What Is the Purpose of Dialogue in Your Story?

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“What Is the Purpose of the Dialogue in Your Story?” by Joan Y. Edwards

What is the purpose of the dialogue in your story?

Nathan Bransford says:  Good dialogue has a purpose and builds toward something. A good conversation is an escalation.

Ginny Wiehardt says:  Break Up Dialogue with Action.

Remind your reader that your characters are human by letting them know the characteristics of their physical world: sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touch, and the aura it creates for them.

Physical details break up the ping-pong talking heads dialogue on the page. Add action, reaction, and description of place. Dialogue separates long passages of description. It makes it easier to read a page.

Does dialogue serve more than one purpose in your story?

ZZ Packer says dialogue has to hit six or seven different things. William H. Coles says a line of dialogue can’t be there for only one purpose.

Here are ten things dialogue can do. I think dialogue must do the first 6 and sometimes 7-10. What do you think?

  1. Advance the story plot and/or use conflict to change direction of plot
  2. Highlight character desire and motivation
  3. Create voice and tone, either for story or character
  4. Provide understanding of the gradual enlightenment and insight of characters
  5. Meet rhythmic necessity of human speech compatible with characters, time, and place of story.
  6. Add drama by showing escalating, increasing conflict and the resulting actions and reactions
  7. Emphasize theme or meaning
  8. Show time transition, usually subtle
  9. Create atmosphere, mood, and/or ambiance that is distinctive of the setting
  10. Inform the audience, but too much at one time about the plot, character’s history (backstory), setting, and theme

Let’s check the dialogue of a best selling novel:

“Ok. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. It’s only a Visa bill.” Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella.

  1. It let’s us know that there’s a problem with the main character’s Visa bill.
  2. It illuminates the main problem of the main character that the rest of the story is how she keeps trying not to pay this bill.
  3. It highlights the theme of the story.
  4. If the bill isn’t paid, it creates drama.
  5. It informs the audience.
  6. The words and rhythm hints that it’ll be a comedy.

To improve your writing of dialogue, read the books of authors noted for writing great dialogue:

Meredith Borders named ten authors who write great dialogue. Here are three of them: Judy Blume, Toni Morrison, and Douglas Adams. Read her article for all 10 and examples of their dialogue.

Taylor Holmes lists Top 10 Best Dialogue Movies:  Here are the first three: #1 Pulp Fiction #2  American Beauty, and #3 Reality Bites. Read her article for all 10 and dialogue excerpts, too.

Check three dialogue passages in one of your own stories. Does your dialogue serve more than one purpose? I’ll bet it does.


  1. Ali Hale. “Dialogue-Writing Tips.” http://www.dailywritingtips.com/dialogue-writing-tips/
  2. Dorian Scott Cole. “What about Dialogue, Is it Visual?” http://www.visualwriter.com/
  3. Erin. “Dialogue Dos and Don’ts:” http://www.dailywritingtips.com/dialogue-dos-and-donts/
  4. Ginny Wiehardt. “Top 8 Tips for Writing Dialogue:” http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/crafttechnique/tp/dialogue.htm
  5. Nathan Bransford. “Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue:” http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/09/seven-keys-to-writing-good-dialogue.html
  6. Stephen Parolini. “How to Write Good Dialogue:” http://www.noveldoctor.com/2011/05/04/how-to-write-good-dialogue/
  7. Taylor Holmes. “Top 10 Best Dialogue Movies:” http://taylorholmes.com/2011/03/09/top-10-best-dialogue-movies/
  8. Tom Nissley. Ephemeral Firmament blog. “Good Talking in Books:” http://ephemeralfirmament.typepad.com/ephemeral-firmament/2011/06/fortnightly-firmament-4-good-talking-in-books.html
  9. William H. Coles. “Essays-Dialogue” http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/dialogue/
  10. William H. Coles. “Literary Fiction Workshop.”  http://literaryfictionworkshop.com/


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Never Give Up
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Joan Y. Edwards
Copyright © 2012-2018 Joan Y. Edwards



14 thoughts on “What Is the Purpose of Dialogue in Your Story?”

  1. Joan, as always, great list of resources. I’ll have to check them out.

    I was bitten by the acting bug in high school and spent three summers at National Music Camp studying TV and Radio, acting, and the like. Also, I’m a native New Yorker, and attended tons of plays from HS up until the time I moved to the Boston area. My father was a good friend of Sammy Silverman, the attorney who won Joe Papp permission to put on Shakespeare in the Park, and we attended all the performances. Acting, reading plays, and going to the theater are a great way to develop an ear for dialogue.

    1. Dear Margaret,
      Thanks for wrting. I’m glad you like the list of resources. You are right. Acting, reading plays, and going to the theater is a great way to develop an ear for great dialogue.
      Celebrate you and your willingness to share!
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  2. Joan,
    Sometimes, I hear a line spoken and say, “I’ve got to write that one down.” Collecting dialogue #3-voice and tone is one way writers are like treasure hunters. As I writer, I have to determine if this “new” line I love has a purpose in a story. If not, I cannot include it. Your post is a good reminder! Thanks!

    1. Dear Linda,
      Thank you very much for writing. You are right, collecting tidbits of wonderful dialogue for voice and tone of story or character means you recognize great dialogue. Discovering that your pet lines don’t fit a particular story and taking them out, is part of wisdom as a writer. At that moment, you decide that your story is more important than you, the author. When the phrases you put in don’t belong, the readers remember neither your story or you, the author. They put the book down. But, aha, when all of the dialogue and words you put in expound on the particular situation in your story, it makes your story and you the author live forever in the hearts of the readers.
      You are very wise. Celebrate your wisdom.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  3. I see ten things my dialogue is missing. It almost certainly explains why my scenes lack energy. I followed the link to the complete list on dialogue, and I even read the comments. The comments showed me that people don’t all agree on the meaning and value of dialogue. Some of the suggestions by commenters were extremely abstract writing, and I have never liked that. Obviously Meredith Borders is not a fan of abstract dialogue, either.
    I don’t write a lot of fiction, but the next time I do, I will try to remember the ten things on this list. Or at least the first six. I doubt I have ever written dialogue that accomplishes even two of those things.

    1. Dear Katherine,
      Thanks for taking the time to write. I think you’re selling yourself short. Ask someone else to read your dialogue. I think they’ll tell you that your dialogue fits 3 of the 10 without even thinking about it.
      You write a lot of nonfiction. Your dialogue’s purpose would be to back up the facts in your work to add credibility to it.
      You’re right. Abstract conversation doesn’t have the element of believability.
      Everyone has opinions based on their experience. They don’t always agree. You are a great writer. Decide what works for you.

      Celebrate your humility,
      Rejoice in your talents
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  4. Joan, another great post. Your list of 10 is right on. I think dialogue also makes the story personal. I’m sharing this and will definitely be linking to it

  5. Dear Karen,
    Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to write. I honor your opinion. Telling me that my list of ten purposes of dialogue is right on is a big compliment. Thanks for sharing this and linking to it.
    Celebrate your willingness to share with others.
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

  6. Dialogue is a fiercely important component in writing. It’s interesting to see how the best dialogue writers find a way to make every character a standout. Good post as always, Joan!

    1. Dear Maureen,
      Thank you for writing. You are right, dialogue is a fiercely important component in writing. It is fascinating to read and enjoy how the best dialogue writers make every character a standout. It helps us remember that each person in the world is different in many ways and the same in many other ways. Enjoy your day! Enjoy your writing and illustrating!
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  7. Hi Joan,
    I’m now four days behind in responding to the blogs I love to follow.
    Your post is chock full of excellent information, and I’ll be sure to include this in my file–expectional writing tips.
    One of my favorite authors is Judy Blume. I’m glad you mentioned her.

    1. Dear Tracy,
      Thank you for writing. I’m glad you liked the information in my Purpose of Dialogue post. I am honored that you said it was chock full of excellent information. I love Judy Blume, too.

      Celebrate you
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

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