As always, I want to start with why. Why do we put dialogue in our stories? Why would you add it? What are the strengths and weaknesses of dialogue? Once you can ask questions like these, all the other “rules” or “tricks” about dialogue automatically fall into place.

People Talk

These days, technology allows us to do almost everything on our own, from behind a screen. There’s a banking app, a university dashboard, online forms to fill in, endless news websites to follow.

But how do I get most of my information? What are my most common interactions? You guessed it: having a conversation with somebody else.

What do I need to do for anything that’s not standard practice? You guessed it: plan an appointment with somebody and have a real-life conversation.

What’s the most common sentence I hear whenever I try to arrange something online? “Let’s just meet up and talk about this in person.”

In theory, it should be possible these days to live your life without having any conversations ever. In practice, however, people desperately want to have those conversations. (And they often require them to be in the real world, not even online.)

That’s why it feels natural to include (a lot of) dialogue in your story. It’s simply realistic. It matches the human desires to talk, converse, and connect.

In fact, I can get annoyed when a story has very minimal dialogue. They usually do it to increase mystery or tension, as characters just don’t ever say what they need to say to each other. But it feels completely unrealistic and pulls me out of the story. I’ve met way more people that talk too much and share too much, than people who don’t respond to anything and speak in short, clipped sentences.


A second reason is that dialogue multitasks.

  • There’s the thing that is literally said. This gives information to the reader.
  • Each dialogue has multiple entities with different views or desires. This creates different goals and obstacles, which adds conflict and progresses the plot.
  • The words chosen (or not chosen) reveals character.

In the example below, try to find all the different things the dialogue achieves at once.


“You have to destroy them,” Sarah said. “Or the evil of Ashika will return, again and again, until they win.”

“I will not desecrate my father’s legacy!” James said.

Here’s my analysis of what dialogue from the example achieves.

  • They create conflict: Sarah wants to convince James to do something he doesn’t want to do.
  • They show two different characters. One ready to fight no matter what, one more reserved.
  • They give information that some “evil of Ashika” exists and scares them.
  • It deepens James’ character by revealing his father has a legacy of sorts (maybe one about peaceful collaboration with other fantasy races) and that this matters to him deeply.

All that with two quick lines of dialogue!

What we say and how we say it has all these extra layers (of emotion, secrets, character, and more). If you use that well, dialogue becomes a very powerful tool to progress everything in the story.


Dialogue usually reads more easily and feels faster. Why?

  • New speakers go on a new line. This often allows for a lot of whitespace around the text, which means you turn pages quicker and never stare at an intimidating “wall of text”
  • Sentences can be clipped. We rarely form nice, complete sentences when speaking. We leave out subject or verb, if the previous speaker mentioned them. We use abbreviations or only say what really matters right now.
  • Subtext exists. Many good dialogue scenes are interesting because of everything they don’t say. Simply by leaving out a lot of information (hence making the scene more efficient), you ask the audience to actively engage with the dialogue and figure out what the characters are really saying.

Efficiency is a big part of strong dialogue. Bad dialogue often reveals itself by being long-winded and including phrases (or parts of phrases) that don’t need to be there.

Below is an example of a long-winded dialogue, and then a shorter version.


“The reactor is well-protected. It’s buried deep inside that building on the right, which is the most secure building on the planet, with triple encryption.”

“Go on.”

“The only way to get inside is by entering the 10-digit password.”

“How do we get that?”

“I propose we bribe one of the guards.”


“We need the 10-digit password. No other way to reach the reactor inside that building.”

“Bribe a guard?”

In the longer version, we see that somebody makes their point (“the reactor is well-protected”) … and still continues to provide more explanation. They say “it’s the most secure building”, but also explain the same message by saying it has “triple encryption”. You’re basically saying things twice, which is inefficient and unnatural for dialogue.

The longer version also shows people who talk in full sentences. Dialogue can be more efficient than that! By using clipped or terse sentences. With every detail you include, ask yourself: “is this detail really important enough that somebody would expend effort to say it out loud?”

Finally, the longer version keeps interrupting somebody to ask questions in an attempt to make it a “dialogue”. Instead, you can convey the information much more efficiently if everyone actually participates in the dialogue. (For example, by proposing their own idea.)

Dialogue as Last Resort

Some people state that dialogue should be a “last resort”. While I get the idea, I do not agree.

As demonstrated, dialogue is an amazing weapon. When wielded with skill, it can be so much better than just description or introspection ( = writing a character’s thoughts). Especially screenplays will almost entirely consist of dialogue, because you don’t have the luxury of giving information through thoughts or description.

Consider my multitasking example. I’d take a dialogue scene that achieves numerous things at once over a scene with just action/description that achieves only one thing (with difficulty). In the end, the only reason people care about your plot is because of the characters. And dialogue is the most interesting and efficient expression of who your characters are and what they want.

So why do people say it should be a “last resort”? Because the most common pitfall for (beginning) writers is to pick dialogue by default over all the other options. Because it’s easy: just let characters say what they want or know, back and forth, until the reader is up to speed.


“As you know, James, the magical artefact of Ashika is buried underneath the Temple of Dodo. We must go there immediately and retrieve this blue glowy thing of great significance!” Sarah said.

“And as you know, Sarah, I cannot go with you because I have an allergy for blue glowy things!” James answered. “Better to send you on this quest alone, my darling, even though it is very dangerous, yes yes, and this is very irresponsible!”

Don’t do that!

Weigh your options every time. Can I show this information through action? Through personalized description? (For example: you describe a room in a way that reveals who a character is deep inside.)

Or is dialogue the best option here?

In case of a screenplay, your other option is visual language. Instead of a dialogue to convey information, you can show the information in a smart way on the screen.


The character enters a room. The most important object, to them, is put directly ahead of them in the frame. Or, maybe the whole room has muted colors, but this special object has bright colors. Without a word of dialogue or second of action, you’ve communicated to the audience that this object matters.

Whenever in doubt, think back to the why of dialogue. If your scene doesn’t need to accomplish any of this, then it probably shouldn’t be told through dialogue.

How much of my book should be dialogue?

This is a very common question. And as always, the answer is simply “it depends” or “you should use as much dialogue as you need”.

I obsessed over this, for a short time, when I was younger. But all my research just concluded the same thing: the percentage of dialogue in a book differs drastically between books and authors. Some authors even start out writing 30% dialogue, but end up writing 70% dialogue at the end of their career.

A general rule of thumb is probably that the percentage of dialogue should be between 20% and 80%. You’ll barely find books outside that range.

Similarly, a general rule of thumb is that dialogue is something at which you’ll keep improving for decades. That’s why many authors end up writing much more dialogue than at the start. They became better at applying this magical property of dialogue to multitask and be efficient—without sacrificing the fact it should sound natural.

Other than that? No percentage is better than another and you shouldn’t focus on it. Focus on writing good dialogue when it’s appropriate, and you’ll be fine.


Everything mentioned in this chapter in explored more in-depth in upcoming chapters. This chapter is merely an overview of why dialogue matters. Because now that you understand, you also know when a dialogue scene works and when it doesn’t.

Good dialogue …

  • Feels realistic and a natural expression of people’s desire to talk.
  • Multitasks (by progressing plot, deepening characters, and creating a mini-story through conflict)
  • And is more efficient than any other type of prose.

To simplify this, remember the two key properties: dialogue should sound natural and be interesting. Let’s explores those properties in the next two chapters.

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