Developing Dialogue

by Valerie Allen

There are no absolute rules about creating good dialogue, but some guidelines help shape a story. Well written dialogue goes unnoticed by the reader because it sounds right. It is not stiff. It is not artificial. It is written to sound as if someone is speaking.

Dialogue has three main functions:

1.  Reveal more about a character
2.  Establish the relationship of one character to another
3.  Move the story forward

Some basic guidelines for using good dialogue include:

•    Create a new, indented paragraph every time a different character speaks.

•    If more than one speaker is involved in the conversation use his name to clarify who is speaking.

•    Use the noun verb form (Valerie said  not said Valerie).

•    If it is a statement the tag is said (“Valerie is here,” she said.).

•    If it is a question, the tag is asked (“Valerie, where are you?” she asked.).

•    Use movement, a gesture, or a tag instead of said/asked (Valerie opened the door. “Here I am.”).

•    Use vocabulary appropriate to the age, education, and culture of the speaker, as well as the context of the story.

•    Write conversation as it is spoken, not structured as standard written English.

•    Dialogue is primarily about what the speaker believes his problems or conflicts to be.

•    Punctuate so it is easily read without confusion (George, the alligator bit me. George, the alligator, bit me.   George! The alligator bit me.).

•    Do not have characters continuously address each other by name.

•    Do not have characters giving each other information they already know; use exposition. (Not: Valerie, I remember on your birthday, May 10th, we went on a picnic. Use: Valerie, I remember last year we went on a picnic for your birthday).

•    Avoid dialects; use just a few telltale words to give the flavor of the dialect and then return to standard English.

•    Contractions make dialogue more natural.

•    Use apostrophes for missing letters (don’t, you’ve, goin’)

•    Incomplete sentences are common in dialogue (“Where are we going?”,“Out”, “Where out?”, “Quiet—l or you’re not going!”)

Good dialogue does not confuse the reader. Good dialogue clarifies what is being said by whom.

Valerie Allen writes fiction, nonfiction, short stories and children's books. ( She assists writers with marketing via Authors For Authors with two major annual events in warm and sunny Florida. Meet the Authors Book Fair in the Fall and the Writers' Conference: Write, Publish, Sell! in the Spring. Valerie loves to hear from readers and writers! Contact her at:  and AuthorsForAuthors.


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Melinda Brasher said...

Good tips. It drives me CRAZY when people use "said" when it's a question. Otherwise, I'm a big fan of "said." I wish English teachers had never drilled into us that list of synonyms for said. They're unnatural and draw attention to themselves when the dialogue itself should be the star. The more common and functional ones (he whispered, she shouted), used sparingly, are okay, but otherwise cut all those "he opined," "she expounded," "he declaimed," etc.

Karen Cioffi said...

Valerie, great advice on writing dialogue. I love your list of tips. I agree with Melinda on the tags. And, the tip on using action instead of a said/asked is important for new writers to be aware of.

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