Dialogue Woes – Writing Tips and Tricks

19 Apr

Vanessa Di Gregorio

Ah, dialogue. One of the most important aspects of any manuscript. It develops character, progresses the plot, shows conflict, sets the mood, and is a source of information. Dialogue is great. And necessary.

But it’s also tough.

Often, dialogue can be the most underwritten or overwritten part of your story. It can be underwritten when the words you choose aren’t strong enough; when your dialogue is weak. It needs the constant use of adverbs, such as quietly, excitedly, and angrily in order to convey what the dialogue itself should be conveying.

Adverse Adverbs

“I can’t believe that!” she said angrily.

There. An adverb. Angrily. Now, some might argue that the line by itself needs that angrily in order to understand how that line is being said. For all we know, she could be saying that excitedly. It might seem necessary standing on its own like that, but there will be context behind that line. Remember, you aren’t going to have floating lines of dialogue like that; it will be sandwiched between action and more dialogue. The dialogue that comes beforehand should set that line up, and should be strong enough to allow your readers to understand whether or not she says that line angrily, or excitedly.

“Okay Amber… Don’t freak out, okay?” Liz came up beside me, and I looked at her, totally confused.

“What? Oh Liz, you can’t say that, cause I’ll obviously start to kinda freak a bit!”

Liz stood there, silent.

“Oh God Liz, you are totally worrying me! What’s wrong?”

“Don’t get mad at me, ‘kay?” She paused. “I heard that Tracy is going out with Mark.”

“What? I can’t believe that!”

Okay. So perhaps not the best scene of dialogue, but you get my point. Amber obviously isn’t excited to hear that. It should be obvious that your character is saying things a certain way. If your dialogue isn’t strong enough, it won’t portray that. Try going back to the actual dialogue and see if you can make what’s inside the quotation marks stronger. You shouldn’t be trying to fix your dialogue by tacking on adverbs. Avoid adverbs as much as you can; if you can make your dialogue do all the talking, then throw away the adverb. It will just be redundant.

Now, dialogue that is overwritten will tend to include descriptions that aren’t really necessary. You need to trust your readers a bit more.

“Are you blaming me?” Jack got defensive.

You probably don’t need the Jack got defensive line. Just the line of dialogue itself is a clear indication that Jack is saying it defensively. If the meaning of your dialogue gets lost when you remove these types of descriptions, look at your dialogue, and not what is outside of it. You should be beefing up what your characters are actually saying; not describing things that should be obvious. The less stuff cluttering your dialogue like that, the better it will be. Your dialogue will be much easier to read, and the pacing will be much quicker as well.

Too Realistic

You need to sound realistic enough to have dialogue that isn’t jarring or overly awkward (unless, of course, you’re writing a scene of awkward dialogue!), but at the same time, you need to remember that you’re not trying to document everything by being TOO realistic. Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue should follow the same rule. Don’t make it boring! You want your readers to want to keep reading. In real life, people will talk about mundane things; perhaps about the weather, or they’ll ask how the family is doing. In short, in real life we procrastinate when we talk; we avoid the good, juicy information until we’ve finished with the boring pleasantries. When writing, however, this isn’t the best thing to do. It can make for long, boring dialogue. It can also really slow down the pace of the scene. And pacing is always important in your manuscript. So remember: you aren’t trying to copy reality. You’re trying to write good dialogue that is plausible, engaging, and interesting.

The Problem of He Said, She Said

This is pretty self explanatory. It can be distracting when every line ends with the tags “he said” or “she said”. Overusing it takes away from what your characters are saying. Because, of course, you want your readers to notice the brilliant dialogue you’ve written! Don’t feel the need to constantly show that a character is feeling an emotion (ie. sad), and then use “he said sulkily” and “he said miserably” and etc etc. You aren’t trying to show off your skills at using different synonyms in your tags. Overusing tags like this can lead to overwriting your dialogue; it can also make it melodramatic. So, avoid using tags such as “he/she said” often. But, don’t leave it out completely during long bits of dialogue! It can get really confusing if you leave it out for too long.

And Action!

Don’t forget about description though! You should break up your dialogue with action; your characters are more than just lines of speech. The way they react during dialogue should be shown. If someone flinches away from the other person after something is said, you should show it.

Anyone Listening?

Ask yourself this question: are your characters listening to each other? Or are they both just speaking? You need to make sure that your characters are actually responding to one another – not just spewing out information in order to further the story. One person speaks, the other reacts. And so on and so forth. This might seem obvious, but when you actually start writing, sometimes this isn’t something that you think about. So… keep it in mind when writing your dialogue.

Read Out Loud

Reading your dialogue out loud is a great way to figure out if your dialogue is working or not. And just read the dialogue. Ignore everything else; ignore all the descriptions and tags. Does it make sense when you just read out the dialogue? Does it flow well? Or is it jarring and awkward?

Another great way to improve your dialogue? Read plays and scripts. Seriously. It is pure dialogue after all, and you can get a sense of what people are feeling even with little to no direction on how the character reacts. You’ll know when someone is angry, or confused, or sad. What are they saying that makes their feelings so apparent? Figure that out, and you’ll be on your way to writing good dialogue.

So yes, dialogue is difficult. But hopefully, when you get back to you WIP, you’ll be able to tackle your dialogue with less worry!


Vanessa is an intern at The Rights Factory, a literary agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program, and is trying to figure out where in the world of publishing she wants to end up in. Currently, she is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

26 Responses to “Dialogue Woes – Writing Tips and Tricks”

  1. Tia April 19, 2010 at 4:40 AM #

    Thank you, this is so helpful! I usually read my dialogue aloud WITH the accompanying text, but I just tried reading the dialogue by itself, and I got much more accomplished and I think the quality of my dialogue improved a lot. 🙂

    • Vanessa April 19, 2010 at 1:01 PM #

      I’m glad you found it helpful Tia!! And that it worked!! 😀

      I used to read my dialogue aloud WITH all the accompanying text as well! And then I was told to just read out the dialogue itself, and it made such a difference!

  2. Victoria Dixon April 19, 2010 at 7:38 AM #

    Thanks for the tip on reading just the dialogue aloud. Hadn’t thought of that!

    • Vanessa April 19, 2010 at 1:03 PM #

      No prob. I’m so glad! It’s one of those things that you just don’t think of it, but I’ve found it to be really effective!

  3. Kayleigh April 19, 2010 at 11:06 AM #

    I’ve never really had a problem with dialogue, but right now I’ve got a problem with what goes on between and during the dialogue. Basically, it’s all talk, no action. (Or thoughts.) Any tips?

    • Vanessa April 19, 2010 at 1:23 PM #

      My next article is actually going to be a post on writing description! But I don’t want to leave you hanging, so I’ll give you a few tips now :p

      First, visualize the scene of dialogue in your mind like a movie; what are your characters doing? What is the setting? Are they walking, sitting, laying down on the bed talking over the phone? Then picture what a movie would do. Your characters aren’t just going to be still while talking; they might flddle with the phone cord, wrapping it around their fingers. They might be standing but decide to sit down. Do they ever get distracted during the dialogue? If they do, what is it that distracts them? The pregnant cheerleader walking by? A black cat? Do certain things in their setting make them talk about certain things?

      Asking yourself a lot of questions help. Especially when you’re having a hard time with something. And visualizing really helps answer a lot of those questions!

      Another tip is to look over your scene and make sure that you CAN visualize where your character are and what they’re doing with what you’ve written down.

      So, I hope that helps! (And I hope you don’t mind waiting a couple of weeks for the next article!)

  4. priscillashay April 19, 2010 at 12:00 PM #

    another way dialogue shouldn’t be TOO realistic is when people say, “Uh, um, er, huh, uhhh,” or stutter over words (unless, of course, stuttering is part of the MP’s character, i.e Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I)

    • Vanessa April 19, 2010 at 1:05 PM #

      Exactly! It can really take away from the dialogue when you do that. It’s funny, because I was going to suggest just listening to people (yes… eavesdropping!), but it helps give you a sense of how people talk. And you realize what is boring vs. what is actually interesting. When you listen in on other conversations, you aren’t a part of it; so all that mundane stuff in between the good parts are much more noticeable!

      • priscillashay April 20, 2010 at 12:07 AM #

        eavesdroppping is fun…until you realize people often say things in public they shouldn’t lol

  5. Rowenna April 19, 2010 at 1:05 PM #

    I love writing dialogue–I think it’s because hearing the characters speak helps me get to know them even better. And lets the reader get to know them, too–how a character speaks, reacts, what they say and don’t say–so much revealing stuff there! Great article!

    • Vanessa April 19, 2010 at 1:26 PM #


      I think dialogue is great!! Personally, I’m one of those people who find description SO MUCH easier. Dialogue was something I had to really work on to improve in my writing. But it definitely IS enjoyable to write! It really does reveal so much!

  6. Becca April 19, 2010 at 1:56 PM #

    Thanks Vanessa,
    Can’t wait for the description article. I could write an entire story with just dialogue and no description because I love love love writing dialogue! It’s scene setting and descriptions that I lack in. I usually just throw a line or two in and then get straight to the conversations. 😛

    • Vanessa April 19, 2010 at 7:18 PM #

      Well, I hope I don’t disappoint with my description article!! :p

  7. Savannah J. Foley April 19, 2010 at 2:58 PM #

    My favorite part was the characters reacting to one another. I’ve /never/ heard that advice anywhere before. It will definitely stick with me.

    • Vanessa April 19, 2010 at 7:18 PM #

      I’ve come across characters who aren’t actually responding to each other quite a few times! I’m glad I was able to offer some new advice! :p

  8. Julie Eshbaugh April 19, 2010 at 8:15 PM #

    Great post, V! My favorite example was:
    “Are you blaming me?” He got defensive.
    It should be obvious that the second line is redundant, but I’ve caught lines like that in my own writing, even after one or two passes of edits! Repeating something like that can equal “beating the reader over the head.” I know I don’t like it when a writer does it to me! I just want to scream, “I get it! He’s defensive! I’m not STUPID!”

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 19, 2010 at 8:17 PM #

      You know what else is really bad in dialogue? Excessive use of exclamation points. (She says, referring to her own comment above!)

      • Vanessa April 20, 2010 at 8:26 PM #

        AHAHAHA oh Julie!

        And I always find these errors in my writing too, especially when I go through the first revision!

  9. Myra April 19, 2010 at 10:42 PM #

    Another dialogue faux-pas: using dialogue tags besides he said, she said, especially in copious amounts.

    • Vanessa April 20, 2010 at 8:27 PM #

      Yes! Tags don’t need to be used constantly!

  10. Ananya June 4, 2010 at 10:00 AM #

    This is really good. I was aware of all this stuff, but it was really helpful seeing it all together. The description bits helped alot, because I tend to over describe the way my character says things. So I have editing do now 🙂

    • Vanessa June 4, 2010 at 12:53 PM #

      Thanks so much!! I’m really glad you found it helpful!! I think everyone is guilty of over-describing and using a lot of adverbs when writing; I know I still catch myself doing it!!! 😀

  11. theycallmemoseley September 18, 2011 at 2:57 PM #

    I like what you say that characters should listen to eachother and respond accordingly. I don’t think that you need to break up speech with “action”, as speech is action. It’s the only direct thing in a story, the rest is recorded and told. But the dialogue is immediate, present tense and happening.


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