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On Dialogue

Today’s study was on dialogue.

It seems fairly straight forward, right? Multiple characters exchanging words – it’s all about the he said, she said. Except that anyone who has read a book that involves much dialogue knows that it can sometimes get difficult to follow. It can also add to a story or become a distraction. The worst is when it gets too repetitive – he said, he said, he said, he asked, he said…

Most of the research I did resulted in the same few suggestions over and over, but a few unique tidbits came up as well. The following is all the information I pulled from my reading today. I’ll include links throughout and at the end, in case you want to do more research yourself.


Learn how to properly punctuate dialogue. There are rules for doing this properly and following them ensures that your reader will be able to follow your dialogue. If they can’t, they’ll probably stop reading.

Realistic, Not Verbatim

If writers only wrote the way people actually speak, half of the things that needed to be said in novels would not be said. Readers would also quickly lose interest or become bogged down in needless chatter or ‘um’s and ‘ah’s.

This ties into the next point…

Make It Useful

Dialogue should add to your story, not detract or distract. Use it to reveal something important, use it to set a scene, use it to develop a character. Don’t let it just be idle chatter – it’ll get boring.

People Speak Differently

I use the word the phrase “hold the phone” fairly often, which I’ve been made fun of for quite a bit because no one else seems to say it. If you were going to write me into your story, you’d know it was me speaking by the cadence of speech, the words I use, and especially if I use that phrase. “Alex said” would not be needed. This should be true of your characters. Learn how they speak and how they speak differently from one another.

Reveal, Don’t Inform

If a character knows something that the reader does not, do not inform the reader by making the character talk about it. We don’t do this in day-to-day conversation, so this really falls under the Realistic category – but it’s worth making special note of.

Dialogue can also be used as a tool to reveal things about a character that can only be done through interaction with others – like their sense of humor. We tend to act differently around others and different groups of people. This can be shown through dialogue.

Easy With The He Said, She Said

Ever read a story in which every line of dialogue was tagged with ,” he said? Annoying. If you got the ‘People Speak Differently’ part down, you shouldn’t have to label each line with who’s talking – that should be apparently. Every few lines it is good to put in a reminder tag to help the reader keep up, but throwing out some different verbs can also help to break monotony. Asked, yelled, hissed, whined, etc – these can really add to the dialogue, as well.

Pruhseed Wit Cawshun

Dialect can be a very useful tool in writing. It can also put some drag on your story if your reader struggles with it and it can have the undesired consequence of attaching a stereotype to a character that doesn’t actually fit that character. As always, make sure it adds to the story – don’t let it be a distraction. Proceed with caution.

Characters Fidget

Again with the realism – we don’t stop and stand still when we talk. Many people are animated speakers, others fidget with their hands when they’re talking about something that worries them, and some people twirl their hair. Break up the dialogue runs with a little action.

Silence Is Golden

Also known as, what’s not said can be just as important as what is. Think of the stoic old Clint Eastwood characters – they don’t say much, but they often don’t have to, right?

Script Frenzy offered a lot of keen examples for some of the points above, particularly Reveal, Don’t Inform. The article also has a fantastic title. Robert J Sawyer gave some great examples as well, more on the points of Realistic, Not Verbatim and People Talk Differently. He also offers some good tips for practicing writing dialogue. Chris Harris also had some excellent recommendations for practicing dialogue. Other sources I used include David Ellis, Write to Done, and Daily Writing Tips.



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