How to write a dialog

Dialogue is a great chance to break free from the grammatical and other conventions of narrative writing. It’s where your characters can show their quirks, personalities, flaws, knowledge or just be plain outrageous.

Charlotte Bronte gave the main character in Jane Eyre these words: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.” It tells us much of Jane’s indomitable will.

Similarly, Antoine de Saint-Exupery had The Little Prince say: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” In this dialogue, we learn of his thoughts on loneliness, friendship, love and loss that are so pervasive to the story.

Dialogue is one of the most enjoyable parts of fiction writing, so let’s just jump straight in and embrace the ride.

The importance of dialogue in fiction

Dialogue characterises your characters. Apart from that being a mouthful, it means you learn a lot about a character from the way they speak. This includes things like their background, mindset, expertise or education, emotional state and current state of mind. Are they angry, sad, raging, nervous or otherwise? Show it in the dialogue.

Dialogue can also work as a way of filling in backstory. So rather than a boring narration with lots of detail, you can let the characters do the work and provide that through interesting exchanges.

Another great role dialogue plays is in breaking up the text. If you want to avoid long narrative passages, you can always throw in some dialogue. It also gives the reader another voice to listen to other than yours in the narrative. You can also add some variety between inner dialogue (thoughts) and extern dialogue (a conversation exchange).

RELATED READ: Is Passive Voice Really All Bad?

Common pitfalls writers face when writing dialogue

As with all kinds of writing, there are some things about dialogue to be careful of.

Long monologues. Monologue can play an important role in providing access to a character’s thoughts, but long stretches of it by just one character can be monotonous. Try to break it up through motion or action, such as a person performing an action while speaking that may demonstrate their mood, the setting, or another aspect that could add to the dialogue.

Exposition dumps. Dialogue is an excellent way to provide some backstory, as noted above, but be wary also of providing too much in one go. Pepper or layer it in if you can.

Unnatural flow. Speech is often not grammatically correct, and people don’t always speak in complete sentences, so don’t feel you have to make your characters speak the King’s English and use correct grammar, words or phrasing. It can make them seem stiff or unrealistic, particularly if you’re dealing with a subculture in which certain speech might be quite specific. If you’re not sure if it will sound alright, say it out loud. Another good way to create natural speech patterns is to listen to real-life conversations and take notes.

Too many speaker’s tags. The speaker’s tag is the he said/she said tag that indicates who is speaking. These are not necessary in every single piece of dialogue if it’s clear who is speaking. If two characters are having a conversation, a new paragraph will signal a change of speaker and the tag can be dropped.

Lack of any subtext. Dialogue is a fantastic way of communicating a subtext, such as the relationship between the characters, class differences through differing language, or vocabulary that hints at shared experiences. However, it can also be missed. Give your characters a voice, a chance to share commonalities or differences, and to speak up with quips and observations that provide that context.

Cut out small talk. Dialogue should add to the story, not be filled with small talk. Complete conversations aren’t always necessary. Snippets can be fine if they convey exactly what is needed to advance the story, and characters don’t have to always say goodbye at the end of the excerpt.

Overuse of a person’s name. It’s very tempting to name a character repeatedly in a story. After all, we want the reader to know who they are. However, in real life, that is not how we speak to someone, naming them in every sentence of dialogue. Introduce them once, and then get on with what they are saying.


Jane Austen is considered one of the masters of dialogue exchanges. She uses actions, reactions, and word choices that reveal a lot about a character’s feelings and motivations. Here’s a particularly well-known exchange from Pride and Prejudice showing Mrs Bennet’s chatty and gossipy characteristics, and Mr Bennet’s ability to vex her and enjoying doing it.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

     “But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

     Mr. Bennet made no answer.

     “Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

     “You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

     This was invitation enough.

     “Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

J. R. R. Tolkien’s use of dialogue in his books is exemplary. Here is an excerpt from The Hobbit showing the difference between Bilbo and Gollum’s state of mind and way of speaking. They both have distinct character voices, and Tolkien introduces Gollum’s unusual speech patterns and use of the “my precious” moniker for the ring.

“What have I got in my pocket?” he said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset. 

     “Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in its nassty little pocketses?”

     Bilbo seeing what had happened and having nothing better to ask stuck to his question. “What have I got in my pocket?” he said louder. “S-s-s-s-s,” hissed Gollum. “It must give us three guesseses, my precious, three guesseses.”

     “Very well! Guess away!” said Bilbo.

     “Handses!” said Gollum.

     “Wrong,” said Bilbo, who had luckily just taken his hand out again. “Guess again!”

     “S-s-s-s-s,” said Gollum, more upset than ever. 

RELATED READ: Literary Techniques: 10 Common Literary Devices You Should Know

Adding depth and emotion to dialogue

It’s very easy to be so focused on what your characters are saying that you forget to add action, setting elements or depth to the dialogue. You can do this through creating a setting to where the dialogue takes place. Use figurative language and sensory details to explain what time it is, what is happening around them, what they notice, and any interactions they have with their environment. Objects and weather can be used to heighten emotion. Perhaps the character plays with something when nervous, or a gathering storm might mirror their mood. These small observations can make the story more realistic and show how characters are interacting with their world.


Dialogue plays an enormous role in how much your readers will like your story, how your characters might come to life with their own voices and how they interact together. We rely on conversations to talk to each other and tell stories, so let your characters talk and help drive your plot through their own meaningful conversations.

Enter your email to subscribe to our newsletter, get free advice and connect with other authors.
I am an author of:  
My email: