1. Become an Eavesdropper
Listen carefully to the way people REALLY talk. They tend to talk in sentence fragments. They interrupt
others. They repeat themselves. Try to get your dialogue to reflect authentic speech, but be careful not to
become dull (real speech is OFTEN dull!)
2. Train Yourself to Notice
Observe the ways that people give away their social, economic and ethnic backgrounds by the way they talk.
Use this knowledge when you create dialogue.
3. Don't Overdo the Dialect
Readers very quickly become tired of trying to 'interpret' speech that is represented phonetically, or with
apostrophes everywhere to reflect dropped letters. The trick is to choose one or two words/phrases that will
give a taste of what the person is like to others. A little bit goes a long way.
4. Try Recording People's Conversations
(Be careful with this!You may not be popular if you do it without permission and others find out - or if you
use it unwisely. Be smart and get permission.) Listen carefully when you play it back. Often you'll hear
inflections and habits that you miss when you're absorbed in a conversation first-hand.
5. Write First, Edit Later
Don't be tempted to edit too much as you write - it's better to let it flow, then give yourself some
distance from the work and go back and edit later.
6. Read the Dialogue Out Loud
This is an excellent test for dialogue. Better still, get someone else to read your words. It's even easier
that way to hear sentences that don't ring true, or that sound too stilted. Edit the work right away, while the
problems are fresh in your mind.
7. Learn to Punctuate Dialogue Effectively
Good punctuation can make a huge difference to the effect of what you write. When you read the work out
loud, decide whether the pauses are long or short (does the speaker just 'run on'; does the dialogue require a
comma, or should it be a semi-colon or a colon?) Don't forget that when people trail off uncertainly, you
represent this with an ellipsis (row of dots); when they are interrupted, you show it with a dash.
8. Make Sure Every Character Doesn't Sound the Same
Some people speak in clear, well-formed sentences with perfect grammar; others make constant grammatical
errors and stumble over words. Some people are bright and lively and their words and tone reflect this; others
are slow and thoughtful. Dialogue should reflect all of these things. Most of all, make sure that each
character is not just a reflection of YOU!
9. Use Quotation Marks for Speech, not for Thoughts
Your reader can become confused if you use quotation marks for both speech and thoughts. Thoughts are
expressed in other ways - usually with a tag like 'he thought' or by using italics if they are expressed in the
third person. (But that's a whole other tipsheet...)
10. Don't "Sandwich" Direct Speech Between Actions
When you write dialogue, make sure that the viewpoint character's thoughts, actions and reactions are woven
into the dialogue. Don't have half a page of direct speech with the occasional 'she said' and 'he said' to
indicate who is speaking, then have a paragraph to describe the viewpoint character's thoughts or actions, then
another half page of direct speech. Dialogue should be a smooth blend of speech, actions, thoughts and
(c) copyright Marg McAlister