How to use dialogue in your stories

Image showing a man and a woman in conversation with each other, portraying dialogue for stories.

Nowadays all fiction stories are filled with conversations between characters, and that helps to tell the story. Sometimes beginning authors are hesitant to use dialogue, and rightly so, as there are some pitfalls in using and writing it. Conversations between two characters should be written as if they live in the ‘real world’, but in this lies the first pitfall: the ‘real world’ has no plot. Everyday conversations frequently have no purpose at all and those don’t belong in a story.

Necessary dialogue

One way for an author to learn which conversations are necessary for a story is to read a variety of novels that have been published over the last ten years and to study the dialogue. Experienced authors only use dialogue when it’s essential for the story; when it moves the story forward. Sometimes this means that the conversations are cut down to the minimum, and this is good. Unnecessary conversations should never be part of your story.

Three reasons

There are three reasons to use dialogue in a story

  • To advance your plot
    “Let’s go!” said by one of the characters works perfectly to replace the sentence: ‘Peter said that they should go.’
  • To reveal a character
    Each word a characters speaks must allow the reader to learn more about his personality.
  • To give information
    Be very careful with this one, as there is a thin line between giving the reader information or boring them with details. Don’t let your character tell everything in a conversation, but rather use a brief description.

Avoid this when you use dialogue!

To write good dialogue is difficult. These are ten things you should avoid when using dialogue in your stories:

  • Unnatural exchanges
    The conversations doesn’t sound natural. Read it out loud to hear if it is something a person would say.
  • Similar voices
    Make sure each character has its own voice, in other words, each character has a certain way of speaking and a particular vocabulary. This technique also helps you to give more details about the character.
  • Small talk
    Sometimes you want to add small talk between characters, because they haven’t said anything for quite some time. Don’t! Dialogue should only be used for immediate action, or to reveal emotions or motives of the characters.
  • Exposition
    This is when a character tells a story in a conversation. This is totally the opposite of ‘show don’t tell’.
  • Names
    Be careful with using names in dialogue. In conversations in the ‘real world’ names are only used to draw attention or to emphasize a point. Remember this when you write.
  • Forgotten tags
    A dialogue tag is when you supplement speech with ‘said’ or ‘shout’ or ‘calls’, etc. If a reader has to stop reading because he doesn’t know who is talking, it means you haven’t used enough dialogue labels. However, keep the next point in mind!
  • Too many tags
    Sometimes its better to use the word ‘said’ instead of ‘shout’ or ‘calls’ or ‘whispers’ or any other dialogue tags. However, always using ‘said’ with dialogue is boring to read. When it is clear who is talking, then don’t use the tags. Remember that actions, words and body language of a character should convey their mood.
  • Wrong punctuation
    When a character speaks, those words should be placed between single or double quotes. It doesn’t matter which you use – single or double – as long as you use them consistently throughout your story!
  • Insignificant conversations
    This is different than ‘small talk’. For example: if a character will be back the next day or the next week, this information doesn’t have to be shared in dialogue, but you can make a character think of it. Conversations should cause friction or tension and add information; move your story forward. If this is not the case, don’t use dialogue.
  • Too many conversations
    Sometimes silence is more powerful than words. There are times when there are no words to convey a characters feelings; when a character cannot express its own feelings. Use this technique (silences) sparingly to make it more effective.

Punctuation and dialogue

When you write dialogue it is important to use the punctuation marks correctly so readers know when someone is talking.

  • Use quotation marks before and after the exact words of a character. Use a full stop inside the quotation marks to indicate the end of the dialogue.
    Example: “Jack will come with us.”
  • Always use a comma before you use the dialogue tag. The comma is always inside the quotation marks.
    Example: “Come on, Jack,” says Sally.
  • When you use the dialogue tag before the actual spoken words, you use a colon after the dialogue tag.
    Example: Jack says: “I’m staying.”
  • Use quote marks around each part of divided dialogue and don’t forget the comma before and after the dialogue tag.
    Example: “But Jack,” Sally says, “it will be fun.”
  • When you use other punctuation marks, such as exclamation or question marks, you always place it inside the quotation marks.
    Example: “I’m not in the mood! Why do I have to go?” Jack asks.
  • Always start on a new line when a different character speaks.

Always remember

Enrich your stories with dialogue, but do not bore you readers with the black-on-white spoken words.

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