Writing dialogue in a story requires us to step into the minds of our characters. When our characters speak, they should speak as fully developed human beings, complete with their own linguistic quirks and unique pronunciations.
Indeed, dialogue writing is essential to the art of storytelling. In real life, we learn about other people through their ideas and the words they use to express them. It is much the same for dialogue in fiction. Knowing how to write dialogue in a story will transform your character development, your prose style, and your story as a whole.
We’ve packed this article with dialogue writing tips and good examples of dialogue in a story. These tools will help your characters speak with their full uniqueness and complexity, while also helping you fully inhabit the people that populate your stories.
Let’s get into how to write dialogue effectively. First, what is dialogue in a story?
- What is Dialogue in a Story?
- Inner Dialogue Definition
- Indirect Dialogue Definition
- How to Write Dialogue: Elements of Good Dialogue Writing
- How to Write Dialogue in a Story: 4 DOs of Dialogue Writing
- How to Write Dialogue in a Story: 4 DON’Ts of Dialogue Writing
- 9 Devices for Writing Dialogue in a Story
- Dialogue Writing Exercises
- How to Format Dialogue
What is Dialogue in a Story?
Dialogue refers to any direct communication from one or more characters in the text. This communication is almost always verbal, except for instances of inner dialogue, where the character is speaking to themselves.
Dialogue definition: Direct communication from one or more characters in the text.
In works of Fantasy or Science Fiction, characters might communicate with each other telepathically or through non-human means. This would also count as dialogue in a story.
The importance of dialogue in a story cannot be overstated. The words that characters speak act as windows into their psyches: we can learn lots about people by what they say, as well as what they omit.
Additionally, dialogue allows for the exchange of information, which will advance the story’s plot. Any story that involves conflict between two or more people must involve dialogue, or else the story will never reach its climax and resolution.
Inner Dialogue Definition
Inner dialogue is a form of communication in which a character speaks with themselves. This is, essentially, a form of monologue or soliloquy. Inner dialogue allows the reader to view the character’s thoughts as they happen, transcribing their doubts, ideas, and emotions onto the page.
Inner dialogue definition: a form of communication in which a character speaks with themselves.
Inner dialogue can also be a memory or reminiscence, even if the character is not consciously speaking to themselves. If the narrator shows us a memory that the character is currently thinking about, then that character is still offering something to the narrative by means of unspoken conversation.
It is not necessary for any story to have inner dialogue. However, if you plan to use dynamic characters in your writing, then it probably makes sense to show the reader what that character’s inner world looks like. Developing complex, three dimensional characters is essential to telling a good story, which requires us to have some sort of window into those characters’ minds.
Indirect Dialogue Definition
Indirect dialogue is dialogue, summarized. It is not put in quotes or italics; rather, it neatly sums up what a character said, without going into detail.
Indirect dialogue definition: dialogued, summarized.
In other words, we don’t get to seehow the character said something, we are only told what they said. This is useful for when the information is better summarized than told in excruciating details, because the narrator wants to get to the important dialogue, the dialogue that introduces new information or reveals important aspects of the character’s personality.
Haruki Murakami gives us a great example inKafka on the Shore:
I tell her that I’m actually fifteen, in junior high, that I stole my father’s money and ran away from my home in Nakano Ward in Tokyo. That I’m staying in a hotel in Takamatsu and spending my days reading at a library. That all of a sudden I found myself collapsed outside a shrine, covered in blood. Everything. Well,almost everything. Not the important stuff I can’t talk about.
How to Write Dialogue: The Elements of Good Dialogue Writing
Every story needs dialogue. Unless you’re writing highly experimental fiction, your story will have main characters, and those characters will interact with the world and its other people.
That said, there’s no “correct” way to write dialogue. It all depends on who your characters are, the decisions they make, and how they interact with one another.
Nonetheless, good dialogue writing should do the following:
Develop Your Characters
A close study in how to write dialogue requires a close study in characterization. Your characters reveal who they are through dialogue: by paying close attention to your characters’ word choice, you can clue your reader into their personality traits and hidden psyches.
Your characters will often reveal key aspects of their personality through dialogue.
One character who can’t stop characterizing himself is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. J. D. Salinger’s anti-hero could be psychoanalyzed for hours. Take, for example, this excerpt from Holden’s inner dialogue:
“Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.”
What do we learn about Holden through this line? For starters, we learn that Holden is the type of person who analyzes and scrutinizes each word – just like writers do, perhaps. We also learn that Holden hates anything positive. Always a downer, Holden despises words of praise or grandeur, thinking the whole world is irresolvably flat, boring, and monotonous. He hates grandness almost as much as he hates phoniness, and both concepts are sure to make him sick.
Holden is a character who puts his entire personality on the page, and as readers, we can’t help but understand him – no matter how much we like him or hate him.
Set the Scene
Dialogue is a great way to explore the setting of your story. When the setting is explored through dialogue writing, both the characters and the reader experience the world of the story at the same time, making the writing feel more intimate and immediate.
When the setting is explored through dialogue writing, the writing feels more intimate and immediate.
You might have your character wander through the streets of New York, as Theo does in The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Here’s an excerpt of inner dialogue:
“It was rainy, trees leafing out, spring deepening into summer; and the forlorn cry of horns on the street, the dank smell of the wet pavement had an electricity about it, a sense of crowds and static, lonely secretaries and fat guys with bags of carry-out, everywhere the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.”
Notice Theo’s attention to detail, and the vibrant imagery he uses to capture the city’s energy. Of course, you might set the scene more simply, as Dorothy does when she says:
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
In only a few words, this line of dialogue advances not only the setting but also Dorothy’s characterization. She is innocent and operating from a limited frame of reference, and the setting could not be more different from her homely Kansas background.
Both methods of scene setting help advance the world that the reader is exploring. However, don’t explore the setting exclusively through dialogue. Characters are not objective observers of their world, so some information is better explained through narration since the narrator is (often) a more reliable voice.
Advance the Plot
Dialogue doesn’t just tell us about the story and the people inside it; good dialogue writing also advances the plot. We often need dialogue to reveal important details to the protagonist, and sometimes, an emotionally tense conversation will lead to the next event in the story.
At times, dialogue will advance the plot by offering a twist or revealing sudden information. We can all agree that the following lines of dialogue advanced the plot of Star Wars:
“Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”
“He told me enough! He told me you killed him!”
“No. I am your father.”
And the following bit of dialogue catalyzed the plot of the entire Harry Potter series:
“You’re a wizard, Harry.”
The exchange of information is often what accelerates (0r resolves) a story’s conflict. Paying attention to word choice and the strategic revelation of information is key to using dialogue in a story.
Just like in real life, your characters don’t always say what they mean. Characters can lie, hint, suggest, confuse, conceal, and deceive. But one of the most powerful uses of dialogue writing is to foreshadow future events.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Romeo foreshadows the death of both lovers when he exclaims to Juliet:
“Life were better ended by their hate, / Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.”
In saying he would rather die lovers than live in longing, Romeo unknowingly predicts what will soon happen in the play.
Foreshadowing is an important literary device that many fiction stories should utilize. Foreshadowing helps build suspense in the story, and it also underlines the important events that make your story worth reading. Don’t try to trick your readers, but definitely use foreshadowing to keep them reading.
Learn more about foreshadowing here:
Foreshadowing Definition: How to Use Foreshadowing in Your Fiction
How to Write Dialogue in a Story: 4 DOs of Dialogue Writing
We’ve talked about what dialogue writing should accomplish, but that doesn’t answer the question of how to write dialogue in a story. Let’s answer that question now—with some more dialogue writing examples in the mix.
1. How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Differentiate Each Character
Each character will have their own style of speaking, and will emphasize different things when they talk.
Your characters’ dialogue should be like thumbprints, because no two people are alike. Each character will have their own style of speaking, and will emphasize different things when they talk. You can make each character unique by altering the following elements of dialogue style:
- Sentence length: Some people are verbose and loquacious, others terse and stoic.
- Dialogue Punctuation: Do your characters let their sentences linger… or do they ask a lot of questions? Are they really excited all the time?! Or do they interrupt themselves frequently—always remembering something they forgot to mention—struggling to put their complex thoughts into words?
- Adjectives/adverbs: Characters that are expressive and verbose tend to use a lot of adjectives and adverbs, whereas characters that are quiet or less expressive might stick to their nouns and verbs.
- Spellings and pronunciation: Do your characters omit certain vowels? Do they lisp? The way you write a line of dialogue might reveal a character’s dialect, and adding consistent quirks to a character’s speech will certainly make them more memorable.
- Repetitions and emphasis:Do your characters have any catchphrases? Do they use any words or phrases as crutches? Maybe they emphasize words periodically, or have a strange cadence as they speak. We tend to repeat certain words and phrases in our own everyday vocabularies; repetition is also a useful device for writing dialogue in a story.
You’ve already seen character differentiation from the previous quotes in this article. In this scene from The Catcher in the Rye, notice how differently Holden Caulfield speaks from the young woman he’s talking to—and just how much characterization is implied in their divergent voices:
“You don’t come from New York, do you?” I said finally. That’s all I could think of.
“Hollywood,” she said. Then she got up and went over to where she’d put her dress down, on the bed. “Ya got a hanger? I don’t want to get my dress all wrinkly. It’s brand-clean.”
“Sure,” I said right away. I was only too glad to get up and do something.
Aside from these two characters being different from one another, Holden speak differently than characters in other works of fiction. Can you imagine Holden Caulfield being Romeo in R&J? He’d say something stupid, like “Juliet’s family are all phonies, but the funny thing is you can’t help but fall half in love with her.”
A more contemporary example comes fromWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith. Every character in this novel is exceptionally well differentiated, even the minor characters—like Brother Ibrahim ad-Din Shukrallah, who appears only briefly towards the novel’s end. Here’s an excerpt:
“Look around you. And what do you see? What is the result of this so-called democracy, this so-called freedom, this so-called liberty? Oppression, persecution, slaughter. Brothers, you can see it on national television every day, every evening, every night! Chaos, disorder, confusion. They are not ashamed or embarrassed or self-conscious! They don’t try to hide, to conceal, to disguise. They know as we know: the entire world is in a turmoil!”
Pay attention to the dialogue. What do you notice? What’s odd about the way he speaks? If you don’t notice it, the novel’s narrator gives us a hint:
“No one in the hall was going to admit it, but Brother Ibrahim ad-Din Shukrallah was no great speaker, when you got down to it. Even if you overlooked his habit of using three words where one would do, of emphasizing the last word of such triplets with his see-saw Caribbean inflections, even if you ignored these as everybody tried to, he was still physically disappointing.”
For more advice on characterization, check out our article on character development.
2. How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Consider the Context
A common mistake writers often make when writing dialogue in a story: they use the same speaking style for that character throughout the entire story.
For example, if you have a character that tends to speak in wordy, roundabout sentences, you might think that every sentence of dialogue should be wordy and roundabout.
However, your character’s dialogue needs to take context into consideration. A wordy character probably won’t be so wordy if they’re being held at gunpoint, and their words might stammer or falter when talking to a crush. Or, in the case of Jane Eyre, the context might make your statement more powerful. Jane proclaims:
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart!”
As she lives in a society with strict gender roles, Jane’s statement—to a man, no less—is thrillingly bold and controversial for its time.
Your characters aren’t monotonous, they’re dynamic and fluid, so let them speak according to their surroundings.
3. How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Space Out Moments of Dialogue
If your characters just had a lengthy conversation, give them a page or two before they start speaking again. Dialogue is an important part of storytelling, but equally important is narration and description.
The following excerpt from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy has a great balance of dialogue (underlined) and narration.
“Are there any papers from the office?” asked Stepan Arkadyevitch, taking the telegram and seating himself at the looking-glass.
“On the table,” replied Matvey, glancing with inquiring sympathy at his master; and, after a short pause, he added with a sly smile, “They’ve sent from the carriage-jobbers.”
Stepan Arkadyevitch made no reply, he merely glanced at Matvey in the looking-glass. In the glance, in which their eyes met in the looking-glass, it was clear that they understood one another. Stepan Arkadyevitch’s eyes asked: “Why do you tell me that? don’t you know?”
Matvey put his hands in his jacket pockets, thrust out one leg, and gazed silently, good-humoredly, with a faint smile, at his master.
“I told them to come on Sunday, and till then not to trouble you or themselves for nothing,” he said. He had obviously prepared the sentence beforehand.
You can see, in the above text, that about 1/3 of the writing is dialogue. This allows the reader to see the full scene while still viewing the conversation, making this an excellent balance of narration and dialogue writing.
Simply put: balance dialogue with your narrator’s voice, or else the reader might lose their attention, or else miss out on key information.
4. How to Write Dialogue in a Story: Use Consistent Formatting
There are several different ways to format your dialogue, which we explain later in this article. For now, make sure you’re consistent with how you format your dialogue. If you choose to indent your characters’ speech, make sure every new exchange is indented. Inconsistent formatting will throw the reader out of the story, and it could also prevent your story from being published.
How to Write Dialogue in a Story: 4 DON’Ts of Dialogue Writing
Just as important as the DOs, the DON’Ts of dialogue writing are just as important to crafting an effective story. Let’s further our discussion of how to write dialogue in a story: we’ll dive into what you shouldn’t do when writing dialogue, alongside some more dialogue examples.
1. DON’T Include Every Verbal Interjection
When people talk, they don’t always talk linearly. People interrupt themselves, they change direction, they forget what they were talking about, they use pauses and “ums” and “ohs” and “ehs.” You can include a few of these verbal interjections from time to time, but don’t make your dialogue too true-to-life. Otherwise, the dialogue becomes hard to read, and the reader loses interest.
Let’s take a famous line from The Catcher in the Rye and fill it in with verbal interjections.
“I have a feeling that you are riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. But I don’t honestly know what kind.”
Oh, man—I have a feeling, like, that you are riding for some kind of… a terrible, terrible fall. But, uh, I don’t honestly know what kind?
What do you think of the edited quote? The interjections make it much harder to read, much less personable, and honestly, they become kind of annoying. However, the quote with interjections is much more “true to life” than the original quote. Your characters don’t need to speak perfectly, but the dialogue needs to be enjoyable to read.
2. DON’T Overwrite Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags are how your character expresses what they say. In the quote “‘You’re all phonies,’ Holden said,” the dialogue tag is “Holden said.”
Unique dialogue tags are fine to use on occasion. Your characters might yell, stammer, whisper, or even explode with words! However, don’t use these tags too frequently—the tag “said” is often perfectly fine. Notice how overused dialogue tags ruin the following conversation:
“How are you?” I stammered.
“Great! How are you?” she inquired.
“I’m hungry,” I announced.
“We should get lunch,” she blurted.
“I’m on a diet,” I cried.
“You poor thing,” she rejoined.
Sure, the conversation isn’t interesting to begin with, but the dialogue tags make this writing cringe-worthy. All of this dialogue can be described with “said” or “replied,” and many of these quotes don’t even need dialogue tags, because it’s clear who’s speaking each time.
This is doubly serious when dialogue tags are combined with adverbs: adjectives that modify the verbs themselves. Our intent with these adverbs is to intensify our writing, but what results is a strong case of diminishing returns. Let’s see an example:
“I don’t love you anymore,” she said.
“I don’t love you anymore,” she spat contemptuously.
Yikes! If your dialogue tags start distracting the reader, then your dialogue isn’t doing enough work on its own. The reader’s focus should be on the character’s statement, not on the way they delivered that statement. If she spoke those words with contempt, show the reader this in the dialogue itself, or even in the character’s body language.
Lastly: if you’re going to use a dialogue tag other than “said,” make sure the verb you use actually corresponds to dialogue. In other words, there needs to be a speaking verb before you describe some other sort of action.
Here’s an example of what NOT to do:
“I don’t love you anymore,” she stomped.
She might have stomped while saying that line, but “to stomp” is not a kind of communication.
The dialogue tag “said” is perfectly fine for most situations.
3. DON’T Stereotype
Everybody’s speech has a myriad of influences. Your characters’ way of speaking will be influenced by their parents, upbringing, schooling, socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, and their own unique personality traits.
Of course, these personal backgrounds will influence your character’s dialogue. However, you shouldn’t let those traits overpower the character’s dialogue—otherwise, you’ll end up stereotyping.
Stereotyped characters are both glaringly obvious and embarrassing for the author. For example, J. K. Rowling didn’t do herself any favors by naming a character Cho Chang—both of which are Korean last names. Similarly, if all of your male characters are strong, charismatic, and loud, while all of your female characters are meek, helpless, and insecure, your writing will be both offensive and inaccurate to life.
Let’s explore this with two ways of writing a policeman.
“Don’t stand here,” said the policeman in front of the caution tape. “We need to keep this street clear.”
And here is lazy writing that takes no real interest in the character beyond one-dimensional surface traits:
“Move it along, folks, move it along,” said the policeman in front of the caution tape. “Nothing to see here.”
Neither policeman is going to win a dialogue award, but the second policeman doesn’t even seem like a real person. He’s written in unconsidered cliché: phrases we’ve all heard a thousand times, general ideas of what policemen tend to say.
Simply put, stereotyped dialogue is bad writing. Not only does it make your characters one-dimensional, it’s also offensive to whomever your characters resemble. If you’re going to be writing your characters from a careless, surface-level take, you might reconsider whether you want to write them at all.
What to do about this? The safest way to avoid stereotyping is to write using identities that you know both personally and intimately. If your writing takes you beyond those identities, then do your research: seek out, and truly work to internalize, a diverse array of input from people whose identities resemble those you’d like to write about.
4. DON’T Get Discouraged
For some writers, dialogue is the hardest part about writing fiction. It’s much easier to describe a character than to get in the character’s head, transcribing their thoughts into language.
If you feel like your characters aren’t saying the right things, or if the dialogue feels tricky to master, don’t get discouraged. Dialogue writing is difficult!
The following devices and exercises will help you master the art of writing dialogue in a story.
9 Devices for Writing Dialogue in a Story
An important consideration for your characters is giving them distinct speech patterns. In real life, everyone talks differently; in fiction it’s much the same. The following devices will help you write dialogue in a story, as they offer ways to make your characters unique, compelling, and conversational.
Note: don’t try to use all nine of these devices for one character. Your dialogue should flow and feel consistent with the way people speak in real life, but if you overload your character’s speech with idioms, colloquialisms, proverbs, slang, and jargon, they won’t speak like anyone in the real world.
Use these devices as quirks for your characters. You can even use colloquialisms and vernacular to establish the setting, or use jargon to assign your character their occupation and social standing. Be wise, be strategic, and keep an ear for how people sound in real life.
Now, here’s how to write dialogue using 9 specific devices.
A colloquialism is a word or phrase that’s specific to a language, geographical region, and/or historical period. Mostly used in informal speech, colloquialisms will rarely show up in the boardroom or the courtroom, but they pop up all the time in casual conversation.
We often use colloquialisms without realizing it. Take, for example, the shopping cart. Someone in the U.S. Northeast might call it a “cart,” while someone in the South might call it a “buggy.”
In fact, colloquialisms abound in the history of the English language. When it rains but the sun is out, a native Floridian might call it a sunshower. A Wisconsinite will call a water fountain a “bubbler.” In the 1950s, a small child might have been called an “ankle-biter.” Nowadays, a New Yorker might describe cold weather as being “brick outside.” (Yes, brick.)
Colloquialisms help define a character’s geographic background and historical time period. They also help signify when the character feels comfortable and informal, versus when they are speaking in an uncomfortable or professional situation.
Vernacular refers to language that is simple and commonplace. When a character’s speech is unadorned and everyday, they are speaking in vernacular, using words that can be understood by every person in that character’s time period. (A colloquialism is often an example of vernacular.) For dialogue in a story, your characters will likely use vernacular, unless they try to avoid it at all costs.
The opposite of vernacular would be dialect, which is speech that is tailored to a specific setting, and is therefore not commonplace or universally understood. An example of vernacular is contrasted with dialect below.
A dialect is a type of speech reserved for a particular time period, geographical location, social class, group of people, or other specific setting. It is language that the entire population might not comprehend, as it uses words, phrases, and grammatical decisions that aren’t universally understood.
Here’s an example of modern day vernacular. The same sentence has been rewritten as though it were spoken by someone with a Southern dialect.
Vernacular: I am craving some coleslaw and a soft drink.
Southern Dialect: I’m fixin’ for some slaw and soda pop.
An English speaker who doesn’t hail from the American South may be tripped up by “fixing” and “slaw,” as those terms aren’t universally understood.
Do note: the words “coleslaw” and “soft drink” can also be considered dialects of other regions in the United States. However, these words will likely be understood across the nation.
A slang is a word or phrase that is not part of conventional language usage, but which is still used in everyday speech. Generally, younger generations coin slang words, as well as queer communities and communities of color. (Some of the terms below started in AAVE, or African American Vernacular English.) Those words then become dictionary entries when the word has circulated long enough in popular usage. Slang is a form of colloquialism, as well as a form of dialect, because slang terms are not universally understood and are often associated with a specific age group in a specific region.
Some recent examples of slang words and phrases include:
- No cap—“no lie.”
- Boots—this is a sort of grammatical intensifier, placedafter the thing being intensified. “I’m hungry, boots” is basically the same as “I’mso hungry.”
- Bop—a catchy or irresistible song.
- Drip—a particularly fashionable or interesting style of clothes.
- It’s sending me—“that’s hilarious.”
- Periodt—a more “final” use of the word “period” when a salient point has been made.
- Snatched—used when someone’s fashion is impeccable. In the case of someone’s waist size, snatched refers to an hourglass figure.
- Pressed—“stressed” or “annoyed.”
- Slaps—“exceptionally good.”
- Stan—stan is a portmanteau of “stalker fan,” but really what it means is that you enjoy something intensely or obsessively. You “stan” a song or a movie, for example.
- Werk—a term to describe something done exceedingly well. If you’re dancing tremendously, I might just yell “werk!”
- Wig—when something shocks, excites, or moves you, just say “wig.”
Jargon is a word or phrase that is specific to a profession or industry. Usually, a jargon word intentionally obfuscates the meaning of what it represents, as the word is meant to be understood solely by people within a certain profession.
Often, people let jargon slip from their tongues without realizing the word is inaccessible. For example, a doctor might tell their friend they have rhinitis, rather than a seasonal allergy. Or, someone well-versed in mid-century diner lingo might ask for “Adam and Eve on a raft” rather than “two poached eggs on toast.”
When it comes to dialogue in a story, the occasional use of jargon can help characterize someone through their profession. However, too much jargon usage will start to sound comical and inane, as most people don’t speak in jargon all the time.
An idiom is a phrase that is specifically understood by speakers of a certain language, and which has a figurative meaning that differs from its literal one. Idioms are incredibly hard to translate, because the meaning conveyed by the idiom does not appear within the words themselves.
For example, a common idiom in the United States is to say someone is “under the weather” when they’re feeling ill. No part of the phrase “under the weather” conveys a sense of sickness; at most, it might communicate that that person feels pushed down by the weather. But then, what weather? Could they be under “good” weather, too? These are questions that someone who doesn’t speak English natively will likely ask.
So, the literal meaning of “under the weather” is different from the figurative meaning, which is “ill.” Some other idioms in the English language include:
- Pulling your leg—just having fun with someone or messing with them.
- Bat a thousand—to be successful 100% of the time.
- The last straw—the final incident before something (usually negative) occurs.
- Big fish in a little sea—someone is famous or hugely successful, but in a very small corner of the world.
- Eat your heart out—be envious of something.
An idiom can also reveal regionality, as some idioms are only spoken in certain dialects. For example, when it rains while the sun is shining, a common idiom in the South is that “the devil is beating his wife.” This phrase is understood in other parts of the U.S. and might have its roots in folklore, but it is primarily spoken by people in the American South.
A euphemism is the substitution of one word for another, more innocuous word. We often use euphemisms in place of words and phrases that are sexual, uncomfortable, or otherwise taboo.
For example, when someone dies, you might hear their family member say “they kicked the bucket.” Or, if someone were unemployed but didn’t want to say it, they might say they are “between jobs” or “searching for better opportunities.”
Euphemisms present something psychologically interesting to a person’s dialogue. We often use language to mask that which upsets us most but which we are unwilling to confront or communicate. A euphemism for death is intended to mask the pain of death; a euphemism about unemployment is intended to mask the shame of unemployment.
We might also use euphemisms to hide information from people we don’t trust. Let’s say you’re in an intimate relationship, and don’t want the person you’re conversing with to know about it. You might pull out your knowledge of Middle English and say you’re “giving a girl a green gown.” Or, you might simply say you’re rolling in the hay with someone, to communicate your relationship while also communicating you don’t want to talk about it.
Note: even “intimate relationship” is a bit of a euphemism!
In dialogue writing, use euphemisms as hints to your characters’ psyches. In speech, what is omitted often says more than what is included.
A proverb is a short, oft-repeated saying that bears a wise and powerful message. Proverbs are often based on common sense advice, but they use metaphors and symbols to convey that advice, prompting the listener to place themselves in the world of the proverb.
For example, a common English proverb is “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” This means that it’s better to take away modest gains than to sacrifice those gains for something that may be unobtainable. Sacrificing the bird in your hand for two birds which may be impossible to own is a risky endeavor.
When it comes to writing dialogue in a story, proverbs educate both the protagonist and the audience. A proverb will often be spoken by an elder or someone with relevant experience to help guide the protagonist. The story’s events might also be a reaction to that proverb, either fulfilling or complicating it. Finally, a proverb might characterize the speaker themselves, cluing the reader into the speaker’s beliefs. Not all stories have proverbs, but stories with wise characters often do.
A neologism is a coined word that describes something new. Some neologisms are coined by authors themselves—Shakespeare, for example, coined over 2,000 words, many of which we use today. “Baseless,” “footfall,” and “murkiest” come from The Tempest, just one of Shakespeare’s many plays and poems.
Nowadays, most neologisms describe advancements in technology, medicine, and society. “Doomscrolling,” for example, describes the act of consuming large quantities of negative news, often to the detriment of one’s mental health. The word was likely invented in 2018, due in part to the increased access to information that technology gives us.
Other modern day neologisms include:
- Google (as a verb: to google something)
Some neologisms are portmanteaus, which is a word made from two other words combined in both sound and meaning. For example, “smog” is a portmanteau of “smoke and fog,” and it’s a neologism only relevant to the Industrial Revolution and beyond.
Neologisms are not to be confused with grandiloquent words, which are invented words used for the sole purpose of sounding intelligent (and which have become enduring facets of modern English).
In dialogue writing, neologisms primarily help situate the reader in the story’s temporal setting. No one would use the word malware in the year 1920. Additionally, words like “crowdsourcing” are far more likely to be used by younger generations, and they signify a certain sense of tech savviness and modernity that not everyone has.
Finally, neologisms are fun! You might even invent some new words in your own writing, though a neologism should be elegant and relevant, without drawing too much attention to itself.
Dialogue Writing Exercises
Of course, the best way to learn how to write dialogue in a story is to practice it yourself. Below are some dialogue writing exercises to try in your fiction.
Dialogue Writing Exercise: Write out a character’s “personal vocabulary.”
All of us have a personal vocabulary, meaning that we tend to choose the same set of words to describe something, even though our vocabularies are much larger. For example, I have a tendency to use the word “scandalous” when describing something. I often use it ironically or as a compliment, which is a trait of word-usage associated with Millennials and older Gen Z kids. This word is a part of my personal vocabulary, and though I don’t say it constantly, I often use it when I can’t think of a better word.
Your characters are the same way! Writing out a personal vocabulary for your characters might jumpstart your dialogue writing, and it also gives you something to fall back on in your dialogue while still providing depth and character.
Coming back—once again—to Holden Caulfield, his personal vocabulary might include words like: phony, prostitute, goddam, miserable, lousy, jerk. These words and phrases are rare overall, but they’re exceedingly common in his own personal way of verbalizing his experience of the world.
Dialogue Writing Exercise: Consider different settings.
Sometimes, you just need to generate dialogue until you come across the right line or turn-of-phrase. One way to do that is to write what your character would say in different situations.
On a separate document or piece of paper, write what would happen if your character was talking to different people or talking in different situations. For example, your character might:
- Talk to a grocery store clerk
- Be a hostage in a bank robbery
- Take the SAT
- Run into their crush
- Get pulled over for speeding
Explore what your character would say in each of these (and other) different scenarios, and you might just trick your brain into writing the next sentence of your story.
Dialogue Writing Exercise: Pretend you are your character.
Instead of writing your character in different settings, be your character in different settings. Think about what your character would think while you’re doing the laundry, driving to work, or paying the bills. This habit will help you approach this character’s dialogue, as you develop the ability to turn their personality on in your brain, like a switch!
(Hopefully, you’re never caught in a bank robbery. If you are, maybe your character can save you.)
How to Format Dialogue
We’ve covered how to write dialogue in a story, but not how to format dialogue. Dialogue formatting is a relatively minor concern for fiction writers, but it’s still important to format correctly. Otherwise, you’ll waste hours of your writing time trying to fix formatting errors, and you might prevent your stories from finding publication.
There are a few different ways to format dialogue; for each of these examples, we will reformat the sentence “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” said Chief Brody.
Most writers and publishers use standard quotation marks at the beginning and end of the dialogue.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” said Chief Brody.
A comma always separates the dialogue from the speaker. In this case, the comma goes inside of the quotation marks. Periods, semicolons, and em dashes also go inside the quotation marks. If you’re writing in British English, some conventions place the dialogue punctuation outside of the quotation, but both ways are acceptable.
Another way some people format their dialogue is by italicizing instead of using quotation marks.
You’re gonna need a bigger boat, said Chief Brody.
In this instance, you would fit the comma within the italicized text, as you would any other punctuation in the dialogue. Only the quote is italicized; the speaker remains unitalicized. The drawback of this formatting is that your dialogue might be confused with the character’s inner dialogue, which should also be italicized.
Finally, your dialogue formatting can eschew the use of quotation marks and italics. In this case, you would indent any part of the text that is dialogue, and leave narration un-indented.
You’re gonna need a bigger boat, said Chief Brody.
Suddenly, the shark loomed behind the orca.
This way of formatting makes it easier to write without worrying about punctuation marks, but be warned that most publishers will change that formatting before publication.
If your sentence starts with the dialogue tag, put a comma before the quotation mark. Do capitalize the first letter inside the quotation marks, as this is, grammatically, the start of a sentence.
Chief Brody said, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
And, if your dialogue spans multiple paragraphs, do not use the end-quote until the very end of the dialogue, but start each paragraph with a new start-quote.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.
“A boat this size can’t handle a shark,” Chief Brody continued.
Looking for More Dialogue Writing Tips?
Great dialogue is the true test of whether you understand your characters or not. However, developing this skill takes a lot of time and practice. If you’re looking for more advice on how to write dialogue in a story, check out our online fiction writing courses for dialogue writing tips from the best instructors on the net!