A Dialogue About Writing Dialogue

by V. Shalace [October 15, 2020]

“Whenever you write the things that characters say to each other, you’re writing dialogue. It’s an important part of writing a story, since your characters generally need to talk to each other sooner or later. Dialogue also tends to make a story more interesting.”

A student raised his hand and asked, “Teacher?”

“Yes, Spenser?”

“Do you have any suggestions on how to write dialogue?”

“Well,” the teacher replied after some thought. “For one thing, you always need to put what people say in quotation marks. You use conversational markers like “said” to show when someone is talking, and the period at the end of a sentence of dialogue goes on the inside and not the outside of the closing quotation mark. Try reading some dialogue in a book and notice how they use punctuation—and also when they break things into new paragraphs.”

Spenser cleared his throat and clarified, “That’s not what I meant. It’s just that—I feel like my dialogue doesn’t sound natural enough.”

“Do you feel like you sound natural when you talk?”

“Uh, of course I do.”

“There’s your answer. All of us talk and listen to other people talk every day. All you have to do is write like you speak.”

“But… won’t that make all my characters sound like me?”

“Oh, you have to make some adjustments, of course. For example, you can think about the kinds of words a person may or may not use, the kinds of information that a character would or would not share. Think about the emotions that are fueling the things that people say, but don’t try to imitate people’s accents or that sort of thing.”

“Why not? I’ve read books that do that.”

“That’s true, and some authors do it really well. However, generally speaking, it’s very distracting on a reader to have to read dialogue that is trying to imitate the exact sounds that people make when they speak. For instance, many people drop the ending sound of “ing” words. If you’re imitating the sound, you might be tempted to write doin’ instead of doing. But when you’re trying to read, all of these little variations can become really taxing on your reader, and we understand when we’re talking in real life that when someone says doin’, what they mean is doing. It’s also true that we usually don’t talk into complete thoughts and sentences in real life, but it would be hard to follow a written conversation if you keep breaking off sentences and inserting filler words.”

“So, basically, it’s okay not to have complete sentences all the time, but you still want most of your dialogue to follow standard grammar conventions.”


“I guess I can understand that. But how can I tell if I’m doing it right?”

“The best way is to try reading it out loud. Reading it out loud to someone else is sometimes even better. That way, both you and your listener can help you keep an ear on how the dialogue sounds.”

Spenser considered this for a moment then nodded.

“I’ll try that. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”