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This post is all about how to write better dialogue between two or more characters, and how to use the correct punctuation to write dialogue tags vs. beats. If you’re looking for effective dialogue examples or general tips on how to write good dialogue in fiction or nonfiction—including interior monologue and direct thoughts—take these 10 steps to improve your writing.
Learning how to write better dialogue takes practice, no matter the genre or type of writing. It takes really understanding your characters and their motives, relationship dynamics, and personalities. Reading dialogue in creative writing should feel like eavesdropping—there’s an intimacy on the page that can be tricky to create.
If you’re wondering how to write good dialogue or you’re looking for effective dialogue examples, here’s what you need to know to write better dialogue between two or more characters.
Tips and Rules for Writing Dialogue
1. Use a variety of dialogue tags, narrative beats, interior monologue, and direct thoughts to keep readers engaged. Intersperse narration rather than back-and-forth dialogue. If you don’t know what these techniques are or how to effectively use them, keep reading.
2. Cut out unnecessary dialogue tags to tighten the language and help with pacing. Word count can be precious, especially if you’re writing a children’s book. If you have too many tags, readers will feel bogged down. Only keep tags when they’re needed for clarity so readers know who’s speaking.
3. Read the conversation aloud. If you can’t imagine someone actually saying these words in real life, there’s a big chance your speech is stilted or doesn’t feel true to the characters. Reading the conversation aloud will help you flag anything that might trip up a reader.
4. Build out character profiles to better understand what they would sound like and how they would engage with others. Identifying their triggers, motivations, and driving questions or fears will help you develop dialogue that feels right and true to the characters. If you don’t know your characters well enough, the dialogue will suffer.
5. Cut out rogue conversations or dialogue that doesn’t lead to action or advance the story in any way. Basically, remove the fluff. New writers can sometimes struggle with this issue. It’s easy to have two characters talk on and on for pages while the story loses momentum. During your revision process, see if you can condense or cut out any dialogue that doesn’t serve your story.
6. Do your research to know your craft. Learn the mechanics of dialogue, e.g., the punctuation and formatting. To know how to write better dialogue, you have to know how to address hesitancy or faltering speech vs. interrupted speech. Unless you need to extend speech into another paragraph, make sure the speaker’s actions and words stay in one paragraph and change paragraphs when someone else talks. These are details, but they matter.
7. Pay attention to dialect and use restraint when you can. Writing dialect effectively is difficult, and if a whole book is written in a specific kind of dialect, you may be making the reader’s job harder. Rather, give a sentence or two on how the character might sound if you wrote the dialect this way throughout the whole book. Then, as you progress through the story, give the illusion of dialect. If you do this correctly, the reader will still “hear” the dialect as they read the conversations.
8. Rely on the power of your writing rather than explaining a character’s reaction or mood. Said isn’t a bad word. More on this below, but one way to write better dialogue is to cut out all of the “clever” verbs used as dialogue tags so readers aren’t distracted by the actual conversation.
9. Deepen your character’s point-of-view with interior monologue. Don’t just assume the dialogue and action will show readers what’s going on beneath the surface.
10. Consider dialogue within the larger context of your story. Even a moment of dialogue in the middle of action will remove a sense of urgency and affect the pacing of your story. Just as you would read dialogue aloud to see if it sounds realistic, consider whether dialogue placement within the scene is realistic. If it’s not, you may need to remove it or place it elsewhere in your story.
How to Write Better Dialogue Tags
A dialogue tag is a word tagged to the end of a sentence of a dialogue, e.g., he said, she explained, he asked, etc. For some reason, new writers often think they need to diversify their dialogue tags to keep things interesting, as if she said would become boring and lose its appeal.
As an editor and reader, I really think this is misguided. The goal of a tag is to inform the reader that someone is speaking in a subtle way, and avoiding the word said can make for an awkwardly strung together conversation of fancy verbs like retorted, quipped, or exclaimed.
Editor tip: If you have to explain a character’s mood through a dialogue tag, your writing needs to be stronger.
Said is the preferred tag as it doesn’t jolt the reader from the conversation or scene. Also, don’t use tags unless the reader needs clarity on who’s speaking. If you use too many tags and not enough dialogue beats, you run the risk of bogging down the reader with tedious, stilted dialogue.
How to Write Better Dialogue Beats
A dialogue beat or narrative beat is something that breaks up the dialogue. Think of it as a quick visual in between speech to convey emotion through body language or character expression.
Have you ever read dialogue that feels like someone is recounting a conversation that happened a while ago?
Removing unnecessary dialogue tags and adding in narrative beats gives the reader a clearer picture of what the current conversation looks or feels like. This is crucial when it comes to inviting readers into the immediacy of the scene.
One of the most important tips: Avoid redundancy by combining dialogue tags and beats. E.g., she said, grinning, or she said with a grin, can usually be more concise as a dialogue beat, e.g., She grinned.
How to Punctuate Dialogue Examples
Be mindful of your punctuation with dialogue tags vs. beats. For example:
- Dialogue tag: “I’ll see you at the party,” she said. “Where is it again?”
- Dialogue beat: “I’ll see you at the party.” She smiled. “Where is it again?”
How to Write Dialogue Between Two Characters Ending in Hesitancy vs. Interruption
Another mistake writers often make is incorrect punctuation when someone’s words are cut off or trail off. According to The Chicago Manual of Style and other editor resources, words that are cut off are indicated by an em dash (—) and faltering or trailing speech is indicated by an ellipses or suspension points ( . . . ).
Keep in mind this punctuation is meant to show the reader for you that the character’s speech has been interrupted or has trailed off. You don’t need to add a clarification in the form of a narrative beat.
Here’s an example of misusing the two punctuation marks:
"I'll see you at the . . . " He cut her off. "I know, I know. What time?"
First off, the ellipses should be an em dash if the other person interrupted her. Second, the writer doesn’t need to tell the reader he cut her off. Doing so only slows the pacing. Let the em dash do the work.
Here’s the revised dialogue:
"I'll see you at the—" "I know, I know. What time?"
Depending on the scene and surrounding sentences, you may not need tags at all. If it’s unclear who’s speaking, always add a tag—especially if there’s more than two people talking. Clarity is always the goal; said isn’t a bad word, we just want to avoid unnecessary tags.
Remember, the narration cannot interrupt someone when they’re speaking. The only exception is if the character holds up a hand or makes a similar gesture to get the other person to stop talking.
Example cited from CMOS 6.87 on interrupted speech:
“Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mill. “Well, I don’t know,” I began tentatively. “I thought I might—” Might what?” she demanded.
Example cited from CMOS 13.41 on faltering speech:
“I . . . I . . . that is, we . . . yes, we have made an awful blunder!” “The ship . . . oh my God! . . . it’s sinking!” cried Henrietta. “But . . . but . . . ,” said Tom.
What Is Interior Monologue?
Inner or interior monologue is any writing that expresses a character’s inner thoughts, adding commentary and further enriching the characterization. Interior monologue along with physical description, speech, action, and behavior helps build up a character, giving readers a more intimate look at what’s going on beneath the surface.
Like many storytelling techniques, interior monologue can be overused and abused, so it’s best to make sure you have the right POV and timing.
Interior monologue works best in the first person, since readers are already within a character’s thoughts. It’s easier to skip I thought and dive into the reflection, memory, or reaction.
Interior Monologue Example
"No, Mom. I haven't had time to drop off a note at Beth's." Joan couldn't understand why her mother cared so much about social niceties. If Beth was going to hold a gifted diaper pail over her head, Joan would rather ditch the registry altogether. A new mom had more important things to do than sit and write thank-you notes.
In the above example, the sentences below the snippet of dialogue are interior thoughts. We know they are declarative sentences, but we know they’re in Joan’s voice.
Take extra care not to add confusion if you shift POVs and use interior monologue to show what one or more character is “thinking.” This can lead to ambiguity and pacing issues.
Also, too many instances of interior monologue slows the scenes in general. If you have, essentially, thought balloons next to each line of dialogue, you should consider how to develop the character without relying on interior monologue.
Why Use Interior Monologue?
Interior monologue is a technique that (1) doesn’t jolt the reader from the story with a change in tense or italic type, which direct thoughts would do; and (2) it forces writers to take the reader into a deeper POV. You get to know the characters better and the story flows without interruptions like italicized text.
Interior Monologue vs. Direct Thoughts
Direct thoughts should be used sparingly. They don’t show readers what the character is thinking; they tell the readers what the character is thinking. Direct thoughts are always written in first person, present tense. If the rest of the book is written in third person, past tense, the change is enough to stick out to the reader—and not in a good way.
You can include direct thoughts naturally into a story, but just remember to use them sparingly. After a while, it can become cumbersome for the reader to switch tenses and bounce around from roman to italics.
If a character isn’t actually saying words out loud, avoid quotation marks. Similarly, if a character is remembered a piece of dialogue from a previous time, it should be treated as a direct thought. For example, if a character is remembering something his father used to say when he was little, it goes in italics because he isn’t actually talking at the present moment.
Frequently Asked Questions about Writing Dialogue
How can I improve my dialogue?
The best way to improve dialogue in writing, especially fiction, is to read the conversation on the page aloud, cutting out any words and dialogue tags that feel stilted. Also, the more you know your characters and their motives, fears, and dynamics, the better you’ll be able to write dialogue that feels natural and true.
What makes poor dialogue?
Poor dialogue often sounds stilted, has extra fluff or unnecessary tags, does more telling than showing, and doesn’t advance the story in any way or match the characters’ emotions, motives, and relationship dynamics.
What are the basic rules of dialogue writing?
The basic rules of dialogue writing is to (1) have the correct punctuation, (2) use dialogue tags to clarify who’s speaking, (3) use narrative beats when appropriate to convey character emotion and expression, and (4) cut out filler words that don’t add to the story, keeping only what advances the plot or characterization some way and lines up with the action and pacing.
What are the different types of dialogue?
The different types of dialogue are inner dialogue and outer dialogue. Inner dialogue is when characters talk to themselves through interior monologue or direct thoughts. Outer dialogue is when words are spoken aloud, typically to another person.
In the revision stage of the five stages of the writing process, it’s a good idea to consider how to improve dialogue and cut out unnecessary words and dialogue tags.
Find an Editor
If you still need help creating better dialogue in fiction or nonfiction writing, find an editor who understands your larger vision as well as your smaller goals. A good editor will be able to address what’s working and what’s not on a granular level, including dialogue and other storytelling techniques.
This post has been all about how to write better dialogue in fiction, dialogue tags vs. beats, excellent dialogue examples, and how to punctuate dialogue for clarity and pacing. Check out my other posts for more writing and self-editing tips!