How to write dialogue is one of the first things a budding storyteller can master with just a bit of practice and effort. That’s not to say that writing dialogue is easy- it’s not. But, once you realize the purpose of dialogue in a story and hone in on all those pesky formatting rules, it can become intuitive. With a little bit of focused and consistent practice, you’ll be in a flow state before you know it! You’ll be cranking out conversations that sound natural, serve a purpose, and are entertaining as hell!Once you realize the purpose of dialogue in a story and hone in on all those pesky formatting rules, writing dialogue becomes intuitive! Click To Tweet
Like everything, though, before you nail your dialogue, you’ve got to know the fundamentals. You can’t play Moonlight Sonata if you know where middle C is- know what I mean? Don’t worry though, because that’s precisely what we are going to cover in this post! The fundamentals of writing dialogue. How to format dialogue, what proper tags to use, and the overall purpose of dialogue in your story. Then I’ll take you through seven easy steps to writing your dialogue scene. Let’s get started!
Dialogue Format & Punctuation
Starting with the basics, when you write dialogue, you should enclose spoken words in quotation marks. Like this:
Ex. “I’m going to the store.”
Quotation marks indicate to a reader that a character is speaking. Notice that everything else about this sentence is normal. It starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. That won’t always be the case, but we’ll get to that.
Also, notice that the punctuation, in this case, a period, is inside the quotation marks. Punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks, whether it is a period, or question mark, or exclamation point. It doesn’t matter what the punctuation is; it goes inside the quotation marks.
Enclose all your dialogue with quotation marks.
Place dialogue tags outside of the quotation marks. By dialogue tag, I mean attribution, or ending a line of dialogue by indicating the speaker.
Ex. “I’m going to the store,” Paul said.
At the end of that sentence, ‘Paul said’ is the dialogue tag. The tag indicates that Paul is speaking. Notice how adding the dialogue tag changes the punctuation. A comma replaces the period.
When ending with a dialogue tag, you’ll close your dialogue with a comma, close quotations, then add the dialogue tag. When a dialogue tag comes before the dialogue, you’ll reverse this order.
Ex. Paul said, “I’m going to the store.”
When the dialogue tag is before the dialogue, your comma is outside of the quotation marks.
You can also use a colon to introduce dialogue, although this is not as common.
Ex. Paul said: “I’m going to the store.”
I’ve also seen authors employ a colon when they have a large cast of characters or want a quick flow to the dialogue. When doing this, the author will often just use the name of the person speaking as a tag.
Ex. Paul: “I’m going to the store.”
Jenny: “Why? You just went yesterday?”
Susie: “Can I go too?”
Jenny: “You’re staying here.”
Paul: “Listen to your mom, Susie.”
You can see how this makes a conversation seem quick and can also add tension. However, this is not a technique you want to use all the time as it removes action beats and will lose its effectiveness.
Questions and Exclamatory Statements in Dialogue
If you end a quotation with a question mark or exclamation point, then they will replace the comma. Don’t capitalize the first word of the dialogue tag.
Ex. “May I go to the store?” asked Paul.
Or, “I’m going to the store!” said Paul.
With two or more speakers, break the characters’ dialogue into separate paragraphs.
Ex. “I’m going to the store,” Paul said.
Jenny said, “Oh my God, Paul. You’ve been to the store four times this month!”
“What are you trying to say, Jenny?” Paul asked.
“You know exactly what I’m saying, Paul. You’re going to the store four times a week. You’ve been working late every day. You’re up all night texting on your phone. I know exactly what’s going on. I’m not stupid. How could you do this to little Susie and me?”
Paul threw his keys down on the table. He sat down, “Ok, let’s talk. I’ve got something to tell you, Jenny.”
Properly formatted, each speaker gets their paragraph. Separated paragraphs create dialogue that’s clear for the reader. It cuts down on the number of dialogue tags you’ll have to use, especially if there are only two speakers. The reader will know that a new paragraph indicates a new speaker.
Action beats break up dialogue; it can also act as a dialogue tag, indicating the speaker. Action beats do other important things like giving the readers spatial awareness in the scene. You can use it to show the mood of the characters and the tone of the scene.
Separate action beats that happen before or after the dialogue. Write these action beats as a single sentence.
Ex. Paul grabbed his keys off the counter. “I’m going to the store.”
Action beats can also interrupt the conversation. In this case, use commas to separate the action beat.
Ex. “I’m going to the store,” he burped, “My stomach’s killing me.”
Dialogue can be interrupted by action beats or another character’s dialogue. In those cases where it’s a sudden interruption, you’ll use a long dash, also called an em dash. The em dash will replace the words your character would say if they weren’t interrupted.
Ex. “I’m going to the—”
“Store. We know!” Jenny said.
There are also times when a character may trail off. They may get lost in contemplation or forget something. In those instances, you’ll use ellipses.
Ex. “I’m going to the…”
“To where?” Jenny asked.
“I forgot,” Paul said.
One last style point. You can also use an em dash when an action beat interrupts dialogue. In this case, the em dash will go outside the quotation marks.
Ex. “I’m going”— Paul dropped his keys on the floor—” damn it!” He bent over to pick them up. “I’m going to the store.”
Keep in mind that an em dash indicates an abrupt interruption.
If a character speaks for a long time, and the dialogue needs multiple paragraphs, you will open the quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph. You won’t close the quotation marks until the last paragraph.
Ex. “Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in this history of mankind.
“Mankind — that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests.
“Perhaps its fate that today is the 4th of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom, not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution — but from annihilation. We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist.”
A few final words on formatting dialogue. It can be pretty confusing. I know because I was confused while researching for this article. I’ll drop a few links at the bottom of this post to the articles I used for research.
If you’re shaky on the rules, my best advice would be to keep your dialogue simple. Don’t insert a bunch of interrupting action beats or have ten different characters in one scene if you’re not sure what you’re doing. The simpler the dialogue is, the less likely you are to make a mistake.
And, if you think I’ve gotten something wrong, please let me know in the comments!
What is a dialogue tag? A dialogue tag, or attribution, is a small piece of text that lets your reader know who is speaking.
Ex. Paul said, Jenny asked, Susie whispered
We talked about punctuating dialogue tags in the section above, but here’s a quick refresher. Dialogue tags can come at the beginning of your sentence. In that case, separate tags from the dialogue with a comma that will go outside the quotation marks.
Ex. Jenny asked, “Do we have any eggs in the house?”
Dialogue tags can come in the middle of dialogue. In that case, the tag is separated by commas on both sides of the tag. The first comma will be inside the quotations, and the second will be outside the quotation marks.
Ex. “I’m going to the store,” Paul said, “I’ll get a carton of eggs while I’m there.”
And finally, a dialogue tag can come at the end of the dialogue. This time you’ll want to separate the tag with a comma inside the quotation marks.
Ex. “I’m glad he’s leaving,” Susie whispered.
How often should you use dialogue tags?
You don’t have to end every piece of dialogue with an attribution. You only want to use dialogue tags to clarify who is speaking. If your tags distract from or confuse the dialogue, you should cut them.
If you read all three examples above, you’ll notice that the dialogue tags are a bit distracting. However, there are three people in the scene. Without attribution, the reader would be confused about who is speaking. If I were writing that scene, I would replace one, or more, of the tags with an action beat to break up the monotony.
Jenny slammed the fridge door shut, “Do we have any eggs in the house?”
“I’m going to the store,” Paul said, “I’ll get a carton of eggs while I’m there.”
“I’m glad he’s leaving,” Jenny heard Susie whisper from beneath the kitchen table.
That’s not perfect, but it’s better than before. You can also delete tags entirely if your reader can tell who’s speaking without the attribution.
Said vs. Other Verbs for ‘said’
Browsing through Pinterest, I see several infographics with titles like, “100 words to use instead of SAID.” Usually, I roll my eyes at these. I’m a firm believer in using ‘said’ for statements and ‘ask’ for questions. All the other verbs are distracting, and many writers will view their use as the sign of an amateur.
Read more about this on my post, 5 Don’ts of Dialogue.
There are two reasons authors advise you not to use a bunch of fancy verbs like exclaimed or mumbled when ‘said’ gets the job done.
- ‘Said’ verbs distract the reader from your dialogue, which should be the essential part of your writing.
- Your dialogue and action beats should show your character’s emotional state, and you shouldn’t rely on verbs like, ‘yelled,’ or ‘stuttered’ to do this for you.
Take a look at my example above- Jenny slammed the fridge door shut, “Do we have any eggs in the house?” What emotional state is Jenny in? She’s frustrated, and we know this because she’s slamming the refrigerator door, rather than closing it.
I could have written, “Do we have any eggs in the house,” Jenny yelled. But the action beat of slamming the door has more weight and makes the scene more interesting. If you get into the habit of telegraphing your characters’ emotions through verbs like yelled or cried, your writing will be as dull as ditchwater.
This part is a rant, and you can skip this paragraph if you like— the reason people tell you not to use ‘said’ is because it’s “boring,” and it will make your writing dull, they claim. But relying on exciting verbs rather than action and dialogue is what makes your writing boring. So, when people tell you not to use ‘said,’ it’s just bad advice. Don’t listen to it!
Now, like every rule, there are exceptions. You can sneak a ‘whispered’ in now and then, but for most of your attributions stick with ‘said’ or ‘asked.’
If you want to read more about this, I’ll link an entertaining article from Joe Bunting at the bottom of this post.
To learn how to write dialogue you need look at some examples. So, take a look at the following two scenes. Try to identify character goals, and action beats. Ask yourself how each line of dialogue and action beat pushes the narrative foward.
7 Easy Steps to Writing Fantastic Dialogue
Determine the purpose of your dialogue
Before you sit down to write a dialogue-heavy scene, you want to ask yourself what the goal of this dialogue is. What do I mean by this? Well, a couple of things.
First, in a broad sense, dialogue should usually serve one of two goals. It should either tell the reader something about the plot of your story. Or, it should illustrate to the reader something about the characters in your plot. Therefore, the two goals of dialogue are either exposition or characterization. So, determine which of those two goals (or it could be both) your dialogue scene serves.
The other purpose that dialogue has is specific to individual characters and will talk about that in the next step.
Who are the characters, and what are their goals?
Now, you need to populate your scene with characters. These characters are going to be talking, but it shouldn’t be idle small talk. Sure, small talk happens in real life, but it doesn’t serve a purpose in stories, so it doesn’t belong.
That’s not to say that you can’t have dialogue that seems like small talk but has a profound meaning or subtext.
Each of your characters should have a goal within the scene. The goal can be big or small. Characters just need to want something. Everything they say should be in service of that goal or desire. They may not be upfront about what they want; it’s more interesting if they aren’t, but their dialogue should be designed to attain something.
So, know what each characters’ goals are and write dialogue that makes sense for those goals.
Develop a unique voice for each character
One of the ways you can avoid an excessive amount of dialogue tags is by giving characters a unique way of speaking. Create individual speech through the use of slang, or tone, or a particular dialect. But, be careful with accents, as in be respectful and accurate.
You create a difference in the emotional state of each character. One character could be icy and collected, and the other can be on a hair-trigger. Or, you can have one character speak very professionally or technically while having another character who uses colloquialisms. Pay attention to the differences in the ways people in your life express themselves, and use those real-life speech patterns in your plot.
Make sure that characters don’t sound and talk alike. That’s not realistic, and it’s hard for readers to follow.
What action beats will break up your dialogue?
Once you know who your characters are, what they want, and how they speak, it’s time to consider what they are doing. Remember that action beats break up the dialogue, and make your story more exciting. But, they are also crucial for characterization. A character who slams and throws things is mad. A character who tiptoes and whispers is sneaky.
Let’s talk about conflict.
Your characters have goals in every scene. Conflict arises when something gets in the way of your characters accomplishing their goals. The things that get in your character’s way vary from other characters to physical barriers, to literal fighting.
A great tactic is to have characters with opposing goals. That’s the best way to have your conflict show up in the dialogue. Have fun with characters that conflict but outwardly seem polite because they don’t want to show their cards. Or you can have characters who, straight up, argue.
Find a way to insert the scene’s conflict into the dialogue.
Check your punctuation and formatting.
For this, you can use a grammar software. I use Grammarly and ProWritingAid, but ProWritingAid has an actual dialogue report. However, no software is going to catch all the subtle rules of dialogue. You’ll want to partner with a human editor, professional or otherwise, to help you with this process.
Tighten it up (did you accomplish your goals? Cut everything else out)
A rule of thumb for scene writing is to cut to the action as early as possible. The same can be said for dialogue. If the action of a dialogue scene is an argument then you need to get to it as early as possible.
Cut all the small talk, meaning cut dialogue that doesn’t push a character or story goal forward.
Hopefully you’ve got a handle on how to write dialogue.
The last thing I want you to do before you leave is to take what you’ve learned and use it! Go and open your word processor of choice. Come up with a few characters; I would stick to two if you’re just starting. But, if you’re feeling ambitious, then, by all means, add three or four characters. Then, write a dialogue scene by going through the seven steps above. As you’re writing, only worry about this single scene.
Don’t think of it in terms of a larger story beyond what you might need to know for context. And it doesn’t have to be very long. Five or six hundred words should do. When you’re done with the scene, put it away. You don’t have to do anything else with it. It’s just practice! Then do it again, and again, and again, and pretty soon, you’ll be a master of dialogue!
This post contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.
Read More About Dialogue:
“In Dialogue, McKee offers the same in-depth analysis for how characters speak on the screen, on the stage, and on the page in believable and engaging ways. From Macbeth to Breaking Bad, McKee deconstructs key scenes to illustrate the strategies and techniques of dialogue. Dialogue applies a framework of incisive thinking to instruct the prospective writer on how to craft artful, impactful speech. Famous McKee alumni include Peter Jackson, Jane Campion, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Haggis, the writing team for Pixar, and many others.”
- What fictional dialogue is … and isn’t
- The 11 secrets of crafting memorable dialogue
- The 5 essential tasks of dialogue
- 5 ways to improve your dialogue ear
- 4 can’t-miss methods to increase conflict and tension in any dialogue exchange
- The top 10 dialogue issues, and how to resolve them”