Good Writing Is...#7-- 10 common mistakes new writers make in writing dialogue.

10 Rules for Writing Dialogue

Fiction writers hear voices in their heads. No, they are not schizophrenic – they are listening to the voices of their characters. But sometimes, something goes wrong when the writer attempts to put those conversations on paper.

Nothing is more daunting to the new writer (or if it isn’t, should be) than conversation, and rarely is anything so mishandled. I know this is the case, as it is the area most needing work on many of the pieces submitted by the writers I coach.

No talent is more worthy of mastering than the art of writing effective dialogue. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Sure, just wrap some quotation marks around a sentence and attribute it to one of the characters. Ah – if only. And often it is the most verbose in everyday life that have the greatest difficulty in writing realistic and natural sounding conversation.

I’ve often wondered why that is.

And I’ve come up with some ideas.

One:

Many writers try too hard to instill artistry into their character’s mouths. Which doesn’t work well. The whole idea behind dialogue is to let the characters speak and push our story forward in their own words. Ergo, the result must sound like someone actually said it. If you read your dialogue aloud and find it awkward, unnatural or impossible, then it is a given your character wouldn’t have said it.

“Yes, indeed,” he said. “The poor man had had a fright he wouldn’t soon forget. One does wonder why he subjected himself to such dangers only a fool would fail to foresee, and for what? For the dubious pleasure of spending an evening in the company of somewhat less than brilliant, albeit lovely young woman.”

You find me someone who actually speaks like this, and I’ll look forward to making the acquaintance of a certifiable pompous ass. No one would say this because it is unspeakable. Try reading this aloud. It doesn’t work.

Rule number one: If it isn’t speakable, it isn’t dialogue.


Two:

Sometimes writers get hung up on the grammatical ‘correctness’ of their writing and carry it over to dialogue and the result sounds far too formal and strained. It is important that written speech sound natural to the character. This is an error I see all too often in my editing work.

“Hello Mother,” the child said. “I cannot open the jar of peanut butter, so I am having trouble making my sandwich.”

“I will do it for you.” Mother snatched the jar from his hands. “You must hurry or you will miss the school bus. And I do not have time to drive you today.”

Does this sound real? Do we see a mother and child under the normal, everyday strain of the morning, trying to get ready for their day? No. We see two robots with computer chips for brains, uttering stiff perfect sentences through their mechanical mouths.

“Hey, Mom,” the child said. “I can’t get the jar of peanut butter open, so how am I supposed to fix a sandwich?”

“I’ll do it.” Mom snatched the jar from his hands. “Hurry or you’ll miss the school bus. I don’t have time to drive you today.”

Now this sounds like an exchange between two humans. We can hear the whiney tinge to the kid’s words, and Mom’s harried annoyance. We need to strive for a natural sound in our character’s speech (but without the ums, errs and uhs that plague many real speakers – boring.)

Rule number two: Speech should sound human and in-tune with the character and their situation.


Three:

Of course, having just said our dialogue should sound natural does not mean our characters will speak the way people really do.

“Hi.”

“Hi. How’re you?”

“Okay. You?”

“Not bad.”

“Not bad?”

“Yeah. Not great, just fine.”

“What’s up?”

That’s what I’d like to know right about now. Do you have a point to this discussion, and if so can we please get to it?

Rule number three: Every sentence your characters utter should do at least one of these two things: move the story forward and/or develop character. No room in writing for empty chatter. Our characters cannot talk simply to pass the time of day.


Four:

Even worse is writing speech patterns that are natural, but annoying to hear, let alone read.

“Like Sherri was talking to Bob and he was like, all over her and I was like, this is so wrong and ….”

Or putting into print those annoying nervous tics some real life speakers use.

“I mean, did he really say those words? That is so wild. I mean, does everyone know?”

Trust me, while true to life, it won’t take much of this to make the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck stand straight up. These little idiosyncrasies of human speech can pass by unnoticed in conversation, but put down in black and white, they stand out like a fistful of sore thumbs. If you’re tempted to try to build character, or to discern speakers by using such artifices, resist the temptation. Such tactics will only alienate the reader.

Rule number four: Dialogue should sound like natural speech, but not be natural speech.


Five:

Often new writers have a tendency to put long speeches into the mouths of their characters, without breaks, a one-sided rush of information. Such an approach can only sound unnatural.

“This is a surprise. I don’t know what to say. You know I’ve always wanted children, just never thought I would have that pleasure. It’ll take some time to get used to the idea, but I’m not unhappy about your news. Stop looking at me with such fear in your eyes. What did you think I would do – run for the hills? I’m not that kind of man. Give me a few minutes to digest all of this. We’re having a baby. That’s wonderful. Of course, we should get married. I suppose that’s not much of a proposal – sorry. Will you marry me?”

Does this sound true to life? Not to me, and I’ll tell you why. Humans rarely utter more than three sentences at a time without a break. (I consider myself lucky to get one out uninterrupted much of the time.) Yes, yes, we’ve all met MotorMouth whose lips never stop flapping, and we all tend to run in the opposite direction when we see her coming, too.

Another reason the above speech doesn’t work is the lack of reaction, emotion, clues to the speaker’s inner self. After all, this man’s just been hit with major news. I doubt very much he’d be speaking in neat paragraphs. This form of speech is often found in Victorian literature. Perhaps people were polite enough, or repressed enough to make long, stiff speeches in those days (but I doubt it. I also doubt they were as endowed with vocabulary as suggested by those bygone writers, either. Check out Edward’s proposal to Eleanor in Sense and Sensibility for an example of improbable speech.)

Modern day writers avoid this stiff speechifying and go for a more natural approach. Perhaps this reflects the difference between classic drama of the early stage and the cinema of today. We are definitely a product of the influences of our times.

But back to the subject at hand. Here’s how I would present the above speech.

“What a surprise!” His eyes darted around the room, landing anywhere but her. “I don’t know what to say.”

She sat silent, staring at his face.

“You know,” he began in a hoarse voice. “I’ve always wanted children. Just never thought I’d have the pleasure. It’ll take some time to get used to the idea.” For the first time since her announcement, he looked at her. “But I’m not unhappy about your news.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Stop looking at me with such fear in your eyes. What did you think I’d do – run for the hills?”

Her throat convulsed as she swallowed, but no words came out.

“I’m not that kind of man.” He spoke in a softer, gentler tone. “Give me a few minutes to digest all of this.” He stared at his hands, deep in thought. When he raised his head, he offered her a small smile. “We’re having a baby – that’s wonderful.” He reached over and grasped her hand. “Of course, we should get married.” He chuckled. “I suppose that’s not much of a proposal, sorry.” He dropped to one knee before her. “Will you marry me?”

Now we have something approximating natural human speech.

Rule number five: Be wary if a character speaks more than three sentences at one go. Break up long speeches with action, images or responses from another character.


Six:

There’s another reason the second example above works better and communicates more to the reader. One many new writers overlook. This is another reason the dialogue of inexperienced writers floats unrealistically above the story.

Don’t forget, humans communicate with more than words, and as writers, we must try to show the entire range of expression, including actions, body language and clues to the inner workings of our character -- and sometimes actual thought.

“Hey, Mary, good to see you.” He stuck out his hand, waiting for hers and smiled broadly.

“Yes, John -- what a pleasure.” She stretched her lips in polite greeting and placed her hand in his. Oh damn it! Now I’m stuck with this bore for the rest of the night. He’ll trail around after me; I know it. What a pathetic loser.

The direct contradiction – the conflict – between what Mary says and what she thinks tells us a story all by itself. John’s eager handshake and smile tell us he has warm feelings for Mary. Her ‘stretched lips’ may look like a smile to John, her words suggest she is happy to see him and she accepts his hand – all of which communicates a falsehood to John – and only the reader knows.

Thoughts are unspoken dialogue, between the character and the reader. Many writers use italics, as I do here, so the reader understands this is internal or indirect dialogue, others prefer not to use this device. It’s up to you – your choice, but do ensure the reader, by one method or another, knows what is going on.

Rule number six: Direct dialogue is only one facet of human communication and writers should use indirect dialogue (body language, action and thoughts) fully conveying the character’s message. This way, we avoid ‘floating’ dialogue.


Seven:

Perhaps the most common error I find in the amateur work I edit and coach is the misuse of dialogue tags. Did I say misused? I meant tortured.

“You are not going!” Mom exclaimed.

“I am too,” Lori argued.

“Your mother said no,” Dad declared, while standing in the doorway blocking the exit. “And you will listen and do as you’re told.”

“Like hell,” Lori snorted. “I’m eighteen. You can’t make me do anything.”

“So long as you live under my roof –“ Dad roared angrily

“—I’ll do as you say,” Lori declared, sticking out her chin. “What are you going to do about it; lock me in my room?”

“If I have to,” Dad bellowed his hand curling into fists.

“Oh, dear,” Mom moaned.

The whole point of those mechanisms we use to present conversation is that they should be invisible. Many new writers, in an attempt at artistry forget that. Running to the thesaurus for two dozen synonyms for ‘said’ is counterproductive to the desired unobtrusive nature of writing techniques. These colorful tags draw attention, and detract from the dialogue.

And to be honest, it is impossible to snort, sneer, gasp, moan, chuckle or blast words.

Much better to do away with dialogue tags wherever and whenever possible, and when they are necessary, stick to ‘said’. Said is invisible. We don’t see it, because it is so common, therefore it does not intrude.

This is not to say we can’t ever use a more colorful tag, but keep it to rare occasions. I like ‘Dad bellowed’ and might want to keep that one. The rest – along with the adverbs – need to go. ‘Angrily’ is not needed, and is nothing but clutter. ‘Mom exclaimed’ is redundant, considering we’ve already used an exclamation point (which is another thing that should be reserved for very occasional usage. Never try to make up for weak word choice with punctuation.)

Instead of tags, try anchoring dialogue to a speaker with action. So, here we go:

“You’re not going,” Mom said.

“I am too.” Lori stamped her feet and placed her hands on her hips.

“Your mother said no.” Dad stood in the doorway, blocking the exit. “And you will listen and do as you’re told.”

“Like hell. I’m eighteen. You can’t make me do anything.”

Dad pointed at her. “So long as you live under my roof --”

--“I’ll do as you say.” Lori stuck out her chin. “What’re you going to do – lock me in my room?”

“If I have to.” His hands curled into fists at his sides.

“Oh, dear,” Mom said.

Rule number seven: Dialogue tags should be used only when necessary, and in the most unobtrusive method possible.


Eight:

New writers love to clutter their writing. This is true. They cannot let a single opportunity go by without seizing it and filling it with words. Dialogue is no exception.

“Is he cute?” asked the bubbly, long-blonde haired, naturally suntanned girl, her crystal blue eyes twinkling in amusement.

Oh. Aside from the fact the description gags in my throat, such things do not belong attached to dialogue. So if we must use these details, how about another way.

“Is he cute?” She tossed her head to make her long blonde hair fly over her shoulders, the way the models do in TV commercials. She batted her heavily mascara-encrusted eyelashes, drawing attention to her blue eyes, a la Scarlett O’Hara. “Well is he?”

Well, I don’t like her any better, but at least now, she shows some character.

“You know I don’t believe in abortion,” the old woman said, rocking her chair back and forth furiously, wondering what she could say to change her mind. It was wrong, she knew it was wrong and she didn’t want to see the girl burn in hell. What could she do?

“This is my choice, Grandma,” she said, patiently, shifting from one foot to another, uncomfortable and wanting to put an end to the conversation. “This is the modern world and women are in charge of their own bodies.”

“But I think it’s wrong and …..”

Clutter, clutter, everywhere clutter. And why do new writers feel compelled to do this sort of thing – and trust me, they do. It certainly keeps my red ink busy. They do it because they aren’t using strong enough language in the dialogue itself. (And possibly, in the erroneous belief more is better.)

I would edit this exchange to:

“Abortion is a sin.” The rocking chair snapped to a stop.

“This is my choice, Grandma. This is the modern world and women are in charge of their own bodies.”

“Thou shalt not kill.” The chair began rocking once more – case closed.

No clutter, no wishy-washy “You know” or “I think,” no unnecessary trips into mental anguish, no dull author-omniscient interpretations of actions – straightforward, plain speaking and succinct. And powerful. This has zing!

Now before you jump up and say – “Hey! Wait a minute. Didn’t you say up in number six we should use all the methods of communication?”

Yes I did, but if you look closely at my solution in number six, I offer only a description of actions – not an interpretation of those actions. That is left up to the reader because I am showing, not telling. In the example here, the author has taken an omniscient point of view and is telling, in the author’s voice -- not the characters, what the actions mean. This is clutter. My solution here in eight, strengthens the dialogue so that the clutter is unnecessary and imparts the information in the character’s speech.

Rule number eight: Dialogue should be self-sufficient and not requiring explanation. Such explanations are clutter. Dialogue is not the place to append wordy character descriptions. When these are offered, they should be by way of action – showing, not telling.


Nine:

Occasionally I come across well-meant articles on dialogue, clearly written by amateur writers and not by editors or professionals suggesting one method of developing character and a unique voice is by assigning someone an accent.

Oh no! Please don’t take this advice -- not unless you are truly familiar with the syntax and style of that foreign language. And when you do, please don’t write in some weird colloquial dialect that makes me stop and study, trying to figure out what the character is saying.

A good example of the misuse of Southern dialect, complete with misspellings and tortured syntax is some of the writing of Thomas Wolfe. Whenever I try to slog through these works, I come away with the impression he is sneering at the people he grew up around, and finds them nothing more than a curiosity to be exploited. Compare this to Faulkner, whose southern idioms flow smoothly and naturally, because he doesn’t misspell or write dialect phonetically.

Hubber itakins writes beautiful dialect in Irish tonality, accent, syntax and style – because she is Irish. And when she does so, she doesn’t go so far into misspellings, local expressions and strange dialect that we don’t immediately understand what her character is saying.

Hubber respenser uses southernisms and colloquialisms to advantage in his detective stories, because he lives there – but he presents them in proper English.

It is the syntax of a language or dialect that gives it flavor, not some parody of a stereotype.

So, avoid making one character French, complete with, “Zut allors, zis is somesing we ‘ave not seen before, monsieur.”

Or German. “Ve haff vays to make you talk. Ja.”

The reader knows how a French or a German person’s accent sounds. Leave it to his imagination. Trust me, attempting to do this will mark your writing as hackneyed and amateurish, and annoy the reader.

If you do have an understanding of the language, then by all means use the syntax. For example, I speak French, went to a French language university in Montreal and understand how Francophones speak English. “Oh yes, I know this place well. I have been coming here for years. It is close to the house of my cousin.” I might pull it off.

Rule number nine: Dialogue should never be written in two-dimensional imitation accents, or in phonetic spelling of some dialect. In fact, leave accents and foreign languages or local idioms alone unless you truly do understand the syntax of the language.


Ten:

While dialogue is often used to present backstory and unseen (in direct scenes) plot developments, there are ways to do this that work, and ways that don’t. We’ll cover more of this when we get pack to plotting, but for now, let it suffice to learn how not to do it.

“Oh hi, Rita. How good to see you up and around after that terrible accident that laid you up in the hospital for so long, especially as you had no health insurance and lost your house. I hope you’ve recovered from that broken hip. Too bad you had to miss your husband’s trial for murder, but I suppose you’ll go and visit him at the penitentiary. Oh, that’s right. You don’t have a car anymore. Or a job. Well, have a nice day. See ya.”

Do you think this works? But I see examples of this approach quite often.

If dialogue is to be used to present back-story, then let it do so in a slow and gradual manner. Develop a back and forth conversation between the two characters. Let the story unfold in something close to a natural manner (and using all the other rules we’ve covered here.)

Here’s another, overused, hackneyed and trite approach to filling in plot developments not covered in a direct scene.

Jack McCoy paced back and forth, glancing at his wristwatch. He searched the crowded hallway one more time, and glowered at his impossibly gorgeous, impeccably groomed and cosmetically perfect female assistant as she strode toward him, almost bare breasts bouncing under her form fitting jacket.

“What kept you? We’re due before Judge Refusal in five minutes. Quick – what did you find out?”

“Well, the one we have on trial is innocent, it seems. In fact the real murderer is his wife. She was jealous over his long standing affair with the victim, and discovered he intended to divorce her and leave her high and dry, stuck with the prenup he conned her into signing twenty years ago. Her only way out was to kill the mistress and have her husband convicted of the murder.”

Does this work? It may seem to, only because you’ve seen it so many times. The reason this doesn’t work is the author is using the character’s dialogue to fill in as a narrator. And it’s not fair to use dialogue to cheat the reader out of direct involvement in a major element of the story.

Rule number ten: Dialogue should never be used to compensate for a missing major scene or to introduce major elements into the story passively. When dialogue is used to present missing information, it must do so in a natural, gradual manner. We must always remember the first rule: show and share with the reader, don’t tell.


Conclusion

There are many more aspects to successful use and presentation of dialogue and we will cover some of these in detail in later articles in the series.

These ten rules cover most of the mistakes found in dialogue, and if you keep them in mind, you’ll find your character’s conversations will flow naturally, efficiently and above all – with purpose.

I wish you good writing and may the voices in your head lead you to write great conversations.

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Comments 67 comments

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Thank you, Immartin, for such a great lesson. When you write it always sound so perfect and natural. Oh, it make me green with envy. Thank you for a great lesson.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thank you, Hello. It seems I am forever thanking you for your lovely compliments. Don't turn green, just practice. That's how I got here. Trust me -- you can do it. I've read your work and I am sure of that fact.


wrypatch profile image

wrypatch 6 years ago from Virginia

Good advice. I know when I read established authors who still fumble over dialogue, I wonder if it's editorial leniency or a reflection of what we're willing to pay to read.

Thanks.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Perhaps it is our own fault, wrypatch, that we don't demand better writing. Or, perhaps with the degradation of language skills as taught in the schools, most of us don't know any better. Good question. Lynda


jayjay40 profile image

jayjay40 6 years ago from Bristol England

Brilliant advice, every writer should read this.


Duchess OBlunt 6 years ago

Thank you again for another great lesson.


MordechaiZoltan profile image

MordechaiZoltan 6 years ago

Thank you very much. Excellent information. I will bookmark this hub, I said excitedly with much enthusiasm.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

"Excellent information," I said. I felt much enthusiasm and excitement. Obviously, I missed the mark with you. :) Thanks for the comment.


MordechaiZoltan profile image

MordechaiZoltan 6 years ago

Thank you again for the info!


Mystique1957 profile image

Mystique1957 6 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

Well...

This is the first hub I read from you. I am truly surprised with the amount of mistakes we make as novel writers. I won´t lie to you, your comments are harsh and with no euphemisms. I guess that is the way of the Pro´s. I found this hub educational, succinct and quite useful. Thanks for this great lesson.

Warmest regards and blessings,

Al


loveofnight profile image

loveofnight 6 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

i believe you said it all......thx 4 share


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

You're welcome MordechaiZoltan.

Moi? Harsh? Never. Thanks Mystique1957 for the comment.

Loveofnight? What happened to the beautiful lady that was your avatar? Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment.


resspenser profile image

resspenser 6 years ago from South Carolina

Gee, I'm still working out the plot and already you have info for me to digest on dialogue! This is exceptional and I see some things I am doing wrong right away. When I got to the part that mentioned my name, I actually blushed and ran to tell my wife!

You are not "harsh" just straightforward and that is what I think makes your advice so valuable.

Thanks for the helpful hub, once again you have delivered.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thanks respenser for the kudos. Apparently hubpages doesn't think much of this article. I came to my hub and hour ago to answer a comment and it was rated in the 60's, now it is 49 -- where it started from. Sheesh!

But I digress. Why wouldn't I use your writing as an example? I suppose I should have asked first, but assumed you wouldn't mind.

No, I am not harsh, but I am honest. When people come to me for a critique, what would be served by telling them well done and atta-boy? Working on weak areas and pointing out errors is meant to help writers grow and improve -- not vent my mean streak.

But if anyone recognizing their own foibles here, who feels harshly judged, my apologies.

Thanks for the comment.


resspenser profile image

resspenser 6 years ago from South Carolina

Of course I don't mind. I just don't feel worthy. Aw, shucks!

You know what? I forget to check "up" the first time. Maybe that is the problem with the hub number.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

It moved up one. Thanks respenser. Following hubnumbers is a hobby of mine.


shyamchat profile image

shyamchat 6 years ago from Calcutta

I often wonder if hubnumbers are arbitrary ?

Or, it really have a basis?


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi shyamchat, I wrote a couple of hubs on the subject and the answer is who knows? But that is not the subject here. Thanks for your comment.


Rafini profile image

Rafini 6 years ago from Somewhere I can't get away from

You give valuable advice. I will be checking my story as I go along, and make sure I am following it. :)

Thanks for your wonderful writing hubs.:)


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

You're welcome Rafini. These are not meant as a road map, but simply things to keep in mind. Often, as new writers, we sense something isn't working but don't know why. Thanks for the comment.


parrster profile image

parrster 6 years ago from Oz

Bookmarked and rated up. Thanks again Lynda.


itakins profile image

itakins 6 years ago from Irl

Great advice..and thank you for the kind mention:)


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thank you parrster. Much appreciated.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Anytime Itakins. I love many of your hubs -- particluarly the ones dealing with life as you see it in the people around you. Glad you liked the hub.


Kimmie10 profile image

Kimmie10 6 years ago

Things to remember... Thank you for the tips.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

You're welcome.


Mohamed Mughal 6 years ago

I like your ideas and advice on dialogue. For myself, I've found that reading and/or watching plays helps me with dialogue.

To a person, writers of fiction want their dialogue to be sharp, interesting, snappy and true. Nuanced dialogue is a cornerstone of character construction (think Steinbeck’s common man or Fitzgerald’s Gatsby spouting “Old Sport” when speaking to friends and colleagues). The old fashioned and highly effective way of creating dialogue is to listen to the world around you and to read other writers who’ve honed the skill of putting truth into the mouths of their characters.

But reading and listening might not be the only way to learn to create great dialogue. I read Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” this week. I found it powerful, emotionally provocative and difficult to put down. In finishing the text, I realized that I’d stumbled upon another source of instruction for creating strong, compelling dialogue: read and/or watch plays. Think about it; a play is built around one primary superstructure: dialogue. Dialogue creates the characters and is the sole written vehicle for moving the story forward. And so dialogue has to be superb in the best plays.

Do you want another source of inspiration and instruction for creating great dialogue? Get thee to the local library and check out a handful of plays. Some suggestions to get started:

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee

“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller

“The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams

Don’t forget that the selection above is an expression of what appeals to me…and I'm an emotional, sentimental fellow with a philosophical bent and the academic background of a rationalist. Apply your own tastes and leanings to create a personalized list of plays to read. If your fiction falls into the genres of crime, romance, horror or comedy, you’ll definitely modulate your selections to reflect those dispositions.


Tammy Lochmann profile image

Tammy Lochmann 6 years ago

I so agree with you about Itakins and resspenser they are two of my favorite HP authors (plus you too). I really have to tell you how much I appreciate your advice hubs.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thank you Mohammed, for sharing your views and your obvious love of literature. Certainly you've covered some of the great writers of the ages. Believe it or not, another way to learn dialogue is TV and cinema. They don't waste words, the dialogue must drive the story but bear in mind -- be picky about what you watch. Thanks for your comment.

Hi Tammy. Thanks for the comment, and I hope this effort may be helpful to you. (When do I get to work on more of your writing?)


martycraigs profile image

martycraigs 6 years ago

Wow, these are great suggestions for writing dialogue. I have always found dialogue to be such a roadblock when attempting to write nonfiction. I'll be sure to reference your next next time I am writing. Thanks!


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

You are very welcome martycraigs. Many new writers find dialogue hard to handle both in fiction and non-fiction. In both cases, it is important to remember in writing, not one single words is just for "the hell of it" so all dialogue must have a purpose (unlike real life.) Thanks for the comment.


pinkhawk profile image

pinkhawk 6 years ago from Pearl of the Orient

...very useful and sensible, new things to take note, follow and remember.. thank you once again ma'am. :)


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Very welcome, pinkhawke.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands

I have bookmarked this, so that I can return to it.

It will be very useful. Thanks :)


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thanks Trish.


Lady_E profile image

Lady_E 6 years ago from London, UK

A lot of lessons to be learnt here. I should bookmark it.

Thanks.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thanks Lady E, bookmark away.


a.l. laurice profile image

a.l. laurice 6 years ago from United States

Thanks for this great advice. Your examples are always so helpful. I'm definitely going to bookmark this hub and re-read it before I write another word of dialogue.

It's funny that you say that the most verbose people have the most difficulty writing conversation--I always like to blame my own dialogue writing problems on the fact that I'm quiet :)


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi a.l. laurice and thanks for leaving this comment. Perhaps I should have said the most verbose people may have trouble writing GOOD dialogue (as the may have trouble making GOOD conversation.) It was actually one of those tongue in cheek remarks. I'm not a great conversationalist myself, and usually find myself in the position of listener. Pleased to meet you and thanks again.


Mr. Happy profile image

Mr. Happy 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

You should get paid for this ...

In terms of writing dialogue ... (see, I have zero experience at writing fiction so I really don't know what I am talking about) if it's not natural, it just doesn't work I think. That is why I guess I do not like fiction so much, I don't like "making things up". And most 'made-up' things are not beliveable, thus losing credibility and so on. "Fiction" is so liable! lol Thanks for the lesson.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

The ability to make things up and make them believable is called writing ability or talent. That's what fiction writers do -- make up a world and draw you in to it. It's a mild form of mental illness, or so it seems. And all things come with effort and practice. No one ever turns their hand to a new endeavour and does it well in the beginning. Writing is the same.

Thanks for your comment, and don't be so quick to decide it's not for you. Lynda


Mr. Happy profile image

Mr. Happy 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

Thank you for good comments as usual. About the mental illness part, I am convinced those who write poetry are running on different "sound waves" than the rest of us ... "to each their own".


Nevada Logan profile image

Nevada Logan 6 years ago from USA

Excellent! I enjoyed this so much.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi Nevada, and thank you for taking the time to comment. Lynda


Allan Douglas profile image

Allan Douglas 6 years ago from Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

Excellent! Dialogue has always befuddled me, I will be referring back to this post often.


jonihnj profile image

jonihnj 5 years ago from Metro New York

Well! I stumbled across this as a "suggested link," and didn't expect to get much out of it - having read many books on writing for story and dialogue. But this was the real deal, in an easy to recall nutshell. I've printed out several pages already to use as I get to work on my first novel. As for the Hub Pages ratings, I don't understand them either. One day I was up to a 96, then dropped down to the low 80s, now I'm up again. I've done nothing differently. One Hub was deemed "unpublishable." Not to sound snobby or anything, but it was a heck of a lot better than a few that were deemed publishable. I just said screw you to whoever made this pronouncement, added another paragraph and published it. I don't get the system, but I don't particularly care. It's not like I actually get paid for this stuff.

Anyway, thanks for doing this. It's truly helpful. And good luck with sales of your new novel. I'll keep my eyes open for it.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thank you johihnj. Glad to know it's useful. Yes, the rating sytem here is a paradox. The other night my author score was a 99, the next morning it was a 95, leaving me wondering what had happened in the night. Still, it is a computer program, so what does it know? I've learned to try and not take it seriously, though at times, I do find it an insult. Your screw you is by far the best approach. Lynda


wba108@yahoo.com profile image

wba108@yahoo.com 5 years ago from upstate, NY

Good advise, I have to find a way to make my quotations sound more natural and even consider breaking up long quotations with action.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thanks for commenting WBA108. Truth is people rarely speak more the three or four sentences at a time -- and those that do are boring enough in real life let alone writing them. Lynda


Pearldiver profile image

Pearldiver 4 years ago from Tomorrow - In Words & NZ Time.

Kia Ora from Bumble Town - NZ. I appreciate the depth of of knowledge that I encounted here, within my very first foray into writing lessons. I trust my kiwi greeting can be forgiven, if it offends the occasion, or the syntax thingy, okay?

Great article Lynda, that helped identify one or two things that I can improve upon. Cheers for that and for your POA input. Bon Chance.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 4 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi Pearldiver, Your kiwi greeting was not only appropo, grammatically correct and amusing, but was well appreciated. Thanks for your kind comment. What is POA input? Lynda


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK

I’m very glad to have found your hubs. This one is great. If only there was some way to make it compulsory for people to read this before hitting the ‘publish’ button when uploading fiction onto HP!

I used to teach creative writing, and it is funny that although fiction writing has moved such a long way since Victorian literature, so many beginning writers still write that way. Perhaps it’s a fear of not being grammatically correct as you say in rule Two.

I ever so slightly disagree with you on number 3, only because what you wrote there had me laughing out loud, so it could be a good opener for a comedy sketch. :)

I’m sure this will be useful to me as I edit the novel I’m working on - it’s always easier to spot mistakes in others’ writing than in my own!


Matthew Maktub profile image

Matthew Maktub 4 years ago from Las Vegas

Very nice article! I haven't got into fictional writing myself, but I have read a book called "The Fiction Writer's Workshop" and found it fascinating. Look forward to reading more of your hubs.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 4 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thanks Mathew and nice to meet you. Lynda


Ania L profile image

Ania L 4 years ago from United Kingdom

Just brilliant! Thank you so much! I can see straight away that I've broken the rule number 7 in every piece of fiction I've written so far so a lot to change :) Luckily I haven't written enough to break all other rules :)

I will definitely read more in this series! Thank you for writing them


HattieMattieMae profile image

HattieMattieMae 4 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

Thanks very helpful at the moment. Was getting stuck on some of the dialogue! :)


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 4 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Very gratifying to hear, HattieMattieMae. Glad to be of help. Lynda


WordsAreStrength 4 years ago

Really great article but I think I disagree with the first rule. I don’t really think it is essential for the dialogue to be “speakable” because dialogue written in a novel or story is written to be read not spoken. You’re basing your first rule on the fact that “most” people today wouldn’t speak in the way you described. However, if both the story and characters are set in the past it wouldn’t make sense for them to use 21st Century language no matter if it would be speakable for the reader. Dialogue needs to have its foundation in both the story and the characters.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 4 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Then the dialogue would have to be "speakable" for the times in which it is set, though I would hate to have to read something written on Olde English. In fact, I probably wouldn't bother. Nor would most people. We wouldn't understand it. Most writers would modernize the language used to make it more palatable to the reader.

Certainly dialogue in a novel is meant to be read, but unless it sounds like it could be spoken, it is not going to ring true. If it doesn't ring true, it is not going to read well -- as speech.

Still, you write your way, by all means. This is meant to be advice based on years of teaching and editing, not hard clad rules. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Emma 4 years ago

Hey, I just finished reading this wonderful article, and I am amazed at how many things I've been doing that have just cluttered my writing! Thank you for sharing this with us- I'm going to bookmark it because I like it so much. I never saw how annoying clutter was until I read this!

Very helpful! Thank you!


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 4 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi Emma. Thanks for taking the time to comment. The point here is every word in your writing must be there for a purpose. After all, you're only going to use 100,000 or so to write your novel, which, believe it or not, leaves no room for anything unnecessary. Every word must either drive the plot, set a scene or build character. Word choices must be succinct and efficient. Writing must be tight. Why? Because today's readers expect it so.

One of the best examples of a well-written novel I can offer for study would be "To Kill a Mockingbird." Harper Lee's writing is so disciplined yet provides us with atmosphere, color, character and plot. Not one extraneous word! (My hero!)


Julio 3 years ago

I'm glad I stumbled across this article. I live in Brazil and only rarely do I write outside of forum discussions and the like. While I do want to write a story, I've never taken any "lessons" as to how I should do it.

This has helped me immensely, as I was having trouble with dialogue sentences. It's great that I have so much to learn!

I'll be sure to come back and check out your other articles. Maybe someday I'll be able to write a book and be proud of it. Keep up the good work!


writinglover profile image

writinglover 3 years ago from Lost...In Poetry

Hello! This is a great hub that I can definitely use. Looking at some of my hubs, I'm probably breaking at least four of the dialogue rules here. I know that I'm improving, though! Thanks for the refreshing lesson!


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 3 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi Julio. Glad to have been of help. Keep on trying and writing. Practice truly does make perfect. (Sorry for the cliché.)

Hi Writinglover. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Hopefully, we are all improving.


Matt 3 years ago

Regarding Mistake #1: I agree with you on the point that, in most cases, this type of dialogue would be stilted and unspeakable (and unreadable). However, if the writer is trying to portray a certain character as being a certifiable pompous ass, I think that, in some cases at least, such a style of speaking would be appropriate. In fact, I used this type of dialogue for one of the minor characters in the novel I'm currently working on. This character appears in the novel very briefly, in one scene only, so I don't feel that I'm overdoing this kind of speech tag at the expense of more "natural" dialogue.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 3 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

If you feel what you're doing is appropriate for your character, then who's to say you're wrong? Will the character read as a real person? That's the only question to be answered.

But, I have yet to meet anyone (and I've met a lot of pompous asses) who doesn't use contractions, does use past perfect tense correctly, expresses self in multisyllabic words, etc in everyday speech. But hey! you know what effect you're going for, so all the best of luck to you.


Matt 3 years ago

Thanks for your comments, Lynda. Although (smile) I can't say I've never met anyone at all who uses past perfect tense correctly. Not all that difficult if English is your native language, I'd think. Good luck to you on your projects also.

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