Pam McCutcheon aka Pamela Luzier


Dialogue Tips:


Speech is sloppy.  People leave out words, compress phases into single words, and use contractions.  Speech is impromptu, not planned.  People tend to have habitual phrases they repeat.  People make mistakes; some people make the same mistake repeatedly.

Dialogue is a simulation of real speech, and as such, writers should attempt to bring the above qualities into their work, but while realism in dialogue is a good goal, don’t go overboard.  Write every line with purpose and reason.  Just like a film gives the illusion of motion, dialogue gives the illusion of conversation, but it isn’t real.  It appears spontaneous, but it’s planned.  It appears chaotic and unexpected, but it’s reasoned and highly controlled.

Characters must have a reason for talking.  We may have to put up with real people who talk about nothing, but we don’t have to put up with characters who do the same.  Dialogue should fulfill the following roles in the manuscript: 1) advance the plot, 2) reveal character, 3) reveal motivation, 4) substitute for narrative, and 5) establish tone or mood.  If the dialogue doesn’t fill one of these criteria, then it probably can be removed without adversely affecting the story.

Making Dialogue Believable

Common Mistakes

- Using too much dialect
- Being too true to the way people speak (adding um, etc.)
- Sounding too stilted (
Stilted: "Mother, I will not go to the prom with Charles Melhan. He is gross. His hair is always so unpleasant." Better: "Mom, there’s no way I’m gonna go to the prom with Charlie. He’s gross. And his hair...yuck.")
- Using people’s names too often in conversations ("Yes, Jane, that’s true.")
- Losing track of who said what
- Unclear pronoun references (
If there are three men in a room and you say "he," which "he" are you referring to?)
- Conversations where characters tell each other what they already know ("As you know, Bill, your mother died last year and when the will was read...")
- Don’t have a character talk about things they wouldn’t normally discuss. ("So, Mister Bond, as long as someone doesn’t hit that big red button marked self-destruct, my plan to take over the world will be complete by the time I get on my yacht sailing for Tahiti in one hour.")
Long, boring speeches to provide information to the reader. See above—just longer… Show versus Tell applies to dialogue as well as narrative. Having a character tell something is still telling.
- All characters sound alike
- Having a character hiss dialogue when there’s no "s" in it
- Overusing synonyms for the word "said" (
cried, howled, bellowed, whispered, stated, replied, voiced, expressed, vented, responded, uttered, shouted, vocalized, asserted, declared…)

Tips to Improve Dialogue

- Read it aloud—better yet, have someone else do it
- Use contractions
- Keep attributions to a minimum
- Interrupt long passages of dialogue with beats or interjections from other characters
- Make each character’s dialogue distinctive and you won’t need tags
- Get into character—become an actor or picture an actor playing your character

Dialogue/Narrative Mix

- No hard and fast rule; aim for lots of white space.  If you need a guideline, analyze a book you admire.  What is its dialogue/narrative ratio?  Use that ratio as a guideline for your work, but only use it as a guideline.   The best judge of balance is your own instinct.  If it feels right, it probably is, but you need to be honest with yourself.


Just as a manuscript’s appearance and presentation must adhere to a set of conventions and formatting requirements, each component of the manuscript must also conform to its own set of conventions.  Dialogue is no exception.  Certain mechanical and formatting rules should be followed when writing dialogue.

Dialogue Tags: Dialogue tags show the reader who’s speaking.  There are two primary types of tags:

- Speaker attribution tags attribute the dialogue to a specific person by using a form of the word "said" ("This is a speaker tag," John said.)

- Action tags/beats show action with the dialogue; the assumption is that the person performing the action is also doing the speaking. (Mary grinned. "And this is an action tag.")

To connect a tag to dialogue with a comma, the tag must show how the speaker said the dialogue and/or use a synonym for the word said.  If you use a tag to show the character’s action alone, do not connect it to the dialogue with a comma.  If you use an internal beat, connect both sections of the dialogue with a comma if it’s one sentence; connect only one if it’s more than one sentence.

Correct Usage:
"Take me away from all this," Eve pleaded.
Eve pleaded, "Take me away from all this."
speaker attribution tag
Adam laughed. "Sorry, babe, no can do."
Adam laughed, saying, "Sorry, babe, no can do."
action tag

speaker and action tag
"You pig." a tag isn’t needed here
"Hey," Adam said, "we said no commitment, remember?" internal beat/one sentence
"You said it," Eve protested. "I didn’t." internal beat/two sentences
Incorrect Usage:
"Take me away from all this." Eve pleaded. implies these are two events
Adam laughed, "Sorry, babe, no can do." you can’t laugh dialogue
"You pig". place end marks inside quotes
"Hey," Adam said. "We said no commitment, remember?" this splits one sentence into a fragment and a full sentence
"You said it," Eve protested, "I didn’t." this connects two full sentences with a comma


Other Formatting Issues:

Dashes: use an em dash (— or --) to indicate a sudden break or change in thought, to set off a phrase, or to show interruption.  Commonly used in place of parentheses, colons, and semicolons in fiction, dashes are used primarily in narrative.

- Sudden break: "You can’t—you wouldn’t."
- To set off a phrase: His tentacles—all ten of them—engulfed me.
- Interruption: "I don’t think I—" John halted, thinking.

Ellipses: use ellipses (...) to show a pause, faltering speech, or speech that trails off.  Ellipses primarily appear in dialogue. Within a sentence, do not use any spaces before, within, or following the ellipses.  At the end of a sentence, follow the ellipses with an ending punctuation mark (period, question mark, etc.) if the thought is a complete one.  Otherwise, do not.

- Pauses/faltering speech: "I...I don’t know. Is"
- Trailing off, no end mark: "I can’t believe she..."
- Trailing off, with end mark: " That’s true...."

Internal Quotation Marks: Use single quotation marks within double quotation marks.

- Internal quotation marks: "She said, ‘You pig.’ Can you believe it?"

Internal Thoughts: Underline internal thoughts—don’t italicize them.  Don’t use quotation marks.  If the majority of the thought is underlined, show stress by omitting the underline.

- Internal thought: She called me a pig?


(Copyright 1996 by Pam McCutcheon)

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