How to write dialogue that works

This page talks about the essentials of how to write dialogue. At the bottom, you can find more creative writing resources, including the chance to take a free writing course.

Dialogue that expresses your character's voice

I bet if you hung around on a random street corner and asked ten different passers-by how to get to the airport, they'd all give you different answers.

Okay, maybe if you're lucky, they'd suggest similar routes. But they'd all use different words to say it. Even the, "Uh, don't know," answers would likely come out differently.

"I'm sorry, I really couldn't say."
"No friggin idea."
"Get a map, man."

How does each of your characters talk? The answer will depend on:

  • Geographic background (a Texan doesn't speak the same as a Bostonian)

  • Educational level

  • Age (Like, is your character, like, a total teenager?)

  • Personality (Is your character nervous, impulsive, aggressive, flirtatious, shy?)

  • Your character's relationship with the person she's speaking with. She wouldn't talk to her boss the same way she speaks to a friend or to her five-year-old son.

  • Your character's attitude to the conversation topic. Does it make him nervous, proud, defensive? Would he rather avoid the subject all together?

All this will affect his speaking style.

How to write dialogue

Dialogue is when you let the reader listen in on a conversation between your characters. Just as every stranger you stop on a street corner will answer your question in a different way, every character involved in a dialogue will have a slightly different speaking style.

This may seem like a lot to manage as an author, but it's simple to learn.

  1. Get in the habit of really listening to how people talk (not only what they say). Take every opportunity to eavesdrop, on the bus, on elevators, in line at the bank...

  2. Get to know your characters deeply. If you haven't done so already, take a few minutes to read about character development here

  3. Once you have a clear vision of your characters, you can play out their conversations in your head. Put the characters in an imaginary situation, and listen to what they would say. Try saying their lines out loud. And then write down what you hear.

  4. Clean it up afterwards. Effective dialogue is not the same as the way people really speak. Repeat that three times. Then keep reading below for details.

Learn how to write great dialogue in our online course.

How to write dialogue that doesn't bore or annoy your reader.

Something I've noticed in TV shows and movies is that people hang up on each other a lot.

"I think the police are onto Scotty."
"I'll take care of it."

I don't know about you, but my phone calls tend to end more like this:

"I think the police are onto Scotty."
"I'll take care of it."
"You will? Great."
"Yeah, well, I'll try."
"Okay, great, thanks a lot. Appreciate it."
"Anyway, I should get back to making dinner."
"Okay, then, talk to you later. And good luck with the police."
"Thanks, I'll need it. All right. Got to go."
"See you."
"Right, on Saturday."
"That's right. We'll be there at six."
"Okay, see you then."
"What's that?"
"I thought you said something?"
"No, sorry. Just clearing my throat. Got some phlem."
"Yuck, phlem."
"Yeah, I know."

If you write your story dialogue like this, your reader is likely to stop reading... assuming that he's still awake.

Writing effective dialogue is a delicate art. You need to sound authentic, capture each character's voice. And you need to cut it at the right moments.


How to write dialogue and when to summarize instead.

Some reasons for using dialogue:

  • To let the reader hear your character's voice.

  • When the conversation is a key event in the story. In other words, if your characters are chatting about the weather while they're waiting for the bus, that might just be background. But if your story's about a pregnant teenager, the conversation where her boyfriend proposes marriage is probably a critical event that will change the direction of the story. Show it.

  • (In small quantities) As background, to set a scene.

In other cases, dialogue's not the best option, and it's better to summarize the conversation.

For example:

  • "She repeated to her husband everything that had just happened. He listened to her for hours, until the sun started to come up."

  • "We almost died of boredom as Aunt Bertha went on and on about her poodle's weight loss program."

Those are two conversations you probably don't want to write out as dialogue.

How to write dialogue -- what not to do

Some dialogue no-nos:

  • Information stuffing: "Hey, is that your sister Kate, who dropped out of college to become a welder, causing your father to have a nervous breakdown?"

  • Extended incoherent babbling: "Like, I was, you know. Like. Right. Okay, well. Um. What's that? Right. Anyway."

  • Putting YOUR words in their mouths: "My Daddy won't let me play with Stevie's trucks, which makes me cry because I'm only four years old and I'm already the victim of gender stereotypes."

How to write dialogue - next steps

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