Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Writing Dialogue

I don’t often write about writing, I typically keep my posts and advice to publishing. Why? Because I don’t feel that I’m a writing teacher. I’m a writer, sure, in the sense that I do this blog, but having never truly written fiction I don’t feel I have the experience to really teach readers specifics about how to write. I’m also not sure that’s something that can really be taught. Certainly I think you can learn to write, but I think much of what you learn has to be self-taught through trial and error.

All of that being said, which has little to do with today’s post, I do have some thoughts on writing dialogue, some of which was inspired by a post I did on Grammar in Books. One of the biggest mistakes I see with new writers, those who have just finished the first book, is stiff dialogue. With a piece of fiction, it’s imperative that the characters come alive for your readers, and one of the best ways to learn about characters is to see them and hear them in action. When writing dialogue, I think it’s important to really note how people talk.

The next time you’re having a conversation or, better yet, observing a conversation that someone else is having, pay attention to how much you can discern about what they are saying even when you can’t hear the words. Body language, mannerisms, and even things like exhausted sighs go a long way into how our words get across to our listeners.

Dialogue made up of nothing but words rarely works. For example, how natural does this really sound to you?

“Hi, Sally. How is your day going?” asked Tanya.

“Great, Tanya, but I’m really angry about what the boss said.”

“What did the boss say, Sally?” Tanya asked.

And so on....

To make dialogue come alive and to show not tell, as well as to give us insights into who your characters really are, we need body language and we need atmosphere. Is Tanya balancing a bundle of books in her arms? Does she need to shift her weight, preparing for a long story from Sally? If Sally is so angry, how come we don’t see this, and is it logical for someone who is so angry (as she claims) to also say she’s great? Does Sally need to drop her voice so others around can’t hear her? Does she glance around to make sure no one else is listening?

Again, I’m not an expert on writing and how to create great dialogue. I’m sure there are a number of better resources than me to get that information from. But, I can tell you after years of experience that dialogue can make or break your story. Remember, it’s not just a way to have a conversation, it’s a way to introduce your characters and let readers get to know them a little.



Scott said...

Good Post. I'm all about the drumming the fingers on the table, talking with the hands, biting the lower lip, arching a brow, or seeing the little red spot just above the bridge of the nose when the character gets really excited (this happens to a friend of mind), and so on, and so forth. To me, the dialogue needs to seem natural, it needs to flow, even if the whole point is to, well, convey a point. I also use phrases like "I'm just saying . . ." or have the character repeat a word like, you know, like, well, like . . . all these are things I pay attention to when having conversations with people. Oh, and I'm all about the drama queen sighs!



Rick Daley said...


What are your thoughts on dialogue tags vs. descriptive action around the dialogue?

For example:

"Do you need another drink?" he shouted.


"Do you need another drink?" He asked, raising his voice above the din of the crowded bar.

I've read many warning against the abuse of dialogue tags (other than said or asked). But is it also common to cross the line where the physical actions of the character overpowers what is said?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


This is what I'm not good at, writing rules. I think you do what works for your voice and your style. I'm not a big fan of a long list of rules when it comes to a creative process.


David Kazzie said...

This is why it's so important to read your dialogue out loud to yourself. If it's off, you will hear it misfire when it's spoken aloud.

A great place to learn dialogue, where you can focus on a particular person (without them thinking you're a stalker) is in your local courthouse (watching Law & Order doesn't count).

Virtually all proceedings are open to the public, and when people testify on the stand (especially in criminal cases), it's about as real as it gets. You'll hear street slang, half-sentences that still get a point across, local jargon, etc.

I'm a lawyer and whenever I'm in court waiting for my case to be called, I always listen to witnesses and defendants talking to learn how to better write dialogue.

Laurel said...


I was wondering the same thing, having read the same thing. A lot of the books I read, though, do have dialogue tags. I only notice when it is every sentence. "...she said angrily....he noted with interest...she said sympathetically..."

I think the repeat rule applies. They're okay, just don't repeat the structure too much. My best guess, anyway.

Traci said...


"I'm not a big fan of a long list of rules when it comes to a creative process."

I couldn't agree with you more!

Great post on dialogue. I'm working hard on that in my current novel. I love dialogue because it's challenging, and it's a chance to really let your creativity shine.

Thanks for the information!

Kate Douglas said...

Rick, try: He raised his voice, practically shouting over the din in the crowded bar. "Do you need another drink?"

No need for a tag when you put the reader in the scene. Try writing dialogue from a very deep point of view. It's like role playing. BE the character. Imagine yourself as the bartender--what are you feeling, thinking, seeing. Smelling--bars have a scent all their own, from too much perfume on the women to stale smoke, to spilled beer (depending on the quality of the bar!) When you become the character and speak his or her lines, you're more aware of your own body language, your own (albeit imaginary) surroundings. I do this whenever I write dialogue and it gives me a better take on the individual voices of all my characters. In an ongoing series with thirty-plus voices to keep track of, I've discovered it's an invaluable method for making each character unique throughout the series.

MAGolla said...

The second example is so much better than the first one.
'he shouted' doesn't tell the reader diddly-squat, whereas the second example shows the reader location (bar), time of day (probably late evening on a Friday or Saturday night when the bars are hopping).

#2 makes this reader wonder if he's just having a drink with a buddy or did his girl dump him, or did he lose his job, or is he . . .
You get my point? The second example does the job of rounding out the scene.

Dialogue tags can be a crutch to an inexperienced or lazy writer. Use them in your first draft, but dump them for something better when you write the second draft.

*lurker, sometime commenter*

Anonymous said...

There's nothing like dialogue to make a character come alive, and it does need a setting and what I call "dialogue action" to do that. I love to spy on people in diners, something that nets me far more now than it did before cell phones. The things people say IN PUBLIC on their cell phones is nothing short of amazing.

Annette Lyon said...

I had a writing teacher say that dialogue needs to mimic real speech. Then I read some actual conversation transcripts and realized that real speech is full of meandering topics, uhs and wells and totally pointless stuff that wouldn't work in a story.

Good dialogue mimics what we THINK real speech sounds like, not what it really does. It's an interesting balancing act.

Amalia Dillin said...

In my personal opinion, as far as that goes, descriptive action surrounding the dialogue is ALWAYS better than a tag, and you never need both. The added benefit of the descriptive action is that it allows you to avoid the overuse of adverbs within the text, as well.

BUT tags have their uses when you need things moving quickly, too. For example, if your characters are in the middle of a heated argument where they can't even finish their sentence before their opposite is shouting them down, a tag (and not even on every line! Just when it might be unclear who is biting which head off!) will probably be more effective than a description.

Also: If it's already stated indirectly who is speaking ("oh, Sally, what happened?" we know it isn't Sally talking, and probably this is a scene between just the two of them) skip the tag.

Anyway, that's my two cents if anyone cares.

Mike D said...

I think another way to make dialogue feel natural is letting your characters respond to a question in a roundabout way or have them respond but never actually answer the question; by asking a question in return, by implicitly changing the subject. Books on screenwriting make a good guide on this subject.

I prefer the simplicity of “she said.” For the most part you should be able to tell the character’s severities by the situation and body language of the participants. Or if you are going to “actionize,” save it for when it’s really needed. But then you can make the argument: if you save it for a truly dramatic outburst of a moment, you wouldn’t need a tag because the tag might lessen the impact.

between two people:
“You’re kidding, right?” she said. “Please tell me you’re just making fun of me? Look, I know I’m not childish or vulnerable like you want me to be-”
“Babe. I signed up.”
“Why the hell did you do it?” she shouted.

You wouldn’t need “she shouted” because if it’s a scene between two people it’s clear who is responding. You also wouldn’t need it because she already has a tag, which is only separated by one response. And “she shouted” is a momentum-killer in this version. We don’t need to know she shouted, but if the author believes this expression is important, then it’s probably best to describe her body language or something. Or you could rearrange the tags so that “she shouted” is her only one.

It’s all a word game, and we all have different play styles. This is why it’s so much fun.

David Alton Dodd said...

“Hi, Sally. How is your day going?” asked Tanya.

“Tanya, I’m really angry about what the boss said.”

“What did the boss say, Sally?” Tanya asked.


“Hi, Sally. How is your day going?”

“Hey, Tanya. I’m really angry about what the boss said.”

“What did the boss say, Sally?”


In the second example, you don't even need tags. I think that the dialog style depends on how quickly, slowly, descriptive, and so on that you want to be in your story. A more dramatic version would be something like this:

“Sally! How is your day going?” asked Tanya, before realizing that Sally appeared upset.

Sally shook her head, exasperated. “Oh, Tanya. I’m really angry about what the boss said.”

Tanya waited for more but Sally wasn't volunteering an explanation. “Well, what did the boss say?” Tanya finally asked.

The point is, as a writer, experiment with your dialog. One common complaint that I've received about mine is that the characters appear too smart, that their vocabulary is over-the-top. When I finally bit the bullet and investigated the criticism, I was surprised to find that they were right! A little experimentation helped to resolve the issue.

Sheila Deeth said...

I've always enjoyed writing dialog, but my friends say I write with an English accent. Maybe I'll need to try my writing out on someone who doesn't know me at all, and see what they think. (My son writes with an American accent.)

MrTact said...

@Annette Lyon: "Good dialogue mimics what we THINK real speech sounds like, not what it really does. It's an interesting balancing act."

Or, put another way: Good dialogue is conversation with the dull parts taken out.

A.L. Davroe said...

Thanks for bringing this up. I just noticed something that the woman who edited my novel did. She corrected the dialogue so that it is grammatically correct. She reworded a statement that said:

"Well, let's pretend that a Guardian Angel is like a human's shadow - they are a direct connection to that human's feelings, emotions, and demeanor." to "- he or she is a direct connection…"

I do realize that the original statement is grammatically incorrect, but when people talk, they very frequently make a switch between singular and plural. Saying "he or she" is too bulky when you are having a conversation, so you revert to "they" even if it isn't proper grammar. I'm right in ignoring these corrections if I want believable dialogue, right?

Anonymous said...

To A.L Davroe,

I think you're absolutely right to ignore those so-called corrections. Dialogue (and even the exposition of a narrator) has to reflect the background of the character.

I almost hate to ask this for fear of offending, but why do you have someone else editing your novel? The largest part of writing fiction is in the editing, in my opinion.

M. K. Clarke said...

I love this topic on dialogue b/c it happens to be one of my writing strengths. It got this way because I read a lot and learned a great deal on the topic by Gloria Kempton, who wrote the book DIALOGUE of the WRITE GREAT FICTION, published by Writer's Digest Books. In that, she says to use beats (which replaces the tags and colors the dialogue with showing versus telling) and it offers a great insight of who your speaking characters are minus the info dump.

I use the "ahs..." and "uhms..." seldom, just to sprinkle that in for flavor, as well as dorpping the "g" in "ing" ending words. Nobody says "going" or "telling" or following" or other ing- tags unless they're really emotional.

As for the said tags, they're great because there's mot much required of them. We know the person said t. To go out of your way to avoid those tags, IMO, can confuse the reader and show the writer more a more amateur than intended.

Awesome topic, Bookends. thanks for posting it!

Anonymous said...

I would skip the whole "Hi, how was your day" stuff and start with something like:

Sally wanted to punch something and George, the idiot she was required to call boss, topped the list. She paced the floor outside his office awaiting his summons to reenter the inner sanctum. The problem: she’d blown her cool. Again. She heard a chuckle and turned to find Tanya, her cubicle-mate, smiling and shaking her head.
“So, what did he say this time?”

Or something like that.

Dialog moves the story along. Period.

A fun topic, Jessica. I love writing dialog.

Rick Daley said...

Thanks to everyone who responded to my question.

Jessica, this was a great post. You inspired a very good discussion in the comments, so even if writing about writing is not your forte, you know how to read your audience and engage us effectively. You got the writers to write about writing for you (and for each other).

Yamile said...

I'm editing my novel, especially the dialog, and boy is it a challenge!
Thanks for the post, and thanks everyone for their input!

T. M. Hunter said...

Very fact, I did a guest blog post on that very topic earlier this month. It's sad to witness some of the ways dialogue gets butchered.

Anonymous said...

requesting topic"

"I don’t often write about writing, I typically keep my posts and advice to publishing."

Good idea. Let's keep it that way and get back to business, shall we...There's enough newb-dweeb-nerds around here as it is--let them go learn how to write on their own, please...

Now, for those of us ready to SELL:

The Amazon ranking system, amazon author pages, how to work the system.

More reviews = higher sales, regardless of good or bad...

let's talk Amazon!

CAN the system be gamed?! is it gamed>?!

Unknown said...

Great post! I'm revising my book and noticed that one of the many things that needed changing was dialog.

Based on my experience, it helps to have your characters actually doing something other than talking during the conversation. Rather than just sitting at a table, for example, they sitting at a table playing cards or eating dinner or whatever.

That gives natural feel to the descriptors, when you can say something like:

Davy plopped another card on the table. "A hundred bottles of beer," he said. "They're all just hanging there on the wall?"OK, silly illustration, but you see what I'm saying... :)

Anonymous said...

I'll have to second what Annette Lyon said. As a transcriptionist, I listen to dialog on a daily basis. Only half of it makes any sense at all, even when the speakers are intelligent academics. I once had a speaker randomly attach the name "Al Gore" to the end of her sentence. It was unrelated, and to this day I'm still not sure what she was talking about...

Also, on writing rules... I think it's good to know them just so we can elegantly break them. Following rules too closely is poison to creativity.

AM said...

I just finished my first novel and the dialogue is WAY better than the rest of it. Maybe its because I have a phenomenal memory and have taken real bits of conversation and put them in my book. Or maybe I am really just that good, I don't know.

Unfortunately there is a lot of getting from A to B in the novel that is sort of weak, filler.

Bobby Ozuna said...

Great post and wonderful topic!
If I may add some points to consider...

When I work to write dialogue, I consider the lessons learned by watching the show: Inside the Actor's Studio. I recall a moment where Robert DeNiro said he (in summation) becomes the character the moment he accepts the role. He eats like them, moves like them, acts like them until all his life encompasses the image he is meant to portary in film. When I heard those words I considered the dialogue in my own works. And from that moment I have applied this fundamental tip: Act our your own dialogue!!!

I will print my draft manuscript and then read the dialogue OUT LOUD while trying to act the part of the character. By doing this I can pick up on the little movements, quirks and unique characteristics of each character and ensure I apply them to the story's script.

Great post!

Rabid Fox said...

If there's a single aspect of my writing that I'm constantly trying to improve, it's the dialogue. Oh, to be like Elmore Leonard--that guy can write.

A.L. Davroe said...

To Anon,

Alas, I'm embarrassed to say that my grammar is terrible. So, I have an editor go through to correct my grammar and I do all the other editing. She doesn't get paid, so I figure I'm benefiting in this situation.

I'm a firm believer that I can't get any better as a writer if:

1. I can't see where my weaknesses are.
2. I don't learn how to fix those weaknesses.

I've been learning quite a lot from my editor lately. I'm seeing the areas where I am weak and learning how to address them. Maybe I won't need her the next time around.

However, I'll never stop asking others for a good dose of constructive criticism nor will I ever stop asking for help in the areas I'm weak in. So, to clear it up, I think I probably should have said my "grammar Nazi" instead of "editor" in my original comment. Perhaps that wouldn't have implied that I'm having someone else do the work for me.

Tony DiMeo said...


One of my favorite writers of dialogue is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. In my own work I try to emulate the style as I think it helps to pull readers in an engage them head-on in a conversation that is in media-res.

I read somewhere that writing Sorkin-esque dialogue wouldn't work in a novel. Is there any truth to that from an agent's perspective?

I mean, I understand that screenwriting and novel writing are two different arenas. Obviously dialogue can't survive in a novel by itself, but if properly supported by setting, description, story and conflict, wouldn't it work to make the world of the novel and the characters come alive?

Are there any examples you can think of of authors who write in the same kind of style?