How to Write Dialogue: Formatting, Examples, & Tips
This is why we started Fundamentals of Fiction & Story in the first place. We wanted to give writers the skills and knowledge they needed to take an idea and turn it into a bestselling novel (and even potentially a full-time career).
But unless you plan on writing a textbook, you must learn how to properly create dialogue—and use it correctly because yes, there is a wrong way to present dialogue (and we’ll get into that later).
Without effective dialogue, even the best plot or book ideas will fall flat. Your efforts for successfully publishing a book that reads well will be ineffective. Writing well is the cornerstone of marketing your book. Ultimately, your reader’s reviews of your book will hold weight.
In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to write dialogue, including dialogue format, dialogue punctuation, examples of dialogue with grammar, and common dialogue mistakes to avoid.
2. Keep to three dialogue beats
Outlined by screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb, the Three-Beat Rule advises writers to have a maximum of three dialogue beats at a time, after which you should insert a dialogue tag, action beat, or another character’s speech. Dialogue “beats” can be understood as the short phrases in speech that you can say without pausing for breath. Sometimes they correlate with actual sentences, sometimes they don’t.
Now, you may point out that classic books often don’t follow this rule — that’s because dialogue conventions have changed over time. Nowadays, a lengthy and unbroken monologue (unless it’s been effectively built up to be an impassioned outburst or revelation) tends to feel dated and awkward. Readers also lose their attention and interest easily in the face of long speeches, so the Three-Beat Rule is definitely one to follow!
Free course: Writing Great Dialogue
How to Write Dialogue in a Book
Step #1: Dialogue Purpose
Generally, novels and fiction writing need dialogues. Non-fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily need dialogues. But there isn’t any rule. You’re the best judge. It’s your book so you have to decide rationally what makes more sense – and why.
These are the three primary purposes of using dialogue in your book. It should meet at least one of the conditions above. If it does none of the above, you don’t necessarily need dialogue and you’d be fine without it.
Celia was trying not to smile with pleasure. “O Dodo, you must keep the cross yourself.”
“No, no, dear, no,” said Dorothea, putting up her hand with careless deprecation.”
“Yes, indeed you must; it would suit you – in your black dress, now,” said Celia, insistingly. “You might wear that.”
“Not for the world, not for the world. A cross is the last thing I would wear as a trinket.” Dorothea shuddered slightly.
“Then you will think it wicked in me to wear it,” said Celia, uneasily.
“No, dear, no,” said Dorothea, stroking her sister’s cheek.
The easiest way to figure out if your dialogue has a purpose is by removing it. If the story still makes sense after removing a specific dialogue, it has no purpose and should be removed. If, however, the story doesn’t make sense anymore or the message gets distorted, you should retain it.
Step #2: Differentiate Characters
One of the first things you need to understand while learning how to write dialogue is to set your characters apart using dialogue. You can write several pages explaining different characteristics of the characters which might not work well as opposed to a dialogue.
Dialogue helps you define your characters and differentiate them from one another. If you are writing a novel or a screenplay, I’m sure you know how important character development is and what role it plays in novel writing.
You should use dialogue to differentiate characters, set them apart, and for character development. You should also use dialogue to describe changes in motives, feelings, and intentions as the story moves forward. When these changes are conveyed via dialogue, it makes them more meaningful and notable as opposed to the writer narrating the changes a character is going through.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”
The difference in their personalities is clearly evident- no line of dialogue is out of character. This is a perfect way to use dialogue to differentiate characters and who they actually are.
Step #3: Use Conflict
Imagine your characters are sitting in a couch spending time watching birds in the sky. You can narrate the scene and explain it in detail. You can add dialogue but if everything is moving smoothly and there isn’t anything new or conflicting, what’s the point of having a dialogue?
When there isn’t any conflict and everything is pleasing and normal, and the dialogue doesn’t raise the eyebrows of the readers, they will start losing interest. The fact is: We all do chitchat and conversations in our daily lives that have no purpose. That’s fine.
This is why it’s important that you must learn how to write dialogue that uses conflict between two characters. It doesn’t have to be severe conflict rather it should be two opposing views. If you’re not using conflict and the dialogue doesn’t advance the story, you don’t need one.
Things, however, get challenging when there isn’t any conflict and the conversation is pleasant and lively. You can’t skip it. That’s also a part of the novel because removing these types of pleasant conversations from your story will ruin it.
You need to keep these conversations brief. Better yet, narrate them. This is something you have to learn. This is why reading is crucial if you want to become a better writer. Check dialogue examples from other writers and see how they write dialogues when characters are happy and when there is a conflict.
You’ll notice that pleasant conversations are kept to a minimum while conflicts are covered in detail because stories rely on conflicts and that’s how it moves forward. When everything is fine and there aren’t any conflicts, that’s the end of the story.