My Lucky Thirteen Tips for Dialogue
By Keith Pyeatt
Copyright © 2009 by Keith Pyeatt, All Rights Reserved
like writing relaxed, realistic dialogue should be as simple as chatting
with your neighbor, but effective dialogue requires careful attention.
Each line a character speaks must be as natural as a real conversation
-- only better. As a writer, I'm proud when my dialogue wins praise,
because I work hard to make it look easy. As a freelance editor, I see
common problems, so here are my lucky 13 tips for writing dialogue.
Dialogue should be natural. Most people use contractions and sentence
fragments when they speak. If your characters don't, they may sound
Dialogue is more than spoken words. A lifted eyebrow or forced smile can
convey more meaning than a spoken sentence. Non-verbal responses can add
nuance or completely change the meaning of spoken words.
"Sounds great." He slapped Jim's back and whistled on his way out the
"Sounds great," he said, but he frowned and looked at his feet.
"Sounds great." She rolled her eyes and snickered.
can also replace spoken words and make a scene feel more realistic.
Picture a father and son building a fort. Here are some options for a
line of dialogue:
you hand me that hammer beside your knee, son?" Dad asked.
nodded at the hammer beside Billy's knee. "Hand me that, would you?"
extended his hand, palm up, like a surgeon awaiting an instrument.
Characters don't all sound alike. Use dialogue to help make your
characters unique and distinctive, but remember...
little dialect goes a long way. The same goes for speech quirks. In real
life, someone might stammer or say "uh" every other sentence, but such
frequency in written dialogue will annoy readers. Be subtle even when
introducing dialect or a speech quirk, but once introduced, ease off
further. A reminder every now and then is enough.
caution on dialect: Word choice is an excellent way to make characters
distinctive, but don't force readers to stumble over strings of altered
words like goin', arntcha, or coulda.
Styles of speech should match the character. As an example, a common
disparity I see are characters in positions of authority -- Sergeant,
CEO, or police chief -- using weak sentences, rambling, and giving
orders almost apologetically. Readers expect those in authority to be
decisive and direct. Sergeants bark orders and speak in clipped,
confident sentences. It's fine to vary from that expectation. Maybe a
CEO started in the mailroom and vowed never to talk down to employees.
Great, but let readers know there's a reason or the mismatched speech
style feels unreal and can knock a reader out of your story.
Dialogue in novels should be more pointed and interesting than
conversations in real life. Real people chitchat, ramble, and repeat,
but readers don't want to wade through small talk and redundant chatter.
Dialogue should add to the story or define a character. If two
characters discuss their children or the weather, there should be a
reason. Maybe the discussion defines one character as an over-protective
mother. Maybe there's tension behind the dialogue as a character
struggles to hide feelings or notices something odd about the other.
Even with tension behind the words, keep mundane chatter to a minimum.
characters meet, and it just feels too unnatural for them not to
say howdy-do before getting to the good stuff readers want to read
about, summarize the howdy-do. They caught each other up on their
kids' latest misadventures before talk turned to the murder that shocked
the town. Or Marvin recited his usual litany of aches before his
son could mention his reason for visiting.
Similarly, avoid having a character recap events your reader just
witnessed. If a character needs to be brought up to speed but the reader
doesn't, summarize the conversation.
Proper paragraphing helps identify who is speaking. Most writers know to
break paragraphs every time a different character speaks. Doing so is
traditional and readers expect it. But unnecessary paragraph breaks can
also make dialogue difficult to follow.
me," Jimmy said.
stretched his arms above his head and dove into the pool.
great," Mom said.
shifted in the patio chair and checked her watch.
been in long enough," she said. "Dry off, and I'll make you lunch."
paragraphing above suggests speaker changes that don't occur. Readers
must adjust their expectations and search for dialogue tags to identify
who is speaking. The following paragraphing allows the dialogue to flow
better with fewer tags:
me." Jimmy stretched his arms above his head and dove into the pool.
great," Mom said. She shifted in the patio chair and checked her watch.
"You've been in long enough. Dry off, and I'll make you lunch."
People don't repeat each other's names in conversation. A character may
say a name in greeting, to get someone's attention, or to make a point,
but it's not natural to keep addressing someone by name in a
conversation. I think writers make this mistake because it's a
convenient way to reduce dialogue tags, but repeating names makes
dialogue ring false.
Character references can replace tags. If a name (or pronoun) follows or
precedes a line of dialogue, readers assume that's the character
speaking. Looking at my examples above, note how "Jimmy stretched his
arms..." replaces "Jimmy said." It's smoother and there's no confusion
without the tag.
Dialogue tags should not stand out. "Said" and "asked" are nearly
invisible to readers. Alternate tags like uttered, assured, observed,
asserted, declared, responded, snapped, vented, and urged call attention
to tags. Wouldn't you rather have readers focused on the dialogue itself
than how the characters are saying it?
like "whispered" can work, because whispering is not the same as
Effective dialogue rarely needs descriptive tags. "Go to your room"
doesn't need "he ordered" to be an order. "Get out!" doesn't need "he
exclaimed" to be an exclamation. "Oh gee, I don't know" doesn't need
"she said indecisively" to be indecisive.
If you do
use a descriptive tag, make sure it makes sense. A character can't laugh
a sentence, for example. A mistake I see with surprising regularity goes
something like this: "Leave me alone," she hissed. There's not a
sibilant in that statement. A character can't hiss without an "s."
Characters don't tell each other things they already know. Editors often
call this the "As you know, Bob" syndrome.
know, Bob, my wife ran off with the pool boy ten years ago, and I've not
heard from her since."
information is directed at the reader, not Bob. Bob already knows. Some
writers struggle with this, but it's completely natural to relay
information to the reader outside of active dialogue. Here's a snippet
from my novel STRUCK to demonstrate.
stared out the window, looking even more miserable than usual, and said
one word: "Chaco." The pueblo ruins in Chaco Canyon had become Alvin's
passion over the years. He spent a day meditating there any time he
could convince someone to drive him.
about Chaco?" Walter asked.
that's more natural than, "As you know, Walter, the pueblo ruins in
Chaco Canyon have become my passion over the years. I meditate there any
time I can..."
thoughts and dialogue. I mention this last, but it's important. A scene
that's nothing but spoken dialogue can feel flat. Including physical
movements helps (a character sips water, drums her fingers, or even
blinks or smiles), but to add real depth to a scene, mix in the
point-of-view character's thoughts, expectations, and motivations.
with another snippet from STRUCK to illustrate several points
I've mentioned above, but especially how internal thoughts can add depth
to dialogue. This is from a scene in Manuel's point of view. He and
Sebastian are making plans to drug another man. Manuel's thoughts are in
italics to make them stand out. Notice how they reveal Manuel's feelings
about Sebastian and shed light on the relationship between Sebastian and
the waitress. Without the thoughts, the conversation would still work,
but taking advantage of being in Manuel's point of view to show his
inner thoughts adds layers of meaning.
accepted a small vial of white powder from Sebastian. "This is enough to
put him out?" He closed his fist over the vial when their waitress, a
sturdy-looking woman in her fifties named Valerie, approached their
booth in a back corner of the bar.
Valerie always waited on Sebastian. Her eyes lit up every time he teased
her, but their interplay had subtly changed recently. Manuel suspected
they'd passed the genuine flirting stage and now screwed regularly. The
flirting that went on these days was an act, either because they liked
the secrecy or to fulfill some old-fashioned need to protect Valerie's
set down a bowl of pretzels and replaced Manuel's empty beer bottle with
a full one. "Another whiskey?" she asked Sebastian in her raspy,
notice me stopping after two?" Sebastian's demeanor always warmed
when he chatted up Valerie, making him seem almost human.
smiled and turned to Manuel. "Don't try keeping up with this one drink
for drink." She jabbed a thumb at Sebastian. "Big men like him have big
enough." Sebastian arched a bushy eyebrow and made a show of examining
her body. "For lots of things."
twinkled, and she cleared her throat. "I'll get you that drink."
Keith Pyeatt is a novelist and freelance editor. He writes
paranormal thrillers he refers to collectively as "horror with
heart" and edits anything that grabs his interest. Keith's first
published novel, STRUCK, is due out in July '08 from
Regal Crest Enterprises (www.regalcrest.biz).
Learn more about Keith at his website,
www.keithpyeatt.com, or his blog,