Tips for Writing Dialogue in Fiction

Books need dialogue.

Speech gives life to the page; it humanizes a story; it breaks up long pages of action & description. The Writers' Workshop has sometimes received entire manuscripts with virtually no dialogue - unsurprisingly, such scripts are a long way from being marketable.

But it's not enough to include plenty of dialogue. Getting speech right is an art form in itself.

Fortunately there are rules to follow – and we're here to tell you what they are.

Life-like is bad

The weird thing about speech-as-it’s-actually-spoken is that’s not actually all that easy to understand. Take this real-life snippet (taken from tapes recorded during Watergate) for example:

Haldeman: ...the only network that paid any attention to it last night was NBC...they did a massive story on the Cuban...
Nixon:   That's right.
Haldeman:   ...thing.
Nixon:   Right.
Haldeman:   That the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters call Pat Gray and just say, "Stay the hell out of this...this is ah, business here we don't want you to go any further on it." That's not an unusual development.
Nixon:   Um huh.
Haldeman:   and, uh, that would take care of it.
Nixon:   What about Pat Gray, ah, you mean he doesn't want to?
Haldeman:   Pat does want to. He doesn't know how to, and he doesn't have, he doesn't have any basis for doing it.

Fairly obviously, you couldn’t have much of that sort of thing in a book and hope to keep your readers interested.

Wooden is bad

At the same time, you can’t afford to make speech too much like a game of tennis:-

Alice:  Are you coming into town now?
Bob:   No, I can’t come now. What about later?
Alice:  It might be raining later on. Rain’s forecast.
Bob:   Well, why don’t we go in later and we could always take the car rather than go on foot?

Can you see how quickly predictable these speech rhythms are? Don’t you start to feel bored almost immediately?

Achieving Perfection

The trick to achieving dialogue that feels right is to write speech that seems life-like, while being anything but. The tricks of the trade are:

  • Keep speeches short. If a speech runs for more than 3 sentences or so, it risks being too long
  • Keep interchanges oblique, not direct. The Alice and Bob example failed because A & B responded too directly to the other
  • Ensure that characters speak in their own voice. You can overdo this, of course, but do try to make sure that characters don’t all sound the same as each other.
  • Spice it up. Humor is good. Slang. Banter. A bit of swearing (not too much).
  • Get in late & out early. Don’t bother with all the Hellos, HowAreYous and other small talk. Just say “they greeted each other, before Alice raised the million dollar question."
  • Interruption is good. So too are characters pursuing their own thought processes and not quite engaging with the other.
  • Don’t patronize the reader. He snarled. She simpered. He snapped back. She leered. What rubbish! 98% of the time, just use “he said” or “she said” or nothing at all. If the character is emoting, then that should come over in what they say.

Admiring the Masters

Good writers write good dialogue, and make it look so easy that the reader hardly even notices. Take this bit, for instance, blatantly lifted without copyright permission from Ian Rankin’s A Question of Blood. The detective, Rebus, is phoned up at night by Siobhan, his colleague: -

His phone was ringing … He picked it up.  ‘Hello?’
‘I tried ringing your home phone.’ Siobhan’s voice. ‘It was engaged.’
Rebus looked at the laptop, the laptop which was hooked up to his phone line. ‘What’s up?’
‘Your friend, the one you were visiting that night you bumped into me …’ She was on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors.
‘Andy?’ he said. ‘Andy Callis?’
‘Can you describe him?’
Rebus froze. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Look, it might not be him …’
‘Where are you?’
‘Describe him for me … that way you’re not headed all the way out here for nothing.’

Simple, eh? But masterful. Not a word too many. Sweet perfection indeed.

Punctuating dialogue

Dialogue is easy. Follow these rules and you'll be fine:

  • Each new speaker needs a new, indented paragraph - even when the paragraph in question could be a single world (eg: "Yes.")

  • Dialogue needs to happen inside inverted commas. Everything else (he said, she said, and any action descriptions) should be outside inverted commas.

  • We contemporary, IKEA-influenced Brits have mostly dropped double inverted commas (") in favour of simple ones (') - see the dialogue above for an example. Those fusty Americans still cleave to the old ways, however. But don't worry about it - it's not a big deal either way.

  • The following bits of text are correctly punctuated - so check you understand what's going on here:

'I do like you,' he said. Yet he looked troubled.
[Note the comma after like you, where you might expect a full stop.]

'I love you!' he cried. Yet he looked troubled.
[This needs an exclamation mark, but he cried doesn't have a capital H.]

'I? Love you?' he expostulated.
[Same as above, except with a question mark.]

'I love you!' he cried. 'Yet I feel troubled.'
[Note the fullstop after cried and the capital Y in Yet because a new sentence is starting.]

'I love you,' he said, 'for your furry coat, your wet nose and your ever-wagging tail.'
[This is all one sentence, so there's a comma after he said and no capital F in for your . . .]