How to Use Dialogue in Writing

Instructor: Monica Sedore

Monica holds a master's degree and teaches 11th grade English. Previously, she has taught first-year writing at the collegiate level and worked extensively in writing centers.

When used correctly, good dialogue can add great illustration to a piece of writing. This lesson will cover what dialogue is, when to use it, and how to punctuate it.

Dialogue is a conversation.


In nonfiction and/or academic writing, just like in creative writing, dialogue can be used to illustrate an idea or to better convey a thought. When using dialogue in nonfiction writing such as an essay, it is important to remember that dialogue should be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. Dialogue is best used in an expository essay in which the writer is tasked with explaining a topic or in a narrative essay where the writer is telling a story.

Dialogue, like a quote from an outside source, should generally be featured in the body (the middle) of an essay. While it may be appropriate to begin an essay with a quote as the hook (the initial sentence that gets the reader interested), writing dialogue elsewhere in the paper without first giving it appropriate context will likely confuse the reader. Good dialogue in nonfiction writing should be sandwiched in the middle of a paragraph to ensure that the paragraph has a clear topic sentence (the first sentence of the paragraph that explains what the rest of the paragraph is about) that precedes the dialogue as well as an explanation as to how the dialogue serves to support the topic sentence.

In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott uses dialogue to better illustrate her tense feelings during her early career as a restaurant reviewer:

They'd be pretending to snore, or rolling their eyes at my overwrought descriptions, no matter how hard I tried to tone those descriptions down, no matter how conscious I was of what a friend said to me gently in my early days of restaurant reviewing. 'Annie,' she said, 'it is just a piece of chicken. It is just a bit of cake.' But because by then I had been writing for so long, I would eventually let myself trust the process -- sort of, more or less.

In this instance, it's not enough for Lamott to say that her friend tried to calm her down; for her to really make the point, it is necessary for her to tell the audience what her friend actually said. This is the kind of dialogue that should be used within the body of an essay.

Punctuating Dialogue

The most common punctuation marks that are used when punctuating dialogue are the period, the comma, the question mark, and the exclamation point. Each of these punctuation marks is used to convey the tone of the speaker's statement. As with any sentence, whether it's part of a dialogue or not, we understand a declarative statement that simply expresses a thought to end in a period:

'I rode the bus home.'

An interrogative statement expresses a question and ends in a question mark:

'You rode the bus home?'

Finally, an exclamatory statement expresses a thought enthusiastically (as though the speaker is shouting or yelling) in an exclamation point:

'I can't believe you rode the bus home!'

Notice in each of these statements that the punctuation mark belongs inside the quotation mark.

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