Dialogue lies at the very core of every human relationship — and it’s often unavoidable when we’re writing, too. Whether you’re in the process of writing a film script, podcast script, a short story, a novel, or even a blog post in which you’re reporting on an actual conversation that happened between two people, however, crafting a dialogue is also unquestionably challenging.
This is especially true when you’re producing a text that will be read — rather than spoken, as in a film script. Even the “wall of quote marks” you risk creating can be intimidating, but as you’re crafting artful dialogue that’s a pleasure to read, there’s so much more to consider!
How do you do it? While we could never do all the hard work for you (it’s your dialogue, after all!), this toolkit of tips may just make your creative process a little easier.
Writing Dialogue Between Two Characters: The Basics
Dialogue is a spoken exchange between two or more people, almost any dictionary will tell you — or, in other words, the entity we’re more likely to refer to as “a conversation” in plain English.
To take a more technical look at the purpose dialogues serve in novels or scripts, dialogues can move the plot forward, reveal more information about a character’s personality, or set the scene for subtext and secrets. While a dialogue, by definition, features speech, you are also already deeply aware that there’s more to conversations than the words people share with each other.
Conversations, or communication between people, involves more than lines of words alone, after all. At least 55 percent of communication is non-verbal, or something other than spoken words.
The other elements that contribute to the overall tone of a conversation include:
- Body language — including posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, fidgeting, and hand gestures.
- The volume, tone, and inflection the speaker uses.
- The elements that are present but remain unspoken — the things a speaker may imply, or wishes to say but never does.
- The history between the characters, another element that will influence the manner in which they speak with one another.
- The clothes the characters wear.
- The setting in which the dialogue takes place.
Those people who are writing a movie script will by definition be forced to “show, rather than tell”, as the lines of dialogue between two characters will be delivered by actors, and all these non-verbal elements will visually be represented. That’s why script writers need to include all these little things in their scripts.
Novel writers or short story authors should still, however, stick to the same rule — show, don’t tell. Your dialogue will feel more complete and immersive if you are able to convey the character’s body language, tone, and internal dialogues. As a bonus, describing what else is present in the conversation besides the lines of dialogue helps you avoid quote walls that will easily bore your readers.
Avoid cold and lifeless lines like:
“Let’s go to the store before it closes,” she said. “Yes, in a minute”, he replied. “No, now,” she said impatiently.
Nobody wants to read that.
As she rose off the couch — last week’s pasta still on the seat next to her — he heard yet another empty wine bottle fall to the ground as she shuffled to the door. “Let’s go to the store before it closes,” she slurred, armed with the fake smile that seemed to have become glued to her face. “In a minute,” he managed to say. Great, more wine. Just what she needs. “No, now”, she stumbled. She needs help, he thought to himself, but at least mom isn’t driving in this state.
Use your dialogue to paint a picture; don’t just write words.
What Function Does Dialogue Have in a Novel?
Good novels are made up of key elements that include:
- The setting — the context in which the story unfolds, and which itself includes the era, location, social system, climate, and the characters’ lifestyles.
- The mood — the underlying emotional atmosphere of the story.
- The conflict — every novel features a struggle or conflict that needs to be resolved.
- The characters — usually a protagonist, antagonist, important side characters, and less important side characters who somehow move the plot along.
- The plot, or story line — in other words, what happens in the novel.
Dialogue can be used to effectively advance every single one of these elements.
Important Tips to Keep in Mind
Before you begin writing a dialogue between two characters — whether that’s for a novel or a movie script — it’s important to consider all the strategies you can use to make it come to life. You don’t need to use each tip for each line of dialogue, but it’s helpful to keep the ways in which you can use the audience engaged in mind.
1. Brainstorm the Feelings and Motivations of Each Character
Figure out what each character is hoping to get out of the conversation before you begin writing the dialogue, and how each character is feeling about their conversational partner. If no relationship has been established yet, you can do so during the dialogue, but if the two characters for whom you are about to write dialogue have already spoken many times before in your work, you can skip this part.
Being clear about precisely what you want to convey during the conversation will help you decide what elements the characters need to state outright, and what can be implied by body language, setting, or (in the case of a book or short story) a character’s internal thoughts.
2. Make Sure Each Character Has a Distinct Voice
Making sure each character has a unique voice is crucial, as it will make your writing more interesting while simultaneously ensuring that readers will know precisely who is speaking. You can do this by means of:
- Vocabulary and dialect
- Catch phrases
- The use of filler words such as “ehm”, “like”, “I guess”, and “so”.
If you are writing a script, specify the tone, inflection, and volume. If you are writing a book or short story, you can still convey these elements by describing the character’s behavior during the conversation.
3. Decide on the Setting
Where is the conversation happening? Why there? Who else is present? Was the conversation prearranged (like a lunch date or a meeting), or did your two characters bump into each other? If so, why were they both at the location where they end up talking?
4. Consider How the Dialogue Advances the Plot
You’re the author; if you feel like including a particular dialogue simply because “you feel like it”, you absolutely can. The most effective dialogues, however, have a specific place within the plot. They can move the plot forward, help readers learn more about a character, create tension, or help with world-building.
5. Consider the Length of the Dialogue
Are you writing a dialogue between two characters for a book, short story, or another written text? You have an advantage, in that it is fairly easy to break a long dialogue up with visual descriptions or thoughts a character is having. You still don’t want the dialogue to drag on needlessly, however.
Are you writing a dialogue for a script? It is difficult to hold the audience’s attention for very long if your characters are just talking, and many script writers would advise you to keep the dialogue to no more than five lines. After that, something else needs to happen, and your audience is ready for some action.
6. Break the Dialogue Up with Vivid Descriptions
What’s the weather like? What does the room the characters are holding a conversation in look like and feel like? Who else is present, and what are they doing? What noises might the people having a conversation be able to hear? What does it smell like? What are the characters wearing, and why? What are they thinking about, and what do they need to do after the conversation is finished?
Think about all of this — that’s to say, the world beyond the lines of dialogue you are writing. If it’s relevant, include some of these details. This will make your dialogue feel like a part of a broader whole, and liven the scene up.
A Step-by-Step Guide
Now that we have examined the purpose dialogues serve within a story, and the ways in which writers can make their dialogues more interesting, we can move on and tackle the exciting part — writing a dialogue. Crafting an engaging conversation between two characters is harder than it seems to be at first glance, and each author will develop their own unique creative process over time. Here, however, is one way to go about it.
1. Deciding On the Need for Dialogue
Lines of dialogue can do three basic things — they can advance the plot, add depth to a character, or be part of the setting, as conversations can be a crucial part of world building. In each of these cases, there are usually other ways to achieve the same goal. Deciding that the next step in the journey of your story requires dialogue is the first thing you need to do before writing a dialogue.
2. Deciding What Your Characters Need to Say
There is no need to commit to particular word choices yet — simply jot down the core message, and what you’re hoping to achieve with it. This will come naturally, and it is common for the resulting dialogue to be written in your own voice, as you would yourself convey the message. That’s OK. You have decided what the content of the dialogue is, and you can work on stylistic choices next.
3. Adding Your Characters’ Unique Voices to the Dialogue
What do you already know about your characters, and what is the relationship between them like? Keep this in mind as you further develop the lines you have already written to ensure that both of your characters have distinct voices.
4. Deciding on the Setting of the Dialogue
Where is the conversation taking place, and how did the opportunity for dialogue arise? Include this in your writing.
5. Formatting Your Dialogue
Important formatting rules to keep in mind include:
- Each time a new character speaks, it is common practice to begin a new paragraph. Two characters should not speak within the same paragraph.
- Each spoken line is placed within quotation marks. Use double quotation marks for your dialogue, and single quotation marks if a character is quoting someone else within the conversation.
- Do not simply write dialogue, but include descriptions such as “he yelled”, “she sleepily whispered”, or “he hesitated for a moment”.
6. Editing Your Dialogue
You are nearly finished — congratulations! Before you move on, however, take a moment to read your dialogue critically. Ask yourself whether everything your two characters say serves a clear purpose, and if there is any unnecessary verbiage that you could eliminate. Consider whether the reader can clearly understand who is speaking, and what is happening. Finally, ask yourself whether your characters are coming across in the way you intended. If you’re able to say “yes” to all of those factors, your dialogue is done.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Writing dialogue is tricky, but you can take your writing to the next level by avoiding these common rookie mistakes:
- Never allow dialogue to take up most of your story — and if, after reading through your text, you discover that every page is full of dialogue, replace some of the dialogue with visual descriptions and action, instead.
- Never fail to consider the role the dialogue plays in your wider story. If the dialogue doesn’t advance the plot, it likely doesn’t belong on your work.
- Make sure your characters have an authentic voice, rather than sounding just like you.