6 Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue

When done well, dialogue is purposeful and easy to read. The reader is immersed in the conversation, as if watching it play out around them. When done poorly, however, it can completely take the reader out of the story. For some, writing dialogue comes naturally, but for many others, it can be a struggle to get it right. Below are some tips to keep in mind when writing dialogue.

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Let’s look at the following example:

“I … I don’t know what to say,” Amy said.

“I know. I can’t even believe it,” Jim replied.

“Do you think he knew?” Amy wondered aloud.

“I really think he did,” Jim answered.

“I can’t wait for Julie to hear about this,” Amy laughed.

“Don’t even get me started,” Jim muttered.

They both jumped as the door to the lab flew open.

“How could this have happened?!” Julie exclaimed.

“Your guess is as good as ours,” sighed Amy.

  1. Dialogue tags don’t have to be fancy. Simply put, dialogue tags let the reader know who’s talking. When I was in school, I was taught to avoid using “said” as a dialogue tag because it was repetitive. Instead, we were told to spice things up by throwing in words like “exclaimed” or “posited.” If you use too many of these uncommon tags, though, things can sound awkward. There’s a reason why “said” is the popular choice. Readers usually don’t even notice that the word is used multiple times over the course of a conversation—it’s almost like a filler. That being said (haha), it doesn’t hurt to sprinkle in some variety as long as it doesn’t sound forced. In the example, every dialogue tag is different. This can distract the reader and make them focus on the tags rather than the dialogue itself.

  2. Less can be more. Even though “said” can be used repeatedly, it becomes overused at a certain point. If two people are having a conversation, consider if it’s necessary to use a dialogue tag at all. It’s often redundant to have a dialogue tag after each person speaks because it’s implied who’s saying what in a back-and-forth exchange. Just be sure that a change in the speaker is indicated by a new line of dialogue and not a continuation of someone else’s line. In the first six lines of the example, only Amy and Jim are in the scene. Once they each say their first line, the following few dialogue tags can be easily omitted without confusion. Still, be mindful when writing a long conversation that a reader may lose track of the back and forth, so add a dialogue tag or action beat every now and then to remind the reader who the current speaker is.

  3. Action beats enhance a conversation. Most conversations don’t solely involve verbal communication. Characters move. They react. They do things. That’s where action beats come in. Action beats tell the reader what’s actually happening in the conversation. In a heated exchange, a character may throw up their hands or pound on a desk, which gives insight into their personality. Even though action beats can replace dialogue tags in telling the reader who’s speaking, they’re punctuated differently. Dialogue tags use commas, while action beats use periods.

    • Dialogue tag: She said, “It’s up to you”

    • Action beat: She shrugged. “It’s up to you.”

    A common mistake is to replace a dialogue tag with an action but still punctuate it with a comma. A character cannot sigh, gasp, or smile a line of dialogue. Instead, they can do an action along with the dialogue tag.

    • Incorrect: “It was you,” he gasped.

    • Correct: He gasped. “It was you.” or “It was you,” he said with a gasp.

  4. It’s okay to use pronouns. It can be redundant to use characters’ names repeatedly in dialogue tags and action beats. In the example, Amy’s and Jim’s names appear with each dialogue tag, which is unnecessary. Because the conversation involves a male and female character, their names can be replaced with pronouns (he and she) to add a bit of variety. This can get tricky if there are multiple characters with the same pronoun, so only use the pronouns when it’s clear who’s speaking.

  5. Don’t make the reader guess who’s talking. In a conversation between two people, it’s usually easy enough to know who’s saying what. When there are multiple characters involved, the waters can become muddied. Make it clear to the reader who the speaker is. It can be jarring to read a line of dialogue in a character’s voice, only to realize it was actually a different character who said it. The same applies when there’s a wall of dialogue. I’ve edited novels in which the dialogue tag comes at the end of an entire paragraph, leaving me guessing as to who’s speaking. Instead, place the dialogue tag at the end of the first sentence, then continue with the paragraph so there’s no confusion.

  6. Dialogue should serve a purpose. When writing dialogue, think about what you do and don’t see in a scripted movie or TV show. Characters don’t talk about mundane, day-to-day details, except maybe a few lines of chitchat to set the scene. Dialogue is intended to move the plot forward or give insight into a character’s personality or motivation. It may seem cheesy to have a major plot twist conveniently happen as we’re watching, but that’s because it’s important for the viewer to watch it unfold. What we don’t see are the characters sleeping, going to the bathroom, or talking on the phone, unless it’s somehow relevant. The same applies to written work. Ask yourself, “Why is it important for the reader to be privy to this conversation?”

Now, let’s apply some of these tips to the example above:

Amy stared at Jim in disbelief. “I … I don’t know what to say.”

“I know. I can’t even believe it,” he replied.

“Do you think he knew?”

Jim paused. “I really think he did.”

“I can’t wait for Julie to hear about this,” she said with a sarcastic laugh.

“Don’t even get me started.”

They both jumped as the door to the lab flew open.

“How could this have happened?!” Julie exclaimed.

“Your guess is as good as ours,” Amy said, sighing.

Notice how the spoken words do not change. Instead, dialogue tags are simplified, and action beats are added to give depth to the conversation and reduce repetition.

What are your thoughts on writing dialogue? Any additional advice you’d give to others?