How to write good dialogue

By BBC Maestro

Writing
Last updated: 02 May 2022 Reading time 12 minutes

Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in the hands of any writer. You can use dialogue to convey a great deal in your writing, from giving a sense of time and place, to showing the power dynamics between different characters.

However, crafting great dialogue isn’t always easy. You may find yourself staring at blank page, scratching your head and asking yourself - exactly how do you write dialogue? Fear not, we’ve pulled together some expert tips and tricks to help you get those characters conversing in a way that’s natural, authentic and truly compelling for your readers.

Why dialogue matters

The three functions of dialogue are to reveal character, move the story forward and give us information.
- Malorie Blackman, Author

Noughts & Crosses author, Malorie Blackman, expertly sums up the importance of dialogue in a story. As a writer, dialogue is your secret weapon to share the nuances of your characters with your reader and to share information in a natural way. Well written dialogue is a guaranteed way to keep your readers engaged and make sure they can’t put your book down.

Here are some of the ways dialogue is essential to storytelling:

Shows the inner world of your character

The way your character speaks - what they say and how they say it - can reveal a great deal about their inner workings, views, morals, hopes, fears and background. This is particularly important if your story is written from a third-person perspective, where you are not ‘in the head’ of the main character like you would be in a first-person narrative.

Does your character speak differently depending on who they are talking to? Do they use idioms or slang words? Are they verbose or succinct? Are they rude or polite? There are endless ways to convey character through speech.

Avoids too much exposition

Dialogue shows, rather than tells, which is a nifty way of avoiding too much exposition (over-explaining the plot) in your writing.

Overuse of exposition is the fastest way to kill any great storytelling. Spelling out to your reader exactly what is happening (and what has happened in the past) makes your story flat. Instead hinting at past and current events through dialogue can be a dynamic way to move your plot forward.

Sets the time and place

Dialogue can give a sense of the time period in which your story is set. For example, popular slang words like ‘rad’, ‘far out’, and ‘lit’ all mean the same thing, but all hint at a specific time period.

Characters in a period romance will most likely speak completely different to those in a high-action sci-fi novel set in a distant galaxy (although, maybe not!). 

The setting of where your characters are conversing can impact the way characters speak too.

“Setting can impact the information you’re trying to give your character… two characters could be trying to have a conversation on a park bench and whether they are in blazing sunshine, pouring rain or heavy snow, that is going to impact how on not just what is said, but how it’s said,” says Malorie Blackman.

People having a conversation at a table

Tips for writing great dialogue

Every conversation gets structured in the same way as a joke - it builds up to a punchline. It could be a dramatic punchline or an amusing punchline, or it can be both.
- Alan Moore, Writer

Now we’ve covered why good dialogue is an essential ingredient in your story, let’s explore some ways you can learn to write truly great dialogue.

 

Listen to how people really speak

Like everything in storytelling, if your writing and dialogue feels authentic, your story will be more engaging for the reader. In real life, eavesdropping is a fantastic way to pick up on how people actually speak. Settle in a bustling coffee shop and see what snippets of conversation you pick up as the world goes by

Remove the small talk

In written dialogue, you should avoid small talk. How many great scenes start with the lines ‘hi, how are you?’, ‘oh I’m not bad, thanks, how are you?’. Not many.

So how do you start a dialogue conversation? Line Of Duty writer Jed Mercurio highlights the importance of getting straight to the point.

“Dialogue in drama is not like real speech. If you were to read a transcript of real speech it would be filled with pauses and thoughts begun and abandoned, then rethought. Dialogue contains far more information than speech in the real world. Your characters get to the point really quickly. This is because as a writer you’re always polishing your dialogue, you’re trying to say something in the most complicated thing in the simplest possible way, you’re trying to be as concise as possible.”

Jed adds that when writing a piece of dialogue you should “enter a scene as late as possible and exit as early as possible,” to keep up the pace and leave the reader wanting more.

Avoid exposition

“Never have one character say to another ‘as you know…’ and then explain the plot. That’s exponential dialogue at its worst,” says Alan Moore in his online storytelling course. Instead, Alan says, you should explain plot points in a memorably dramatic way - in other words, show don’t tell.

“The only time that lines of dialogue really stand out is when they don’t feel true to the character or when they seem hugely convenient or expositional,” adds Jed Mercurio.

However, Jed points out that there are some clever ways you can work exposition into your dialogue when absolutely necessary. One example is to use an argument to go over old ground, when tensions are high people tend to bring up the past. Or you could have one character that’s forgotten a vital piece of information - the character that reminds them of something should be exasperated, just as you would be in the real world.

Embrace subtext

“Sometimes people say exactly what they mean, but sometimes they don’t. And actually, when you have someone saying one thing but meaning another, that can be really interesting to write and to read,” says Malorie Blackman in her online creative writing course. She points out that the lines ‘I love you’ or ‘I hate you’ is a great example of this.

Jed Mercurio echoes this sentiment: “You must consider writing dialogue in which characters hold back. They say something related to what they think and feel, but it’s not exactly what they think and feel - it’s subtextual.

“Tailor every line of dialogue to a specific character. It’s important that characters are distinguished by their values - what they think, what they do, what they say they will do… and then don’t do.”

Keep it authentic

“Whether we like it or not, part of the way we judge people is by how they speak, what they say and how they say it. Think about the class of your character, their education, where they’re from - all these things are going to have an impact on dialogue and accent.,” says Malorie. “Does your character ‘code switch’ - do they talk a certain way to older people or their parents, and do they talk a certain way when they’re with their friends?”

A person types on a keyboard

How to format dialogue

Now you’ve mastered ways to write brilliant dialogue, here are some practical tips on presenting dialogue in your writing. This is an important part to get right if you want to share your manuscript with publishers or literary agents.

We’ll show both the British English and US English versions.

1.  Enclose spoken words within double or single quotation marks. For example:

‘I love this house.’ (British)

“I love this house.” (US)

Note that punctuation also lives inside the quotation marks - in this example the full stop/period.

 

2. Use dialogue tags (he said/she said etc.) outside of the quotation marks and separated by a comma. For example:

‘I love this house,’ she said.

OR

She said, ‘I love this house.’

 

3. Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. For example:

‘You know what?’ she said, ‘I love this house.’

 

4. Action that happens before or after the dialogue should go in its own sentence.

She pulled back the curtains. ‘You know what?’ she said, ‘I love this house.’

 

5. Start a new paragraph whenever a new character speaks. This helps the reader work out who is speaking. For example:

She pulled back the curtains. ‘You know what?’ she said, ‘I love this house.’

‘Me too,’ he said, ‘I just wish we could stay forever.’

 

6. For longer sections of dialogue, like a speech, break up the text with paragraphs. Use quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but only close the quotation marks at the end of the final paragraph.

 

7. If the person speaking quotes someone else, use single quotation marks to show this. For example:

‘Unfortunately, it’s just not going to be possible for us to stay. Sure, my Uncle John said ‘stay as long as you need’ but I’m not sure he really meant that.’

These are just some of the basic rules of formatting dialogue, remember if you’re ever unsure the best thing is to do a quick check online to make sure you’re getting all of the formatting right.

 

Course Notes
Course Notes

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Checklist for good dialogue

And finally, here is a quick checklist for you to run through every time you write a piece of dialogue into your story.

Ask yourself:

  • Is it authentic? 
  • Is this how your character would really speak?
  • Does the dialogue reflect the period? 
  • Check for slang words, or phrases that are time-specific.
  • Why is one character talking to another?
  • What is the subtext?
  • Is there too much exposition?
  •  Is it properly formatted?

Remember, writing great dialogue takes practice. To help you master the writing craft, we offer a range of online writing courses from some of the most respected authors in the literary world.