That’s What He Said: How To Write Dialogue!

Whether you’re writing the Next Great Novel or, arguably more important to its readers, the Next Great AU Crossover Fanfic, your characters probably have revealing, hilarious, and/or heartbreaking conversations with each other. I’m going to go over some ways to make those discussions more polished, so your pure genius shines through!

  1. Make sure your characters don’t all talk alike.

Maybe one of your characters talks in long, rambly sentences, while another is terse. One may say, “Oh my goodness,” while another curses like a fishwife. (Hey, if you were married to a fish, you’d be pissed, too.)

  1. Use “um” and “well” and “like” and such sparingly.

I just finished a round of edits on my latest romance novel, and my editor took out a lot of the verbal tics in my dialogue. In real life, a lot of us add filler phrases like “you know” or “I mean” to many of our sentences–you know what I mean? On the printed page, too much of that can drag your story down.

  1. Use non-standard English and dialect sparingly as well.

You can suggest accents and regional or cultural speech patterns by sprinkling just a few non-standard words, phrases or constructions throughout. If you try to spell every single word exactly as the character says it, you will drive your reader nuts.

  1. Avoid Floating Head Syndrome.

Oh, this is a struggle for me. In early drafts, I have line after line of dialogue with no descriptions of facial expressions, gestures, or physical actions. I’m in the middle of making long lists of facial expressions and gestures and things for my own reference in the future.

Of course, if your characters can do something while they talk–make a cake, clean their guns, whatever–that helps a lot!  And this brings us to the next thing…

  1. Use some action tags! 

OK, you know how you can wind up with “Sam said,” “Dean said,” “Sam said,” “Dean said,” all the way down the page, and it sucks? Say what the character is doing, and then when he talks, we’ll know it’s him. It’s fantastic! Like this:

 Sam shut off the mixer. “Castiel is going to love this cake.”

 Dean looked up from the Glock he was cleaning. “Why, is it angel food?”

  1. Use synonyms for “said””¦when it makes sense.

If you have plenty of action tags, you can use “he said” most of the time instead of coming up with different things like “he pointed out,” “she declared,” etc. Avoid fancier ways to say “said” when it doesn’t give the reader any extra information.


 “Step away from the frosting, Crowley, or I’ll shoot,” Dean threatened.

Sometimes, though, another word for “said” is a clever way to let the reader know when the words and the tone of voice don’t match.


 “Shut up,” Crowley suggested.

  1. Avoid inverted dialogue tags, maybe?

My publisher won’t accept “said Andi” or “asked the psychic.” It’s always “Andi said,” “the psychic asked,” etc. I had to change about two hundred instances of this in my story. But you know what? I think they’re right. It does sound better now.

If you have any other tips, I would love to hear them, because obviously, I’m still learning. Or if you just want to chat about what you’re writing, or about Supernatural, feel free!

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

27 replies on “That’s What He Said: How To Write Dialogue!”

One difficulty I’ve had, say when I do NaNo (the only time I write creatively, usually), is that when people have a conversation if I don’t make it clear what they’re doing I lose all sense of how long this conversation should take. Like, each person said six things, so are they done grocery shopping now or are they still in cereal aisle? I’m not a good writer…

Oh yeah, that is a really hard thing to gauge! And I’ve definitely read books where they’ve gotten it wrong and I’ve thought, “Welp, that was a short shopping trip.” :D A lot of times I’ll do a little time jump, like, “As they left the store…” haha.

 Sam shut off the mixer. “Castiel is going to love this cake.”

 Dean looked up from the Glock he was cleaning. “Why, is it angel food?”

I Lolled. And now want to make cakes instead of writing assignments. Thank you for this.I’m meandering between a screenplay for my course and a novel, just for the sneaky creative fun of it.

Dialogue writing is even trickier for screenwriting/play writing because, although it cuts some of the expression and tags out, I always pan between great walls of dialogue without any movement to something like: VICTORIA: Tell Robert to go fuck himself (Victoria puts down her teacup and looks for a sugar spoon.) kind of action just to fill in space.

I read a lot of 19th-century lit, and write smutty romances set in the 19th century, so I use inverted dialogue tags. I tend to save them for really emphatic lines, and I also tend to shove them right into the middle of spoken sentences:

“Your mother,” said Constance, “has all the warmth and family-feeling of a Borgia with a headache.”

They do change the rhythm, which can be useful, but like everything else it’s all about balance.

The only problem I see with a stock list of gestures and such is that not every character will make the same tics or gestures.  Gestures are as unique to people as their manner of speaking is.  In acting class back in the day, my teacher told us all to figure out what the character’s “psychic gesture” was.  It was the one gesture or posture that perfectly encapsulates what your character is about.  I try to use that in my writing, too.  Think about a friend or a loved one — there’s usually one thing (or two) they do that is totally just “them.”  Maybe they do it when they’re happy, or when they’re not, but it’s telling nonetheless.

But yes, if you know your character’s mannerisms, it’s great to pepper them into dialogue to support what they’re saying, or what they’re trying not to say.  Maybe Sue’s hands flutter when she’s lying.  Maybe Frank can scratch at his mosquito bite when he’s tense to add a further sense of irritation to the scene.  It’s also great to add in what your character is thinking — we all think all the time while we’re speaking — to get from one thought to the next, or to admonish ourselves for saying something stupid, or whatever.

Your tips are great, Bryn!

YES to number 3! I skipped whole paragraphs in Wuthering Heights because one character’s words were written in the really broken “English” he spoke. I tried sounding out the words, thinking they were written phonetically, but I gave up. I can’t even remember what the character’s name is because I automatically skipped over everything he said. Who knows, maybe the stuff he was saying would have made me actually like the book, if I could have understood it.

As is Roddy Doyle:

–Will yeh listen to tha’ fuckin’ eejit? said his father.

And Terry Pratchett:

Crivens! I kicked meself in ma ain heid!

But I’d add the caveat that you have to be at least halfway familiar with the accent for it to make any sense or be readable for longer than a page or so.

Love both of these samples so hard. I get a huge kick out of well-written dialect. And I’ve never been to the UK, the little British dialects familiarity I’ve got is picked up from TV and stuff… but I am multilingual, so that probably helps.

I get in trouble with floating head syndrome a lot when I write short stories. I like to blame this on the fact that I also write scripts for comics or films where leaving a block of text about what people are doing and then dumping in all the dialogue is more the done thing. It makes me feel better than admitting that it’s probably because I like writing dialogue more than actions and I tend to want to barrel along with the conversation rather than make sure that the scene remains set.

I like your idea for keeping a stock list of expressions and gestures on hand to prevent this. I think I may give it a try.

Leave a Reply