Writing Workshop…Top Tips

Now for the third instalment in my writing workshop series. Last week was all about the ending of a short story; the previous week focused on the story opening and this week it’s time for a dialogue refresher course:

Top Tips…

The Do’s and Don’ts of Dialogue


It isn’t easy to write convincing dialogue and it’s something many writers struggle with. Even if you get the words right, there seem to be so many rules and regulations concerning how it should be set out, the punctuation etc. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you:

The Do’s

  • Always use speech marks for characters’ words. It’s so easy to miss them off, which can lead to confusion e.g.:

“That’s okay, you go first,” David said. My mother believes it’s important that I behave like a gentleman.

It’s not clear if the last sentence is referring to David’s mother and if this should be part of his speech or if it relates to another character. 

“That’s okay, you go first,” David said. “My mother believes it’s important that I behave like a gentleman.”

Placing the speech marks around the words of dialogue makes it instantly clear. Similarly, placing speech marks around words which aren’t dialogue can also be confusing e.g.:

“You, a gentleman?” Stacey laughed. “She hated David with a passion.”

Obviously there shouldn’t be any speech marks around the last sentence, but sometimes speech marks seem to take on a life of their own so it’s important to read your work through carefully.

  • Read passages of dialogue out loud. It’s an excellent way for seeing if the speech sounds natural.
  • When more than one character is speaking, you must place each character’s speech into different paragraphs. Otherwise it can be difficult to work out who is saying what.
  • Use dialogue to break up big blocks of narrative text. It aids readability, as well as injecting pace into the story.
  • Conversely, if you’re using lots of dialogue, add in some action. What are the characters doing as they’re saying their words? This helps the reader to picture the characters. Together with the words of dialogue, it also helps to push the story forward e.g.:

“Craig,” she said, her voice catching. She reached out, her hands turning into claws, grabbing at his coat. “Don’t leave me.”

The Don’ts

  • You want your dialogue to sound realistic, but if you listen to people talking, every day speech is full of ‘ums, ahs, ers, you knows’ etc. Don’t add these to your dialogue. The odd one is okay if you’re trying to convey a character who’s undecided, but they’re not necessary and slow the pace of the story.
  • Dialogue is good for imparting information, but only use it to impart necessary information. The reader doesn’t need to know every little detail e.g.:

“I thought you were having your hair cut today,” Sally said. Her eyes narrowed, running over her daughter’s hair.

“I was, but they had a water leak. That was at ten o’clock. They said I could come in and wait. A man was going to come and fix it. He was supposed to be there at nine o’clock, but he hadn’t turned up. So I had a cup of tea. At half past ten they made me another cup. The man still hadn’t turned up. Then at eleven o’ clock…”

Did you find yourself starting to switch off? That’s what your reader will do if you use too much unnecessary detail. Every word needs to count e.g.:

“I thought you were having your hair cut today,” Sally said. Her eyes narrowed, running over her daughter’s hair.

“I was, but they had a water leak. I’ve got to go back next week.”

This is all that’s necessary, then push on with the rest of the story.

  • ‘He said’ or ‘she said’ are fine as dialogue tags. There’s no need for lots of variations e.g. ‘he/she yelled/shouted/ screeched/ shrieked/expressed/explained/commanded/announced/intoned/stated/breathed/muttered/murmured’ and so on. Too many of these detract from the actual words of dialogue.

If there are only two characters having a conversation, establish who they are and then you can do away with dialogue tags altogether e.g.:

“Where were you last night?” Tom asked.

“At my mother’s,” Chloe said.

“I rang her at nine o’clock and she had no idea where you were!”

“Did I say my mother’s? I meant Melanie’s. I went to see Melanie.”

“Who on earth is Melanie?”

See how it’s easy to tell which words are Tom’s and which Chloe’s.

  • At the end of a passage of speech, don’t add a full stop if you’re then assigning ownership. This makes the passage two separate sentences, which doesn’t make sense e.g.:

“Paul, just tell me what’s going on.” The headmaster said.

 Instead of a full stop, add in a comma:

 “Paul, just tell me what’s going on,” the headmaster said.

 The closing comma, exclamation mark, question mark or full stop shouldn’t be placed outside the speech marks, but inside them e.g.:

 Jim bent over and ruffled the little dog’s fur. “Come on, Rosco, let’s go for a walk.”

 Follow the do’s and don’ts and you’ll be on your way to creating more dynamic dialogue.    















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27 Responses to Writing Workshop…Top Tips

  1. Lynn Love says:

    Sound advice Esther

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul says:

    Some good reminders, Esther.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent tips Esther. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. edcwriting says:

    Not so much a refresher Esther – more like and education for me – thankfully not too much dialogue in the revised narrative scenes I sent you – more to come mind you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. edcwriting says:

    Why do I ways have a typo in my responses to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Helen says:

    Thanks ever so much for another very helpful post. Much appreciated as ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That last point always gets me, Esther. Now I know what to do, thanks to you. Put them inside the speech marks. Thanks again for these great writing tips.

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. Simon says:

    Nice one, I”ll tell you what confuses me with dialogue – When I open and close speech marks do I treat that as a sentence in itself and start with a capital letter after the speech marks or not. Should a speech section always be a sentence in itself? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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