Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Writing Basics: Dialogue

Last month I talked a bit about diversity in YA and MG, and asked for some recommendations. Thanks so much to those of you who replied either in the comments or directly. I am in the process of compiling a list. If you have any recommendations, feel free to leave them in the comments. (I sure would appreciate it!)

But in the meantime, let’s talk about writing. For my first post of the year, I decided to start with some writing basics: on writing dialogue. Let’s take a look at different ways of writing dialogue:

Direct dialogue:

Here are a couple of examples of direct dialogue.

Example A: 

“Magic is not something to play with,” my mother said.
“Why not?” I asked.

Example B:

My mother kicked her slippers off. “Magic is not something to play with.”
I cringed at the mess she left on the floor. “Why not?”

Notice where the , and ? and “ ” are.

Also, in contemporary fiction, characters don’t exclaim, suggest, mutter, sigh, or laugh their dialogue. They simply say/said it, or ask/asked it. If you must have a tag line, make it said/says or asked/asks. When possible, try not to use tag lines at all.

Indirect, implied, or reported dialogue:

Sometimes, depending on the voice and style, you may want to use indirect dialogue rather than direct. The following are some examples of indirect, implied, and reported dialogue:

My mother always said that magic was not to be trifled with, that it was a serious thing.

Magic is not to be trifled with, my mother always said, and I believed her.

Then she told me that I shouldn’t play with magic, that I should take it seriously. I wish I’d listened.

Magic should be taken seriously, my mother says every time she catches me tossing rats’ eyes into the cauldron.

I shouldn’t play with magic, my mother says. I should respect its power and read the Book of Shadows every morning. With great power comes great responsibility. Yes, just like Star Wars++, she says. My mother is such a nerd.

  • Dialogue should be believable. Try reading your dialogue aloud to another person, or have another person read it back to you in order to determine if it rings true. 
  • Dialogue should advance the action of the story without stating the plot. Don’t try to use dialogue to give readers a summary of the plot, or to “explain” things. 
  • In fiction, characters don’t always say what they’re thinking. People sometimes hide their true feelings or agendas. 
  • Dialogue should reveal something about character in a subtle way, without trying too hard. 
  • Don’t overuse characters’ names. It sounds unnatural. 

Which of these examples works (or “sounds”) better?

Example A:

When I got home from prison, Lola was waiting for me on the front steps.
“Hi, Jamie,” she said. “You’re home from prison.”
“Hey, Lola,” I said. “Yes, Lola, I’m home after being in prison for a year because I ran somebody over with my car and didn’t stop.”
“I missed you while you were in prison, Jamie. I never went to visit because I was busy raising kids and taking care of your brother who is also my husband and by the way we’re expecting! Again!” Lola said.
“I missed you, too, Lola. That year I spent in prison was really tough. Congratulations!” I exclaimed.
“Jamie, were you hurt while you were in prison and I was here raising the kids and taking care of your brother?” Lola asked.
“I don’t want to tell you, Lola,” I said. “I’m embarrassed.” I walked away.
“Please tell me, Jamie. I’m your friend. Jamie, I’m here for you.”

Example B:

When I arrived, Lola was waiting for me on the front steps.
“You look like hell,” she said.
“Thanks. I just got out of prison. What’s your excuse?”
“Got knocked up by your good-for-nothing brother.”
“So how was the prison food?”
“Nothing to write home about. But better than your cooking.” I went inside.
“Dang, girl. You can’t just slap that bulldog and leave the room!”

(Note: no bulldogs were hurt during the writing of this example.)

++Just making sure you were paying attention.


  1. Great tips! Dialogue can be tricky. Common problems I see are when it seems forced or unnatural. Example A is like nails on a chalkboard. Thanks for sharing.

    Peace & Love
    Crystal @ The YA Society

  2. Thanks! Dialogue is so,eying I'm working on, so this helps :)

  3. Interesting. What about first person POV, this gets even trickier, doesn't it?

  4. eeps--guess, the last two paragraphs are in 1st POV. Sorry, jumped the comment gun. Example B, is much smoother.