Category Archives: Publishing

Tips for Writing Dialogue

Dialogue – back-and-forth conversation between two or more people – is a vital component of most novels and short stories. You might also use dialogue in a nonfiction report, article, or book. Every writer should know how to write effective dialogue.

Here are some practical tips:

1.  Know your purpose:

  • background information
  • setting a mood
  • creating conflict between characters
  • advancing the plot
  • making your story sound real

2.  Make your dialogue easy to follow.

A full page of back-and-forth conversation may cause readers to forget who’s speaking. Attributions (“said Joe”) can help, or you can insert the name of the character being addressed (“Look, Joe, that’s never going to work”).

Another good strategy is to break up the dialogue (“Joe looked down at the floor”) and then start it up again.

3.  If other characters are present, find a way to work them into the dialogue.

Imagine that Joe and Mary have been arguing while Penny, their four-year-old, looks on in silence. Suddenly Penny jumps into the argument. Some of your readers are going to be puzzled – they forgot Penny was there.

Avoid confusion by breaking up the argument to remind readers that Penny is there. Penny could cry, gasp, argue back, climb onto Joe’s lap – anything to keep her in the scene and in view of your readers.

The golden rule of dialogue is to keep it natural – difficult to do because real-world conversation sounds awful if you write it down word-for-word.

Here are a few tips:

  • Use informal style (“don’t” instead of “do not,” “but” instead of “however”)
  • If you’re using dialogue to provide background, don’t overload your sentences with information (“I’m calling Jo, the baby-sitter we liked so much last month, so that we can celebrate our tenth anniversary, which many people thought would never happen because you and I are so different in temperament and upbringing”)
  • Use simple sentence style. An occasional colon, embedded clause, or list can work fine in dialogue. But if you overuse any of these, your dialogue will start to sound stilted and unbelievable.

Here’s some nuts-and-bolts information about punctuating dialogue:

  • In American punctuation, commas and periods belong inside quotation marks (there are no exceptions, at least in the US)
  • Start a new paragraph for each speaker
  • Thoughts belong in italics, with no quotation marks
  • If someone speaks for several paragraphs, use quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph. Save the closed quotation marks for when that speaker stops talking

And here’s the best advice of all: Read, read, read. See how skillful authors write and punctuate dialogue. You’ll learn a lot.


Revising Tips That Solve Common Problems

Even if you’re an excellent writer and a perfect grammarian, you can exasperate your readers without even realizing it. Here are some problems I see in published writing all the time, along with revising tips that solve the problems quickly and easily.

1.  Using an abbreviation without giving the full version the first time.

OK, everyone understands abbreviations like “USA” and “p.m.” But don’t assume that readers know other abbreviations just because they’re familiar to you. Spell them out the first time.

2.  Writing a lengthy dialogue without helping readers keep track of who’s speaking.

Insert a name occasionally [“Look, Jim, I partially agree with you. But….”], or use some other strategy to help readers follow the back-and-forth exchange. For example, you could interrupt the dialogue with a sentence or two of description and then begin again with the speaker’s name: Carol looked down at her hands. Then she slowly answered Julie’s question.

3.  Help readers keep track of the passage of time.

Like many people, I read in fits and starts. I don’t always remember that a chapter in a biography, say, mentioned the year as 1924 fifteen pages ago. Delete expressions like “later that year” or “a few months earlier.” Be specific: “later in 1962” or “in May 1947.”

4.  Use names, not pronouns, when several people are mentioned in a paragraph.

If two women are having an argument, the word “she” is useless. Name names.

5.  Reintroduce people when necessary.

Time and again I have to backtrack in a book or magazine article to figure out who “Joe” is. If there are many characters, and someone hasn’t been mentioned for several pages, reintroduce him or her.