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How Do I Write Dialogue
in My Novel?

Powerful, flowing dialogue is an essential part of a successful novel and a great way of standing out from the crowd.


What roles does dialogue play in a novel?

1. Revealing voice

The way a character speaks says a great deal about them. Personality, background, location, education, job. These are just some of the things that affect the type of language we use and the way we piece it together. Whenever we hear someone speak in real life for the first time we will be (consciously or subconsciously) drawing conclusions about them based on their speech.

This gives fiction writers a valuable way of providing an insight into their characters without having to spell it out and make it too on the nose. Dropping linguistic clues for readers to piece together is a good way of drawing them into your story and ensuring they remain engaged.

2. Revealing mood

While the factors above play a large role in determining how someone speaks, their current mood is also of huge importance. Most people are likely to speak in a very different way having just won the National Lottery than if they have just lost their job. Writing appropriate dialogue is an effective but subtle way of conveying to the reader how a character is feeling.

3. Revealing aims and objectives

What are our characters’ goals and how do they plan to achieve them? The answers to these questions will form the backbone of your novel – and dialogue is a key way of ensuring that the reader remains informed and engaged.

4. Providing flexibility over narrative viewpoint

It’s easy for authors to fall into the trap of head hopping – rapidly switching between narrative viewpoints in order to let the reader know what characters are thinking. This can be very disconcerting and distracting for the reader; in real life we aren’t able to tell what thoughts are going through other people’s heads. Dialogue is a great way of enabling readers to gain an insight into the minds of a range of characters. Unlike head-hopping there is nothing disconcerting for the reader – as in real life they are using a person’s words to make deductions about their mindset.

5. Allowing for deliberate contradictions

Just as dialogue allows the author to accurately portray what someone is thinking and how they are feeling, it can also allow them to create tension and intrigue through deliberate contradictions. If someone who has just won the lottery is sounding sad and depressed, the reader is likely to want to hang around to find out why.


How should I mix my dialogue with action beats in a novel?

Dialogue can become even more effective when it is weaved around action beats (things that your characters do). In this example, a detective, Sutton, meets with a small-time criminal, Jarvis, about a police operation.

Sutton handed Jarvis a cigarette, offered him a light and threw the discarded match to the ground.

Jarvis took a long drag on the cigarette. ‘Wear a wire?’

‘It’s not a request.’

‘D’you have any idea what they’ll do if----?’

‘Stay calm and they won’t have any reason to check. Why’d anyone come closer to you than they have to?’

Jarvis took another drag and shook his head. ‘I don’t like it…’

‘You’ll like ten years inside even less…not that you’d make it that far … once everyone knows you're a grass.’

Jarvis spat at Sutton's feet. ‘The way you use people … it's sick---- .’

Sutton grabbed Jarvis and forced him up against the wall. ‘Says the piece of scum who conned grannies out of their life savings.’ He released his grip. ‘Do we have a deal?’


Sutton gave a small nod and walked away.

‘Mr Sutton…?’ Jarvis called after him.

Sutton turned and looked quizzically at Jarvis.

‘You will look after me … afterwards?’

‘You have my word,’ said Sutton and strode out of sight.  


From the above the reader might form a number of conclusions:


  1. The way that Sutton casually throws the match away when it’s served its purpose might give an indication as to his future plans for Jarvis.

  2. Sutton has the dominant voice. He issues demands rather than requests. Any resistance from Jarvis is met with verbal or physical aggression.

  3. Jarvis is keen to stand up to Sutton – but quickly backs down in the face of aggression.

  4. Sutton's reference to ten years inside serves a double function. As well as being part of his threat to Jarvis, it reveals unobtrusively that Sutton has a hold over him. It suggests he has evidence (real or manufactured) that would see Jarvis convicted of a serious offence.

  5. Likewise, Sutton's reference to Jarvis conning grannies enables him to gain the upper hand in the argument – and provides an insight into Jarvis’s past crimes.

  6. The fact that Jarvis addresses Sutton as 'Mr Sutton' at the end suggests he accepts he has lost the encounter – and is showing due deference.

  7. From what we’ve seen of Sutton, there is every reason to doubt his promise to look after Jarvis. His striding away at the end underlines his dismissive attitude towards him. The fact that Jarvis accepts this without any further comment confirms he is feeling defeated and in no position to press the matter.



What are the pitfalls to avoid with dialogue in novels?

Boring everyday dialogue

‘Hi, Tracey,’ said Sharon. ‘What’ve you been up to.’

‘I’ve been to the supermarket … I did the weekly shop and also bought lots of grapes because they were on special offer,’ said Tracey.

‘It’s great when you see a special offer.’



Much more of that and the reader is likely to give up and find something better to do.


The fact that many conversations like this take place everyday is of no consequence.


People don’t pick up a book to read about everyday life – but to escape it!


They are looking for excitement and intrigue.


Let’s see if we can do anything to liven up Sharon and Tracey’s discussion.


‘Hi, Tracey,’ said Sharon. ‘Has your morning been as thrilling as ever?’

‘I’ve just been to the supermarket and bought loads of grapes.’

‘You can’t stand grapes.’

‘They were on special offer.’


The reader now has a little more to ponder. A hierarchy seems to be emerging; Sharon starts off by mocking Tracey, implying she has a rather dull life. She is then quick to question the wisdom of Tracey buying lots of grapes.

Meanwhile, Tracey isn’t quite the mundane character she appeared originally. She just bought a lot of something that she doesn’t like – simply because it was on special offer. Is she someone who can’t resist a bargain, or is she, in general, a person who can be easily manipulated?


Dialogue as exposition

It’s easy to fall into the trap of using dialogue in novels to explain large chunks of backstory to the reader. Remember that dialogue is there to advance plot and character development, not simply to explain things that the author feels the reader needs to know. It can become particularly jarring when the characters start telling each other things they are already well aware of – purely for the benefit of the reader.

Let’s have a look at this example.


‘It’s not working, Joe,’ said Janet. ‘I want a divorce.’

‘Just like that?’ said Joe. ‘We’ve been married forty years and you want to give up everything without an effort?’


Janet presumably is well aware that she and Joe have been married for forty years. The only reason Joe is telling her is for the benefit of the readers.


Rather blatant ‘info dumping’ like this reminds readers they are reading a piece of fiction rather than observing a real world with real people. It’s vital to avoid anything that draws the reader out of the novel – so let’s see how we can rework this example to make it more credible.


‘It’s not working, Joe,’ said Janet. ‘I want a divorce.’

‘Just like that?’ Joe glanced at the photo on the mantlepiece. He and Janet, looking forty years’ younger, on the happiest day of their lives. ‘We just give up?’


Using drama as a narrative device in novels

Show, don’t tell is one of the golden rules of fiction writing (although, as with many rules, there are exceptions).

Rather than actually showing a dramatic event happening, novelists sometimes make the mistake of simply having a couple of characters talking about it afterwards.

With a low-budget television drama this may be unavoidable. There’s not enough money to actually recreate the Battle of Hastings and so the writer has to settle for having a couple of King Harold’s men reflecting on what went wrong as they hide from William’s victorious forces.

When writing a novel, there is no such restraint, so you can describe the battle in vivid detail.

In novels, as in real life, it’s generally more interesting for us to witness something at first hand than hear about it afterwards.  

Writing dialogue in novels: Conclusion

Dialogue is one of the key ingredients in any novel but it’s vital to use it in the correct way. It is never there just to mark time while both writer and reader wait for something significant to happen.

Make sure every word of dialogue you use is there for a purpose – and cut out anything that isn’t needed!

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