Understanding Dialogue: A Comprehensive Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 11 min read


  1. What is Dialogue?
  2. How to Use Dialogue in Stories
  3. Dialogue and Character Development
  4. How to Format Dialogue
  5. Dialogue Punctuation Rules
  6. How to Write Realistic Dialogue
  7. Dialogue Dos and Don'ts
  8. Dialogue Writing Exercises
  9. Dialogue in Different Genres
  10. Dialogue Examples from Literature

Have you ever been immersed in a book, movie, or play, where the characters' words seem to leap off the page or screen, making you feel like you're right there in the room with them? That's the power of dialogue. Understanding dialogue—what it is, how to use it, and how to write it—opens up a whole new world of storytelling ability. Let's dive in, shall we?

What is Dialogue?

Let's start with the basics. The definition of dialogue is conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie. But it's more than just talk. Dialogue lets us peek into the minds and hearts of characters. It helps move the story forward and builds the world where the story takes place.

But wait a minute—you might think. Isn't dialogue just people chatting? Well, yes and no. Here's why:

  • Dialogue is not just conversation: In real life, we often talk without a clear goal or purpose—just think about the last time you chit-chatted about the weather! But in a story, every line of dialogue should serve a purpose: revealing character, advancing the plot, or setting the mood, to name a few.
  • Dialogue reveals character: What a character says—and how they say it—can tell you a lot about their personality, background, and motivations. For example, a character who always speaks in short, clipped sentences might be nervous or hiding something.
  • Dialogue advances the plot: The action in a story often hinges on dialogue. Maybe one character spills a secret, triggering a chain of events. Or maybe another character talks their way out of a tricky situation, changing the course of the story.
  • Dialogue sets the mood: The tone of dialogue can help set the mood of a scene. A light-hearted exchange might signal a happy or relaxed moment, while a heated argument could signal tension or conflict.

So while dialogue might seem like just talk, it's actually a key tool in a writer's toolbox—one that can bring characters to life, drive the story forward, and much more.

How to Use Dialogue in Stories

If the definition of dialogue is conversation in a story, then knowing how to use it effectively is like knowing how to speak the language of your characters. Let's look at some practical ways to use dialogue in stories.

  • Use Dialogue for Exposition: Exposition is a fancy term for "background information." Instead of having a narrator tell us a character's backstory, you can reveal it through dialogue. For example, one character might say to another, "I haven't been back to this town since the factory closed and my family had to move."
  • Use Dialogue to Show, Not Tell: You've probably heard this writing advice before: "Show, don't tell." Dialogue is a great way to do this. Instead of telling us that a character is angry, show it by having them shout, "I've never been so mad in my life!"
  • Use Dialogue to Reveal Character: Dialogue is a great way to reveal character traits. For instance, a character who speaks in long, complicated sentences might be intellectual or pretentious. A character who rarely speaks might be shy, mysterious, or stoic.
  • Use Dialogue to Advance the Plot: Dialogue can move the plot forward. Perhaps a character reveals a secret, proposes a plan, or makes a decision that changes the direction of the story. Dialogue is a great way to make these plot developments feel natural and believable.

Remember, dialogue is more than just words—it's a tool that can bring your story to life. So, the next time you're crafting a tale, think about how dialogue can help you show your readers what's happening, rather than just telling them.

Dialogue and Character Development

Ever wondered how dialogue can impact character development? Let's find out!

In any story, dialogue is not just chatter between characters. It serves a more significant role — it helps to develop characters. Yes, you heard it right! The words your characters speak can change the way readers perceive them, influencing their depth, personality, and growth. Let's explore this concept with some examples.

  • Revealing Personality: The way a character speaks can tell a lot about their personality. Let's take a character who always speaks politely, even in stressful situations. This could suggest that they are well-mannered, patient, or even a bit of a pushover.
  • Highlighting Growth: As your story progresses, dialogue can show how your characters grow and change. For example, a character who starts off speaking timidly but gradually becomes more assertive throughout the story clearly demonstrates personal growth.
  • Showing Relationships: Dialogue is a great way to show the dynamics between characters. Do they argue a lot? Are they always supportive of each other? These interactions can give readers insights into the relationships between characters.
  • Adding Depth: Finally, dialogue can add depth to your characters. By giving your characters distinct voices and ways of speaking, you make them more real and relatable to your readers.

So next time you write dialogue, remember: it's not just about what your characters say, but how they say it. The dialogue you write can shape your characters, making them more complex, relatable, and memorable.

How to Format Dialogue

Now that we've understood the role of dialogue in character development, let's dive into the nitty-gritty of formatting dialogue. If you've ever wondered, "What's the correct way to format dialogue?" — look no further.

First, let's start with the basics. Dialogue in writing is typically enclosed in quotation marks. This helps readers identify when a character is speaking. Here's an example:

"I'm going to the store," said John.

Now, let's move on to a few rules that can help you ace dialogue formatting:

  1. Start a New Paragraph for Each Speaker: When a new character speaks, start a new paragraph. This makes it clear who's speaking and keeps the text organized.
  2. Use Dialogue Tags Wisely: Dialogue tags like 'said', 'asked', 'yelled' help readers know who's speaking. But remember, less is more. If it's clear who's speaking, you can skip the dialogue tag.
  3. Handling Actions: If a character performs an action while speaking, it's usually included in the same paragraph as their dialogue. For example, "John tossed the ball, saying, "Catch!"
  4. Long Speeches: If a character is delivering a long speech, you can break it up into multiple paragraphs. Just remember to open each paragraph with quotation marks but only close the final paragraph with them.

Formatting dialogue might seem tricky at first, but with a little practice, it'll become second nature. Just remember to keep it clear who's speaking and you're good to go!

Dialogue Punctuation Rules

Let's talk about punctuation. Yes, I know, it's not the most exciting topic in the world. But when it comes to dialogue, the right punctuation can make or break your story. So, let's dive into the definition of dialogue punctuation rules.

  1. Commas and Periods: In dialogue, commas and periods typically go inside the quotation marks. For example: "I'm going to the store," said John. Or, "I'm going to the store."
  2. Question and Exclamation Marks: These too go inside the quotation marks if they're part of the dialogue. For instance: "Are you going to the store?" or "I'm going to the store!"
  3. Dialogue Tags: If a dialogue tag follows the dialogue, replace the period (or other ending punctuation) with a comma. Like this: "I'm going to the store," said John.
  4. Multiple Paragraphs: If a character's dialogue extends over several paragraphs, each paragraph should begin with quotation marks. But only put ending quotation marks on the last paragraph.

Remember, these are general rules and there may be exceptions based on style guides or individual writing styles. But for a beginner, these rules provide a solid foundation for writing dialogue that's clear and easy to follow.

How to Write Realistic Dialogue

Ever read a book where the dialogue just didn't feel real? We've all been there. But don't worry—you've got this. Let's break down how to write realistic dialogue.

First up, listen to real conversations. Yes, you read that right. Real people don't talk like characters in a book. They interrupt each other, change the topic, use slang, and rarely speak in perfect prose. So, take a moment to listen to the people around you. You'll start to notice the unique rhythm and flow of real conversation, which you can then use in your own writing.

Next, remember to keep it concise. In real life, people don't usually give long, uninterrupted speeches. They're more likely to use short, snappy sentences. So, when writing dialogue, try to keep it short and sweet. This will also help keep your readers engaged.

Finally, make sure your dialogue reflects your characters. Think about who your characters are—their background, age, profession, etc.—and let this influence how they talk. For example, a teenager probably won't sound the same as a 50-year-old professor.

Remember, writing realistic dialogue takes practice. So, don't get discouraged if it doesn't come naturally at first. Keep at it, and before you know it, you'll be writing dialogue that's so real, your readers will think they're eavesdropping on an actual conversation!

Dialogue Dos and Don'ts

Alright, so you've got the basics down. But there's always room for improvement, right? So, here are some dos and don'ts for writing dialogue that hits the mark.

Do use dialogue to reveal character. Dialogue should do more than just move the plot forward—it should also give readers insight into your characters. Whether it's showing a character's sense of humor, their fears, or their dreams, dialogue is a powerful tool for character development.

Don't overuse names. In real conversations, we rarely use each other's names. So, when writing dialogue, try to avoid using names too often—it can feel unnatural and pull readers out of the story.

Do use contractions. Unless you're writing a character who speaks very formally, contractions can make dialogue feel more natural. So, instead of "I will not", try "I won't".

Don't forget about body language. Dialogue isn't just about what is said—it's also about how it's said. Using body language can add depth to your dialogue and reveal more about your characters.

Do read your dialogue out loud. This can help you catch any awkward phrasing and make sure your dialogue sounds natural.

By keeping these dos and don'ts in mind, you can make sure your dialogue is not only realistic, but also engaging and revealing. Remember, the goal is for your dialogue to feel like a real conversation that pulls readers into your story.

Dialogue Writing Exercises

Okay, now that we've gone through the dos and don'ts, it's time to put pen to paper and start practicing. Here are a few exercises to help you improve your dialogue writing skills.

1. Write a conversation between two characters who are complete opposites. This could be a fun-loving teenager and a serious adult, or a quiet librarian and a loud rock star. The aim of this exercise is to showcase their differences through dialogue.

2. Rewrite a conversation from a movie or a book. Take a dialogue scene from your favorite movie or book and try to rewrite it in your own words. This can help you understand how dialogue is structured and how to build tension and emotion.

3. Write a dialogue where a secret is revealed. The secret could be anything—a hidden love, a buried treasure, a past mistake. The goal here isn't the secret itself, but how it's disclosed through dialogue.

4. Write a conversation where characters are arguing. The argument could be about anything, but the focus should be on showing their emotions and viewpoints through dialogue, rather than narration.

5. Write a dialogue with no words at all. Sounds challenging, right? Try to convey a conversation using only actions and body language. This can help you understand the non-verbal aspects of dialogue.

Remember, practice makes perfect. So, don't worry if you find these exercises tough at first. The more you practice, the better you'll get at writing dialogue that not only sounds real, but also pulls readers into your story.

Dialogue in Different Genres

Just as spices give different flavors to food, dialogue can bring out the unique taste of each genre. This is why understanding the definition of dialogue isn't enough. You also need to know how to use dialogue to enhance the atmosphere and mood of your story. Let's look at how dialogue is used in different genres.

Mystery and Thriller: In these genres, dialogue is often crisp, tense, and loaded with clues. Characters speak in short, sharp sentences, and every word matters. They might speak in riddles or codes, making the readers hang on to every word.

Science Fiction and Fantasy: Characters in these genres often speak in a way that reflects the world they inhabit. They might use unusual words or phrases, and their dialogue often helps to build the world and set the atmosphere. Think of the way characters in "Harry Potter" or "Star Wars" speak.

Romance: Ah, the genre of love and longing. Here, dialogue is all about expressing emotions. Characters in a romance novel often speak in a way that reveals their deepest desires and fears. The dialogue is often passionate, moving, and emotional.

Comedy: In this genre, dialogue is all about making the reader laugh. Characters might use puns, sarcasm, or witty one-liners. The dialogue in a comedy often has a fast pace, with characters bouncing off each other's words.

The key to writing good dialogue in any genre is to understand the mood and atmosphere of the genre, and then use dialogue to enhance it. Remember, dialogue is not just about what the characters say, but also how they say it.

Dialogue Examples from Literature

Now that we've looked at how dialogue works in different genres, let's explore some examples of dialogue in literature. These examples will help you understand the power and potential of dialogue in storytelling.

1. "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen: This classic novel is known for its witty and engaging dialogue. Let's take a look at this piece of dialogue between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy:

"In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

This dialogue perfectly captures Mr. Darcy's feelings for Elizabeth and his struggle to express them. It's a great example of how dialogue can reveal a character's emotions and inner turmoil.

2. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee: The dialogue in this novel is realistic and powerful, reflecting the setting and the themes of the story. Here's an example of dialogue between Scout and Atticus Finch:

"Atticus, you must be wrong...""Well, they're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions," said Atticus, "but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

This dialogue reveals Atticus' character and his beliefs, showing us why he chooses to stand up for what he believes is right, even when it's unpopular.

3. "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger: The dialogue in this novel is raw and authentic, capturing the voice of the teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Here's a piece of dialogue that showcases Holden's cynical view of the world:

"I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible."

Through this dialogue, we get a glimpse into Holden's mind and his struggle with truth and authenticity.

These examples show how dialogue can reveal character, set the mood, and move the story forward. Remember, the definition of dialogue is far more than just words spoken by characters. It's a tool that can bring your story to life.

If you're looking to further develop your understanding of dialogue and want to apply it to the world of scriptwriting, check out Jessy Moussallem's workshop, 'Scriptwriting.' This workshop will provide you with valuable insights and techniques on how to create engaging and realistic dialogue, bringing your scripts to life.