How to Write Dialogue

Posted Thu, 3/10/2016 - 10:35am by  |  Category:

Nicholas O'ConnellThis is the Hugo House “How-To” series. Every week (give or take a few) we’ll share a short tip related to the writing life. This week’s post comes from Nicholas O’Connell. His March 12 workshop, Writing Dialogue, will explain how to set up a dialogue, individuate the speakers, add gestures and body language, and conclude it in such a way that dialogue advances the story, whether in fiction, nonfiction, poetry. 

Dialogue is one the quickest and most efficient ways of characterizing someone, whether in fiction or nonfiction. A few back and forth lines of conversation can illuminate character very quickly. Dialogue can consist of short verbal exchanges woven into a character sketch or scene, or it can take the form of an entire conversation. When constructing an entire scene around a dialogue, keep in mind the following points:

Set scene

Start with a paragraph which introduces the two people and describes their surroundings, relationship, etc. but doesn’t give away the outcome of the conversation. Where does it take place? What are the circumstances? Who are the speakers?

Dialogue form

Write the rest of the scene in dialogue form—meaning the back and forth of their conversation, he said, she said—with an occasional sentence describing a gesture or tone of voice. Giving the blow by blow of a conversation shows how someone interacts with others, demonstrates how he or she resolve conflicts, reaches consensus, or simply blows up.

Add gestures, body language, tone to interpret dialogue

Occasionally add gestures such as pointing, wrinkling a nose, clearing a throat, or body language such as putting hands on hips or rolling eyes to add depth and richness to the dialogue scene.

Learn more about Nicholas O’Connell’s March 12 workshop, Writing Dialogue.


Nicholas O’Connell, M.F.A, Ph.D., is the author of The Storms of Denali (University of Alaska Press, 2012), On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature (University of Washington Press, 2003), At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (University of Washington Press Press, 1998), Contemporary Ecofiction (Charles Scribner’s, 1996) and Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers (Mountaineers, 1993). He has contributed to multiple publications, is the publisher/editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review, and the founder of the online and Seattle-based writing program, www.thewritersworkshop.net.