Write Dialogue Essay

By now, the rules of using quotation marks have probably been pounded into your head–use them when quoting a source or using dialogue, and know where to put your punctuation.

But don’t worry if they haven’t been pounded into your head. I’ll cover it later.

You may understand when to use quotation marks and even when to include quotes from outside sources, but what about dialogue?

That’s the one that always gets you, right?

You may not know the technical difference between quoting a source and using dialogue, or maybe you don’t know how to tell which to include in your essay, or how to properly incorporate dialogue into your essay.

Slow down. Take a breath. Just relax.

I’m here to answer these and other questions you may have about how to write dialogue in an essay. I’ll take you through the main what, when, why, how, and where of writing dialogue:

  • What is dialogue?
  • When is it appropriate to use dialogue in your essay?
  • Why should you use dialogue?
  • How to write dialogue in an essay
  • Where can you get more information about using dialogue?

Dialogue: What It Is and What It Isn’t

In order for you to know how to write dialogue in an essay, you should know what exactly dialogue is first.

It’s really pretty simple. Dialogue is just a conversation between two or more people. It can be used in movies, plays, fiction or, in this case, essays. Dialogue should not be confused with quotations from outside sources.

Because quotation marks are used with both dialogue and quoting directly from sources, it’s important to know the difference between the two. Here are the main differences to help clear up any confusion you might have:

DialogueDirect quotes
Conversation between 2 or more peopleInformation from an outside source used word-for-word in your essay
Used as a hook or as part of a larger storyUsed as a hook or to provide support for an argument

A big point of confusion often comes from directly quoting dialogue. In this case, think about what you’re using that dialogue for–to demonstrate a point in your argument. Therefore, quoting dialogue would fall under the direct quote category.

Now that you know what dialogue is, it’s time to explore when to use it in your essay.

Knowing When to Use Dialogue in Your Essay and Why You Should Bother

As I mentioned before, dialogue is used all over the place, especially in movies, television, novels, and plays. For you and for the purposes of this advice, however, dialogue only really appears in one kind of essay–the narrative essay.

Why is this the case? It’s because other types of essays (i.e., argumentative and expository essays) aim to claim. In an argumentative essay, you are claiming that your point of view is the right one, and in an expository essay you are making a claim about how something works or explaining an idea.

Narrative essays, on the other hand, involve a more story-like nature. They tell readers of your past experiences. Many of those experiences include other people and the conversations you’ve had with them.

Using dialogue in argumentative and expository essays usually won’t add to your argument and may actually make it weaker. This is because your friends and family are probably not the best sources to  get your support from–at least not for essays. Instead, it’s a better plan to directly quote or paraphrase from experts in the topic that your essay is about.

Using dialogue in narrative essays is a great technique. Dialogue helps move the story along, adds dimension to any characters you might have, and creates more interest for the reader.

Don’t believe me? Imagine reading a novel in which none of the characters spoke, or a movie in which none of the actors had a single line. Pretty boring, right? Well the same concept can apply to your narrative essay.

How to Write Dialogue in an Essay

Now that you understand when to use dialogue, we can get into the nitty-gritty of proper formatting. (That is, just in case your teacher hasn’t covered it, or if you need a little bit of a review.) The rules for writing dialogue in your essay break down into two main categories: proper use of quotation marks and where to put other punctuation.

Quotation Marks (U.S. rules)

There are three main rules about quotation marks you need to know. They’re listed below, followed by examples:

Rule 1: Use double quotation marks to indicate that a person is speaking in your writing.

Example: When I was young, my mother told me, “Follow your passion and the money will come.”

Rule 2: Use single quotation marks around a quote within a quote.

Example: “What did Benjamin Franklin mean when he said, ‘An investment in knowledge pays the best interest’?” Ms. Jackson asked.

Rule 3: If a person in your essay has more than a paragraph of dialogue, use the opening quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but use closing quotation marks only at the end of the dialogue.

Example: Sarah nodded and said, “I think you’re right. We can’t get very far on this project if we can’t work together.

“But now there’s hardly any time left. Do you really think we can get it all done by Friday?”

Punctuation

There are only a few basic rules you need to know about where to put your punctuation when using dialogue.

Rule 1: If the quotation is at the end of a sentence, ALWAYS put your periods inside the quotation marks.

Ricky cried, “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do”.

Doc explained, “The reason the time machine isn’t working is because the flux capacitor doesn’t have enough power.”

Rule 2: Put question marks and exclamation points inside the quotation marks only if they are part of what the person said.

The girl shouted, “Get that thing away from me”!

Billy was so ecstatic that he screamed, “I passed! I passed calculus!”

Rule 3: If the quote is part of a larger question or exclamation, put the punctuation after the quotation marks.

Did you hear Leo scream, “I’m king of the world?”

Did he just say, “The bird is the word”?

Rule 4: Use commas after said, asked, exclaimed or other similar verbs if they fall before the quote.

My brother said “I’m going to get you for this, sis.”

Mom always says, “Don’t play ball in the house.”

Rule 5: Place a comma inside the quotation marks if those verbs come after the quote.

“It’s getting dark. Come back inside” our mother called.

“Dinner will be ready in 10 minutes,” Mrs. Perkins said.

Rule 6: If a quoted sentence is broken up, put commas after the first part of the sentence, and after said, asked, exclaimed, etc.

“Yeah” she shrugged “I guess you’re right.”

“No,” she said, “I don’t have any plans tomorrow.”

Proper use of quotation marks and punctuation is not some random thing that you have to learn for no reason. These rules make your sentences easier to read and understand. Without them, your dialogue may turn into a headache for your reader, or for you when you go back and edit your writing.

Where to Find More Resources for How to Write Dialogue in an Essay

If you need some further clarification, you can use the links below for more examples and explanation on how to write dialogue in an essay.

Quotation Marks with Fiction, Poetry, and Titles – Purdue Owl

Talking Texts: Writing Dialogue in the College Composition Classroom

Writing Story Dialogue

How to Write Dialogue – Grammar Girl

Dialogue in Narrative Essays

In addition, the Kibin personal narrative essay examples can show you what dialogue looks like incorporated into a complete essay.

If you don’t think you quite have the hang of it when you’re done writing, you can send your essay to the Kibin editors for advice on how to fix it.

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.

Continuing my efforts to blog less about the profession of screenwriting and more about the craft, I thought I’d offer up some thoughts on dialogue. As with my earlier post on How to Write a Scene, this isn’t an exhaustive tutorial by any means. But it’s at least a guide for how I do it.

1. Listen to how actual people talk

We all watch movies and television, which is chock full of dialogue: good, bad and inane. One might think it helpful to listen to great actors speaking great words. It’s not. In fact, it will probably screw you up.

It’s like trying to paint landscapes based on how other artists paint landscapes. The best you can do is a crude approximation. In order to paint a great landscape, you need to get your butt out in the cornfield and paint what you see. There’s really no alternative.

Fortunately, the world is full of dialogue cornfields. Sitting at Fatburger for lunch, I eavesdropped on two engineers discussing fire door trim allowances, and two women in their 60’s clucking about how small the hamburgers were. Far more important than the content of the conversations was the flow, the back-and-forth. We tend to think of dialogue as a tennis volley, with the subject being hit back and forth between speakers. But when you really listen, you realize that people talk over each other constantly, and rarely finish a complete thought.

To get a sense of this flow, you need to stop paying attention to the actual words being spoken. It’s the auditory equivalent of un-focusing your eyes. Listen for which speaker is dominating the conversation, and how often the other party chimes in to acknowledge he’s still paying attention. (“Uh-huh.” “Yeah.” “Really?”) Questions are often not phrased as questions, and in real life, no one speaks with exclamation points.

How often should you eavesdrop? Pretty much constantly, with particular focus on finding interesting speakers. Some people are inherently funny, and if you soak up enough of their rhythms you can recreate them on the page fairly faithfully. But even the annoying woman ahead of you at the checkout line deserves a listen. You never know when she might come in handy.

2. Figure out the flow of your dialogue

Generally, before I put pen to paper, I let the scene loop in my head 10 or 40 times. Those first cycles are silent, but eventually characters begin to talk. Based on what needs to happen in the scene, it’s often pretty clear who’ll be saying what. But figuring out the flow — the how, the when, the why — takes time. You can rush it, but you’ll often end up with too many words in the wrong order. Or worse, you’ll end up with characters talking at each other rather than with each other.

So imagine watching your scene, but in a foreign language with the subtitles turned off. What does the talking feel like? What’s the emotion behind the words? Who’s in control? There’s a classic drama exercise in which actors have to stage a scene speaking only faux-Chinese. That’s what you’re looking for at this stage. Not the words, but the texture.

3. Pattern out the information

Conversations in real life are often empty (“these burgers are too small”), but movie conversations almost always involve an exchange of information (“the fingerprints don’t match” or “I’m not sure I ever loved you”). Your job as a writer is figuring out how your characters would tell each other the information.

Let’s say Bob needs to tell Mary that her dog has been eaten by a python. As the writer, you need to decide not only what facts Bob knows, but how he’s anticipating Mary will react to the news. This will determine not only how he starts the conversation (“Say, you were talking about how you wanted to get a new dog, right?”) but every subsequent decision along the way.

Of course, as the screenwriter you’re not solely interested in helping the characters convey information to each other; your primary focus is getting that information to the audience. The challenge is to do the latter while pretending to the former. So if it’s slipping a bit of exposition in a joke, or staging an altercation to reveal a piece of backstory, find a way.

Bad dialogue tends to spray out information in every direction, whereas smart dialogue sneaks the facts in while you’re otherwise entertained.

4. Write the scribble version

The scribble version is the very rough draft of a scene, devoid of formatting, punctuation and other garnishes. My scribble versions tend to be largely dialogue, with an emphasis on the overall flow rather than finding le mot juste.

5. Write the nice version

Once you have the blueprint for the scene, it’s time to go back and start worrying about getting each word right. Great dialogue has a melody to it, and achieving that is probably unteachable. But you can write pretty good dialogue simply by reading each line aloud, over and over, smoothing off the awkwardness through better words or a different composition.

Movie dialogue is how characters would speak if they had a few extra seconds to compose their thoughts between lines. It’s just slightly optimized. But it’s very easy to overshoot and end up in soap opera land. Keeping dialogue real but efficient is one of the hardest challenges in screenwriting.

6. Ask: Are characters listening, or just speaking?

Once you have the scene finished, take a look back and make sure your characters aren’t just speaking because it’s their turn. That’s a common problem, perpetuated (I believe) by the prevalence of exposition-heavy crime dramas.

  • BOOTHE
  • Two campers found the body in a culvert five miles down river.
  • GARMAN
  • Toxicology shows arsenic in the well.
  • BOOTHE
  • Looks like we got ourselves a serial killer.

While actors could probably pull this off as a conversation (with a lot of head nodding), it’s not hard to get Garman listening and responding:

  • BOOTHE
  • Two campers found the body in a culvert five miles down river. Once we get the toxicology back…
  • GARMAN
  • Just came. Arsenic in the well.
  • BOOTHE
  • Looks like we got ourselves a serial killer.

7. Ask: Is there a shorter version that works as well?

Many times, the best way to improve dialogue is to cut it. Once you’ve let a scene sit for a while, revisit it with a red pen and look for what could be cut. If a piece of information isn’t essential, it should probably go. And a joke isn’t worth it if you’ve had to break the scene to achieve it.

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