Writing realistic dialogue is the sleight of hand magic of storytelling. Factual information wrapped in a false sense of reality, with one demand that cannot be ignored: it must move the story.

Dialogue must be functional

  • Provide factual knowledge
  • Adjust the pace
  • Break up a lengthy narrative passage
  • Reveal setting (comment on environment)
  • Reveal need/goal
  • Show characterization
  • Show relationships between people
  • Add tension through disagreement

Realistic Dialogue

This is conversation:
A: Where are you from?
B: Oxford.
A: How old are you?
B: 24

This is dialogue:
B: In my 24 years on this earth, I’ve never seen someone so drunk.
A: You’re not from around here then are ya.
B: No, I’m from Oxford.

Subtext (words don’t mean what they literally mean) is an excellent way to make subtext carry extra weight while adding suspense to the story.

A: Would you like something to drink?
B: No, I thrive on severe dehydration. (yes, I’d like a drink)

Tips for realistic dialogue

  • Questions and answers don’t follow each other.
    A: Did you feed the cat?
    B: Why do you ask?
  • Talk around sensitive things.
  • Interrupt each other frequently.
  • Short to medium length sentences.
  • Ignore the question asked and answer the question they think the other meant to ask.
    A: Do you have a date for the prom?
    B: I do now.
  • Occasional profanity
  • Informal language
  • Contradictions and double negatives
  • Only refer to the other character by name to get their attention or address them specifically while in a group.

Each character has his own voice

Speech is a form of characterization. Word choice, grammar, cursing and even silence, it all says something about the sort of person. Filter metaphors through their personality or job (e.g. baker would compare the colour white to flour or eggs). Give each person their own way of saying hello.

Others ways to vary speech

  • Cursing: rarely/sometimes/often/constantly
  • Short full sentences/short broken sentences/long sentences
  • Proper grammar / broken grammar
  • Often interrupts others / often gets interrupted
  • Tells jokes / no jokes
  • Laughs frequently / rarely laughs
  • Accents (don’t overdo it at the cost of readability)
  • Stutter (Introduce the stutter, then only occasionally remind the reader of it)

Attribution Tags and Modifiers

The basics first: Dialogue tells us what is said, attribution tags tell us who said it and modifiers tell us how it was said.

Get your speech-attribution tags in as early as possible. Slip the tag in after the first completed clause in the sentence. And when alternating lines of dialogue, make sure you identify speakers at least every five or six exchanges; it’s very easy for the reader to get lost otherwise.

“He/she said” is the basic attribution – neutral. More importantly, it’s invisible. The word is so common, the reader doesn’t even consciously read it anymore. Whenever possible, stick to ‘said’.

Use modifiers to provide additional information about how it was said, that couldn’t be expressed in the written speech directly. Example: whisper

*Note: whenever possible, show through speech rather than through modifiers. For example, show the stutter, avoid the stutter modifier.

Gestures support or modify speech

Consider using gestures to make your point – it’s more dynamic than an adjective.

‘I’ve come to fight you.’ John took the gun from the holder and took aim.
‘Oh have you?’ Jane sipped her tea, not taking her feet off the table.
‘Yeah…’ He shifted his weight nervously.

Format & Form

Example: “This is punctuated correctly.”

Depending on the country (each has its own format rules), you use single (‘) or double (“) marks to open and close dialogue.

When writing dialogue for a single speaker that runs to multiple paragraphs, put an open-quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph, but no close-quotation mark until the end of the final paragraph. Terminal punctuation (periods, exclamation marks, and question marks) go inside the final close-quotation mark. In other words, the spoken words and punctuation belonging to those spoken words, go inside the quotation marks.

When someone is interrupted or cut off abruptly or restarts his sentence, end the dialogue with an em-dash (which you type in manuscript as two hyphens); when he or she trails off without completing the thought, end the dialogue with ellipsis points (three periods).

“We went to Toronto — boy, I hate that city — and found …”

An em-dash can also be used to signal partial speech or hesitation.

“ — yes, their son, Harry —”
“Er — Petunia, dear — you haven’t heard from your sister lately, have you?”

Use italics to place emphasis on a particular word.

“Really, Dumbledore, you think you can explain all this in a letter?”

Use caps to signal shouting.


Non-word Interjections

  • Duh (correct you idiot)
  • Ew (disgust)
  • Ha! (Told ya so)
  • Huh (confused)
  • Huh-huh (negative)
  • Mhm (agreed)
  • Hm (thinking)
  • Mm (pleasure)
  • Oh (realization hits)
  • Uh oh (this is bad)
  • Er (hesitation)

Cold Reading Dialogue

Cold reading a piece means reading only the words that are being spoken, without the fluff of inflections and dramatization.

‘I don’t want to go,’ John begged, falling to his knees. ‘Please don’t make me.’
Read aloud: ‘I don’t want to go. Please don’t make me.’

Further Reading: How to write smiles and laughter