If you fancy yourself to be the next great novelist, learning how to write standout dialogue is essential. After all, without any verbal communication between your characters, you’re basically writing a textbook or a travel guide. That’s great for those who are actually working on those projects; not so great for readers looking for a gripping story to invest in. The prospect of writing your first dialogue scenes can be daunting, but we’re here to show you just how simple it can be. In this guide, we’ll walk you through some of the basic dialogue rules like formatting, grammar, and punctuation, before showing you a few inspiring examples of writing dialogue that you can learn from.
What Is Dialogue?
Before we can get started on learning how to write dialogue, let’s get familiar with what this is and some of the basic rules to follow. Dialogue is essentially a conversation between your characters, usually two or more people (although inner dialogue is also a commonly used literary technique—but more on that later).
Dialogue in a story is particularly helpful in moving your plot forward, establishing connections and relationships between different characters, and directly revealing story elements that may not be apparent from descriptions alone.
You’ll commonly see it formatted on the page with quotation marks like this: “Is that ice cream really for me?”, said the girl. “Yes, of course it is, it’s your favorite!” her mother replied. This is what’s known as outer dialogue, as it’s happening out loud on the page between the characters.
Inner dialogue, which is also often referred to as an inner monologue, is exactly what it sounds like—it’s a conversation that your character is having internally, with themselves. It’s a chance for the writer to reveal the innermost thoughts of key characters, building a deeper connection with readers and often revealing snippets of information that only that character has without having to share it in the wider world of the story.
In fiction writing, dialogue can be make or break for keeping your readers onboard and engaged with your story. It takes your characters from one-dimensional beings to believable people the audience is fully invested in.
Rules for Writing Dialogue
When you’re thinking about how to write dialogue in a story, understanding basic language skills like punctuation and grammar are crucial. But there are also a few other dialogue rules in writing that can help you put together your first scenes and have them make sense for your reader.
What exactly is the dialogue tags definition? Well, it’s probably easiest to show you with an example from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
“Biddy,” said I, in a virtuously self-asserting manner, “I must request to know what you mean by this?”
In this case, said I is the dialogue tag. It tells the reader which character is speaking at that moment. Dialogue tags are written outside of the quotation marks but can appear before or after the actual speech.
Especially when you’re first starting out with writing dialogue, keep your tags simple. “Said” is perfectly fine to repeat throughout your story!
How to Format Dialogue
Thinking about your dialogue format is an important step for any fiction writer. Your main goal is to make the flow of your story as easy to follow as possible, and that’s especially important when you have multiple characters talking to each other.
Now that you understand how to use dialogue tags to make it clear who is speaking, it’s time to learn how to properly lay out your dialogue scenes.
The most important point to remember when it comes to formatting is using double quotation marks—the industry standard for letting a reader know that a character is speaking.
If you need to quote something within the dialogue itself, you’ll want to use single quotation marks around that section, but still within the double quotation marks of the whole sentence. Here’s an example:
“What did you mean when you said ‘I know he’s hiding something from me!’? I’ve been completely honest all this time,” said Jack.
When there’s a new speaker, start writing on the next line or a new paragraph. You should also try to separate actions from dialogue with both a new line and new sentence so that it’s easily distinguishable from what’s being said.
For long speeches that are more than a couple of lines, the typical dialogue writing format is to put them in their own paragraph. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the best dialogue writing examples to demonstrate this:
“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.”
With so many possible quotation marks, exclamation points, and periods, getting a grip on how to punctuate dialogue can be a challenge. But there are a few easy tricks to help you stay on track.
Any punctuation that impacts the tone of the speech should be placed inside of the quotation marks, like this: “I told you not to touch the hot stove!”. You should also never add extra punctuation if you’re using ellipses to note a trailed-off sentence, like this: Mary sighed. “Well, it was really nice seeing you this weekend…”
Going back to our dialogue tags, knowing where to put punctuation between these can often confuse writers. If a tag comes in the middle of a sentence, use a comma inside the first closing quotation mark and after the verb of the tag before you start the new quotation marks for the second half of the dialogue. For example:
“Can’t get it off the pole,” he muttered, “or if I get it off I can’t make it stay. G’on back down the street, Scout.”(To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee)
Tags can also be used to break up full sentences of dialogue. If that’s the case, use a comma before the first closing quotation mark before the tag. Then your tag should end with either a period before you move onto a new set of quotation marks for your next dialogue sentence e.g. “Enough is enough,” Andrew said. “Your toys will still be here for you to play with tomorrow.”
You don’t always need to use a tag if the speaker is clear to the reader, and this is especially true when writing internal dialogues. In these cases, all punctuation is contained inside the quotation marks as part of the speech.
Dialogue Grammar Rules
While punctuation and grammar are often used interchangeably, punctuation is really only one of the many rules of grammar that good writers should be familiar with.
When it comes to dialogue though, there aren’t any specific rules about how to structure your sentences that don’t apply to everyday language. Try to avoid too many “there is” or “it is” moments in your dialogue, getting straight to the point as you would in descriptive text. For example:
“Mama, there was a man waving at me from outside the store!” can be changed to “Mama, a man waved at me from outside the store!” It doesn’t seem like a big difference, but keeping your language simple and straightforward will help your readers to stay focused on the important parts of your story.
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You’ve got the basics down when it comes to understanding how to write dialogue in a story, formatting dialogue, and some of the key punctuation and grammar rules. Now it’s time to start working on your own creative projects!
How to Write Dialogue Between Two Characters
Think of this like verbal tennis on a page. You want your dialogue to naturally flow back and forth between the two characters just like a real-life conversation. This works whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay and helps to maintain a rhythm and pace as the story moves forward.
Remember to incorporate setting, action, and feelings in the descriptive parts that surround the dialogue too. We don’t always share our feelings out loud in real conversations but instead convey those through things like tone or facial expressions. Let’s take a look at a quick example from Jane Eyre:
“You live just below—do you mean at that house with the battlements?” pointing to Thornfield Hall, on which the moon cast a hoary gleam, bringing it out distinct and pale from the woods, that, by contrast with the western sky, now seemed one mass of shadow.
“You are not a servant at the Hall, of course. You are–” He stopped, ran his eye over my dress, which, as usual, was quite simple – a black merino cloak, a black beaver bonner; neither of them half fine enough for a lady’s-maid. He seemed puzzled to decide what I was – I helped him.
“I am the governess.”
As you can see, there are plenty of rules to be followed and broken when it comes to writing dialogue between two characters.
Writing Inner Dialogue
As the conversation is happening internally to the character, you won’t need to use some of the rules that we’ve been through in this guide. But there’s an important distinction that you’ll want to make before working on inner dialogues: Will it be written directly, using first-person present tense, or indirectly, using the past tense?
- First-person direct: I lied, he thought, but I could still save her.
- Third-person indirect: She wondered why things weren’t always this simple.
It’s fine to use either one, but stay consistent throughout your work. There’s no standard convention on whether you should use quotation marks around inner thoughts of your characters or even dialogue tags at all. But, again, pick a lane and keep this consistent as you work on your writing. If you do choose to use quotation marks, using thought or was thinking as your dialogue tag can help to distinguish between character thoughts versus text that’s spoken out loud.
3 Tips for Writing Great Dialogue
Looking for a few more dialogue writing tips? Here are some of our favorites:
1. Use Oblique Language
Don’t you find it incredibly boring as a reader when conversations between characters are so simple that they’re almost painful? That’s why using obliques can transform your dialogue. This is the type of language where people don’t really answer each other’s questions or respond directly, where there’s no straightforward or logical answer. It’s a much better reflection of real-life conversation and will make your characters more believable.
2. Keep Speeches Short and Use Long Speeches Strategically
There’s nothing wrong with a three-page dramatic outburst that changes the whole course of your story, but endless pages of speech soon become repetitive and uninteresting for your reader. Just like you would soon tire of listening to the same person drone on and on at a party, keep your readers engaged by bouncing back and forth between characters as you progress through your dialogue.
3. Give Each Character a Unique Voice
It’s absolutely fine to use slang or colloquial language in your dialogue. In fact, we’d highly encourage it! If your character is from a certain country or region, include some of that in their speech patterns and phrases. You can even include incorrect spellings to emphasize lisps or stuttering. Remember that your characters are as unique as we are, so incorporate as much of that into your dialogue as possible.
You’re Ready to Get Started
With all of those points in your back pocket, it’s time for you to write your own dialogue scenes. Take your time, read your work out loud to make sure that it works as speech, and have a great time learning as you go!
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