The Do’s and Don’ts of Dialogue

It seems that the more current fiction I read these days the more dialogue I am seeing in the text.  As a matter of fact, most novels written today are heavy on the dialogue and lighter on the long paragraphs of detailed description.

Dialogue is a tool used to further the action, to give us a sense of characterization and to ultimately drive the story along.

The problem is that some indie writers either do not understand the rules for writing dialogue or want to make up their own.  The only writer ever to change the conventions of dialogue in prose was James Joyce (indicating dialogue with dashes) and even he followed the following rules.

Do’s:

  1. Proper Quotation Marks – Dialogue is set off with quotation marks (“), not single marks, unless the character speaking is quoting someone else.
  2. Punctuation – If the sentence of dialogue is divided by a descriptor (i.e. said Bill as he stirred his soup), the writer must end any dialogue before the descriptor with a comma and then a quotation mark.  If the character is making a speech that requires another paragraph, quotation marks are not needed until the speech ends, but each new paragraph has to have quotation marks at the start where it is indented.
  3. Grammar – It is not necessary to use perfect grammar when illustrating speech because most people do not speak perfect grammar all the time.  It should depend on the education level and cultural background of the speaking character.
  4. Action – Any dialogue should not be filler and should drive the story forward.  Cut out any dialogue that does not achieve this purpose.

Don’ts:

  1. Describing Action – Do not describe what the character is doing right before that character’s dialogue begins.  It often leads to telling instead of showing.  Descriptors should be sprinkled throughout the dialogue in order to avoid the appearance of a couple of talking heads where no description is used at all.  I’ve read books where the dialogue is uninterrupted by any action for pages and pages.  I want to know what the characters are doing while they are talking, but balance must be achieved.  Let the tone of the dialogue denote emotion and meaning.
  2. Dialogue Within Paragraphs – One of the most annoying things that amateur writers do is place dialogue in the middle of a huge paragraph without giving each new speaker their own paragraph.  When writers don’t follow this simple convention they run the risk of confusing the reader so that they don’t know who is speaking.
  3. Flat Dialogue – Some writers simply do not have the talent to illustrate normal every day speech.  This comes with practice.  Writers must observe actual speech in order to illustrate actual speech in their writing.  The best way to do this is either watch some good television with great acting or sit around in a diner or other public place and observe people.  Another problem within this category is dialogue that is not specific for each character where all characters sound like the same person.  Each of our characters must have their own voice.

If you have any more suggestions about writing good dialogue or want to vent about problems that you have writing good conversation, please post below.

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10 thoughts on “The Do’s and Don’ts of Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Crafting Believable Dialog | NaNoLansing

  2. This is the big problem when I am searching for writing advice in my second language. I am a native spanish speaker and as you said Joyce did in my language is “the rule”, I remember when I read my first english book, I was very confused because in the dialogue they always start with a quotation mark instead of a dash. I wonder why is not the same in all the languages or if even, I don’t know, in German is the same as english or spanish.

    • Good point, Robinson. I think it should be universal. However, as you know in Spanish an exclamation point is sometimes inverted in front of certain words, and then there is the tilde and other punctuation. I suppose a quotation mark surrounding dialogue is a standard in English.

      • I understand clearly what you are trying to say. But that is grammar for the spanish language, a “universal rule”. As Montesquieu would say: “everything in this world has its laws”, well, I happen to think that is the same for this, but aparrently the book “universe” does not recognize this for all the languages. For example, when in spanish you need another paragraph to put more dialogue, there you put a quotation mark instead a dash.

        Well, in conclusion: your article was very helpful for me, I’m trying to make my way to be a better writer in english. =)

  3. Most of this I knew already, but the double quotation marks surprised me. I always thought it was just a matter of choice, so I use the single version. Is it really that important?

  4. Misplaced or lost quote marks are among the most common typos I see. Sometimes I’m reading along and then wondering why the narrative became so conversational. Then I see the close quote and realize the writer dropped the open quote.

    One of the keys to good dialog is character motivation. If the character is there merely to serve the plot and lacks dimension, then he is merely spouting exposition. It won’t read as natural. Even minor characters have wants and emotions and fears. While those attributes are not always explicit in the written story, we as writers should understand them so the things our supporting characters say and do have meaning and are believable.

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