Are You Botching Your Dialogue?

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Today we are going to talk about dialogue. Everyone thinks they are great at it, and many would be wrong. Dialogue really is a lot tricker than it might seem.

Great dialogue is one of the most vital components of fiction. Dialogue is responsible for not only conveying the plot, but it also helps us understand the characters and get to know them, love them, hate them, whatever.

Dialogue is powerful for revealing character. This is as true in life as it is on the page. If people didn’t judge us based on how we speak, then business professionals wouldn’t bother with Toastmasters, speaking coaches or vocabulary builders.

I’d imagine few people who’d hire a brain surgeon who spoke like a rap musician and conversely, it would be tough to enjoy rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum.

Our word choices are reflective of WHO we are. Dialogue can not only show age and gender. It can elucidate level of education, profession, personality, ego, wounds, insecurity, and on and on and on.

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In fact dialogue is so powerful that one way we know we have done our job as a writer is when we can remove all dialogue tags and the reader still knows which character is talking. This said, there are a LOT of newbie errors I see when it comes to writing dialogue and that’s what we are going to talk about today.

#1 Please Punctuate Properly

When it comes to dialogue, we need to make sure we are punctuating properly. This might seem like a picky matter, but improper dialogue punctuation is a quick way to end up in a slush pile. If a writer doesn’t yet know how to punctuate dialogue correctly, then most agents (or even readers) simply aren’t going to commit any more time.

Also, if you are paying good money for an editor, they have a hard time getting to the MEAT of your story if they are spending all their time fixing disastrous punctuation.

When I get samples from new writers, I see a lot of this:

“Have a nice day” she closed the door and that was when Kristen had to spend the next few hours repairing punctuation.

“Have a nice day.” She closed the door blah blah blah….


“Have a nice day,” she said. She closed the door blah blah blah…

The comma goes INSIDE the end quote mark and then we add a tag. If there is NO tag word (said, asked) then we insert a PERIOD.

DO NOT use actions as tags. Why? Because actions are actions…not tags.

“Have a nice day,” she closed the door said.

For all the neat ways dialogue is punctuated, refer to a handy dandy grammar book.

#2 No Weird Dialogue Tags

This goes with the “no action tags” idea.

“I have no idea what you mean,” Kinsey snarled.

“You know exactly what I mean,” Jake laughed.


Characters can say things or ask things but they can’t smirk, snarl or laugh things. Again, when agents, editors, or even savvy readers see these strange tags, it is a red flag the author is green.

#3 Stick to Unassuming Tags

When using tags, keep it simple— said, asked, replied (maybe). Why? Well, I hate proffering rules without explanation so here goes.

Simply? When we add those creative tags on the end, we are coaching the reader. Our dialogue should be strong enough alone to convey the tone we want. When we coach the reader, we are being redundant and more than a tad insulting to the reader.

“You have some nerve showing your face,” she spat.

See what I mean? By adding the “she spat” I am essentially telling you that I worry you aren’t sharp enough to know this character is upset.

But, I am betting the dialogue alone—“You have some nerve showing your face”—was plenty for you guys to give the appropriate tone of voice in your head. I really didn’t need to add the “she spat.”

I know that keeping to simple tags seems harsh, but if we have done our job writing dialogue, the tags will disappear in the reader’s mind. The dialogue will simply flow.

Additionally, if we write using Deep POV, we don’t even need/use tags.

“I have no idea what you mean.” Kinsey refused to look at him and polished the wine glass so hard she wondered if she’d bore a hole clean through.

See how the character is DOING something that tells us the tone of the dialogue. Remember that communication is about 90% is nonverbal. Body language is a big deal.

Notice we are showing and not telling. Instead of spelling out that Kinsey is irritated, we have her DOING something that shows us she is ticked and trust the reader to fill in the blanks. This also keeps “said” from getting annoying. We shouldn’t need to tag every sentence if the writing is strong.

#4 Do NOT Phonetically Spell Out Accents

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Yes, when we dust off old volumes of literature we see that the writers (I.e. Twain) wrote out dialogue phonetically to show the accent of the character speaking.

BUT…Herman Melville also spent over a hundred pages talking about whales for the same reasons. Most people lived and died in isolation. Travel was reserved for the very rich. Photographs and paintings were rare. There was no television, radio or Internet.

Just like Melville’s readers could live an entire lifetime without seeing the ocean (let alone a whale), Twain’s audience in Europe likely would never travel to the rural American South. Thus, they would have no concept of what a Southern accent “sounded” like. Therefore, in fiction, it was perfectly acceptable to phonetically write out how someone would have talked.

These days, if we are writing a character who has an Irish brogue or a Southern drawl or a Cockney accent, we no longer need to spell it all out phonetically. The reason is that there has been so much entertainment (movies, etc.) that we know what an Irish brogue should sound like and when we “spell it out” for the reader, it makes the dialogue cumbersome.

Spelling out every single word phonetically will wear out the reader. This dovetails nicely into my next point…

#5 DO Feel Free to Use Unique Words, Expressions or Idioms

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I write a lot of characters who are Texans. It’s true I don’t need to write out the Texas accent phonetically, but I can add in some terms and expressions to keep the reader “hearing” a Texan in her head without making my dialogue weird.

“Y’all won’t believe this. Delroy got a job. A J-O-B.”

“Who’d hire him? He’s useless as ice trays in hell. ”

Feel free to use a couple of words that convey an accent—ain’t, gonna, bloody—just avoid spelling it out in entirety or risk frustrating readers.

#6 DO NOT Have Characters Constantly Calling Each Other By NAME

I see this one a lot and it is seriously weird.

“Biff, what are you doing?” Blane asked.

“Why Blane, I am making a present for Buffy. You know how Buffy is about her birthday. What are you doing Blane? Are you having lunch with Beverly?”

Okay, so I am being a bit silly here to make a point, but how often do you call the other person by name when talking? Who does this? Worse still, who does this over and over and over, especially when there is only one other person in the room? Try this in real life.

Me: Shawn, why are you home so early? I thought you’d be at work.

Hubby: I had to run an errand, Kristen.

Me: Well, Shawn I have to run to the grocery store.

Hubby: Kristen, that is…

Okay, I am giggling too much. Y’all get the gist.

#7 Do NOT Write Dialogue in Complete Sentences

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My above examples are kind of a twofer. Not only is the dialogue seriously strange with everyone using a proper name, but notice all the dialogue is in complete sentences. Most people don’t talk that way. If we do, we sound like a robot or a foreigner with a rudimentary grasp of the language.

Is it wrong to have dialogue in complete sentences? No. But usually it is ONE character who talks that way and it is an idiosyncratic trait particular to THAT character. Ie. Data from Star Trek or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.

#8 Avoid Punctuation Props

Avoid overusing exclamation points and ellipses. Again, if our dialogue is strong enough, readers will “get” when a character is yelling or pausing. Especially avoid being redundant with the punctuation and the tags.

“Get out of my house!” she yelled.

Really? No kidding.

And remember…that…when we use…a lot….of ellipses…we are being annoying….not…….dramatic.

(And ellipses are only THREE dots and in some cases four 😉 ).

#9 NO “As You Know” Syndrome

I love David Mamet and I really love his Letter to the Writers of The Unit where he tears the writing team a new one. I love forwarding on his advice, because no one says it better and this is just as true for novels as it is for screenplays. I’ve included the best lines about dialogue:

Look at your log-lines. Any log line reading, “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” is NOT describing a dramatic scene.

Here are the danger signals. Anytime two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of s&%$. Any time any character is saying to another “AS YOU KNOW” that is, telling another character what you—the writer—need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of s&%$*. ~David Mamet

No brain-holding. We are in the drama business, not the information business.

Later we will talk about ways that we can use dialogue to convey character. What are your thoughts? Questions? Who are your favorite authors regarding dialogue? I adore Sue Grafton. Every one of her characters just leaps off the page. I love great dialogue and have been known to highlight it just to keep it. What about you? Or am I the only dialogue geek?

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  1. Reblogged this on Jens Thoughts and commented:
    Great tips about writing dialogue.

  2. Thank you for another great post. I reblogged on Jen’s Thoughts at

  3. So, question from a “green” author about accents, then. How would you go about showing that a particular race on a fantasy world has what would equate in our world to a Jamaican accent, when Jamaica doesn’t exist on their world? And when that race, in most fantasy settings, is more associated with old Norse languages? I can’t exactly say “Jamaican accent,” can I?

    1. You can use a tad of the dialect. Twain spelled out EVERYTHING and it will give us a headache. Just sprinkle in the accent you are associating with that race and you’re good.

      1. Very, very true. It’s one of the reasons I had a tough time getting through his books. That, and we were never really taught the context of them, either.

  4. Reblogged this on Jeannie Hall Suspense and commented:
    Dialogue no nos

  5. I am printing this baby out and pinning it around my house! Thank you

  6. very useful information here on dialogue. It is the hardest part of writing in my opinion. Thanks!

  7. Loved the article – looking forward to hearing your thoughts on distinguishing character through dialog. ONE QUESTION: did Mamet mean to say that two characters can never discuss a third? Hope not–people do that all the time. ONE COMMENT: I take issue with your use of the cetology chapter in Moby Dick. The chapter plays directly into the theme of the book. Love your blog!

    1. No, if it is the SOLE purpose of the scene. That is the snafu. That is not dramatic tension it is exposition/information dump masquerading as dialogue.

  8. Maybe it’s just me, but I would love to hear rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum. I’m super interested.

    Seriously though, awesome post. Thanks!

    1. Yeah, me too! So if there are any curators out there thinking of striking out in a new direction, yes, you have a market.

      There’s a useful trick for ‘voice’ I learned in my years studying scriptwriting: cover the dialogue tags (conveniently all down one side in a script) and re-read. Can you still tell who’s saying what? If not, your voices need work.

  9. Thanks for the great advice, shared on my WordPress blog. I think Hemingway was an author who wrote great dialogue. My favorite novel of his is A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

  10. Sue Grafton! Oh my gosh, I feel like I’m walking beside Kinsey in her books. If Kinsey said, “Hurry up and get in the car, Christina,” I wouldn’t even blink. You feel like you’re there because the characters are “alive.”

    Is there any medium more guilty of “As You Know” than TV procedurals? Ah, the dangers of storytelling in weekly installments. When they do it it’s as if they’re performing a procedure on me. It’s become too painful to endure.

    1. Hahaha, yes! So true. I HATE info-dump dialogue, particularly as I used to be guilty of this heinous crime.

      1. I’m quite certain I recognize it now because I’ve written so much of it myself. You aren’t alone in that. ?

  11. Reblogged this on Her Headache.

  12. Your advice is as helpful as always! I do have one point of disagreement, however. #2 No weird dialogue tags. Now, I agree that tags like laughed, snarled, etc. should not be overused, but I think they can be used to enhance the experience readers have with the dialogue. Veteran writers often find their use irritating, yes, but we have to remember that the majority of our readers are not professional storytellers. They are not necessarily going to pick up the tone from dialogue alone because they aren’t necessarily immersing themselves as deeply – or, may I say, critically – in the text. Many are just looking for a good story to dive into, and they’re grateful for the author telling them what tone the character is throwing out. Even many high-profile authors use these “weird tags.” For example, my favorite author, sci-fi and fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson, uses such tags in his novels, and he has sold millions of copies of his books worldwide.

  13. It can elucidate? really?

  14. Reblogged this on Amy Reece and commented:
    And I thought I was pretty decent at dialogue…

  15. I don’t write dialogue…I create characters, let them talk to each other and I listen.

  16. I hit on ‘elucidate’ too. Loved that. What ires me is people writing dialogue between two people in one paragraph. Change of person speaking requires and new line, just as any action by a second person does. But, I like Ken’s comment. I hope I create characters that just talk to each other too. Reblogged on my blog. Great information…here! xo

  17. Reblogged this on MUFFY WILSON and commented:
    Ya gotta love Kristen. I learn something new from her every time I read one of her posts. xo

  18. To be fair, sometimes I refer to people by their name. A lot. To their face. But to also be fair, it’s something close to a joke within a certain group of people, so I wouldn’t do it with everyone. Character quirk for a story, perhaps?

    I’m not sure if this makes me both a terrible reader and a terrible writer, but I’m not blind to “said” as many dialogue advice-thingies point out. When I read dialogue, I also read the tag because for some reason I can’t skip it, if that makes sense? So if the whole dialogue is “said said said said” it starts to annoy me, even if there is action between. Good post in any case, as your advice is pretty much the most helpful I’ve read… but I still root for the occasional “odd” tag.

    1. Some writers overuse “said” so it DOES become annoying. And yes, that would be a quirk. Like Sheldon Cooper can be formal but if everyone is Sheldon then no one is.

    • Don Gordon Pierson on June 24, 2016 at 3:20 pm
    • Reply

    Excellent. I just took a page of notes summarizing your advice. Back to the editing board.

  19. Reblogged this on cwa115's Blog.

  20. “Kiss of the Spider Woman” was almost entirely dialogue. It was very interesting and I have enjoyed practicing this. People often say that they feel they are in the room when I write pure dialogue. I understand that his could get old, and that an entire novel of it might have been cute once, but probably not twice. However, I do enjoy the exercise and I think it helps build strong dialogue technique.

  21. I love writing dialogue because that is truly when your writing pits wheels to pavement.

    Thanks for the great refresher course! You state it all very well!

  22. You can occasionally fall into the trap of having the voices of your characters all sound the same. Well, maybe not you, Kristen.

    • pennywhistle on June 24, 2016 at 8:16 pm
    • Reply

    Noooo! (Valid exclamation point.) Ellipses are only EVER three dots in fiction. The four-dot variety is only used in legal or technical writing. It has a very specific purpose. It is never needed in dialogue, fiction, or any other form of writing.

    1. You are correct. Technically the four-dot doesn’t exist. If there is a fourth dot it is a period. But again, writers need to always be consulting style and grammar guides to get educated.

    2. Thanks for this. Sincerely, a recovering ellipsis addict.

  23. This was fabulous! Thank you so much. Now, we just need one of these on commas.

    1. True. I’m in therapy at the moment for my Comma Addiction.

  24. “I try to use tags as little as possible,” he answered glibly. “Because they don’t just slow down the dialog. They also tell readers the author thinks they’re as dumb as a sack full of doorknobs.”

    Give your readers enough clues in the dialog and they can figure out who is saying what. Like a separate voice for each character. Or a stutter. Or a thick German accent.

    Then, make damn sure your characters speak in a spoken — not a damn written — voice. None of us speak grammatically precise English. Not a damn one of us. We speak in sentence fragments. One-word sentences. Grunts. Groans. If you don’t believe me, take a field trip to the food court at the mall. And bring along a recorder. Then, pay serious attention to the conversations going on around you. I guarantee you’ll hear a lot of language and sentence construction that would have an ordinary high school English teacher foaming at the mouth.

    And whatever you do, never — and I mean never EVER begin a sentence of dialog with the word “for”.
    As in, “For I am tall enough and erudite enough to pass muster.” .

    The only human on the face of the planet who even MIGHT still begin speaking a sentence with that word choice might be Heathcliff.

    But he’s still stumbling around the moors and talking to himself. So, what does he know?

    1. Amen.

    2. “Get in the car.”
      “For what?”
      Never say never.

    3. Haha, true. But if I am setting a story in medieval England, surely I need to use formal English?

      1. Formal English IBM?… In the middle ages, ‘formal’ language would very likely have been French… The middle English spoken by the masses was anything but formalised. Dialects often varied widely from village to village, and very little was written down.

      2. If you tried to use the formal language of the day, chances are very few people today would be able to understand it. Go with what your readers can actually read.

  25. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    For those who need tips and tricks, support and help with their dialogue. Kristen Lamb published a very helpful post about this subject.

  26. Sorry, Kristen… but some your advice on punctuation could have a negative effect on acceptance by a publisher. Many publishers have their own style guides, and publishers in different English speaking nations also require different conventions. My publisher is UK based, yet uses the US convention regarding stops or commas inside quotation marks. However, they use the UK convention re. single and double quote usage. (Spellings depend on the origin of the author.)
    Other publishing houses have their own rules and style guides.

    You missed the most important convention regarding dialogue. It’s probably the one most commonly ignored by new authors (from the experience of my editing work, and my reading of self published Kindle books).

    New speakers should always get a new paragraph… even for a single word speech. Otherwise it become almost impossible to follow. This is especially so when dialogue tags are being kept to a minimum.

    It also gives the page a more ‘open’ look, which is less daunting to the reader.

    Other than these points, you give some sound advice, though I’m not sure that ‘Jake laughed’ is a tag. I would read it as showing a character laughing after speaking (or before if used before the dialogue.) Occasionally tags like ‘spat’, ‘whispered’, and ‘snarled’ are perfectly acceptable, especially where pity, sarcasm, or other subtexts are being used by the character so the words themselves might not convey the tone. No rules are written in stone, and following all the rules too closely leads to bland writing.

    Another point, touched upon here by Jeff Lee, is the way people actually speak. Many new writers seem frightened of using contractions in their dialogue, yet no one uses the full versions – ‘do not’, ‘will not’, ‘it is’, ‘you will’ – when speaking unless they’re deliberately emphasising something. (These days, words like ‘don’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘you’ll’ etc. are perfectly acceptable even outside of dialogue.)

    1. Part of being a professional is doing the research. It is incumbent upon us to know what is proper punctuation for where we are submitting. I disagree that my advice would have a negative impact on acceptance. Telling a writer she better learn to by god properly punctuate is probably a sound idea for someone who professes to want to go pro. Botching punctuation, for me, is the quickest way to pull me out of a story. It’s like trying to wade through misspelled words. I just don’t have the time or bandwidth for writers who make me do their work.

      As with all rules they aren’t set in stone, but are merely guidelines 🙂 . If we are going to break rules then we do them out of strategy and nor a place of ignorance. That is the realm of the amateur.

      1. You’re right, of course, but I remember when I was submitting for representation that there were some very specific requirements for submissions format. It was a buyer’s market, and they used it as a means of reducing their slush pile.

        One publisher or agent (I don’t remember which, or who) had an automatic ‘paste in the box’ submissions arrangement which didn’t like my old Mac’s file format so would reject all attempts to load it. I e-mailed to ask if I could e-mail the file, but just got an e-mail saying all submissions to be made via the website.

        My present publisher has preferences, but then at the end says but if that’s a problem send it anyway.
        He’s a small independent who’d rather see good writing, whichever font or format.

        Keep up the good work, Kristen.

  27. I dunno. Sometimes people actually do laugh through their words. But one has to be careful about how one describes it. As well, sometimes a line will be thrust out with such force that one can only describe it as, ‘he/she spat.’
    Hollywood has it easy. Booksters have to work harder to get the same effect. But one can’t be ham-handed about it. Don’t just throw words down onto a page. Think about what you’re describing and the way in which you’re describing it.
    All tags aside, no description at all leaves dialogue dimensionless, as if the two characters are disembodied souls floating around in outer space. I’ve seen books like this. I wouldn’t give you two cents for ’em. People are still people when they converse. They stand there, chain smoking, arching their backs, fussing with their hair, all the while chopping tomatoes. They also interrupt one another. Then their cells go off.
    When you’re finished, take what you’ve written and read it out loud. Then read it again. And again. Then don’t lie to yourself as to whether it sounds believable or not.

  28. I must be growing a wee bit. I’ve been reading your blogs and taking a few of your courses for as long as you’ve worn Viking horns. (A bit longer I think) In reading this blog I was actually aware of most of the things you mentioned, something I would not have been able to say three years ago. And part of that transition is most certainly due to your advice. In that same time I have penned three books, rewritten two of them.

    Hopefully my fourth (in progress) will have most of the good stuff you chat about in your blogs and courses.

    Thank you for all the lessons.

  29. My character dialogue sucks. I always feel like I’m forcing it into the scene or that I’m on a rant. Thanks for this

    • Jessica V on June 25, 2016 at 9:52 am
    • Reply

    I’m confused. What’s wrong with these two examples?

    “Have a nice day.” She closed the door blah blah blah….


    “Have a nice day,” she said. She closed the door blah blah blah…

    1. Nothing with the first one. Don’t need the tag on the second, assuming you don’t have a half-dozen people in the scene and the fact it’s probably her door to close, so she doesn’t need identifying.

      1. Nothing. In the example I gave however the punctuation was wrong. There is a PERIOD after day and before the next sentence. There is a COMMA if the tag “said” is used.

          • Jessica V on July 1, 2016 at 9:09 am
          • Reply

          Oh, okay so those were just the wrong one corrected. Whew!

  30. Thanks Kristen for a super blog post, as always. I’ll share this on Facebook because everybody needs to read it. And, so I’ll have it there to kick myself in my own dialogue tags when needed.

  31. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

    • N J W-W on June 25, 2016 at 11:23 pm
    • Reply

    Must share here that one time, I tried to read a novel where every tag line was, “he/she murmured.” Can you believe that? I could not finish it, which is a rarity for me.

  32. I agree with every one of these. My personal pet peeve, the dialogue tag that gets a non-digital book thrown against the wall, is— he ground out. I’m from a family of baseball lovers. When someone grounds out, it means he didn’t make it to first base. A sad state of things in a romance.

    1. ROFLMAO! Yes! Another one I hate is “he deadpanned”. I actually clench my fists when I see that one.

  33. Always great to have this reminder, and I have read similar advice in “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman.

    Oh and: “I’d imagine few people who’d hire a brain surgeon who spoke like a rap musician and conversely, it would be tough to enjoy rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum.” XD XD XD

    As a fan of rap music, I’d LOVE to hear that surgeon!

    I’m really glad I was taught so well at school on dialogue punctuation, but we can all make mistakes. One thing I really hate (and something I admittedly used to do) was the Inventive Dialogue Syndrome.

    “Did she used to write like this?” she questioned./ “Yes,” he responded./ “Why on earth?” she exclaimed. /”Because she was a bad writer,” he deadpanned.”

    Now I shudder when I see it in reading.

  34. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    This post from Kristen Lamb’s blog gives some good basic guidelines for using and punctuating dialogue. These principles can be surprisingly hard to master, so a good primer is always helpful. The one I see most often is the use of an action as if it were a dialogue tag. To add to Kristen’s list, I’d say, “Watch out for that darn Autocorrect in Word. If you have it turned on and you accidentally type a period instead of a comma after the dialogue, Autocorrect automatically capitalizes the next letter, so you end up with two punctuation gaffes, not one.
    Thanks, Kristen!

    • Diane Kasulis on June 26, 2016 at 8:15 am
    • Reply

    Wonderful advise although some of my favorite authors occasionally use something other than ‘said’.One of those rare moments when one can break the rules. Loved your post though.

  35. A primer, and refresher on dialogue is always helpful. I think some of the work I have done on learning to write plays has actually helped me. If you listen to any random conversation you will hear incomplete thoughts, incomplete stories but hardly ever the names of the two or three people talking.

  36. Great article for this green writer. I believe dialogue plays countless roles in good writing and agree that if it’s cumbersome and awkward no one will want to bother reading it. Time to revise, revise, revise. Thanks for the article.

  37. I will /always/ use actions as dialogue tags! Mwahaha, you can’t stop me!

    • Tonya Lippert on June 26, 2016 at 8:20 pm
    • Reply

    I found this useful and, I hope, easy to remember. Thanks. Tonya

  38. Thank you thank you thank you.

    Now can you please forward this blog post to the publishing houses who I see publishing more and more books with lines like:

    She asked suspiciously
    He answered easily
    She said hesitantly
    He said gently
    He explained
    He drawled
    She sputtered
    She finally admitted
    She replied instantly

    All from a couple of chapters of the same book, in case you’re wondering. I could go on . . . This is from an award-winning author from a proper publishing house (Big 5 imprint). I’m seeing this in a lot of new novels, and I don’t know whether it’s an industry trend or simply bad writing, bad editing, or both.

  39. I enjoyed this. I’m going to go back through the most recent Sue Grafton book I read (X) and take a look at her dialogue. I know her writing is clean and smooth, but I never looked for anything specific. After reading this post, I will review it.

  40. Great advice, Kristen. Dialogue can make or break a story depending on how it is used. Combined with the actions of the characters it shows a scene much more picturesquely than any amount of telling can. I love writing dialogue, but, as you have said, it can be tricky to get it just right. I have reblogged this at

  41. Reading aloud: the single best way to discover my dialogue reads like a transcript from a legal deposition where a cardboard manufacturer sues his accountant.

  42. This is very informative. Thanks! I will take note of this and be more aware of my writing in the future.

  43. I love using slang and seriously try not to over do it. But…I love using ellipsis too and find myself going after them like crazy. Thanks for the great. Post.

    1. Tereasa, I too use ellipsis. Forty years as a professional actor taught me to listen for hesitations in speech. I write dialogue, then do it out loud and put an elipsis where I hear the pause/hesitation. I really noticed the difference when I started doing all my novels in audio. Some places they fit…some places they don’t. I allow the characters to create their dialogue as it happens, I listen, and then write down how they do it. I only use ellipsis in dialogue. I use EM dashes in narrative if and when it works for emphasis.

      1. I agree, Ken… I too only use ellipses in dialogue. It’s all about the rhythm of speech.

        1. Chris, I was privileged to work with academy award winner Gene Hackman on Uncommon Valor. In conversation, he told me, “Kenny, dialogue is all about rhythm…Just get out of the way and let it happen.” I do the same thing with my writing. Just tell the damn story.

  44. Another awesome post, Kristen! Dialogue is tricky sometimes, but I’ve noticed when I read some of my favorite authors, they do dialogue so well I literally skip what tags they use because they aren’t needed. I write deep POV, but still find it hard not to use a tag or three now and then. Yes, still working on it. 🙂

    I tried to trackback, not sure it worked? I did, however, Press This post on my blog

  45. Another excellent article. I love writing dialogue. It’s my favorite part of drafting and revising. It’s setting and description that I gives me the hardest time. I despise reading pages and pages of what you’ve appropriately labeled the “weird dialogue tags.”
    He slammed the door. “I hate you,” he snarled.
    She tiptoed up the stairs and quietly whispered, “Can you keep your voice down?”
    “Come back here,” she bellowed.
    “You can’t tell me what to do,” Sally declared.
    “Oh yes I can, Peter insisted.

    It annoys the hell out of me to read dialogue tags like exclaimed, giggled, expressed, howled, etc. I agree with the other commenter about using as few dialogue tags as possible. If you can make your characters truly distinct so they stand out from one another then it should be obvious to the reader who is speaking. Easier said than done, I know. But make one character a verbose, charismatic, racist, drug dealing hillbilly with an unusual moral compass and a heart and they will always recognize Boyd Crowder on the page. You can give your characters an accent, props, a physical defect, but if you write them so they’re recognized you won’t need as many tags.

    I realize the importance of understanding the rules of punctuation, but I like it when writers break the rules to emphasize a point. Dennis Lehane is a master at this. He writes one word sentences. What. Did. You. Say.

    I’ve gone on pretty long, but I have a question. It’s a concern that’s been on my mind. I understand we don’t need to spell out dialects and you made a great point of demonstrating how to throw in a few words or phrases that will conjure up a vivid image of a good ole Texan for your readers. I’m getting into a touchy subject, but suppose you are writing a stereotyped character. For example, what if you are writing an African American character who speaks with a ghetto accent. Is it okay to write that into your manuscript or will it be considered offensive. I have the same question about writing uneducated, foul mouth, trashy characters regardless of their race. What if she’s a swamp lizard, trailer-trash crack-ho from South Louisiana? In crime novels with gangsters, gangs and other criminals do you write a character’s dialogue the way it would be spoken or do you clean it up. I’m not just talking about the offensive language. I’m asking more about the nature, content and colloquialism. I would appreciate any feedback you could provide. I hope my question did not offend anyone. It was not intended to be offensive. I’m just trying to figure out how to write a snippet or exchange between two characters. I’ve rewritten the scene four times. I need for the dialogue to sound authentic, but I worry about being offensive.

    Thank you
    Melissa Sugar
    Twitter @msugar13
    Melissa Sugar Writes

    1. Melissa, the last thing I worry about is being offensive or politically correct. To me it’s the same thing as revisionist history. I don’t write contemporary gangster/getto, but I do write post Civil War old west. I use all of the words used at that particular period for any African American characters I have. Matter of fact, my main protagonist in five novels, so far, is the first black Deputy US Marshal west of the Mississippi, Bass Reeves. He’s referred to…and sometimes by his self…as a manumitted darkie, a nee-gro, a smoke, African and, of course, nigger. I try to be as accurate as possible.
      Example: Southerners rarely referred to the conflict between the states as the ‘Civil War’…it was the War of Northern Aggression, Lincoln’s War, War of Separation or even the recent unpleasantness. Be honest.

  46. Reblogged this on Flynn Gray and commented:
    A great post on writing dialogue from Kristen Lamb.

    • Jan S. Gephardt on August 22, 2016 at 7:04 pm
    • Reply

    I posted a link to this blog on my 8/24/2016 post “Is your book a high-value item, or is it a low-value item?” at…a-low-value-item/ The specific topic within the post was two different dialogue no-nos you mentioned in this post, #2 and especially #6. Thanks for being a resource!

    1. Jan, your link is not good.

  47. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who thought they were fantastic at dialogue and wasn’t. Most times I’ve found that people who struggle with it are aware of it, though they can’t put their finger on why.

    Personally I find that limitations like the acceptability of what’s in a dialogue tags are far less relevant to improving dialogue than learning how to play with subtext. Issues like understanding motivation, tactics, and context will much better help a person who struggles with making convincing or interesting dialogue than black and white restrictions on their experimentation.

    Asking questions like, “Why did the character choose to say this now? Why is saying it in that way? What does he hope to happen and does he actually think he’ll get it?” (Even just “How would I DESCRIBE his tone?”) makes the writer think critically and naturally smooth over clunky, on-the-nose styles more so than worrying about if they can use “she laughed” as a tag. I think that’s a far better question much latter on and don’t necessarily agree with your philosophy here on what is okay. In fact, I consider it fairly problematic to be staunchly asserting that certain variations are never acceptable rather than discussing some of the controversy, anecdotes, and exceptions behind your philosophy.

    1. One of the most important things to remember when writing dialogue is that people seldom speak as they read or write. Many of the rules of grammar are ignored in speech… especially colloquial speech… and contractions are the norm rather than the exception.
      Sentence structures often fly out of the window when two or more people are talking, and more so if they’re arguing.
      It’s knowing when and how to replicate these transgressions that makes written dialogue sound natural.

      1. I don’t believe that’s the most important thing to remember if you’re trying to improve dialogue. I think that’s something to consider at one point, but I would never say that’s one of the first things to pay attention to. How realistic something should be is a stylistic choice, and I don’t just mean in a “you have the right to be weird,” sort of way, but a “fact is stranger than fiction,” and there are no real accurate standards for what is “realistic” fictional dialogue.

        Good dialogue could potentially be incredibly formal, stylistic, poetic, satirical, or even ridiculous (Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett or Calvin and Hobbes) and still work far better than something that is taken directly from a transcript. Good dialogue also might be incredibly realistic, attempting to truly emulate speech, like Tobias Woolf or Hemingway or James Joyce or Mark Twain.

        But mostly I think that conventions of speech will come organically with understanding of emotion, motivation, subtext, and narrative, and that if you struggle with dialogue, mechanically “replicating these transgressions” is not the best solution. By focusing on things like grammar, punctuation, dialogue tags, and sentence fragments you’re going to be artificially inserting idiosyncrasies instead of genuinely showing the world as you see it, making your character appear like an alien who is just trying to fake being human, not someone who is actually fueled by his humanity. And I say that having witnessed writers doing so.

        Most people talk in full sentences with appropriate grammar far more often than some tips imply, but really the point is understanding WHY and WHEN we don’t (and why someone might be inclined to write formally). Thinking about things like how we breathe, how our thoughts evolve, how we try to not to be interrupted are aspects that are easy to forget about while writing and useful to be pointed out. “Don’t speak in complete sentences,” isn’t going to help your dialogue improve all that much, perhaps even make it worse, but “Think about your characters breath, whether or not someone is going to let them get it all out, or when an idea occurred to them,” is something that many new writers can use and apply organically.

        “It’s knowing when and how to replicate these transgressions,” is exactly what should be discussed, not just pointing out what’s those transgressions are. “Knowing when” is the most important thing, and I don’t understand why writers give others overly-simplified instructions and expect them to figure out the application without any additional insight. The insight into the why is more useful than the do.

        Understand your character’s fury, relate to his concerns, be on his side, see his humanity, and you will bark like him without conscious effort. Try to tell an audience, “Look how mad he is!” and it’ll read like that’s exactly what you’re doing. “Replications of transgressions” will look like replications, and that’s the issue.

        Which is a long way of saying don’t worry about contractions or grammar or dialogue tags until you get the meaning right, the point right, the emotion right. The contractions and grammar and dialogue tags will often follow,. and if they don’t I’m sure you’ll easily find someone to point them out to you.

        1. You say, and I quote: ‘I would never say that’s one of the first things to pay attention to.’
          Well, neither would I. I said it was one of the most ‘important’ things to remember, (not the first) and I stand by that.
          The first thing is to make sure the dialogue makes sense to the reader. The reader doesn’t have the luxury of visual cues, like facial expressions and body language, to help follow the speakers intended meaning, so it’s all down to the words.

          Of course, you’re quite correct in saying that realism is a stylistic choice, but a writer who’s deliberately playing with stylistics is rarely an inexperienced writer and will know how to write convincing dialogue should he so choose. The blog post was intended for new and developing writers (though we’re all developing all the time… or at least I’d hope we are.)

          As an editor, the MSS I see have already got past the initial stages of acceptance by the publisher, so those showing really poor grammar etc. have been filtered out by the time I get to see them.
          In the books I’m given to edit, which have been accepted for publication, the most common errors where natural sounding dialogue is concerned, are those I’ve detailed.
          Very often, all a piece of dialogue needs is to put in a few contractions. I might make a margin note or two to suggest adding ‘er’, ‘um’, and today’s favourite, ‘like’, where appropriate to the speaker, but these kinds of suggestions are for the writer to choose to use, or reject. They are, after all, the author. Occasionally, the ‘voice’ might feel wrong for the character, or two characters might be too similar in their speech. I’ll then tell the author… maybe giving an example… and ask for a piece to be rewritten. It’s no good having a teenaged defendant speaking in the same way as a judge or magistrate. It just doesn’t work. The vocabulary will be completely different.

          You do make some very salient points regarding the speakers’ moods and emotions, and their reactions to each other, but then, my post was just a short comment… unlike this reply to you.
          I think. basically, we’re both singing from the same hymn sheet. Getting dialogue right isn’t easy for everyone. It’s probably the one feature that marks out the new writer, against the experienced ones. Fortunately, it’s easy to sort out, and I rarely see the same errors repeated when a writer’s second book gets passed to me for editing.

          1. From my experience, if you are a beginning writer, especially one who is having a hard time with dialogue, focusing on contractions is like cleaning up the sawdust before you’ve really got the cut of the wood right. Worry about the mess after you’ve fixed the major issues.

            I don’t disagree with your point, but I think the order is important. Is that people don’t talk like they write the most useful thing for someone who is bad at dialogue to think about? I don’t believe so. In fact, my point is I think it’s very important to NOT think about the meta issues and trying to copy idiosyncrasies until it gets to the point where all it “needs is to put in a few contractions,” because otherwise you’ll polish something that will just need to be taken apart, possibly with the wrong varnish, or too merely much use of it. When I discuss with an unsatisfied writer the evolution of the character’s thoughts and state of mind, they naturally start adding in contractions and sentence fragments without it being suggested. Then they don’t have to think about when or where because they organically understand.

            The fact that is is a blog for new writers is why I’m so concerned about it. It’s not bad to talk about the fact that you’re not using contractions or sentence fragments, or your dialogue tags are distracting/obnoxious, but the writers who are really going to heed this advice are exactly the ones who need encouragement in being experimental, not flatly told “No.” The ones who need to be reigned in are going to write off technically inaccurate statements like “dialogue isn’t spoken in complete sentences.” From a first glance, it just sounds bossy, closed-minded, and inaccurate. Advice that should be applied in moderation needs to discuss that moderation. Advice that is controversial needs to mention that not everyone agrees, otherwise, for someone who is a good listener but is being inundated with contradicting will just be left even more overwhelmed.

            People who really struggle with dialogue struggle with imagining the situation, getting inside it, feeling it. They’re removed from the characters’ heads. Focusing on meta issues like whether or not the grammar is realistic is going to pull them further out of it.

            More importantly, the fact that we rarely speak like we read and write is a pretty complicated issue. For instance, I wasn’t even sure if you were suggesting people need to be more realistic or less. Some people have staunchly insisted to me you do NOT use ums and ers, for example. Others, like yourself, disagree. Both state it like it’s fact, like it’s obvious and universal. This is really confusing for someone who doesn’t have any of his own opinions yet.

            So when it comes to things that don’t have a universal, concrete answer, the conversation needs to precede the conclusion, or least be mentioned. How much SHOULD we write like we speak? How much SHOULDN’T we? That’s controversial, debatable, and stylistic, something to be thought long and hard about over the course of a career and will be totally different for each and every author. Giving advice that doesn’t leave that open ended – Just write more realistically! – is problematic for writers who are drawn towards the rules, the ones who need to be more open to doing things that not everyone else will be okay with. It creates a glass ceiling, a limitation that, once shattered, knocks the writer back down, forced to climb up again. For perfectionists, people who follow this kind of advice strictly, that’s incredibly hard to do, to stop doing what works acceptably enough and write crap in hopes of finding something better. Instead they find themselves trapped doing something that technically works, but is missing heart, personality, or originality. It is far better for them to take risks early on and understand the rules via insights rather than having someone give them an overly simplified instruction. These are great tools in the aftermath, but inhibiting in the early stages.

            Stylistic decisions like whether or not to use “um” and “er” (a pretty controversial issue as you have probably experienced) needs to be thought about, encouraged to be critically analyzed. New authors should feel free to play with surface level choices.

            This is a blog for new readers and that is exactly why staunchly black and white tips that try to quickly solve the symptoms of the problem scare me. Brand new writers with no pre-existing opinions need help sorting through the vast amount of information, varying philosophies, and subjectivity out there so they can decide things for themselves, because if you do have terrible dialogue, making sentence fragments and a few contractions isn’t going to fix it. I’ve seen people do just that and you spend a lot of time trying to get them to stop worrying about so they can pay attention to the real problem. I’ve given out writing in which people completely missed the real, pretty big flaw because they were so busy rewriting it in their style.

          2. OK, I see where you’re coming from. I think we’re closer to the same wavelength than we realise. We’re just starting from different points on the scale.

            Your ‘new writer’ is a lot newer than mine. That’s my mistake. I suppose I’m forgetting that some of the readers of this blog are pretty raw… not that being raw is necessarily bad. Perhaps ‘fresh’ might be a better term, and freshness in writing is almost always good.

            I guess I was assuming that writers aspiring to publication would at least be somewhere close to being publishable… and therefore reasonably competent. My mistake again; I can remember how bad (in retrospect) the earliest submitted version of my first novel was (I cringe at the memory).

            As I said before, the ‘new writers’ whose work I see have already been accepted by a publisher as being fit for publication once edited. I suppose I’m being spoiled, really. Even then, there are some whose ideas and plots are brilliant, but whose text needs a lot of fine tuning… but the publisher thinks they’re worth it. (Sometimes simply because English isn’t their first language.)

            Others require little more than a few typos, and suchlike, dealing with to be grammatically correct, but need the facts in their fiction (if you follow my drift) checking for accuracy, and any credibility and continuity issues sorting out. A good plot (with good dialogue) is no good if the reader doesn’t believe it.

            Let’s hope there’s still a readership for the written word in this world that’s fast becoming more and more a world of comic book movies and animated games. Mainstream movies and TV have already, for the most part, become incredible in the worst sense of the word… with a few notable exceptions. With luck, if written fiction survives, it won’t follow suit. Even fantasy needs to be believable to work.

  48. I see newer releases switching from “quotation marks” to ‘singles.’ I’m guessing to save space, ink, etc. Should indies be doing this?

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