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The do’s and don’ts of dialogue

Dialogue is a powerful tool. Do make it sound lifelike, don't let it drone on forever.

Learn the do’s and don’ts of writing in dialogue. Photo by Blan-k/Shutterstock
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I’m not talking just to hear my own voice,” Grace insisted. “I’ve got a big job here!”

Indeed, she does. Or the dialogue does. Only in a raw beginner’s manuscript – or a creative writing student’s desperate attempt to meet a page requirement – does dialogue drone on simply to fill the airways. Dialogue is a powerful tool. Imagine for a moment gazing on a family reunion devoid of speech. Or try your favorite television show without sound. A haze of confusion falls over the action. What does it all mean? Does Dad’s deadpan expression disguise a joke, or is he angry? Or disappointed? Mom and daughter seem to be in the midst of a heartfelt talk. Is daughter announcing an unexpected pregnancy? Or are they deciding to hire a different plumber? 

Turn on the sound, and the scene becomes real, meaningful, and immediate. Immersed in your well-drawn, fictional world, readers “hear” your characters’ words with their minds’ ear, just as they “see” the scene in their minds’ eye. As a child, I would crack open a book to make sure there was enough “talking” before borrowing it from the library. That attraction to dialogue doesn’t leave us. It is the reason many works of both fiction and nonfiction begin with someone speaking.

To attract readers, dialogue must sound natural, true to life. Eavesdropping on a nearby conversation is an excellent way to study how real people talk. Try it in a crowded coffee shop or subway station. Do two (or more) people have different ways of expressing themselves? Does one favor clichés, as Grace did in the opening statement? Does the other speak in dialect or use regionalisms or slang? Is their tone different? 

Chances are that an overheard conversation can’t be plunked down in your fiction with good result. Dialogue is lifelike. Notice the emphasis on like. Real speech wanders. It begins a tale from yesterday, interrupts with a rain prediction, leaps forward to the dentist appointment at 4, and returns to the tale. It hems and it haws. It lumbers through hellos and goodbyes and taps its feet, trying to remember. We may wade through such speech in real life, but readers expect more artistry. A visual artist pares away the unnecessary distractions, directing our eyes toward what is important. So, too, must the writer. Good dialogue gives the illusion of reality but is more directed. We have tools other than dialogue to leapfrog us over life’s lackluster moments. (We can, for example, summarize: The hour-long meeting resulted in two important decisions: Earl would drive, but Bernice would negotiate the sale. We excise the dross.) 


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That dialogue that survives surgery must serve some purpose beyond simply drawing readers in, essential though that is. “When you write,” explains Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, “you are constantly at pains to mean more than you say.” Inherent in dialogue is its characterizing ability. How we speak and what we say reveals reams about us. As you listen to that overheard conversation, close your eyes and imagine how the speakers might look. Imagine their expressions and movements as they speak. What sort of lives might these people have? What sort of personalities? Are they merely passing time, or does their conversation point to some purpose?

We glean such information when encountering new people, often unconsciously making adjustments as we gain new insights. Our readers do the same sizing up of our characters. Consider Tess in Jason Reynolds’ award-winning middle-grade novel As Brave as You: “You ain’t finna come down here to North Hill, sit your stank city butts at our bar, and not have a Special.” No one would mistake her words with the flea market vendor who, asked about her wares, responds, “I call them Bite Buddies. They’re for dogs. I make them out of rubber. They’re virtually indestructible…” With tone, diction, and pronunciation, Tess and the vendor give us very different impressions. Tess seems feisty, informal, and humorous. When the vendor greets characters with a “Howdy,” it tells us she’s no city slicker. But her answer suggests she is informative, yet down-to-earth, approachable. 

Time for a caution and one basic rule: Everything looms larger in print. That means a light touch is required. Or, as the old Brylcreem ad advised, “A little dab’ll do ya.” While we need to avoid unintended contradictions, if all of Tess’s speech were riddled with misspellings, readers would soon weary of translating. The spelling choices would get more attention than the intended message. Some writers advise avoiding phonetic spelling entirely because of this; others dab. And remember that we often alter our speech according to the listener. To Grandma, Tess is perfectly capable of saying, “She read about it for hours, then this morning she decided to take a step. I couldn’t believe it…But then she got a little freaked out…” The choice of freaked out reminds us that Tess is still Tess. 


How we speak and what we say reveals reams about us.

Other features that can distract the reader on the page are regionalisms and dialect. If you’re tackling dialect, it’s best to be a native speaker – many of your readers may be, and a slip-up can cast the gloom of inauthenticity over the whole. In real life, most of us commit and listen to minor grammar goofs without registering them when we are intent on the message. With a light touch, these tactics can help characterize someone as relaxed, informal, perhaps from a certain locale. But one too many (unfortunately, no one can tell you this number), and Casual Cass becomes Bonehead Betty. Too many curse words and a person may seem not only ignorant, but crass. Too many foreign words can leave readers puzzled. However, an occasional and easily interpreted adios or even shukran (an informal Arabic thank you), if discernible in context, will still provide the same effect. Slang presents a different problem, even used sparingly. It can date your piece. Cool seems perennial. But groovy can get you laughed off the bookshelf. As for current selections, there’s no telling if we’ll be turning on our swag in 2050. One option is to create your own unique slang.

Your characters’ dialogue may differ in subtler ways, too, like sentence construction, length, and diction. Subtlety is a jewel; lose it, and your characters can turn into caricatures. But while our speech may differ, we also tend to speak similarly in other ways. Most people use contractions and sentence fragments, sometimes answering in monosyllables. Our speech is often littered with space holders like um, uh, and well, though you’ll want to edit most of this out. Another point about speech: we don’t usually give one. If you find someone rolling on for paragraphs uninterrupted – and he isn’t the narrator – the others may have left the room.

Dialogue can also convey information, providing it does so in a natural way. When Grandpop shakes hands with his grandson in Reynolds’ novel, he says, “Nice to finally meet you,” letting us know something has prevented family visits for the boy’s 11 years. Dad adds detail to the setting when he says, “Text? Don’t bother. No service out here, son.” Dialogue advances the action when Ernie, the protagonist’s brother, tells him, “I gotta cool idea. But you gotta get out to the grass first.” Theme, mood, backstory, and more can be conveyed as characters speak.


Unless you’re a playwright, though, you don’t want pages and pages of dialogue. It needs to be judiciously placed amongst action and setting. Use it to multitask, fleshing out characters, conveying feelings and thoughts, sparking the action, carrying us through your characters’ days and nights. Above all, use dialogue to bring us in close to the crises and to those moments of discovery and change, where readers hunger to follow your villains and heroes. Nothing frustrates readers more than to experience the build-up of events, only to find the peak moment summarized. 


Gail Radley is the author of 29 books for young people and numerous articles for adults, including, most recently, “The Writer Speaks” from the September 2018 issue of The Writer. Recently, she stepped away from teaching English full time at Stetson University in order to devote more time to freelance writing and editing. She lives in DeLand, Florida.