The Art of Dialogue

by | Apr 5, 2021 | Fiction, Writing

Dialogue is a useful writing tool to convey information the reader otherwise wouldn’t have. According to Dan Brown, we use dialogue for “exposition”, “subtext”, “background”, and “character development”. There’re two types of dialogue, internal and external, and each has its own formatting style.

Internal Dialogue

These are the internal thoughts of your characters, sometimes called an interior monologue. They express their motivation, desires, fears, emotions, backstory, and flaws. Think of them as like a voiceover in a movie.

Internal dialogue can also highlight the character arc, as their thoughts should differ from the start of the book to the end, thus emphasizing the journey of growth and development undertaken.

As these are unspoken words, there’s no need for quotation marks. They also remain as part of the paragraph text instead of having their own line. Some authors use italics to show internal dialogue. This is your preference.

No italics: Amelia prepared for the party. What would they think? She didn’t know, but would find out soon enough.

With italic: Amelia prepared for the party. What would they think? She didn’t know, but would find out soon enough.

When using internal dialogue, avoid the overuse of tags; he said, she thought, Amelia wondered, etc. It should flow like a conversation without all the fillers, such as um. Tags are necessary if using a block of internal dialogue to clarify whose thoughts they are:

Amelia prepared for the party. What would they think? She didn’t know, but would find out soon enough. Can I go through with this? Yes, I must! Oh dear God, please give me strength, she prayed.

If you’re quoting within your internal dialogue, single quotation marks (‘) are used at the start and end of the quote.

External Dialogue

These are the words your characters speak out loud, either as part of a conversation or in response to something. They can include pauses and mid-sentence changes as a real life conversation does, if that’s in keeping with your character’s voice, but with the filler words, such as ah, edited out.

As these are spoken words, they require quotation marks at the start and end of the speech. Double quotation marks (“) are most commonly used, although there’s a move towards using single quotation marks (‘) for dialogue and double quotation marks (“) for your quotes. Whatever you decide to use, be consistent throughout.

Dialogue starts on a new line, with a separate line for each speaker. Dialogue punctuation remains within the quotation marks, with regular punctuation rules applying outside the quotation marks, for example:

Amelia asked, “What will they think?”

“I don’t know,” replied Harry. “But you won’t have to wait long to find out.”

If there’s a block of dialogue between your characters, add a tag every 2-3 sentences so your reader can follow who’s saying what.

Here are some other useful internal and external dialogue resources:

9 Tips for writing good conversation

How to format dialogue in your novel or short story

Four ways to use dialogue in your writing

How to write great dialogue

Neil Gaiman – Dialogue and Character

Interior Monologue: The complete guide

Do you have any other dialogue tips or questions? Please post them in the comments below.

Cheers to your writing success!