In any piece of writing or fiction, how to write dialogue between two characters or multiple characters can be a crucial element to success. It can either make or break a piece of literature. Dialogue allows the author to get right into the minds of their characters. It’s how readers can see the personalities and qualities of the characters they’re reading about. It’s also how writers can set the tone and mood of their work.
What is Dialogue
Dialogue (from the Greek meaning ‘through speech’) is when a character or characters in a story say something to someone. That can be to another character, to or with themselves (a monologue, for example), or even directly to the audience or reader (a soliloquy).
When two characters have a dialogue, the essential element is the exchange between the two characters. There is an interaction.
Dialogue Should Never Be Haphazard
In creative writing and screenwriting, the words spoken in character dialogue are never there by accident. They are there to serve a specific purpose at the particular moment they occur.
Dialogue is the way characters speak, reveal their feelings and personality, and come alive to the reader. It can surprise, intrigue, entertain and sometimes make the reader laugh. Compelling dialogue also creates tension, builds suspense, and reveals conflict.
It should never be used just to fill space, or because the writer doesn’t have a clue what else to do. Dialogue is like a jigsaw. It may seem like a jumble of random pieces, but when put together correctly the whole image is seen.
It can be helpful to think of dialogue as a form of action – this puts the focus on what is happening. A character speaks words; the character or characters are not just “saying things”.
Dialogue, well-written, is the way that a skilled writer shows rather than tells in their stories.
The Four Main Purposes of Dialogue
In fiction and screenwriting, dialogue serves four main objectives:
1. to convey necessary story information,
2. to develop characters,
3. to move the plot forward, and
4. to create a tone or mood.
Make Sure To Use the Appropriate Voice
When writing effective dialogue, it’s important to identify and use the appropriate voice for the character, and for the occasion. Voice means the way a character speaks, which includes tone, diction, and word choice.
A character won’t always sound the same when speaking to a friend as when speaking to the boss. The dialogue will change depending on the circumstances and relationship.
In real life, people change their tone and style of speaking depending on who they are talking with.
However, when fiction writing we usually don’t mirror precisely how people speak in real life – the requirements of the story usually mean that more conflict is introduced, and less chitchat allowed.
Related: Why Diction Is Important
An Overall Rule of Thumb for Dialogue
There are many things to consider when writing dialogue, such as word choice, speech patterns, and filler words.
If the dialogue is too formal, it can distance the reader from the character and create a barrier to developing a relationship with the character. If the dialogue is too casual, it can sound unnatural and unprofessional in certain circumstances.
Know the Difference Between Visual and Non Visual Dialogue
Before we dig into the specifics of how to write a dialogue between two characters, it’s important to note the difference between visual media, auditory media, and media that is read.
In visual media, we the viewers see the character’s facial expressions and body language, and we see what is happening around the characters.
This means that dialogue has less of a burden to carry in a film compared to other media.
In written media, it’s the opposite. We, as the audience, don’t see the characters’ expressions, body language, etc. We don’t see what is around the character. We don’t get to be an actual part of the scene in the way which we do in a film.
This includes the characters’ state of mind, which is visual media can be portrayed in many ways. In media designed for readers only – for example, a novel – we delve into a character’s internal world far more than happens on screen, for example.
How to Feed Observation Into Well-Written Dialogue
A wonderful way to write a better dialogue between two characters is to turn on your power of observation in art and life.
Take the people around you. What do they say to each other?
Observe people in the street, on TV, and even in films. Pick up a newspaper, or read a novel – what are the characters saying?
In most cases, people are not concerned with proper grammar when they speak. They just talk. However, when writers write dialogue, they tend to over-correct.
Don’t just listen, watch. People don’t just speak words — we get body language with it. 75% of human communication is non-verbal.
This means that when two people are having a conversation, we get to see how they are moving their bodies to go along with what they are saying.
Pay Attention to Tone and Tempo
The same goes for tone and tempo. Listen to the tone in a person’s voice. Don’t just listen to the words they are saying, listen to how they sound.
If you can hear the first character getting louder, you know something is about to happen. If you can hear the second character getting more monotone, you know that they are not as interested in what the first character is saying.
Character Delineation in Dialogue
You can use good dialogue to delineate your characters. Indeed, it matters that you do so in order to create distinct characters.
Dialogue not only reveals the character’s attitudes, feelings, and morals but also reveals their background.
The way characters speak reflects their class – their education level, their region, the economic and social environment in which they live, and their language patterns.
In each region, there are peculiarities to how people speak. There are also individual speech patterns. For example, some people speak in a very tentative way, always looking to others for approval. You can hear this in the way they speak about themselves. Others are quite the opposite, coming across as very sure of themselves. This is evident in the words they use, the way they talk about themselves.
Consistent Dialogue Formatting
Usually, it’s important for readers to know instantly when they are in a piece of prose, or dialogue. As a writer, you want this ‘signposting’ in your writing to be as seamless and invisible as possible. What matters, after all, is your story.
- The way to achieve format dialogue is through the correct and consistent use of quotation marks. The basic rule is:
- When a character speaks, use a double quotation mark.
- If a character quotes someone else, put that quote using a single quotation mark inside the double speech marks of the character who is speaking.
- Make sure you use a new paragraph when switching characters. Either a new speaker, or the reaction of a second or more character.
- Know the rules of punctuation in dialogue, and apply them consistently.
Stephen King, in his wonderful guide to the writing craft On Writing, attacks adverbs with a passion.
His basic point is that there is a big difference between verbs of dialogue attribution: for example, ‘shouted‘, ‘pleaded‘, ‘said‘ and adverbs lobbed alongside verbs in an attempt to bring dialogue tags to life.
For example, ‘shouted menacingly‘, ‘pleaded abjectly‘, ‘said contemptuously.’
The effect of the adverbs is to weaken the sentences, and often to cover for lazy dialogue or a poor scene setup.
Instead, use a dialogue tag he/she/name ‘said‘ and allow your dialogue to breathe through.
Don’t overdo the tags either. In a two-person dialogue, once you have set up who is speaking first, it should be straightforward to delineate by separate paragraph who is speaking. If the dialogue runs on for a bit, you can slip a tag in now and again, or have one of the characters refer to the other by name.
You can also set up the dialogue with the prose describing meaningful and purposeful action – not fluff – and then launch straight into the dialogue. It will be obvious who is speaking, how, and why.
Keep Dialogue to the Point
I once had to narrate an audiobook where there were extensive dialogue passages all the way through the book.
Honestly, this undercut the effectiveness of the story because as a narrator, and as a reader, it felt like having to wade through piles of dialogue in order to get to the essential point in each scene.
Related: How to Become An Audiobook Narrator
Sometimes you’ll come across the advice to restrain dialogue to two or three lines at most. While this is useful to remind yourself to keep things concise, be aware that sometimes dialogue can and should run on much longer.
Don’t think that you have to put into written dialogue all the fillers that we encounter in real conversation. Dialogue is a simulation of real speech, not the actual thing!
So, avoid loads of filler words that pepper everyday speech (unless you have a clear purpose for them at that moment in your writing) and do use speech contractions and acronyms.
Related: How Do You Narrate a Story
Start Dialogue In Media Res
In Media Res means beginning in the middle of a scene. This is sometimes done for comedic effect, but it can also work really well at emotional moments. It can bring unexpected twists and thwart expectations.
The same rule applies to dialogue. We don’t care about the long lead-ups that often precede key lines of dialogue in real life. We do care about the nubs of conversation that reveal something important, or effect change.
Therefore, when writing dialogue think about how to cut into the dialogue scene at the right moment – and exit it early, as a rule. Don’t hang around once the ‘business’ of the dialogue is done.
Read Dialogue Aloud
An important tip for writing dialogue is reading it out aloud. You don’t have to go full-on Shakespeare mode here, but it does help to approximate how readers will experience the dialogue you’ve written.
Reading aloud forces us to take every sentence back to its basic forms, figure out what the purpose is, and condense it if necessary.
More importantly, it prevents us from relying on the crutch of sentence fragments which is a natural tendency when writing.
Sometimes you’ll catch yourself saying: ‘Hang on! That sounds completely off!’ and you’ll delete the offending dialogue fail.
Or, other times you’ll quickly gain extra lines of great and realistic dialogue – or even a whole new conversation between your characters. Or you might realize that a line you’ve assigned to one character would be better said by another.
In this way, voices in your head – which might be the internal dialogue of your character – can turn into voices on the page.
Know What the Character Needs or Wants
A piece of dialogue that matters is usually one where there is an agenda at play.
However, for all sorts of reasons we rarely come straight out with exactly what we want from someone else. Usually, it’s pitched obliquely, at a tangent, for all sorts of reasons.
The tension lies in the difference between what the real motivation of a character is, and how that character expresses it in dialogue. Which usually is connected to the emotional subtext of a scene (something that is critical in acting, and narration).
So, for example, a character might be trying to persuade another character to abandon a course of action, and use a particular argument to bolster their case, but in fact have an entirely different agenda at stake – about which the second character might be aware, and also not state explicitly! Such are the mysteries of human communication!
Some Quick Dialogue Writing Rules to Know
- Use simple words and vernacular (slang)
- Keep meaning clear while using small grammar errors
- Use short or incomplete sentences to bounce the pace along
- Dialogue is a spoken language dance: with words and the feelings and thoughts that lie behind those words. Just because a character is not speaking does not mean that character is not participating!
- Beware of trying to write out accents. Although some writers (Wuthering Heights is a good example) have done this adroitly, usually you need to ensure clarity first and tilt at the accent/culture second. See an article I wrote about How to Write a Russian Accent as a specific example of this.
- Use dialogue sound to identify a different character; meaning the tone, pace, educational level, and so forth.