Category Archives: Dialogue

Write Better Dialogue


    We begin the first in a series of workshops today. I’m sharing the fundamentals of dialogue. On Monday,  Rebecca will discuss the first five-hundred words of your novel. All month-long, we cordially invite you to share excerpts from your novel for critique. After reading today’s post, feel free to post dialogue from your work-in-progress for critique and discussion. Thank you!

“I try to leave out the parts people skip.”

     ~ Elmore Leonard


     Dialogue matters. Agents and editors will reject a story based on stodgy or expository dialogue. Readers will skip pages, if not lose interest and turn on a re-run of Jersey Shore(and another book plunges to an ink-splattered death). I don’t know about you, but as I work on another round of edits of my novel, the very idea makes my head hurt, and I take Mr. Leonard’s words to heart. Dialogue can make or break a story.

Here’s my personal motto when it comes to rules of writing: learn the rules, then break or use them as the story sees fit.

I share this with you before I go into the basic rules, so that you, my dear reader, understand that when it comes to our word-smithing and world-building, rules of writing are meant to guide like the benevolent hand of Dumbledore, and less like the persnickety claws of Umbridge. (Yes, I was up late reading Harry Potter and haven’t had my minimum dose of caffeine yet.)

Basic grammar principles of dialogue:

* Quotation marks show where the exact words of a speaker begin and end:

“Umbridge gives crazy cat ladies a bad name,” she said.

* A comma separates the words that tell the reader who is speaking. A question mark or exclamation point can take the place of a comma.

“You’ve never read Harry Potter?” she exclaimed.

* Some quotations are divided.

 – If one sentence, use commas, but don’t capitalize the second part of the sentence.

– If two sentences, use a period after the dialogue tag. Capitalize the first word of the second sentence.

“It’s not insomnia if it’s a good book,” she said, “it’s a matter of addiction.”

“He’s in the chocolate sauce, again,” he said, pointing to the fridge. “Some would call that abstract art.”

* Use a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. Remember to keep the dialogue tag in the same paragraph.

“We should install a lock on the fridge,” she said, and grabbed a roll of paper towels.

He leaned over for a kiss and said, “At any rate, have fun with our little Picasso.”

* Remember to capitalize the first word of the quotation- it is a sentence inside a sentence.

The tot held out his cup and said, “More chocolate milk, please.”

Make your dialogue work to enhance the story.

Good dialogue:

Advances the story

Advances the action

Reveals and builds your characters

Is believable

Is interesting

Read your dialogue out loud.

Does it slow down the story?

Are you relying on the dialogue to carry the exposition of your story?(Characters are revealing too much and telling what the story should show the reader?)

Does it sound like a natural conversation, yet focused and meets the aforementioned criteria?

Dialogue tags are not like that uncle you hear about, but never meet.

Sure, we don’t want the reader to get hung up on them, but used thoughtfully and skillfully, dialogue tags and the occasional adverb (Gasp!) can grease the gears and aid a reader in tracking who says what, and keep that baby moving forward.

Read authors who write great dialogue.

One agent’s take on bad dialogue:








Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Critique, Dialogue


Tags: , , , ,