Dialogue is action

Dialogue is action

Today, I want to talk about one of my favourite aspects of writing - dialogue. More specifically, I want to focus on something that most playwrights and screenwriters know very well: that dialogue is not just “some people chatting”. In story-crafting terms dialogue is ACTION.

Most writers know that dialogue is a great tool to convey information to the audience, be it directly or indirectly. The former usually happens when information is conveyed through what the character says, which can again be either explicit or implicit. An example of explicit information conveyed through a line of dialogue would be a character saying, “I have lived in this town my whole life,” whereby we have just learned that - surprise surprise - this character has lived in this town their entire life. A common way of implicitly conveying information happens when establishing relationships between characters in the opening scenes of any story. So these will be lines such as, “Did you pick up mum’s present?” (indicating these two people are siblings.) Or, “Remember that party in the seventh grade?” (indicating these two people have been friends for a long time.) And so on.

On the other hand, we have a bunch of indirectly conveyed information that comes through a character’s vocabulary and syntax, choice of words, length of sentences, and so on. I would add dialogue attributes to this - so any adverbs or actions beats that accompany the line of dialogue and show how the character said it. This part can also convey some external information about the character (such as their cultural background, their profession, outlook on life, etc) but mostly, they convey how the character feels in the moment they say the line.

Passive vs. Active Dialogue

Now, that is all great and everything. Most writers are familiar with the above, either on an intellectual or instinctual level. But despite knowing how important the dialogue can be - or perhaps exactly because of it - it can sometimes feel flat. Almost boring. Why is that? One possible reason is that the dialogue is too passive.

The thing is, every line your characters say, is an act, it is an action that they do. I think writers can sometimes forget that because it seems like characters just say things and aren’t really doing anything. But that is exactly because they are acting through dialogue.

Dialogue is just like any other action in your story. It has a goal, a motive, and an intention. So my first question, if your dialogue feels flat, would be: Why do the characters say any of these things? Is there a motive behind every line? Does every line contribute something to the story?

I would advise you not to worry about the subtext, that will come organically. But do think about the intentions of your characters. What is the character trying to achieve? What are they saying this for? An intention will give any phrase momentum and energy to move the story. It will create the feeling that something is happening and unfolding through the dialogue.

Of course, not every line will be packed with grandiose motivations to destroy or save the world. That’s not what we’re talking about - just like when we talk about actions and goals within the story.  And how much you analyse your dialogue and how deep you go into its motivation and goals will depend solely on you. You can look for the micro actions. Feel into why the characters are even speaking in the first place. If the dialogue is just there to fill up the space, the audience - and the characters - will feel that.

As always, the point of this is not so that you would over-analyse and overthink your dialogue. It’s just about a way to approach writing and revising your dialogue. Try it out, see if it works for you, and follow your intuition.


You are probably familiar with the dialogue exercise where you come up with 20 different ways of a character saying “It’s raining.” (If not, you can take some time to do it now.)

Now let’s put a slight twist to it to practice adding subtext and intentions to dialogue.

Take the phrase “It’s raining” and come up with 10 different situations where a character might say it, each time with a different intention. For example, a character might say it to evoke guilt in their friend that has left them waiting for too long. Or they could say it as an expression of love while reminding their daughter to take an umbrella. Brainstorm a series of situations and write them down. Then choose three and write them as short scenes.

Of course, you are always welcome to adapt and tweak the exercise to your needs and wants, like using a different sentence or setting more restrictions for yourself (for example, always using the same character or always using the same location and so on).

The main thing is you experiment with it and have fun!

Before you go...

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it inspired you to have some fun with writing dialogues.

If you haven’t already, find me on Instagram and sign up for my newsletter.

See you next time!

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