DANGEROUS DIALOGUE – How to avoid dialogue disasters

Dialogue is an important tool in the writer’s kit, when used correctly. 

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Great dialogue makes your writing come alive. As the most mimetic of writing forms, it brings the reader and writer together in story time and is the ultimate in SHOWING rather than TELLING. Dialogue breaks up the page and breathes life into scenes, engaging the reader in real time. Good dialogue shows us who our characters are and brings surprising plot turns. 

Some people struggle to include any dialogue at all and find writing credible exchanges between characters difficult. However, recently I’ve encountered a few manuscripts where the writers have fallen in love with dialogue, or so it seems, and have tried to write almost whole novels primarily in dialogue, at the expense of world building, action and setting details and readers being able to visualise scenes. So how much dialogue is too much?

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I love dialogue and I’ve written and read a few short stories that are primarily told in dialogue – see Denis Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General” for a fabulous example. This great story is written almost only in dialogue and yet it still makes sense. How? Johnson makes sure that the reader is grounded in where and when this story takes place in a few simple lines of exposition at the start of the story. As long as we know where we are, who we’re with and what’s going on, you can get away with pretty much anything but GROUNDING THE READER in a concrete setting is essential, especially when writing primarily in dialogue. Otherwise, it feels like voices yelling in a void and the reader is unable to visualise what’s going on. And a short story is a snapshot of a moment in time, not an entire complex story interweaving the experiences of many that demands more explanation and grounding.

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Dialogue is great to bring our characters to life but it’s not effective to use dialogue to fill in whole passages of backstory or to fill in world building details. If you find your dialogue running into paragraphs of explanation of who or why something is happening, stop and think. Put the most important information in dialogue –  the information that gives us the most clues about the character who is speaking – then take the rest of the dialogue and paraphrase it so the world building details are still there but not in a long-winded monologue. 

In screenwriting we tell stories not only in dialogue but in the scene headings and the actions blocks which establish where we are and what’s going on. In screenplays we have the huge advantage of the audience being able to see and hear actors playing our characters within a setting and situation. We don’t have that advantage in prose so we need to fill in those other details so the reader can picture what’s going on and what the characters are doing as they speak.

When writing prose, we need to establish that setting and situation and show our characters acting and interacting with that environment and each other beyond the lines of dialogue. Then the reader is able to visualise what’s playing out – as if on a movie screen. Without enough clues to create that picture, only a whole lot of dialogue floating in space, the reader is left floundering.

Use dialogue to show us the best and worst of your characters. Have them say one thing then do the opposite. Have them lie about something we’ve just seen happen to someone else, or pretend it never happened.

What is she saying?

Use dialogue to reveal a sudden plot twist, but don’t tell the whole story in speech. 

Take a look at your use of dialogue. A little on every page is a good idea, but if you find you don’t have any, then add some in. Alternatively, if you find whole pages of dialogue without any setting or action details, with characters explaining the plot or telling their life stories, think again. Break up these sections with some straight exposition establishing setting and intersperse characters’ actions and reactions, some introspection and just plain telling to make sure the reader can visualise the scene in their own imaginations.

Ungrounded dialogue can feel like you’re listening to disembodied voices from outer space!

For more advice on writing dialogue see my Dos and Don’ts for Dialogue.

Do you like writing dialogue? How much is too much for you?

Write like the wind!

Lots of love

Edwina xx

“HELP!!!!” she screamed loudly. Do’s and Don’t’s for Writing Good Dialogue

screaming apron

Dialogue is the most immediate mode of expression in writing prose. Used correctly it brings your writing to life, be it fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction or even personal essays. It’s importance in screenplays is vital. Done well, dialogue can move the plot forward, build multi-dimensional characters and add layers of complexity you didn’t even know were there.

However, it can be notoriously tricky, and some new writers find it so difficult to manage that they avoid it completely to the detriment of their writing. So here are some of my best tips for writing effective dialogue.

DOKeep it short and sweet – or not so sweet. While there is sometimes a place for a poetic monologue the best advice I’ve ever been given is LESS IS ALWAYS MORE. Cut the beginnings and endings of your dialogue sentences. Cut excess sentences altogether. How can you say it with less? How can you almost say it, so the reader has to fill in the blanks themselves?

DON’TUse dialogue to explain or describe what went on in a previous scene. If a reader has read that scene, they’ll get it. If the dialogue isn’t adding a radical new viewpoint, or revealing information we didn’t already know, then never ever look back!


DOMake sure the reader knows which character is speaking. The easiest way to do this is with proper punctuation and speech tags.

Each first line from each speaker is indented and the dialogue itself is enclosed in quotation marks. For example:
1.         “How do I punctuate dialogue?” Julie asked.
2.        “That’s simple,” said Edwina. “Find a good book that uses classical punctuation and follow their lead. The main rule is to put your punctuation marks inside the quote marks and to indent the first line but not the others.”

You don’t need to use classical punctuation, but it makes dialogue much easier to read. Some modern authors eschew it and use italics or other forms of punctuation, but I often then find it hard to tell who’s speaking and get frustrated. Suit yourself, just make sure it is clear who is speaking.

DON’TGo all fancy pants with your speech tags. “Said” is almost always best. It becomes invisible to the reader. Words like murmured, stammered, shouted, protested, and argued have their place, occasionally, but are best avoided. “Lied” is an exception. Keep it simple superstar!

DOGround your reader. This is good to keep in mind throughout your whole story, but especially in long stretches of dialogue when your characters can become talking heads floating in space. Even if they are floating in space, most especially then perhaps, slide in a few words describing setting or actions, that place the conversation in a context.

head floating

DON’TPut everything in. If your characters are out for dinner, for example, we don’t have to read their whole conversation about what they’ll order, and their interactions with the wait staff, unless this contributes to character development or plot somehow. If it’s boring in real life, it’s extra boring on the page. Writer friends of mine have learnt this the hard way by transcribing recorded conversations. Your job as a writer is to trim out the boring bits and leave us with the juicy titbits!

DODifferentiate the speech patterns or habits of each character. After a while your readers should be able to tell each character apart from the way they speak. If your characters are all from similar cultural backgrounds this can be trickier, but if you listen in on conversations around you (put in your earphones, but don’t have your music on, and eavesdrop to get an idea of how people differ) you’ll see how we all have our own individual tics.


DON’T Use capitals to indicate shouting, that’s what an exclamation mark is for.

DOUse character actions beside their dialogue to not only indicate who is speaking but to add to the tone or develop an undercurrent of meaning. For example:
1.          “What time is it?” Joan lifted her head from the pillow.
And      “What time is it?” Joan threw the saucepan full of cold soup at Brian’s head.

DON’TUse adverbs unless absolutely necessary. If you’ve done everything else right you just don’t need them.

woman waking up

Here are the links to a couple of stories that use dialogue exceptionally well for you to get an idea of just how effective it can be.

Denis Johnson, “Steady Hands at Seattle General” – it doesn’t use classical punctuation, but it’s genius at creating an entire story almost solely in speech.

“Reunion” by John Cheever. It hasn’t indented the first line of each speaker but again, the dialogue demonstrates character in a way nothing else can.

Try writing your own story almost all in dialogue. Make it a hospital story like Denis Johnson’s or a reunion like Cheever’s.

Let me know how you go.

If you’d like more hints and tips on writing see my post here

or CONTACT  me HERE to get regular (but not too regular!) writing advice and news.

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I’d love to have you along.

Lots of love,
Edwina xx