10 Tips on Writing Effective Dialogue

by Marg McAlister


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 emotions.

(c) copyright Marg McAlister


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