How to Write a Conversation – A Guide

Many language theoreticians believe that there is no major difference between written and spoken language. However, others argue that both written and spoken language have a different impact on the audience. During an oral conversation, the audience is present and directly receives everything to interpret and create meaning.

In written communication, the audience is not present and the writer has to provide a meaningful context for effective and suitable interpretation.

In other words, writing dialogues in a story places various demands on the author to make it meaningful and interpretable. To show how people converse requires a thorough understanding of the social and physical surroundings. Plus, to establish meaning, a writer must know ‘what is a dialogue?  How to create gestural and postural cues?

Not only this, an impactful story has many conversational situations. It shows people talking, agreeing, disagreeing, and expressing their opinions and much more. Hence, writing a good story requires you to learn the rules of dialogue and dialogue formatting to express and make them understandable. Knowing how to craft a gripping conversation, including disagreement and conflicts, will help you capture the interest of your reader.

If you are striving to learn this form of communication, our guide will help you. Learning dialogue writing and formatting will bring a natural flow to your story.

How to Write a Good Conversation

Before we plunge into the discussion to provide you with some useful tips, let us clear our understanding of the word ’dialogue’ to learn to incorporate it effectively.

What is a dialogue?

A ‘dialogue’ is an intentional and focused conversation between two people. Dialogues encompass paradoxes, fears, tensions, opinions, reactions, and ideas etc.

1.  Avoid Fillers

Making people interact in the story requires you to provide contextual cues while cutting filler. It is important as no audience is there to listen to or observe the setting and gesture your characters are in.

When writing strong dialogues, make sure you do not add any fillers. For example, if you are showing a telephonic conversation, avoid adding phrases like ‘Get me through Mr. John’ or ‘Please hold on’. The key is to directly launch into a phone conversation. For instance,


[The voice seems strange, full of suspicion.]

Sometimes, avoiding fillers seems difficult when you need to introduce your characters. You can use this opportunity to create a colorful description of your characters. For instance:

‘John was smoking with Mr. Colleen and a stranger. When I greeted them, the stranger turned around and peered in my direction’.

“He was a mysterious man with sparkling eyes I have never seen before. His eyes were half-opened and his head was straight as he was aiming to shoot with an invisible weapon.”

You cannot ignore the narration around the stranger’s look, which gives a detailed description of the character.

2. Cut Unnecessary Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags add more information about ‘who says what’ in your story; however, they are unnecessary sometimes. Instead of adding ‘he said or she said’ at the end of the dialogue, you can replace them with meaningful motions or gestures. Not only will they be carrying great weight, but there will also be lessen monotony. Compare these examples:

“Are you leaving?” He said.

If the context of the scene makes clear who is speaking, there is nothing wrong with omitting dialogue tags. They create a repetitive and monotonous effect. Adding gestures instead of dialogue tags can be more impactful.

“Are you leaving? “….. He twisted his head, standing in the corridor.

The attributed gesture gives more details to help your reader picture the scene in his mind while avoiding repetition. Many writers consider it a crucial writing device.

3.  Avoid Fancy Dialogue Tags

If you do not agree with the idea of using gestures with a dialogue, try not to use fancy tags either. Although fancy tags like ‘She denounced’ or ‘She groused’ and adding variation, it may distract your reader. It is better to stick to ‘she said or he said’ to maintain the flow of your story and keep things simple.

4. Change the Placement of Dialogue Tags

Avoiding variation does not mean that you cannot try something else. Changing the placement of your dialogue tags is what you can do to break the monotony. There is no rule that binds you to begin your dialogues with Laura said, or, John said. You can place these tags in the middle or at the end of the dialogues. For example:

”Do you think you have accomplished it?” Laura screamed.

5. Include Disagreement or Conflict

The key to writing a great conversation depends on how you incorporate dialogues involving disagreement or confrontation. It is different than real life where we can go for weeks without saying a single grumpy word to another person. In stories, confrontation and conflicts supply narrative tension through dialogues. This is what makes the story more compelling for the readers.

On the contrary, if your characters get along swimmingly with each other, there will be no excitement in the story. We can take the example of ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens here. Estela, in the novel, constantly taunts and insults Pip by goading him. Her behavior and dialogues reflect her lack of sentimentality throughout the novel.

Moreover, disagreement or conflict not necessarily has to be dramatic like any physical altercation. You can show your characters expostulating over something trivial like a restaurant’s menu. However, what is important to remember here is that these tense moments must illustrate your characters’ quirks and peeves under pressure.

6. Involve Character’s Desires, Goals, and Fears

It is not essential to make your characters honest, helpful or willing in your conversation all the time. You can try various shades of personalities such as misguided, psychotic and cryptic. Their conversational situation may require them to evade responses and ask witty questions. This is where you show how your characters hold different power and sway such as during a cross-examination or an interrogation.

While writing such conversations, it is important to consider what motivates your characters?  What are their fears? What will each one of them get from this conversation?  How their desires, motifs, goals, and fears can affect the story and conversation?

By bridging a connection between your characters’ conversation and their goals, you can write more purposeful dialogue. This tip works particularly when you are writing on genres like mystery and crime. In genres like these, characters need to gain information from others.

7. Include Subtle Gestures and Subtext

Subtext is one of the most significant elements of the narrative that clarifies readers’ understanding. It answers ‘Why’ in an underlying conversation. For example, if you want to show your protagonist’s doubt about his partner, adding subtext along with dialogue is a great way to strengthen the context. You can subtext this underlying mistrust, such as,

“The Parkers have arranged a lunch for us.” She beamed.

“What? This is the third time they have invited us this month. You seem delighted.”

He did not understand the reason for these series of invitations. He can see his wife being thrilled every time they got invited by their new neighbors.

Note that how the subtext of mistrust and suspicion has made the dialogues more attention-grabbing. A mundane dialogue about a simple lunch plan became a trigger for jealousy and enmity.

8. Add Context for Atmosphere and Tone

Adding context, while writing dialogues in the story is essential to create an atmosphere. A context is a setting where a conversation occurs. Plus, context refers to the specific circumstances that lead to a conversation between the characters.

If you master the art of incorporating context in the dialogue, you are less likely to use adverbs in the dialogue tags. For example,

“I heard someone in the room”. He said quietly.

This dialogue could be more impactful if you include context or setting to convey what is happening and where it is happening.

It was a windy Friday, they both decided to knock on the door of that dilapidated house. They knocked nervously, oblivious of their mysterious surroundings. After a minute, they crept inside. They walked in a musty, dark corridor that seemed to have no end when she heard a creepy sound coming from the room.

“I heard someone in the room.”  With wide eyes, she whispered.

The context here provides the key details to exhibit the character’s fear and the stillness of the mysterious house.

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How to format a Conversation

Whether you write satire, drama, fiction or short story, following dialogue rules is essential. There are some universally applied rules that you need to follow to distinguish the story part where your characters speak. They must start and end with a quotation mark.

These are some established steps you need to know to format your story.

Using Right Punctuation

Break Paragraphs to Show Different Speakers

A conversation involves at least two speakers. Readers need a clear indication of where one character’s speech finishes and other speech begins. Considering this, it is important to provide a visual cue every time a new speaker begins his or her speech.

  • Make sure that you indent a new paragraph every time you make a new character speak.
  • Even if it is a half syllable, it will get an intended paragraph.

Insert Quotation Marks

A piece of text written with quotation marks indicates someone’s spoken words. You can use double quotation marks around the dialogue of your character. For example,

“Hey, it seems it will rain today.”

  • You can incorporate multiple sentences in a single quotation mark if they are part of the same dialogue. For example, John exasperated, “you didn’t have to go there. You knew it was already late.”
  • If your character is quoting someone else’s statement, use double quotation marks around the main character’s dialogue and single quotation mark around the quoted words. For example, Eva argued, he clearly said ‘Come with me’ to her.”
  • Many Asian and European writers use angle brackets as speech marks.

Punctuate Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag is an integral part of narration typically used for making clear ‘who is speaking’. Dialogue tags need proper punctuation to make sense.

  • Separate the dialogue from its tag with a comma.
  • If tag precedes the main sentence, use a comma before the opening dialogue. Similarly, if the tag comes after the main sentence, use a comma before you close the quotation mark. For example, John said,I would love to join the conference.” Or “I would love to join the conference.” John said.
  • If the dialogue tag comes in between the sentence, use commas on both ends of the tag. For instance, But Richard”, Eva yelled,this is not fair.”

 Use Exclamation and Question Marks

Both exclamation and question marks come inside speech marks. For example, “How was your trip?” or “I’m enthralled right now!”

  • There is no need to separate the dialogue from its tag if your sentence already has an exclamation mark or quotation mark. For example, why have you ordered so many things?  Naura inquired in disbelief.

  Use Ellipses and Dashes Correctly

Dashes represent an abrupt ending of the dialogue and ellipses show the trail off of a lost thought.

  • Dashes are different than a hyphen. For example, where is m—“ Nick began?
  • Dashes also indicate an interrupted dialogue such as,

“I wanted to make it—–

“Don’t even try that!”

  • If your character is puzzled and lost his words in the conversation, you can use ellipses to show that, for example, “Well, I meant……..”

Break a Long Dialogue into Short Paragraphs

In case your character delivers a long speech, it is ideal to break it into short paragraphs. It will make it more comprehensive for your readers.

  • To achieve this, use only opening quotation marks to indicate the opening sentence and switch paragraphs. You can use opening quotation at the beginning of each new paragraph to show the continuation.
  • Use the closing quotation mark when your character finishes the dialogue.

Bottom Line

Overall, there is no denying that writing effective dialogues in the story makes it more interesting and exciting for the readers. Thus, by following the dialogue rules and correct format, you can impress your readers with your creative story writing skills.

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