Good dialogue can help elevate your story while making your characters seem realistic and relatable. Bad dialogue, though, can turn even the coolest literary concept into a poorly executed mess.
To help you better understand how to write dialogue in your story, let’s take a look at why it’s important and how you can make your story’s dialogue really shine.
Why is effective dialogue important?
Effective dialogue is important because it brings your characters to life, helps readers relate to the character, and helps to move the story along.
On the most basic level, dialogue is what animates your characters. Just think: without dialogue—the kind between two characters who speak to each other, as well as the “dialogue” of body language—your characters would just be random people undertaking a series of different actions.
Realistic dialogue is also how readers relate to and understand character dynamics—dialogue give characters depth. Has a character suffered some kind of defining trauma? Or do they have a special code of honor that dictates their behavior? Revealing these things through a few lines of dialogue rather than exposition helps your story live up to the old chestnut: show, don’t tell!
Good dialogue serves other story functions as well: It helps to break up action and exposition, giving your story time to breathe; it’s the primary way to add emotion to a scene; and dialogue helps to establish character relationships. Are these two characters secretly in love, or maybe they openly hate each other? Or both?? Good dialogue helps reveal who these characters are as well as their primary motivations.
Dialogue helps break up the action
A key factor in any story is pacing. If the characters do little else but talk to each other, then your story can come across as boring instead of engaging.
However, it’s possible to have too much action and too little dialogue. Readers love it when a story moves quickly, but maintaining a constant breakneck pace can leave readers exhausted. You can use dialogue tags to identify speakers as well as speed up or slow down moments of a story.
By having your characters speak to one another between and even during action, you can maintain upbeat pacing without tiring your readers out.
Dialogue helps establish character relationships
One of the biggest challenges for any writer is creating convincing relationships between characters—and better dialogue is the single best way to do that!
For example, when readers see one character speak lightly and casually to one person, and gruffly angrily to another, they instantly understand from a line of dialogue how the one character feels about the two others. In turn, the speech patterns and inflections that respond to the first character’s dialogue let readers see whether these relationships (friendly in one case and antagonistic in the other) are one-sided or mutual.
Dialogue creates relatable characters
Something beginning writers often struggle with is that description can only tell us what a character is. It’s only through writing great dialogue that the writer tells us who a character is.
That’s because readers relate to characters based on their personalities, and personalities are most apparent in characters’ voices, or the way the dialogue sounds. One reader may love sarcastic characters and another may love noble characters, but these readers won’t really understand the character personalities until those characters are speaking to one another.
Think about some of your favourite moments throughout literary and film history. These lines of dialogue define the person speaking and help define how we relate to the characters. A relatable character without realistic dialogue is, simply put, not relatable at all!
How story dialogue differs from real-life dialogue
Story dialogue differs from dialogue you might hear in your own life because characters in a story typically skip small talk, avoid speaking over one another, and have a clear motivation for everything they say, whereas dialogue in real life is filled with polite chatter, crosstalk, and completely random points of conversation.
The earliest advice most writers get is “write what you know.” This may explain why learning to write dialogue is so difficult: we naturally learn how to speak to others, but we don’t naturally learn how characters should communicate in a well-crafted story.
A line of dialogue should always help to move a story forward. In real life, two people who know each other might engage in half an hour of small talk before getting down to business. But in a story, your characters should skip things like greetings and small talk and get down to business right away.
In real life, characters talk over each other constantly. But that would create chaos in a book or short story. Instead, characters should mostly speak one at a time. If you rarely have characters speaking over one another, then it’ll have more impact on your readers when it does happen.
Finally, in real life, we don’t actually know the motivations of different people. It’s why we so often ask ourselves “why the heck did he say that?” after a weird conversation with a real-life person. But within the confines of your story, you should know what motivates every single character. This can help you craft dialogue that fleshes those characters out and moves the story along without breaking the readers’ internal understanding of the characters. That way, your readers will never wonder why a character uttered a specific bit of dialogue.
Examples of great dialogue
To really understand great dialogue, you must do more than learn about different writing techniques. Instead, you must study great dialogue directly. As T. S. Eliot famously wrote, “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.”
Many examples of amazing dialogue and dialogue tags can be found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Let’s take a closer look at this scene, in which Gatsby tries to invite the naive Nick into a less-than-savory business.
“There’s another little thing,” he said uncertainly, and hesitated.
“Would you rather put it off for a few days?” I asked.
“Oh, it isn’t about that. At least—” He fumbled with a series of beginnings. “Why, I thought why, look here, old sport, you don’t make much money, do you?”
“Not very much.”
This seemed to reassure him and he continued more confidently.
“I thought you didn’t, if you’ll pardon my—you see, I carry on a little business on the side, a little side line, if you understand. And I thought that if you don’t make very much—You’re selling bonds, aren’t you, old sport?”
Imagine that you’ve never read The Great Gatsby before. What does this dialogue exchange tell you about the characters?
We instantly see that Gatsby is uncertain about various things despite his material success. Though this dialogue doesn’t spell out the unsavory nature of Gatsby’s business, the circumspect way he brings it up shows that he seems to be ashamed of it.
Nick, for his part, comes across as both conscientious and easy to please. Finally, the dialogue includes character markers (like Gatsby calling others “old sport”) so that we never lose track of who’s talking, even as Gatsby manages to interrupt himself.
Part of what makes Fitzgerald such a skilled writer is that he threads the needle between realistic writing and literary writing. Gatsby’s fumbling dialogue is realistic because everyone knows what it’s like to get nervous and trip over our own words. At the same time, Fitzgerald keeps the dialogue short and to the point, which moves the plot along.
Another great inspiration for dialogue is Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s a master of sparse dialogue. As you’ll see, Heh keeps dialogue tags and lets the words speak for themselves. While your dialogue doesn’t have to be as sparse as Hemingway’s was, the famous author shows us how much you can say without saying much. This is especially true in this passage from his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which a man and a woman discuss whether the woman should abort their baby:
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”
“And you really want to?”
“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”
“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”
“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”
“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”
What does this passage reveal about these characters? For one thing, despite the male character’s reassurances that he cares about what the woman wants, it’s perfectly clear that he maintains control within the relationship. It’s equally clear that she’s emotionally dependent on the man, relying on him for reassurance about their love and their relationship.
The dialogue also reveals dark and tragic overtones. For example, we as readers understand how traumatic an abortion can be on the woman, so the man’s frequent insistence that it’s “perfectly simple” reveals that he may not care much about her thoughts and feelings.
Meanwhile, the woman has realized their love isn’t as idyllic as she once imagined, but is convinced that an abortion can return things to the way they are. As readers, we can imagine how depressing the status quo of this codependent relationship is, while immediately understanding that things will probably never be the same for these characters again. This is why good dialogue is such a useful tool in character development.
Examples of bad dialogue
As writers, it’s often easier to learn from our own mistakes rather than our successes. When it comes to writing better dialogue, it’s surprisingly easy to learn how to write dialogue by studying the mistakes of others!
Let’s take a look at examples of bad dialogue from famous authors and what we can learn from these mistakes. We’ll start with an excerpt from Frank Herbert’s Dune:
A chuckle sounded beside the globe. A basso voice rumbled out of the chuckle: “There it is, Piter—the biggest mantrap in all history. And the Duke’s headed into its jaws. Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?’
Dune may be one the most influential books ever written, but this bit of dialogue is one clunker after another. The fact that Harkonnen drops his own name like this is cringe-inducing; since the reader already knows who he is, this information is redundant. Nobody actually talks like that, so Harkonnen’s dialogue makes him come across like a reject from a bad B-movie.
Additionally, Herbert is violating the “show, don’t tell” rule. It’s much more effective when readers can gauge the danger in a situation themselves based on description and well-written dialogue. Instead, here we must either dismiss the claim of “the biggest mantrap in all history” as hyperbole because we can’t actually gauge the magnitude of the threat for ourselves, or just take this repetitive villain at his word.
Another major dialogue offender in the world of science fiction is Neal Stephenson. His novel Snow Crash helped to predict our modern digital world, but it didn’t always reflect how people actually talk. Just look at this excerpt:
“‘Ninety-nine percent of everything that goes on in most Christian churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religion. Intelligent people all notice this sooner or later, and they conclude that the entire one hundred percent is bullshit, which is why atheism is connected with being intelligent in people’s minds.”
”So none of that stuff I learned in church has anything to do with what you’re talking about?”
Juanita thinks for a while, eyeing him. Then she pulls a hypercard out of her pocket. “Here. Take this.”
What’s so bad about this dialogue? For one thing, it’s didactic in a very off-putting way. As readers, we can practically feel Stephenson grabbing us by our lapels to yell at us about religion.
This is underscored by the fact that the character speaking doesn’t really answer the question. We can see that the rant about faith, religion, and intelligence isn’t important, and it’s not going to move the plot forward.
Finally, this dialogue “exchange” is a great example of characters talking at each other rather than to each other. It’s tough to imagine anyone just sitting there while Juanita blithely says that everyone of faith is an idiot. In a science fiction story meant to be very immersive, stilted and didactic dialogue quickly takes the reader out of the moment and out of the narrative.
Writing internal dialogue
There are two basic styles of writing internal dialogue: indirect internal dialogue, which doesn’t directly draw the reader’s attention, and direct internal dialogue, which is marked with special dialogue tags.
Indirect internal dialogue is what readers are most familiar with. In this case, “indirect” simply means you don’t draw attention to the dialogue through italics or a dialogue tag. Instead, you simply write out what the character is thinking to themselves as a description, the same way that you’d write out what they’re doing. For example:
Tommy peered through the abandoned room with his flashlight, the electricity having long since been turned off. He couldn’t help but feel like the last ghost haunting the abandoned building long after the other spirits had moved on.
See how we’re privy to his internal thoughts, which are told to the reader as part of the narrative?
On the other hand, with direct internal dialogue you highlight internal thoughts in a way that’s distinct from spoken dialogue. The most common way to do this is to place the internal thoughts in italics. For example:
This is crazy, Tommy thought, shining his flashlight over the darkened room. What did I ever expect to find in here? Wind howling through a broken window was the only answer to his thoughts.
Here the thoughts are set apart from the narrative by a dialogue tag, “Tommy thought.”
Which method of expressing internal dialogue you use mostly comes down to your own personal style. Just keep in mind that readers place special attention to text that has been italicized. So if you put internal dialogue in italics, make sure it counts!
Writing first-person dialogue
Writing in first person PoV is fairly easy: you simply use first-person pronouns to create statements about what your character has seen and said. Then why do some writers struggle with learning to write dialogue in the first person?
Firstly, some writers struggle with incorporating their character’s feelings and emotions into first-person dialogue. Without dialogue that conveys emotion, the first-person narrator may come across as a floating camera simply recording events rather than a real person having real thoughts and feelings about different events.
Secondly, it’s easy to accidentally slip into the passive voice. As with any other kind of writing, first-person dialogue should remain in the active voice to keep the reader engaged.
Finally, it’s easy to be annoyingly repetitive, like including countless instances of “I said” and “I felt.” To really make first-person dialogue work, you’ll need to change things up to keep the narrative exciting.
How, then, can we avoid these mistakes and craft better first-person dialogue?
When you’re writing first-person internal dialogue, make sure that it’s consistent with the character’s previous characterization and motivation. Readers should be able to distinguish the internal voice of different characters because no two characters should have the same internal voice.
It’s also important for internal dialogue to stay in the active voice. This helps it seem more dynamic and also keeps you from bogging down your narrative with confusing passive text.
To avoid constantly writing “I said” and “I felt,” you’ll need to convey to the reader how characters feel by expressing it in the dialogue. For example, if a character’s dialogue is is using angry vocabulary and expressions, then writing “I felt angry” or “I thought angrily” is unnecessary.
You can also experiment with having characters communicate using fewer words. For instance, writing “I touched the wall. Cold. Slimy. Pulsating,” communicates the same idea as saying “it felt cold, slimy, and pulsating,” but in a more concise and captivating way.
Ultimately, whether it’s said out loud or only in their heads, the real trick to character dialogue is using it to give your characters their own definitive voice.
Using dialogue to establish your protagonist’s voice
Through dialogue, you give your characters a literal voice. With the right dialogue techniques, you can give each character their own metaphorical voice that helps make each character distinct.
A metaphorical voice refers to things like a character’s inflection, speech pattern, temperament, slang, and other ways of speaking. Think about some of your favorite literary characters: chances are you have a firm idea of the kinds of things they would and wouldn’t say, and that’s because the characters’ voices are written well enough that you’ve internalized their voice.
The best way to make character’s voices unique is to make sure the character’s voices fit their personality. For example, if a character is a college professor, they’re likelier to speak in a formal way and to use precise and technical terminology. That same character’s students, however, are likelier to speak informally, using shorter sentences and less precise language.
As an added bonus, saying various characters’ dialogue in your own voice helps you workshop creative ways to avoid having too many “so-and-so said” dialogue tags. You’ll know your characters all have unique voices when reading them out loud makes your home sound like a one-person stage play!
Finally, don’t forget that how a character speaks helps flesh out their personality for readers. A character who’s always shouting, for example, will come across as nervous and excitable. A character who’s always giving advice to others will come across as wiser or maybe even as a bit of a know-it-all.
Writing dialogue between characters
Writing characters who speak to each other through effective dialogue is the key to crafting realistic stories that helps keep the plot moving. Here’s how to approach a few different common dialogue situations:
Dialogue between two characters
Remember when we said that dialogue in writing should skip the small talk? When two of your characters are talking to each other, you should have a clear idea of their individual motivations. These motivations should help propel the conversation and inform how they talk to each other, avoiding the small talk that happens in real life but that would bore a reader.
Another major factor informing character dialogue is how the characters feel about each other. If they’re joking and laughing together, we can infer they have a positive relationship. If they’re speaking formally and get right to the point, we can infer they have a more transactional relationship.
What if the characters are enemies? In that case, their exchanges might be short and tense, and the characters might be more likely to interrupt each other. Someone should be able to read the exchange without looking at the rest of your story and instantly understand that these characters don’t like each other.
Dialogue between more than two characters
Dialogue between more than two characters can become chaotic and confusing to readers. However, you can take a few easy steps to help clarify things.
For example, your initial dialogue will need to have the “X said” and “Y said” dialogue tags so the reader can keep the characters straight. But a constant onslaught of “he said” and “she said” can quickly get boring. Instead of using a new dialogue tag every time, you should sometimes have your characters address each other by name, and you should give each character a unique dialogue style that stands out on its own.
It’s also important that these scenes don’t feel like characters sitting perfectly still. Make sure the reader knows where each character is within the room and pepper the dialogue with actions the characters are taking. This further distinguishes one character from another while breaking up the dialogue and helping to move the story along.
“I can’t believe this is taking so long,” Joseph said, nervously pacing around the room. “Everyone should be here by now.”
“You really need to relax,” Morgan told him, crossing the room to pour herself a drink. “Take the edge off.”
“I’ll relax when they’re here,” Joseph pouted, plopping down into the beat-up recliner in the corner of the room.
“You’ll relax when you’re dead!” Stacy laughed as she walked into the room. “The rest of us would like to start a bit earlier.
Finally, never forget that stories are driven by conflict. By giving your characters unique motivations that sometimes oppose one another, you can create the kind of tension that really transforms a scene.
Writing overlapping dialogue
Sometimes, characters are going to talk over each other. This is likelier when more than two characters are talking. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to craft convincing overlapping dialogue.
One classic way of writing overlapping dialogue is the use of the em-dash. You can prematurely end one character’s dialogue with the dash and then have another character begin speaking. This clearly shows that the second character cut the first character off.
Billy tentatively spoke up. “Look, I’m ready to do my part, I just—” “You just what?” Sally barked. “You’re finally ready to do your part? Well, I’m ready to stop hearing excuses!”
An alternative way to express overlapping dialogue is to separate different characters’ dialogue into short phrases, with each phrase on its own line and dialogue tag. Between this formatting and the use of ellipses, you can easily show how the dialogue overlap. This technique is particularly handy for ongoing dialogue in which the characters keep cutting each other off.
Writing dialogue interruptions
Characters speaking over other characters is only one kind of dialogue interruption. But how should you write other events, including dialogue being cut off by action?
If the character is interrupting themselves, you can express this with a hyphen. If a character is interrupted by an action, we recommend ending their dialogue with an em dash and then providing a description of the action.
You may be tempted to use punctuation for an interruption followed by a comment such as “he suddenly stopped.” However, your reader will understand that an interruption has taken place. Following the em dash with a specific action is much more dynamic and helps readers learn more about your characters by seeing how they react to the interruption. For example:
“Look, you need to all pay attention. It’s very important that—”
Suddenly, she whirled around and looked all of us directly in the eye. I felt my skin crawl as she continued.
“It’s very important that you treat this as a matter of life and death. Because now, it really is.”
In this case, the character interrupting her own dialogue to stare at everyone stands out because she stopped her own speech to do so.
Writing pauses into your dialogue
Sometimes, your characters may pause in their dialogue even if they’re not interrupted. When this happens, you can use the techniques we already described (such as cutting certain words off with hyphens) to express the pause.
Ellipses (better known as the three dots, or “…”) are a great way to show that a character has trailed off. This may indicate they’re deep in thought or having an emotional reaction to what they’re thinking.
Likewise, the em-dash is a great way to express a sudden pause in what a character is saying. While ellipses indicate a slow trailing off, an em dash indicates a sudden stop. This may indicate that a character had a sudden thought or is beginning to react to something that another character said or did.
Writing dialogue for specific scenarios
So far, we’ve focused primarily on basic dialogue tips that apply to almost any scenario. However, different scenarios sometimes call for a different way of writing dialogue. Let’s review a few different scenarios and how to structure your dialogue for each one.
Writing military dialogue
Military dialogue is often difficult for writers. That’s mostly because unless the writer has been in the military before, they probably have a distorted view of how soldiers actually speak.
For example, we’ve all read a book or watched a movie that involves a hardened soldier giving a deep and introspective speech. For fantasy fans, perhaps the most famous version of this comes from Aragorn in the movie adaptation of Return of the King:
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers, I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day!
This day we fight!
By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!
However, soldiers are typically very direct and goal-oriented in conversations as well as action and speech. Your average soldier is far likelier to engage in quick banter and dirty jokes with a colleague than to get seriously introspective.
Additionally, your military characters should use slang and acronyms correctly. For example, a World War II soldier is far likelier to call white phosphorous by its nickname “Willy Pete” than by its proper name. Modern soldiers are likelier to phonetically say an acronym rather than spell it out (i.e., a soldier would say “Dima” rather than spell out “D-M-A” in speech when referring to a “defense media activity.”) It’s important to get this right because soldiers are likelier to use specialized terms and acronyms than civilians are.
Finally, try to avoid using military cliches whenever possible. Such cliches may include famous movie lines like “stay frosty” or generic action lines like “come get some” or “lock and load.” These cliches can make your fictional soldiers sound more like generic action heroes, and this really takes readers out of the story.
Writing scientific dialogue
Interestingly, there’s some overlap between writing military dialogue and writing scientific dialogue. That’s because scientists, too, are likely to use a variety of specialized terms and acronyms. On top of that, their dialogue should be informed by actual science, so you’ll need to do extra research to make these characters sound authentic.
One tip for writing dialogue between scientists or any other specialists is to make sure they aren’t explaining things to each other that they should already know. For instance, if you’re writing a conversation between two accomplished scientists, one of them explaining what the Big Bang Theory is to the other would be completely absurd. If you must explain concepts to your readers, do so via narration rather than dialogue.
Finally, if your story is more of a science fiction story, try to make sure that conversations about your future technology are consistent with modern science. This helps to ground the narrative, and this grounding is doubly important in a fictional world full of futuristic wonders.
Writing drunk dialogue
Writing drunk characters is harder than you might imagine. There are multiple approaches you might take.
One of these approaches is to visually show that being drunk is affecting how someone speaks. You can do this by stretching out words with hyphens and extra letters (like turning “hey” into a “h-h-h-eeeeeyyyy”), or by having the character frequently trailing off or cutting themselves off with ellipses and em dashes (refer to our interrupted dialogue section for help with this). You might also turn short phrases into a single word (like turning “how are you doing” into “howryadoing”) to show slurred speech.
If you don’t want to visually represent drunken dialogue, you can always write the dialogue normally and use actions to indicate the character is drunk. For example:
“No, I’m fine,” he said, his body slightly lurching as soon as he stood up. “Stop bothering me.” It wasn’t clear who he was talking to because he couldn’t seem to focus on any one person.
This works especially well if you can accurately write the body language of a drunken person.
Writing slang in dialogue
Think of slang as a kind of “secret sauce” for your dialogue. This sauce can add a lot of flavor, but the last thing you want to do is use too much of it!
First, make sure you’re using slang accurately. Websites like Urban Dictionary can help you verify the exact meaning of a term. Urban Dictionary can also help you understand whether to use this bit of slang as a noun, a verb, or something else entirely.
Second, choose the right moments to use slang. Overusing slang is one of the quickest ways to annoy your readers, so it needs to be sprinkled into your story rather than poured.
Finally, make sure slang fits the character using it and fits into your existing dialogue. The last thing you want is for weirdly-placed slang to take the reader out of the story.
Writing child dialogue
Writing dialogue for children can be especially difficult. Tthe only way to really make it easier is to try to match the dialogue to the age and development of your characters.
For example, very young children (think two years old or younger) will communicate in short bursts of badly-spelled dialogue (“daddy” becoming “dadda,” for instance). When that same child is a little older, their dialogue should no longer be misspelled, but the sentences are still likely to be very short.
In later years, child dialogue may also reflect other developments. For example, a teenage character might alternate between short, sarcastic sentences and emotional outbursts. That’s because puberty, and the complex mix of emotions it engenders, can hover over a teenager like a cloud of radiation.
It may be helpful to read passages of short stories and books written for the age of the children you’re writing for. YA authors are typically more tuned into how children actually speak.
You can also research letters and other writings that children have written. A quick Google search for “letters written by children” will reveal some interesting examples that can give you an idea of what a child’s voice sounds like.
Finally, if possible, you should have your children’s dialogue reviewed by parents, teachers, and others who work with children. They can give you a better idea of whether you’re on target or far off the mark.
Adding emotion to dialogue
Of course, teenagers aren’t the only characters who might be prone to emotional outbursts. Your characters should all experience a full range of emotions, and these emotions may dictate how they communicate. Here are some ideas on how to incorporate anger, distress, and joy into your dialogue:
Writing screaming in dialogue
By the time a character is screaming, it’s safe to say they’ve lost control of themselves. There are different ways to express that loss of control in dialogue.
The most basic option is to end the character’s lines with exclamation points. As an additional flourish, you can describe what the character is doing while they’re talking (such as pacing, frantically looking around, and so on).
You can also visually set the screaming dialogue apart. Italics work best for this, though you shouldn’t overuse either technique.
Finally, be sure to showcase how others react to the scream. This helps convince the reader of how intense the noise really was.
Writing laughter in dialogue
Your characters are going to laugh from time to time. You have a few different options for showing that laughter in your dialogue.
The first option is to mix amused dialogue with action indicating laughter, such as “she laughed” or “he chuckled.” If the characters will be laughing a lot, make sure to change up the verbiage you use for the sake of variety.
Another option is to actually write the laughter out, such as writing out “ha ha.” Visually, this really stands out, so using it too often may become disruptive to your reader.
The third option is to write a shortened form of the laughter, such as a singular “ha.” This is useful for expressing dry amusement or showing that a character was mildly amused but didn’t break into full-throated laughter.
Mixing dialogue with actions
Even though you’re writing a story and not a screenplay, your characters should often be in motion. Showing characters taking action helps them appear more dynamic and helps to break up the dialogue.
Here are a few methods for incorporating common character actions into your dialogue:
Writing coughing in dialogue
A character may cough in the middle of speaking. This can indicate things like illness or a reaction to the environment. As usual, you have multiple options for writing coughing in dialogue.
The first option is to simply describe the cough. After a character speaks, and possibly after they cut themselves off, you can write a vivid description of the cough. The advantage of this approach is that you can flesh out whether this was a wet cough, a hacking cough, and so on.
The second option is to express the cough within the dialogue itself as a form of onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia refers to words that are spelled like how they sound. For example, “buzz” and “hum.” With some creativity, you can create unique words to indicate that a character’s dialogue suddenly turned into a cough.
Writers may use words like “ahem” to show a character clearing their throat (and probably getting the attention of the room). To express more sudden and violent coughs, you could always write out kaff, khoff, khak, and so on, with the sound written as a word in italics.
Writing stuttering in dialogue
Whether it’s due to fear, excitement, or a speech condition, our characters sometimes stutter. The only real way to express this in dialogue is to have the first letter or consonant followed by hyphens. Do this multiple times and then complete the word, like “h-h-how’s it going?”
Don’t overuse stuttering in your dialogue. Otherwise, instances of stuttering will lose their impact.
Writing eating in dialogue
One of the most common actions your characters can take is eating. This means you must know how to properly write eating into your dialogue.
The most basic way of doing this is to describe the characters’ eating in actions between dialogue. For example, after a character finishes a sentence, you may write that “He then forked the remains of the last pancake through the syrup on his plate with deliberate intensity.”
While it’s not polite, our characters may sometimes end up speaking with their mouths full. To express this, you can merge words in creative ways, similar to slurred speech. From a person eating, “stop it” may come out more like “stoppid.” Depending on what the character is eating and saying, you may need to replace various syllables (for example, “cutting” may sound like “cuhhing” from a character who is biting down on something and can’t use their tongue).
Another option is to express the act of eating within the dialogue itself. For example:
“Wow, these tacos”—crunch—“you can really taste every flavor”—slorp—“I could eat these all day!”
If you want to sound convincing, research isn’t very hard to do. Just record yourself talking with your mouthful as you try to say the dialogue in question. This gives you a perfect reference as you write!
How to write better dialogue every time
Dialogue is hard to learn and even harder to master. But serious writers know that mastery is rewarding because it helps you craft the most convincing characters and the most compelling stories!
Now that you know a few of our best tips for writing dialogue, it’s time to put those skills to use. Next time you sit down to write, you can begin using these dialogue tips and tricks to create exchanges between your characters that practically leap off the page.