Create Tension with Dialogue

Dialogue is not only a way to learn about our characters, it also is a way to create tension.

Dialogue is NOT supposed to be “just like real conversation.” Most “real conversation” is boring! Dialogue should not be boring.


  • Should create an illusion of a conversation
  • Must advance the Plot
  • Should reveal the Characters by:
    • Word choices. “Good day, sir” is different from “G’day, mate!”
    • Syntax. “I’m doing excellently, thank you” is different from “I be fine.”
    • What they say. “Let’s look for a win-win situation, shall we?” is different from “I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
    • Your characters should sound different from each other.
  • Can explain the StoryWorld, but be careful. Avoid, “As you know, Bob…”
  • Can reveal backstory, but be very careful! Don’t tell her life story.
  • May even expound the Theme, but don’t preach.
  • Isn’t always the truth. Characters lie, say what they think others want to hear, or say what they’d really like to believe is true.

Pre-write your dialogue

As you sketch out your scene, think about what kind of dialogue would happen.

•       What is the point of the scene? What’s the Disaster or Dilemma? What are you showing or trying to prove in this scene? Why does it exist?
•       What is the agenda of each person in the conversation?
•       Do they get what they want out of it?
•       Does the other person believe what they are saying? Why or why not?
•       What is the body language of each person conveying, and is it different than what the words are conveying?

Basic dialogue Rules

•       Every time a new person speaks (or thinks or reacts), they get a new paragraph.
•       Use quotation marks to set off the things people say.
•       Be very judicious in the use of adverbs and adjectives (she said longingly, she said compassionately) in dialogue tags. They can be extremely distracting. Use body language, internal thought, and context to let the reader know what’s going on in the scene. If all else fails, use “said,” which is invisible to readers.
•       Know the rules about which punctuation goes in or out of quotation marks
•       Put thoughts in italics but not in quotation marks. If someone says, “I’m so happy to see you!” but they are thinking You dirty rat while they say it, that would look like this:
“I’m so happy to see you!” I said. You dirty rat. In Deep POV, the italics will be limited because we are already in the character’s head. Use italics only for a direct thought.
•       Example: “I’m so happy to see you!” You dirty rat!
•       Or “I’m so happy to see you!” But really, he was a dirty rat.

Action beats: beyond he said, she said.

Action tags reveal Character.
•       “No way!” Jack slammed his fist into the wall. “I can’t believe he asked you to the prom.”
•       “No way!” Ashley hugged her best friend Sarah and squealed. “I can’t believe he asked you to the prom!”

They tell us who is talking.
•       “This has conk rot,” a logger yelled from the top of a tree. “It’s no good. Check the others.” (We see who’s talking, where he’s at, and his yelling injects emotion.)
•       “I’ve been away at school for some time.” Becca glanced out the window.
They give us information on the setting.
•       “Soon as I get the horses and stage put away,” Josh replied, climbing back in the driver’s seat.
•       Maggie pulled out a chair for her at the kitchen table. “I have some biscuits from breakfast and some of last year’s strawberry preserves left still. There’s coffee, or I could make you tea if that’d sit better.”

Whenever you can, make your action beats do double or triple duty. Go beyond who’s talking. Let the action show us where we are, the character’s emotions and state of mind.

Final Tip

Read your dialogue out loud. Even though it’s not “real,” it should still sound real and flow well.


•       Go to the above scenes and rewrite from another character’s POV. How does that change the scene? Does it make it more emotionally compelling? Or less?
•       Write a scene with interior monologue. Then rewrite it as dialogue. Which works better? Or is it a combination of both?
•       Go back to any exercise above and look at your dialogue tags. Can you make them do double or triple duty?


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