Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 3, 2014

10 Dialogue Tips To Make Your Novel Shine

Dialogue_PhotopinBy Shannon Donnelly

Great dialogue can make or break a novel.

This view may stem from growing up watching a lot of 1930’s screwball comedies. Zingers fly with rapid fire and everyone talks. A lot. But the importance of dialogue really sank in when I wrote A Proper Mistress. I went for a lot of dialogue in that book and it went on to be one of my best selling romances.

We all know great dialogue when we read it—and the best dialogue seems effortless. But good dialogue takes work, sometimes needing multiple edits and thinking it over and totally revising a scene. It also takes a few key ingredients.

1) Give Your Characters Unique Voices.

Can you tell who is talking without any tags to make this obvious?

You have to get your characters talking in order to find their voices. And each character needs a distinct voice.

That means some folks use contractions, some don’t. Some have specific phrases they like, some use colorful slang, some swear. Some characters show up right away, and others are shy.

In the Regency, Proper Conduct, I didn’t get the heroine’s voice until about page one hundred! Once I had it, I had to go back and revise the first hundred pages to put her voice back in as it should be. Before that, it was just putting in any old dialogue and faking it (you can do that in early drafts).

2) Make Your Dialogue Better Than Reality.

Readers do not want chit-chat. We get plenty of that in real life. Fiction has to be better—that means bigger, too.

You need to dramatize without going over the top to melodrama, or if you go over the top, pull it back. Study movies with great dialogue.

Study the dialogue of your favorite writers. Take the dialogue apart and see what it is you love—and use that in your own writing.

3) Layer Meaning.

Subtext is where we say one thing but mean another. There’s more going than is readily apparent.

A wife may say: “Darling, do you think we should paint the kitchen?”

But she really means, “I’m tired of living in a pig stye and I’m one step away from killing you with the butcher knife.”

  • Let your characters avoid answering questions
  • Change topics, and let them meander.
  • Above all know how each character lies to themselves and to others. And trust your reader to be smart enough to pick up on the subtext.

4) Beware Accents, Ye Olde English, and Slang.

Watch these, and make sure you opt for clarity over everything else. This is where a reader can help you find out if you have just enough, or too much and need to pull back, or not enough flavor.

One to many “mayhaps” can throw me right out of a story. Same goes for cliché Scottish accents. When in doubt, go for telling the reader, “She had a lovely Scottish burr.” And leave it at that.

Do your research for local dialect and slang. A guy from Georgia will swear differently from a Jersey girl. Nail this. There are readers who know these things.

5) Overthinking Internal Dialogue.

 Remember to give great lines to your characters to “say” (not just to think).

Internal dialogue can be a wonderful thing. Writers like Mary Balogh are masters at it. But a lot of thinking can slow your story’s pace, particularly if a character thinks and thinks and thinks about the same thing. Know the type of story you’re writing and what works best for your characters and your story.

6) Make your Tags Invisible.

 Don’t trip a reader with awkward tags that clunk. Things like “he shouted miserably” and “she wailed” need cutting. This is a sure sign you’re trying to prop up weak dialogue with tags that hit the reader over the head.

Instead make the dialogue stronger. Or give your characters stronger actions. Show your characters expressing emotion through their words and actions.

7) Give every named character a star turn.

 Too often characters are put in the story just to make the plot work. Turn this around. Think about how every character can have a wonderful moment in the story.

In A Proper Mistress the hero’s dad gets a terrific little speech to give his son after the hero has lost his girl—dad doesn’t want his son to make the same mistake he did. In Burn Baby Burn, a secondary character, Marion, gets to verbally kick the heroine’s ass to get her head straight that her working partner needs to be something more. These star turns round out the characters and make the overall story stronger.

8) Use Clean Punctuation.

Commas go inside quote marks and are used when the tag is part of the same sentence (action modifies the dialogue). He said, “I know how to use a comma.” And not: He said. “I know how to use a comma.”

Put in a period when the action is its own sentence. He gave a sigh. “I wish more folks knew how to use commas.” And not: He gave a sigh, “I wish more folks knew how to use commas.”

Cut the double punctuation!? It’s the mark of a writer who is still learning. And get a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style so you know exactly how to write dialogue and internal dialogue so the reader gets into the story instead of being stopped by clumsy writing techniques.

9) Punch it!

 This is more than dramatizing—this is going for great lines. Let your characters express their emotions in words. Let them pour their frustrations out, their anger, their fears, their happiness, but do it in character.

Do not just put plot exposition into a character’s mouth. If it takes all day, come up with wonderful lines for your characters. This means you want to KNOW your characters—know the type of words they would use, and how they would use them. Think of every character as being played by a favorite actor. What great line can you give that character which would make that actor come over and kiss you?

10) Never stop developing your writer’s ear.

Pay attention to conversations around you, to how people talk, to local accents, to phrases used. Read widely and watch lots of different types of movies. Look for the words that sing in dialogue, and words that clunk. All that will help you write better dialogue.

Do you like to write dialogue? What gives you the most trouble? Is there a trick you use that isn't mention here?

About Shannon

ShannonDonnellyShannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

She’s at work on her next Regency romance, a sequel to Lady Scandal, and will be bringing out the next book in the Mackenzie Solomon Demons & Warders Series, following up on Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire.

photo credit: Marc Wathieu via photopin cc

52 comments on “10 Dialogue Tips To Make Your Novel Shine”

  1. Shannon, you touched on one of my pet peeves - tags. I think that if there are two people in a scene, one male, one female, you should NEVER need a tag. After all, you have all the 'he'
    'she' clues, right? When I do need them, I try to pump it up, to make the tag do dual duty.

    I need to work on shading nuances into my dialog. Saying one thing and meaning another is a great way to do that. Anyone have any other tips on that?

    1. Sometimes you want the beat of "he said" or "she said" but you can overdo anything.

      Subtext is tough because you have to really, really know your characters. But I think it works best when the character's actions say something totally different from the words. As in the woman who swears she is not angry, but she's cutting up her ex-husband's shirt. That tells you a lot. So go for action tags--actions that contrast the words.


  2. Loved the line "know how each character lies to themselves and to others." That's now staring at me from above the computer screen!

  3. When I began to write, way back in my teens, I wrote what could have passed for screenplays. These stories contained dialogue and little else. Over the years, I've worked hard to improve my ability to write the other elements of story. But I'm grateful that my ear for dialogue developed at an early age.

  4. I wrote a blog way back when how to get rid of tags/saidisms. 🙂 I'm glad you mentioned the punctuation with dialogue. I get really annoyed by those mistakes.

  5. All good points, but you could have done an entire post about expository dialog. It makes a reader (like me) cringe: "Doug," Franco said, "Ever since you served those five years for armed robbery and cleaned up your life in prison, you've been avoiding me. Just because I'm still in the gang, it doesn't mean I'm going to drag you back in."


    I saw movie recently that included a line of dialog delivered by a sister to her brother that went something like, "You know, that whole time mom was sick, you never came around. Now that she's gone, you suddenly want to get back into my life?" As if the brother didn't realize she was pissed that he never came around. Was this really the first time the topic would have come up between these characters? A simple, "Where were you when I was taking care of mom?" would have told the same story in a far less clunky fashion.

    1. That is such an excellent point. That sort of thing makes me cringe too, and skim the page until things get going again.

      Fantastic post Shannon, really got me thinking about my own WIP.

    2. Eric, I always think about Mr. Exposition in the Austin Powers movies, who is there just to say things the plot need with no character to him at all. The ultimate spoof of clunky.

  6. Eric, I definitely hear what you are saying. Characters need to show not tell just like the writer. Less is more! 🙂

  7. Shannon, these are super smart and helpful tips! #6 - I like adding detail after dialogue instead of a tag. Double up my info to the reader.

    "Oh, sorry, sweetie, did I get your jheri curl all twisted and outta style?" Only Miguel can tease Jesse in such a way.

    1. A good tip, too, is that most folks act, think, then speak (actions usually come out before we can think about them). So action tags often work best before dialogue. What can be deadly are action tags in the middle of dialogue. That often steps on the dialogue. This is not always true but you want to be aware of how you arrange your words.

  8. "Know how each character lies to themselves and others" is my favorite tip here, and I love them all. In a recent WiP, the male lead discovers a gun in the female lead's purse and freaks out. The whole time he's asking her why she has a gun, she's patiently (obliquely) explaining she has a permit, lol.

  9. Great list, Shannon. Was relieved by your story of not getting the heroine's voice until 100 pages in and having to go back and fix it. I'm a big believer in going back and fixing whatever. My first draft is now written fairly fast, getting the story on the page, with lots of XXXX that I know I'll have to fill in later. I had been letting my analytical self get in the way of the creative one. I'm filing this post away for when I get finished with this first draft. I'll use it to analyze my dialogue. Never can have too many great tools.Thanks.

    1. It's great to do an edit just for each character's voice and dialogue. Really helps you tighten things up after you have a draft.

  10. Reblogged this on Writer in the Garret and commented:
    I've been working on making my characters' dialogue more distinctive and honing their actions to make them more in the scene.
    Here's some wonderful advice for spiffing up dialogue from Shannon Donnelly on the Writers in the Storm blog. Great stuff.

    1. Good deal, Sheri. I like doing an edit just on the dialogue to make sure it's sharp (I can't always juggle all things at once).

  11. Whenever I visit with my sister and niece, I'm always reminded that in a real conversation there is no script and no rules about stepping on somebody else's lines.
    Finishing a complete thought can sometimes be a challenge, especially if the conversation is spirited.

    You realize the danger and try to hurry, but like a doomed sniper victim in a movie, just when you think you're going to make it:

    "Yeah, your car wouldn't start because the carburetor was clogged-- "

    "Oh, we had so much fun last night clogging!"

    "Right. Well, you're carburetor is clogged because you always wait until you're on empty before--"

    "I remember we used to go clogging in Colorado."

    "--you get--"

    "Remember that time when we filled up and forgot to pay first then we forgot we didn't have any money? And we didn't have any credit cards? And the guy was gonna call the police on us?"


    Also, you can never, never stop in the middle of a statement to carefully consider your words :

    "It's hard to say. I liked The Hunger Games okay, it's just..."

    "Jennifer Lawrence's crooked teeth."

    "No. I didn't notice her teeth. It was really..."

    "Because one of her boobs was bigger than the other."

    "No. What? No, forget Jennifer Lawrence. She looked fine. I'm talking in the broader sense that..."

    "Woody Harrelson always plays the same guy in every movie."

    "Stop it. It just seemed that..."

    "If the Hunger Games was about starving districts competing for more food, why did the rich kids from district one and two even bother?"

    "Uh--yeah. That's exactly what I meant to say."

    "Stop what?"

    1. It's a great exercise to go to a coffee shop or a mall and just take down notes on conversations.

      Of course, fiction then has to make the conversations better than in real life -- most conversations are pretty boring. 🙂


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