The Ultimate Guide for Writing Dialogue in Your Novel

writing dialogueWriting dialogue is easy, writing good dialogue is a lot harder. There a major difference between characters in books, on TV shows and in movies who speak in a way that the viewer can believe, versus those who don’t.

In fact, good dialogue transcends beyond the mere words a character speaks, it helps define the traits and personality of a character. Writing dialogue that is interesting and realistic can:

  • Make a character more three dimensional
  • Make a character more interesting
  • Add information about a character’s personality without using specific words (subtext)
  • Turn a character into someone a reader can identify with
  • Make a character believable rather than a trope or a stereotype
  • Make a character quotable (“I am the one who knocks.” – Water White)

Unfortunately, writing good dialogue is something a lot of writers tend to struggle with. Seriously, just go to reddit’s /r/Writing subreddit and do a search on “dialogue” to see the countless number of threads that pop up.

While I’ve had my own struggles with different aspects of writing, I’ve been lucky enough that writing dialogue is one of those things that has always come fairly naturally to me. That’s why I’ve put together this guide, accumulating my own experience writing dialogue with tips and tricks I’ve picked up as I wrote my book, Elementalists: The Fires of Canicus.

Formatting 101

If you already know how to format dialogue then feel free to skip this section, but since formatting is the absolute foundation of dialogue we’re going to discuss this first.

There are several ways to structure dialogue, but the formatting generally stays the same. The following passage from my novel gives an example of several methods.

“I’m okay, by the way. Thanks for your concern, everyone,” Joel said, as he got back onto his feet and rubbed his scraped arm.

“No problem, buddy,” said Isaac, giving Joel’s shoulder a light punch. “We all know you’re made of tougher stuff than that.”

In this example, Joel is the first speaker. You’ll notice, his dialogue ends with a comma instead of a period because the sentence wasn’t over yet. I still wanted to demonstrate the action Joel was taking as he was speaking.

Isaac is the second speaker here and I’ve interrupted his flow of dialogue to show what action he is taking. By doing this I am changing up the pace, and I’m also keeping the reader more in the moment by showing what action he is performing while he is still speaking.

If I wanted to, I could have also formatted Isaac’s dialogue like this:

“No problem, buddy.” Isaac lightly punched Joel’s shoulder. “We all know you’re made of tougher stuff than that.”

This would have achieved the same purpose, but it would have slightly slowed the pace as Isaac was now speaking in two distinctly separate sentences. It would have also made it less obvious that Isaac was the second speaker, although it could still be interpreted through context. As there were more characters in this scene, I went the first route for the additional clarity.

A third option would have been to put a comma after the word “punch” and have the entire line as one sentence. Doable, but a bit lengthy.

Here are a few quick and dirty tips for formatting dialogue:

  1. Whenever a new character speaks, start their dialogue on a new line or paragraph.
  2. Separate names or titles with commas (“No problem, buddy.”)
  3. Limit your use of exclamation points or else it sounds like your characters are always really mad or excited about something!!!
  4. Don’t use semicolons in dialogue and if you’re uncertain of how to use them properly, either learn or simply restructure your sentences so you don’t need them.
  5. Don’t be afraid to toss in filler words like “um” or “uh.” Best to avoid them in real life, but they do happen so it makes dialogue feel more natural with them included.
  6. Use apostrophes. It’s far more common to say “they’re” or “we’ve” than “there are” or “we have.” If you have a character who speaks excruciatingly formally though, it may feel more natural to not use apostrophes then.
  7. Writing accents and dialects can be extremely tricky. Research well if you intend to do this.
  8. Don’t worry about writing perfect dialogue on your first draft. That’s what revisions are for.
  9. On that note, make your dialogue as good as you can during revisions, but editors are there to fine-tune the really finicky stuff.
  10. Feel free to break the rules as long as you’re doing it on purpose and are consistent about it.

Now let’s talk about how to make your dialogue interesting.

Emulate Who You Like

Think about characters who you like reading about or watching on TV. What is it you like about them?

  • Do they have a distinctive way of speaking? (“Y-O-U-R-E means you are. Y-O-U-R means your.” – Ross Geller)
  • Do they have a catchphrase (“It’s going to be legen – wait for it – dary!” – Barney Stinson)
  • Do they speak with an accent? (“Harry – yer a wizard.” – Hagrid)
  • Is their dialogue limited in an interesting way? (“Hodor.” – Bran Stark calling Hodor over.)
  • Does their voice carry a certain tone? (If that’s true — if you don’t know who I am — then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.” – Walter White)

One of the major items that separates an interesting character from a forgettable one is the way they present themselves. This includes their actions and the decisions they make, but it goes beyond that too – it largely incorporates how things are said. What are the exact words they use to get their message across? In some cases, those words don’t even have to be vocalized. NOT PENNY’S BOAT will always have a special place in heart’s of fans of the TV series, Lost.


Charlie – Never forget

Of course there are plenty of other fantastic characters out there. Who do you like and what do you like about them? Think about it and don’t be afraid to use great existing characters as inspiration for your own – just don’t flat out copy.

Be Daring – Be Decisive

This one comes directly from Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, specifically, #13:

Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the reader.

I was fortunate enough to come across this great piece of advice in the early days of writing Elementalists and it turned out to be advice that I always kept at the top of my mind. In the event that any of my characters came up to a crossroads, I would be damned if I had them make a decision by flipping a coin.

One TV show that puts this advice to work extremely well is Once Upon a Time. As frustrated as I get by other aspects of writing in that show (I’m looking at you Dues Ex Machina), I have to give credit where credit is due. Their characters always make decisions. You would be hard pressed to find a time when any character does not have an opinion, no matter how good or bad, or how insane or asinine it might seem – they always have an opinion.

Think about your own story. What sticky situations have your characters found themselves in? How did they react? Did they have to go home and think about what to do next or did they have an idea right away?

A character with an opinion is interesting. A character without one is not.

It’s actually a good rule of thumb for real life too.

Show – Don’t Tell

This is without a doubt one of the most important rules for writing dialogue and good fiction in general. It’s also something a lot of newer writers struggle with implementing.

What does this mean?

Showing: Describing the physical actions a character is performing.
Telling: Using basic descriptive words that leave too much room for interpretation.

Let’s take another look at a the passages from my book, used back in Formatting 101.

“I’m okay, by the way. Thanks for your concern, everyone,” Joel said, as he got back onto his feet and rubbed his scraped arm.

“No problem, buddy,” said Isaac, giving Joel’s shoulder a light punch. “We all know you’re made of tougher stuff than that.”

These are examples of showing because I’m describing both Joel and Isaac’s physical actions. If I were telling, it would look something like this:

“I’m okay, by the way. Thanks for your concern, everyone,” Joel said, frustrated.

“No problem, buddy,” said Isaac, playfully. “We all know you’re made of tougher stuff than that.”

Doesn’t paint the same picture in your mind, does it?

Showing verus telling isn’t limited to merely physical actions either, it can also refer to the emotions a person is displaying. For instance, “smiled coyfully” isn’t as descriptive as “she smiled and gently bit her inner lip, staring directly at him.”

Fortunately there are plenty of resources to help you show rather than tell. This master list of facial expressions by Bryn Donovan is extremely useful. This cheat sheet for body language can also be a good go-to resource to have bookmarked.

Say it Out Loud, Like… Dialogue?

This may seem so obvious that it can actually be easy to overlook or completely forget about.

You’re writing dialogue – so read it out loud! I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I thought a piece of dialogue I had written sounded great in my head, only until I heard it spoken.

Also, because it’s really easy to miss a word, or ignore a repeated word, I like to use a piece of software called IVONA for text-to-voice. This software is great – it reads your story out loud for you and you listen, making necessary changes as you go.

If you have a friend, you can also try reading your dialogue out loud with him or her, getting your friend to read another character’s parts. It’s almost like your characters having a real conversation. Who knows what may or may not sound natural?

Write it Right

That’s all the tips on writing dialogue for now, folks. Do you have any other thoughts, ideas or resources you’d like to share? Please leave a comment and let us know.

By | 2017-05-18T18:30:24+00:00 July 13th, 2016|Writing|0 Comments

About the Author:

Author of ELEMENTALISTS: THE FIRES OF CANICUS. Owner of WritingABookCafe.com. Helping writers succeed from planning, to publishing and beyond.