make a shady business proposition.
“There’s another little thing,” he said uncertainly, and hesitated. “Would you rather put it off for a few days?” I asked. “Oh, it isn’t about that. At least —” He fumbled with a series of beginnings. “Why, I thought — why, look here, old sport, you don’t make much money, do you?” “Not very much.” This seemed to reassure him and he continued more confidently. “I thought you didn’t, if you’ll pardon my — you see, I carry on a little business on the side, a little side line, if you understand. And I thought that if you don’t make very much — You’re selling bonds, aren’t you, old sport?” “Trying to.”
This dialogue from The Great Gatsby is a great example of how to make dialogue sound natural. Gatsby tripping over his own words (even interrupting himself , as marked by the em-dashes) not only makes his nerves and awkwardness palpable but also mimics real speech. Just as real people often falter and make false starts when they’re speaking off the cuff, Gatsby too flounders, giving us insight into his self-doubt; his speech isn’t polished and perfect, and neither is he despite all his efforts to appear so.
Fitzgerald also creates a distinctive voice for Gatsby by littering his speech with the character's signature term of endearment, “old sport”. We don’t even really need dialogue markers to know who’s speaking here — a sign of very strong characterization through dialogue.
7. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
In this first meeting between the two heroes of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, John is introduced to Sherlock while the latter is hard at work in the lab.
“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment. “Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself. “The question now is about hemoglobin. No doubt you see the significance of this discovery of mine?” “It is interesting, chemically, no doubt,” I answered, “but practically— ” “Why, man, it is the most practical medico-legal discovery for years. Don’t you see that it gives us an infallible test for blood stains. Come over here now!” He seized me by the coat-sleeve in his eagerness, and drew me over to the table at which he had been working. “Let us have some fresh blood,” he said, digging a long bodkin into his finger, and drawing off the resulting drop of blood in a chemical pipette. “Now, I add this small quantity of blood to a litre of water. You perceive that the resulting mixture has the appearance of pure water. The proportion of blood cannot be more than one in a million. I have no doubt, however, that we shall be able to obtain the characteristic reaction.” As he spoke, he threw into the vessel a few white crystals, and then added some drops of a transparent fluid. In an instant the contents assumed a dull mahogany colour, and a brownish dust was precipitated to the bottom of the glass jar. “Ha! ha!” he cried, clapping his hands, and looking as delighted as a child with a new toy. “What do you think of that?”
This passage uses a number of the key techniques for writing naturalistic and exciting dialogue, including characters speaking over one another and the interspersal of action beats.
Sherlock cutting off Watson to launch into a monologue about his blood experiment shows immediately where Sherlock’s interest lies — not in small talk, or the person he is speaking to, but in his own pursuits, just like earlier in the conversation when he refuses to explain anything to John and is instead self-absorbedly “chuckling to himself”. This helps establish their initial rapport (or lack thereof) very quickly.
Breaking up that monologue with snippets of him undertaking the forensic tests allows us to experience the full force of his enthusiasm over it without having to read an uninterrupted speech about the ins and outs of a science experiment.
Starting to think you might like to read some Sherlock? Check out our guide to the Sherlock Holmes canon !
8. Brandon Taylor, Real Life
Here, our protagonist Wallace is questioned by Ramon, a friend-of-a-friend, over the fact that he is considering leaving his PhD program.
Wallace hums. “I mean, I wouldn’t say that I want to leave, but I’ve thought about it, sure.” “Why would you do that? I mean, the prospects for… black people, you know?” “What are the prospects for black people?” Wallace asks, though he knows he will be considered the aggressor for this question.
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is drawn from the author’s own experiences as a queer Black man, attempting to navigate the unwelcoming world of academia, navigating the world of academia, and so it’s no surprise that his dialogue rings so true to life — it’s one of the reasons the novel is one of our picks for must-read books by Black authors .
This episode is part of a pattern where Wallace is casually cornered and questioned by people who never question for a moment whether they have the right to ambush him or criticize his choices. The use of indirect dialogue at the end shows us this is a well-trodden path for Wallace: he has had this same conversation several times, and can pre-empt the exact outcome.
This scene is also a great example of the dramatic significance of people choosing not to speak. The exchange happens in front of a big group, but — despite their apparent discomfort — nobody speaks up to defend Wallace, or to criticize Ramon’s patronizing microaggressions. Their silence is deafening, and we get a glimpse of Ramon’s isolation due to the complacency of others, all due to what is not said in this dialogue example.
9. Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants
In this short story, an unnamed man and a young woman discuss whether or not they should terminate a pregnancy while sitting on a train platform.
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.” “And you really want to?” “I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.” “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” “I love you now. You know I love you.” “I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?” “I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.” “If I do it you won’t ever worry?” “I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”
This example of dialogue from Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants moves at quite a clip. The conversation quickly bounces back and forth between the speakers, and the call-and-response format of the woman asking and the man answering is effective because it establishes a clear dynamic between the two speakers: the woman is the one seeking reassurance and trying to understand the man’s feelings, while he is the one who is ultimately in control of the situation.
Note the sparing use of dialogue markers: this minimalist approach keeps the dialogue brisk, and we can still easily understand who is who due to the use of a new paragraph when the speaker changes .
Like this classic author’s style? Head over to our selection of the 11 best Ernest Hemingway books .
10. Madeline Miller, Circe
In Madeline Miller’s retelling of Greek myth, we witness a conversation between the mythical enchantress Circe and Telemachus (son of Odysseus).
“You do not grieve for your father?” “I do. I grieve that I never met the father everyone told me I had.” I narrowed my eyes. “Explain.” “I am no storyteller.” “I am not asking for a story. You have come to my island. You owe me truth.” A moment passed, and then he nodded. “You will have it.”
This short and punchy exchange hits on a lot of the stylistic points we’ve covered so far. The conversation is a taut tennis match between the two speakers as they volley back and forth with short but impactful sentences, and unnecessary dialogue tags have been shaved off . It also highlights Circe’s imperious attitude, a result of her divine status. Her use of short, snappy declaratives and imperatives demonstrates that she’s used to getting her own way and feels no need to mince her words.
11. Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name
This is an early conversation between seventeen-year-old Elio and his family’s handsome new student lodger, Oliver.
What did one do around here? Nothing. Wait for summer to end. What did one do in the winter, then? I smiled at the answer I was about to give. He got the gist and said, “Don’t tell me: wait for summer to come, right?” I liked having my mind read. He’d pick up on dinner drudgery sooner than those before him. “Actually, in the winter the place gets very gray and dark. We come for Christmas. Otherwise it’s a ghost town.” “And what else do you do here at Christmas besides roast chestnuts and drink eggnog?” He was teasing. I offered the same smile as before. He understood, said nothing, we laughed. He asked what I did. I played tennis. Swam. Went out at night. Jogged. Transcribed music. Read. He said he jogged too. Early in the morning. Where did one jog around here? Along the promenade, mostly. I could show him if he wanted. It hit me in the face just when I was starting to like him again: “Later, maybe.”
Dialogue is one of the most crucial aspects of writing romance — what’s a literary relationship without some flirty lines? Here, however, Aciman gives us a great example of efficient dialogue. By removing unnecessary dialogue and instead summarizing with narration, he’s able to confer the gist of the conversation without slowing down the pace unnecessarily. Instead, the emphasis is left on what’s unsaid, the developing romantic subtext.
Furthermore, the fact that we receive this scene in half-reported snippets rather than as an uninterrupted transcript emphasizes the fact that this is Elio’s own recollection of the story, as the manipulation of the dialogue in this way serves to mimic the nostalgic haziness of memory.
Understanding Point of View
Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.
12. George Eliot, Middlemarch
Two of Eliot’s characters, Mary and Rosamond, are out shopping,
When she and Rosamond happened both to be reflected in the glass, she said laughingly — “What a brown patch I am by the side of you, Rosy! You are the most unbecoming companion.” “Oh no! No one thinks of your appearance, you are so sensible and useful, Mary. Beauty is of very little consequence in reality,” said Rosamond, turning her head towards Mary, but with eyes swerving towards the new view of her neck in the glass. “You mean my beauty,” said Mary, rather sardonically. Rosamond thought, “Poor Mary, she takes the kindest things ill.” Aloud she said, “What have you been doing lately?” “I? Oh, minding the house — pouring out syrup — pretending to be amiable and contented — learning to have a bad opinion of everybody.”
This excerpt, a conversation between the level-headed Mary and vain Rosamond, is an example of dialogue that develops character relationships naturally. Action descriptors allow us to understand what is really happening in the conversation.
Whilst the speech alone might lead us to believe Rosamond is honestly (if clumsily) engaging with her friend, the description of her simultaneously gazing at herself in a mirror gives us insight not only into her vanity, but also into the fact that she is not really engaged in her conversation with Mary at all.
The use of internal dialogue cut into the conversation (here formatted with quotation marks rather than the usual italics ) lets us know what Rosamond is actually thinking, and the contrast between this and what she says aloud is telling. The fact that we know she privately realizes she has offended Mary, but quickly continues the conversation rather than apologizing, is emphatic of her character. We get to know Rosamond very well within this short passage, which is a hallmark of effective character-driven dialogue.
13. John Steinbeck, The Winter of our Discontent
Here, Mary (speaking first) reacts to her husband Ethan’s attempts to discuss his previous experiences as a disciplined soldier, his struggles in subsequent life, and his feeling of impending change.
“You’re trying to tell me something.” “Sadly enough, I am. And it sounds in my ears like an apology. I hope it is not.” “I’m going to set out lunch.”
Steinbeck’s Winter of our Discontent is an acute study of alienation and miscommunication, and this exchange exemplifies the ways in which characters can fail to communicate, even when they’re speaking. The pair speaking here are trapped in a dysfunctional marriage which leaves Ethan feeling isolated, and part of his loneliness comes from the accumulation of exchanges such as this one. Whenever he tries to communicate meaningfully with his wife, she shuts the conversation down with a complete non sequitur.
We expect Mary’s “you’re trying to tell me something” to be followed by a revelation, but Ethan is not forthcoming in his response, and Mary then exits the conversation entirely. Nothing is communicated, and the jarring and frustrating effect of having our expectations subverted goes a long way in mirroring Ethan’s own frustration.
Just like Ethan and Mary, we receive no emotional pay-off, and this passage of characters talking past one another doesn’t further the plot as we hope it might, but instead gives us insight into the extent of these characters’ estrangement.
14. Bret Easton Ellis , Less Than Zero
The disillusioned main character of Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Clay, here catches up with a college friend, Daniel, whom he hasn’t seen in a while.
He keeps rubbing his mouth and when I realize that he’s not going to answer me, I ask him what he’s been doing. “Been doing?” “Yeah.” “Hanging out.” “Hanging out where?” “Where? Around.”
Less Than Zero is an elegy to conversation, and this dialogue is an example of the many vacuous exchanges the protagonist engages in, seemingly just to fill time. The whole book is deliberately unpoetic and flat, and depicts the lives of disaffected youths in 1980s LA. Their misguided attempts to fill the emptiness within them with drink and drugs are ultimately fruitless, and it shows in their conversations: in truth, they have nothing to say to one another at all.
This utterly meaningless exchange would elsewhere be considered dead weight to a story. Here, rather than being fat in need of trimming, the empty conversation is instead thematically resonant.
15. Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
The young narrator of du Maurier’s classic gothic novel here has a strained conversation with Robert, one of the young staff members at her new husband’s home, the unwelcoming Manderley.
“Has Mr. de Winter been in?” I said. “Yes, Madam,” said Robert; “he came in just after two, and had a quick lunch, and then went out again. He asked for you and Frith said he thought you must have gone down to see the ship.” “Did he say when he would be back again?” I asked. “No, Madam.” “Perhaps he went to the beach another way,” I said; “I may have missed him.” “Yes, Madam,” said Robert. I looked at the cold meat and the salad. I felt empty but not hungry. I did not want cold meat now. “Will you be taking lunch?” said Robert. “No,” I said, “No, you might bring me some tea, Robert, in the library. Nothing like cakes or scones. Just tea and bread and butter.” “Yes, Madam.”
We’re including this one in our dialogue examples list to show you the power of everything Du Maurier doesn’t do: rather than cycling through a ton of fancy synonyms for “said”, she opts for spare dialogue and tags.
This interaction's cold, sparse tone complements the lack of warmth the protagonist feels in the moment depicted here. By keeping the dialogue tags simple , the author ratchets up the tension — without any distracting flourishes taking the reader out of the scene. The subtext of the conversation is able to simmer under the surface, and we aren’t beaten over the head with any stage direction extras.
The inclusion of three sentences of internal dialogue in the middle of the dialogue (“I looked at the cold meat and the salad. I felt empty but not hungry. I did not want cold meat now.”) is also a masterful touch. What could have been a single sentence is stretched into three, creating a massive pregnant pause before Robert continues speaking, without having to explicitly signpost one. Manipulating the pace of dialogue in this way and manufacturing meaningful silence is a great way of adding depth to a scene.
Phew! We've been through a lot of dialogue, from first meetings to idle chit-chat to confrontations, and we hope these dialogue examples have been helpful in illustrating some of the most common techniques.
If you’re looking for more pointers on creating believable and effective dialogue, be sure to check out our course on writing dialogue. Or, if you find you learn better through examples, you can look at our list of 100 books to read before you die — it’s packed full of expert storytellers who’ve honed the art of dialogue.
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Rewriting Your Internal Dialogue at Work
Recognizing our natural negative biases can help flip our internal script..
Posted February 17, 2022 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
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- While thoughts are not reality, they do produce an automatic response in our bodies.
- Replacing automatic negative thoughts with more positive or neutral ones can help us regain focus and control at work.
- Noticing and identifying common thought distortions is the first step to rewriting our internal narratives.
You just gave a presentation at work, something you’ve worked pretty hard on over the past few weeks. Your boss approaches you after the meeting and says, “I enjoyed your presentation! But, your slides could have been more engaging.”
Suddenly, a spiral of thoughts floods your mind: I should have constructed the slides differently, so the presentation must actually have been bad. The positive feedback I received was just coming from kindness…they didn’t really think the presentation was that good. Is this happening all the time at work? Does anyone think I’m doing a good job? Maybe no one approves of me or my work…
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. All of us suffer from the effects of a negative thought spiral every once in a while. But when it becomes a cognitive habit, we can really sabotage ourselves and our genuinely great efforts.
It’s important to remember that thoughts are just that—thoughts. They do not necessarily reflect the truth, or the beliefs and opinions of others. The problem is that whenever we do have a negative thought, our body responds. If you think, “Wow, I really am a loser,” you will have an immediate physiological response. When habitual thoughts are not in our best interest, it contributes to our physiology spiraling out of control along with our self-talk .
Be on the lookout for distorted perception
Research has shown that when we feel pressure, our self-talk tends to become inaccurate. Pressure leads us to interpret ambiguous stimuli negatively. For example, imagine you have sent an email to your boss outlining a new project you would like to complete. Your boss doesn’t respond all day. The situation itself is ambiguous, there is no proof or evidence that your boss isn’t responding because of something you have done.
However, pressure will likely bias you to interpret the situation negatively: “My boss must not like the idea and is looking for a way to let me down easy.” Complicating the situation, studies show our brains are biased toward negativity, whether under pressure or not. We respond more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. Think about it: do you tend to put more weight on the “bad” things that happen throughout your day, or the good ones?
All this negative thinking has two consequences:
- The negative focus diverts attention and energy from dealing with the task at hand, reducing our efficiency and productivity .
- For every negative thought, there is a negative physiological reaction; this reaction culminates in a non-adaptive stress response.
The first step toward a more balanced perspective is to begin questioning self-statements and beliefs, especially when we know we are already under duress. If we can make an accurate assessment and divide what needs to be addressed from what is a misperception, then an adaptive response will follow. We can choose our viewpoint and respond in an optimal way to stress.
The most common thought distortions are:
- All-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking
- Overgeneralization—applying the results of one situation to all similar situations
- Mental filter—highlighting and dwelling on one negative detail in an otherwise good experience
- Jumping to conclusions or catatrophizing—concluding the worst when the worst is not necessarily substantiated by facts
- Emotional reasoning—using our emotional state as evidence of objective truth
- Magnification—exaggerating the significance of a negative event
- Personalization—assuming responsibility for a negative event when it had nothing to do with you, or was not under your direct control
- Blame—blaming others as a way to feel more in control of a negative situation
Irrational beliefs may underlie or fuel these distortions, and are often the cause of maladaptive behavior and thinking. Such beliefs are subtle—often unconscious —and so can escape our detection even as they drive our behavior. Even rational beliefs can become irrational when applied to all situations. For instance, seeking approval is perfectly appropriate in many situations, but expecting approval in all situations can lead to maladaptive thinking and conflict.
Rewrite the script
If your internal dialogue has become a negative thought spiral, tune in to these thoughts and recognize there is always more than one way of viewing things. Ask yourself: What is the evidence for this? and Are these statements in my best interest?
At first, it is helpful to write your thoughts down. Externalizing them makes them more real, gets them out of the feedback loop in your head, and can allow you to deal with them more objectively. Rewriting your internal script requires practice, but eventually can become just as automatic as the negative thinking itself.
Follow these four steps:
- Notice automatic thoughts. In any situation, we need to tune in and listen to what we are saying to ourselves. Instead of talking to yourself on autopilot, notice the words and ideas being expressed.
- Identify distortions. See if you recognize any thought distortions or irrational beliefs. Words to watch out for are should , must , have to , ought , always , and never .
- Challenge your thoughts. This step is often the most difficult and may even require some courage to push through. Ask yourself: What is the evidence? Is there another way to view this situation? Is it in my best interest to hold this belief?
- Rewrite your thoughts. Replace the thought distortions and irrational beliefs with more accurate, constructive statements. You don’t necessarily have to fully believe these statements. The important thing is to practice replacing negative thoughts with more positive or neutral ones. If you do not have enough evidence to weigh in on an idea, take action and look for the evidence. Reality checks are an important tool in transforming our internal dialogue.
When rewriting, remember, all thoughts are just thoughts. It will help you avoid the pitfall of self-criticism, especially if you are the type of person who tends to obsess over evaluation your self-performance. In such a case, be extra careful to ask the right questions and not to criticize your lack of ability to perceive a situation optimally. In short, don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up.
Bruce Tulgan, JD, is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking and the author of The Art of Being Indispensable at Work.
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How to Reframe Your Internal Dialogue for Greater Fulfillment in Both Work and Life While our inner dialogue has the potential to be an incredible ally, it can also be a bit of a bully. Here's how you can begin to embrace a more empowering story for yourself, your work and your life.
By Kristel Bauer • Nov 13, 2023
How to reframe your internal story.
- How to navigate and overcome limiting beliefs
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
What if I told you that there is an invaluable tool at your disposal 24 hours a day, 7 days a week which can improve your happiness, support your well-being and fuel your success? What I am referring to is your internal dialogue . That inner voice we all have that can either propel us forward or keep us stuck. Those stories and beliefs that we carry with us like an invisible backpack, influencing our feelings, our behaviors, our work and our lives. While our inner dialogue has the potential to be an incredible ally, it also has the potential to be a bit of a bully.
Beliefs and internal stories like: "I am not good enough." "I am bad at this." "I don't belong here." Those are a few examples of restrictive stories that could be holding you back from true happiness and success in your personal and professional life. Throughout my time practicing in healthcare and in Integrative Psychiatry, I talked with many patients who were unhappy due to unhealthy internal stories. These stories kept them from taking action to create better lives for themselves. I have also talked with many successful individuals and top leaders amid my speaking engagements and my Live Greatly podcast, and I have found that all people, even those who appear extremely confident and self-assured, experience fear, moments of self-doubt and uncertainty.
According to Indeed's Working on well-being 2022 report , where 2522 adults in the UK were surveyed, 1 in 5 senior managers/human resources leaders and over 1 in 10 employees said they "always" or "very frequently" feel like a fraud. A 2020 KPMG study of 750 women showed that 75% of female executives have experienced imposter syndrome. While many people experience some of these feelings, a key thing that I have noticed for people who are happy and successful is that they have learned how to navigate their self-talk and those moments when limiting beliefs surface. They don't let those feelings stop them from positive action and moving in the direction of their mission.
Related: Me, Myself and I: 4 Ways to Harness That Nagging Voice in Your Head
So, how can you start to embrace a more empowering internal story? Well, it begins with self-awareness. How can you actively change something that you don't even know exists? One way you can work on building self-awareness is with mindfulness . Mindfulness can be a helpful way to expand your awareness around your internal dialogue and your beliefs. You can begin to non-judgmentally notice your thoughts, feelings and responses by bringing your attention to the present moment and getting curious.
You will likely notice some habitual thought patterns and behaviors. You may find that if things are going well or if you have gotten positive feedback, your inner voice may be cheering you on and telling you how great of a job you're doing. However, if setbacks occur, if you make a mistake, if you are nervous or trying something new, then what happens?
There is a powerful connection and interplay between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and a key thing to recognize is that a lot of your thoughts are simply not true. Some of your thoughts may be opinions or interpretations. Many thoughts are not facts, and some may be outright lies. We all have limiting beliefs that drive our behaviors, and if you are able to build awareness around these limitations, you can recognize that you don't have to continue to live your life acting like they are true.
You can intentionally choose a new path. You can choose a new response. You can choose to question the validity of your limiting beliefs and present yourself with more empowering possibilities that you can reinforce with new mindful actions. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a popular therapeutic tool that expands on this and can be helpful in navigating limiting beliefs and patterns.
Related: A Guide To Mindfulness: Why You Need To Start Training Your Mind (And How You Can Begin)
How I overcame my own limiting beliefs
I remember back when I was in college, and I had to partake in a mandatory communications class on public speaking . At the time, I saw no use for the class because I was terrified of public speaking. Based on where I was then and the beliefs I had about myself at that time, I could not have predicted that I would now be a keynote speaker speaking to large audiences on a regular basis and absolutely loving it.
I was 18 years old at the time, and all I knew was that I didn't like the feeling of being judged and I wanted to avoid being embarrassed at all costs. I ended up getting a good grade in the class, but based on how uncomfortable I felt speaking to the group, I left that communications class with a new limiting belief. "I am bad at public speaking." That belief stuck with me pretty tightly for some time. It was by my side when I had to give speeches at weddings, and it popped up years later when I had an opportunity to start guest lecturing at a University.
So, how did I overcome it? The first step was realizing that the limiting belief was there. The second was deciding that I wasn't going to let it stop me. I knew that I had an important message I wanted to share that could really help the students I would be speaking to, so I leaned into the mission. When I left my first day of guest lecturing, I had a huge "aha" moment. I felt great, and I had absolutely loved talking to the group. The nerves faded away moments after I started, and I found myself excited to do it again. I realized that the belief that I had about me being bad at public speaking wasn't true. Public speaking had just made me uncomfortable, which is part of doing something new.
Since that time, there has been a question that I use if I find limiting beliefs or restrictive stories surfacing, and it is: "How can I view this in a way that is more empowering for me?" If you are looking to create more empowering stories for yourself, it can be helpful to choose approachable goals and small actions that can propel you forward toward a new, more empowering belief. Self-doubt and fear will likely still be there, but the key is not letting them stop you from becoming who you aspire to be.
Related: Eight Ways Entrepreneurs Can Master Negative Internal Dialogue
Disclaimer: This content purely represents the opinion of the author and is not medical advice or treatment recommendations. Always talk to your healthcare provider about recommendations specific to you.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor
Founder of Live Greatly, Corporate Wellness Expert
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