Friday 26 February 2016

Dialogue for writers

Real Dialogue

Before looking at dialogue in fiction, let's consider real dialogue in more detail. Though speeches and debating skills have been researched for millennia, research into conversation began only a few decades ago. Here's an example from "Language and Creativity: the art of common talk" by Ronald Carter (Routledge, 2004)

A: Yes, he must have a bob or two.
B: Whatever he does he makes money out of it, just like that.
C: Bob's your uncle.
B: He's quite a lot of money erm tied up in property and things. He's got a finger in all kinds of pies and houses and stuff

It's banter. Some information is exchanged but quite a lot of other things are happening too.

Conversation can also expose the pecking order of the participants. Some of them interrupt, some affect the direction of the discussion. We have a fair idea of how people should behave in certain contexts, even as children. Here's another example (from "Conversation Analysis and Discourse Analysis" by Robin Wooffitt (Sage, 2005))

Child: Have to cut these Mummy [pause 1s]
Child: Won't we Mummy [pause 1s]
Child: Won't we
Mother: Yes

The Rules

There are patterns and expectations in conversation that we notice especially when they're not obeyed. We know how to take turns, anticipating when the speaker will stop. Pauses and ends of sentences are good places to interrupt. People who don't want to be interrupted avoid pausing at the end of sentences. Turn-taking follows various conventions. If you get them mixed up, you'll be interpreted as shy or rude.

We know when to ask open questions and when to target questions at particular people. We recognise controversial statements and deliberate attempts to disrupt conversational norms. We use a range of techniques, but mostly we're expected to abide by a few principles (known as Grice's Maxims, etc). Briefly they're that we say the right amount and quality of relevant words in an appropriate fashion. Any deviations from these maxims are potentially suspicious and revealing.

In "The Organised Mind" (Penguin, 2015), Daniel Levitin suggests a situation where 2 equally-ranked but competitive office workers are in a hot room. The one further from the window might not say "Open the window", but they might say "Gosh, it's getting warm here?" How should the workmate respond? Should the reply show that they understand the game, or should they break the rules?

Once the norms for a particular dialogue have been established by the participants, there's a tendency to stay within the limits of those norms. Sometimes however the norms are never agreed upon, and the discussion becomes one about the rules rather than the content. The kind of situation I have in mind is when a boss has to tell off a lower-ranking friend. The boss might like to keep the tone formal and serious whereas the underling might try to keep things light and casual.

A real example

Here's a dialogue transcribed as discourse analysts do it

They're discussing a rather strange subject (E is going over S's report of strange happenings) but the overlapping, emphasising, false-starts, changes of speed, pauses, inhaling, etc are normal enough. We don't usually record those aspects when writing literature. Much gets "lost in translation". We could colour-code our texts for example, or use play-script notation. But we don't.

Literary Uses of Dialogue

As we've seen, conversation has many purposes in real life, not all of which are replicated in stories (though it's possible in film). In prose, dialogue has more literary uses -

  • Show not tell
  • Return the narrative to "real-time" after a passage of summarising text
  • Reveal personality (after a few lines you can know a lot about someone)
  • Add variety of texture - breaks up blocks of description
  • Change of Point-of-View (not always easy to do otherwise)
  • Advance plot rapidly (characters can jump and summarise in a way that narrators can't always get away with)
  • Flashbacks and Info-dumps
  • Increase dramatic tension (especially when one character knows something that another doesn't)
  • Flexibility - Characters can lie, say outrageous things and make grammatical errors. Narrators can't do this so easily


How real should the dialogue be? As we've already seen, in real life there's redundancy, hesitation, mistakes, etc - all the things we're told not to do when writing. How many of these can we get away with in dialogue? The odd "Um" or "well" is surely ok. Ungrammatical phrases are ok (indeed, we'd expect some characters not to speak the Queen's English). But these effects can become tedious if over-used.

One common issue is whether speech should be rendered phonetically? How about this?

Too many bastards ken ma Montgomery Street address. Cash oan the nail! Partin wi that poppy wis the hardest bit. The easiest wis ma last shot, taken in ma left airm this morning. Ah needed something tae keep us gaun during this period ay intense preparation. Then ah wis off like a rocket roond the Kirkgate, whizzing through ma shopping list. ("Trainspotting", Irvine Welsh)

What are your views on that?

  • "Dialects are awkward to convey properly in print, and always look very hammy when the author attempts to write them down phonetically in the cause of accuracy. It's far better to leave them to the readers' imagination, and just indicate by the occasional phrase or regional word ... a little dialect goes a long way in fiction" (Jean Saunders, "Writing Dialogue - The Essential Guide", p.119)
  • "If writing dialogue for a character with a specific accent, don't write it out phonetically, as this can look patronizing and old-fashioned. Use odd syntax and a few choice bits of slang to convey their accent." (Rowena Macdonald)
  • Adam Sexton (in "Master Class in Fiction Writing", McGraw-Hill) considers phonetic writing as discrimitating against certain types. It often assumes that the default reader uses received pronunciation.

And what about historical fiction? Emma Darwin points out that "you're not forging documents, you're writing fiction for readers now: you're after evocation and perhaps verisimiltude, definitely not pastiche and reproduction".

When to use dialogue

There are competitions for stories that are completely dialogue. Dave Eggers’s "Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live For Ever?", Philip Roth's "Deception" and Nicholson Baker's "Checkpoint" are all or mostly dialogue. A.B. Yehoshua's "Mr. Mani" is dialogue where we only see one person's words! Usually though, dialogue's used more sparingly. Proust for example didn't use it much.

You'll often find speech at the start or end of a story. Someone worked out that 10% of stories begin with "speech", and 31% end with it. However starting with dialogue might be a risky option nowadays

  • opening a story with dialogue "was popular at the turn of the last century; it looks musty now. The problem with beginning a story with dialogue is that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the first character to appear in a story. … That requires that she read on a bit further to make sense of the dialogue. Then, at least briefly, she has to kind of backtrack in her mind to put it all into context. That represents, at the least, a speed bump, and at worst, a complete stall." (Les Edgerton, "Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers At Page One")
  • "It’s a typical pet peeve of editors and agents: Stories that begin with dialogue." (Jane Friedman)
  • "beginning a novel with dialogue is hard. It's very difficult to do it effectively, because the reader doesn't have context, they don't yet know why they should care, and a lot of people are turned off by gratuitous in media res. … If you can pull it off, fantastic, if not, an agent will be able to tell very quickly" (Nathan Bransford)

Dialogue is often used at pivotal emotional moments- "John, I don't love you any more" is fast and effective. Often it's a character who (without realising) states the story's main conflict or moral.

Dialogue is sometimes thought to be inherently more lively and interesting than plain narrative (it's considered Action rather than Narrative), so some writers use it to replace back-story, info-dumps, introspection, etc. It often fails, lapsing into monologue.


What are they for? They tell the reader who's speaking and how they say it. But they're a common source of complaint. What about this?

"No!" he snarled angrily, his eyes full of suspicion.

Writing manuals often say that most of the time it's best to use “he said” or “she said” (it's more or less invisible) or nothing at all. The following isn't a good idea.

"You can’t mean it,” she exclaimed.

“I assure you, I mean every word,” he smirked.

 “Oh, you’re too, too cruel,” she moaned.

“You better believe it, babe,” he sneered.

If one's writing with a restricted point-of-view, one needs to be especially careful with adverbs, because they express far more than the intonation and eyes that they're describing can express - "darkly", "hopefully"

Identification of speakers

One can use body language instead of tags, thus avoiding the "Talking Heads" risk. i.e. instead of

"Our fence needs mending", John said.


John looked out of the window. "Our fence needs mending."


Beware of adverbs. "boastfully", "flirtingly", "humourously, "justifiably" are surely redundant. Instead you may need to work harder at the phrasing to compensate for the loss of intonation - if you want to add emphasis to the final word of "I'll go to the shops tomorrow" you could use "I'll go to the shops tomorrow", "I'm too tired today. I'll go to the shops tomorrow" or "Tomorrow I'll go to the shops"


It's standard in the UK to use quote-marks - either single or double ones. There are some conventions -

  • Use a new paragraph for each new speaker
  • The final full stop of a quote is replaced by a comma if there's more text. E.g. -
    'I do like you,' he said
  • If you begin with a speech tag, put a comma before the quote. E.g. -
    The hare said, "I will challenge the tortoise to a race!" (some people use a ":" instead of a comma here)
  • When you have multiple quoted paragraphs, each new paragraph starts with an opening quotation mark, but only the final quoted paragraph has a closing quotation mark.

But authors break these rules, and abroad they sometimes do things differently

  • Some authors (e.g. Malcolm Bradbury in "The History Man") don't bother starting new paragraphs for new speakers.
  • Some authors follow the rules above, missing out the quote-marks
  • Some authors (e.g. David Rose) follow the rules above, missing out the quote-marks but adding an initial dash
  • The French and Italians use guillemets - << >>
  • Some languages use this type of punctuation - „May Christ bless this house”
  • Sometimes authors use the method of play scripts

Authors aren't even self-consistent from one story to the next. In Anthony Doerr's short story collections, various styles are used -

  • "Pop," Josh groaned, "those boys are mentally handicapped. I do not think some sea-snail is going to cure them." (from "The Shell Collector")
  • You know her? the hunter asked. Oh no, Marpes said, and shook his head. No I don't. He spread his legs and swiveled his hips as if stretching before a foot race. But I've read her (from "The Hunter's Wife")
  • She cocks her head slightly. Look at you. All grown up.
    I got tickets, he says.
    How's Mr Weems?
    (from "The Deep")

Some authors omit quote-marks and some other punctuation characters too. This is from "In a strange room" by Damon Galgut

Where have you come from

Mycenae. He points back over his shoulder. And you.

Or what about this, the start of "Another country" by David Constantine?

When Mrs Mercer came in she found her husband looking poorly. What's the matter now? she asked, putting down her bags. It startled him. Can't leave you for a minute, she said. They've found her, he said. Found who? That girl. What girl? That girl I told you about. What girl's that? Katya. Katya? said Mrs Mercer beginning to side away the breakfast things. I don't remember any Katya.

Or this, from "The Lesser Bohemians" by Eimear McBride (p.120)

You'll manage all the adulation, he says. Yes, I expect I will. Both go Anyway, then laugh and she But what brings you up to these wilds? When steps he to show me No! she says


  • You know, Bob - This is dialogue between characters who share information that they already know, just so readers can get caught up. Characters don’t have any reason to stand around talking about events they both know about. It's a ploy often used by SF writers to infodump. You're reading an SF novel. After an exciting first chapter set in the 23rd century, there's a scene at a breakfast table. The kids tease Gran about the good old days. She responds by telling them yet again about how tough it was back then, giving a history lesson. But why? The kids have heard it all before.
  • Monologing, Speeches, Ventriloquising - at the end of a whodunnit there's often a speech. In other situations though a character launches into a speech that's really what the author should say
  • Talking Heads - All talk, no action.
  • Ping-pong - lots of short phrases
  • Lack of Variety - The characters shouldn't all speak like you. A radio producer told Emma Darwin that when he gets a new script the first thing he does is take a ruler, and cover up the left-hand side which shows which character says what. He then reads the play, and if he can't tell who says what without seeing the characters' name, he rejects the play.
  • Replacing prose - In radio drama, dialog is used to describe the scene and action. It's also used to name the characters. If you try too hard to do this on the page, it can seem awkward - you might get away with “Gosh, how long have I been standing in this railway station now?” (From The Writer's guide) on the radio, but not on the page. The following is best replaced by description - "So you’ve decided to fight me, Albert!", "Yes John, and I’m winning, too. I have my foot on your windpipe"


  • The commonest advice is Read it out!
  • Watch (and listen to) Drama.
  • "Your characters shouldn't be saying exactly what they're thinking or you give the actors nothing to play." Marcy Kahan (from World Service )
  • "Try to remember that as far as possible, characters shouldn't actually answer each other's lines, they should jump off from each other's lines onto something else, or turn corners or surprise people. This will also create movement." Mike Walker (from World Service )
  • What's not said is also important. Silence is more effective on the stage than the page. In prose one may need to use avoidance instead
  • Use dialogue to show deviations from expected conversational norms.

Summary and suggestions

  • Go back to basics. Think about what dialogue reveals about people - not just the words they say, but the pauses, hesitations and interruptions.
  • Read about the recent developments in discourse/conversation analysis. They help make explicit the mechanisms of dialogue we all use.
  • Mainstream literary dialogue has become rather formulaic and artificial. The standard notation hinders the rendering of some revealing aspects of dialogue.
  • Non-standard notations are increasingly common in novels. You might for example consider using screenplay notation.

Literary Examples

  • "Does Jack like porridge?"
    "All Scots like porridge!"
  • “Bring a bottle of wine and wear something uncomplicated – I’m in no mood for a struggle tonight,” rolled from Jean-Pierre’s lips like a bowling ball shooting up the return ramp, only to slow itself abruptly at the top before ka-whonking! into the balls already lined up there like all the lines she had heard before, and Sylvia knew at last that all the good ones were not married, gay, or in Mexican prisons.
    James Pokines (the beginning of a novel)
  • ‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
    EB White (the beginning of "Charlotte's Web")
  • "You're not going out with him and that's the end of it!" Jenny's father announced.
    Mrs Wilson winked at her daughter and said: "So he's not such a bad catch after all!"
    The start and end of "It's only rock'n'roll" (Yours, issue 062).
  • 'Very well,' conceded Williamson reluctantly. 'But you are paying.'
    'I cannot be long,' warned Chaloner, supposing there was no harm in listening. He might learn something useful with no obligation to reciprocate. 'I have an audience with the Queen.'
    'And you say you have no connections,' said Lester wonderingly.
    "The Piccadilly Plot", Susanna Gregory, p.280.
  • "I always liked geography. My last teacher in that subject was Professor August A. He was a man with black eyes. I also like black eyes. There are also blue eyes and grey eyes and other sorts, too. I have heard it said that snakes have green eyes. All people have eyes."
    In 1911, Bleuler (who coined the term schitzophrenia) quoted this passage from a medical report
  • The man speaks:
    “Should we have another drink?”
    “All right.”
    The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
    “The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
    “It’s lovely,” the girl said.
    “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
    The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
    “I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.” The girl did not say anything.
    “Hills Like White Elephants.”, Ernest Hemingway.
    "In this story, the man is trying to convince the girl to have an abortion (a word that does not appear anywhere in the text). Her silence is reaction enough". (Writer Digest)
  • 'Why?' asks Marty.
    Before Lizzie can answer, Robert interrupts sulkily, 'Daddy sent her away.'
    'Oh Robert! Don't tell lies!' says his sister, shocked.
    ("The Spoiling", James Lasdun)
  • 'You're far too young for this job. Who sent you to me?'
    'Mr Peacock -'
    'Dear God, preserve me from do-gooders. Well, boy, do you think you can handle the job? It means a lot of heavy lifting, and you look as though a strong wind would blow you away.'
    'I'm a bloody sight stronger than I look - Sir.'
    ("Writing Dialogue - The Essential Guide", Jean Saunders, p.97)
  • What kind of animals?

    He'd sheep. A few cattle, I suppose. Though they'd have been wind-bothered up that way.

    They'd have been ...

    Bothered, John. By wind coming in. The way it would unseat cattle.

    Unseat them?

    Cornelius lowers his sad eyes -

    In the mind.

    You mean you'd have a cow'd take a turn?

    Cornelius squares his jaw.

    Do you realise you're looking at a man who's seen a cow step in front of a moving vehicle?
    ("Beatlebone" by Kevin Barry)


Sources and Additional Resources on Writing Dialogue

  • "Writing Dialogue", Tom Chiarella, (Story Press, 1998)
  • "The Write It Write Series: Dialogue Dynamics", Pinkston, Tristi (Kindle Ebook, 2012)
  • "Writing Dialogue - The Essential Guide", Jean Saunders (Need2Know, 2011)

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