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How to write dialogue between two characters

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Writers have no problem finding their own voice, but what if other voices are needed, as in the dialogue of the heroes?

A conversation between two or more characters is as much about what they don’t say as it is about what they do.

The writer must paint the scene with words and then find the right words for the characters’ dialogue.

It’s when two incredible forms of writing collide into must-read copy.

What is dialogue?

Dialogue is what one or more characters say in written material. It’s a back and forth conversation to advance the plot, express emotion, or build conflict.

Sometimes it even resolves conflicts. It is a conversation adapted to the art of the written word to immerse the reader in the story.

Creating good character dialogue is the difference between reading someone’s resume and doing an in-person interview.

You study personality, speaking patterns, accents, beliefs and fears.

In the classic novel Rebecca, when Maxime de Winter tells the future Mrs. de Winter, “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” he conveyed much more than a marriage proposal. He claimed dominion and ownership.

The words also shortened the timeline to a certain era, as surely no woman would have allowed a man to propose to her like that in the 2000s.

Dialogue must respect the many ways of communication that do not always consist of two people talking in comfortable places.

  • Phone calls: Careful language, as characters can’t read facial expressions. Talking on the phone while cooking dinner can be different than sitting in bed with music on.
  • Text messages: Authors writing modern novels and books must adapt to technology that increasingly plays a role in how we as humans communicate with each other.
  • Video calls: “You muted” has literally become the calling card of the pandemic world as people work from home and conduct many meetings virtually. FaceTiming can happen in a crowded store, on an empty street, or even right before someone turns off the lights at night.
  • Characters who write dialogue: Some stories are told through letters that the characters write to each other. It’s still dialogue, but you’re writing what the characters are writing. Confused? Let’s look at this line that Noah wrote to Eli in his favorite story Notebook;

“The best love is the one that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more, that lights a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds. And that’s what you gave me. This is what I hoped to give you forever.’ – Noah Ely’s Farewell Letter to Notebook

How to write dialogue between two characters (or more)

One of the great tragedies for some authors is when a book is turned into a movie, and the main characters are shown in movie previews.

Those who have not read the book are given visual information instead of an opportunity to explore their imagination through the writer’s words.

Anyone can write a dialogue. Skilled writers can create good dialogue. A blessed few can create great and interesting dialogue. A litmus test of strong character dialogue includes:

  • Advancing the plot: Example: Two characters meet in a coffee shop. In real life situations there is small talk that doesn’t really mean anything. The “hello how are you” and “I’m fine, thanks” can be excluded from written dialogue. They speak when it is important to move the story forward.
  • Character layer detection: How much do we learn about Aibileen in The Help when she tells two-year-old May Mobley, “You’re good. You are smart. You are important.” Most of Abilene’s dialogue was solemn and condescending, but we got one of the few moments in her heart with this heartfelt exchange. It also hinted at her lack of grammar without saying it directly.
  • Establishing, maintaining, or overriding relationships between characters: Dialogue can express admiration, obsession, indifference and dislike, creating the best scene for two people. It can also represent a change in relationship, going from lover to ex-lover, friend to enemy, or stranger to friend.

Bad Dialogue: You’ll know it when you see it

50 shades of gray became one of the best-selling books of the 2000s, but dialogue divas cringed at some of the conversations between the characters.

From Christian’s appalling statements such as, “You’re going to dehumanize me, Ana.” to Ana’s re-appeal to “down there” when discussing intimacy on an erotic level, the story was as popular as it was panned by critics.

Bad dialogue will stick up like a weed. Great dialogue will stand out.

How to write dialogue between two characters that stands out in 4 easy steps

There are stages in writing dialogue that go beyond the words of the characters’ dialogue.

From creative storytelling to grammatical accuracy and prose excellence, there’s a reason a second set of eyes (or more) helps writers create resonant text.

1. Know your characters

In writing, the fact or fiction, you must know the innermost qualities, fears and successes of your characters. Even if the answers are hard to find, as Dr. Hannibal Lecter said in “Silence of the Lambs,” “Nothing’s wrong with me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.”

You need to know what clothes your character will wear, how he will deal with conflicts, and whether he is prone to emotional outbursts. A trained CIA agent will not cry because someone broke up with him.

2. Punctuate the dialogue correctly

Grammar and punctuation rules are hard and fast until you get to the few exceptions to the rules. This can make the single comma a moot point. It helps to start with the basics and work up from there.

  • Put punctuation marks inside quotes: As a rule, a punctuation mark is always enclosed in quotation marks.
    • CORRECT: “How are you?” he asked.
    • INCORRECT: “How are you?” he asked.
    • INCORRECT: “how are you” he asked
  • Using single quotes: If a citation contains a citation, use single quotes to separate them. Treat an internal quote as its own capitalized sentence.
    • CORRECT: “My mom used to tell me, ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,’ and that’s why I can’t sit still when you’re around.”
    • WRONG: “My mom used to tell me, ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,’ and that’s why I can’t sit still when you’re around.”
    • WRONG: “My mom told me that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, so I can’t sit still when you’re around.”
  • Capitalize or not?: Fluent character dialogue must also follow the rules of capitalization. Each sentence begins with a capital letter, as do proper nouns. You don’t need to capitalize the character tag unless you start with the speaker’s name.
    • CORRECT: “I love Harpo. God knows I am. But I’ll beat him to death before I let him beat me.” Sofia said with fire in her eyes.
    • CORRECT: “I love Harpo. God knows I am. But I’ll beat him to death before I let him beat me.” Sofia said with fire in her eyes.
    • INCORRECT: “I love Harpo. God knows I am. But I’ll beat him to death before I let him beat me.” Sofia said with fire in her eyes.

2. Use appropriate character tags

The problem with a conversation between two or more characters is that the reader can apply their own perceptions and biases to the conversations. That’s why the symbol tag should go beyond “she said” and “he answered.”

Let’s break down a simple sentence that you may be familiar with, “I wish you all a long and happy life.” By leaving out the symbol tag, you can leave the interpretation of the message open to the reader’s imagination. Now here are some ways to untangle character dialogue.

  • “I wish you all a long and happy life” she stammered, a tear running down her face as the life drained from her eyes. It was time.
  • “I wish you all a long and happy life” he hissed as she gathered the few things in sight and jumped out.
  • “I wish you all a long and happy life?” – she asked with confusion. She had never led a prayer before.
  • “I wish you all a long and happy life” – he muttered, walking away, as he knew it was the last time.

Of course, avid readers know that this was the last line of an emotional journey great bones where a brutally murdered young girl appeared before the audience.


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3. Dialogues versus theses

Although some writing experts advise you never to make a character’s dialogue longer than three sentences, there may come a time when you need someone to speak at length in a conversation between two or more characters.

It’s not a monologue because it’s two people talking, but it can be long and tedious if not delivered correctly. When written for the stage and then the big screen, who would cut even one word from Colonel Nathan R. Jessup “YOU CAN’T TELL THE TRUTH…” dialogue in response to court-martial interrogation?

  • Break paragraphs: Just because someone speaks once, you don’t have to present it in one long block. Break up paragraphs to make the dialogue easier to read.
  • Give the character a rest: Let them take a sip of water or take a deep breath to break up the monotony of a long speech or presentation.
  • Add another character’s short dialogue: Another character can easily announce “Amen!” in the middle of a speech or insert a “but…” into a controversial extended dialogue.

4. Shorten the words

Going back to character dialogue that requires plot development or something to be revealed, simple things like “Hi, how are you?” are not necessary unless it provides incriminating information. Let’s take a look at this exchange from Nicholas Evans Whispering horses.

Tom Booker: “Will she be around for a long time?

Grace: “She’s probably on the phone 23 hours a day.”

Tom Booker: “What is she doing?”

Grace: “She is an editor. Just in case she didn’t tell you, and she probably didn’t, I want no part of it. OK?”

He didn’t ask what happened to Grace, as the reader already knows. He didn’t have conversations because that’s not his style and it wouldn’t move the story forward.

What did we learn?

  • Mom Grace is a workaholic.
  • Grace is troubled by this.
  • Grace doesn’t want to be there.

An example of dialogue between two characters

Learning to write dialogue between two characters is like learning to dance. They move in cadence and sequence while revealing plot information.

Here is an example of Pete and Caesar’s dialogue in The hunger games when Peeta reveals that he is in love with Katniss.

“A handsome boy like you. There must be some special girl. Come on, what’s her name?” says Caesar.

Peeta sighs. “Well, there is one girl. I’ve had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t know I was alive until the Harvest itself.’

Sounds of sympathy from the crowd. Unrequited love they can relate to.

“Does she have another boyfriend?” – asks Caesar.

“I don’t know, but a lot of boys like her,” Peeta says.

“So this is what you do. You win, you go home. She can’t refuse you, right?” Caesar says encouragingly.

“I don’t think it will work. Winning… won’t help my case,” Peeta says.

“Why never?” Caesar says confused.

Peeta blushes and stammers. “Because… because she came here with me.”

Think what you learn about the characters in this piece of dialogue when Peeta reveals his long-time secret love for Katniss. This is a key moment in the novel.

Final thoughts

There are so many tips and tricks on how to create a conversation between two or more characters. A well-placed dash can reveal a break or flow of thought.

An overuse of dialogue can leave a lot of empty space on the page, and a lack of dialogue can be the building blocks of writing that allow for little character development.

A great way to improve character dialogue is to read the conversation out loud and see how it sounds when the words are hanging in the air. We’ll leave you with this quote from the famous writer William Faulkner.

“Put it down. Take a risk. It might be bad, but it’s the only way to do something really good.” – William Faulkner

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