Purpose of dialogue

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Click on the Play button to hear a message from Anne.

Dialogue is not included just for the fun of it; it has a purpose.

Generally, dialogue makes a literary work enjoyable and lively. But there are more serious purposes:

  • To advance the plot – to move the story along
  • To reveal the personalities of your characters
  • To introduce conflict between characters – and hence build tension
  • To reveal turning points in the character arcs
Advancing the plot

Dialogue can/must advance the plot through dissemination of information. If the dialogue does not advance the plot, it needs pruning!

Dialogue also presents the past (through the mouths of the characters) and determines the tone of a narrative.

And, where your world is a fantasy, including essential facts via dialogue (rather than giving an info dump) provides the gentlest education for the reader.

Revealing personalities of characters

What people say says a lot about them, so their dialogue reveals aspects of the characters that cannot be understood otherwise. You can do it through body language and other actions, but dialogue is the most revealing way of giving your reader insights into your cast of characters.

Ditto, what people think also reveals a lot! For a narrator who is not a character all you get is their thoughts. Their perspective on what’s going on.

(We consider under what circumstances you might reveal the thoughts of other characters in the RedPen Training module: Point of View.)

Introducing conflict

Dialogue provides opportunity to convey conflict, an essential ingredient in any story. They can hold opposing views, have a row!

This has the effect of building tension. It begs questions in the mind of the reader:

  • Who will win the argument?
  • How are they affected by the exchange?
  • What action might one or other take following this conversation?
Revealing turning points in character arcs

Also, through interactions, the effects on individual emotions, reversals (changes of mind) allows you to develop the character arc.

Generally, it makes a literary work enjoyable and lively.


Look back at your highlighting of dialogue in the Billy Goats Gruff, Gone Fishing and the piece of your own writing.

For each section of dialogue, identify its purpose. It could one or more of the following.

  • Is it advancing the plot?
  • Is is revealing personalities of characters?
  • Is it introducing conflict?
  • Is it revealing turning points in character arcs?

If the dialogue does none of these – why is it there at all?

Thinking about your own writing in particular:

  • Do you have enough?
  • Do you have too much?
  • How purposeful is your dialogue?

Reference materials

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