Dialogue – a few tips


We all have our writing preferences – just as we would all admit to struggling with one aspect or another of writing. For some dialogue is their thorn in the flesh, for others it could be plot development. When I am proofreading or editing, I come across some wonderful dialogue, but also some very much less than wonderful…So here are a few tips on what I think makes good dialogue.

Dialogue is conversation, it’s your characters acting and reacting together to enhance your story and move the plot along. Through dialogue, the inner person of your characters is revealed, and also their motives, hopes, desires, all the things that make them the people they are and enable them to act out their part in your story.

1. Don’t over-tag.

What I mean is, you don’t need to assign a speaker to every instance of speech. If your dialogue is written clearly, it should be obvious to the reader who is speaking. There is nothing more irritating than reading a constant stream of he said, he added, he went on, he further added, she replied. As here:

“How many times,” his mother asked, “do I have to tell you to tidy your room?” She went on to say, “You know I don’t have time to do it for you. And in any case, now you’re thirty-seven you should start to do a few things for yourself.” She added.

Eek! Really this is all one speech – or should be. So I recommend cutting out the annoying little joining-uppy bits and jsut have one nice smooth speech. Also, please don’t do this – it really grinds my gears:

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson.” Said Jenny.

“Good morning, Jenny. How are you today?” Asked Mr Tomlinson.

“I’m very well thank you, Mr Tomlinson. How are you?” Jenny replied.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny.” Mr Tomlinson told her.

“I’m very glad to hear that, Mr Tomlinson.” Said Jenny.

Maybe we could try writing out our little conversation with no tags at all – I bet it would still be clear! So don’t over-tag. Please. I’m begging you.

2. Adverbs and the humble ‘said’.

Some people say NEVER use adverbs, it is forbidden. They probably also say never go into the forest on a Wednesday…

I say use them occasionally if you want to. But whatever you use, it has to be carefully done. It is almost as bad to read a long list of ‘active’ verbs as it is to read a repeated list of adverbs:

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson.” Jenny declared.

“Good morning, Jenny. How are you today?” Asked Mr Tomlinson.

“I’m very well thank you, Mr Tomlinson. How are you?” Jenny enquired.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny.” Mr Tomlinson responded.

“I’m very glad to hear that, Mr Tomlinson.” Jenny explained.


“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson.” Jenny said warmly.

“Good morning, Jenny. How are you today?” Mr Tomlinson asked worriedly.

“I’m very well thank you, Mr Tomlinson. How are you?” Jenny replied sincerely.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny.” Mr Tomlinson smiled gratefully.

“I’m very glad to hear that, Mr Tomlinson.” Said Jenny emphatically.

Okay, I know you would never write anything like that. But my point is, it’s definitely a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other. Sometimes it’s better to just stick with the good old-fashioned ‘said’. Because most of the time, we don’t really need to know how something is said, only what was said. How something is said will hopefully become clear with context and the development of the characters.

3. Natural – but not too natural

I know we want our dialogue to sound like it was uttered by a real live actual person, but we don’t want it to be too real. In real life we rarely speak properly. And we use a lot of fillers and gaps to get our meaning across. I once knew a lady whose entire speech was made up of fillers and gaps and I never knew what she was actually saying. Conversation was next to impossible, and misconstruing her meaning was a constant hazard. In real life the above little scene would probably go like this:

“Oh, er, good morning, Mr Tomlinson.” Said Jenny.

“And a very good er…to you, er, J…er Jenny. How are you umm?” Asked Mr Tomlinson.

“Well, I’m er, oh well, you know, well erm, thank you, Mr Tomlinson. And are you umm?” Jenny replied.

“I am also very well thank you Jenny.” Mr Tomlinson told her.

“Well, I’m um I’m very glad to er…, Mr ummm.” Said Jenny.

So ‘real’ speech is not for us. What we are looking for is a style that gives the appearance of reality without it’s dreary waiting around and time-wasting. Sometimes we want a little hemming and hawing, as they say, but most of the time we don’t.

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson.”

“Hello, Jenny. How are you today?”

“I’m fine thanks. Yourself?”

“Yes, thank you, I’m much better.” Mr Tomlinson said.

“That’s great. Could I have half a pound of bacon, please?”

Yay, the scene moved on! I don’t think I even needed the ‘Mr Tomlinson said’ on line 4, but it’s there just to signpost the speeches for the reader. And we’ve even learned that a) this is some kind of shop or purchasing situation, b) Mr T has been poorly (that may be relevant) and c) that Jenny likes bacon! Now we are all set for the great Full English Breakfast Murders…

So dialogue should attempt to be natural, but without real life’s untidiness, needs to be tagged sparingly and clearly but without fuss. More importantly it should move the story along.


2 thoughts on “Dialogue – a few tips

  1. Nice checklist, Caron, especially for those of us getting ready to rewrite. Never hurts to brush up on skills. Thanks for sharing.

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