How to Write Dialogue in a Story

How to Write Dialogue in a Story


Dialogue is one of the major tools in storytelling, often making up a significant portion of the text in works of fiction.

Good dialogue can make or break a book and can provide pivotal emotional moments that stick with your readers.

In this article, we'll explore why crafting realistic and compelling dialogue is important and how it can elevate your story. We'll look at good and bad examples of dialogue and discover some simple exercises that can improve the dialogue between your characters.

We will only cover dialogue between characters and not internal dialogue and monologues, which are distinctly separate storytelling tools that will be explored in a future article.

Dialogue is a Storytelling Tool

At its core, dialogue is a verbal interaction between characters which often, but not always, involves information exchange on some level. It is one of the storytelling tools that allows the reader to learn about your characters, your world, and your story in a natural way.

Many kinds of information can transpire through a conversation. Non-verbal interactions are very important in books, just as they are in real-world conversations. The speakers may tell each other nothing useful but communicate nonetheless. 

Some of the things the readers can learn through dialogue are:

  • Information about the setting.
  • The true intentions of our characters' — for example, if they are lying, they are likely up to no good.
  • The relationship between the speakers — whether they are trusted friends or sworn enemies.
  • Information on the speakers' background, which can easily transpire through gestures and accents — for example, Sam from The Lord of the Rings series, who has a distinctly farmer-like accent.

Enhancing the Pillars of Writing

Dialogue conveys cross-sectional information, in the sense that it can contribute to all of the storytelling pillars:

  1. Plot — dialogue can bring forward your story; in some books, the majority of events that occur are conversations.
  2. Setting — we can learn a lot about the world and its people through characters speaking, for example, about their lives, current events, and history.
  3. Character — conversations can show us who the characters are, and provide some crucial moments of growth and downfall.

The dialogue itself can propel these pillars forward, or reveal certain information about them to the reader.

The way a character speaks, for example, can change throughout the text to show something has changed within them, which the readers will often (unconsciously) pick up and get a sense of organic character growth. For example, an improved vocabulary can show that the character has become more articulate and knowledgeable. Similarly, if a character used to interrupt and talk over people earlier in the book, and less so in the end, this can show they have become more patient and respectful of others.

Moreover, dialogue can be used to control pacing by speeding up or slowing down the text.   

How to Write Dialogue

Let's first distinguish between good and useful dialogue.

Good dialogue means that:

  1. It sounds realistic.
  2. The characters don't immediately know what to say — every human conversation has awkward pauses, moments of doubt and shock, and uncertainty.
  3. The characters don't always agree (or disagree) with each other.

Useful dialogue means that it propels the story forward, contributes to worldbuilding, or paints the characters' personalities, relationships, and moments of growth. It can also set the pace of the story.

Good dialogue that is not particularly useful can still be entertaining. For example, it can provide comic relief. However, it misses out on the opportunity to enhance the story.

As writers, we should strive to write dialogue that is both good and useful, to the extent possible.

Start with Bad Dialogue

It's much easier to make bad dialogue better than to make useless dialogue useful. Adding useful dialogue later in the revision process may require major rework such as breaking up and reshuffling chapters. So, naturally, we should start by trying to make every conversation in our book useful in some way that contributes to the plot, setting, and characters.

Just like the rest of your first draft, the conversations will likely not be as good as we can make them. And they shouldn't be. At this stage, there will be a lot of uncertainty, and you may even decide to cut out entire chapters. It may not be worth investing lots of time into making the dialogue in your first draft as good as you can. The priority is therefore to make it useful. We can revise later to make it good.

Place Dialogue Strategically

The first decision in crafting useful dialogue is deciding where to place it. This depends on what you are trying to achieve in your text, thus there is no exact formula.

In some media, such as movies and TV series, dialogue is shown linearly, with the actors speaking to each other.

Writing, on the other hand, can skip over entire conversations in a heartbeat. As the writer, you may choose to summarize a 3-hour conversation in just a few sentences:

Trystan and Natasha spoke through the night, telling each other stories of their adventures in the far lands of Roggast. By the end, they knew each other better than anyone else.

This is known as showing versus telling, and in the context of dialogue:

  • Showing means writing the conversation (the actual words) in quotation marks — interleaved with descriptions of tone, gestures, and other relevant information.
  • Telling means summarizing what was told, and how.

Whether you show or tell your dialogue is a subjective and stylistic choice, and there is no universal right or wrong.

When to Show or Tell Your Dialogue

Some reasons to tell the dialogue include:

  • You want to speed up the pace, summarizing long conversations, or slow it down, for example by lengthening a conversation by describing the character's non-verbal language in depth.
  • You want to communicate only the most essential information — in the example above, the key points are that:
    1. Trystan and Natasha spoke. 
    2. They shared their adventures.
    3. They learned a lot about each other.
  • You want to cut your word count.

Some reasons to show the dialogue could be:

  • You want your readers to connect to your characters on a personal level.
  • You want the point of view to feel closer, allowing the reader to immerse in the story as if they were living it.

Generally, as with all kinds of showing and telling, you want a good balance of both styles. If your dialogue is always shown, your book can feel like a screenplay; when it's always told, it can feel like a history book.

Good Dialogue Mixes Showing and Telling

When it comes to dialogue, you can have your cake and eat it too. By mixing both styles, your narrative can benefit from all the upsides.

Let's revise our previous example conversation:

"I was flying on a dragon, I promise! It kept dodging the mountainside. I nearly fell twice," said Natasha.

"I don't believe you. Not yet. Prove yourself. Tell me more about the dragon.  What did it look like?"

Natasha explained the dragon's anatomy in great depth, so much that Trystan, a dragon enthusiast himself, learned much that he didn't yet know about the creatures.

"That is astounding," said Trystan, jotting down notes as he spoke. Natasha smiled broadly.

Trystan and Natasha spoke through the night, telling each other stories of their adventures in the far lands of Roggast. 

By the end, they knew each other better than anyone else.

In the example above, we:

  • Show a few sentences of dialogue, to set the scene.
  • We tell how Natasha describes dragons, but don't include the full explanation. There could be good reasons for doing this, which should not be confused with the writer's laziness. For instance, we may not want to reveal this information to the reader at this stage of the book, creating mystery and intrigue behind dragons.
  • We return to quoting the dialogue between them, to show an interaction between them as it's happening in real-time — Natasha smiling while Trystan writes.
  • We end by summarising the rest of their conversation, which may be too long to include, or not add much to the text.

Ultimately, we achieved the most important thing, minimizing the amount of text. In terms of our storytelling pillars, our dialogue:

  • Contributed to building the setting, describing the dragons, and mentioning the city of Roggast.
  • Developed the relationship between the two characters, establishing the power dynamic — Trystan asks questions and Natasha explains herself, trying to prove her statement.
  • Drove the story forward without slowing down the pace with unnecessary information.

Act out Your Dialogue

A useful suggestion in writing good dialogue is to act it out. This can be done by yourself (pacing the room tends to help), or with friends and family.

Oftentimes, dialogue sounds very different in real life than it does in our heads. By getting the words from the paper into real speech, we can find the irregular clunky parts that read well on paper, but don't sound like anything that a real person would say.


In this article, we learned how to write dialogue in a story.

We explored the concepts of good versus useful dialogue. We also understood showing and telling in the context of conversations and worked through an example to showcase the benefits of mixing both styles.

Lastly, we saw how acting out dialogue can be useful in crafting good, realistic dialogue. 

Andrea Cerasoni in Rome, Italy
Andrea Cerasoni

I'm Andrea, a Software Engineer, Technical Editor, and aspiring Fantasy Author. I'm originally from Rome, Italy, but am currently based in Glasgow, United Kingdom. I read and write classic Fantasy: the sword-and-shield, dragons, and wizards kind. In my articles, I talk about writing fantasy fiction, productivity, coding, building a website or platform, establishing a personal brand, and more!

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