Article Archive


You Donít Say?
Writing Effective Dialogue

by Lori L. Lake

How many times have you read a story or novel and been struck by the observation that nobody in your own personal world sounds one bit like the characters you are reading about? Iím not talking about writing that contains local lingo or work jargon; I mean something that looks like this:

"Well, hello, Mike."

"Ferd. How are you?" Mike responded.

"I am fine, just fine," said Ferd. "And your wifeóhow is she getting along?"

"Real well," Mike said smilingly. "The baby is due in a mere six weeks."

"Isnít that just great. Congratulations to the happy family," Ferd opined as he shook his head and grinned.

Mike nodded. "We are looking forward to it so much."

"Iíll bet." Ö

This little exchange is, technically, completely accurate. This is exactly what I heard at a social function a few weeks ago. Does that make it good dialogue to use word-for-word in your story? No. To be honest, not only is this dialogue badly written, but itís boring as hell.

Writing dialogue is tricky because what is spoken in books isnít the way people converse in real life. For one thing, people donít carry on sequential conversations. They interrupt, talk over one another, use intonation, interpret body language, and have all sorts of underlying things going on. So in order to make dialogue strong and powerful, it will not be like what you really hear, and therein lie the difficulties. You canít just tape a conversation and commit it to paper. It doesnít work. (Believe me, I tried it!)

The mechanics of your dialogue matter greatly. An important piece of advice is to cut out fancy dialogue tags wherever possible. Rather than stimulating the readerís imagination, they tend to distract. People "say" and people "ask." Use "said" and use "asked" and go very, very sparingly with other tags like chuckled, whined, begged, crooned, intimated, leered, posited, groveled, declared, and so on. People do "yell" and they do "scream" or engage in other high intensity histrionics. You will find at times that "said" and "asked" donít quite cut it. But the point of dialogue tags is to let the reader have just enough information about who is speaking to be able to forge forward and hear the next sentence. The tags should, for the most part, fade into the fabric of the narrative, not describe the scene or speaker or somebodyís feelings.

Donít use dialogue tags and descriptive adverbs that draw attention away from the words being spoken or the scene you are painting. Thatís cheating the reader of seeing and feeling the actual scene. Examples:

"I am so mad at her, I could kill her!" she said angrily.(The *sentence* already tells us she is angry, and the dialogue tag is unnecessary. It will also slow down the scene.)

"Now, now, not a good idea," Margie crooned sagely. "You donít really mean that."
(This tag + adverb doesnít tell us what Margie really thinks and feels.)
Margie chuckled, "Oh, Millieóever the drama queen."
(How do people chuckle while speaking? That never squares up for me.)
Millie growled, "Iím gonna rip her face off!"
(People donít really growlówhy do so many people use this tag? Besides, the statement all by itself informs the reader that Millie feels like a wild animal. This is an example, though, of a sentence where "said" might not be a powerful enough tag. Perhaps there should be no tag. [See below].)

The fewer dialogue tags you can use the better. If you are writing a conversation (particularly a heated one) that really rips along, you donít want to interrupt it with a lot of "he said" and "she said." Dialogue flows naturally between two speakers, and you, the author, can periodically identify whoís who without having to do that for every line spoken. But if you have three or more people speaking in a scene, then you have to provide more identification to make sure the reader always knows who speaks. You can often shift from one speaker to another without even using "said/asked" if you talk about the speakerís posture or feelings or actions:

Karin leaned back in her chair. "Aspiring writers are fun to talk to."

"Yeah," Therese said. "Theyíve got so much energy."

Marianne held up a hand. "I donít know about you guys, but Iím starving. Letís continue talking about this while we have a snack."

Lori catapulted out of the chair and headed for the kitchen. Over her shoulder, she called out, "Cheese and crackers coming right up!"

There is only one use of "said" in that entire exchange. All the parties are still identified, and some of the physical action is also detailed.

Another general guideline is to think in terms of people first, action second. "She said," "he asked" ... not "asked Mary" or "said Mary," which makes it sound like a 3rd grade Dick and Jane story.

The more adverbs you stick into spoken sentences, the weaker the sentence will be. For instance, which is better?

1. Desperately and plaintively, she croaked, "But I love you."

2. Her eyes widened, and when she opened her mouth to speak, a raspy sound came out. Heart beating hard against her ribs, she said, "But I love you."

Okay, the second one is twice as long, but itís grounded in physical sensations rather than intellectual description. You donít think your way through the characterís feelings; you feel them with her.

After you write your own scenes with dialogue, read the spoken words aloud to yourself and note how they sound. Ask other people to read those sections of your story and tell you what seems wooden? What doesnít sing? What doesnít come off as smooth and natural? Then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until each section of dialogue enriches your story instead of diminishing it.

Another thing you can do is read books by favorite authors who you know write great dialogue (or you assume they do because you have never noticed anything clunky at all in their writing!). Go to their scenes with dialogue and study them. How do they lay out the spoken words? How do they fit in the descriptions? What do they do to make it all flow? Why does it seem to work so well?

There is much more to be said about dialogue. Weíll address it further in a later article. In the meantime, Chiarellaís WRITING DIALOGUE is a good book specifically about this topic. Many writing books have sections on dialogue. Go to the library or bookstore and find books that suit you and read them.

If you have questions, comments, or divergent points of view, please drop me an email at
© Lori L. Lake, 2003 - Associate Editor of Just About Write
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.


Back to Article Archive.