Tag Archives: dialogue

The Basics of Writing Good Dialogue

balloon-898682_1280In my time critiquing, I’ve found that a common issue is dialogue. There are three main elements to consider when writing dialogue:

  1. How to punctuate dialogue correctly.
  2. Effective choice of dialogue tags.
  3. Avoidance of ‘talking heads’.

To start, I just want to be clear on what I mean when I use the term ‘dialogue tag’.

Dialogue tag = said, asked, cried, stuttered, exclaimed, etc.

How to Punctuate Dialogue Correctly

The Problem: A lot of writers, especially beginning writers, can be unsure exactly how to punctuate dialogue. Do I use a comma or period? Does it go inside or outside the talking marks? What about dialogue after the tag; do I capitalise or not? What about the dialogue tag; does that need a capital letter? A period or comma?

What to do: Here are the rules you need to remember…

  • Always end dialogue with a comma inside the speech marks if it is followed by a dialogue tag. eg:

“I love pasta,” said Sarah.

  • Even if there is a long piece of dialogue with several sentences. eg:

“Hi, Kate. How are you? I just got back from Hawaii,” said Ben.

  • The only exception is if the sentence is a question or exclamation, in which case you would use a question mark or exclamation mark. eg:

“Can I borrow your pen?” asked Nathan.

  • Notice you always start the dialogue tag with a lower case letter, even when using a question/exclamation mark. Unless of course you use the person’s name first. eg: Nathan asked.
  • If you want to switch it around and have the dialogue tag first, you put a comma after the tag, start the dialogue with a capital letter and end the dialogue with a period. eg:

Olivia said, “Don’t forget the milk.”

  • Always end dialogue with a period if it is NOT followed by a dialogue tag (if it is a stand alone piece of dialogue without a dialogue tag or it is followed by the character completing an action) eg:

“This class is boring.” Penny leaned back on her chair and rolled her eyes.

  • For dialogue broken up by a dialogue tag, the above rules apply for the dialogue preceding the tag; for the dialogue following the tag you should use a period after the tag and begin the next bit of dialogue with a capital letter on the same line (only make a new line if a new character is speaking). eg:

“I saw him over there,” Tom said, pointing. “He was standing by that tree.”

  • There is an exception to this, but if you’re feeling confused, don’t worry about this one for now. If you are breaking up dialogue in the middle of a sentence (and this is not something you want to do often as it is better used for effect), you will use a comma following the dialogue tag and begin the dialogue following the tag with a lowercase letter. eg:

“I think,” said Kylie, “we should go to the disco.”

Does all that make sense?

Effective Choice of Dialogue Tags

The Problem: Remember back in school when your teachers taught you all the different ways you could say said? Remember how they encouraged you to use a variety of different dialogue tags and avoid the boring word ‘said’ to make your writing more descriptive? The problem is effective writers use said more than any other dialogue tag and avoid those other flowery dialogue tags as much as possible; the complete opposite of what we were taught in school.

What to do: Forget what you learned in school. From now on ‘said’ is your best friend when it comes to dialogue tags. The reason for this is ‘said’ is unobtrusive, which helps make your dialogue flow more naturally. Your second most used dialogue tag will be ‘asked’. That’s not to say you can’t use other tags here and there for effect, but make sure they are realistic (eg: a person can stutter dialogue, but how exactly does one smirk dialogue? It can be said with a smirk, but it can’t be smirked.) If you are unsure, say the dialogue out loud the way you’ve written it.

The same goes for using lots of adverbs, eg: she said, happily. or he said, lamely. Try to find ways to describe the way your characters are talking through use of actions, facial expressions, body language and even the dialogue itself. It’s a good way to include character quirks/traits. eg: Jessica might react in different way to John.

So instead of:

“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” Jessica said, excitedly.

You could have:

“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” Jessica jumped up and down, a grin like a Cheshire cat stretched across her face.

John’s character would interpret excitement in a different way:

“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” John said, fist bumping Pete.


Avoidance of Talking Heads

The Problem: There is a lot of back and forth dialogue happening between characters, with no visual description in the scene to ground readers.

What to do: This is a good opportunity to show your characters’ personalities or disperse descriptions of the scene naturally. By interspersing little descriptions of what your characters are doing as the dialogue takes place, you avoid big blocks of back and forth dialogue which can cause readers to get lost or envision talking heads with no scenery to ground them.

So rather than:

“I feel like we never see each other any more,” said Fiona.

“What do you mean?” asked Gary. “We see each other every day. We live together.”

“I mean really see each other.”

You could write:

“I feel like we never see each other any more,” said Fiona. A tear ran down her cheek and dropped onto the shirt she had been ironing. 

“What do you mean?” asked Gary, his eyes never leaving the TV. “We see each other every day. We live together.”

Fiona ran the iron over the shirt, not realising she had been ironing the same sleeve for the last five minutes. “I mean really see each other.”

In the second version we can see more of the characters’ personalities and mood. It also grounds the readers to where they are: at home.

 And never forget the golden rule for dialogue:

Always start a new line when a new character starts speaking. (If the same character is still speaking, even if there are a few sentences of action in between, you don’t need a new line.)

Any questions? Leave them in the comments!

10 Tips for Writing Dialogue (Guest Post)

As some of you may have heard through Twitter or Facebook, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl over a week ago. Needless to say it has been a busy and exhausting time and my blog has been rather quiet. I had a post planned just after Valentine’s Day, but didn’t quite get to finish writing it before going into labour, so it has been put on hold for now. In the meantime, I was lucky enough to have freelance blogger and writer Heather Smith offer to write a guest post for me. Here are her top 10 tips for writing dialogue.

10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

1. Start – Getting underway is the toughest part. You have to compose dialogue over and over again to get good at it. You have to practice. The more you write, the better it gets.

2. Eavesdrop – Listen to actual people talking. They don’t use proper grammar. They don’t speak in full sentences. Sometimes they chat over each other. Write dialogue like it actually sounds. Dialogue is rich in its own way- the silences, the crosstalk, the things omitted are just as vital as what’s actually said. 

3. Speak it – Read what you wrote audibly. You’ll hear where it sounds stale or stilted. You’ll hear where it doesn’t flow and where it does flow. If you read quickly enough, your brain will unavoidably correct what you’ve done wrong, so listen to your words as you read aloud. You’ll acquire a lot from this simple exercise. 

4. Chill out– Don’t stress about making your dialogue flawless. Let your characters speak. They may say things that you never imagined. If you know your characters inside and out, let them express themselves through you. You’ll wind up with a much more realistic story. 

5. Wander – Feel free to ramble on. People infrequently get right to the point in a discussion. Unless your character is a police officer or doctor giving a report, don’t presume that they’ll give just the facts. People go off-topic; it’s a part of life. Let your character ramble and they’ll end up much profounder and genuine. 

6. Keep it unpretentious – Don’t make your characters say everything they know. No one does that. Reduce your dialogue to the bare bones. A ‘yep’ or ‘nope’ can speak volumes about a character. They don’t always have to reply to others, and they don’t constantly have to finish a thought. Let your readers fill in some gaps. Letting the readers fill in the blanks adds strata to your story that even you, the writer, might have otherwise overlooked. 

7. Slang – What we speak is a living language. It changes. Let your characters’ verbiage show who they are and where they come from. If they want to say ain’t, then let them. It’s not your job to be the grammar police for your characters.  People speak badly. They dangle participles, they use fragments, and they curse. Remember that it’s not you that’s talking- it is your character. They have their own personalities, so let them be who they are.

8. Less is More– Don’t go too far with accents. Tell the reader what pronunciation a character has and then give clues in the dialogue. No one wants to read a page of apostrophes and deliberately misspelled words. A ya’ll or a gotta once in a while will prompt readers of who’s talking, without the annoyance factor.

9. Intelligibility – Make sure your readers can follow who is talking. A he said, she said will do wonders for a dialogue-heavy piece. If you have more than four quotes without stating who is talking, you might want to toss that in. It doesn’t have to be difficult. ‘He yelled’ works just as well as ‘he shrieked, crying to the skies as his thundering call resonated off the walls’. 

10. Exhibit it– Remember that people are reading your dialogue, not speaking it (unless you’re a screenwriter). If you want a character to pause, take a breath, or even stutter, you’ll have to write it down. Breaking up a quote is a simple way to visuallydisplay a pause. ‘It’s like this,’ he said, ‘I’m leaving.’ Because of that disruption, the reader sees the pause without being told it’s there. Unless you have a character doing something unique with the time between words, make it visual but not explicit. 

Heather Smith is an ex-nanny. Passionate about thought leadership and writing, Heather regularly contributes to various career, social media, public relations, branding, and parenting blogs/websites. She also provides value to nanny service by giving advice on site design as well as the features and functionality to provide more and more value to nannies and families across the U.S. and Canada. She can be available at H.smith7295 [at] gmail.com.

Favourite Helpful Writing Posts 2010

Usually at the end of each month I do a roundup of the best helpful writing sites and blog posts I come across during the month. This month I will be doing things a little differently. For those who follow me on Twitter, or read my post from last week, you will know I have been a bit disconnected from the internet this past month due to some bad news I received early in the month. For those who don’t follow me, I found out I lost my baby early this month and I’ve been having a hard time emotionally. I’m starting to get back into the swing of things now, but as a result of my disconnectedness from the net I haven’t collected many great sites this month to share. Instead I’ve decided to do a roundup of a few of my favourite posts from throughout the year, ones I thought were so helpful I bookmarked them for future reference.

Helpful Writing Posts

Key Elements of Strong Fiction

Shennandoah Diaz writes about creating the foundation of strong fiction by establishing dynamic characters, an intriguing plot, a compelling voice, and a vibrant setting. She gives great examples to illustrate her points.

Top 8 Tips for Writing Dialogue

Ginny Wiehardt outlines eight ways you can improve your dialogue so it sounds more realistic, advances the story and fleshes out your characters.

Dialogue Tags

A great little reminder on the correct use of dialogue tags with examples of correct and incorrect usage.

Evil Overlords Lists

An excerpt from Teresa Neilsen Hayden’s lecture on ‘Stupid Plotting Tricks’ giving a look at cliches revolving around villains and the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

Counting Chickens: A Few Words About Word Counts

For anyone writing any form of kidlit (from picture books to young adult  novels), Hope Vestergaard’s post is handy to bookmark as a reminder on appropriate word counts for kidlit.

Workshop: Writing the Novel Synopsis

For any writer who dreads writing a novel synopsis or isn’t sure how to go about writing one, this workshop by Sheila Kelly shows you how to write a synopsis. She outlines the main elements you need to include and how to format it.

Helpful Writing PDFs

Book in a Month Worksheets

These worksheets are primarily geared towards planning for NaNoWriMo, but they are great planning tools for anyone thinking about starting a new novel idea. There’s a planning sheet for everything from story idea maps to character sketches to act one, two and three plot goals.

Eleven Senses – Who Knew?

I’ve mentioned this resource a few times on this blog. It outlines not only the five main senses we use, but six extra ones as well. It includes some writing exercises using the various senses and a great list of words for each sense (so you don’t always have to fall back on the same old sense words all the time, like saw and heard).

I hope everyone is enjoying their holidays and you all have a happy and safe new year!

Guest Post – Writing Dialogue

Today I’d like to welcome Catherine Johnson to my blog. Catherine is a writer whom I met through Write on Con a few months ago and we have since formed a picture book critique group together (along with some other writers we met through Write on Con). Catherine is currently beta reading my MG fantasy and giving me some great feedback.

Knowing I’m in the middle of pounding out 50000 words in a month for NaNoWriMo, Catherine kindly offered to do a guest post for my blog. So without further ado, here is Catherine with her post on writing dialogue.

Thank you to Jo for letting me guest post today. I chose to talk about dialogue and share some tips and trips. It’s something I am very interested in doing better and listening and reading good dialogue can only serve to help the cause. At the bottom of this post I have listed some of my favourite quotes from movies I watch with my kids all the time. I’m sure there are many more, if I had all day 🙂 There are 8 great tips on dialogue here: http://bit.ly/UZraC They are very specific and useful to try yourself.  Everyone likes to think their character’s say things that are true to life. Have a look at the tips on this site and check the against your writing:  http://bit.ly/9Q6DxY All those of us with young children are lucky that the first few tips are already taken care of. I like the last one, I might try that with my main characters. Another useful post on the subject is here:  http://bit.ly/a7hQMH discussing expository dialogue, a common pitfall of writing dialogue.
Absorb all the dialogue you hear around (without being too nosy! coughs) especially from tv shows and films. Reading is also an obvious example. Have you ever read a picture book, for example, and only concentrated on the dialogue? Are there books in the library that seem to have more dialogue than others? Analyse it and see if it appears natural and see how it fits in with all those tips and tricks above. And now I’ll leave you with some of my favourite lines from movies I watch way too much!

The Bee Movie
Vanessa Bloom “It’s very hard to concentrate with that panicky tone in your voice.”
Bee Vincent “It’s not a tone. I’m PANICKING!”

Space Chimps
HAM “When are you going to stop worrying about me dad? Space is in my veins.”
Dad “And between your ears.”
“Chimp up cannonball. You’re not in the circus anymore.”
HAM “You’re not going to do that the whole trip are you?”
Friend “What?”
HAM “Use Chimps to replace real phrases.”
HAM “I do this every day of the week (sky dive) except Monday. That’s my me day.” (I particularly like this one!)
“…this rug isn’t going to cut itself.”

“Hey I’m nine inches tall,I only see the up-side.”


Thank-you so much, Catherine, for your post. You’ve provided some great links. If anyone would like to check out Catherine’s blog, you can find it here: Kangaroobee’s Blog

P.S. A little update on my NaNoWriMo progress: I started out with a slow week, I was finding it hard to get motivated for the story I planned, even though I knew what I wanted to write. Yesterday I decided to throw that story in and started something completely new. I wrote more yesterday on the new story than I had all week on the first one. I’m feeling a great deal more motivation now.