Notes for Novelists: Dialogue

After plot, nothing gives novelists so much trouble as dialogue.

novel writing: openingsIt never seems perfect, and editing-tightening, shaping, recasting-only creates more possibilities. Are there general principles, and when do you stop tinkering?

First: dialogue is part of your novel, an increasingly important part in mainstream work, but still only part. If the plot doesn't hold up, or the characters are unbelievable, then no dialogue brilliance will save the work. Listen to the scripts of good films: many are surprisingly flat and cliché-ridden, giving no hint of personality to their characters, but the stars breathe life into the hackneyed words. Or get an actor friend to read a page of your work, or anything else: you'll be surprised what a trained voice can do. Be a little wary, therefore, of the 'reading aloud test': that your dialogue isn't convincing may lie more with your acting skills than the dialogue as such.

Nonetheless, a dialogue should serve one or more of the following. It:

Discloses the speaker's personality, background and motivations.

Carries the plot, often creating a climax and/or decisive twists in the story.

Heightens tension or conflict between the speakers.

Continually and subtly changes the relationship between the speakers.

Reminds the reader of what may have been forgotten.

Foreshadows events or personality aspects.

Establishes mood or tone.

Stimulates the reader's curiosity.

Breaks up long stretches of text.

Speech and Dialogue

Dialogue is not a transcript of actual speech, as you can tell by listening to the radio: you'll know within a few seconds whether it's a recording or a play. Dialogue is a carefully crafted and distilled version of actual speech, employing conventions that vary with genre and the author's intentions. In contrast, actual speech is more spasmodic and untidy: full of run-ons, repetitions and throwaway phrases (actually, perhaps, right, like, I mean . . most of which can be removed unless acting as speech markers.) Real speech is also rather static: back and forth go remark and response. Dialogue needs to be indirect. In place of the boring:

He: Have a good weekend?

She: Yes thanks, and you?

He: Got the garden sorted, at long last.

She: Expect it needed doing.

It will go more as:

He: Have a good weekend?

She: David got around to fixing the shed. Fell off and injured himself.

He: Seriously?

She: No. We'll have to think of something else.

Characters don't necessarily play ball:

She: When are you going to get that shed fixed?

He: After the holiday. I thought we could try Spain.

She: Richard, listen a moment, will you? Dewar's will deliver the roofing material. You just have to give up one Saturday.

He: Well, you do it then. Someone's got to plan the holiday properly.

Or even answer each other:

She: When are you going to get that shed fixed?

He: We've lost our credit facility. You know that? Had a call from the bank manager yesterday.

Speech Markers

Characters don't generally address one another with their names, even in group discussion, and you'll have to find other ways of indicating who is speaking. Commonly this is done with he said / I said speech tags, but a richer approach is through speech markers. Consider:

Vocabulary specific to the character: I always think, I mean it's kinda gross, And Bob's your uncle again, and the like.

Speech that's noticeably tight: Sort it! Got that? Tuesday without fail. . .

Speech that's unusually loose: I wonder if I could ask you, Which means all things considered if you follow my thread of course that. . .

Words specific to a profession: Lesions to the right temporal lobe, interpersonal relationship skills.

Sarcasm: You can read, can't you? Running the company, are we now?

Run-on sentences: So there I was . . . and you'd have thought . . but no, not for his highness . . . and that's always the way with these . . . isn't it? I mean . . .

Grammar: If I was you, Because he nice man, So me I think big.

Omit words: So I think myself, When I was boy.

Indicate class or ethnicity: May I know your name? Now my dear boy. Get lost.

Characteristic throwaway phrases: Look here old sport, Know what I mean? Like we're old friends, aren't we?

Vocabulary inappropriate to the background or context: I mean like albeit that you're a big-shot, Are you the perpetrator of this particular foul-up?

Dialect (just the odd word): Just a wee bairn, So I says to the old sugar and strife.

None of this should be overdone, or make difficulties for the reader who generally reads by sight, not by enunciating each word of the page.

Feelings drive novels, and dialogue is no exception. Only use words that seem natural to character and situation, therefore, but cut even these when emotion goes off the boil.


Adjectives and adverbs are best used sparingly, and for these reasons:

1. They make your prose seem insubstantial and overqualified: Wearily, her face wearing a sad look of puzzled dejection, she sat down and opened her bag. is better conveyed as: She sat down wearily and opened her bag.

2. Their power falls off with the number employed. With a sad gesture of tiredness, her uncombed hair flopping untidily over her face, she sat down to read the address book I gave her. is more forceful as: Pushing the hair from her face, she stared at the address book given her. If, however, you want something more subtle, which helps build the character, then use unexpected combinations: With a practised air of tiredness, she sat down to read the address book I gave her.

3. They hold up the action. In place of: With a sad gesture of tiredness, her uncombed hair flopping untidily over her face, she sat down to read the address book I'd given her. cut to: She glanced at the address book, and flipped it shut. 'I'd always be knowing Dave had others.'

4. More time-wasting are qualifiers: rather, very, perhaps, a bit, somewhat. Point your reader to the specifics if there's uncertainty.

5. They draw unnecessary attention to the he/she of dialogue. The 'angrily' is not needed in: 'That's enough from you,' she said angrily. but the 'softly' is saying something else here: 'That's enough from you,' she said softly.

If you're heroically doing without dialogue qualifiers altogether, then add an action: 'That's enough from you,' she said, and shyly put an arm round. Nonetheless, as point 2 suggests, adjectives can be used to set atmosphere and tone. There is a world of difference between these descriptions of the crooked lawyer warning off the hero: 'I would not advise that,' he said indifferently. 'I would not advise that,' he said with a snap of menace in the voice.

If the contrast is between the well-heeled world of crime, and the impoverished protagonist, then: 'I would not advise that,' he said pleasantly, the smile showing expensively- kept teeth. And all the rules can be broken if we know what we're about. Here for tone: 'I would not advise that,' he said. The smile opened to show two faultlessly maintained rows of white teeth, gleaming as though flossed regularly between appointments. I wondered if I should change my career.

Everything depends on the effect aimed for, which in turn supposes that we realize how the words will be read, i.e. we know the rules before we ignore them.


Dialogue. One of several useful summaries on this Learn the Elements of a Novel site.

Wheels of Motion. Introduction by Gloria Kempton.

Basics: Dialogue. Basics by Terry W. Erwin II.

Top 10 Tips for Writing Dialogue. Sensible notes on the About Fiction Writing Site.

On Using Dialogue. Good list of references on The Writing Life blog.

The Dialogue Shop. Online workshop with Christine DeSmet.

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