How to write good dialogue

The Importance of Dialogue
There’s every chance that 1/3 of any novel will be given over to dialogue. Writing dialogue is an important aspect of story-telling and can add considerably to the charm and success of a good book. When done well, dialogue goes almost unnoticed and sinks into the subconscious in such a way that the reader could almost mentally identify that character’s voice. Done poorly, dialogue can be clumsy, ugly and boring and throw the reader out of the story. So let's look at how to go about writing dialogue.

How to Write Dialogue
•    There are a few dialogue rules you should follow. Most importantly,  dialogue should achieve something. It cannot be a filler. It must further the plot, reveal something important or expand the characterization. As such, hellos and comments about the weather and ‘How’s the family?’ are usually presumed to have taken place and are passed over in favour of the real message in the dialogue. Many new writers believe that they can’t do this but must report the first hello and the last goodbye. It is booooring!

•    Similarly, dialogue should not try to emulate real speech. The strange thing is that it must sound natural – that’s what the reader looks for and hates when the writer fails to deliver – yet, at the same time, we have to tidy it up. You are not expected to reproduce every clearing of the throat, um and ah, repeated phrase or stammer. Even when this is an important aspect of the character you are depicting, tone it down, hint at it.  Offer the occasion ellipsis (…) to show hesitancy, the odd ‘um’, but, for goodness’ sake, don’t start every line that a character speaks with ‘Um…”

•    Dialogue must not be used to dump backstory on the reader by having one character tell another what he or she must surely know: “Your mother, Elizabeth Boston, who lives in London, came to see me the other day to tell me about the death of your only brother, Alfred. Do you think your position as head of the family company Williams and Sons is still secure?”

•    Make sure you use a good variety of the three ways you show someone speaking:
a)    A dialogue tag (Bill said, Joan shouted, he whined) before or after the speech.
b)    An action tag (this is a statement of action that clearly indicated who will speak next.  Once u have it in place, you don’t need the ‘He said’ dialogue tag. For example – Old Bill tossed the sales report folder onto my desk, almost spilling my coffee. “What have you been doing all month – holidaying in the Bahamas?”
c)    No tag at all. This is an option you should explore.  When there are only two people in the conversation, and no possibility of confusion, just leave the line of dialogue untagged, especially if it is a very brief one.
EG:     Dad glared over his glasses at me. “Decided what line of work you’ll try?”
    “You don’t think it’s about time you did?”
    “I suppose…”
Don’t let it go on too long, as it can get boring and you suffer from ‘Talking Heads Syndrome’. As with all dialogue, tagged or untagged, the important thing is to take a new paragraph every time there’s a switch in speaker.  Don’t run them together on the same line: “You OK?” “No, feeling sick.” That’s no good.” I’ll get over it.”

•    Make sure you include sub-text. That’s the bit of the conversation that is unspoken.  It comes through to the reader by the facial expressions and body language you give the characters, or by other devices such as hesitancy, changing the subject or making seemingly odd associations between ideas.
Here is an example of the last:
Bill whipped his hand from behind his back. “I brought you some flowers.”
“Oh, pink roses,” Amy said. “What a coincidence.  It was pink roses I put on Emily’s grave last week.”
What is unspoken here – but the reader will be well aware of from the story that has gone before – is that Emily is Amy’s sister and she died when Bill tipped the car over drink-driving. It is clear to the reader, though unspoken, that Bill’s overtures to the younger sister have fallen flat.


Of course, apart from knowing these general dialogue rules,  it is also important to know how to punctuate dialogue correctly  - Click here to go to the page on DIALOGUE PUNCTUATION.

If you'd like to go straight to a DIALOGUE PUNCTUATION WORKSHEET, click here.

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