Monday, May 18, 2015

Dialogue--To Say and Convey

I feel fortunate this year to have had several opportunities to teach (and learn) about dialogue. I come from a theatre background, so I’ve always felt comfortable writing what characters say. It wasn’t until I studied the mechanics of what makes dialogue readable, that I realized there are a few techniques that can really improve not only the speech, but also the way it enhances the story.

The defines “dialogue” as “conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie.” While fictional dialogue resembles conversation, it is not an exact transcription. Readers would soon tire of actual exchanges. Consider the number of times people say throw away words or syllables like “you know” or “uh.” Watch close captioned programing and see how difficult it is to capture exactly all the spoken phrases and word spellings. It’s tortuous.

To really be beneficial in developing a story, the dialogue must be an integral part of the plot, the pacing, and the entire purpose of the work. It’s crucial that dialogue identify the speaker and reveal the character by speech pattern and attribution (either “tags,” such as he said or she said, or “beats,” which are character actions placed close to the spoken words). In addition, dialogue needs to blend into the story becoming invisible to the reader so it advances the story without distracting or interfering with its progress.

At this year’s Murder in the Magic City, an annual mystery conference held in Birmingham, Alabama, Guest of Honor Craig Johnson (author of the Longmire series) mentioned that George Guidall, who reads the audio versions of the books, told him: “You don’t clutter your writing with attribution and that makes it easier to read.” This comment resonated very strongly with me, bringing home two important points: (1) it’s important to read your story aloud, particularly the dialogue, to see if it flows naturally and feels comfortable being spoken, and (2) any dialogue that doesn’t keep the story moving has to go.

Here’s a checklist of recommendations for writing dialogue that I developed from my studies:

For clarity, each time a speaker changes, give the new speaker a new paragraph.

Be careful about using a character action as a tag.
Examples of bad tags: “No,” he coughed. / “No,” she hissed.
You can’t cough a word, nor can you hiss a word that does not contain an “s.”
Improvement: The racking cough almost kept him from speaking. Finally, he was able to say, “No.”
Appropriate use of “hiss”: “”Yes,” she hissed.

Use adverbs sparingly. A character might say something softly instead of whispering; but if you describe him as speaking adamantly or sarcastically, think about substituting a beat (He slammed his fist on the table/She smirked) for the tag (he said adamantly/she said sarcastically). Remember show, don’t tell.

Vary tags and beats. If it’s clear who’s speaking, you may not need either.

Punctuate dialogue with commas and periods. Use exclamation marks sparingly. Generally, people don’t speak in semi-colons.

Match dialogue with your character and make sure it reflects your character’s voice.

Limit and be consistent in use of dialect and phonetically spelled speech. Let it enhance character development, not confuse the reader.

Don’t use character names in dialogue unless they are needed for clarity or emphasis. Remember how you knew you were in trouble as a child when you heard your parent call you by your full name?

Know when silence or the unspoken speaks volumes.

Following are some books and online resources I’ve found helpful:

1.                  Dynamic Dialogue: Letting Your Story Speak by William Bernhardt (Red Sneaker Writers Book Series 4) (Babylon Books, February 3, 2014).

2.                  Dialogue by Marcy Kennedy (Busy Writer's Guides Book 3) (Tongue Untied Communications, February 26, 2014).

3.                  Dialogue - The Ultimate Writers' Guide by Robyn Opie Parnell (R&R Books Film Music, July 23, 2014).

4.                  Dialogue Tips & Traps: A Guide for Fiction Writers by Brent Spencer (Writers Workshop Press, June 25, 2012).

5.                  Hallie Ephron’s article at:

6.                  Marcy Kennedy’s dialogue blog messages at:

 A legislative attorney and former law librarian, Paula Gail Benson’s short stories have been published in Kings River Life, the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, Mystery Times Ten 2013 (Buddhapuss Ink), A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder (Dark Oak Press and Media, 2014), and A Shaker of Margaritas: That Mysterious Woman (Mozark Press 2014). Her most recent short story, “The Train’s on the Tracks,” is in Fish or Cut Bait: the third Guppy Anthology (Wildside Press 2015).


  1. Well said, Paula. (I would have used an exclamation point, but ...)

    1. Carla, good one! And you reminded me of another recommendation: Ellipses when you trail off (as did your comment) and Em-dashes when interrupted. ("I wonder--" "No, you don't. You know as well as I do!")

  2. Good points! I enjoy dialogue that's clear and feels natural.
    Now my ornery inner child is pranking me with Tom Swifties . . . "That's the last time I'll stick my arm in a lion's mouth," the lion-tamer said off-handedly.

    1. Thank you, Mary! Love that example. Off-handedly. Great!

  3. I never put in real-world conversation in dialogue. As you said, Paula, real-world people's speech can drive everyone crazy if read. For example, my sister has some really bad speech habits. She over uses the phrase, "in any event," to keep the conversation going without pause like she's afraid I'm ready to hang up the phone. Of course, after the fourth "in any event" I am ready. However, if I wanted to show the reader how annoying some character was, perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea. That said, I would make the character secondary so the character didn't speak very often. Someone who continually over uses a phrase can be a way to avoid tags.

    Thanks for the references. I will look them up.

    1. E.B., exactly right. Maria Hudgins wrote an interesting travel mystery, Death of an Obnoxious Tourist, where one of the group speaks in such an outrageous accent that no one, except his wife, can decipher what he is saying. Hudgins uses the speech sparingly, so it has a humorous effect. It's a great example of how moderation goes a long way in writing.

  4. Very good! I agree with all of this. I think writing dialog is easier for some and I'll bet a stage background helps tremendously.

    1. Kaye, my high school drama teacher always used to quote to us from Hamlet: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue." I really appreciate it now!

  5. Very nice, Paula! Dialogue seems like it ought to be one of the easiest things to write—my students often think so at least—but there are challenges at a number of levels and lots to pay attention to. This is a great post!

  6. Thanks for this post, Paula--lots of sound, savvy advice. I enjoy writing dialogue, but it's easy to slide into bad habits if I don't pay close, critical attention to what I'm doing. Reminders such as these help a lot