Writing dialogue provides the subtext, irony, and complexity required for compelling characters and stories. Small words carry heavy loads, when skilfully handled.
“There is only one plot: things are not what they seem.”—Jim Thompson
However, writing dialogue precisely and getting the words right is challenging.
Let’s examine how to transform filler chat to fulfilling dialogue, starting with the basics.
What is Dialogue?
Dialogue is the reported speech between two or more characters. In prose, it’s distinguished with apostrophes. When writing dialogue, Americans generally use “double” apostrophes, while Brits use ‘single’ ones.
Dialogue has many purposes:
When writing dialogue, consider the following. Dialogue helps you:
- Advance the plot whilst bringing a scene to life: readers ‘watch’ characters interact, feeling immersed.
- Readers ‘hear’ individual characters’ voices, without narrative intrusion.
- Writers ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ details of characters’ personalities, especially though subtext and irony: what characters don’t say is often as or more important than what they do.
- With fictional world-building, e.g. when a seasoned character teaches an ingénue the ways of the world (but apply with caution!).
New writers may feel overwhelmed by the various rules. An in-depth examination of every rule is beyond this article’s scope, but here’s a brief run-down of the key rules.
- In prose, we format dialogue with apostrophes.
- Dialogue tags indicate who is speaking, and are formatted as follows:
‘I’m cold,’ Jasper said.
Jasper said, ‘I’m cold.’
- You can replace dialogue tags with actions. Actions help readers ‘see’ the scene, like this:
Jasper shivered. ‘I’m cold.’
- Or, to show a particular characteristic through subtext, you could write your dialogue this way:
Jasper steeled himself, gritting his teeth. ‘No need to put the central heating on yet.’
- When writing dialogue, you don’t need dialogue tags for every line when context indicates who’s speaking. However, don’t go too long without a reminder. Consider this example:
The guests dispersed, leaving Jasper and Sasha in the room.
‘Aren’t you cold?’ asked Sasha.
Jasper wrapped his arms around himself. ‘No.’
‘Cheapskate. Just put the heating on!’
‘It’s perfectly cosy in—’
Sasha stood up. ‘Fine. I’ll leave.’
- When someone is interrupted, as above, place the ‘em’ dash (—) inside the apostrophes.
- Always start a new paragraph for a new speaker, ensuring you close the apostrophes of the pervious person, as above.
- But when the same speaker begins a new paragraph of speech, leave the apostrophes open at the paragraph’s end, indicating the speaker hasn’t changed.
- Do, however, include an apostrophe opening the first line of dialogue in the new paragraph. This helps the reader know they’re still reading dialogue, not narration, like so:
Jasper drew the curtains. Silver frost carpeted the lawn outside.He glanced at Sasha. ‘I’m not cold at all.’
Sasha headed towards the door, briefcase under arm, buttoning her wool coat. ‘Don’t worry about me. Funny, I was just reading about the need to reduce carbon footprints. Ha! Easy enough when you can’t afford gas in the first place.
‘Change of subject, but talking about gas prices makes me remember the coldest I’ve ever been.’ She paused, hand on the doorknob. ‘That road trip I took. Winter of ‘99. Ran out of petrol on the motorway, didn’t have enough cash for more. A café owner let me wash dishes to cover the tank refill.’ Sasha’s voice grew dreamy. ‘Working for money – those were the days, eh?’
Jasper stomped out of the room without a word.
Sasha’s accusation here is implied through subtext and action, not directly stated.
Keep dialogue tags unobtrusive
Said and replied are generally better than exclaimed, protested, expounded, etc. Elaborate dialogue tags draw readers’ attention to your writing, thus taking them out of the story’s action.
‘I’m cold,’ whispered Sasha.
‘Stop moaning!’ yelled Jasper.
‘Go die of hypothermia,’ cursed Sasha.
Annoyingly melodramatic, right?
That said, exceptions exist for every rule, even when you’re writing dialogue.
Firstly, excessive use of said can be as distracting for the reader as elaborate tags:
‘I’m moving out tomorrow,’ said Sasha.
‘I don’t care,’ said Jasper.
Sasha said, ‘You’ll miss me when I’m gone.’
That, in contrast, is annoyingly dull.
Hint: Reading your work out loud can help you hear when your dialogue tags might benefit from variation.
Secondly, your story’s narrative voice may lean towards using more grandiloquent speech tags.
In the Bridgerton Regency Romance novels, Julia Quinn often uses elaborate dialogue tags: flick through The Duke and I and you’ll find extensive use of tags such as shrieked, snapped, admitted, spat out, and so on.
But the elaborate dialogue tags here form part and parcel of the ironic narrative tone.
Quinn leans in to the 18th Century inspired melodrama for comedic effect, having fun with her speech tags.
She layers her wry, Austen-inspired narrative voice over the characters’ individual voices, laughing good-naturedly at both them and herself.
This works brilliantly: sophisticated readers can excuse themselves for revelling in this historically-inaccurate melodrama by acknowledging that no-one, not even its (Harvard-educated) author, takes it too seriously.
But unless melodrama (whether real or ironic) is your intention, use elaborate dialogue tags sparingly.
For more detailed formatting advice, see
- A Guide to Writing Dialogue
- How to Write Fabulous Dialogue
- How to Write Dialogue
- How to Write Dialogue
- Dialogue in Fiction
When you’re putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and writing dialogue:
- Avoid the dreaded ‘talking heads’ syndrome by interspersing dialogue with action/ setting, reminding the reader where the scene is playing out.
- Expository dialogue (when ‘info-dumping’) can be dull and unrealistic, unless masterfully handled: use cautiously.
- Avoid ‘holding’/ ‘filler’ dialogue: ‘Hi, how are you?’ etc. No-one cares about this.
- Beware overusing (or underusing) dialogue. Stories need a balance of dialogue, action, thought and setting. The correct balance depends on your story and genre.
- Never forget your characters’ goals when writing their dialogue. Simple, direct, honest communication – whilst an admirable goal in real life – often falls flat in fiction.
The strongest dialogue incorporates subtext and irony, giving us a deeper understanding of the characters than they themselves possess, whilst illuminating the story’s themes. In a skilled writer’s hands, fictional dialogue offers readers new perceptions of themselves and their place in the world.
Now, go have fun writing dialogue!
Article Written by Polly Watt
A former refugee lawyer in the UK, Polly Watt honed her skills working on cases where careful editing often really was a matter of life and death.
As a Fictionary StoryCoach Editor, she will apply the same care and attention to detail to your structural story edit. She’s passionate about stories and loves working on all different types of literary genres.
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