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Writing great dialogue

Functions of dialogue

Dialogue is one of the writer’s most effective means of revealing character and dramatising conflict. It should do one of four things:

  • characterise
  • convey emotion – (speech varies under conditions of stress)
  • advance the story
  • provide information*

* smuggle in exposition

Don’t ask dialogue to convey plot information unless that information is part of the dramatic conflict.

Consider this line of dialogue:

“Have you invited your daughter who only stays with you at weekends?”

The second half is clearly exposition or additional information the writer is trying to convey and sticks out as being totally inauthentic. If you wanted to convey this in a conversation you could reveal it by way of two characters arguing and relay it in the heat of dramatic conflict e.g. one parent upset with the other about child access arrangements or a partner in a relationship jealous of the time the other is spending with their child when they were expecting a romantic weekend.

Key points to remember:

  • View dialogue as an action to get what you want in the scene.
  • Make sure characters want something.
  • Ask yourself : “Why is the character saying this?”
  • Good dialogue doesn’t tell, it shows.
Using dialogue for characterisation

Give each of your characters a unique way of speaking, a unique voice. You don’t want them all to sound like you. Use local expressions or idioms, rearrange the sentence structure, i.e. use syntax, for the region being portrayed and include slang.

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more persons. In real life, people rarely speak each other’s names so avoid having your characters do this. Similarly, avoid long speeches. To simulate reality, remember that characters engaged in conversation may largely listen but they won’t always necessarily respond directly to what is being said as they will have their own agendas.


To add even more authenticity, think about the order of things. In real-life, a feeling or thought generates an action and then dialogue communicates this inner state to the world.

Remember: feeling, action, speech.

Formatting dialogue
  • Give each character their own line.

If a character responds to another talking with an action, maybe they roll their eyes or shuffle uncomfortably, that action needs to go on its own line so that each player is separated.

The whiteness of the seagulls stood out in relief against the overcast sky. They circled as though in a holding pattern, not sure of which action to take next, reluctant perhaps to venture into the murky grey waves.

‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ Claire said.

‘Do what?’ Will said.

The wind whipped up. A discarded plastic bottle blew across the sand.

‘Us,’ she said.

Skip ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.‘ It can feel awkward at first, especially with telephone conversations, but start to notice how natural this seems when watching a TV show or reading a novel.

  • Keep attribution tags simple

Use ‘said’ as it disappears on the page. You can also use ‘asked’ and ‘replied’ but even these aren’t strictly necessary. See dialogue above. Will is asking a question but ‘said’ still appears to be natural.

  • Cut adverbs

You’ve probably heard the piece of writing advice before about minimising adverbs. Adverbs are modifiers which provide further information because the preceding verb is so weak it doesn’t tell us enough.

e.g. She ran quickly.

The adverb ‘quickly’ was added to provide more information about how she was running because the verb is not specific enough.

By writing: ‘She sprinted’ instead, modification is no longer necessary.

Key point: We should know how something is said from the dialogue.

NOT: ‘How would I know?’ she asked angrily.

INSTEAD: ‘How the hell would I know?‘

You may think of exceptions: ‘I hate you!’ she said lovingly.

However, an action here (as well as the context of the scene ) could replace the adverb:

She smiled and ran her fingers through his hair. ‘I hate you.’

The best dialogue of all

The best dialogue is full of subtext.

Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters—what they really think and believe. In other words, the reader can read between the lines. The emotional energy is usually in the subtext.

Here’s a great technique:

If a minor character has the same problem as protagonist it can provide fantastic subtext to dialogue, making it loaded with emotional charge.

e.g. Two brothers have fallen out over the same girl. A minor character asks their advice about what to do as his best friend has stolen his girl. The advice each brother gives will be coloured by their grievance with the other and therefore loaded with subtext.

The master of subtext

To see a master of subtext at work, Ernest Hemingway’s short stories* provide great examples. Hemingway believed the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface, but should shine through implicitly.

*See: Hills Like White Elephants and Cat in the Rain.

  • Hemingway’s style is minimalist. He only gives us the bare facts and leaves it for the reader to read between the lines.
  • He doesn’t use attributions (dialogue tags – he said/she said).
  • There is no interior monologue.
  • We overhear the conversation and it’s left to us to interpret what’s going on.

Does the dialogue:

  • advance the action?
  • reveal character
  • create dramatic tension (and resolve it?)

Is the dialogue:

  • compelling?
  • authentic?
  • on the nose or full of implication