Want to give more life and depth to your storytelling? We can explain how by showing you how to write dialogue.
Dialogue refers to the spoken exchanges between characters in a story or composition. It serves a vital role in any story, breathing life into characters and propelling the narrative forward. It transforms characters from figments of imagination into relatable beings, voicing their deepest thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Through dialogue, readers gain insight into a character’s personality, background, and relationships. It also fuels tension, conflict, and camaraderie among characters, heightening the story’s dynamics. Read on to learn how to write dialogue that captivates your audience.
Inner and outer dialogue 💭
There are two types of dialogue: inner and outer.
Inner dialogue, aka internal monologue, reveals a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reflections happening within their mind. It offers a window into their inner world, exposing their true intentions and struggles.
Outer dialogue, on the other hand, encompasses the words spoken between characters — conversations, debates, arguments, and interactions with others.
Both inner and outer dialogues are indispensable for writers. They serve as vehicles for conveying information, developing characters, and captivating readers. By skillfully blending these elements, writers can craft engaging, authentic dialogue that enriches the narrative experience.
How to write dialogue with examples 🗣️
When learning how to write dialogue, punctuation and formatting are essential. They clarify the speaker, convey the tone, and ensure the conversation flows smoothly.
These are the general rules for dialogue:
- Each speaker's dialogue should be written in a new paragraph or on a new line, allowing readers to easily follow the conversation.
- A comma should separate dialogue tags, such as “he said” or “she asked,” from the dialogue unless the quoted sentence calls for a question mark or exclamation point. The dialogue should always be enclosed in quotation marks. For instance: “Hello,” she said.
- If a character's speech extends beyond one paragraph, each new paragraph should begin with quotation marks, but only the end of the final paragraph gets the closing quotation marks.
- Punctuation marks like periods and commas are placed inside the quotation marks if they are part of the dialogue.
Careful attention to these rules will make your dialogue clear and enjoyable to read. Here are a few examples of how dialogue formatting and punctuation are used in different scenarios:
Single line ☝️
In this format, the dialogue appears as a standalone line without additional tags or descriptions. It is commonly used for brief exchanges or when the speaker is already clear from the context.
Under the soft moonlight, Jake dropped down on one knee, producing a small velvet box. His partner, Clara, gasped.
“I can’t believe you did that!”
Single line with a dialogue tag 🏷️
A dialogue tag identifies the speaker. It is separated from the dialogue by a comma. The tag can be placed before, in the middle, or after the dialogue.
Mary said, “I’ll be there in five minutes.”
“I’m so excited!” exclaimed John.
Wondering how to write a question in dialogue? Questions are punctuated with a question mark and follow similar formatting as regular dialogue lines.
“Did you finish your homework?” she inquired.
He asked, “What time is the meeting?”
Body language description 🕺
Body language descriptions provide context or show how a character is speaking. These descriptions can be integrated within the dialogue or presented as separate sentences.
“I’m not sure,” she said, scratching her head.
He sighed and looked away, saying, “I don’t know what to do.”
8 steps to write a dialogue 🪜
Before starting to write your dialogue, you should have already brainstormed and outlined your desired outcome. But creating dialogue that achieves these goals isn't always straightforward. We'll break down the essential steps for crafting effective dialogue in a clear, easy-to-understand manner.
1- Get to know your characters 🦸
Before writing dialogue, it's essential to fully understand your characters' personalities, backgrounds, motivations, and relationships. This will help you create dialogue that feels genuine to their traits.
2- Set the stage 🌄
Visualize the scene and imagine how the physical environment and character positions might influence their dialogue and actions.
3- Establish the purpose 🥅
Determine the objective of the dialogue in terms of plot development, character growth, or conveying essential information. This clarity will shape the content and direction of the conversation.
4- Embrace conflict 💥
Compelling dialogue often involves conflict or tension between characters. Explore differing opinions, goals, or misunderstandings to create excitement and maintain reader engagement.
5- Structure your dialogue 🧱
Outline the main points or beats of the dialogue, considering the flow of information, emotional shifts, and desired pacing. This structure will maintain coherence and keep the dialogue focused.
6- Add depth with subtext
People don’t always say what they mean. Infuse the dialogue with subtext, allowing characters to imply or subtly express their true thoughts and emotions. This adds complexity and engages the readers in deciphering underlying meanings.
7- Show, don’t tell 🎭
Instead of directly stating thoughts and emotions, let the characters’ words and actions reveal them. Show their reactions, incorporate body language, and use verbal cues to bring the dialogue to life.
8- Polish through revision ✨
After drafting the dialogue, carefully review and refine it for clarity, relevance, and impact. Remove any unnecessary or repetitive lines and ensure consistency with each character’s voice.
Tips for creating outstanding dialogue 🏅
Mastering the art of writing dialogue is essential to becoming a better writer. Here are several tips to help you create captivating and effective dialogues as a freelance writer:
- Prioritize natural language: Your dialogue should reflect how real people speak, incorporating realistic language, slang, and tone for each character. Avoid overly formal or forced dialogue that doesn't sound genuine. Read dialogue aloud to ensure it sounds natural and has a smooth rhythm and pacing.
- Actions over explanation: Instead of directly explaining information or emotions through dialogue, let your characters' words and interactions demonstrate their thoughts and feelings. This approach adds depth and subtlety to the conversation.
- Keep it concise and purposeful: Ensure your dialogue is concise and focused, avoiding unnecessary or lengthy exchanges. Trim any dialogue that doesn't contribute to character development, plot advancement, or the story.
- Use dialogue tags effectively: Dialogue tags like "said," "asked," or "replied" assign spoken words to the correct character. Additionally, consider using action beats or facial expressions to identify speakers, adding variety to your writing.
- Develop unique character voices: A clear writing style is good, but your characters should sound distinct. Give each character a unique way of speaking, reflecting their personality, background, and beliefs. Vary their vocabulary, sentence structure, and speech patterns to create dynamic and differentiated dialogue.
- Find a balance between dialogue and narration: Blend dialogue with narrative descriptions and actions to create a well-rounded story. This combination provides context, sets the scene, and gives readers a break from continuous dialogue.
- Create tension: Infuse your dialogue with conflict and suspense to keep readers invested and the narrative exciting. Use pauses and silence to convey emotions and indicate unspoken thoughts.
Red flags to avoid 🚩
When crafting dialogue, certain pitfalls can disrupt the flow and believability of your story. Here are key red flags to watch out for, ensuring your dialogue remains compelling and authentic.
- Avoid pointless conversations. Ensure that each dialogue serves a purpose in your story, whether moving the plot forward, revealing character traits, or conveying important information. Avoid including conversations that lack relevance or don't contribute to the overall narrative.
- Be cautious of using dialogue solely for delivering information. This might seem at odds with the previous point, but balancing the two is crucial. Find creative ways to incorporate exposition into the narrative through actions, descriptions, or other storytelling techniques, rather than relying on characters as mere vessels for backstory or plot explanations.
- Vary the use of dialogue tags to avoid monotony and distraction. There are many ways to write dialogue. Instead of repeatedly using the same tags like "said" or "asked," incorporate action beats, facial expressions, or body language to attribute dialogue and add diversity.
- Abstain from excessive or exaggerated tags that describe how the dialogue was spoken unless they are necessary for the scene. Although varying your tags is important, sometimes you should let the context and dialogue convey the desired tone.
Start a dialogue with clients on Contra 🗨️
Dialogue is an indispensable tool in storytelling. It breathes life into characters, driving them off the page and into the minds and hearts of readers. It adds depth to a narrative and creates a sense of realism. Without dialogue, a story is a mere narration of events with no emotional resonance. Ultimately, mastering dialogue is a critical skill for every writer aiming to create compelling and engaging stories.
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