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Just Spit It Out: Writing Dialogue

Hey, Lovelies!

And by Thursday, I meant Saturday. My bad! 😛

We’re still talking about talking dialogue this week! This time around it won’t be inside of our character’s heads and let them talk to someone else. We’re going to be exploring how much talk is too much, formatting and effective dialogue.


Let’s start with off that definition:

Dialogue: when two or more characters engage in conversation with one another in a spoken or written exchange of conversation on a particular subject.

There are two types of dialogue: internal and external. We’ve already covered internal dialogue and will be talking about external today. Why do we need dialogue? Well, it advances our plot, shows the story, creates tone, highlights personalities and vernacular and creates conflict. Overall, it helps make our stories interesting.

One of my favorite examples of the magic dialogue can bring to a story is Ernest Hemmingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants. Almost the entire piece is a dialogue between two characters. The dialogue is done so well that Hemmingway didn’t have to use dialogue tags sparingly. (To read the entire story, click here) For example:

“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes like liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”

“Oh, cut it out.”

“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”

“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”

“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”

“That was bright.”

“I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”

“I guess so.”

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In the quote above, you can see the distinction between the two different characters despite the missing tags. With good dialogue, you won’t need to have he said/she said after each person speaks. Also, the way you phrase things not only will give you a hint to a character’s feelings but their personality as well.

Formatting Dialogue

Before we get into all the tips on how to write effective dialogue, let’s spend a moment going over the formatting rules. Here are the do’s and don’t’s:


Also, don’t forget to start a new paragraph each time someone else speaks and to indent that paragraph. Excellent dialogue will help reduce the number of tags you use and makes it more clear to the reader that someone new is talking.

Dialogue Tips

With all the grammar and formatting out of the way, here is what you need to know about writing good dialogue:

  • As with everything, there should be a point to your dialogue. Don’t just throw it in because you feel like it. If your dialogue doesn’t propel your story forward in some way, create suspense, shed light on the character’s personality, shaken your hero’s resolve or reinforce it or if your story makes sense without it, then you should get rid of it.
  • However, some pointless chit-chat is okay when used sparingly. The point of fiction is to make it seem like there’s an element of truth in the story and one of the ways we can do this is through dialogue.
  • Dialogue should provide information. This is going to be stuff that is essential to understanding your story, characters or plot and that is not necessarily that interesting.
  • Use it to help show your character’s personality. By talking, your characters are showing their hopes and dreams to the reader without necessarily contributing to the plot of the story.
  • Feel free to make your characters sound like real people. We don’t all speak in grammatically correct sentences. We don’t even talk in full sentences all the time, and it’s ok to use this in your writing. Just make sure it doesn’t get too confusing. For example, having more than one character talking over each other at the same time.
  • Be concise. I’m not going to preach to you on this one as I am horrible for not being concise. While most people are not good at being concise in real life, the paradigm is that being concise in your writing makes it feel real. So cut your dialogue down to the marrow as less is more.
    • One way to get down to the nitty-gritty of your dialogue is to cut out social niceties and to not write in full, grammatically correct sentences. (Sorry Grammarly!)
  • It flows. Good dialogue will not be overburdened with tags and uses simple tags. Try to vary the length of the sentences as well it makes things more interesting to read.
  • Mix action and dialogue. We do this all the time. We literally can’t sit still and talk. We’re moving our hands or pacing or even picking at the hem of our shirt. (We’ll talk about this in more depth later.)
  • Silence is a type of dialogue. You don’t need to tell the reader that someone isn’t responding – they can figure it out when there’s a lack of response. Like in this example here:

“Well John,” Linda said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

John set his jaw and stared out the window.

“I’m waiting,” she said.

He lit a cigarette.

Linda shook her head. “I swear, John, honestly.”

  • A bit of telling can be a good thing. If you need to make points at the beginning and the ending of a conversation, then you can skim over the rest. Giving a verbatim account of the story can be annoying. How do you do this? Well, you summarize it by using regular prose.
  • All of the “rules” above? Break them. You don’t have to do everything in here to create good dialogue all the time. If a convenient too much, then your dialogue could get too perfect and a little annoying to your reader.

All of the above are really good things to keep in mind for when you’re writing your story. However, if you’re like me and struggle to not sound fake during your dialogue, then you might want to try these two things:

  1. Sit in a cafe, restaurant or some other public space and listen in on conversations. Record them. Write them down. Then review those notes. Seriously, it works. I’ve done it before for my writing, and just the simple act of writing real conversations down helps you write them in your story.
  2. Speak aloud to yourself. Again this is something that I do as well. Reading it aloud to yourself and recording it helps you find the words that your reader is going to trip over. It’s also nice to hear how they sound. You can catch where you’re not putting enough emphasis or too much emphasis. I find it a really handy tool.

That’s it, that’s all for this week! Or as Bugs Bunny likes to say: “That’s all folks!” Next week we will return to our regular posting schedule, and we’ll be talking about texting and writing. It’s a new formatting style that I want to take a more in-depth look at with you.

Until Thursday!



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


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