How to write good dialogue

Whether I am doing a developmental edit or a copy-edit for a client, one of the things I end up editing the most is dialogue. It’s a huge part of every novel, and it has to be done just right – otherwise, your reader might very well put your book down.

This blog covers all the techniques and methods I share with my clients to help them write convincing, captivating dialogue. If you’re struggling to make your characters sound believable or you find that your dialogue feels a little ‘flat’, these tips should really help you.

The purpose of dialogue in fiction

This might seem like a redundant question, but hear me out. Too often, I see dialogue that really should not be in the manuscript at all. It kills the narrative tension and detracts from the manuscript’s other qualities, such as cool characters and epic plots.

Dialogue should achieve two key goals:

  1. advance the plot(s)
  2. develop characterisation

And because I often edit fantasy fiction, I’m going to throw in a bonus goal

3. world-building

Additionally, your dialogue should always be informed by your characters’ voice (how they talk), their emotional state and their intentions (or motive).

If your dialogue doesn’t tell us anything about voice, character feelings or motives, it might not be working hard enough. This often feels like ‘filler’ dialogue; things like characters greeting each other or going over mundanities that are common in real life but very dull to read about in fiction. Cut these out and cut to the chase.

This passage from Jessica Wood’s Tales of Undersea: Traitor’s Revenge illustrates these principles perfectly:

“Where have you been? Haven’t you seen how dangerous the streets are today?” Alethea asked.

“I’m allowed to spend my share, aren’t I?” Marina said in the sulky voice she saved only for her mother, refusing to look at her.

“You went out on your own when I told you not to?”

“I wasn’t alone. Ling was with me.”

“Yes, I was with her, Captain. Nothing happened,” Ling said.

Alethea opened her mouth to argue then shut it again. She supposed that technically she hadn’t disobeyed her orders.

“I let my own son out in Atlantis on his own,” Kei said, tapping Ling’s shoulder. She bore a much closer resemblance to her own son than Alethea did to her daughter. “So why are you so worried about letting Marina do the same?”

“Well, you weren’t wasting your money on sweets again, were you?” Alethea asked instead.

“I can spend my share on whatever I want!” Marina growled, thrusting something into Alethea’s chest. “I wasn’t even buying sweets. I bought this.”

Leif Erikson and the Golden Sea,” Alethea read the book’s title, looking over the cover illustration depicting Leif Erikson standing on the shore of a newly-discovered island, no doubt how he’d looked when he’d discovered Vinland. “This was your father’s favourite book, too.”

“Really?” Marina said, her voice softening and her eyes widening slightly in the way they always did when she heard stories about her father.

Every day she came closer to adulthood, she resembled her father more, Alethea always thought. Yet it also made her sad, knowing that Robert had died not even knowing that he’d had a daughter.

He’d only been a few years older than Marina when the incident with the crocodile monster had happened. The time they’d been betrayed.

“Yes. We didn’t think much of the opera version, though. The Vikings of Vyborg is much better.”

“I’ll bet it’s not that bad,” Marina said, taking the book back a little too forcefully.

“Well, someday you can go see it with your own boyfriend and decide for yourself.”

“What makes you think I want a boyfriend?” Marina’s head snapped up and her eyes turned a venomous green.

Let’s examine how this passage serves to advance the plot, characterisation and even world-building:

  • The characters are Pirates in a fictional place called Undersea, where an underwater city called Atlantis has been built. We’re told that Marina, Alethea’s daughter, wants to spend her share – that is, her share of plunder. (world-building)
  • She’s also used that share to buy a book, which leads her mother to tell us about another one and an opera (world-building). We get a lot of information here about the culture of this world.
  • We know that the relationship between mother and daughter is tense because of how they speak to one another (their voice is clear!). Marina growls and sulks, Alethea is quick to check her behaviour and tell her off. But we also know that Marina’s father is a touchy subject: her voice softens when she mentions him. This is characterisation.
  • Marina’s cagey about future boyfriends – maybe she wants her independence, maybe she’s not into boys? We get a hint of her intentions.
  • Lastly, Marina was out in the streets of Atlantis when she wasn’t supposed to be; it’s dangerous, says her mother. What’s out there that’s dangerous? If you’ve read the start of the novel, you know, but this also hints that there is danger to come (plot).

Dialogue tags and action beats

Many characters are going to speak in your novel, so you have to make sure the reader knows who is saying what. That’s what dialogue tags are for.

A dialogue tag is ‘he/she/they said’ in its most basic form. Many writers, when they start out, seem to think that ‘said’ is boring and must be avoided at all costs. That’s not true! While you don’t want dozens of ‘saids’ all over the page, you also don’t want to try too hard to use alternative tags – it will look obvious and distract from the narrative.

There’s no need to get into dialogue tag acrobats and show off your vocabulary. Using tags like ‘they intoned’, ‘she breathed’, ‘he enthused’ will weary the reader. Simplicity is best. ‘Said’ is best.

Beware non-speech dialogue tags as well. Can your character really gasp while speaking? No, and it’s not a dialogue tag. (You can pant, though.) Smiled, laughed, chuckled, grinned, etc. are not dialogue tags – but they are action beats.

An action beat is a piece of description that comes before, in the middle of, or after a piece of dialogue. It gives some insight into the characters’ emotions, intentions and movements, and helps vary the structure and pace of dialogue to avoid a ping-pong format where you just bounce between lines of dialogue.

To illustrate the difference between an action beat and a dialogue tag, here’s another passage from Traitor’s Revenge:

“Alethea? Alethea, come on!” Kei’s voice came over the shortwave, breaking her out of her shock. (Dialogue tag, followed by a bit of description.) “We have to leave now. What’s wrong with you?”

“Sorry. I’m coming,” Alethea replied before turning and swimming back to the Barracuda. She almost couldn’t find the submarine, for her mind was in too much of a haze. (Action beat describing her intention and emotional state.)

You don’t always have to add a dialogue tag or action beat; if it’s clear who is talking, you don’t have to be extra obvious about it. You can switch between dialogue tags and action beats to make the dialogue flow more interesting, too.

Formatting dialogue

Lastly, it’s important to format your dialogue correctly. Punctuation is a guide for your reader just as road signs are there to guide road users: it ensures a smooth reading experience without interruptions or confusion.

I have seen some pretty creative dialogue punctuation in my time, so let’s look at another example from Traitor’s Revenge to show you how it’s done properly:

“Didn’t I tell you this would be worth it?” Alethea said, beaming over the spread of Viking artefacts laid out on the meeting room table – torcs, coins, axes, and all manner of other Viking things.

“They don’t look all that valuable,” Marina said as she picked the seaweed off a half-worn helmet.

“That’s just because they’ve been underwater for so long. They’ll look better once we clean them off. So, how much are they worth, Kesä?”

The accountant frowned. “These are not Leif Erikson’s things,” she said.

“They’re not?” Alethea said, her face falling. “But everybody says that’s his ship.”

In short, here are the basic rules for dialogue formatting and punctuation (in UK English!):

  • You can use either single or double quote marks, but keep it consistent. In UK English, it’ s typical to use single quote marks, then double inside single (in case a character is quoting someone else in their dialogue).
  • Question and exclamation points should be inside the quote marks, not at the end of your dialogue tag.
  • Commas separate dialogue from their corresponding dialogue tag, and they go inside the quote mark.
  • Action beats are separated from the dialogue with full stops, not commas.
  • It’s best practice to place your dialogue tag close to the start of dialogue, rather than at the end of a long paragraph of dialogue, to make it clear who is speaking.

And there you have it – that’s how you write good dialogue!

If those snippets of dialogue have whetted your appetite for a steampunk pirate adventure, dive into Traitor’s Revenge by Jessica Wood.

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