Dialogue Dos and Don’ts
In the post Show, Don’t Tell, I mentioned dialogue as one of the ways you can “show” your reader what’s happening in a scene. Effective dialogue is an essential part of both fiction and creative nonfiction writing.
Good dialogue can be tricky. It needs to move the story forward and reveal important character information without seeming artificial. It needs to seem realistic without actually being realistic.
Confused? Let’s break it down. Here are some things good dialogue should do:
- It should follow some simple grammatical rules. Dialogue should be enclosed within quotation marks. Each new line of dialogue is indented, and a new paragraph should be started every time a new person is speaking.
- It should be concise. Long, wordy passages of dialogue might seem like a good way to get information across, but they can be tedious for the reader.
- It should communicate character information. Good dialogue lets the reader know something about the person speaking it.
- It should be broken up with action. People don’t typically stop everything when they talk. They fidget. They keep washing the dishes. They pace. Don’t forget that your characters aren’t static.
And here are a few dialogue don’ts:
- Don’t get too crazy with dialogue tags. Usually, a few well-placed “he saids” or “she replieds” will do the trick. If your dialogue is well-written, it should be clear who is speaking, even without the tags.
- Don’t go overboard with backstory. You should never use dialogue to tell the readers things your characters already know.
- Don’t use too much dialogue. Your readers don’t need to know everything your characters say, word-for-word. Dialogue should be chosen carefully.
- Don’t try to be too realistic. Our actual speech wouldn’t make great dialogue. We say “um” and “uh” a lot. We trail off in the middle of sentences. We change subjects without warning. Good dialogue should approximate real speech, not mimic it.
To give you an example of what dialogue should look like here’s the opening of a short story I wrote, titled Me:
“What do we do now?”
Shadows from the single candle flickered on Heather’s face. It masked the basement smell with green apple. She rolled her eyes at me.
“Nothing, Kristy. Just wait.”
I sighed. I was sick of waiting. My arms, and my butt, were starting to hurt. I drummed my fingers impatiently on the plastic pointer thingy.
“Stop it,” Heather hissed. “You’ll make them mad.”
“Make who mad?”
“The spirits, stupid.”
Right. The spirits. Like I really believed the spirits were going to talk to us on a piece of Parker Brothers cardboard.
The words exchanged between Kristy and Heather let us know something about their respective moods and character traits. In just that brief opening, we already know something about them.
So how can you improve your dialogue?
- Read. Pay attention to what your favorite authors do well, and what they don’t.
- Listen. Pay attention to what natural speech sounds like, and be sure to use those natural rhythms in your writing.
- Read aloud. Read your own dialogue out loud, to yourself or to a friend, to test yourself.
You’ll be writing dialogue like a pro before you know it!
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16 Responses to “Dialogue Dos and Don’ts”
Very nice and informative. Thanks.
A dialogue tip I learned from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers that’s worked very well for me: sometimes, if you string together two normally separate sentences with a comma, it can “sound” incredibly real when you read it. Obviously that’s not for everyone and not to use all the time, but it’s something to experiment with.
Right on time. As a newbie author I find it troublesome to write good dialogue. I’ll remember this tip while trying to complete my first book.
Wow, great tips! I write fiction stories a lot & these tips really helped! Keep up the good work!
I started using dialogues in my blog posts recently,and thanks to you,I can improve my blogging skills!
Its Very Useful. I am taking tution its very useful for my students.
Kennedy Alpha Mamza
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Great tips! I teach middle school children. these tips have really helped me make my lesson plans effective.Kudos!!!
I have been slamming my head against the wall trying to do effective dialogue. This will help. I tip my Wizard’s Hat to you!
Thanks for guiding me so well. Your tips are easy to understand and simple to follow.I`m sure my students will enjoy my lecture even more.
Keep up the good work.
When I started editing fiction, I was desparate for this simple information about wriuting dialogues. I figured it out from Chicago Style and other sources, but guessed on certain aspects. These tips confirmed that my guesses were correct.
Very helpful. I’ve never been too sure on how to do dialogue. These tips should really help with my attempts at writing.
This helped a ton! I’m currently writing a full novel series, and I needed some help tweaking my book. Being only 16, I only have so much Language Arts education, so I didn’t expect to get it right, but thanks to this site I knew what I was doing wrong and fixed it. Thanks!
Good stuff! I used to be intimidated by dialogue, now I can’t get enough of it. I am still quite new at it so am always researching and learning more ways to improve it. What I like most is to have dialogue that contains a lot of humour and still sound like something people would say to each other.
I think dialogue is one of the most important illusions for every writer. In a sense it is or should be the perfect con.
One common mistake that’s frequently made by new writers involves contractions.
In real speech, speakers rarely say ‘do not’, ‘can not’, ‘did not’, ‘they are’ etc. in full, so in written dialogue it will sound stilted. Instead they will use contractions like ‘Don’t’, ‘can’t’, ‘they’re’ etc. It helps the dialogue flow. Sure, occasionally the full word will be spoken for emphasis, but generally people are lazy when they speak.
It’s also handy to include common grammatical errors in dialogue to reflect the speaker’s manner of speaking, along with the odd dialect or colloquial word. (Although it’s best to avoid ‘would of’. That’s simply a misspelling of ‘would’ve’ that’s now passed into the written words of many online posters. Stick to ‘Would have’ in the text, ‘would’ve’ in the dialogue.
One final, and very common, error when using contractions is the apostrophe. Beware of the contraction that has the missing letter(s) at the beginning. Most word processors will enter an opening single quotation mark instead of an apostrophe at the start of a word if using ‘smart’ quotes. (like a little ‘6’) The contraction apostrophe is like any other apostrophe (like a little ‘9’) even at the beginning of the word. On a Mac, it’s keystroke alt+shift+] … I’m not sure of the Windows keystroke. (Or cheat, by copying and pasting another apostrophe in place).
Good stuff, but one observation: The writing example does not seem to correspond with the simple grammatical rule you mentioned above as neither the dialogue nor the paragraphs are indented. I do not mention this to criticize, but to help those who may have stumbled upon this looking for the specific formatting rule that you mentioned in your first point.