9 Ways to Improve Your Dialogue

Image courtesy of Flikr Creative Commons

Sorry to be away so long. Been a weird couple of weeks getting Spawn ready for the BIG K—Kindergarten. Uniforms and doctors and immunizations and vision/hearing tests (and yes, apparently he CAN hear, he is just ignoring us). I am still unaccustomed to so much quiet. For those who are curious, YES I was going to homeschool, but we found a super cool private school where he is in a class of TEN and he loves it. He was getting lonely and kept asking to go to school so he could be with other kids, so I figured we’d give it a shot. So far so good.

He is now Spawn, The Most Interesting Kid in the World….

The Most Interesting Kid in the World...

Back to writing…

Today we are going to talk about a subject that I don’t think I have ever blogged about. Dialogue. Great dialogue is one of the most vital components of fiction. Dialogue is responsible for not only conveying the plot, but it also helps us understand the characters and get to know them, love them, hate them, whatever.

Dialogue is powerful for revealing character. This is as true in life as it is on the page. If people didn’t judge us based on how we speak, then business professionals would bother with Toastmasters, speaking coaches or vocabulary builders. I’d imagine few people who’d hire a brain surgeon who spoke like a rap musician and conversely, it would be tough to enjoy rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum.

Our word choices are reflective of WHO we are. Dialogue can not only show age and gender. It can elucidate level of education, profession, personality, ego, wounds, insecurity, and on and on and on.

In fact dialogue is so powerful that one way we know we have done our job as a writer is when we can remove all dialogue tags and the reader still knows which character is talking. This said, there are a LOT of newbie errors I see when it comes to writing dialogue and that’s what we are going to talk about today.

#1 Punctuate Properly

When it comes to dialogue, we need to make sure we are punctuating properly. This might seem like a picky matter, but improper dialogue punctuation is a quick way to end up in a slush pile. If a writer doesn’t yet know how to punctuate dialogue correctly, then most agents (or even readers) simply aren’t going to commit any more time. Also, if you are paying good money for an editor, they have a hard time getting to the MEAT of your story if they are spending all their time fixing disastrous punctuation.

When I get samples from new writers, I see a lot of this:

“Have a nice day” she closed the door and that was when Kristen had to spend the next few hours repairing punctuation.

“Have a nice day.” She closed the door blah blah blah….

OR

“Have a nice day,” she said. She closed the door blah blah blah…

The comma goes INSIDE the end quote mark and then we add a tag. If there is NO tag word (said, asked) then we insert a PERIOD.

DO NOT use actions as tags. Why? Because actions are actions…not tags.

“Have a nice day,” she closed the door said.

For all the neat ways dialogue is punctuated, refer to a handy dandy Strunk & White😉 ,

#2 No Weird Dialogue Tags

This goes with the “no action tags” idea.

“I have no idea what you mean,” Kinsey snarled.

“You know exactly what I mean,” Jake laughed.

NO.

Characters can say things or ask things but they can’t smirk, snarl or laugh things. Again, when agents, editors, or even savvy readers see these strange tags, it is a red flag the author is green.

#3 Stick to Unassuming Tags

When using tags, keep it simple— said, asked, replied (maybe). Why? Well, I hate proffering rules without explanation so here goes.

Simply? When we add those creative tags on the end, we are coaching the reader. Our dialogue should be strong enough alone to convey the tone we want. When we coach the reader, we are being redundant and more than a tad insulting to the reader.

“You have some nerve showing your face,” she spat.

See what I mean? By adding the “she spat” I am essentially telling you that I worry you aren’t sharp enough to know this character is upset.

But, I am betting the dialogue alone—“You have some nerve showing your face”—was plenty for you guys to give the appropriate tone of voice in your head. I really didn’t need to add the “she spat.”

I know that keeping to simple tags seems harsh, but if we have done our job writing dialogue, the tags will disappear in the reader’s mind. The dialogue will simply flow.

Additionally, if we write using Deep POV, we don’t even need/use tags.

“I have no idea what you mean.” Kinsey refused to look at him and polished the wine glass so hard she wondered if she’d bore a hole clean through.

See how the character is DOING something that tells us the tone of the dialogue. Remember that communication is about 90% is nonverbal. Body language is a big deal.

Notice we are showing and not telling. Instead of spelling out that Kinsey is irritated, we have her DOING something that shows us she is ticked and trust the reader to fill in the blanks.

#4 Do NOT Phonetically Spell Out Accents

Yes, when we dust of old volumes of literature we see that the writers (I.e. Twain) wrote out dialogue phonetically to show the accent of the character speaking.

BUT…Herman Melville also spent over a hundred pages talking about whales for the same reasons. Most people lived and died in isolation. Travel was reserved for the very rich. Photographs and paintings were rare. There was no television, radio or Internet.

Just like Melville’s readers could live an entire lifetime without seeing the ocean (let alone a whale), Twain’s audience in Europe likely would never travel to the rural American South. Thus, they would have no concept of what a Southern accent “sounded” like. Therefore, in fiction, it was perfectly acceptable to phonetically write out how someone would have talked.

These days, if we are writing a character who has an Irish brogue or a Southern drawl or a Cockney accent, we no longer need to spell it out phonetically. The reason is that there has been so much entertainment (movies, etc.) that we know what an Irish brogue should sound like and when we “spell it out” for the reader, it makes the dialogue cumbersome.

#5 DO Feel Free to Use Unique Words, Expressions or Idioms

I write a lot of characters who are Texans. It’s true I don’t need to write out the Texas accent phonetically, but I can add in some terms and expressions to keep the reader “hearing” a Texan in her head without making my dialogue weird.

“Y’all won’t believe this. Delroy got a job. A J-O-B.”

“Who’d hire him? He’s useless as ice trays in hell. ”

Feel free to use a couple of words that convey an accent—ain’t, gonna, bloody—just avoid spelling it out in entirety or risk frustrating readers.

#6 DO NOT Have Characters Constantly Calling Each Other By NAME

I see this one a lot and it is seriously weird.

“Biff, what are you doing?” Blane asked.

“Why Blane, I am making a present for Buffy. You know how Buffy is about her birthday. What are you doing Blane? Are you having lunch with Beverly?”

Okay, so I am being a bit silly here to make a point, but how often do you call the other person by name when talking? Who does this? Worse still, who does this over and over and over, especially when there is only one other person in the room? Try this in real life.

Me: Shawn, why are you home so early? I thought you’d be at work.

Hubby: I had to run an errand, Kristen.

Me: Well, Shawn I have to run to the grocery store.

Hubby: Kristen, that is…

Okay, I am giggling too much. Y’all get the gist.

#7 Do NOT Write Dialogue in Complete Sentences

My above examples are kind of a twofer. Not only is the dialogue seriously strange with everyone using a proper name, but notice all the dialogue is in complete sentences. Most people don’t talk that way. If we do, we sound like a robot or a foreigner with a rudimentary grasp of the language.

Is it wrong to have dialogue in complete sentences? No. But usually it is ONE character who talks that way and it is an idiosyncratic trait particular to THAT character. Ie. Data from Star Trek or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.

#8 Avoid Punctuation Props

Avoid overusing exclamation points and ellipses. Again, if our dialogue is strong enough, readers will “get” when a character is yelling or pausing. Especially avoid being redundant with the punctuation and the tags.

“Get out of my house!” she yelled.

Really? No kidding.

And remember…that…when we use…a lot….of ellipses…we are being annoying….not…….dramatic.

(And ellipses are only THREE dots and in some cases four 😉 . Refer to Strunk & White or here is a lovely article from Grammar Girl.)

#9 NO “As You Know” Syndrome

I love David Mamet and I really love his Letter to the Writers of The Unit where he tears the writing team a new one. I love forwarding on his advice, because no one says it better and this is just as true for novels as it is for screenplays. I’ve included the best lines about dialogue:

Look at your log-lines. Any log line reading, “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” is NOT describing a dramatic scene.

Here are the danger signals. Anytime two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of s&%$. Any time any character is saying to another “AS YOU KNOW” that is, telling another character what you—the writer—need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of s&%$*. ~David Mamet

No brain-holding. We are in the drama business, not the information business.

Later we will talk about ways that we can use dialogue to convey character. What are your thoughts? Questions? Who are your favorite authors regarding dialogue? I adore Sue Grafton. Every one of her characters just leaps off the page. I love great dialogue and have been known to highlight it just to keep it. What about you? Or am I the only dialogue geek?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

Will announce August’s winner next time because I am still playing catch up.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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  1. #1 by Allan G. Smorra on September 10, 2015 - 9:54 am

    I am struggling with a bit of dialogue right now and this article gives me a few ideas on how to work out the dents. Elmore Leonard is my Top Dog for dialog. Ω

  2. #2 by Lynette Mirie on September 10, 2015 - 9:56 am

    Congratulations on being on the Writer’s Digest best websites list. And Spawn is a truly handsome boy, hope he does well in school. Very helpful dialogue advice, thanks for all you do.

  3. #3 by Kessie on September 10, 2015 - 9:57 am

    Great post! I’m always amazed at how badly new writers do dialogue. I mean, don’t they TALK?

    As for rap artists talking like museum curators … May I present Professor Elemental! http://youtu.be/0iRTB-FTMdk

  4. #4 by Russell J. Fellows on September 10, 2015 - 10:00 am

    Interesting. This makes sense, but not something I’ve really thought about when it comes to dialogue. I’ve heard other writers (here I go with the elusive “other writers”) say to use action tags for dialogue, because repeating “said, asked, replied, etc.” becomes a bit boring. However, it does make sense to not drag your dialogue down by creating unnecessary actions to accompany everything that is said. Good food for thought.

    • #5 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 10, 2015 - 10:20 am

      I would not use it as a tag. Just place the action after the sentence. ACTIONS are not tags.

      “You are impossible,” she slammed the door.

      It is just weird. Make it a sentence and then we have both dialogue and action and no rules have been broken😀 .

  5. #7 by foguth on September 10, 2015 - 10:02 am

    IMHO, it would be nice if #6 was a bit more common in dialogue … one neighbor always refers to his wife as ‘my wife’ … I’ve been listening for him to say her name for close to a year because I can’t recall it. I might need to admit faulty memory and ask.

  6. #8 by chesapklady on September 10, 2015 - 10:04 am

    I, too, am a dialogue geek. It is an (almost) effortless way of painting the details of the characters (and here I pause to recall a section of my WIP where three sisters are in dialogue, and I LOVE how clearly they are each identified.) *Pats self on back.* One of my most pet peeves is when a writer gives a line of dialogue and follows it with a long and convoluted action, all in the same sentence. YIKES!
    This was a GREAT post, Kristen! And congratulations on getting the spawn to kindergarten.

  7. #9 by nancysegovia on September 10, 2015 - 10:05 am

    A great blog. But I am confused. Here is a line the way I was taught to punctuate it:

    “Go for all I care, ” she said, turning toward the open door, “and make sure to close it permanently.”

    Or a more simple one:

    “Time for school,” she said, pointing toward the waiting bus.

    Correct or incorrect?

    In other words, I was taught there were two commas, i.e., one inside the quote, and always one after the words she said, he asked, etc. if there was continuing verbiage.

    Would you mind clarifying?

    Smiles, Nancy

    • #10 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 10, 2015 - 10:22 am

      That’s fine because you have “said.” I was cramming three mistakes into one😀 (no comma, no tag, using action as a tag). Again, go to Strunk and White for the details but it looks good to me. I didn’t go into ALL the ways we could punctuate dialogue because it would take too much space and even I have to look things up😀 .

    • #11 by Southpaw, HR Sinclair on September 10, 2015 - 10:27 am

      I think the way you have it is okay. The problem is when the action is used in place of a tag as in “Time for school,” she pointed toward the waiting bus.

      Just my guess.🙂

  8. #13 by fairygamaw on September 10, 2015 - 10:05 am

    I am guilty of the last one. I knew the whole things sounded fishy, but I still did the “as you know” thing, being sure I had to re-write that part. I thought I was the only one who did this…😛 Thanks!

  9. #14 by Kathryn Jane on September 10, 2015 - 10:05 am

    Reblogged this on Mystery and Romance and commented:
    Here’s a bonus for my “Self-Editing” workshoppers. A great blog by Kristen Lamb

  10. #15 by Tim Kimber on September 10, 2015 - 10:07 am

    I think Irvine Welsh would take umbrage with number four, ye ken?!

    • #16 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 10, 2015 - 10:25 am

      No idea. Never read his stuff. I know a handful of words spelled out in the accent are fine. But when I get dialogue I have to read aloud to even understand what the heck a character is saying? It’s irritating and outdated.

      • #17 by Tim Kimber on September 10, 2015 - 10:28 am

        In that case, don’t read any Irvine Welsh! I like it myself, gets me into the mind of the Scottish narrator. But it’s very much HIS style, and I agree you shouldn’t use it for the odd character here and there.

        Welsh would argue he’s writing in Scottish, come to think of it, which might be a different thing.

  11. #18 by nancysegovia on September 10, 2015 - 10:07 am

    Reblogged this on Faith and Reason Publishing and commented:
    For all you writers out there to cut down on your editing expenses

  12. #19 by Dave Withe on September 10, 2015 - 10:13 am

    Kristen,

    I have missed your “Spawn” reports and musings upon same. Reminds me of when our kids were that age. (kids of their own now.)

    Re: the main topic of your post;

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    (okay, I know… punctuation pop) 😉

    I’ve participated in several and run an online writers group; and I’m currently trying to participate in a face to face writers group at my church. (I’ve not had much good experience with face to face groups in the past). One of my pet peeves is that almost none of the aspiring writers has read the Tukey City Lexicon of tropes and gaffes; even the ones who have heard about it. (the Baen Bar expansion on it is worth checking out if you have time)

    Thank you for repeating the most important cautions from that foundational document. Maybe your readers will read it and take heed. IMHO this basic list you’ve put up this month contains some of the most violated writing paradigms among authors, both self published and even some name authors that’s I’m currently reading.

    I mean, I know some established authors tell a story well enough that even if their writing has become “trope city” they will still sell. Heck, I even keep buying them and I know what to expect. (suspending belief and editorial taste I guess). But, these things should not be, because newbies learn bad habits from them and I think it probably delays or blocks their breakthrough into successful writing.

    I am part of the “Christian Fiction for the Secular (ABA) Marketplace” gang of guerrilla writers so I feel that we need to be twice as good as the secularists just to get our work out there. So, I appreciate your work, a lot. I too am also a fan of Larry…

    I’ll be forwarding this email to my current writing group. …trying to get them all to join your mailing list.

    Keep up the good work, sis.

    SGD
    dave

    • #20 by Dave Withe on September 10, 2015 - 10:20 am

      Addenda:

      I noticed your reference to “Strunk and White”. The reviews I’ve seen from established authors suggest that S&W is quite impractical, mostly fluff. They recommended going right to the “Chicago Manual of Style”. I saw an online subscription service to that tome a few years ago. For serious writers it might be a good investment.

      dave

      • #21 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 10, 2015 - 10:27 am

        LOL! Okay, then…THAT! I just message my friends who are line-editors. I’m lazy😛

  13. #22 by Southpaw, HR Sinclair on September 10, 2015 - 10:18 am

    This line was beautiful: “… it is a red flag the author is green.”

    #6, I’ve heard that in conversation when two people are really ticked off at each other and trying not to explode! LOL

    Oh, one thing I have seen recently that bother me too is a lot of dashes in dialog–once or twice okay, but it’s the overuse thing that has driven me a bit batty.

    • #23 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 10, 2015 - 10:59 am

      Actually, you make an excellent point and I might use it when we talk about ways to use dialogue to convey emotion because YES, we DO use names when we are seething. And the names get LONGER😀 .

      I thought that line was cool, too. I didn’t even notice it until I was editing and was all, “That was actually kind of impressive word play” *gets cramp patting self on back*

  14. #24 by Cassandra Piat on September 10, 2015 - 10:22 am

    Great post. Thanks for that. I LOVE reading and writing dialogue and it always helps to refresh my memory on the to-dos and not-to-dos!

  15. #25 by Carrie Kwiatkowski on September 10, 2015 - 10:22 am

    I also have one going off to Kindergarten, so I understand the craziness around this time of year. Hope everything goes smoothly at Spawn’s new school. Thanks for the tips on dialogue. Luckily, I’m not making so many newbie mistakes now. Your blog has helped tremendously! Blog on! 😃

  16. #26 by Cassandra Piat on September 10, 2015 - 10:23 am

    I would reblog this on my blog but have no idea how to – there’s no reblog thing anywhere! I know I’m hopeless but all this social media stuff is super new to me😀

    • #27 by nancysegovia on September 10, 2015 - 10:32 am

      Down at the bottom of the page are a bunch of little icons. One says press this and it goes directly on your blog, the other says reblog this and allows you to chose which blog and add a title.

  17. #31 by Laura Irrgang on September 10, 2015 - 10:51 am

    I’m crazy about Gillian Flynn’s dialogue. And Master Spawn is pretty dang adorable in his fancy tie.

    • #32 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 10, 2015 - 10:54 am

      OOOO! Great choice and I totally agree. Love Gillian Flynn. And thanks. He IS super cute isn’t he? *blushes*

  18. #33 by Lauren Craig on September 10, 2015 - 11:15 am

    “Useless as ice trays in hell.” That’s fantastic and I may steal it from you.

  19. #34 by Dave Higgins on September 10, 2015 - 11:19 am

    One definition of snarl is to speak with anger, so characters can grammatically snarl dialogue instead of saying it. Whether it is better to replace snarl with showing the anger is a different matter, of course.

    • #35 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 10, 2015 - 11:27 am

      Grammatically it is correct, but I think it goes back to we are guilty of coaching the reader and being redundant. If we did a good job with the dialogue, the reader should hear the character “snarling” and if they don’t? We need to go back and strengthen the dialogue instead of propping it up with modifying words.

  20. #36 by sharonhughson on September 10, 2015 - 11:21 am

    I recently read a manuscript for one of my unpublished writer friends and her dialogue was so stilted it constantly kicked me out of the story. And she had a great mystery with interesting characters and twists, but I kept getting bogged down in every conversation.
    I think eavesdropping is a great way to learn a few quirky phrases that will help give characters a unique voice.
    And reading dialogue aloud – or having someone else read it aloud to you – is the best way to hear how clunky, and unlike actual people talking, it is.
    Thanks for this great post.

  21. #37 by laurieboris on September 10, 2015 - 11:39 am

    Spot on, Kristen. Aerobic dialogue tags irritate the holy heck out of me.

  22. #38 by Cat Mann on September 10, 2015 - 11:54 am

    You hit a home run with this one. You are dead on target with these points. Thanks for the great reminder. sharing this with all my writer friends.

  23. #39 by Jenn on September 10, 2015 - 12:02 pm

    Great post. I need all the help I can get when it comes to dialogue. But you mentioned some of my pet peeves as well.

    Your son is a cutie!

  24. #40 by swiveltam on September 10, 2015 - 12:15 pm

    Thank you. This has been an ongoing struggle. There are few words that I am unsure are dialogue tags or action beats.

    Like:
    paused
    hedged
    confronted
    argued
    countered

    I don’t use them a lot, but in a 100K novel I throw one in once in a long while. Sometimes said is just not enough and an action beat would slow the pacing in a scene. Just wondering what you thought of this.

    Your son is SOOOOO handsome! They grow up fast. My son is already in 8th grade! Go on EVERY field trip you can! I know sub, so I can be around my kids at school, too. Not to much hovering, it’s great to know their teaches and admins🙂 Best of luck to him in school.

    ~ Tam Francis ~
    http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com

  25. #41 by mitziflyte on September 10, 2015 - 12:27 pm

    Reblogged this on Mitzi Flyte and commented:
    Very good information —>reblogging.

  26. #42 by christawojo on September 10, 2015 - 12:45 pm

    This came just in time. I’m revising a new novella that must be in my editor’s hands by the weekend. I know I had some awful and redundant tags in there. I’m going to read through it again with this list in hand. Thanks so much!

  27. #43 by Madilyn Quinn on September 10, 2015 - 12:54 pm

    I tend to think and have gotten compliments on how I write dialogue, but you mention a few things I never thought of and likely need to improve upon, thanks!

  28. #44 by Vaughan on September 10, 2015 - 1:30 pm

    Great post. I love Matt de la Pena’s dialogue. Also, for Southern flair, Rick Bragg writes great dialogue.

  29. #45 by Betsy on September 10, 2015 - 1:45 pm

    “My goodness!” she gasped, “I believe… that I am guilty of a LOT of these.”😉

    • #46 by Betsy on September 10, 2015 - 1:45 pm

      P.S. reblogged to my writing group.

  30. #47 by Joy Pixley on September 10, 2015 - 2:25 pm

    Well said! We get some bad cases of #6 (using names) and #7 (complete sentences) in our writing group, and recently a practically fatal case of #4 (phonetically spelled out accents).

    One clarifying question on #2/#3: where do you stand on “whisper” as a dialogue tag? My group discussed this a while back, and we couldn’t agree. It seems as though using it as a dialogue tag is basically equivalent to using it as an action, e.g.:

    Sheila leaned in to whisper. “Don’t look now, but Joan just walked in.”

    “Don’t look now,” Sheila whispered, “but Joan just walked in.”

    I understand what you mean about hoping the dialogue gets the tone across on its own, but how do you communicate volume without outright saying it? Relying on just “leaning in” wouldn’t do it, because for all we know, Sheila is deliberately talking so loudly that Joan will hear.

    Your thoughts?

    • #48 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 10, 2015 - 2:51 pm

      If I were editing it, I wouldn’t have issue with “whisper(ed)” as a tag since it is essentially “said” just with volume. I think it wouldn’t be used much so should be fine either way you wrote it.

      • #49 by Joy Pixley on September 14, 2015 - 12:38 pm

        Thanks! (And not just for voting on my side of the debate.)

        I agree that it wouldn’t be used much. Once you establish that someone’s whispering, you shouldn’t have to mention volume again unless it changes drastically.

  31. #50 by Carole on September 10, 2015 - 2:41 pm

    I loved this article, many thanks. I don’t have an author blog, but I’m sharing it on my author FB page.
    I will keep my fingers crossed for the draw too. Thanks for the opportunity.

  32. #51 by Theo Fenraven on September 10, 2015 - 3:22 pm

    I’m an editor. I’ve said all this over and over to new writers. Thanks for putting it all in one place. From now on, I’ll simply send them here.🙂

  33. #52 by ariefarnam on September 10, 2015 - 3:30 pm

    Great list. Both the basics and the more comprehensive. There is obviously more to great dialogue but the rest of it is difficult to define and largely a matter of lots of practice. I may very occasionally use a more descriptive dialogue tag, but there is the cardinal rule: anything that distracts a beta reader gets nixed. I would also note the usefulness of beginning writers recording and transcribing a bit of actual dialogue. I learned to write good dialogue primarily by being a journalist back in the days of tape recorders and endless transcription. I transcribed hundreds of hours of dialogue over ten years. it doesn’t stop there because you do have to clean it up and tighten reality to make good dialogue, but we actually do quite a bit of that in journalism too. In fiction you do it a bit more but still the basic idea and tone of real dialogue remains the same.

  34. #53 by Jess Witkins on September 10, 2015 - 4:51 pm

    Aww, the little man looks so cute in his school clothes. Glad he’s loving it. I just heard a coworker talk about a similar private school her kids attend and her daughter is in a class of 7.

    I love these tips as many are pet peeves for me. I did recently read a good example of writing in an accent though (which I would normally not do, but in some cases, it could enhance the writing). Do you read Outlander? Diana Gabaldon includes a few gaelic words and occasionally writes some dialogue with the accent, but it’s subtle. I’m kind of obsessed with that series right now. #AllThingsRelateToOutlander #HowCanIBringUpOutlanderAgain LOL

    • #54 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 10, 2015 - 4:54 pm

      Yeah, I think I mentioned that in the list. If we add in a smattering of words spelled out in an accent that is totally fine. But I get selections from writers where it is ALL phonetic and I have to literally read it aloud to know what the heck is being said. THAT method is outdated. Sue Grafton writes out some of the words when writing an accent. For instance, when she had a character with a Boston accent certain words were spelled out and I HEARD Boston in my mind’s ear.

  35. #55 by Eric James-Olson on September 10, 2015 - 5:39 pm

    Great tips. I like unattributed dialogue whenever possible because its so “unassuming.” Another common error I’ve noticed is the use of an ellipse instead of the old em dash to show someone cutting off someone else.

  36. #56 by cuernavaca2015 on September 10, 2015 - 5:51 pm

    Wow, I just did a search in my MS for synonyms for ‘said.’ Thanks for the post. Also, it is my understanding that the use of a semicolon in written dialogue is a no-no.

  37. #57 by Deborah Makarios on September 10, 2015 - 6:47 pm

    Another annoying thing, especially when reading aloud, is when you get a whole section of conversation with no attribution/tag, so you have to stop and count rows to try to figure out who’s saying what!
    Authors whose dialogue I love: P.G. Wodehouse. He’s the classic example of how “just right” doesn’t always have to mean “succinct.”

  38. #58 by Heather O'Connor on September 10, 2015 - 8:11 pm

    Thanks, Kristen! Adorable photo of your little man!

    I’ve been editing my rough draft based on lessons learned from you in the (recent) past, but this did a great job of reinforcing the details in my mind. I have to say, I was reading a well known mystery author the other night and couldn’t get over how contrived and unnatural this author’s dialogue seemed. It blew my mind a little! I’m honestly debating about continuing to read the story, because I’m expecting the plot to be interesting, but the dialogue is really a distraction.

  39. #59 by Tamara LeBlanc on September 10, 2015 - 8:43 pm

    I find books with heavy dialogue to be the most compelling.
    I try my best as an author to write realistic conversations and convey emotions through what my characters say and how they say it.
    So I’m thrilled you offered this post today. So full of wonderfullness – great reminders, tips and useful advice!

    Have a wonderful evening and thanks so much for the wisdom🙂
    Tamara

  40. #60 by ontyrepassages on September 10, 2015 - 11:09 pm

    Loved this. Still, I have the strangest urge to have an entire story where every character snarls every line of dialog. Maybe if they were all werewolves? “Gee, Fred, that was kinda harsh cracking open George’s skull like that,” snarled Ralph. “As you know, Ralph, we werewolves can’t wait to get to the brains,” snarled Fred.😉

  41. #61 by drakes1 on September 11, 2015 - 2:07 am

    This is really useful Kristen, thank you! I am about to start work on the end of my novel so the editing process will begin shortly after. I am sure I am guilty of more than one or two of these. Thanks again, Mark.

  42. #62 by MacJoyful on September 11, 2015 - 2:10 am

    Reblogged this on Macjoyful's Minimal Musings and commented:
    From the blog post:
    “Dialogue is powerful for revealing character. This is as true in life as it is on the page. If people didn’t judge us based on how we speak, then business professionals would bother with Toastmasters, speaking coaches or vocabulary builders. I’d imagine few people who’d hire a brain surgeon who spoke like a rap musician and conversely, it would be tough to enjoy rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum.

    Our word choices are reflective of WHO we are. Dialogue can not only show age and gender. It can elucidate level of education, profession, personality, ego, wounds, insecurity, and on and on and on.”

  43. #63 by bevjan59 on September 11, 2015 - 8:35 am

    Wonderful article. I am so glad I found you through Theo Fenraven’s site. I hate punctuating dialogue, as I find it holds up my writing. I then try to go back and read out loud and then punctuate:/ Your ‘spawn’ is adorable🙂

  44. #64 by cynthiagrstacey on September 11, 2015 - 10:15 am

    Amazing article as usual! Thanks for the refresher. I’m off to check my editing again. lol🙂

  45. #65 by Katy Bug on September 11, 2015 - 10:50 am

    Thanks for the points! I do have some beef with numbers 2 and 3, though, because apparently I’m pretentious about these things. 😄 Please forgive me. I have a lot of feels when it comes to dialogue tags.

    Personally, as a reader, I don’t mind a few unique dialogue tags. Using them on every other line gets on my nerves and distracts me, but tossing them in for a specific effect about 5-10% of the time makes me sit up and pay attention to what a character is saying. It doesn’t feel insulting to me. It feels like a simple reminder. The reason for this is that I tend to fly right through what I’m reading and miss important details. I don’t mean that I’m a fast reader. I’m just an occasionally unengaged, robotic reader. I have trouble focusing, and I like that an author reminds my flighty little brain about what’s actually happening. Good dialogue tags help to keep me focused on the scene, and can be pretty streamlined when they’re used right, too. So, I honestly don’t mind it when an author writes “she spat” or something like that as a tag.

    Speaking of “spit!” To me, a person *can* spit words. I picture them pushing the words out with as much force as they would a loogey right at someone’s face. And, if you’ve ever been around a group of preteens, you probably learned right quick-like that words can be giggled or huffed.

  46. #66 by Lary Crews on September 11, 2015 - 11:12 am

    I’ve been a writer and writing teacher for 30 years and your post about dialog is one of the best I have ever seen. Well done.

  47. #68 by jkappwrites on September 11, 2015 - 11:16 am

    Reblogged this on make every word count.

  48. #69 by corruptcarolina on September 11, 2015 - 11:57 am

    Thank you for this post! As an editor, I now need to figure out how to point my writers here, without being too obvious. Incredibly helpful advice.

  49. #70 by Terry Gene, Author of Matryoschka Series on September 11, 2015 - 2:17 pm

    Fights Galore Kristen: #7 Do NOT Write Dialogue in Complete Sentences
    A fellow North Tx, metroplex writer of SciFi, I get complaints all the time that my dialog is NOT in complete sentences. Of the 5 local critique groups I’ve been to, all redline incomplete dialog sentences. Sigh, and I have three novels in development, all with that “failing.”
    cheers on Spawn, I’ve been following Spawn exploits for a couple of years. terry.gene@syzygy.org, matryoschka.com.

  50. #71 by Iola Goulton on September 11, 2015 - 8:52 pm

    It sounds as though Spawn suffers from TMD (Temporary Male Deafness). It means he can hear your whispered offer for a treat from 1000 paces, but can’t hear you ask him to tidy his room at an volume. Ever.

    Unfortunately, TMD is both hereditary (via the male line) and incurable. In adults, it manifests in an inability to hear babies or children crying (especially at night), and a denial that you ever asked them to empty the rubbish/put their socks in the hamper/put their dishes in the sink.

  51. #72 by Iola Goulton on September 11, 2015 - 8:54 pm

    P.S. Spawn looks really cute – I hope he loves school.

    And excellent blog post.

  52. #73 by ttateschevis on September 12, 2015 - 12:21 am

    Hi Kristy,
    This was a great blog as usual. When I started writing dialogue it was the funniest thing, when I look back, my main problem was that I wasn’t listening to my characters. My editor called me on this. He said, that my character Brian asked Mark a question, Mark never answered the question, before you went on. My mind was working faster than my fingers. He made me understand about listening skills. The most important thing with dialogue is listening to your characters. Otherwise, conversation doesn’t make sense. I needed to slow down take a minute and think to get my point across. It took a while and finally got it. I’ve been told now that my dialogue does stand strong on it’s own and doesn’t need so many tags.

    The biggest difficulty was conversation with more than two people, like a conversation at a dinner table, now you have to think harder, and make sure the conversation flows. I also liked when you wrote about, Quotation marks they are a huge factor in dialogue and it is tedious to correct. if they are not used correctly, it’s mind boggling.

  53. #74 by lonestarjake88 on September 12, 2015 - 8:33 am

    Thank for this article! You mentioned Strunk and White. Do you have any other resource recommendations for dialogue?

  54. #75 by lonestarjake88 on September 12, 2015 - 8:34 am

    Reblogged this on Lone Star Inspirations and commented:
    Kristen Lamb gives great insight into dialogue in this new article!

  55. #76 by Glynis Jolly on September 12, 2015 - 9:11 am

    Kristen, I don’t agree with #7. People do talk in complete sentences, not all the time but we do do it. (There really should be 2 do’s in that last sentence too.)

    • #77 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 14, 2015 - 10:22 am

      If you read closely, I say people DO talk in complete sentences, but it is an idiosyncrasy not a rule. If all our characters all speak in complete sentences there is no variegation and since they all sound alike, they become talking heads.

  56. #78 by Terry Gene, Author of Matryoschka Series on September 12, 2015 - 10:04 am

    Excellent copies of Strunk and White are online, and downloadable. FREE!

    • #79 by jorgekafkazar on September 14, 2015 - 9:08 pm

      Thanks! I like Strunk & White. There were a few academics who nit-picked S&W over a few years back. It’s still a good source. It’s easy to carry in hard copy and fast to read.

  57. #80 by Erica on September 12, 2015 - 3:22 pm

    Although I’ve read the rule before that you shouldn’t spell out accents it was nice to hear the reason why we don’t do that anymore explained in a way that made sense to a bookworm like me (who happens to think Moby Dick could be cut down by about 400 pages and be a much more enjoyable story. lol).

  58. #81 by Craig Faustus Buck on September 12, 2015 - 5:12 pm

    It’s sad that #1 is even worth noting. We all should have learned simple dialogue punctuation in middle school. I guess the schools leave punctuation up to Word auto-correct these days. The teaching of proper punctuation is someone’s else concern (good grammar, bad dialog).

    The topic of dialog fascinates me because I consider my own writing to be dialog-heavy and often wonder whether that’s due to my years as a TV writer. In screenwriting, dialog carries the story and illustrates character. Descriptions of background or action are brief and the details are left to other members of the filmmaking team to interpret. This brevity of description carries over to my prose, as it does in the work of many other screenwriters-turned authors, like Thomas Perry, Stephen J. Cannell, Gregg Hurwitz, April Smith or Lee Goldberg. It’s as if the reader is the set designer, the costume department, the stunt coordinator and so on. Perhaps former screenwriters use sparse details in prose not to paint a picture, but to to suggest a direction for the reader’s mental filmmaker. I guess it comes down to respecting readers enough to trust that they’ll catch the writer’s drift. Good dialog sweeps us along instead of leading us by the nose.

  59. #82 by katkent2014 on September 12, 2015 - 5:53 pm

    I love writing dialogue (could do so all day long); so important with character development and conflict. I was wondering, though, in a lot books I’ve read (past and present), dialoge is written with: “I will,” she said coldly. or: “Thank you,” he said cheerfully. And: “She doesn’t usually stay out this late,” her father said dryly. Coldly, cheerfully and dryly help to explain the character’s emotion at that moment. Kristen, is this still okay for writing dialogue in today’s accepted standards with publishers? Thank you

    Awesome pic of your son. He looks so excited to go to school. My daughter started high school this year (hard to believe) and she was super excited too. As parents, we certainly try to keep that positive enthusiasm going. Hugs, Kat Kent.

  60. #83 by katkent2014 on September 12, 2015 - 5:54 pm

    Reblogged this on writersback and commented:
    Awesome post by Kristen Lamb on dialogue.

  61. #84 by jtailele on September 13, 2015 - 7:35 am

    Reblogged this on Writing Under Fire and commented:
    Another great article. You zone in so quickly, and I love your wit. I share your advice to my our local writers’ group all the time. Hope that is okay. I always give you credit.

  62. #86 by Mari Adkins on September 13, 2015 - 12:07 pm

    thanks for existing!🙂

  63. #88 by gloriaoliver on September 13, 2015 - 12:37 pm

    Booyah! on the second half of #3. Normal tags get really boring after awhile – just finished doing a crit for our group where all that was used was the ‘said’ tags – those get boring. And so much more can be conveyed with body language and other tied in actions. Yay! *thumbsup!*

  64. #89 by cicampbell2013 on September 14, 2015 - 9:29 am

    Reblogged this on cicampbellblog and commented:
    Some good reminders here. It’s so easy to fall into bad habits with dialogue.
    I used to be bad for using ‘dialogue props’ (see#8) and I know it’s just lazy writing, so I have to discipline myself to make the actual dialogue strong enough to convey the tone.

  65. #90 by Lisa Ford on September 14, 2015 - 2:06 pm

    Unbelievably glad to have found your blog.

  66. #92 by Sheryl Fawcett on September 14, 2015 - 5:16 pm

    I used to have an internal battle writing dialogue other than in complete sentences. I could sense my high school English teacher standing over me, tapping the palm of her hand with a wooden ruler. (Did I just show my age?) I finally came to the conclusion she was teaching me technically correct English and not dialogue for the modern novel. Besides, how can one successfully break rules if you don’t know them in the first place?

    • #93 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 14, 2015 - 6:12 pm

      I have the same issue with contractions. I was a Political Science major and they nailed us for contractions in our papers (and there were MANY of those). I got out of the habit of using them and have to go back and put them in, even in this blog, LOL.

  67. #94 by jorgekafkazar on September 14, 2015 - 9:09 pm

    My favorite example of #3: “Get your hand off my knee,” she hissed.

  68. #95 by Amy Romine (@AmyJRomine) on September 14, 2015 - 9:44 pm

    Thanks for the recap of the logic behind dialog. It is logical right, when we try to make it more that is when we run into trouble🙂

  69. #96 by jwuollife on September 15, 2015 - 3:28 am

    Kristen, you always provide such informative blogs, I frequently hold on to them, for future use…..on an aside, what about a new novel “The Spawn That Ate Kindergarten” after all, we’ve had; King Kong, and Jaws, not forgetting Godzilla, and The Blob. Lol😀

  70. #97 by jlennidorner on September 15, 2015 - 6:41 am

    Useful tips, as always. Thank you.

    • #98 by jlennidorner on September 15, 2015 - 6:45 am

      (PS– Note that I wrote “Thank you,” instead of “Thank you, Kristen.” Working on undoing how I was raised, now that I know it was weird. You gave me that “glass-shattering moment” like in the show How I Met Your Mother. I just spent the whole weekend realizing how freaking strange my family is! That’s what I get for visiting. LOL.)

      • #99 by jlennidorner on September 15, 2015 - 12:59 pm

        One side of the family that never seems to stop using names when addressing people (or animals), and another side that NEVER uses them at all (or even knows them). I never fully appreciated what it must have been like for these two worlds to collide, for two people to fall in love and have a relationship with this kind of culture difference. Not that it’s the biggest mountain to overcome, but still, how strange that must have been. As a byproduct of that union, no wonder I’m so freaking weird and unable to fit in. But really, until you pointed it out, I never noticed how many of the characters in my head carry the voices of one side instead of the other. Neither side being actually normal. So much sociology here! I had no idea that I could ever learn THIS MUCH from one small observation. Thank you for being the river that opened to this ocean of knowledge.

  71. #100 by Nicki Edwards on September 15, 2015 - 5:21 pm

    Just found your blog and I’ll be back. What a fabulous article. My characters need more zing and I realize it needs to come across in their dialogue. Thanks.

  72. #101 by aurorajeanalexander on September 17, 2015 - 4:28 pm

    Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    This is an excellent and very useful blog post written by author and CEO of WANA International Kristen Lamb.

  73. #102 by joehefferon on September 23, 2015 - 11:11 am

    Two quick things:
    Many novice writers add way too much action in their dialogue. “Pass the salt,” said Tanya, as she smashed the crab with the wooden mallet provided by the cute waiter.
    “Sure,” Said Henry, as he observed Tanya checking out the waiter who was in the corner counting his tips.
    It slows down the conversation to a torturous pace.

    Second; in real life people speak in half sentences, incomplete thoughts, idioms and often respond to questions with a shrug or facial expression. They curse, snort, laugh, say ‘um’, elicit help from the other person to finish a thought. They interrupt each other, change the subject in mid-sentence or say, “ya know what I mean?” They say that because the other person does know.
    There are moments of silence—often meaningful. It’s the space between the notes that makes the music. A kid quietly pushing his food around on his plate is telling us something.
    Real dialogue, however, is difficult to read (try reading a court transcript) and tedious to write. That said, dialogue should be written as naturally as possible, then cleaned up to make it readable. Writing excellent dialogue is difficult. Work at it. Think about why your characters are having this conversation not about how you can use it as a clever device.

    “Keep writing,” he said, as he added his twitter handle (@hefferonjoe) and signed off to read another post by Kristen who, as you know, is a prolific and successful blogger.

  1. 9 Ways to Improve Your Dialogue | Nancy Segovia
  2. 9 Ways to Improve Your Dialogue | Blog of a College Writer
  3. Tips for Writing Dialogue | Laurie Boris
  4. 9 Ways to Improve Your Dialogue | JCU // Creative Writing Workshop
  5. Dos and Don’ts of Dialog | Theo Fenraven
  6. Mind Sieve 9/14/15 | Gloria Oliver
  7. Using Dialogue to Create Dimensional Characters | Kristen Lamb's Blog
  8. Top Picks Thursday 09-17-2015 | The Author Chronicles
  9. Links To Blog Posts on Writing – September 2015 | Anna Butler
  10. Monthly Mentions: September 2015 | Coolerbs Reviews

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