Writers in the Storm

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June 25, 2018

Dive Deep Into Dialogue

Lori Freeland

There are lots of different ways to start sketching in the empty page of a new scene. Dialogue. Setting. Action. Internal thought. But for me, the easiest way to get words on the page is to use dialogue—what I want my characters to say to each other—as the blueprint of my scene.  

What Dialog is Not

It’s important to note that dialogue is not a conversation your character is having with himself inside his head. That’s called internal thought. True dialogue is spoken out loud and must be set off inside quotation marks.

People can and do talk to themselves. But remember, if they’re not speaking out loud to themselves, their words should not be set off in quotes. It seems obvious, but I see this mistake a lot, especially with new writers.

They usually preface the internal thought like this—She thought to herself, “Lordy, the heat was gonna melt her arches right down to nothing.” But that’s really unspoken thought.

Not Dialogue (internal thought): Gilda made a run for it across the steamy asphalt paving the parking lot, glancing at her bare feet. Lordy, the heat was gonna melt her arches right down to nothing. 

Dialogue (spoken out loud to herself): Gilda made a run for it across the steamy asphalt paving the parking lot, glancing at her bare feet. “Lordy, the heat’s gonna melt my arches right down to nothing.” 

Check Your Work: Go back and mark places where you’ve used quotation marks where the words weren’t actually spoken out loud.

What Dialog Is

Dialogue is conversations between your characters that move the story along. If the words spoken between characters add nothing to the plot or the relationships or the character arcs, you don’t need them. Don’t write dialogue just to have dialogue.

Dialogue is real—minus the boring parts. If you’re stumbling with the way your characters talk to each other, put yourself in their place. What would you say to me if we were having a cup of coffee?

What Ruins Dialogue

Improper Punctuation

Let’s clarify an area of confusion over dialogue.

Use a comma (or a question mark if you use asked) and a lowercase letter with a dialogue tag. A dialogue tag is the word “said” or anything you use in place of “said.” We’ll come back to that later.

“You’re awesome,she said.

“Are you awesome?” she asked.

Use a period and an uppercase letter with a beat. A beat can be an action or the way someone says something.

“You’re awesome.She smiled and leaned closer. (action)

“You’re awesome.Her voice rose a note too high. (how someone said something)

Side Note: Punctuation always goes INSIDE the quotation marks. This is true not only when you’re using quotes in dialogue, but when you’re using quotes to set off the importance of a word. The book was “awesome.”  

Check Your Work: Look at a few pages of your scene. Are you punctuating correctly?

Name Calling

Think back to the last few interactions you’ve had with others. Unless you were trying to get someone’s attention, how many times did you say a person’s name in the middle of a conversation?

I’m going to guess none.

So why do we write conversations where our characters do? Constant name calling doesn’t add anything to our dialogue, and it tends to annoy your reader. Read this out loud. See what I mean?

“Lucy, what are you doing tonight?”

“I don’t know, Bob, how about you?”

“Well, Lucy, I was thinking about getting a drink.”

“Take me with you, Bob?”

“Sure thing, Lucy. I’ll pick you up at eight.”

Check Your Work: Find a conversation in your scene and count how many times characters use each other’s names. Then cut them. Unless there’s a group of people talking, and you need clarity.

Avoiding Contractions

Listen to people speak. We almost always use contractions. When we don’t, it feels weird. This is true in narrative as well.

Dialogue: “I do not know.”/ “I don’t know.”

Narrative: I do not know why she ran off crying. / I don’t know why she ran off crying.

There are a few exceptions. One is when you’re trying to make a point. Imagine a father standing over his daughter after he’s picked her up from the police station at three am. “You won’t sneak out again or else . . .” carries less power than “You will not sneak out again or else . . .”

Another exception is when one of your characters is using English as a second language. People who are not native English speakers use more textbook grammar.  

Check Your Work: Look for missing contractions. Search words like “will not, would not, cannot, did not, I am, you (or they) are” and then change them. Also, read a few pages out loud. You’ll hear when you’ve forgotten to use contractions.  

Unnatural Language

Dialogue should sound natural, like the way we speak in real life. Don’t have your character speak like a scholar unless she is a scholar.

     Jean leaned across the kitchen table and studied me. “Might you be repressing your emotions when it comes to your marriage breaking down?”

     I turned away and set my coffee cup into the sink. “That is a possibility.”

     Jean leaned across the kitchen table and studied me. “So, denial’s your best option?”

     I turned away and tossed my coffee cup into the sink, not even cringing when it shattered. “Yep.”

Be real. Honor your character’s emotions and uniqueness in the way they speak to each other. Make their reactions authentic. Ask yourself if you would use the words your characters use—if not, try again.

Unclear Paragraphing

Our goal as writers is to paint a clear picture for our readers so they never have to guess or look back to know what’s going on. Or in this case, who’s speaking.

You’ve probably heard the guideline—New Speaker = New Paragraph. It’s a good guideline.  

Jerry slammed his hands on the table. “That girl just stole your Jag.”

“What?” Paul whirled around.

But let’s take that idea farther. What if we changed the guideline to—Change of focus = Change of Paragraph.

Try to keep a single character’s actions, thoughts, and words together unless they run too long, and you need to break them up for white space.

Side Note: White space is the part of the page not taken up by words. You could have the same number of words in one whole paragraph or broken into a few paragraphs and readers won’t read the first because they perceive it as “hard.” Have you noticed how much I’m paragraphing in this blog? Check your scenes and make sure lack of paragraphing doesn’t become a reason your reader puts down your book.

Going back to Paul and Jerry, our new guideline—Change of Focus = Change of Paragraph—says even if Paul doesn’t speak and only reacts, we still change the paragraph to show we’ve switched characters.

Jerry slammed his hands on the table. “That girl just stole your Jag.”

Paul whirled around.

This holds true for physical focus as well.

Jerry slammed his hands on the table. (focus is on Jerry)

Someone screamed outside the window. (focus is on what’s outside the window)

Note both Jerry and the reader are turning toward the window at this point.

Check Your Work: Read through your scene for change-of-focus paragraphing and mark places

that aren’t paragraphed for clarity. 

Not Knowing Who's Speaking

Here’s where we get back to “tags” and “beats.” If more than two people are engaged in conversation, we need to be able to easily follow who’s speaking.

You can:

  • Add Simple Tags (said)
  • Add Beats (what people do or how they speak)
  • Add Internal Thought (but just for what the POV character is thinking)

TAGS: Tags have one purpose—to let the reader know who’s talking. Said and asked are somewhat invisible. Readers skip right over them, and they don’t interrupt the pace of the story.

We only need them if we have no other identifier.

“I love your Jag,” Jerry said.

“Birthday present,” Paul said.

Limit or cut tags that aren’t said or asked. Read the examples below out loud, and you’ll hear why. 

“I really wanted those earrings,” I whined.

“I know,” Ella cried.

 “Maybe I’ll just steal them!” I exclaimed.

A little annoying, huh? Adding adverbs to tags is worse. Read these out loud too.  

“I have to have that candy bar,” I whined loudly.

 “Fine,” Ella angrily cried.

 “Share with your sister,” I grunted meanly.

Check Your Work: Skim your pages for tags other than “said” or “asked.” Do a search for “ly” and find your adverbs. Take them out where you can. 

BEATS: Instead of using tags, use what a person’s doing or how they’re speaking to identify who they are. Using beats gives you a chance to build your characters, your story, and your setting. Use it to your advantage.

“Do you want to say goodbye to Claire,” Dad asked. (tag)

“Do you want to say goodbye to Claire?” Dad stared at the casket and then looked away. (beat)

 If you have a beat, you most likely will not need a tag. It’s liking hiring two people to do one job and can water down your dialogue.

“Kate?” Dad said, touching my shoulder, like maybe he’d called to me once or twice already, and I’d missed it. (tag and beat)

“Kate?” Dad touched my shoulder, like maybe he’d called to me once or twice already, and I’d missed it. (beat only is stronger)

Sometimes you need both for flow, but it should be the exception rather than the rule.

INTERNAL THOUGHT: What the POV character—the character telling the story in that scene if you have more than one—is thinking.

     “Top one’s veggie for Claire.” Alek slid the first pizza box off the second. (beat)

     “She went AWOL with Josh after sixth period.” After she promised she’d hang with me tonight. (POV’s internal thought)

Do you see that we don’t need the tag too?

    “She went AWOL with Josh after sixth period,” I said. After she promised she’d hang with me tonight.

Side Note on POV: The reader can only experience the world through one person at a time. As the reader, we jump into and live the story through that POV character’s head. We can only see what he sees, hear what he hears, feel what he feels, know what he knows, and think the way he would think.    

Just like there are many ways to start a scene, there are many ways to play with and strengthen dialogue. Once you dive in and nail the foundation and clarity, you’re ready to go deeper. But that’s another blog.

I hope this helps get you started. If you’re still stumbling, here’s what steers me in the right direction.   

Ask yourself, am I being authentic? If the conversation between my characters were happening in real life, what would it actually sound like? This will usually help highlight whatever’s going wrong. 


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About Lori


Lori Freeland, author, editor, and writing coach holds a BA in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and currently lives in the Dallas area. She's written numerous blogs for writers and presented at multiple writing workshops. When she's not snuggled up with her husband or worrying about her kids, she spends her days dreaming up romance and messing with the lives of imaginary people. You can find her Young Adult and Contemporary Romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog at lafreeland.com

53 comments on “Dive Deep Into Dialogue”

  1. What a WEALTH of information here. And a checklist to boot! Love how much you covered and how you covered it with specific examples. I will be returning to this post as I edit. Thanks, Lori!

  2. Thank you! But what about if my book is written in the first person and the character does speak outloud...or even internally? Should everything that character says either to himself or outloud be in quotes?

    1. My WIP is first person and it makes no difference. The protagonist/narrator's out loud dialogue is in quotes but what he says to himself is not, unless he addresses himself aloud, which people rarely do.

  3. Thanks for such a clearly worded explanation! This can be confusing to many new writers. As a writer and an editor, this is very helpful!

  4. Great article and you brought up several of my pet peeves, like using names in dialog too much and conversation that doesn't sound natural or authentic.

  5. Great dialogue primer, Lori! I've always had a hard time with putting the punctuation inside the quotes (I know, but it LOOKS wrong!), and the comma instead of a period before the tag. Good thing I don't use tags much!

  6. Thanks, Lori, for this wealth of information! I'm also a "seeing" writer and love examples. They are like prompts and get my old brain pumping. It also helps if I write the examples longhand and then put my own twist on them. Your post will go in my keeper file.

  7. Thank you so much for this! I was editing a younger writer's work last night who needs help with dialogue. I wished I could point her to a quick and straight forward resource...now I can. 🙂

  8. Thanks, Lori! The rules and tips you give are what I learned, too. Thanks for confirming them. All best to you!

  9. What a tremendous wealth of information on dialogue here. This is exactly what I teach my editing clients, and it's explained beautifully. Lori, I may have to direct my authors to this page when they're having challenges with their dialogue!

  10. I've made an active effort to do that in my current WIP, and it's flowing (writing it) so much better. It also sounds and reads better, too.


  11. Here's a topic worth adding to the conversation––when to use italics for internal dialogue. I see people using quotes, italics, no italics. Lots of confusion.

    1. Agreed. Internal thought, including this issue, could be another post! Simple rule, don't use quotes for anything not spoken out loud. Quotes are a reader's cue to hear words out loud in a conversation whether the character is speaking to himself or someone else.

      If you're in deep POV, especially in first person (using I rather than he/she), I don't think you need italics. Same with third person deep POV. But, if you change the pronoun or tense, you need them in third person. Here's what I mean. If I say:

      Sam struggled to breathe in the humid air, clawing at the locked door of the sauna. I'm going to die today.

      You need to put I'm going to die today in italics. For two reasons. You went from third person narrative to first person internal thought. "Sam" versus "I'm." And you changed the tense from past (struggled) to present (am going to). But I also think it's stronger to rewrite and not use italics.

      Sam struggled to breathe in the humid air, clawing at the locked door of the sauna. Dying today wasn't on his to-do list.

      You can take the "I'm going" out if you change up the sentence. And, it's stronger and more deeply in his voice.

      Hope that helps.

  12. I know a lot of people who are sending their WIP to contests. This is a great check for them. Thanks, Lori!

  13. Without dialogue the character has no voice. Internal monologue is what character is thinking. Quotation marks denoted speech as in conversational exchange. A writer who doesn't know the difference is hardly a writer. Not to be prude, but wow!--if you don't know the difference why are you writing?

    1. I've known the difference for as long as I can remember. But I don't judge those who don't. There are plenty of things I don't know, and many I will never know. I wasn't born educated. We all have to learn and the first requisite for learning is acknowledging my own ignorance. So bravo to Lori Freeland and all teachers and students! I hope I will go on learning to the end of my days.

    2. There is so much to learn when you start writing. I think people learn different things at different times. We have our natural strengths and our weaknesses. The idea is to keep making our words and stories stronger and more clear so we connect to our readers on a deeper level 🙂

  14. Awesome tutorial. Bookmarking to share with friends.
    Thank you for taking the time to put this important info together in an easy-flowing read.

  15. I'm always looking for good material to share with budding writers that I teach. Thanks for great material.

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