how to write dialogue in a novel

How to Write Dialogue in a Novel

“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” ​

Jerome Stern

Learning how to write dialogue is crucial for developing strong, engaging narratives. Authors need to write dialogue that is gripping, realistic, and true to their characters’ voices.

In theory, dialogue should be the simplest thing to write. After all, we spend much of our lives listening to people speak, ramble, argue, whisper, and scream. We listen to them in real life, on television, in movies. Strangers and friends and family. We converse. We eavesdrop. We use our own voices.

So why is writing dialogue so hard?

​​​Because we don’t write like we speak. We hear dialogue differently than we read it. Here’s the test: Pick your favorite television show, one that has amazing dialogue that brings the characters to life. Now go check out the transcript for that show. Read it, and try not to read it in the characters’ voices. Just read it dry, like it were dialogue in a novel.

Sounds terrible, right?

The truth is, we don’t want to write realistic dialogue at all. We want to write good dialogue—dialogue that reads as though it’s being spoken. And that doesn’t necessarily mean it sounds as though it is.

Let’s talk about some concrete, actionable methods to improve your dialogue.

1. Don’t exaggerate accents and dialects. 

How we speak is not how we read. Less is more.

I’m from the South. I understand. We slur. We combine words and separate syllables and leave the -g off the –ing. But if every sentence your character says has fifteen apostrophes, it’s going to get in the way of the writing. Don’t ask your reader to decipher and decode your work. Incorporating dialects should enhance your reader’s experience, not hinder their comprehension.

For example, some folks in my neck of the woods might say, “Lookit that durnded yungun, ain’t listenin’ t’a word!”

That might be what it sounds like in real life, but reading that sort of dialogue would get old quickly. If I wanted to emulate that speech, I might write, “Look at that durn young’un. Ain’t listening to a word!”

Keep some of the phrases (“young’un,” “ain’t”), but pay attention to the spelling. Rather than spelling everything phonetically, consider how your reader will understand the words by sight. Also, don’t be afraid to tone things down (“durnded” to “durn”). Let your reader get the feel of the language without experiencing every syllable—or lack thereof.

Of course there are always exceptions, like George Washington Harris’s “Rare Ripe Garden-Seed.” It’s important to consider your ideal reader and your goal for the piece when making stylistic choices.

2. Keep stutters and stammers consistent.

Overusing stutters and stammers can be extremely annoying for readers. Consider which of the following you would rather read.

“I-I w-went to the s-s-store and b-bought eggs and m-m-milk.”

“I-I went to the store and b-bought eggs and milk.”

Your reader is going to imagine more stuttering than you actually write. Again, it’s the feel of the dialogue that is important, not the actual words on the page.

If a character has a stammer or stutter, make sure it’s consistent. People tend to stutter on the same consonants, so pay attention to where the stutters are appearing.

3. Use explicit pauses sparingly.

Ellipses can be a dangerous piece of punctuation for a writer. They are easy to overuse and can become very distracting for a reader.

Ellipses are used in two main ways within dialogue:

  1. The speaker pauses between words. “I looked up and saw…a UFO.”
  2. The speaker trails off at the end of their thought. “But it could have been a plane…”

Often, you can remove the ellipsis altogether without losing anything. The best way to determine whether this is the case is to try it. Remove the ellipsis, and then read the sentence again. Was anything lost? If not, eliminate the ellipsis. (You can use this method for adverbs too.)

In many cases, you can more effectively show the pause of trailing off through action. Using action beats instead of ellipses also allows you to provide more information about the speaker’s manner or emotional state.

“But it could have been a plane.” He rubbed the hem of his shirt, his eyes cast in the distance.

Now we see the nerves and uncertainty that the ellipsis was meant to intone, without unnecessary punctuation.

Yes, there are times when an ellipsis is the strongest option. But eliminating all other ellipses improves the impact of the punctuation in those instances.

How to Format Ellipses

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using periods with non-breaking spaces (U+00A0). The non-breaking spaces prevent the ellipsis from breaking across lines.

Insert a nonbreaking space by using Option+Space (Mac) or Ctrl+Shift+Space (Windows).

However, you can also use the ellipsis symbol, which most word processing programs generate automatically when you type three periods in a row. Your editor or interior formatter will adjust these as necessary.

4. Identify the speaker.

Nothing breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief as effectively as ambiguous speakers. Picture it: You’re immersed in a story, and then you read a line of dialogue and ask, “Who said that?”

Now you’re rereading the paragraph to sort out who is speaking, and you’ve completely lost the flow of the story.

Specify the speaker as often as necessary.

When writing long conversations with a fair amount of back and forth, you may switch to a floating dialogue style. If you’re trying to figure out how to write dialogue between two characters, this is a great option.

“I didn’t see a mountain lion.”

“It was right there.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t a coyote?”

“I think I can tell the difference.”

With two speakers, it’s easy to keep track of the speakers in a back-and-forth conversation. When you throw in a third speaker, though, you’ll need to use more dialogue tags.

There are “rules” about how often to use dialogue tags. Some say every three lines or every four lines. But the question to ask is whether a reader could potentially become confused about who is speaking. If the answer is yes, add a dialogue tag.

Keep dialogue tags simple.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The simplest dialogue tags are usually the best.

  • He said
  • She said
  • They said

When you use “said” as a dialogue tag, the reader doesn’t tend to consciously note the tag. We are used to these phrases, and our brains filter them out, taking in the direction and leaving the rest. The same goes for “asked.”

But when we start getting creative with our dialogue tags, the reader notices them.

  • Grumbled
  • Wheezed
  • Whined
  • Hissed
  • Whispered
  • Croaked

These verbs have their place, and using them sparingly can elevate your scene. But using them too often will make your dialogue frustrating to read. Default to “said,” and keep the others as a tool in your writer’s toolbelt.

Prioritize action beats over dialogue tags.

This is one of the most important pieces of advice for writing strong dialogue.

We just talked about dialogue tags. The other option for identifying a speaker is an action beat.

If a description of an action precedes or follows a piece of dialogue, the reader will assume that the character doing the thing is also the character who is speaking. Example:

“No one will know.” Maggie dumped the glass shards in the trash.

We didn’t have to specify that Maggie was the one speaking. The reader understands that because of the action beat.

Using both a dialogue tag and an action beat is considered redundant.

“No one will know,” Maggie said. She dumped the glass shards in the trash.

Most line editors would eliminate the dialogue tag in the above example, since the action beat is stronger than a dialogue tag.

Using action beats is part of showing rather than telling. By describing the characters’ actions, rather than simply telling the reader who is speaking, we help the reader create stronger sensory images of the scene.

Isolate Dialogue in Scrivener

One of my favorite features in Scrivener is the ability to isolate dialogue with the Linguistic Focus tool.

In Linguistic Focus, choose “Direct Speech.” Then everything except your dialogue will darken.

How to write dialogue in a novel using scrivener

This allows you to focus on your dialogue to ensure that your characters’ voices are consistent.

Try reading your dialogue aloud to immerse yourself in the voices and cadence of speech.

You can try Scrivener free for 30 days. I’ve been using this program for over a decade, and I highly recommend it. There is a bit of a learning curve, but the features are well worth the effort.

How to Write Dialogue That Works​

Learning how to write dialogue in fiction requires practice, patience, and observation. Pay attention to how your favorite authors use the tools we discussed to craft strong dialogue.

Keep these points in mind:

  • Written dialogue does not equal spoken dialogue.
  • Action beats are stronger than dialogue tags.
  • Don’t overuse punctuation or overly creative dialogue tags.

In the end, the biggest tip for learning how to write dialogue that is believable and readable is simply to avoid overwriting the dialogue. Keep it simple, and remember to be true to your characters’ voices.

When you’re ready for a professional edit, book a line edit with our team. We’d love to help you strengthen your dialogue even further.

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