University of Oregon MFA candidates, Nicky Gonzalez and Ndinda Kioko, talked about what dialogue should be doing and shared tips and tricks to help identify when it isn’t working and how to fix it.

“You Talkin’ To Me?” Dialogue Dos and Don’ts

By M. K. Martin

What is dialogue? On the surface, it’s simply two or more characters having a verbal exchange. But there’s really a lot more going on…

Dialogue is what brings a story to life. It deepens our characters, moves the story forward, and conveys the mood and the general psyche of our characters.

Elements of Dialogue:

  • Immerse the reader in the fictive world
  • Fit the character
  • Reveal the character
  • Forward the plot

Dialogue Don’ts

  1. Lots of adverbs, especially with dialog tags
    • Sometimes called a “Swifty” after the character Tom Swift, this dialogue always has to clarify just how someone says something, she said excitedly. Watch the -ly words
  2. Info dumps, lots of exposition
    • “As you know, Gladys is my sister and we have lived our entire lives in this town…”
    • This type of dialogue forces your characters to discuss something that should either be well known to them or common knowledge to all. It’s usually a means for writers to add information through the characters’ interactions.
  3. Accents – speech doesn’t need to be onomatopoeia
    • Writing accents is difficult, but using non-standard spelling is fraught with grammatical danger. Is it goin’ or goin, gonna’ or gonna?
  4. Repeatedly use a character’s name
    • “As you know, Gladys, ….” “That’s right, George….”
    • When we write dialogue we want it to be clear who’s speaking to whom. An easy solution might seem to be to use names in dialogue, but this rings false. Most people do not address each other by name during conversations.
  5. Avoid exclamation points!
    • No matter how excited your character is, try to limit your use of exclamation points. And never, ever use more than one!!!!!

Dialogue Dos

  1. Words should be evocative enough that you don’t need adverbs with dialog tags.
    • This ties back to the Swifty problem above. Rather than using adverbs to describe how a person is speaking, let their own words do the work.
  2. Approximate realistic speech, but don’t mimic it.
    • In real life, people forget what they meant to say. They hem and haw. They restart, they trail off, they go off on tangents (Squirrel!).
    • This kind of dialogue might be very “true” but it will also be confusing and likely boring.
  3. Escalate tension (between characters, in the environment).
    • This means all dialogue should be doing work in the scene, not just passing time. Leave out the “Hi, how are you?” “Fine, thanks, and you?” “Great.” “Nice weather we’re having…”
    • Instead “Hi, how are you?” “Seriously? After everything you did?” “So you found the letter?”
  4. Don’t stretch out the dialog – end a point of high tension.
    • “Bob, I’m pregnant.” End scene. Now the reader has to turn the page.
  5. Unique voice, especially when there are more than two speakers.
    • A teenager shouldn’t speak with the same polish and eloquence as an elder statesperson, who in turn don’t sound like a street hustlers, whose speech is different from…well, you get the idea.
    • Also, remember that characters can and should code-switch. José is going to talk differently around his friends than he does around his mother.
  6. Subtext (hidden meanings), especially between speakers who are close/intimate.
    • Let’s say our character Lee is standing next to the overflowing laundry bin. As her room mate enters, Lee remarks, “I can’t believe our washer is broken.” Clearly, she’s not directly stating her meaning here.
  7. Vary sentence length
    • Dialogue can make much greater use of run-ons and sentences fragments in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable in narration

Dialogue isn’t conversation. It’s conversation’s greatest hits. –Jessica Page Morrell