17 Lesson 7: Writing Dialogue

Purpose of Dialogue

Dialogues are conversations between two or more characters. If there is only one character speaking, it’s called a monologue, which is sometimes used in plays.  As previously stated, how the characters speak depends on several factors:

  • Where they live
  • The time period in which they live
  • Their age

The dialogue should move the story forward. It may increase suspense, show readers a trait(s) of the character(s), and/or change the situation or conflict the characters are in. Dialogue will also differentiate one character from another. For example, the scene in the park from “Miss Brill” illustrates this:

Just at that moment a boy and girl came and sat down where the old couple had been. They were beautifully dressed; they were in love. The hero and heroine, of course, just arrived from his father’s yacht. And still soundlessly singing, still with that trembling smile, Miss Brill prepared to listen.

“No, not now,” said the girl. “Not here, I can’t.”

“But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?” asked the boy. “Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?”

“It’s her fu-ur which is so funny,” giggled the girl. “It’s exactly like a fried whiting.”

“Ah, be off with you!” said the boy in an angry whisper. Then: “Tell me, ma petite chere—”

“No, not here,” said the girl. “Not yet.”

Notice how this scene contains all three purposes of dialogue. It increases the suspense of the story. It shows the traits of the boy and girl in contrast to Miss Brill, and it changes the situation for Miss Brill.

How to Write Dialogue

Dialogue mimics spoken speech. It needs to flow naturally. Therefore, it can be written in fragments. It can contain slang. It may use dialects, a type of language from a specific region of a country. However, writers need to be careful with dialects. Dialects can create stereotypes, which writers need to avoid.

Also, be careful about creating talking heads, which is characters talking without reference to their appearance, setting, actions, or thoughts. Readers need to visualize characters in their setting. Where are they? What are they doing? How do they look? What are their thoughts? This information can be woven throughout a scene of dialogue. For example, this scene in “The White Heron” demonstrates this:

“Do you cage ’em up?” asked Mrs. Tilley doubtfully, in response to this enthusiastic announcement.

“Oh no, they’re stuffed and preserved, dozens and dozens of them,” said the ornithologist, “and I have shot or snared every one myself. I caught a glimpse of a white heron a few miles from here on Saturday, and I have followed it in this direction. They have never been found in this district at all. The little white heron, it is,” and he turned again to look at Sylvia with the hope of discovering that the rare bird was one of her acquaintances. But Sylvia was watching a hop-toad in the narrow footpath.

“You would know the heron if you saw it,” the stranger continued eagerly. “A queer tall white bird with soft feathers and long thin legs. And it would have a nest perhaps in the top of a high tree, made of sticks, something like a hawk’s nest.”

Sylvia’s heart gave a wild beat; she knew that strange white bird, and had once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass, away over at the other side of the woods. There was an open place where the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot, where tall, nodding rushes grew, and her grandmother had warned her that she might sink in the soft black mud underneath and never be heard of more. Not far beyond were the salt marshes just this side the sea itself, which Sylvia wondered and dreamed much about, but never had seen, whose great voice could sometimes be heard above the noise of the woods on stormy nights.

“I can’t think of anything I should like so much as to find that heron’s nest,” the handsome stranger was saying. “I would give ten dollars to anybody who could show it to me,” he added desperately, “and I mean to spend my whole vacation hunting for it if need be. Perhaps it was only migrating, or had been chased out of its own region by some bird of prey.”

Notice the shifts from dialogue to scene descriptions in this scene. At first, Mrs. Tilley and the stranger are speaking to one another, which unveils why the ornithologist is in their woods. Next, it shifts to a small scene of description, which reveals Sylvia’s experience with a white heron. Then, the stranger speakers again.

The best way to test dialogue scenes is to read them aloud. Not only will this help see if the dialogue is effective, it will also help writers determine if they have too many or too few dialogue tags.

Conventional Rules for Dialogue

Remember conventional rules exist when writing dialogue:

  • Each time a new person speaks a new paragraph is needed.
  • What the person said is placed in quotation marks.
  • Capitalize the first word that a person speaks.
  • A dialogue tag tells who is speaking.
  • Commas and periods are placed inside quotation marks.


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