Friday, November 1, 2019

Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Dialogue

by Kathleen Neely @NeelyKneely3628

Dialogue is as crucial to a novel as conversation at the dinner table. Without it, both are lifeless. However, conversation comes much easier than well-written dialogue. My tips are far from an exhaustive list and tend to be ambiguous. That’s because the rules aren’t hard and fast. 

Using dialogue tags: 
I was told to avoid dialogue tags. Period. That would be good advice if it weren’t so definitive. I prefer a more ambivalent rule. Keep dialogue tags to a minimum. Dialogue tags (he said, she answered, I replied) detract from deep point of view. We want to keep the author out of the story as much as possible. So how do I let my reader know who’s speaking? There are a few effective ways to accomplish that while avoiding those unwanted tags.  
  • Use action beats before the character speaks. 
Instead of—James asked, “How old are you, son?” 
Use an action beat—James placed a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “How old are you, son?” 
  • Allow internal thoughts to replace dialogue tags. 
Instead of—Charlotte pleaded, “All of the kids are going. Why can’t I go too?” 
Use an internal thought—An image of Ezra’s face came to Charlotte. Her mother had to allow her to go. “All of the kids are going. Why can’t I go too?” 

On those occasions where a dialogue tag works best, avoid being creative. The simple He said is probably better than he uttered, he declared, he stated. They sound unnatural. Actually, they sound like you searched for a word to replace said. If you keep those tags to a minimum, said works just fine. 

Avoid adverbs to enhance your tags. He asked inquisitively. She answered snidely. If there’s a need to elaborate, make sure it’s not redundant and don’t add it to a tag. It draws unwanted attention to something that editors and publishers may see as a negative. Try elaborating with body language. 

Dialogue to advance plot:
When characters talk, it should always be a means to advance your story. It’s powerful when used in conflict. Frankly, those scenes aren’t difficult to write. They can hardly wait to jump from your head to your paper. But even non-conflictual conversation should move the storyline. We can use it to show growing relationships between friends and lovers, deep-seeded jealousy or admiration. It may have a touch of humor or a covert cynicism. Those conversations build characters, and well-developed characters advance your plot.  

Character Voice: 
Now let’s talk about voice. Not your voice as a writer, but your character’s voice. One of the hard, fast early rules that writers learn is ‘show, don’t tell’. We do that in a myriad of ways, but dialogue is a great tool to assist in that task. It allows readers to know the character on a deeper level. The following passage from The Least of These includes dialogue from Stella, spoken to Scott. 

“Scott. Look at me.” She touched my hands to move them from my face. “Look at me. You were fifteen years old. You were a child—a child placed in a terrible situation. You’d lost the intimacy with your brother, the only person you’d ever had a relationship with. You had a domineering father and an absent mother. Don’t carry this burden of guilt. It’s not yours. Put it where it belongs. Your brother made bad choices. Your parents didn’t parent well. A fifteen-year-old kid can’t be expected to handle the gravity of that situation.”

If you didn’t know Stella before, this passage would give you a glimpse of her wisdom and compassion. 

Dialect is another element of character voice. Writing dialect is not for the faint of heart. It’s tough. I’ve done it a few times. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. The following passage from The Street Singer is an example of character voice in dialect.  

“Well, Miz Tizzie sent me away, said she couldn’t have no sprite of a girl singing with a big old baby showing ready to come.” Adda held onto the envelope and continued. “That ended my singing for money. When my birthing time started, Mama and another sharecropper’s wife who done some midwifing were there. She sent everyone else away, which weren’t too many, ’cause by now, just me, Minny, and Rosa lived at home.

“The midwife lady told Mama I’d be having trouble cause of being so little. We didn’t have no doctoring money, so they done the best they could. My little one took a long time coming. It took two days, and I know Mama thought I was gonna see my reward in heaven, but then he came. He was so tiny and curled his little fists up tight. When they laid him in my arms, he cradled against me just purring like a barn kitten.” 

I chose this passage because it has two elements I hoped to share. The first and obvious, is the use of dialect. But did you notice how you can weave backstory into your dialogue? It’s less laborious than those dry passages of information you need to somehow communicate to your readers.  

When you finish a passage, always read it aloud. Does it sound authentic? Is the speech natural? Reading aloud enables you to catch problems. 

These are just a few thoughts. If you have tips for writing dialogue, I’d love to hear from you. 

Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Dialogue - @NeelyKneely3628 on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Kathleen Neely has been a teacher, a principal, and an award-winning author. She currently has three novels available through Harbourlight, an imprint of Pelican Book Group, and numerous devotions on She is a member of Association of Christian Fiction Writers. She and her husband reside in South Carolina. When she’s not writing, she travels frequently to Pennsylvania, Florida, and any Carolina beach to spend time with family. You can connect with her on her website at


  1. Thank you for the great tips Ms. Kathleen. Am assuming the same rules apply for nonfiction dialogue ma'am. Am saving a copy for future reference.

  2. Thank you, Kathleen. I learned so much from your article.
    As a non-native English speaker, writing dialogue is one area I struggle the most.

  3. THank you, Kathleen, very helpful indeed. I love to include dialogue in my non-fiction pieces and am always looking for tips on how to make it more authentic.