Dialogue is the conversation of two or more people. It is sometimes used in general expository and philosophical writing, embodies certain values: (1) It advances the action and is not mere ornament. (2) It is consistent with the character of the speakers. (3) It gives the impression of naturalness without being a verbatim record of what may have been said, because fiction is concerned with “the semblance of reality,” not with reality itself. (4) It presents the interplay of of ideas and personalities among the people conversing: it sets forth a conversational give and take—not simply a series of remarks of alternating speakers. (5) It varies according to the various speakers participating. (6) It serves to give relief from passages essentially descriptive or expository. (A Handbook to Literature)

Speech characterizes in a way that is different from appearance, because speech represents an effort, mainly voluntary, to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste or preference but also deliberated through. Like fiction itself, human dialogue attempts to marry logic to emotion…. Speech can be conveyed in fiction with varying degrees of directness: summary, indirect and direct. (Writing Fiction)

Summary Dialogue

Summarized as part of the narrative so that a good deal of conversation is condensed. (Writing Fiction)

EXAMPLE: They both sat, each on their own couch, and discussed the nature of their relationship….

Indirect Dialogue

Reported in the third person as indirect speech so that it carries without actual quotation. (Writing Fiction)

EXAMPLE: Did he see her? Did he see who she has become these last thirty years of their lives together or does he still see the girl he met when they were in high school? He isn’t even looking her in the eye. 

Direct Dialogue

Contains the possibility of discovery or decision, and therefore of dramatic action, it will be presented in direct quotation. (Writing Fiction)


“Look at me.” 

“I’m looking at you.”

“No. Look at ME.” She moved from the couch and stood in front of him, bent down so her face was three inches from his.

“Okay,” he said. “I see you.”

Dialogue Tags and Action Beats

Dialogue tags are short modifications to sections of speech. They let the reader know who is speaking. Tags should be used sparsely. In fact, many writers avoid them altogether, and instead, allow the voices within the speech to identify the speaker. When well-developed, tags should be unnecessary, though, sometimes a well-placed tag can change the pacing or add closure in effective ways. Example in bold below: 

“Look at me.” 

“I’m looking at you.”

“No. Look at ME.” She moved from the couch and stood in front of him, bent down so her face was three inches from his.

“Okay,” he said. “I see you.”

The above action beatShe moved her face to three inches from his, is a short modifier describes what the character is doing in relationship to what the character is saying. Beats can be used effectively to change the pacing within a longer dialogue stream. Using them sparsely, at just the right moments, and they can add a great deal of texture to dialogue. Use them too frequently, and they will detract from the dialogue.

Dialogue Writing Exercise

Choose a scene with dialogue from a work you’ve already written. Decide in which format the dialogue has been written: summary, indirect or direct. Now, rewrite the dialogue in each of the other two forms. Consider, as you rewrite each time, how the scene must change in order to transition into and out of the dialogue.

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A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.

“Cogito et Histoire de la Folie.” Jacques Derrida.

Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Lynne Truss.

The Elements of Style. William Strunk. 

New Oxford American DictionaryEdited by Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg.

The Norton Anthology of World LiteratureMartin Puchner, et al.

The Norton Introduction to PhilosophyGideon Rosen and Alex Byrne.

Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Patricia T. O’Conner

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.

Writing the Other. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.

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