The Good, the Bad, and the Clunky - Tips on Writing Dialogue - guest post by @SaraRauch


AS A VORACIOUS reader, an editor, and a book reviewer, something that often jumps out to me is bad dialogue—even some very well-written books and stories contain it. Though a few snippets of badly written dialogue won’t break an otherwise good piece of writing, it will certainly stick out like a sore thumb. And, if your book is riddled with bad dialogue, it will make it very hard to get through.


Guest Poster

Writer, editor of Cactus Heart Literary Magazine, and book reviewer. She’s been published in numerous literary journals, in anthologies, and online.


Cactus Heart Press

After so many years of reading, and many of writing, I’ve realized that there are some rules about dialogue. Rules more helpful than listen to how real people converse with one another. I’ll be the first to admit that listening is the first step, but there’s more to it. And while I think listening to everyday conversations is a valuable piece of advice, dialogue in stories has other rules and uses.

Here are four don’ts:

1. Don't use dialogue solely to tell your story.

Writers often do this because of the old adage “show, don’t tell,” but it’s a big mistake (not to mention, it’s still telling rather than showing). Here’s why: most readers skim dialogue (the way most people only half-listen when others talk). You can use dialogue to advance your story, but never reveal your entire plot that way. You’ll lose readers very quickly. Not to mention, if you’re using dialogue to tell your story, you’re going to end up with big long sentences that probably sound nothing like what a normal person would say.

2. Don't speak in long sentences.

Why? Because nobody likes them. Think about the last conversation you had. Did you drone on for five minutes? If you did, could you see the drool forming on the other person’s lips? Long sentences are boring in real conversation and downright deadly in prose.

3. Don’t use dialogue just to show your characters are “real.”

Avoid Hellos, How are yous?, I have to use the bathroom, What would you like to eat? Goodbyes, and other filler dialogue. Yes, life is full of this. But it is so boring to read on the page. It brings nothing of value, unless a character is excusing herself to the restroom so your other characters can talk about something they couldn’t talk about otherwise. Use these mundane snippets of conversation sparingly, if at all.

4. Don't use action verbs and excessive punctuation.

“He said, she said,” or if posing a question, “he asked, she asked,” are fine most of the time. If you have to use action verbs to explain your dialogue: “she opined, he asserted, we screamed” or if you have to include exclamation marks and interrobangs all over the place, you’re not doing your job as writer. If Mary is screaming, we should know it from her words (body language is helpful sometimes, but use it sparingly), not because you tacked “she screamed” onto the end of her sentence.

And here are five dos:

1. Consider rhythm.

If you’re a prose writer who has never read poetry, I urge you to go read some. Poetry, like music, knows a ton about rhythm. And dialogue, when you listen closely, is very rhythmic. The words we choose and the way we choose to speak them can say a lot about us. Consider those people you know who have a hypnotic effect when they speak. It may be the sound or tone of their voice that is mellifluous, but if you dig deeper, you’ll also find it’s the rhythm with which they speak—they know where to emphasize words and where to add the appropriate amount of space between words.

Now think of someone who makes you nervous when they speak. Mostly likely they rush their words out, with a jarring lack of rhythm. Or someone who annoys you when they speak. Maybe that person has a squeaky voice, but often enough they also speak in clipped little words; each word, no matter how long, given the same amount of space in a sentence. If you think about each character who speaks in any given story, you should know as you’re writing how this person would sound in real life. This simple exercise of considering rhythm will make a big impact on what your characters say.

2. Leave the dots unconnected.

Bad dialogue leaves nothing to be said and nothing to the imagination. “’Do you like pie?’ James asked. ‘Yes, I like pie,’ Sue answered.” Setting up questions to be answered is boring and will leave little leeway for mystery or possibility or even reality. The best dialogue rarely connects all the dots – it’s staggered and somewhat haphazard. It takes off in one direction before swooping back in later, answering or responding to an original idea, but now full of a deeper understanding of the characters, the setting, the plot, or something else. Allow your characters to ruminate a little bit, especially in the first drafts. You can always trim excess dialogue later, and keep the interesting and pertinent bits.

3. Examine emphasis.

Figure out where your emphasis is – like words, sentences often have an emphasis. Consider: “’She baked the bread,’ Marie said.” This short (and sweet) sentence is telling the reader a fact, but knowing where the emphasis is will give it depth. Is Marie referring to her hateful step-mother? Or her new friend? Is Marie an apprentice at a bakery? Is Marie starving and attempting to hint to someone to cut the bread so she can have a slice? Knowing where the emphasis is in each snippet of dialogue will transform the way you write dialogue. When you consider emphasis, you are considering why the characters are talking about something, and dialogue can be a great opportunity to reveal personality, setting, backstory, etc.

4. Use short sentences.

It’s not sage advice for nothing: go sit in a public place and listen to how people speak to one another. Perhaps it’s a sign of our times, but most people use short sentences. Our attention spans are short, especially for verbal communication! Reflect this in your dialogue and your readers will love you for it.

5. Skip names.

Leave names out of your dialogue unless your characters are just meeting or they’re fighting. In real life, the use of someone’s name in a sentence usually indicates an unfamiliarity with the other person or an argument. One exception to this rule: nicknames. The use of nicknames indicates a certain relationship between characters, and can sometimes show something about the person to whom the nickname belongs. Still, when using nicknames within dialogue, be careful not to overdo it.