Seven Simple Tips for Writing Great Dialogue

by Ali on March 22, 2012

SHARE THIS POST:

(Image from Flickr by *clairity*)

A lot of fiction-writers struggle with dialogue. It’s tough to make fictional people sound convincing; it’s even tricky to punctuate dialogue correctly.

But dialogue is an essential part of your story. It makes your characters seem real; it’s often vital to the plot. It keeps your story fast-paced and easy to read, partly because of the way dialogue breaks up a page of text.

I usually find dialogue much easier to write than action or description. Even so, I’ve picked up plenty of tips over the past few years – and I’m hoping these will help you too.

#1: Your Dialogue Needs to Sound Real

Your dialogue should be convincing, so your readers can “hear” the conversation that’s taking place. This means:

  • Don’t let characters give long, unbroken speeches. In a normal conversation, there are interruptions, questions, or at least visual cues (e.g. someone nodding or frowning).
  • Use language that’s appropriate for your character. Most people will use contractions (“isn’t” rather than “is not”) when they talk; some will use non-standard English like “ain’t” or colloquial phrases.
  • Don’t always have your characters speaking in complete sentences. They might just say a single word or phrase, or they might trail off.

Here’s an example, from Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game:

“You’re in deep poo,” said Peter. “They found out what you did to that kid at school, and now they’re gonna make you do time out in the Belt.”

“I’m only six, moron. I’m a juvenile.”

“You’re a Third, turd. You’ve got no rights.”

The dialogue isn’t a true representation of how children speak (especially as Card’s child characters are extraordinarily intelligent) – but it sounds realistic, with the use of contractions like “you’re” and non-standard words like “gonna”, as well as the insults (“moron” and “turd”).

#2: … But Not Too Real

It’s all too easy (and I’ll confess I’ve fallen into this trap) to go a bit too far in trying to make your dialogue realistic.

Yes, if you listen to any real-life transcript of conversation, there’ll be a lot of pauses, “ums”, “you knows”, run-on sentences, and so on. Your job as an author, though, is to give a flavour of real dialogue, not a faithful reproduction.

This, for instance, could be a verbatim reconstruction of a conversation, but it’s going to (a) quickly become annoying to read and (b) make the characters sound slightly moronic, even if they’re not supposed to be.

“Um,” she said, “I dunno … that is … well, perhaps you’re right, I guess.”

“Yeah, of course I’m right,” he said. “Like, I’m always right, you know?”

Save the pauses, “you knows” and “ums” for when you really want to convey hesitancy or uncertainty; don’t use them as part of every conversation.

#3: Keep Dialogue Tags Simple

A dialogue tag looks like this:

  • He said
  • She answered
  • John asked

It’s the speaker’s name (or a pronoun referring to them) plus a speaking verb. This “tags” the dialogue as belonging to a particular character.

When I was a budding writer at primary school, I remember being taught to vary dialogue tags – we had to come up with a list of different words to use instead of “said”. While this is a great exercise for building a child’s vocabulary, it’s a useless one for real writers.

Readers don’t notice the repetition of “he said” or “she said”. We’re so used to reading these that our eyes just skim on over them.

But if you throw in a few unusual dialogue tags, those will stand out. Tags like “snarled” or “expostulated” probably don’t belong in your story, unless you’re writing a humorous piece.

The tags I tend to stick to are:

  • Said
  • Asked (it seems weird to me to have “said” for a question)

I’ll occasionally use “whispered” or “yelled” if a line needs to be delivered at a particular volume!

It’s also a good idea to avoid using adverbs and adjectives with your dialogue tags. Often, your character’s tone will be apparent from the words they use; you don’t need to tell the reader “John said angrily” or “Susan asked impatiently”.

#4: … Or Take Dialogue Tags Out Altogether

You definitely need some dialogue tags in your short story or novel, but you don’t need to tag every single line of speech. Here’s another way to assign dialogue to a character:

John looked up from the paper. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

It’s obvious that John’s speaking, because the dialogue comes straight after his action.

You can do it the other way round, too:

“He should have been home by now.” Sarah paced around the room, pausing long enough to glance out of the window at the empty street.

If you have a conversation between two people, you can sometimes get away with just having the lines of dialogue, with no tags at all, for a short space. This works especially well if the characters have quite different speech patterns.

Here’s an extract from Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse. The first line is Wooster’s, then the second is Jeeves’.  If you’re at all familiar with the characters, it’s very easy to tell who’s who!

“Under the tiddly-poms of whatever-it-is … How does the rest of it go?”

“Under the bludgeonings of change their heads are … pardon me … bloody but unbowed, sir.”

“That’s right. Your own?”

“No, sir. The late William Earnest Henley, 1849-1903.”

“Ah?”

“The title of the poem is ‘Invictus’. But did I understand Mrs Travers to say that Lord Sidcup was expected, sir?”

…and it goes on with a few more lines before there’s a line of action.

#5: Every Speaker Should Get a New Line

Something that’s obvious when you just have dialogue, but not so obvious when you have a mixture of dialogue and action, is that each new speaker should have a new line.

This, for instance, is incorrect:

“Could he be right?” David asked, turning to Rachel. “I don’t know,” she said.

Instead, it should be:

“Could he be right?” David asked, turning to Rachel.

“I don’t know,” she said.

(You could get away without the “she said” here, too, because the new line indicates the change of speaker.)

If a character does something just before they speak, you’ll also want to move their action onto the new line.

“Could he be right?” David asked, turning to Rachel.

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

#6: Punctuation Goes Inside the Closing Quotation marks

Dialogue can be fiddly to punctuate, because of the quotation marks. The main thing to remember is that punctuation goes inside the closing quotation marks. This applies whether it’s a full stop, exclamation mark, question mark, or comma.

It works like this:

“I don’t know.”

“What!”

“Is that right?”

“I think so,” she said.

If you’re ending dialogue with “she said” or any other tag, then the dialogue sentence should finish with a comma, not a period, and the tag should start with a lower-case letter (unless it begins with a name, obviously).

If the dialogue is followed by action, it should end with a full stop like any other sentence. Compare these:

“I found out all about it,” she said.

“I found out all about it.” She turned away.

In both cases, the punctuation still goes inside the quotation marks.

#7: You Can Break a Line of Dialogue in the Middle

Most of the time, dialogue tags or associated actions go before or after the dialogue. Sometimes, though, you’ll want to position a dialogue tag or action in the middle of the speech.

Here are a couple of examples:

“No,” she said. “No, I don’t believe you.”

“What the hell?” Tom looked around at the others. “Did any of you know about this?”

Usually, you do this to indicate a pause. It’s also a useful way to get the dialogue tag in near the start, if a character is going to deliver several sentences of dialogue.

If you split up a sentence, then the second part of the dialogue should start with a lower case letter. (At some stage I was taught the exact opposition – that the second part should always start with a capital – but it seems like that’s not how it’s supposed to be done!)

“Well,” Jane said, “perhaps we’d better agree to disagree.”

 

Whew! Dialogue is a lot of fun to write, though it can be tough to do well – it’s definitely a good idea to go back and edit your dialogue carefully after writing the first draft.

Got any questions about dialogue? Just drop a comment below. :-)

If you found this post useful, I’d love if it you’d share it with friends – by emailing or Tweeting it, or by linking to it from your Facebook account. Thanks!

{ 2 trackbacks }

Aliventures: Writer’s Oasis!
May 22, 2012 at 8:01 pm
You call it, Cap | Michelle Helliwell, historical romance author
March 4, 2013 at 1:50 am

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin Coyle March 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm

“Nice, clear, and concise,” she said.
Robin Coyle’s last blog post ..A Feel-Good Video to Start Your Day

Reply

Ali March 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm

“Thank you!” :-)

Reply

Daphnee March 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I’m totally getting your posts into my inbox! You have one of the best writing advice blogs I’ve ever read. Keep it up :)
Daphnee’s last blog post ..Merry Ostara 2012!

Reply

Ali March 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Thanks Daphnee! If there’s anything specific you want me to write about, just drop me a line and let me know. :-) (When you get the posts in your inbox, you can just hit “reply” on any of them to reach me…)

Reply

LycoRogue March 22, 2012 at 3:08 pm

You mentioned Ender’s Game! I love you more than I already did. ^_^ Another bit of helpful advice arriving just in time to resolve a problem I read while Beta-ing for someone. It’s like you’re following the fanfiction authors I read for and write these posts to help them out (and I’m the humble messenger).
LycoRogue’s last blog post ..Apparently, I’m Not Blogging Correctly

Reply

Ali March 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Hope the beta-ing goes well! I promise I’m not stalking you around the internet and writing posts just to help you (the niceness would be outweighed by the creepiness, I think ;-))

And Ender’s Game just happened to be close to hand when I was looking for dialogue examples…!

Reply

PlanetNiles March 22, 2012 at 8:06 pm

What of quotation marks and apostrophes?

I’ve taken to using apostrophes instead of quotations except when a character is actually quoting. Not sure if that’s right.

Reply

Ali March 23, 2012 at 6:46 pm

You can use single quotation marks (I think that’s what you mean by apostrophes) or double quotation marks, either is fine — the key is to be consistent. Here in the UK, single are more common than double, but I prefer the way that the double ones look!

‘This is fine,’ she said.

“And this is fine too,” she added.

If a character is quoting, use the other variety for that (sounds like this is what you’re doing already) like so:

‘Dad, Thomas just said “No” when I asked him to share.’

Reply

Christelle Hobby March 23, 2012 at 5:22 pm

It never ceases to amaze me how incredibly difficult it is to write dialogue. No matter how much time you spend talking, writing out a conversation is tough. Number 1 and 2 of this list really resonates with me. Finding that balance between “real talk”, but “not too real” can be torture. Thanks for the tips!

Reply

Ali March 23, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Thanks Cristelle! And yes, it can be really tough to hit that balance — that’s where the third/fourth/fifth draft come in for me….

Reply

Doogie Glassford (@DoogieHoser) March 24, 2012 at 4:45 pm

As always… spot on.

Dialogue can indeed be difficult, more so the longer the same conversation rolls on. It is important to break most dialogue up with some sort of distraction or action, as in real life. It gives both the writer and the reader a chance to step back and breathe and to assimilate what was said.

I know that as a ‘talker’ that I can wear on people without realizing it in person. I do my best not to and find that writing dialogue helps me in look for the natural breaks in my own conversations. Tension in the dialogue and in the narrative should move the story forward drawing in the reader/listener not close them off with deafening drivel and unnecessary banter.

Ali, thanks again for another brilliant post.

Reply

Ali March 27, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Thank you, Doogie! And I agree with you about breaking the dialogue up — long, unbroken passages of dialogue are both hard to read and a bit unrealistic. It’s good to set the scene and to have some action. My characters have a tendency to snipe at one another for the sake of it if I don’t curb them, too…

Reply

Early Conner March 25, 2012 at 6:36 am

Thank you for giving specific advice about what to do in certain writing areas. I get kind of tired of some bloggers complaining about what some writers do wrong, without explaining how to do it right. More bloggers on writing should follow your example.
Early Bird

Reply

Ali March 27, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Thanks, Early Bird! Really glad this post was helpful … I think it’s very hard to teach anything in writing without some actual examples, so I’m making an effort to include lots of specifics in my posts at the moment. It’s good to know it’s working. :-)

Reply

Pieter Bouwer March 26, 2012 at 11:31 am

Thanks Ali. I still sometimes slip up after many years of experience. It’s good to be reminded of the basics in such an understandable way. I find it amazing how well you explain the essentials of writing dialogue with fitting examples.

Reply

Ali March 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Thanks Pieter, really glad you liked the post. I find that I often need to brush up on things that I thought I’d learned years ago (and sometimes it takes a while for stuff to sink in!) — there’s just so much to juggle in fiction-writing. But that’s part of the fun of it… :-)

Reply

Farhan Syed March 27, 2012 at 10:09 pm

This, for instance, is incorrect:
This refers to your point #5.

“Could he be right?” David asked, turning to Rachel. “I don’t know,” she said.

Instead, it should be:

“Could he be right?” David asked, turning to Rachel.

“I don’t know,” she said.

In “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, the authors have said that it is a good practice that every speaker should be a given a new line but even if an author writes dialogues of two or more people in the same line, it is still correct.

Perhaps this matter is a matter of choice as different organisations follow different style rules.

In fact, Mrs. Luke, I was about to email you with the following question, but after seeing the above stated point here, I decided to ask here itself.

Everyone says that the book Elements of Style is for the general audience. I don’t understand how can a style manual be for the general public as different organisations have different style rules?

Stephen King in On Writing, too has recommended The Elements of Style saying that every aspiring writer must read it. But don’t you think that every writer must read the style manual of his publishing house?

Please answer my question. I’m very much frustrated with this question from the past several days.

Reply

Ali March 28, 2012 at 1:28 pm

I think you’re on the right lines here, Farhan.

“The Elements of Style” (or another good, basic guide) is a great place to start, but your publisher’s house style is the deciding factor if there’s ever a disagreement. (Or, if you’re writing for yourself, you can make the decision … but you need to apply it consistently throughout your writing.)

In this case, Strunk & White are saying that either method is acceptable, but that starting a new line for each new speaker is preferable.

There are hundreds of cases in writing, particularly in English, where there are two more more “correct” ways to do something, and sometimes there’s no one right answer! If you’re working with a publisher, your editor should be happy to help with any queries that you have.

Reply

Farhan March 28, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Thank you so much Mrs. Luke. It helped.

But one more question.

Though the school in which I studied is considered one of the best in northern India, but they didn’t teach us much grammar. I’m working on a novel and I don’t want any grammatical mistakes to crop in.

Do you think it is necessary for aspiring writers to read a standard grammar text book? Or one should absorb the grammar rules by reading prose (novels, newspapers, magazines etc.) and by watching English movies?

If a book is necessary, then which one will you suggest?

Reply

Ali March 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Your grammar is great, Farhan; I think reading plenty of prose is an excellent way to develop a good working knowledge of English. If you do feel you need more help, though, the site http://www.dailywritingtips.com has lots of great advice on grammar and other topics.

Reply

Farhan March 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Thank you so much.

That’s a great website.

Reply

Bridges Stevenson March 28, 2012 at 1:43 am

#3 was very helpful. I don’t know how much time I’ve spent writing where I pause to think of a dialougue tag. This just puts into my head what I always wanted to be true anyway, I was just taught the opposite. Keep up the good work… out of all the blogs I follow for writing tips yours always seems to be the most helpful week after week.
Bridges Stevenson’s last blog post ..Assassin Part 4*

Reply

Ali March 28, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Thanks Bridges, glad this helped! I don’t know why so many of us have been taught the opposite (you and I aren’t the only ones … I had an email from one of my readers who’s in her teens, who says schools are STILL teaching people to use synonyms for “said”). I might have to start a one-woman campaign..!

And thanks for the kind words, I’m so glad that you’re finding my posts valuable. :-) If there’s any particular topic you’d like me to cover, or any nagging questions that I can help out with, just let me know…

Reply

Bridges Stevenson March 29, 2012 at 8:12 pm

I’d help with that campaign once I get oout of the military and move back to the states I’m planning on going to school to become an English teacher.
Bridges Stevenson’s last blog post ..Jazmin: Embedding

Reply

Trevor Jones March 29, 2012 at 6:35 am

Thanks Ali.
I enjoy doing dialogue but there are always things to learn. Good advice. I also have enjoyed reading your other blogs. Lots of very good and easy to understand advice.
Thanks for taking the trouble.

Reply

Ali March 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Thanks Trevor, really glad you’re finding my posts useful. I try to keep things clear and actionable, so it’s great to hear that’s working. :-)

Reply

harshmellowblue March 31, 2012 at 7:29 am

Your blog is a very helpful resource. Thank you very much!
My question is how to handle explicit dialogue. My novel has an urban setting and a lot of expletives. How much is too much? I want it to sound real, and much of it is humorous, but I don’t want it to overpower and offend. Any advice would be helpful. Thank you!
harshmellowblue’s last blog post ..What Is The Simple Life? | Simple Life Prattle

Reply

Ali April 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Great question … and one I struggle with myself in my novel!

What I’ve found is that even when a certain amount of swearing is realistic, it’s easy to have it sound over-done (a bit like any aspect of dialogue really). So I try to keep the expletives for situations that really demand them.

You could also think about using speech patterns, slang/idioms, and so on to help make things seem realistic. Or how about non-verbal communication (e.g. sticking up a middle finger …) if you feel the dialogue is getting a bit expletive-heavy?

I wouldn’t worry too much about offending. Most readers will accept that if they’re reading a story with an urban setting, there’s going to be some off-colour language. You might want to avoid any really strong words, though (I won’t go into details here … ;-))

Reply

Tim Bean April 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Those were some very good tips. They are simple but should be very useful if used properly.

Thanks for sharing.

-Tim
Tim Bean’s last blog post ..how to get a girl to like you

Reply

Ali April 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Thanks Tim, glad you found them useful.

Reply

farouk April 2, 2012 at 9:27 am

you don’t know how much these tips are important for me
you gotta post more often Ali :))

Reply

Ali April 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Ah, but you wouldn’t appreciate my posts so much if I posted more often… ;-)

Reply

Chris August 1, 2012 at 8:11 pm

I spent several years very shy and introverted which meant I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would actually start a conversation.

Turns out that helps later down the line when you’re trying to write a dialogue which sounds plausible and flowing.
Chris’s last blog post ..How to Approach a Girl – Girls Advice

Reply

ab September 22, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Ali,

I am a person that finds it very difficult to get good grades in my english courses. This is a very good explanation of dialog and some really good tips that I know will help me when I write my dialog from now on. Thanks for sharing this informative piece of article.
ab’s last blog post ..Ab Workouts Do Not Cause Stomach Fat Loss

Reply

Ali September 25, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Glad this helped! :-)

Reply

Pardip February 23, 2013 at 5:25 am

great information provided, it’s help a lot! Thanks so much!

Reply

Joy June 19, 2014 at 11:07 pm

“Often, your character’s tone will be apparent from the words they use; you don’t need to tell the reader ‘John said angrily’ or ‘Susan asked impatiently’.”

Um, those are adverbs, not adjectives, and the period goes inside the quotation mark in your writing, too.

Your posts are always engaging and very helpful, but the numerous grammar and mechanical errors can be a bit distracting. It’s so important to model both effective (as you do) and correct usage, so your readers don’t pick up bad habits while they are learning valuable crafting lessons.

Reply

Ali June 27, 2014 at 5:50 pm

Joy, thanks for the adverbs/adjectives spot. I meant to reference both there!

I write British English (I’m in the UK) and we can place punctuation outside quotation marks when the punctuation isn’t part of what’s being quoted, as in that example.

Reply

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

Previous post:

Next post: