How to Write Dialogue: 10 Simple Rules (Plus 5 Mistakes to Avoid!)
No matter what your genre, learning how to write dialogue effectively is a vital part of any writer’s education. Poor dialogue can make readers put your book down in disgust — but great dialogue can transform your characters into truly believable people, and your readers into satisfied customers.
Of course, the best kind of dialogue isn’t just believable. It also provides exposition, involves distinct language depending on who’s speaking, and — perhaps most crucially — moves the story along. Without dialogue, you’d just have pages and pages of description with barely any character dynamics or interpersonal drama. How boring would that be?
Because dialogue is one of the essential components of strong writing, we want to help you get it exactly right. To that end, we’ve put together this list of rules, examples, and more that will have you writing sparkling conversation in no time! We’ll also cover how to format and punctuate dialogue, for those who aren’t sure exactly what goes where.
If you’re especially curious about formatting, go ahead and skip to #10 using the table of contents on the left — otherwise, let’s jump right in with dialogue rule #1.
1. Enter the conversation late
Alfred Hitchcock once said that “drama is life with all the boring bits cut out.” Comparably, we could say that good dialogue is like a real conversation without all the fluff. And one of the best ways to cut out that boring fluff is to enter the conversation as late as possible.
Think about it: few “classic” scenes start with characters going, “Hey buddy! How are you doing? Wow, long time no see.” This is because people enjoy making inferences based on details in action and speech — and the last thing you want to do is insult their intelligence by spelling everything out for them.
For a more tangible taste of this technique, here’s screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talking about the first scene of his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network:
“We started at 100 miles an hour in the middle of a conversation, and that makes the audience have to run to catch up. The worst crime you can commit with an audience is telling them something they already know. We were always running ahead.”
Sorkin’s ability to give the audience just the right amount of detail is a huge strength, and something all writers should strive for. So don’t slow down to accommodate your readers — make them catch up to you.
2. Keep dialogue tags simple
Dialogue tags are the phrases in your writing that indicate who’s saying what. For example: “I can’t wait to read this article,” Rita said. In this case, “Rita said” is the dialogue tag. It identifies the speaker and clarifies the action.
Of course, there are plenty of other dialogue tags besides “said”: stated, declared, proclaimed, the list goes on and on. But when writing dialogue, you generally want to keep these elaborate tags to a minimum.
As American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard put it:
“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled,’ ‘gasped,’ ‘cautioned,’ ‘lied.’”
The key word that Leonard uses here is “intrusive.” You want to bring readers into your scene and make them feel like firsthand observers, without drawing attention to the fact that they’re actually not. When you raid your thesaurus for fancy dialogue tags, you risk taking readers out of the scene for a brief display of your verbal virtuosity.
In that vein, keep your tags simple — use “said” where you need to, and other dialogue tags even more sparingly. Luckily, much of the time you don’t even need a tag to show who’s speaking; either readers will already know, or you can imply it another way. Speaking of which…