Writing Dialogue

Something which people have praised in my main series, ‘Penny White’, is that the dialogue is witty and that the characters have distinctive voices. How does a writer go about doing that? Here are some dos and don’ts that I try to keep in mind:


1       Listen

All the time. Listen to how people talk. Take note of any interesting verbal tics which you could use to differentiate a character. For example, one of my friends uses ‘basically’ regularly in his conversations. Are there regional differences, such as turns of phrase, which you can use?

Morey, the Welsh-speaking cat-sized gryphon in the ‘Penny White’ series, makes his first appearance in this way:

I blurted out, ‘You’re a gryphon.’

‘Oh, she’s a sharp one, she is.’

‘But I thought gryphons were larger.’

‘All this ego in a large package? Duw a’n gwaredo. Doors wouldn’t be big enough to get my head through.’ He swooped across the garden and landed on the wheelie bin resting nearby. ‘Know anything about snail hunting?’

2       Turn on the radio

Audio plays are a great way to pick up tips for dialogue. The lack of visuals means that setting and characterization have to be set by spoken words alone. I love the Big Finish ‘Doctor Who’ audio adventures, and I’m always listening out for ways to use dialogue to set a scene or define a character. Here’s Penny’s brother talking to Morey, the gryphon, in ‘The Cult of Unicorns’: 

James grinned. ‘And I’ve met someone.’

‘Really?’ I took a sip of coffee. ‘What’s her name?’

‘Zarah. Or Sarah.’ He shrugged. ‘It was loud in the nightclub. But I’ve got her phone number. We’re going to meet up for New Year’s. It’s time my luck turned.’

‘What are your intentions towards this unidentified female?’ Morey asked.

‘What do you think?’ James leaned back in his chair. ‘Oh, I forgot. You can’t have it off with Taryn, can you? You’ve taken vows of celibacy, right?’

‘I took a vow of chastity, not celibacy,’ Morey said. ‘There is a difference. Chastity means no sexual relations outside the sanctity of marriage. What did they teach you at school?’

‘My sex education was mostly about putting condoms on bananas,’ James replied. ‘So, how does this chastity thing work, then?’ 

Morey cocked his head. ‘Well, you see, when two bananas really, really love each other, they get married and then there’s no need for condoms.’

3            Say it out loud

Read the dialogue to yourself, or to an obliging friend or family member. If it doesn’t sound natural to you, it won’t sound natural to your readers. Also bear in mind sentence length. Most people do have to stop to breathe from time to time.

4             Find alternative ways of indicating who is speaking

You can use actions rather than always using ‘said’ to indicate who is speaking and how. These actions can also help the reader understand the emotions in the speaker’s voice. An example from ‘The Vexation of Vampires’:

Uncertainty was trickling yellow along the snail’s tentacles. ‘Because you’re you.’ His colour didn’t change. ‘Because you’re Clyde.’ Still no change. ‘Well, because, well, I’m proud of you and, you know, I guess, well, yes, in any way that matters, you’re my son.’

Blue and purple suffused his body, chased by bright pink. ‘Mam,’ he agreed. And I put him down so I could grab some toilet tissue to blow my nose. 

5              Use incorrect grammar in dialogue

In some parts of my country (Great Britain), the local dialect includes people saying ‘Me and my friend’ (versus the grammatically correct ‘My friend and I’). People drop words all the time, for example, ‘Ready to go out?’ rather than ‘Are you ready to go out?’


1              Avoid contractions

Writers seem to think that a lack of contractions indicates greater learning, or helps evoke a time period (if they’ve set their work in the past). It comes over as clunky unless it’s a character point. For example, the forest unicorns in my novels avoid contractions, whereas their urban counterparts don’t.

2               Use strange spellings to reflect accents

This is something I regret doing in my first two novels. If you are altering too many words, readers can struggle to read the dialogue. Maybe pick a couple of words to amend, and use local sayings to highlight the speaker’s origin. Here’s an example from ‘The Vengeance of Snails’: 

James stretched his legs and passed me. ‘By the way, what’re you doing here? I didn’t think we got praying mantises in England.’

‘I hatched in les Etats-Unis, one of the English-speaking parts.’ The triangular head turned to look up at James. ‘I was fixing to tie the knot, but y’all know how it is. Rooster one day, a feather duster the next. So I found me a dragon to take me far away from the wife-to-be.’

3               Pull out the thesaurus

The most useful word for dialogue tags is ‘said’. Trust me. Don't feel that you need to reach for more than that. And, no, people cannot ‘smile’ a sentence.

4                Throw in lots of adverbs

Trust your dialogue to let your reader know the tone in which the character has spoken. As above, ‘said’ is a great word. Don’t add lots of adverbs. ‘She said smugly’, ‘He said sadly’. If your characters says, ‘I would never have made a mistake like that,’ we’ll understand that she’s smug. ‘Gosh, I really miss my mom.’ Surely that’s a sad statement? And if you use an exclamation mark, there’s no need to state ‘he shouted’ never mind ‘he shouted loudly’.

In conclusion, well-handled dialogue can be used to craft characters and to set the scene more quickly than long narrative descriptions.