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Writing

Four Ways to Use Dialogue in Your Writing

Written by the MasterClass staff

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 2 min read

Learning to write dialogue is one of the hardest things you have to do as a writer. As a writer, you want to write the kind of dialogue that accomplishes many things at once. Good dialogue advances the plot, establishes character, and provides exposition—all while sounding natural and lifelike to your readers. Understanding the purpose of different kinds of dialogue is essential, and learning how to employ inner dialogue and outer dialogue effectively will help you improve your writing and make your novel or short story compelling.

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What Is Dialogue in Literature?

From a contemporary writing standpoint, writers use the word “dialogue” to mean any communication between two characters—generally spoken out loud, though there are exceptions to this rule. Dialogue is denoted by quotation marks and dialogue tags. A line of dialogue can serve many different purposes within a work.

4 Ways to Use Dialogue in Your Writing

The term “dialogue” was first used by Plato to describe his Socratic dialectic works that depict dialogues involving Socrates that were designed to communicate philosophical ideas. Lines of dialogue can function in many different ways, depending on how they are used in the context of a story. Hare four reasons the use of dialogue improves your writing:

  1. To activate and dramatize conflict. Spoken words are a great way of demonstrating conflict within a literary work. As a writer, you always have the option to describe action from a detached third-person point of view; but through the use of first-person dialogue, you can activate this conflict and make your action more dynamic. Writing dialogue can move your story forward, and different types of dialogue can be used to present opposing points of view present within your narrative.
  2. To provide exposition. Exposition is any sort of background contextual information that is necessary for your reader to understand the story. Writing exposition in a seamless way is one of the hardest parts of being a fiction writer—but one way to reveal important information efficiently is through character dialogue. Effective dialogue can be used to communicate context and character at the same time.
  3. To convey subtext. Subtext refers to the emotions and intentions of a character that lurk beneath the words they speak. Through subtext, you can get a sense of the inner feelings of a character as opposed to what their words seem to be communicating on a surface level. Examples of dialogue that communicate subtext might also show subtext in the dialogue tags. For example: “‘That dress is something,’ she said as her lips curled into a smirk.” Through context clues in the dialogue itself and important details in the dialogue tag, readers can see the deeper meaning of dialogue beyond a surface level reading.
  4. To establish voice. Expressive dialogue is a valuable literary technique for honing a character’s voice and establishing their point of view and characteristics in the mind of your readers. Good dialogue should be reminiscent of things you would hear someone say in the real world. The pauses and rhythm of written dialogue should be reminiscent of real-life conversation and sound authentic to your readers. Great dialogue should be specific and sound natural coming out of the mouths of the specific characters you have created. By giving your characters idiosyncratic speech patterns and specific ways of seeing the world, you can share details of their inner life through their dialogue.
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