How To Write Dialogue (With Formatting and Examples)
Updated March 10, 2023
Writers use various tools like monologues, dialogues and narratives to tell stories that appeal to their audiences. Dialogue is one of the most important tools for written and scripted works with more than one character. You may be interested in learning more about dialogue if your job involves writing a novel, short story or script to share with an audience.
In this article, we discuss why dialogue is important in written works and how to write dialogue that engages your audience, then offer examples to help you write quality conversations.
What is dialogue?
Dialogue refers to written conversations between characters in novels, short stories and scripts. For dialogue to occur, two or more characters must talk with one another to further a story. Actors for commercials, movies and television shows use written dialogue to perform their characters. This makes dialogue useful for leisure activities like reading, informational training videos or marketing materials.
Formatting dialogue rules
There are several rules you can follow when formatting your dialogue:
Start a new paragraph with each speaker.
Keep punctuation inside quotes for spoken words.
With long quotes that last several paragraphs, skip end quotes at the end of each paragraph.
Consider single quotes for when a speaker quotes another source.
How to write a dialogue
Consider these steps that you can take for how to write a dialogue:
1. Determine the reason for the dialogue
It's often helpful to first determine why you're adding dialogue to a piece of writing. Think about whether the dialogue enhances the story by developing character relationships or backgrounds, advancing the action of the plot or revealing information to your audience. You may place your dialogue strategically throughout your piece to ensure an even flow from narration, action and character voice. Remember to only include dialogue if necessary and avoid dialogue that adds little to your written work.
2. Decide which characters are speaking
There must be at least two characters having a conversation for a dialogue to exist. Understanding the goal of the conversation can help you decide which characters are speaking, what they're saying and why they're saying it. Once you've decided on the characters in your dialogue, remember to think about their voice and how they might deliver information with their personality and style of speech. To keep your audience's attention, try to add only a few characters to a conversation to improve readability and make it clear which character is speaking.
Related: How To Become a Writer in 7 Steps
3. Use quotation marks to start and end spoken dialogue
Quotation marks are the standard punctuation for communicating written dialogue in novels and short stories. If you're writing one of these pieces, use quotation marks at the start and end of a character's speech to set their dialogue apart from the rest of the text. Using quotation marks effectively improves the clarity of a written piece by separating a character's speech from the narrative text and helping a reader keep their place in your story.
Example of proper quotation mark usage: "This is the best salad I've ever tasted," Charles said.
4. Create a new paragraph for each speaker
Every time a different character speaks, it's important to start and indent a new paragraph. This helps you and your readers understand who is speaking and makes your story or script look more visually appealing and easy to read. Separating each character's speech may avoid confusion about what each character is saying, which can be useful in stories with characters who have conflicting values, roles or levels of information.
Example of multiple speakers: "I want to go on a picnic," Karla said, "but I don't want to go alone."
"Why don't we go together?" Jenna replied.
Karla said, "I'd like that."
5. Write the dialogue
Within your quotation marks, you can write the dialogue between your characters. Consider the reason you're adding it to your story and which characters are speaking the words as you write. Since dialogue is a conversation, the style in which you write it may sound different from the narrative parts of your story or script. Adjust your style based on the setting, characters' personalities and your goal. For example, if your goal is to show two characters meeting for the first time, their conversation may be more formal than if they had been friends for a long time.
6. Start with the action
It's a good idea to give every piece of dialogue a purpose, and starting with the action or most important information of a conversation is an excellent way of achieving that purpose. Although real conversations may have small talk and filler words, dialogue conversations must often be more straightforward and direct for audiences to easily grasp their meaning and intention. To accomplish this, keep your dialogue concise and include only the information that moves your story forward, strengthens connections between characters or offers new knowledge to readers.
7. Use dialogue tags to show who's speaking
Dialogue tags are brief descriptions of who is speaking a piece of dialogue. These tags can come before or after the quotation marks of a character's speech and often include the name or pronoun of the speaking character and a verb describing that they spoke. You can use dialogue tags in many ways to increase the readability of your work and show readers which character is speaking. One way to add visual diversity to your piece is by including dialogue broken up by dialogue tags, which can increase suspense and reader interest.
Example of a dialogue tag before dialogue: Ken said, "That sunset is incredible!"
Example of a dialogue tag after dialogue: "I prefer sunrises," Joe replied.
Example of a dialogue tag breaking up dialogue: "If you want to see a sunrise," Ken said, "we can go hiking in the morning next time."
8. Include action beats
Action beats are one way to enrich your dialogue by adding narrative descriptions of a character's movements and emotions. This can help readers better understand your dialogue, the setting of the conversation and how the characters feel. You can add action beats in dialogue tags, before or after dialogue and in the middle of dialogue to break up long conversations and make characters feel more real.
Example of an action beat in a dialogue tag: "I studied really hard for this test," Jimmy said with a smile.
Example of an action beat before dialogue: Yolanda sipped her drink. "This is the best cafe I've been to in a while," she said.
Example of an action beat after dialogue: "After the power went out, I had to reset the clock," his mother said, and she shook her head.
Example of an action beat breaking up dialogue: "There used to be many species of birds here," the tour guide said as he waved his hands toward the trees, "but many have migrated to warmer climates."
9. Remember the setting
When writing dialogue, it's easy to focus on your characters and their conversation, so try to remember to add information about the setting where the dialogue takes place. This helps keep your story balanced and helps readers or viewers feel like the characters in your novel, short story or scripted production are really interacting with their world. You can include the setting in small ways, like having the characters mention how time has passed or noticing a branch fall from a tree nearby. Doing this may help keep your dialogue brief and grounded.
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