Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

9: The Rules and Strategies of Dialogue

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Dialogue is critical to strong storytelling. It’s difficult to master, but when an author writes dialogue well, a novel really shines.

    So what does it mean to write dialogue well?

    As you may have picked up by now, experts rarely agree 100% on concepts in their fields. The same is true about writing dialogue. However, there are some theoretical concepts about dialogue that tend to be generally accepted.

    For instance, dialogue is meant to enhance a story. Long passages of narrative or description without dialogue can be difficult to engage. Blending narrative, description, and dialogue demonstrates the skill of the author.

    Brain Break

    Grab a novel near you - as a writer, you likely will not have to go far! Flip through the pages. Are there any pages with large paragraphs and no dialogue? Those kinds of pages tend to slow down the pace of a novel. On the contrary, are there any pages with dialogue? Great. Study the length of the dialogue. In most cases, the dialogue will be delivered in short bursts that include some description and narrative mixed throughout. It is that kind of blending that creates a rich complexity to a story on the page.

    The dialogue should be natural to the characters. It shouldn’t be stilted or gratuitous. Let me explain with an example.

    Lucy closed the fridge and set the milk on the table. “You don’t like milk, I know.”

    “No. I don’t. I have that allergy to it.”

    “I can get you some water instead.”

    Okay, this is purposely bad writing. What you see here is that the writer uses dialogue to tell the reader something, but it’s awkward because if both Lucy and the other character know about the milk allergy, why would they talk about it? Why wouldn’t she just get water for her friend? Dialogue should be used to deliver relevant information to the reader.

    Interestingly, what is not said in dialogue matters, too. What is left unsaid, often referred to as subtext, creates tension between the characters.

    To deliver on this concept, I want you to think of an important conversation you’ve had with a loved one. In that conversation you wanted them desperately to say something in particular - to apologize, to declare their love, to come clean on a secret - but they didn’t. What is left unsaid, then creates a tension between you and that loved one. You can similarly build tension in your story with what you leave unsaid in the dialogue.

    The common advice for learning to write dialogue used to be to listen to people talk - to go to a public space and eavesdrop. Movies, television shows, and books are also great examples of dialogue, though, so look to those for guidance.

    Above, we discussed the need to blend dialogue, description, and narrative on your pages. You may be wondering exactly how to do that. Let’s get into the practical conventions of dialogue to demonstrate that blending process!

    There are some general rules about dialogue you should keep in mind as you write your novels. Examples help to show these points, so I’m pulling a passage from my young adult novel Gridiron Girl to share.


    “My sister’s looking smug, so can I assume you girls won?” Owen said.

    I kissed his cheek. “We did indeed.”

    “Nice job.”

    “I don’t want to brag,” Ally said in a voice that declared she was totally bragging, “but no team in the conference will be able to touch us this year.”

    “The season hasn’t even started yet,” Owen countered. “You don’t want to be too confident. You never know what’ll happen.”

    The characters in this scene are Julia, Ally, and Owen. Ally and Owen are twins. Julia and Owen are dating.

    First, notice that each time a new person speaks, there is a paragraph break. This signals to the reader a new person is speaking. You don’t want to place dialogue from more than one person in the same paragraph as that can get confusing for the reader. Every time a new person speaks, break the paragraph.

    Also, notice the speech tags. Usually, it’s best to use “said” as a tag. Said is viewed as an invisible word. It cues the reader that someone is speaking, but they don’t really register the word itself. It doesn’t break up the flow of the writing. Notice also that I broke that rule myself when “Owen countered” with a different opinion. It’s okay to break the rules, but do so sparingly and only when you can use a strong verb to do so. And avoid speech tags with melodramatic verbs such as “he snarled,” “she sobbed,” “they groaned.”

    Punctuation by Culture

    In the United States, the publishing community uses double quotations for dialogue, but other countries, don’t necessarily follow that structure. In the United Kingdom, for instance, publishers use single quotes. Follow the expectations of the country where you intend to publish.

    There are two ways to denote who is speaking in a line of dialogue. One is a speech tag such as “Owen said.” The other is called a beat. In a beat, you give a sentence of action prior to the dialogue. The character performing the action is the character that then speaks. In other words, if you provide an action for a specific character and follow that action with a line of dialogue, you are telling the reader that the character who you named as performing the action is also the character speaking.

    You can see this here in the second line. Julia is the point-of-view character, so when the text reads, “I kissed his cheek” and is then followed by a line of dialogue, we know Julia is the one speaking in that dialogue.

    Who is speaking?

    So to reiterate, the reader knows who is speaking by:

    1. Paragraph breaks to signify a new speaker.
    2. Speech tags, preferably “said.”
    3. A beat of action that is in the same paragraph as the dialogue being spoken.

    Also notice there is not a beat or speech tag on every line of dialogue. It can get distracting to have a speech tag on every line, especially if there are only two characters speaking in the scene. You want to offer beats and speech tags often enough for the reader to follow who is speaking, but not so often that it becomes distracting from the content of the conversation. This is a delicate balance.

    The best way to learn it is to read. Look at some of your favorite stories, and study these elements of dialogue in the text.

    When it comes to conventions of dialogue, the goal is to use a variety of strategies that are also natural. Notice that Owen’s first line of dialogue is followed by a speech tag; his second line of dialogue has no tag, and his last line has a tag that breaks the dialogue in the middle. Notice Julia’s line includes a beat before it, and Ally’s dialogue includes a speech tag with a beat-like description in the middle of her dialogue. That demonstrates variety.

    So mix up your use of beats and speech tags. Place them in a natural location. For instance, if a character is taking a bite of food as the beat, should they take the bite before or after the dialogue? If it’s before, it says something about their manners, talking with their mouth full. If you don’t want to convey that kind of message, it makes more sense for the beat to follow the line of dialogue.


    1. Visit a public place and eavesdrop on conversations. Take notes on how people speak, their choice of words, tone, and expressions. Use these observations to create authentic dialogue for your characters. What are some of the things you hear that your characters would also say? What would your characters be offended if someone had said to them?
    2. Write a dialogue scene where characters are discussing a sensitive topic without directly mentioning it. Explore how they use subtext, gestures, or pauses to convey their underlying emotions and intentions through relevant beats with the dialogue.
    3. Choose two characters with distinct personalities, and write a conversation between them, ensuring their speech patterns, vocabulary, and sentence structures reflect their backgrounds and ages. Then, flip the script. Reverse the roles of the characters in some way. Reassign the power from one character to another. Analyze how their dialogue changes based on their new positions, personalities, and objectives.

    Additional Resources

    How to Harness the Power of Subtext

    How to Write Dialogue: Formatting, Examples, & Tips

    How to Write Great Dialogue

    "Chapter 9: The Rules and Strategies of Dialogue" was created by Tamara Girardi and was licensed as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 in October of 2023.

    9: The Rules and Strategies of Dialogue is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?