Previously I have written or podcasted about showing not telling, points of view, and even tenses. All these are useful elements to be aware of, and are quite relevant, especially when it comes to writing dialogue. Writing something such as, ‘Linda and Jim had a big row over which of them was going to cook dinner,’ seems a very flat sentence.

However, if you gave us the argument with plenty of descriptive gestures in the scene, well that would certainly improve the writing. Although, you have to remember, that the scene also has to serve a purpose to the storyline. If one of them gives in too easily then the story won’t necessarily move forward well.

The question you have to ask yourself is, why is this so important?

The answer is because we want our readers to enjoy what we write, to continue reading the story to the end, and, of course, to come back wanting more from us.

Let’s look at some various aspects of dialogue by looking at accents or slang:

As a writer, you should always remember, that less is more. You can indicate where someone is from but, you shouldn’t write their whole speech in an accent. Or even slang talk. Doing this will only alienate those readers who don’t know, or understand, that part of the world. Having said that, the piece will still need to feel authentic.

For example: if you are writing a historical novel please remember your characters shouldn’t be speaking in the style or way we do today. Such as - the stable lad at the Lord’s manor wouldn’t say “Hey, there your Lordship,” now would he? No. He may speak with an accent but he would be more deferential bearing in mind his status compared to his Lords.

However, that doesn’t mean to say you have to go overboard in using historical language. Ensure you use just enough to make it easy for any reader to follow. Anything which makes a reader pause (or stop reading) is best avoided.

Another area to consider is Exposition:

The meaning of exposition is the comprehensive description and explanation of the idea or theory of your tale. It also can be used in dialogue between your characters. To explain this, you do not need to have one character be reminding another character of something they both know about, purely for the benefit of the reader.

For example: John might say, “Oh, you know you won the lottery…”  Of course, the other guy knows he’s won the lottery. Heck wouldn’t you if you had bought a ticket?

No! What you have to do is tell the readers the same thing but in another way. Try: “You are so jammy; I buy a lottery ticket every week and have only ever won a tenner?” By writing it this way you are showing rather than telling us the information.

Always Try to Keep it real:

Another thing to keep in mind is that when we talk, we do not always talk in complete sentences. Often we get interrupted. Make sure your characters do the same, by interrupting each other. To highlight that this is happening, you would write their speech with a dash, rather than a hyphen, or by using ellipses.

For example: Where the first character is cut off, you could write, “I knew you were going to… (ellipses)” This would probably be followed by the word, ‘What’ from the other person.

To help you understand this better, why not try watching some fictional tv programmes to hear how they talk? Soaps in particular are good for this, as they are often fast-moving. They are also usually set in smaller locations, such as a street, or an area of town. This allows for more dialogue than action, or camera movement, and would be equivalent to you writing a description in your book. Remember, characters who are familiar with each other will always speak differently to those who have only just met.

Take care with your Layouts:

Always be aware of how you lay out your dialogue, etc. Remember, each character should always have their own paragraph, even if they say only one word.  Try reading something like a fast-paced James Patterson book. In his books, you will see lots more dialogue than description. On the other hand, if you were to read someone such as say, Catherine Cookson, then you will discover how description rich it is; mainly because she’s a scene setter.

Another element of dialogue is Tags:

Strangely, it is actually recommended that you only have up to six pieces of dialogue at any one time. And this should be between no more than two people, without attributing it to an actual person, that is by naming them. Oh! And remember, there is nothing wrong with the word ‘said.’  I am often surprised by how often writers are tempted to look in the thesaurus and use something like, ‘Joseph postulated.’

It’s easy to avoid tags, simply by having one character say the other character's name.

For example: “Oh, Joseph, that’s…,” even though we rarely do that in real life do we. Having said that I do find that those whose first language isn’t English, sometimes overuse my first name when talking to me, so maybe it would be okay, depending on your character.

Alternatively, you could have them do something before speaking. For example: Joseph laughed. “That is so funny.”

Of course, you could decide to have no tags at all:

Another way when writing dialogue (especially if you need to distinguish between your characters, or a scene isn’t working) is to write a section, or even a whole piece of flash fiction, of just dialogue.

Think about it. No more using, he said or she said, just write what they are saying.

For example: “Of course, I realised, he was lying.”

“Really! Did you? I would have smacked him round the head for that.”

“I almost did, but resisted the urge.”

“So, what did you do in the end?”

“Packed his case and kicked him out.”


“Yes. Oh and his dog as well.”

And they both fell about laughing at the thought.

If you can write it like this then do so. Once written leave it for at least two weeks, coming back to it later. Then, when you re-read the whole piece you will know who is saying what, but also, you will know if you have written it well enough for the readers to know as well.

And that’s it for now. Remember, words are our game. They are important to us and we should use them wisely. You are the wordsmith of your tale. Make sure you make every one count without being over-excessive in their use.

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