Short Story Dialogue

Short story dialogue is extremely important, and the way you develop it determines whether or not your story will be branded as exciting or downright boring.


Dialogue refers to conversation that the characters have between or among themselves. It not only gives life to the story, but it also makes it interesting. It is no wonder that Alice found the book her sister was reading boring as it had no conversations in it:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: one or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’ - extract from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Good question this: “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?”

But to suit what we are discussing, let me rephrase that:

“What is the use of a story without conversations?”

It follows therefore that an interesting short story is one with good dialogue, one where the characters are allowed to interact with one another.

I am not saying, you can’t write a story without dialogue, what I am saying is that your story will be more interesting with dialogue in it. And oftentimes, the narrative is filtered through the dialogue of the characters.

But it is not enough just to incorporate dialogue into the narrative; you must learn to write it in a manner that is both appealing and meaningful.

So how do you write short story dialogue?

Let us start with what you must not do. Read the passage below:

“She is lying!” Henry blurted. “I have no idea what she is talking about.” “Oh yes you do!” the girl retorted vehemently. “Don’t pretend you have no idea!” “Okay, everyone, calm down,” Henry’s mother said.

What do you notice about the above passage?

There is no space in between the separate dialogues, so the whole passage looks quite untidy and is difficult to read. Furthermore, it is also quite confusing, because the dialogues seem to blend into each other. It is not even enough just to put quotation marks to indicate the start and end of a conversation.

Now, here is how to do it correctly:

  • Give each character her own paragraph.

  • leave a line space between each paragraph.

So the above passage may be re-written in this manner:

“She is lying!” Henry blurted. “I have no idea what she is talking about.”

“Oh yes you do!” the girl retorted vehemently. “Don’t pretend you have no idea!”

“Okay, everyone, calm down,” Henry’s mother said.

Or you may choose to indent the paragraphs, depending on the style you are using.

And here is how it can look without line spacing between the paragraphs:

“She is lying!” Henry blurted. “I have no idea what she is talking about.”
“Oh yes you do!” the girl retorted vehemently. “Don’t pretend you have no idea!”
“Okay, everyone, calm down,” Henry’s mother said.

I have seen a number of texts in which the dialogues are written without line spacing. This is okay for hand-written text (because obviously we do not completely fill from top to bottom each writing line), but even so, the dialogues should not be clustered together because they won’t be so easy to read.

You have got that, huh? Good. But we are not done yet about short story dialogue.

Now let us talk about writing meaningful dialogue labels.

What do I mean by, ‘dialogue labels’?

A dialogue label is a phrase or sentence which occurs before or after the words a character says, and usually explains who says the dialogue, how he says it or why he says it.

Here is an example:

“I can’t live without you,” Lewis said.

The phrase Lewis said is a dialogue label. The biggest challenges you’d probably face when writing labels is writing meaningful ones.

The first rule is: Avoid using clich├ęd lebels. . By that I mean, avoid using over and over basic and common words like:

He said, he asked, he told him…

It makes the story sound unexciting. So how can you make short story dialogue exciting?

One word: imagine. Imagine your characters as they speak. What facial expression do they have? What body movements are they making? What tone of voice are they speaking with? If you find it difficult to imagine with your eyes open, try closing them!

Let us work on an example together. Remember this one:

“I can’t live without you,” Lewis said.

Sounds boring, eh?

Okay let us use some imagination. Let us suppose that Lewis is telling these words to someone he loves, say, his girlfriend. How do you think he would do it? He would obviously not do it casually, but sincerely, from the bottom of his heart. His voice is not hard and cold, but full of warmth. What kind of expression do you suppose is on his face? Obviously one full of emotion. His eyes are glowing with affection. What about his body movements? He is probably moving towards her, perhaps reaching out to touch her hand.

Now let us put all that in the label.

“I can’t live without you,” Lewis breathed, reaching out to hold her hand.

Sounds better doesn’t it? Well, we can even make it even more interesting.

“I can’t live without you,” Lewis breathed, his eyes glowing with affection as he reached out to grasp her hand.

Cool, eh? Oh Goody! I bet you can even do much better than that!

A little word of caution though. A label is not always necessary after a dialogue. If your narrative is full of dialogue, in certain appropriate places, you may choose to eliminate the labels all together. This is to ensure that your story ‘flows’. Too many labels may make your story sound boring and too full of detail.

Here is a good example of what I mean from the short story Option C:

“Anyways, that is not the point,” Matthew sniggered. “Suppose you were given the task of punishing Mary and you were given two options: A—shoot her right in the head so that she dies, or B—burn her at a stake, which one would you choose?”

“I’d go for option A.”

“And why not option B?”

“It’s cruel man,” he barked in disgust, “I cant bare to watch a person burn to death—with all the screaming—the hair-raising screams for help, ugh!”

Take note of the dialogues in bold: they have no labels. But this does not make the reader confused. Why? Because the dialogue is flowing logically. The conversation is between two characters: Matthew and his brother. They speak one after the other, so even though I have removed the label from two of the dialogues, you can still follow along without getting confused.

Therefore, if two characters are speaking one after the other, you may choose to omit some labels where appropriate, but do not omit them altogether!

Yes indeed, writing a good short story is not just about writing an interesting narrative, but it is also about writing interesting short story dialogue. It is about using your imagination to the full. Your short story dialogue, apart from merely revealing what your characters say, should also reveal their moods, their movements and even their feelings.

Meaningful short story dialogue creates mental pictures. It enables the reader to see the characters as they speak, how they look and what they are doing. In turn, instead of just telling the reader outright, they infer feelings, dispositions and moods.

Yes, short story dialogue is one place where you should use your imagination to the full. So start imagining!

Having said all this, let me just appropriately ask:

“What is the use of a story without conversations?”

Return from Short Story Dialogue to Writing Short Stories


New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.






Don't worry -- your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you Writer-Digest.

Site Build It!


© 2012 Kundananji Creations