Dialogue Basics

dialogue check list

Dialogue 101: Dialogue is not conversation

This is conversation:

John: Where are you from?
Mary: Oxford.
John: How old are you?
Mary: 24.

This is dialogue:

Mary: In my 24 years on this earth, I've never seen anyone drink tea so ridiculously.
John: Well you're not from here, are ya?
Mary: No. I'm from Oxford.

Dialogue must seem like conversation. It must seem like people are talking like actual people would, without being as straight forward. Though people may readily answer questions in real life, in a book, this type of conversation dulls your reader. They want to read a story, not a report. Your dialogue must still tell the story and move it forward. Alternatively, any factual information you feel the reader needs to know can also be given through narration, rather than conversation.

Mary first had to suffer through a minor interrogation, as John shot of several questions
in succession, demanding to know all her basic information.

Every syllable of dialogue must serve a purpose

“Welcome welcome, please take a seat and grab yourself a cup of tea. Dialogue mistakes Lovely weather isn’t it? Oh by the way, could you hand me the sugar? Thank you so much. Yes yes go ahead, of course you can have another cup of tea. Actually, no, don’t do that-”

Writing dialogue has more purpose than making small talk over a cup of tea!
One of the most common mistakes writers make when writing dialogue is writing scenes that lack tension and suspense, where characters are just chatting about something or other. They are making small talk. Very cute, not very useful. It has no place in fiction.

Every sentence uttered should have consequences, every word and sound should add to the story. Structure the scene around the character goals and let the dialogue evolve naturally from those goals.  You can use it to remind your protagonist what his goal is and how desperate he is to achieve his goal.

The best dialogue is setup ahead of time. The author does this by using dialogue tricks and techniques that create the desired effect. Subtext is an excellent way to make subtext carry extra weight while adding suspense to the story. Chitchat between Jane and John about his dog, is more exciting if we know Jane killed his dog that morning.

The top uses of dialogue

1 Dialogue that moves the plot forward

Bring something new to the table, whether that’s a feeling, fact or action.

  • Providing factual information, in example:
    • Introduce story world
    • Introduce characters
    • Advanced: progress from talk about action to dialogue about how actions define the characters and who they are as human beings. This is usually only used in key scenes.
  • Show interpersonal relationships, in example:
    • Discus a person not present at the scene
    • The way they respond to each other
  • Characterize the characters, in example:
    • Provide information about events in their life
    • Provide information about their personality
    • Show attitudes and feelings
    • Show motive for their goals and attitudes
    • Show reactions to people and events
  • Adjust the pace of the story
    • Things are happening right here, right now
    • Break up lengthy narrative passages
  • Move the “camera” in for a close up
    • Focus on a specific event

2 Characterization: Bring your characters to life and make the story emotionally appealing

Dialogue brings characters to live even if they are objects. It gives them an individual voice which makes them stand out from other characters and expresses their personality. Know your character! They say things no one else would say because no one else is them. Stay away from using generic phrases.

"Oh don't you dare..." The scissors said to the rock, "Stay away!"

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there too much stock dialogue / thought tagging?
  • Is dialect or slang being overused? Read about cold reading below!
  • Does your character need speech signatures to make him or her more vivid?
  • Would he/she say that?
  • How does he/she react to each character?
  • How does this change their relationship?

Remember, characters always doing something while they are talking! Mary might only shift her weight in her chair while she declines another cup of tea. Barry is straightening his suit before greeting Charlie. John might be bashing someone’s head in while cursing aloud. However big or small, there is always some action alongside the word.

3 Building conflict through tension

Three things always catch our eye. Uncertainty, mystery and danger. Matters are never under complete control. There is some worry at the back of your mind even if everything seemingly goes smoothly. There is tension, especially when people are communicating.

Three things always catch our eye. Uncertainty, mystery and danger. Matters are never under complete control. There is some worry at the back of your mind even if everything seemingly goes smoothly. There is tension, especially in dialogue.

The magical ingredient: subtext

Subtext is what the characters say between the lines. The subtext is the emotion beneath the words, the truth beneath what is said and heard and the true essence of the scene. People act pleasant and polite when talking to you even when what they say is heart breaking. It is the thing they say without actually saying it. People are rarely so direct to say exactly what they think. They do not always say exactly what they mean. Subtext is sensitive to the interpretation of the audience and can sometimes be overlooked. This is a risk of the trade.

Subtext is part of every day social life, especially when emotions are involved. We go through life not saying how we really feel. This occurs regularly in any household with mini fights over who should do the dishes that evening (translate to, you don’t do your fair share of work around the house) or discussions about working late (translates to avoidance of the home, affair?). The characters are not being straight forward about what really bothers them.

Subtext creates texture that links scenes to the themes and larger plot. It is the layer that contains unconscious information, clues to behaviour and elements of backstory. There are several techniques to achieve this. Click here to read all about subtext and how to create it.

Suspense from disagreement.


John: Want to go to that new restaurant?
Mary: Sure.

Suspense from disagreement that hardly matters.


John: Want to go to that new restaurant?
Mary: I'm not sure... I guess we could give it a go.

Suspense from disagreement that matters a lot.

John: You have to taste these peanut butter cookies, they're delicious. 
Mary: What? You know I'm allergic to nuts!

Suspense from disagreement that is obvious.

John: You're mad, my apple pie will always be better than yours.
Mary: Then why are the guests ignoring your pie in favour of mine?

Suspense from subtle disagreement.

John: Let's throw something up there and see if it'll knock the apple off the branch. 
Mary: What if we try shaking the tree?
Suspense from contrast

Tension can be created through opposing circumstances. Imagine John being the only panic-stricken one in a group of calm people. Imagine Mary being the only girl to be out of breath and being covered in sweat in a group of runners. Imagine little John laughing uncontrollably in a classroom full of serious students. Imagine Mary being the only one to question the decision made by the leader, in a group full of people willing to follow in blind trust.

Suspense from loaded keywords

Certain words are loaded with emotional impact. They carry the seed of tension. It makes all the difference in the world whether John calmly asked Mary to come with him, or whether he shouted at her. Certain words need only be mentioned, such as fire, hate, death, fear.

Suspense from inability to talk

Lack of breath. Loud environment drowns out essential dialogue, risk of being overheard etc.

Check out this article

Writing conversations like a pro:

  • … furthers the theme
  • … reveals character transformation
  • … has rhythm and controls the pace
  • … reveals something about a character in every line
  • … has a distinct and recognizable voice for each character
  • … foreshadows what’s to come
  • … has the magic ingredient: subtext
  • … reveal or remind the goals
  • … establishes setting
  • … is easily spoken aloud
  • … must appear realistic
  • … increases tension and conflict

Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques.
Noble, W. (1987) Shut up! He explained.
Reeves, C. (2012) Scriptshadow Secrets.

Truby, J. (2007) The Anatomy of Story.