How To Write Dialogue In A Story

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Dialogue is a vital storytelling component, allowing characters to interact, reveal their personalities, and drive the plot forward. However, many writers struggle to understand the true purpose of dialogue, making it impossible to write it naturally and engagingly. This leads to scenes that fall flat or fail to resonate with readers.

Today, I’ll cover everything you need to know about writing good dialogue. This includes a definition of dialogue, its true purposes, some ways to set yourself up for success with dialogue, how to format your dialogue, general mistakes to avoid, and more. So, without further ado, let’s learn how to write dialogue.

How To Write Good Dialogue

Whether you’re a novelist or a screenwriter, the conversations between characters are very important to your story. Doing dialogue well will reward you with a better story and enjoyable, quotable, and downright unforgettable characters, interactions, and scenes.

On the other hand, poor dialogue will have the opposite effect, making your characters sound flat, unrealistic, or indistinguishable from each other. It can disrupt the flow of your narrative, bore readers or viewers, and ultimately detract from the overall quality of your story.

Understanding dialogue is essential for any writer who wants to create compelling and immersive narratives that resonate with audiences. Before we can get better at it, we must understand what it is and what the purpose of these conversations is.

What Is Dialogue?

Dialogue is essentially one character talking to another. However, it’s more than just a conversation between characters in a story. It’s a fundamental tool of storytelling, allowing characters to interact with each other, express their thoughts and emotions, and move the plot forward.

This distinction is important because your dialogue must serve one or more of these purposes. So, a more accurate definition of effective dialogue is a conversation between characters that expands upon those characters’ beliefs and desires and moves the story forward. In short, a conversation with purpose.

The Purpose Of Dialogue

Dialogue serves multiple purposes in storytelling. It advances the plot by conveying information, developing conflicts, and resolving tensions. Additionally, dialogue reveals character traits, personalities, and motivations, giving readers insight into the inner workings of the characters’ minds.

Here, I must introduce an important concept to you: Good dialogue, no matter how witty or well-written, will never make a scene good all by itself. Dialogue is amazing because it conveys what our characters want, how they feel, what they believe, etc. These things give dialogue its weight. And without them, dialogue will never succeed.

David Mamet’s Three Questions

You’ll hear people offer a bunch of tips for better dialogue—everything should have subtext, and every line needs some emotional verbiage. There is truth to these, and we’ll cover them later. However, keeping all these things at the forefront of your mind (especially as a beginner) can make your dialogue formulaic and stiff and distract from your natural writing.

This video by Tyler Mowery does a great job at showing David Mamet’s three questions within dialogue.

In reality, all you need to do to write effective dialogue is to ensure it serves a meaningful purpose within the story. To do this, ask yourself these three questions about your scene:

  1. Who wants what from who?
  2. What happens if they don’t get it?
  3. Why now?

Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1: “The Godfather”

Scene Setup: Michael Corleone confronts his brother-in-law Carlo about his betrayal. Who wants what from who? Michael wants Carlo to confess his role in the plot against the family. What happens if they don’t get it? If Michael doesn’t get the confession, he can’t justify his actions to the family. Why now? After a series of betrayals, the family is on the brink of internal collapse.


Michael: “You have to answer for Santino, Carlo.”

Carlo: “Mike, you got it all wrong.”

Michael: “Ah, that little farce you played with my sister. You think that could fool a Corleone?”

Carlo: “I’m innocent! I swear on the kids!”

Michael: “Sit down. We’re going for a ride.”

The dialogue is simple here. However, knowing the context of the scene makes it powerful. The story around the conversation carries weight, and so does the conversation, even if the words don’t jump out as flashy or stylish.

Example 2: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” by J.K. Rowling

Scene Setup: Harry confronts Professor Slughorn to get a crucial memory about Voldemort. Who wants what from who? Harry wants Slughorn to give him the memory. What happens if they don’t get it? If Harry doesn’t get the memory, Dumbledore can’t help him defeat Voldemort. Why now? The urgency of Voldemort’s increasing power necessitates immediate action.

Harry: “Professor, you need to tell me the truth. I need that memory.”

“I’ve told you everything, Harry.”

“No, you haven’t. This is about more than you or me. It’s about stopping Voldemort.”

“You don’t understand the consequences of what you’re asking.”

“And you don’t understand what happens if we fail.”

Using these examples, you can see how meaningful dialogue is not just about what is said or even how it’s said but about the underlying motivations, stakes, and timing that drive the conversation. If you take only one thing away from today’s article, let it be this: Dialogue gets its value from the characters and story not being special, stylish, or witty.

Key Dialogue Writing Tips

We now know that dialogue is a conversation between characters that serves a purpose. And that our dialogue should convey what out characters want and progress the overall story. These are the general concepts of dialogue. Now, let’s look at some key things to keep in mind when you write.

1. Dialogue Should Reflect Character Wants, Not The Writers

We’ve established that dialogue is a tool for moving the story along. That said, you don’t want the conversation to come across as a tool. Dialogue has to be linked to a character’s desire, not the writer’s desire to convey information.

So, when your character speaks, are they speaking because they want something or because you want the audience to know something? You want to avoid a dialogue that feels like it’s spoken for the benefit of the writer instead of the character.

2. Use Subtext

The subtext in dialogue refers to the underlying meaning or hidden message conveyed by a character’s words, actions, or tone that is not explicitly stated. And it often hints at the characters’ true feelings, thoughts, or intentions.

In short, people don’t always say what they really mean, and neither should your characters. What’s left unsaid is the subtext. There are a million ways to say the same thing. So, stop and ask yourself, why say it like that? What don’t they want to say?

An example could be, “Are you staying out late again tonight?” The unspoken subtext is that the speaker disapproves of the person staying out or misses them.

In many cases, “Are you staying out late again tonight?” would be more interesting or realistic than saying, “You know I hate it when you stay out late.” Unless you intend for a character to have a brash, to-the-point personality, consider taking the subtle route, and your dialogue will thank you.

3. Avoid Q&A Type Dialogue

Q&A dialogue is when one person asks a question, and someone answers it. Then, they ask a question of their own, and so on and so forth, for most of the dialogue.

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’ve been better,” Bill replied. “I’m really tired today.”

“Hmm, didn’t sleep well?”

“No, nightmares again.”

“Were they the same ones as before?” John questioned.

One person asks questions; another person answers them. If you’re not careful, this is an easy trap to fall into and can lead to dull, repetitive conversation. Instead, you want to use action-oriented verbs. Instead of “question and answer,” try “seduce and resist” or “attack and defend.”

A good example could be:

“Man, you look like hell.”

“Yeah, I didn’t sleep well last night,” Bill replied. “More nightmares.”

“I can tell. The same ones?”

In this example, Bill is told that he looks like hell. Now, he’s on the defensive and says, “Well, yeah, I didn’t sleep last night!” You have a much more interesting dialogue because there is more going on than simply question-asking and replying.

You can take these concepts even further by using sarcasm or irony. Imagine Bill’s friend says, “You look peachy this morning.” Again, as a character, Bill will pick up on this and explain with a tinge of defense. Moments like these create more interesting back and forths and show character personality, too.

4. Insert Some Action Anto The Scene

Dialogue with no action starts to feel like a conversation between two talking heads. This is especially true in novels. Instead of just speech, enrich your dialogue with small details about the characters’ actions as they talk.

“We’re gonna be late,” James said as his brother Paul fumbled through the door.

“I know. My bad,” Paul said, glancing at his watch.

5. Authentic Dialogue Through Characters

Of course, writers want their dialogue to come across as genuine. Reading something that sounds unnatural often sticks out like a sore thumb. A fair portion of well-written dialogue comes down to being a good writer, which comes with practice. The portions that aren’t strictly writing ability come down to your characters.

You May Also Like: How To Write Unique Characters With LivingWriter

Believable characters help create authentic dialogue. Each character should have a distinct voice, reflecting their background, personality, and goals. For instance, a rebellious teenager might speak with slang and contractions, while a sophisticated business executive might use formal language and complex sentences.

By developing unique voices for each character, writers can bring their characters to life and immerse readers in the story world. Again, here is an example of the context of the story (and the characters) influencing the dialogue—not vice versa.

How To Write Dialogue In First Person

First-person dialogue puts readers right in the narrator’s head, letting them experience the story through the character’s thoughts, feelings, and unique way of speaking. It’s ideal for creating a strong sense of intimacy and immediacy, perfect for situations where you want readers to deeply connect with a single character’s perspective, like a thrilling mystery or a coming-of-age story.

Overall, the dialogue rules mentioned so far apply regardless of perspective. However, there are some things you want to consider when doing dialogue in first person.

Character Voice

In first person, the distinct voice of the narrating character is particularly important because everything comes through the lens of their internal monologue. You’ll want to very specific and consistent with their speech patterns.

Consider their background and personality, and how they affect the way they speak. How would they express themselves verbally? Use slang, contractions, or specific vocabulary to make them unique.

Avoid Using “I” Too Much

It’s common to start sentences with “I” in first person. It’s ok to do but you’ll have to mix it up as much as possible to avoid using it too much. One way to do this is to focus on action. For example, instead of “I walked into the room,” try “The door creaked open, and…”

Being descriptive and setting the scene is also an effective tool. Lines like, “The bustling marketplace assaulted my senses…” sets the scene without needing “I.” Similarly, a focus on thoughts/feelings works well too. “A knot of dread formed in my stomach as they…” conveys internal experience nicely.

How To Format Dialogue In A Story

Proper formatting is essential for clarity and readability in dialogue. Each new speaker should start on a new line, and dialogue tags should be used to attribute speech to specific characters. Punctuation marks such as commas, periods, and quotation marks help to indicate speech and dialogue tags.

Here is the basics of what you need to know.

First, the actual dialogue (what the characters are saying) must be within quotation marks. Without quotations, readers won’t be able to distinguish dialogue from narrative or internal character thoughts. The dialogue tags (he said, she said) don’t need to be within quotations. Punctuation, however, almost always goes inside the quotations with what’s being spoken.

For example:

“I can’t believe you said that,” she exclaimed.

“It’s true,” he replied. “Sometimes the truth hurts.”

Notice how there are comas before the dialogue tags; these also go inside the quotations. Dialogue tags show who is speaking and help readers follow along with the conversation. While they are essential for context and clarity, you don’t have to include them in every line, especially if only two people are talking.

This great video by Brandon Cornett can give you a visual representation of how to format dialogue.

The dialogue tag can come before the dialogue, between two lines (“It’s true,” he replied. “Sometimes the truth hurts.”) or after the line as needed. While different situations may lean toward a certain placement there are no strict rules. Personally, I’m often a fan of having the tag in the middle, to create a nice flow within the dialogue.


In truth, there is no secret sauce that makes dialogue good. You don’t have to master wittiness and style to do it well. Simply knowing the purpose of your dialogue and writing accordioning will elevate your storytelling and create scenes that resonate with audiences.

Hopefully today’s article has been helpful to understand how to write dialogue, the purpose it serves, create authentic characters, formatting dialogue correctly, avoiding common mistakes, enhancing dialogue with subtext, using dialogue as action, and more. While these are great building blocks, you’ll still need practice and dedication. So, get out there are get to writing.

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