Tag Archives: Dialogue

Guest post: Thinking About Dialogue, by Holly Kench

English: Parallel dialogue (2008)

English: Parallel dialogue (2008) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Today I’m thrilled to welcome back Holly Kench, who has agreed to do another guest post for me. You may remember Holly’s last guest post for this blog, and the several plugs I’ve given to her website (because it’s, well, awesome). Today she’s giving us her thoughts about dialogue, which in my experience always comes in handy when writing fiction. Take it away, Holly!


Writing effective and convincing dialogue is difficult. Great dialogue seems to come effortlessly to some authors, but for most of us, it takes a lot of hard work and attention.

It’s important to realise, though, that even the worst dialogue writers can eventually learn to write good dialogue. Like most professions or hobbies, writing is the performance of innumerable skills, and while some of these skills might come naturally to certain writers, they are ultimately accessible to anyone who has the endurance to keep working at it. And writing is nothing if not a study in endurance. As is so often the case when working on writing, reading is the best way to improve one’s dialogue. Take note of the dialogue you read. If it’s good, what makes it good? If it’s bad, why? Read, think, learn and rewrite.

Make your dialogue great, because it is essential for making your story enjoyable and convincing. In the meantime, don’t forget to carefully consider the stylistic choices you make regarding how to contain that dialogue. The mechanics of your dialogue, the dialogue tags and beats (or action tags), that hold your dialogue together are an important part of the flow of your narrative. They pull the dialogue into a scene. Furthermore, fixing and improving your tags and beats is so much easier than working on the dialogue itself, once you know what you are doing.

As almost every writing style guide will tell you, avoid overly complicated dialogue tags. The simple “said” option is usually best because, as readers, we ignore the tag while comprehending the speaker attribution. I’m not as fussy as some readers and editors when it comes to this. Some people suggest that “said” (and possibly “asked”) should make up your only dialogue tags, that you should let your dialogue do the rest of the work. However, sometimes other tags are useful. For example, consider:

“Cute,” Lucy said.

“Cute,” Lucy squealed.

“Cute,” Lucy said, with a squeal that pierced my ear drums.

All of these can work for the same statement with a different purpose. The first would work best as part of a dialogue heavy scene, in which the statement “Cute” is the purpose, but the second contributes to Lucy’s characterisation. The third affects the characterisation of two characters, but focuses on the response of the narrator. There is nothing wrong with the second option though because it affects our understanding of the character and the development of the story. Just make sure that, if you choose to go with a more complicated tag, it has a purpose. And no, mixing it up is not a satisfactory purpose.

Of course, speaker attributions are not always necessary and sometimes they act more to disrupt the dialogue than contribute anything. A simple “Cute.” might be all you need. Equally, dialogue beats are always useful. They can act to provide speaker attribution, place dialogue within a scene, provide a rest between lengths of dialogue, contribute to characterisation, move the story forward with the assistance of and yet outside of the dialogue, etc, etc. Consider the option:

“Cute.” Lucy sprinted towards a pair of red Manolo Blahniks, before picking one up and clutching it to her chest as though it were a new born baby.

Providing movement with your dialogue mechanics is also a good way to keep your scene from feeling stale as dialogue progresses. I have to admit that, because of their clear potential, using dialogue beats can become somewhat addictive, particularly for those more comfortable writing narrative than dialogue.

However, the flow of your dialogue is the most important thing to consider. Avoid using any of the above options too frequently, and instead attempt to create a balance between tags, beats and dialogue without attribution. Mix it up so your reader doesn’t become bored with your scene.

The most beneficial process you can utilise for your dialogue is to read it aloud. This is worthwhile advice for all forms of writing. Often the words we write sound fabulous in our minds but when we read them aloud we are more able to hear the flaws. Reading dialogue aloud is all the more important as the rhythm of our dialogue attributions becomes apparent.

Rhythm, flow and variety are the keys to dialogue mechanics that will ensure your dialogue is read in the best possible light.


Thanks Holly! For those who found this useful, Holly is planning a follow-up post on internal dialogue, to be published later in the year. :)

Holly Kench is a writer and feminist, with a classics degree and a fear of spiders. She enjoys writing fantasy and humor, and is convinced we can change the world with popular culture. Holly writes about her life as a stuffed olive at www.stuffedolive.com.au and manages “Visibility Fiction” for the promotion and publication of inclusive young adult fiction at www.visibilityfiction.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.



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Tag, you’re it!

English: Parallel dialogue (2008)

English: Parallel dialogue (2008) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I’m going to talk about dialogue tagging. You know, the “John said” bit of “I can’t understand it,” John said. (Okay, that was probably a little basic, but please stick with me.)

There has been a lot said about dialogue tagging, and how to do it best. Get rid of all the adverbs. Take away all the descriptive tags and replace them with “said”. Ignore them entirely. Naturally the whole thing is terribly confusing and novices like me have no idea which advice to take.

Take adverb reduction, for example. Look, I get where this is coming from. The dialogue should speak for itself without the writer having to explain the tone of voice. “What are you doing?” Mary asked sharply could be replaced with “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mary asked, enriching the dialogue itself and eliminating the need for the description.

But the thing is, I think there is room for the occasional adverb. Not all the time, and not at the expense of better written conversation, but description can sometimes add to the whole experience. Besides, I am yet to read a book completely devoid of adverbs. So maybe, I’m thinking, it’s not a case of cutting them out entirely, but instead thinking about each one and whether it’s really needed. Most won’t be, but some will.

Okay, onto the “said” brigade. This is replacing the likes of “Speak for yourself,” Andrew muttered with “Speak for yourself,” Andrew said. The idea behind this is that again, the dialogue should speak for itself without the author having to explain things. Again, though, I’m less than convinced. Sure, it makes the text neater and simpler, but then again I think you lose some of the texture and feel of the scene. Perhaps again it’s a case of selective application. I’m just not sure.

Finally, there’s the idea of removing tags altogether. Now don’t get me wrong, no one does this exclusively, but it can work pretty well with conversations. It doesn’t necessarily mean not tagging the dialogue at all, just removing the “he said”, “she said” type of thing. For example:

Sarah frowned. “I just don’t see where you’re going with this.”
“Are you kidding? It’s as clear as day!” Mark got up and walked to the window, looking out. His frustration was obvious.
“It’s as clear as mud. What exactly to you hope to achieve?”
“World peace. Power over the universe. Or, failing that, I’d settle for getting that prick fired.”

I quite like this. It’s clean, it’s neat and it doesn’t detract from the conversation. However, what it can do is make the reader lose track of who is speaking. To use the example above, at this stage of the dialogue it’s clear whose voice is being used, but if it went on for two or more paragraphs I would find myself counting back to work out who is saying what. Maybe I’m alone in this – just about every book I’ve read this year has had this in several places, with me getting confused as to which words belong with which character. But then again, maybe I’m not alone, and authors (or editors) are inadvertently sacrificing clarity for the sake of brevity. I don’t know. So, while I quite like the technique, I think it should be used wisely so there is as little reader confusion as possible.

So where am I going with this post? Well, I don’t have advice to offer or an argument to make; instead, it’s really just a train of thought about how best to write dialogue. I don’t know that there are any right or wrong answers, but as I inch ever closer to the editing stage of my manuscript, I find myself thinking more and more about this sort of thing.

In the end, I think it’s down to personal tastes. Sure, there are some rules, like don’t go over the top with your descriptions – after all, isn’t it better when the reader has to make their own picture? It gets them so much more engaged – but really, do what you think feels right. Sure, some people won’t agree, but there are others who will … and if you get it horribly wrong, your editor will point it out anyway, right?*


*Unless, of course, I have it horribly wrong, in which case feel free to correct me. Thank you!



Filed under writing