Online Learning Blog

Top Tips For Writing Dialogue

Published on 9th April 2015 by Diana Nadin

Many novels and short stories get rejected because they don’t include enough dialogue – or their characters use sounds stilted and unrealistic. So here are some tips to help you make the most of what your characters say

1. When your characters start talking they must say something important – something that helps to push your plot forward. There’s no room for idle chit chat. Every conversation should involve a crucial piece of plot information being given to your reader.

2. Use dialogue to inject pace and impact into your stories. Try substituting a line or two of dialogue for a long, rambling description. Instead of taking 500 words to describe how horrible a place is, your readers will get the same information from a character saying “What a dump!”

3. Dialogue should be an aid to characterisation. The voices, accents and vocabulary used by your characters should tell the reader a lot about them and their backgrounds.

4. Try to make dialogue reflect your characters’ emotions and frame of mind. Let the reader hear the pain, anger or delight in what they say.

5. Make sure you know the difference between direct speech: “I’m hungry. I could eat a horse!” and indirect speech: Mary said she was so hungry she could eat a horse. Direct speech is always more emotionally powerful and gives more immediacy.

6. Always use dialogue tags – he said, she replied, - unless it is obvious why is speaking. But keep your tags simple. Nothing is more irritating than a hero who opines, pontificates or rejoins. And avoid long dialogue tags such as he said angrily or she replied with sadness. It should be obvious from the words your character speaks whether they are happy, angry or sad.

7. Make sure that you use contractions: “Don’t do that.”, “I can’t see it.” or “He’ll kill me!” That’s how people really speak. When was the last time you heard someone say “I cannot see it”?

8. Slang, swearing and dialect. If you’re writing a period novel it’s OK to use the appropriate slang (for example, a novel set in 1960s London gangland). But if you are writing a contemporary novel, avoid it, as nothing will date your work quicker. Now on to swearing. If you are writing a gritty, realistic novel then don’t be prudish about your characters swearing. On the other hand, if you’re writing a Mills and Boone-type novel it’s best to avoid it. One way is to refer to it in your descriptions rather than your dialogue: The air sizzled with Dan’s non-stop cursing. He eventually wore out his fury and went quiet… And dialect. Avoid it like the plague as it may make your readers give up. Instead, mention that a character speaks with a specific accent – say Scottish – and then let the readers do the work for you. Alternatively, drop in a dialect word occasionally, to act as a reminder.

9. Many people worry about punctuating dialogue. The main things to remember are: Start a new line each time a different character speaks. Use either single or double inverted commas – it doesn’t matter which you choose. But once you have made your decision, be consistent. Always put the inverted commas outside the sentence punctuation: “Yes,” Derek said, defensively. “That’s my plan.” Only use speech marks around direct speech, not reported speech, or thoughts that your characters might have. Study as many published novels and short stories as you can to see how other writers do it.

10. Even though dialogue isn’t real, it must be able to pass itself off as speech. There mustn’t be anything in it that jars or sounds stilted. So, always read your dialogue aloud. See if it sounds plausible. What seems to work on the page may come across differently when you hear it actually spoken.

Follow these tips and before you know it your characters will be leaping off the page full of life and talking nineteen to the dozen!