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The Big Dos and Don'ts of Dialogue

Author: Elizabeth Guy

Ever notice what happens when you come across quotation marks? You perk up. You read faster. Despite the delicate creation of the fictional world, and all that dwells within it, nothing is as interesting as the words that come out of characters' mouths.

And I have to tell you, when I see no dialogue in the first few pages of a manuscript, I become concerned. Why can't I hear her say that? Why can't I see that acted out? Is this summarization of events and conversations going to be a pattern?

The technical term is telling, not showing. And most every storyteller out there knows it's a writing sin. Not because it'll make you go blind, but because it'll make your readers feel detached. Bored.

Dialogue, on the other hand, is active, unfiltered and, thanks to quotation marks, visually separate from the rest of the text. It easily draws in readers and places them there, in the moment. They receive vital information and witness raw emotion straight from the mouth. Therefore they immediately feel. Theydon't have to rely on explanations.

It's the difference between someone telling you how it feels to ride a roller coaster, and you riding it yourself.

So whatever you do, embrace dialogue. It is essential in bringing your story to life. But also remember that not any dialogue will do.


1. Don't engage in idle chit-chat. The goal of dialogue is to reveal character and to advance the story. Hearing characters order breakfast or discuss the weather only tires your reader. And takes up precious space.

2. Don't illustrate dialects. It may be tempting to break down accents phonetically, but these are difficult to read. It's more considerate to alert readers to the particular accent, then leave the rest to their imaginations. He had an Irish brogue.

3. Don't channel your English teacher. People naturally speak in contractions, fragments and run-on sentences. Let your dialogue reflect that. (I promise, no one is going to whack you with a ruler or pull out a red pen.) When we do Proofreads here at ReadingWriters, we never correct dialogue (except misspelled words) because that's the way the character talks. Period. And if you want to experience the best ungrammatical dialogue in the world, read Elmore Leonard.

4. Don't write dialogue only. Narrative tells readers what characters are doing as they speak, and what else may be occurring during the conversation. The only way to do this with pure dialogue would be to have characters describe their actions.

'And now, Annabelle, I am going to open this door and enter our house.'

'Yes, Sam, I will follow you inside with this basket of tomatoes I'm holding and close the door behind me. Here we go.'


5. Don't preach. Never ever let characters get on a soapbox and ramble for pages. Even if they're ministers or lawyers. Speeches, if they must be made, should be as succinct as possible. Break them up with actions or interruptions from others. This way, the character won't appear to be such a windbag.


1. Do write scenes with dialogue only. Yes, this is also listed in the Don'ts, but in this case, it's an exercise meant for your eyes only. After you've completed the dialogue scene, let it set for a few days. When you come back to it, focus on decreasing the amount of words in each sentence. How little can one say and still provide vital information and/or emotion? Tighten those lines!

2. Do give characters a distinct voice. An elderly sea captain is not going to speak like an elderly science professor, and a thirty-something mom is not going to sound like a teenage cheerleader. Take the time to discover how your characters speak, and what they say will be even more powerful.

3. Do use attributions. These simple, almost invisible terms are needed now and then to clarify who's talking. But don't rely on them to express emotion. None of that he lamented ferociously or she exhorted loudly. That'll only make readers giggle. He said, she said is perfectly fine.

4. Do read your conversations out loud. You may hear these lines in your head, but you'll never detect the rhythm, the pauses, the inflections or the repeats until you hear them with your ears. And don't be shy about sharing. It's always fun to have family and friends read your work.

5. Do know the format. Perfectly executed dialogue not only flows across the page, it screams professional storyteller here! Never underestimate the importance of proper punctuation.

One would think that a storyteller's easiest task would be the construction of conversation. After all, we've been talking most of our lives. But the words that come out of our mouths aren't the same as those that come out of our characters'. Dialogue has a specific job to do, and that requires careful planning. It may never equal the eloquence of, say, Shakespeare, but it can most assuredly reach the height of memorable.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Guy is founder of ReadingWriters, editor of The Verb and a script analyst. Stop by and say hello.


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