How to Write Interesting and Effective Dialogue

Girl writing dialogue
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Writing verbal conversations or dialogue is often one of the trickiest parts of creative writing. Crafting effective dialogue within the context of a narrative requires much more than following one quote with another. With practice, though, you can learn how to write natural-sounding dialogue that is creative and compelling.

The Purpose of Dialogue

Put simply, dialogue is narrative conveyed through speech by two or more characters. Effective dialogue should do many things at once, not simply convey information. It should set the scene, advance action, give insight into each character, and foreshadow future dramatic action.

Dialogue doesn't have to be grammatically correct; it should read like actual speech. However, there must be a balance between realistic speech and readability. Dialogue is also a tool for character development. Word choice tells a reader a lot about a person: their appearance, ethnicity, sexuality, background, even morality. It can also tell the reader how the writer feels about a certain character.

How to Write Direct Dialogue

Speech, also known as direct dialogue, can be an effective means of conveying information quickly. But most real-life conversations are boring to read. An exchange between two friends may go something like this:

"Hi, Tony," said Katy.
"Hey," Tony answered.
"What's wrong?" Katy asked.
"Nothing," Tony said.
"Really? You're not acting like nothing's wrong."

Pretty tiresome dialogue, right? By including nonverbal details in your dialogue, you can articulate emotion through action. This adds dramatic tension and is more engaging to read. Consider this revision:

"Hi, Tony."
Tony looked down at his shoe, dug in his toe and pushed around a pile of dust.
"Hey," he replied.
Katy could tell something was wrong.

Sometimes saying nothing or saying the opposite of what we know a character feels is the best way to create dramatic tension. If a character wants to say "I love you," but his actions or words say "I don't care," the reader will cringe at the missed opportunity.

How to Write Indirect Dialogue

Indirect dialogue doesn't rely on speech. Instead, it uses thoughts, memories, or recollections of past conversations to reveal important narrative details. Often, a writer will combine direct and indirect dialogue to increase dramatic tension, as in this example:

"Hi, Tony."
Tony looked down at his shoe, dug in his toe and pushed around a pile of dust.
"Hey," he replied.
Katy braced herself. Something was wrong.

Formatting and Style

To write dialogue that is effective, you must also pay attention to formatting and style. Correct use of tags, punctuation, and paragraphs can be as important as the words themselves.

Remember that punctuation goes inside quotations. This keeps the dialogue clear and separate from the rest of the narrative. For example: "I can't believe you just did that!"

Start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. If there is action involved with a speaking character, keep the description of the action within the same paragraph as the character's dialogue.

Dialogue tags other than "said" are best used sparingly, if at all. Often a writer uses them to try to convey a certain emotion. For example:

"But I don't want to go to sleep yet," he whined.

Instead of telling the reader that the boy whined, a good writer will describe the scene in a way that conjures the image of a whining little boy:

He stood in the doorway with his hands balled into little fists at his sides. His red, tear-rimmed eyes glared up at his mother. "But I don't want to go to sleep yet."

Practice Makes Perfect

Writing dialogue is like any other skill. It requires constant practice if you want to improve as a writer. Here are a few tips to help you tune your ear.

  • Start a dialogue diary. Practice speech patterns and vocabulary that may be foreign to you. This will give you the opportunity to really get to know your characters.
  • Eavesdrop. Carry a small notebook with you and write down phrases, words, or whole conversations verbatim to help develop your ear.
  • Read. Reading will hone your creative abilities. It will help familiarize you with the form and flow of narration and dialogue until it becomes more natural in your own writing.