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October 21, 2016

Let’s Talk About Writing Dialogue

by Byddi Lee


Well, we did it again! We’ve relocated to a different country, and though I’ve joked about it in previous posts, it’s probably just what I need to force me to write my next book. This time we’ve moved to the wonderful city of Paris, France. Having only learned high school French, integrating here will be quite the challenge. I have noticed that the way we learned French in school – very formal and in full sentences – is different to how people actually talk. For example when we learned to apologize in French we used the complete sentence, “I am sorry.” (Je suis désolé.)  In reality, we simply say, “Sorry.” Writers do something similar to this when writing good dialogue.

Readers are pulled into a story by the characters. What a character says and how they say it helps our readers connect with them and become invested in the narrative. To write engaging and realistic dialogue, listen to how people talk to each other. We often don’t speak in full sentences, and many of our words are contracted. For example, “I am …” becomes “I’m …” Pay attention to how things are said and especially to the things that may be left unsaid in a conversation – this is known as sub-text and can artfully create tension and illustrate character traits.

Notice how a real dialogue flows, then read lots of dialogue. It is slightly different to how people really talk. As a writer, you need to figure how and why. Writing dialogue is not just about transcribing what people say. It involves a somewhat truncated version of how people talk in reality but with enough real nuances thrown in to provide flavor.

For example, in real life, we use a lot of superfluous words upon greeting one another and taking our leave of each other. We make affirmation sounds when listening to someone else talking and inject shortened words that are mere utterances which don’t even make sense (and are quite impossible to spell!) This all needs filtering out.

Then there’s the small talk, the pleasantries that are socially required but are not required to help the reader piece together the components of the story. For example:
“Hello, Molly,” Tom said.
“Oh, hello, Tom. How are you today?” Molly asked.
“Good, and you?” Tom said.
“Pretty good too. So what are you up to today?” Molly said
“Nothing much. I’m just going for a coffee. Do you want to come?” Tom said.
It sounds quite flat, doesn’t it? That’s because it lacks conflict. It fails to push the story forward or work to paint a character or ratchet up the tension. It is simply not necessary.

Don’t let your characters talk in a vacuum. Inject action. Have the characters display some non-verbal signals. For example, the following amended dialogue gives us some clues as to the strained relationship that exists now between Tom and Molly.
“Hello, Molly,” Tom said, blushing as he stood up quickly.
Molly refused to look directly at him. She gathered the papers from the desk between them and moved towards the door, but he’d beaten her to it and blocked her exit.
“Please,” he said softly. “Let me take you for a coffee and explain.”
It is okay to use simple dialogue tags such as said and asked.  They are considered invisible words and the reader skips past them without noticing them too much. Let the words and actions describe the context. Flamboyant dialogue tags such as exclaimed or interjected are unnecessary and look amateurish. The example above illustrates how using action allows for less use of dialogue tags also.

In this example, it is also obvious that the characters have some issues. Dialogue is also a way to disclose information to the reader. Beware of the, “By the way, Bob…” syndrome, whereby information is presented in the dialogue solely for imparting information to the reader. A character will not tell another character something that they both already know, nor will a character give out information that is already common knowledge or isn’t relevant to the conversation. Often this kind of information dump happens when a character is brought into a new situation, or a new character is introduced and needs to be briefed, for example, in a detective story where the character is talking to an expert of some kind. In this way, information can be shared with or re-capped for the reader without making it obvious.

A character might have a particular phrase that they repeat often. This may be colloquial, or indicative of age, or background. A character who often says, “Jolly good,” is very different from one who might say, “Awesome dude.” Profanity and swearing can also display a character’s traits, but use it with caution and with your target audience in mind.

When attributing dialogue, place the proper noun or pronoun before the tag e.g. Molly said or she said. This makes the sentence more active.

Use the correct punctuation for writing dialogue. Surround the speech with quotation marks. All punctuation must be inside these inverted commas. For example -

“Hello,” Tom said.

Not -

“Hello”, Tom said.

The first word after a comma and closing quotation marks should be lower case unless it is a proper noun, for example -

“Hello,” he said.

Not – 

Hello,” He said.

A new paragraph is needed each time a new person speaks or is referred to, even if they don’t speak, for example -

“I’m not going for coffee with you,” Molly said. “Now move out of my way or I’ll start screaming.”

Tom stepped aside.

These are just the basics of punctuation for dialogue. I’ve concentrated on the areas where I see the most mistakes being made. It is worthwhile referencing a comprehensive grammar text or website to make sure that you follow all the rules.

Getting dialogue right makes a huge difference to your writing. Practice dialogue in your head. Let the voices chatter and argue, even voice them aloud, though this is probably best done when you are alone, or with a phone bud in your ear. Just make sure you have the other end plugged into your phone at the time!

Byddi Lee grew up in Armagh, Ireland, and moved to Belfast to study Biology at Queen’s University when she was 18. She made Belfast her home for twenty-one years, teaching science and writing for pleasure. In 2002 she took a sabbatical from teaching and traveled around the world for two years, writing blogs about her adventures as she went. She returned to Ireland in 2004 and resumed teaching. In 2008 she and her husband moved to San Jose, California where she made writing a full-time career. After the publication of her short story, Death of a Seannachai, she decided it was time to write, March to November. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter

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  1. Byddi - great column. As a reader, stilted and poorly done dialogue can ruin a book for me and poor punctuation drives me crazy! It's great to see if addressed in this blog. Good luck on your move to Paris - it's a beautiful city.

    1. Thanks Susan. I hope it helps. AS for the move - it's been hard to get back to writing with all the chances but your encourage helps!

  2. Great post. Dialogue is always such a pain, and even though one knows it, it's easy to slip into bad habits.

    1. I'm a chatty person so I think that's why I enjoy writing dialogue! But those bad habit still hover. Thanks for commenting. I appreciate the praise.

  3. Great post. Great dialogue is a must for a story. This is an amazing blog. Thanks for the tip(s).

    1. I'm delighted that you like it and hope the tips help. Thanks for taking time to comment.