WRITING TIPS: The art of writing dialogue by Sandi Wallace

This is the first post in our latest blog series, Writing Tips for Writers. Australian crime writer, Sandi Wallace, has very generously shared her tips on the art of creating dialogue (and set the bar tremendously high for this series!). We hope these tips inspire you to “play” with more dialogue in your writing – enjoy:-)

Whether you write short stories or novels, genre or literary fiction, dialogue is an essential element. Do it well, and it brings your story and characters off the page and satisfies your readers. Do it poorly, it jars, and your readers lose interest.

Picture a day in which you don’t speak to any living creature. You don’t even talk to yourself, internally or out loud. You manage to fill your day doing things, but there is no personal drama, reminisces, jokes, debates, arguments, flirting or other interaction. Your day of solitude would be full of description, but probably seem quite bland no matter how beautifully you wrote it up.

Imagine how natural yet meaningful dialogue could transform that narrative into dynamic story. Instead of that day of silence, you interact with others and it gives meaning to what you’re doing. Perhaps that interaction creates obstacles to what you need or want. Or challenges your thinking or actions. It might give access to vital backstory. Draw out emotion, reactions and actions between you and the other person (or people). Now you, as characters, shift into truly believable people. And readers are hooked deeper into your story.

While dialogue is realistic and seems natural, it is quite different to everyday conversation. In conversation, a chunk of what we talk about is relatively mundane, and the whole exchange can be little more than a way to pass some time.

We don’t have time to waste in storytelling though. Every word on the page must need to be there. It must move the story forward or develop the characters and enrich the story for readers. If it doesn’t, delete it.

But writing dialogue isn’t simple. There are rules to know and follow. It is an art-form that needs to be practiced. The magic will come from you, the writer, through your characters.

These are some of the key points to consider when crafting dialogue:

2. Make it clear who is talking, but show rather than tell, if possible.
Where it is necessary to name the speaker, keep the tag simple with Jack/Jill said, he/she asked, or other tags that don’t detract from what they are saying, which is the interesting part.

3. Avoid very long dialogue paragraphs.

4. Break up lengthy dialogue with cause and effect talk between the characters or with action or reactions.

For instance, an expert might be giving my character Georgie, who is a journalist, technical information for one of her investigations. He has plenty to impart, but a monologue is boring to listen to in real life and equally so in a novel. So, they’d bounce off each other. Georgie would interrupt with questions, the expert might ask if she’s following, and Georgie would react to the horrible thing she’s just learnt or run a hypothesis in response. The expert’s paragraphs could well be several lines, while Georgie’s might be a single word, a sentence, or a non-verbal response.

6. Give the characters unique voices and be consistent. For instance, use their quirks of phrase or non-verbal gestures (but don’t overuse them).

Someone’s pet phrase might be, “Are you with me?” Another might say, “It’s not for me to say, but…” as they launch into gossip, or call everyone “doll” whether they are male or female.

7. Use colloquial language and slang appropriate to the character – ordinary or familiar, rather than formal or literary speech. Not too many of us actually say “whom”, for instance.

8. Jargon might be difficult to understand, so weave in information that explains it directly before or after the first usage of that jargon, or avoid using it.

For instance, say my character Franklin, who is a country cop, is dreading the various experts about to arrive at a crime scene. I’d write something like this…He muttered to Howell, “Look out – PS.” If the approaching bloke wasn’t from professional standards, it’d be one of the other specialist units. Homicide, maybe.

9. Minimise or cut the mundane, like greetings and farewells. Jump in late, leave early is a dialogue motto worth remembering.

10. Characters can waffle. Repeat themselves. Lose track. Forget the point. Get interrupted. It is okay for this to happen if that serves the development of the character or the story. Take care not to let the scene run on for too long though.

11. Punctuate correctly and consistently. For instance, internal dialogue is often italicised, while spoken dialogue should be contained within quotation marks.

In Australia and the UK, we generally use single quotation marks around dialogue in novels or short stories, while we use doubles for blog posts, and doubles are used in America. Placement of other punctuation marks, like commas and full stops, can also vary in the region you are writing for. In Australia, we generally place this punctuation within the quotation marks, but there are exceptions. 

12. Use a new paragraph to indicate a new speaker. There are exceptions for this too.

For instance…
“What about–“ Georgie’s question was drowned by Kat’s, “Have you slept? You look terrible.

13. Not matter how fabulous the dialogue is, if it isn’t essential, delete it. 

14. Say it out loud. Does it sound natural? Is it awkward? Are there too many repeated sounds? Is it saying the same thing twice? Is it clear who is speaking? Or on the flipside, are there too many dialogue tags?

I hope this post has inspired you to practice the art of writing dialogue. Here are six activities you might like to have fun with.

1. Study dialogue in some of your favourite books or by the authors you hold in high esteem.

Look at the punctuation. The dialogue tags. Other methods they employ to show who is talking. How does this dialogue differ to a real-life conversation? Is it as easy to read aloud as it is to read on the page? Does it sound natural, believable? Have the characters got unique voices and turns of phrase, or do they all sound the same? Do they use everyday, familiar language, slang, common contractions? Or, if they speak very formally, does that suit them? (If they are an English professor, formal language might fit, but it’d sound wrong for a cop on the beat.)

2. Record a conversation between you and a family member. Transcribe that exactly, as if you are a court reporter.

Ensure each new speaker has a new paragraph and include a tag for each change of speaker to specify who said what. Report any non-verbal actions or reactions without interpretation.

3. Write that same conversation as a scene in your story or novel.

Come in early, leave late, and embellish it as much as you like because it needs to be interesting, sound natural and have a point. Delete some of the dialogue tags. Include intermittent tags and responses, reactions and actions of the other character so the reader knows who is speaking.

4. Choose a comic strip or a section of a graphic novel with speech bubbles.

Write that conversation as dialogue in a short story or novel with quotation and other punctuation marks, dialogue tags and non-verbal reactions.

5. Go back to the books you used for the first activity to study internal dialogue now. Internal dialogue is the character’s exact thoughts as they think them.

For instance, instead of, Franklin was wondering when backup was going to arrive, which is passive, I might write…

Franklin fixed on the dusty road past the gate. Where the hell is backup? He needed ten pairs of hands here to his one.

His internal thought is italicised. And as it is captured while it is happening to him, it is in present tense, while the narrative around it is in past tense.

How do your favourite authors manage when the character is thinking? Do they use internal dialogue? Do they italicise the character’s direct thoughts? Do they add tags, like he thought? Or is a tag unnecessary because it is already clear who is having that thought?

6. Write a scene that includes both dialogue between two characters and some inner thoughts of one of those characters.

In writing this scene, make the internal dialogue the direct reaction of one of the characters to what the other person is saying, where it wouldn’t pay for them to say it aloud. Or maybe they think it, self-censor, then can’t help it and say it anyway!

Happy dialogue writing.



Australian crime writer Sandi Wallace is a self-confessed addict of crime fiction in print and on screen. She has four rural crime thrillers and two collections of gripping short crime stories published so far. Sandi’s crime-writing apprenticeship comprised devouring as many crime stories as possible, developing her interest in policing, and working stints as banker, paralegal, cabinetmaker, office manager, executive assistant, personal trainer and journalist, and she has won a host of prizes for her long and short crime fiction. Sandi’s latest release is rural crime thriller Black Cloud, in which a routine police welfare check at a farm in the small community of Korweinguboora has a shattering outcome. She is currently at work on a standalone psychological thriller.

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