Dialogue Don’ts

Dialogue is one of the most important aspects of your book to get right. Not only does it need to be realistic, but it also has the responsibility of advancing your plot and shaping your characters. With that in mind, here are a few don’ts to remember when crafting your dialogue.

Don’t Forget the Proper Punctuation

Dialogue needs to go within quote marks, and if your dialogue is followed by “said” (or “whispered”, “hissed” etc.) punctuate it with a comma. If it’s followed by an action (“moved”, “stood”, “closed the door”), use a full stop:

Let’s just go,” she said.
Let’s just go.” She rose from her seat.

Don’t Let It Turn Into a Monologue

Outside of specifically listening to someone giving a speech, when was the last time you had a conversation that was just totally one-sided? When people talk in real life, they get disrupted, either by something or by someone. Very rarely do you get the chance to talk on and on and on.

If your dialogue needs to get a lot of points across, consider how you can work it into the narrative instead, or turn it into a realistic back and forth conversation between characters. After all, it might be fun for the villain to reveal the genius of his plan in a well-rehearsed, page-long speech, but it’s much more fun for the hero—and reader—when that dialogue gets argued with or is cut short by action.

Don’t Forget to Read It Out Loud

Reading your dialogue out loud will give you the chance to assess if it sounds natural, where any pauses might need to be, and if it’s too wordy or awkward sounding. If it doesn’t sound like a conversation you’d overhear at a cafe, consider reworking, and if you know the best way to look as if you’re not listening to public conversations—when in fact you totally are—let me know. I’m asking for a friend.

Don’t Make It Too Natural

Just as you don’t want to make dialogue too formal, you also don’t want it to be too natural. By too natural I mean a conversation that is full of “Umms” and “Ahhs”. That might be as realistic as the speaker going off topic or forgetting what they were saying, but that doesn’t mean you have to write about it. Dialogue that is too true to life is frustrating to read. Hesitation and fumbles have their place when you’re giving the impression of a bumbling or lying character, but simply peppering every word that comes out of a character’s mouth as a stumble is laying it on too thick.

Don’t Dismiss Simple Tags

While it’s more exciting to write “she exclaimed” than “she said”, or “he gasped” instead of “he said”, cramming in as many different dialogue tags as you can is more amateurish than artistic. There’s nothing wrong with using the tried and true “said” to make it clear who is speaking, or “whispered”, “muttered”, “asked”, “replied” or “answered” on occasion. Using a different dialogue tag every chance you get, though, creates less impact than if you were to use one really great tag at the perfect point.

Don’t Drop Dialogue Tags All Together

On the other hand, if you’ve decided that instead of using “said”, you’ll just go without dialogue tags—you might want to rethink it. Trying to follow a conversation where there are no dialogue tags is annoying and can be confusing for the reader. Keep it to a minimum if you must, but make sure to have a tag in there somewhere, especially if the conversation is between more than two characters, it’s a long conversation, or there’s a lot of action happening in the scene.

Don’t Forget the Interaction

Not between characters, as this should be happening through the dialogue, but interaction with the world around them. If your characters are failing to acknowledge where they are or what they’re doing then you’re making it harder for your reader to picture what’s going on. Take the following examples…

Dialogue without setting interaction:
“The reservation was for eight,” Julia said.
“I had to make a stop,” Jack replied.

Without knowing the setting, this dialogue comes across as an angry Julia and a thoughtless Jack. Are they at a restaurant? Are they at home? Are they in the car coming home? Who knows?! Now for the same dialogue with a setting added…

Dialogue with setting interaction:
“The reservation was for eight,” Julia said, shifting in the cushioned chair as he slipped into the seat across from her.
“I had to make a stop,” Jack replied, putting the red box down on the wooden table and being careful not to disturb the expertly placed ribbon strapped on top.

Now we can clearly establish that they are in a restaurant, Jack is late, and that he comes across as sympathetic and not full of excuses when he places his wrapped gift down on the table. Setting interaction with your dialogue—it makes a difference.

Don’t Skimp On Making it Unique

Once your reader knows your characters, they should be able to tell who is speaking simply by looking at the dialogue. You achieve this by making the dialogue unique to each character. That doesn’t mean giving everyone a different accent (unless your plot calls for it) but rather something more subtle, such as a specific character always greeting others with a “Hey.” Or another being the only one in the story to use the word “Awesome.” Giving each character a dialogue quirk specific to them will go a long way to making sure that none of your characters sound the same.

If you have any of your own dialogue don’ts, be sure to leave them in the comments.

— K.M. Allan

15 thoughts on “Dialogue Don’ts

  1. One habit is having characters name each other in dialogue. “You look great, Mary.” “Thank you, John.” “Let’s go for a walk, Mary.” “Great idea, John.” No one talks like that. Reading dialogue aloud would be the best way to spot this. On the other hand, one might have a character who does this, but it should be a quirky thing unique to that person.

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  2. I never have DON’TS – I don’t believe in them ahahahh – but I have written a lot of your don’ts into my dialogues with very specific reasons. In series The Preternaturals I was told off by a reader because the characters all sounded alike. It was intentional, but sadly I cannot convey the intentionality of it unless I go around telling readers, there’s this group of vampires who have been living together for so many centuries they all sound similar, having the same speech quirks and cadences, using the same expressions – if someone says this doesn’t happen, I will gladly revert them to me and my hubby who people say sound like siblings because we speak alike. Or me and my sister, despite years of living in different countries still sound alike in our speech to the point of family members who talk to us on the phone sometimes get mixed up who they’re talking to, even our mother. But somehow, this is supposed to be irrealistic and still a no no in dialogue. Also, I have dialogues that turn into monologues because a character is telling another their life story. And I do mean their life story, in a sense that it is very important to the plot that this character tells the story of his or her life. Sure, here and there the dialogue is interrupted by the other character on the listening end, but it does go on for pages with only one character speaking. Was also told off for this, but I went and guess what? Did it again in another novel. And I can remeber a few novels by acclaimed authors where things like these happen and they’re at the top of my fave novels. I guess I have a problem here, I do not write as audiences like reading, Ido not write as market asks for, but I do write with my own style and in a way I like, even if it’s filled with don’ts and not complying to the rules of good writing. Point is, to me this is all very subjective, nowadays markets look for a certain type of writing, twenty years ago they wanted something different. It’s ciclical and ever changing, so I stick to my own personal style. Even if it is wrong ehehehh.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Ruth. I totally understand what you’re saying. Rules are very subjective, and it’s true that the writing style that is in right now might not be the style in a few years time. I love what you’ve said about writing how you want because I think that’s the number one rule to writing well. You should be writing what you love and creating your story how you see fit. I personally think that if you, as the author, are happy with the story then that’s all that matters.


  3. Love this post!
    I always find that, especially in first drafts, I write pages and pages of conversation with no other forms of description for setting, body language or inner thoughts. Woops!
    WIll refer back to this during my editing. Advice from someone who has gone through / is going through edits themself is super helpful!

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  4. Great advice, as usual! Reading dialogue outloud is invaluable! I remember a professor giving me that advice in school and it changed the game entirely. I’ve also found that having someone else read it out loud for you helps a LOT, as well.

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