Writing

How to Write Great Dialogue

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 9, 2019 • 6 min read

Writing dynamic, believable, and lively dialogue is an important skill for any storyteller. But what is great dialogue? Great dialogue rings true and is appropriate to the speaker, and is what that person would say in those circumstances, while also furthering either the plot or your knowledge of the characters, or both; while at the same time not being tedious.

Get started with these comprehensive good dialogue writing tips.

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What Is Dialogue?

Dialogue is what characters in fiction say. It is how characters express themselves verbally—usually in conversation with each other.

It might look like this:

“What do you want for dinner?” Jack asked his friend John.
“I don’t know—you decide,” John replied.

What Does Dialogue Look Like?

Dialogue usually appears in quotation marks, as in the example above. However, some writers get creative with their punctuation. Some use an em-dash to notate a line of dialogue, like this:

—What do you want for dinner? Jack asked his friend John.

Some writers don’t notate dialogue at all. For example, Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago treats his dialogue just like the rest of the narration, like this:

Jack asked his friend John, What do you want for dinner, and John replied, I don’t know, you decide.

If you put your dialogue in quotation marks, note that punctuation—like periods and question marks—go inside the quotation marks.

If a character is quoting someone else, you put the quote inside single quotation marks, within the double quotation marks, like this:

“When I asked Jane about it, her response was, ‘Just not sushi.’”

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What Is the Difference Between Dialogue and Exposition?

In fiction, there are two types of narration: dialogue and exposition.

  • Dialogue refers to the things that the characters say in a story.
  • Exposition refers to sequences of descriptive narration.

Unless you’re writing a film script or a stage play, it’s best to maintain a balance between dialogue and exposition. Try breaking up long passages of exposition with short dialogue— even a sentence or two can be refreshing. If you have a very long section of dialogue, it’s good to insert brief sections of exposition to keep your reader grounded in time and place.

5 Rules of Dialogue Writing

There are a number of rules to keep in mind if you want to use dialogue well in your writing.

  1. Dialogue should reflect your character’s background. To get dialogue right, you must understand how your characters speak. This is likely influenced by where they come from, their social class, upbringing, and myriad other factors. Speech and tone are always bound up in what has happened and is happening to a character. William Shakespeare was exceptionally deft at encoding his characters’ speech patterns with these social markers, and for blending these idioms within a single play.
  2. Be true to the period. If you are setting your story in the past, your dialogue should accurately reflect word choice, idioms, and speech patterns of the period. Words, like clothes, go in and out of style. Conversations need to be specific to the time you’re writing in without seeming contrived.
  3. Desire should motivate your characters to speak. When your characters are speaking, they should be trying to get something from one another, or make a power play. When writing dialogue, ask yourself what your characters want. (This is a crucial aspect of character development.) Ideally, you will know your characters well enough to sense not only what they want but how they would express their desires verbally. Will they be blunt or subtly manipulative? Will they be angry, or do they always keep their cool?
  4. Fictional characters don’t say “uh.” In real life, speech has lots of padding or “stuffing”: words like umms and yeahs. But good dialogue in fiction must be both more incisive and selective. It is shorn down to reveal what people want from one another, reveal character, and dramatize power struggles. One of the most common mistakes when writing dialogue is to write down exactly what people say most of the time. This will probably be dull, as it will be full of “um” and “ah” and “you know” and “like” and so forth. Rambling, repetitious, and not very sparky. Pay careful attention to dialogue punctuation, particularly things like exclamation points (which should be used sparingly).
  5. There’s always subtext. There are often wide gaps between what people say and what they are thinking, between what one understands and what one refuses to hear. These gaps can collectively be referred to as subtext, and they are valuable territory for the fiction writer. Stay alert to them, and let them generate drama in the scenes you write.

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4 Writing Prompts to Practice Great Dialogue

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Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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Try these four prompts to hone your dialogue-writing skills.

  1. Go to a public place where people tend to talk to one another. Try a cafe, bar, or public transportation. Spend 10 minutes eavesdropping on a conversation. Record everything they say and how they say it as specifically as you can. If this is your first time trying something like this, be mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.
  2. Transcribe. Later, transcribe this conversation into a word processing document as faithfully as you can. What conclusions can you draw from what you heard? Who has more power? Who wants what? Who was listening more closely? Did someone interrupt the other or ignore them? Start a new paragraph each time you switch perspectives, so it’s easier to track who is saying what.
  3. Pick the most interesting bits. In a new document, select the part of the conversation that most interested you— whether it was a few lines, or a particularly charged interruption—and use it as the seed of a fictional scene. Here, you are free to cut filler; condense meaning and change the words; and add gesture, silence, and subtext to reveal these characters and what they want to the reader.
  4. Get writing. After answering these questions, did a narrative about these strangers begin to form in your imagination? If so, write a short story about it! And remember, you don’t need to get too creative with dialogue tags (the phrases that follow a piece of dialogue that attribute it to whoever is speaking). If in doubt, aim for clarity. There is nothing wrong with “she said” and “he said.”
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Great Dialogue Examples, Recommended by Margaret Atwood

Editors Pick

The following titles include examples of great dialogue, as recommended by Margaret Atwood:

  • Charles Dickens. While the heroes and heroines tend to be a bit wooden, the lesser (usually rural or Cockney) figures reflect the way people really talked. He was the first after Shakespeare to do this.
  • Any of Elmore Leonard’s thrillers.
  • Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce
  • Chicken (2018) by Lynn Crosbie
  • Get in Trouble (2015) by Kelly Link
  • Lives of Girls and Women (1971) by Alice Munro

Whether you’re doing it as a creative exercise or incorporating it in your next novel or short story, knowing how to write good dialogue takes practice. Award-winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood has spent decades honing the craft of weaving realistic dialogue into compelling plot. In her MasterClass on creative writing, Margaret shares her how she hooks readers in with her creative approach to vivid prose and sparkling dialogue.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, David Baldacci, and more.

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