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sarah-kilian-vf0lyNg41lk-unsplash6009 tips for writing dialogue (plus literary events from 5 Nov 2019)

There are no rules and a hundred ways to do anything. Having said that, there are certainly writing tips from which we can all benefit. Angela J. Phillip goes in search of current advice and gives some examples.

  • You don’t have to include dialogue in a novel, but the advantages are:
    – Dialogue changes the pace of the story – it (re)awakens interest.
    – It brings your characters close to the reader – we can hear what they are saying, it gives an ‘immediate’ effect.
    – It deepens characterisation and enables your reader to get to know your protagonists.

Tips for writing good dialogue
1. Don’t write realistic conversations.
If your dialogue sounds like real life, it is probably no good. Listen to people talking in a cafe, on a bus, in a pub. There will be lots of ums and ers, people talking on top of each other, non-sequiturs, and in addition to all that, it probably wouldn’t be important enough to include in your story. All dialogue needs to contribute to your story in some way, otherwise it will be a filler and worse, a distraction.

Here is an example of a real life conversation (when Paul and I came back from a walk this (Sunday) afternoon).
“They’re all wet….. Where are you?”
“Ummm….where’s here?”
“What are you doing?”
“Can’t get it undone.”
“I’ll do it for you.”
“Er…. will you?”
“Ummm..yes. Wait a minute. Just got to go upstairs. It’s because you always pull them too tight.”

This is not a very good example of a realistic conversation because I’ve probably (subconsciously) already tidied it up a little so it’s slightly clearer than if you had overheard us talking. This is because I’m writing it from memory, it’s not a transcription from a recording. The point is that without context, the conversation doesn’t make sense and the only small point of interest is my nagging at Paul for ‘pulling them too tight’ (because it increases tension – although not much). We were actually talking about washing just taken off the line and shoelaces that wouldn’t come undone. It could be rewritten to make sense, but it still wouldn’t be worth including in a story because it does very little to show characterisation or add to a ‘plot’.

When you write dialogue, it’s got to be better than real-life conversation and it’s got to have a purpose relevant to your story.

220acquaintance-bench-classic-27544722. Don’t include small talk.
When people talk to each other, they say hello and goodbye. We ask each other how we are, mention how nice the weather is today. It’s usually a good idea not to include this kind of content because it won’t add to your story. Everything you include in your novel should add to the story.

3. Don’t tell, show.
This is usually phrased the other way round i.e. show, don’t tell. It is one of the most helpful writing tips there is and applies to anything you write in your novel, not just dialogue.

an example of telling not showing (bad):
“Aren’t you going to open it?” I ask as I watch Tom look at the envelope in his hands. “Go on,” I say and watch him tear it open, take out the paper and start to read.
“Oh, no,” he says.
“What is it?” I ask anxiously. “Let me have a look.”
“It’s bad news,” he says miserably. “I’m so worried.”

an example of showing, not telling (good):
“Aren’t you going to open it?” I ask as I watch Tom look at the envelope in his hands. “Go on,” I say and watch him tear it open, take out the paper and start to read.
“Oh, no,” he says and I see him sway slightly.
“What is it?” I ask. “Let me have a look.”
“I can’t,” he says and starts to tremble.

It is already clear from the “Oh, no,” that the paper contains bad news. This means that in example 1, ‘anxiously’, ‘it’s bad news’, ‘miserably’ and ‘I’m so worried’ are all superfluous. The reader already knows that things are not good. The fact, in this example, that the news is bad is repeated 4 times. This is irritating. It has the opposite effect from that for which the writer aims.

In the second example, the writer has shown rather than told the fact of the bad news. The reader sees the man sway and tremble, and the dialogue increases tension instead of, as in the first example, diminishing it.

4. Avoid adverbs as much as possible.
This is not a strict rule. Sometimes an adverb can serve well, but mostly, it will have the same effect as that shown in the examples given above for ‘don’t tell, show’. It is best to use an adverb only if there is no better way to communicate the information.

example 1: “I am glad,” she says happily as she walks to the door.

example 2: “I am glad,” she says as she walks to the door.

example 3: “See you soon,” she says as she walks with a bounce to the door.

You don’t need to include ‘happily’ because ‘I am glad’ lets the reader know that the girl is happy, so example 2 is better than example 1. Example 3 is better still because the reader can see that the girl is happy from the way she walks to the door (with a bounce in her step). This is better than ‘telling’ the reader how she feels.

220accusation-anger-angry-9849505. Use dialogue to create tension between characters.
This is the same message as the truism that good news doesn’t sell newspapers. If everything is going well between two characters, the story is not progressing. There is no point in including it.

example 1:
“Would you like some chocolate?” she asks her boyfriend.
“Yes, please,” he replies. “That would be nice.”

example 2:
“Would you like some chocolate?” she asks her boyfriend.
“Is that all you can say?” he replies. “At a time like this?”

In the second example, the dialogue builds tension and advances the story. In the first example, nothing happens. It is boring and will cause your reader to lose interest.

6. Make your characters sound different.
If your characters sound the same, the story will become confusing. Make sure that each character speaks in their own voice and that this is consistent. That doesn’t mean that they have to speak ‘with a local accent’. In fact, accents are very difficult to incorporate without disrupting the flow of the speech so they are usually best avoided, but older people will not sound like younger people. Men will not sound like women. The kind of education and background that your character has will make a difference to their voice. You need to read through your dialogue to check this.

7. Don’t let your characters talk in a vacuum.
Your reader needs to be able to see where your characters are in relation to each other. Do they have to turn to look at each other? Are they engaged in some activity (cooking the dinner? pouring a drink? cleaning the floor?). Make it clear what is happening and where they are so that your scene becomes more vivid.

8. Says, shouts, weeps, snaps etc.
On the whole ‘says’, ‘asks’ or ‘replies’ work better as speech tags than more descriptive words like ‘growls’, ‘snaps,’ ‘cries’ etc. That is because the reader can ignore ‘says’ and concentrate on what is being said, but attention is diverted for stronger speech tags.

220beautiful-beauty-carefree-14583189. Read it out loud to check what it sounds like – it has to flow.
When you have finished writing some dialogue, read out the whole passage preferably to someone else, but at least to yourself. Does it flow? Does it have the effect you want? Reading your work out loud is always helpful in order to rewrite to make it better but in the case of dialogue, it is essential.

Writing Task – you might like to write dialogues for the following.
Exercise 1
Look at the picture at the top of the article and write a short dialogue between the birds (max 6 lines).

Exercise 2 
“Are you ready?” the writing teacher asks the group as they scrabble about with paper, pens of various colours, pencils and laptops.
“Yes,” they either mutter or nod, gradually settling down.
“OK,” she says, producing a gun from her shoulder bag and wiping it with a tissue.
Write down what happens next in the form of a short dialogue  between a student and the teacher (max 6 lines).

for further reading on tips for writing dialogue, please see the following:
How to write dialogue – Self-publishing school
Writing dialogue – ten rules for sounding like a pro – Novel writing help
6 tips for writing believable and compelling dialogue – Freelance writing


Bookbuster 39 Queens Rd, Hastings
Thursday 21 November 6 – 8 pm (and sometimes later) £2 entry Sheer Poetry: An open mic poetry night
Go to Bookbuster’s Facebook page and see more.

Printed Matter Bookshop 185 Queens Rd, Hastings TN34 1RG
‘Corbynism from Below’ talk by author Mark Perryman
15 November, 7.30 pm . The event is at St Mary in the Castle, downstairs in the Cafe/Bar area. They have a wide range of vegan-friendly food and drinks, and the venue is fully-accessible.
Jan 2020: Book launch of Paul Anderson’s Suedeheads & film screening of Horace Ove’s ‘Reggae 1970’ at The Electric Palace Cinema, Old Town.
Please see Facebook page for details of other events.

The Bookkeeper Bookshop 1a Kings Rd, St Leonards
Book launch – Beyond the waves by Colin Bateman
Sunday 24 November 7 pm at the Bookkeeper Bookshop
Come and look at the Bookkeeper Bookshop Facebook page to see more.


Don’t forget it’s National Novel Writing Month. You can sign up with this link – it’s free and has all kinds of useful resources for writers. Nanowrimo

Well, folks, that’s it for this week. I hope you’ve all had a good week and that your projects are going well. Did you have a good Halloween?

For an update on my writing life, please see: Sleepless.

For a selection of other posts on my writing journey, please see

Thanks for reading and happy writing.

Angela J. Phillip

images thanks to &






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Posted 09:00 Tuesday, Nov 5, 2019 In: Hastings Bookchat

Also in: Hastings Bookchat

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