Dialogue (Dialog) Exercises for Writers

Dialogue is one of the most difficult aspects of writing to master. There are many pitfalls to avoid.

Stilted Language

This is dialogue that does not sound like natural speech.

Filler Dialogue

This is dialogue that does not advance the scene or your understanding of the characters.

Expository Dialogue

This is dialogue in which the character explains the plot. It can also be dialogue in which the character repeats information for the benefit of the audience.
Dialogue

Naming

This occurs when one character uses another character’s name to establish identity. People rarely say another person’s name back to them. It is the character trait of a stereotypical used car salesman.

Overuse of Modifiers

This is the overuse dialogue modifiers such as shouted, exclaimed, cried, whispered, stammered, opined, insinuated, or hedged. Modifiers such as these can be useful is small doses, but don’t rely on them to convey your character’s moods or thoughts. Use the word “said” unless you have a good reason not to.

Exercises

  1. Write down the things you say over the course of the day. Examine your speech patterns. You don’t have to get every word. You may find that you say less than you think. Many people speak in short statements. You might find you rarely speak in complete sentences.
  2. Find a crowded place such as a restaurant, a bar, or a shopping mall. Write down snippets of the conversations you hear. Avoid trying to record whole conversations. Follow along for a brief exchange and then listen for your next target.
  3. Test responses to the same question. Think of a question that will require at least a little thought. Ask it of several different people. Compare their responses. Focused on their words. Write them down as soon as you can.
  4. Record several different TV shows. Some choices include: sitcom, news, drama, talk show, infomercial, sporting event, etc. Write a transcript using just the dialogue and people’s names. If you don’t know the names, just use a description such as announcer or redheaded woman. You can also transcribe two shows of the same genre. Use one show you like and one you dislike. Compare dialogue between fiction and non-fiction shows. Look for such things as greetings, descriptions of physical actions, complete sentences and slang. Look for verbal ticks such as like, you know, uhhhh, well, etc. Compare how these dialogue crutches change according to the show format and quality.
  5. Rewrite one or more of the shows in exercise 4 as prose. Try to recreate the show as accurately as possible. Note how easy or difficult it is to work in the entire dialogue from the show. Does it seem to flow naturally and read well? Does it get in your way? Rewrite it, eliminating any dialogue you feel is unnecessary. Try not to change dialogue until your final draft. Work with what you have. You don’t have to rewrite the whole show. Do enough to be sure you have the feeling for it.
  6. Rewrite one of the the transcripts from exercise 4 using as much of the dialogue as possible, but changing the scene. Change the setting. Change the people’s intent. Change the tone. Observe how easy or difficult it is to give the same words a different intent.
  7. Write the dialogue for a scene without using any modifiers. Just separate each statement by line. Write down the conversation as it flows. After you complete the dialogue, add narrative description. Don’t add dialogue tags such as “said”, “shouted” or “ordered”. Instead, work the dialogue into the action as a logical progression of the statements. Finally, add any dialogue tags that are absolutely necessary. Keep them simple such as said, told, or asked. Again, only put them in if you cannot find other options. Compare this to the previous dialogue you have written. See what you like or dislike about the changes.
  8. Write a scene in which one person tells another person a story. Write it as a dialogue, not just a first person narrative. Clearly have one person telling the story and the other person listenin. The second person should ask questions or make comments. The first goal of this scene is to have the story stand alone as a subject. The second goal is to have the characters’ reactions to the story be the focal point of the scene.
  9. Write a scene in which one person is listening to two other people have an argument or discussion. For example, a child listening to her parents argue about money. Have the third character narrate the argument and explain what is going on, but have the other two provide the entire dialogue. It is not necessary to have the narrator understand the argument completely. Miscommunication is a major aspect of dialogue.
  10. Write a conversation between two liars. Give everything they say a double or triple meaning. Never state or indicate through outside description that these two people are lying. Let the reader figure it out. Don’t be obvious. Don’t let one character accuse the other of lying. That is too easy.
  11. Write a conversation in which no character speaks more than three words per line of dialogue. Again, avoid crutches such as explaining everything they say through narration. Use your narration to enhance the scene. Don’t use it to explain the dialogue.
  12. Write a narrative or scripted scene in which several characters are taking an active role in the conversation. This can be a difficult aspect of dialogue to master. The reader must be able to keep track of the motivations and interests of all the characters. This can be especially difficult in prose. The time between one character speaking and the next is often interrupted by action or description. See how many characters your can sustain within the scene. It must still make sense and be engaging.

 

Articles about Writing Dialogue

42 thoughts on “Dialogue (Dialog) Exercises for Writers

  1. These ideas are fun and easy to teach. I’ll
    definately be using them to teach my Creative
    Writing class. Thanks!

  2. I am thinking of writing a screenplay that I have been wanting to write for 5 years. I am going to use your steps because you are so right, dialogue
    is the most hardest element in a screenplay and it is a make or
    break element in a movie or book.

  3. I am a young writer, and often have problems writing dialog between people. Thanks to these writing tips I have been able to help my writing progress, and get a whole lot better. I belive that many people can learn from these easy tips.
    Akasha (14)

  4. I am a young English student, after read this mentioned above I deceided to speek or write in English, anything, any topic under the sky. I am sure, I will win to this attempt

  5. I think these are great ideas for writing dialog in my storys for creative writing class. I
    srugle creating dialog in my story’s and i think that this will help me alot

  6. Hi,
    Excellent advice, thanks a lot.
    One question though, who are the best writers to study the different stlyes of dialogues.
    I am currently knee deep in my first projext and I am struggling to find the correct tense for my narrators vioce (if i choose to have one),and i am writing a story with 5 main characters, who will be in
    the same scenes for most of the book. Think Harry potter with Ron, Hermione, Harry, and two
    other main charcters. I could go the mehtod i am familiar with, from novels such a timothy
    Zhan’s star wars series, with first person narrative
    that changes to a different character each chapter. However, my characters are in the same
    room for most of the early scenes in the book, and i dont wnat to re-wrtie scenes for each
    perspective.

    Any advice, tips or even simialar styles already out there would be very helpful?

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  9. I’m glad you liked the exercises Sophia. I am now featuring a writing prompt every day with my writing updates on the main page.

  10. This is the first thing I’ve read and I already love this website! Looking at these exercises taught me a lot of things about what makes good dialogue that I hadn’t realized before. Thanks!

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  12. This is amazing. I’ve spent a fortune on books and e-courses and writing courses in the community and never received the informaiton I just recived from this website. Thanks so much.

  13. This helped me immensely in some dialogue scenes I have been struggling with lately. If I ever attempt to write a script of any sort, I’m sure it will help me further; a profuse thank you to this website!

  14. Hi,
    First, sorry for my English, I’m a French speaker…

    I am very impressed by the contents of this site. For me, which starts to write, it is a really invaluable and very interesting tool.
    Like everybody say :
    THANK YOU!!!!

    Claudia

  15. An example of excellent dialog is in the new book, “The What-If Guy” by Taylor Wilshire. This is a recent book award winner of the “People’s Choice Book Review-2006 Book of the Year for the Chick Lit category–they think it was a winner for it’s dialog. The dialog is funny, clipped and natural.

  16. I have a question. If you say this: “Mom, I’m going to go play with Shawn okay?” screamed Jason.

    At the end of ur quotation do you capitalize how he said it? So do i need to capitalize scream or not?

  17. hello,
    i thought that this website should give examples of afew dialogues.

    a bit about me:
    i am a 13 yr old student who intends on becoming a sucessful lawyer. I love to talk and argue my point, Through day night and even early hours of the morning i will argue until found correct!

  18. To Ashley,
    No you would not capitalize screamed. It would be the same as in when there isn’t a question mark, such as: “Mom, I’m going to play with Shawn,” screamed Jason.

    Hope that helps.

  19. I found this article very helpful. However tip numer two scares me a little. I wonder if any writers have ever
    eavesdropped on me before? Haha.

  20. Pingback: Un Box Yourself! » 12 Exercises for Improving Dialogue | Writer's Resource Center
  21. We recommend this exercise to rejected authors so they can tune up their dialogue skills. A Great story idea without great dialogue won’t cut it. Write on! Resubmit!

  22. wow.great exercise. I hope its ok If I post your article to my blog providing a link back here. I really like your writings. It is very professional and clear. I think sharing this into the community will be a great help especially for those who are aspiring to be writers.

  23. I found these very effective. I especially found number 7 effective as it really challenges the writer to ommit as many modifiers as you can. Upon doing so I found it gave my piece a cleaner sound, also the flow of the prose is much better.

  24. As a writing student who wants to keep their mind refreshed over summer, these are excellent ideas and exercises. Thanks a bunch!

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