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Writing Fiction: Dialogue

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February 2010
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What is dialogue? It refers to the words spoken between characters in a short story or novel. It also refers to a character speaking to himself or herself within the short story or novel. The fiction writer uses dialogue to reveal the personality of a character, create conflict, and advance the narrative. In “The Art and Craft of Storytelling”, author Nancy Lamb suggests that the “goal of writing dialogue is to not mimic how people speak; the goal of the writer’s dialogue is to create the illusion of authenticity.”

This article defines the two types of dialogue, identifies the purpose of dialogue, and provides twelve suggestions on how the aspiring fiction writer can compose dialogue.

Definition of Dialogue

A writer can create two types of dialogue in a story: Inner dialogue and outer dialogue. Inner dialogue refers to the words spoken by a character to himself or herself. To do this, the writer uses the literary device of “dramatic monologue” or “stream of consciousness.” Outer dialogue refers to the conversations spoken between characters. Both types of dialogue require the fiction writer to follow the rules and conventions for writing dialogue.

Stream of Consciousness

It refers to the inner thoughts of the character. Stream of consciousness is also called an internal monologue. It is a literary technique used by William Faulkner, James Joyce,Virginia Woolf, and many others, to reveal what the character is thinking to himself or herself. Typically, the writer identifies the internal monologue with:

  • The word “thought.” The man thought about how difficult the life had been…
  • The phrase “I thought to myself.” I thought to myself, “How I loathed the neighbour next door.”
  • Italics. He thought about his failed marriage, the death of his son, and the abject poverty facing him.

Dialogue as Character

One of the tasks of the fiction writer is to create interesting characters, ones that the reader likes. Writing good dialogue is one way for the writer to craft interesting characters. Good dialogue reveals something about the character, creates conflict, or advances the story. Good dialogue also requires that each character’s speech is identifiable. The dialogue should allow the reader to distinguish each character in the story. To craft authentic dialogue for each character, the writer can:

  • Use different diction or word choice for each character.
  • Use different syntax to represent speaking pattern.
  • Use profanity or slang.
  • Use colloquial expressions in the dialogue.
  • Use idiomatic phrases in the dialogue.
  • Use dialect. (Only expert writers should use this.)


The writer can also identify each speaker by using:

  • Dialogue tags, such as “he said” or “she said.”
  • Quotations for each speaker (“”).
  • Separate line or paragraph for a new or different speaker.



(Argument between a boyfriend and girlfriend. )

“I want to end our relationship,” he said, from the hallway.

“Why?” she said, slamming the front door.

“I don’t love you anymore,” he yelled.

“You have met someone else, haven’t you,” she screamed.

Purpose of Dialogue

When writing dialogue, the fiction writer needs to keep in mind the purpose of the dialogue. The dialogue must not be “filler” or “gossip” or “small talk.”  It must have a point, purpose, or function in the story. The writer must use dialogue for the following reasons:

  1. To develop the plot of the story. For instance, the antagonist might say something that angers the protagonist. This anger causes the protagonist to take some sort of action, moving the plot closer to its conclusion.
  2. To reveal conflict between characters. For instance, the dialogue between two characters might be hostile or full of invective, which reveals the conflict between two opposing forces.
  3. To develop the personality of the character. Both the tone and content of the dialogue tell the reader about the nature of the character. For instance, if the character speaks well and uses eloquent words, the reader draws the conclusion that the character is educated and intelligent.
  4. To reveal background information about a character. The writer can use dialogue to reveal something that happened in the past.

Suggestions for Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is an essential component of a good story. So, an aspiring fiction writer must learn how to craft dialogue correctly. He/she must learn the rules and conventions. Here are twelve suggestions to help the aspiring writer compose dialogue:

  1. Create dialogue that reveals character and mood. The writer can ask himself: “Does the dialogue reveal something about the personality of the character? Does the dialogue reveal something about the mood of the scene?
  2. Break up dialogue with action scenes. Long streams of dialogue are boring, so break up dialogue with action scenes.
  3. Compose meaningful dialogue. It should reveal personality, create conflict, or advance the story. The writer should not include small talk.
  4. Use profanity sparingly and avoid faddish slang.
  5. Avoid using dialect or accent. It is a distraction to readers.
  6. Create an authentic voice for each character. Use different sentence patterns and language/diction for each character.
  7. Use a tagline and action to move the story forward. Example: “I hate you,” yelled Patrick, walking out of the door, slamming it.
  8. Avoid using the names of characters in the dialogue. Example: “Well, Patrick, I can see that you are angry,” said Steve.
  9. Use italics to show inner dialogue or dramatic monologue or stream of consciousness.  For instance, the writer can begin: I said to myself, “I must leave this job…”
  10. Use a separate line or paragraph for each new speaker. Dialogue spoken by a single character, interspersed with action, can be kept in one paragraph.
  11. Use the dialogue tags and quotations marks to indicate who is talking. “He said” or “she said.” Avoid using fancy dialogue tags. Instead keep them simple, so readers won’t get distracted.
  12. Write dialogue in sentence form and use correct grammar.

What is most important about writing dialogue is to avoid wasting words with small talk, to identify each speaker with dialogue tags and quotation marks, and to keep the dialogue brief and succinct.



  1. alaugh says:

    This is an awesome blog. I love it. Haha I wish I could figure out how to subscribe..

  2. Chad Russell says:

    I loved number 2., which stated, “Long streams of dialogue are boring…”

    Have you read the page on page discussions between characters in Geroge R.R. Martin’s work? I personally enjoy reading shorter dialogues than he has to offer, hence I do agree with number 2. That being said, if you are a master writer such as Martin, I suppose traditional rules for beginners such as myself are thrown out the door 🙂

    Nice write up. Thank you.

  3. great piece… I think I can write better dialogues now…

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