May 21st, 2021

5 Quick Dialogue Tips: Round 1

By Julie Glover

I enjoy presenting workshops, and the latest one I did was on “Writing Dialogue That’s Real But Even Better.” Toward the end, I give ten tips for writing dialogue, and I figured I’d share five of them with y’all today and five next time!

(All examples come from YA paranormal short stories I'm releasing later this year!)

1. Minimize dialogue tags.

Sometimes you need a “he said” or “she asked,” but oftentimes you don’t need a dialogue tag at all. You can show who’s speaking by having the character do or feel something before or after the part in quotes.

Before

“There she is!” my father announced, and my family exploded with excitement.

“Faye!” they all greeted me, and my two nieces, seven and four years old, dropped their Candy Land game and surged toward me. They hugged my torso with exclamations of “Auntie Faye!”

I was glad to see everyone, but suspicious too. Why were they here?

“Hey, girls!” I scooped each niece into a cozy embrace, and their soft curls tickled my nose.

“For our guest of honor,” my mother said, handing me a crystal chalice.

After

My father stood front and center. “There she is!”

“Faye!” My name reached the rafters in a chorus of excitement.

My two nieces dropped their Candy Land game, surged toward me, and hugged my waist. “Auntie Faye! Auntie Faye!”

I was glad to see everyone, but suspicious too. Why was my entire family here?

“Hey, girls!” I scooped each niece into a cozy embrace, and their soft curls tickled my nose.

My mother handed me a crystal chalice. “For our guest of honor.”

Above example is from My Team's Fairy Godmother.

Avoiding tags when possible is a better use of your word count, helps with flow, and deepens POV.

2. Use body language, tone, and internal thought for subtext.

The spots outside and around quotation marks are prime real estate for deepening character and plot. After all, what do we do when we're in conversation with others? We mentally process our thoughts and their words. We have visceral reactions to the content, tone, and body language of others. We give background for why we're perceiving things as we do.

Before

“It’s got to be better than before, when it was impossible to live up to the Nickie Gold Standard," Karyn says.

“Nickie sucks out every bit of energy my parents have," I answer. "They barely know I’m alive.”

“So no perks? Nothing?” Karyn fishes for a way to spark my optimism or at least my snark.

“Well,” I say, “Nickie did tell me I can take just about anything from her old wardrobe.”

After

“It’s got to be better than before, when it was impossible to live up to the Nickie Gold Standard.” Karyn air-quotes those last words, like they’re a brand.

Actually, the way things were before sounds pretty good. “Nickie sucks out every bit of energy my parents have. They barely know I’m alive.”

“So no perks? Nothing?” Karyn fishes for a way to spark my optimism or at least my snark. I feel for her. This wilting version of me isn’t exactly a TARDIS-full of fun.

“Well,” I say, looking for any silver lining, no matter how tarnished. “Nickie did tell me I can take just about anything from her old wardrobe.”

Above example is from My Sister's Demon.

Create tension and help the reader learn more about your characters with subtext—the unspoken part of the conversation.

3. Make sure the reader knows who’s talking!

When I’m copyediting, one of the most common comments I add in the margin is “Who’s talking here?” Without proper cues, it’s easy to lose track of who the speaker is. That’s even more likely to become an issue when dialogue goes back and forth for a while between or among speakers.

Before

DeDe strolled into sight, sporting a tangerine bikini on her tanned body. “Yeah, good thing you were there,” she drolled. “Can we get back in the pool now?” Her mother pursed her lips and cocked her head. A show of disapproval.
“I’m glad you’re okay. Justin was really worried when he first brought you in.”


As if she’d filled her obligation, she turned back to her mom, raised her eyebrows in question, and received a curt nod of dismissal. And permission apparently, because she sashayed out of the room and I heard the sliding door to the backyard open and close.

Don’t mind DeDe. She’s trying to make new friends. New kid on the block, you know?”

After

DeDe strolled into sight, sporting a tangerine bikini on her tanned body. “Yeah, good thing you were there,” she drawled. “Can we get back in the pool now?”

Her mother pursed her lips and cocked her head. A show of disapproval.

DeDe forced a smile onto her face and turned to me. “I’m glad you’re okay. Justin was really worried when he first brought you in.”

As if she’d filled her obligation, she turned back to her mom, raised her eyebrows in question, and received a curt nod of dismissal. And permission apparently, because she sashayed out of the room and I heard the sliding door to the backyard open and close.

“Don’t mind my sister.” Justin gestured toward her exit with his head. “She’s trying to make new friends. New kid on the block, you know?”

Above example is from My Neighbor's Shapeshifter.

Make sure the speaker’s identity is clear by ensuring the character’s names or pronouns are periodically mentioned, by giving characters distinct voices, and by creating a new paragraph each time the speaking stick is passed, so to speak.

4. Use names in dialogue sparingly.

Other than getting one another’s attention or emphasizing a point, people rarely say one another’s names in conversation. (Not that many shows realize this. Looking at you, Supernatural.)

Before

“It’s one in the morning.” She scans my black tee and skull jammie pants with obvious disapproval. “Glynnis—”

“It's Glyn, Joanne” I remind her for the fiftieth time.

“I know you don’t have school in the morning, but it’s too late to be up and rummaging through the pantry. If I hear someone down here in the middle of the night, Glynnis, I’m likely to mistake you for a robber.”

The irony hits me with a thud. My stepmom has no clue there are live-in burglars in her house. Ghost burglars.

Speaking of which, Glynnis…” She enters the kitchen, swishing past me in her thick robe—under which she’s probably wearing nothing, dear God help me—and gets a glass from the cupboard.

Old Elsie moves away from the stove, giving Joanne plenty of space.

“I’m missing a pair of earrings.” Joanne fills her glass with water from the sink, leans against the kitchen cabinet, and lifts an eyebrow.

After

“It’s one in the morning.” She scans my black tee and skull jammie pants with obvious disapproval. “Glynnis—”

“Glyn,” I remind her for the fiftieth time.

“I know you don’t have school in the morning, but it’s too late to be up and rummaging through the pantry. If I hear someone down here in the middle of the night, I’m likely to mistake you for a robber.”

The irony hits me with a thud. My stepmom has no clue there are live-in burglars in her house. Ghost burglars.

Speaking of which…” She enters the kitchen, swishing past me in her thick robe—under which she’s probably wearing nothing, dear God help me—and gets a glass from the cupboard.

Old Elsie moves away from the stove, giving Joanne plenty of space.

“I’m missing a pair of earrings.” Joanne fills her glass with water from the sink, leans against the kitchen cabinet, and lifts an eyebrow.

Above example is from My Stepmom's Ghosts.

In the After example, the stepmom uses a name just once, so that the reader can note the stepdaughter's correction and the stepmom ignoring her preferred nickname—thus telling you something about each of them. Your dialogue will reflect reality and flow better if characters speak another’s name only when they have good reason to do so.

5. Be careful with exposition in dialogue.

While watching a crime show on TV, I tend to chuckle when a police car pulls up to a building, one officer says something like “This apartment showed up as one of the suspect’s former addresses. Let’s see what clues we can find here,” and the other officer appears to have had no idea whatsoever where they were going and why.

Of course, they would have discussed all that long before they arrived, but the viewer needs to know so the screenwriters just dropped exposition into dialogue. Yes, sometimes you have to give some information to the reader through dialogue, but if so, do just a little, make it as smooth as possible, and use realistic timing.

Before

He was average in height, but the way he held his body made him more striking in stature. His copper-brown hair and mocha eyes would have been unremarkable, except they contrasted so sharply with his stark, pale skin.

“What on earth is he doing here?” Kirsten spit out the question as if she had cobwebs in her mouth.

“Checking out colleges like us?” Us and hundreds of other students from our campus and nearby high schools. He must attend a local high school to be here, though I hadn’t heard any rumor buzz. I couldn’t wrench my eyes from him, this miracle man, while he shook hands with other guys in his circle and raised the sides of his mouth in a full, but tightly-shut grin. Hiding what lay past those peach lips. “I wonder if he’d let me interview him.”

“Interview him?” She slapped the slick college catalog closed. “Are you crazy? There is no way I’m going anywhere near that guy. I can’t believe we’re even allowing them out in the open…as if they’re harmless.”

Her opinion was widely shared, but rarely spoken in public anymore. Was she that narrow-minded?

I shook my head. “Our government brokered an agreement with vampires. They’re euthanasiasts now, helping terminally ill patients pass easily while still getting the blood they need. We should see them as mercy killers.

She glanced back at him. “The important word is ‘killers.’ No, thanks.”

After

He was average in height, but the way he held his body made him more striking in stature. His copper-brown hair and mocha eyes would have been unremarkable, except they contrasted so sharply with his stark, pale skin.

“What on earth is he doing here?” Kirsten spit out the question as if she had cobwebs in her mouth.

“Checking out colleges like us?” Us and hundreds of other students from our campus and nearby high schools. He must attend a local high school to be here, though I hadn’t heard any rumor buzz. I couldn’t wrench my eyes from him, this miracle man, while he shook hands with other guys in his circle and raised the sides of his mouth in a full, but tightly-shut grin. Hiding what lay past those peach lips. “I wonder if he’d let me interview him.”

“Interview him?” She slapped the slick college catalog closed. “Are you crazy? There is no way I’m going anywhere near that guy. I can’t believe we’re even allowing them out in the open…as if they’re harmless.”

Her opinion was widely shared, but rarely spoken in public anymore. Was she that narrow-minded?

I shook my head. “They’re euthanasiasts now. Mercy killers.

She glanced back at him. “The important word is ‘killers.’ No, thanks.”

Above example is from My School's Vampire.

There's a paragraph one chapter later that explains the government agreement, but it doesn't need to be here in conversation. They both know about the agreement! All the reader needs is a tease.

Try applying the same approach: Tease First, Explain Later.


That's it for today—five quick tips for writing dialogue. Many of you likely know these tips already, but it's always good to have reminders! Dig deep into your editing process and look for ways to improve dialogue so that it reveals character, keeps the plot moving, and pops. In particular, make sure it's real enough to keep the reader engaged!

Stay tuned for Tips 6 through 10 next time!

Do you have a dialogue pet peeve, or something that you struggle with when you write dialogue? Are you brave enough to let us see it down in the comments?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Julie

Julie Glover is an award-winning author of mysteries and young adult fiction. She also writes supernatural suspense under the pen name Jules Lynn.

Her first YA release was Sharing Hunter, a Golden Heart­­® Finalist, and her most recent release is Driving Emma, a young adult contemporary short story. Later this year, she will be releasing five YA paranormal short stories.

When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

Top image credit: ©GrazieGranata, CanvaPro

11 responses to “5 Quick Dialogue Tips: Round 1”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    Dialogue is my very favorite thing! My weakness is the body language and exposition in between, so I really loved seeing your examples. To put this in Margie-speak for Immersion grads - LOTS of uninterrupted blue on my pages. I always need to go back and add in some other colors so my readers don't get lost in a sea of talking heads. 🙂

  2. Ellen says:

    The first problem I had with dialogue was making sure the reader knew who was speaking. That still happens now and then, but reading out loud helps me catch most of the he said, she said.

    Now I'm working on minimizing dialogue tags.

    It's always something.

  3. Eldred Bird says:

    I love this. Dialogue is totally my thing. I especially like the use of action tags rather than the normal "he said, she said" back and forth that kills the pacing. Building the movement into the conversations and allowing the scene to be painted through the character's interaction with the environment feels much more natural to me.
    I also like to make sure my characters have distinctive voices so you know who is talking just by the dialogue itself. If there are only two or three characters in a scene, the tags almost become unnecessary after the characters are established.

  4. I love writing dialogue and I am always looking for ways to improve my craft.

    I got the email for part 2 of this post, but the link just goes to the WITS photo. I have tried copying the link, too, to no avail. Can somebody help?

  5. I loved this post. Thank you. I smiled all the way through it. When I read one of my first drafts there are places where I'll note that it reads like two people taking turns reading lengthy monologues. During the first edit I'll break it up, clarify, and add touches of body language, tone, and internals to make it richer. The transformation is always astounding.

  6. dholcomb1 says:

    Love your examples.

    I love writing dialogue. I should probably try screenwriting. lol

    denise

  7. raynayday says:

    Like the others here I enjoy writing dialogue, I like to think that I am good at it, others.... well they will decide wither I am or not. Lol- I loved that you used the Aaron Sorkin idea. He is rather good at dialogue.

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