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This month we have expert advice from tutor Nicki Taylor on how to create convincing dialogue, Ten Top Tips is all about making money from your travels, Useful Websites shows you where to get your work peer reviewed and, as always, there’s a little Inspiration for you too!

Let’s Talk About Dialogue

By Nicki Taylor

If you have a problem with writing believable dialogue, can I suggest you develop the normally frowned-upon habit of eavesdropping? Although we are taught that it is impolite to listen in on private conversations, for a writer it’s almost an imperative. As well as providing us with endless ideas for fiction, it can help us to develop an ear for the speech patterns, rhythms and idiosyncrasies of the way different people speak.

So when you’re in a café, walking along a street, or anywhere else you are surrounded by chit chat, tune yourself into the snatches of conversation you can pick up and use them to add naturalism to your dialogue.

This is not the same as saying you should copy real speech slavishly. Although dialogue in fiction gives the impression of real speech, it is no more than an impression. If you were to write down actual speech, with all its inconsistencies and inelegancies, its digressions and hesitations, you would soon lose your readers.

In real life these things are part and parcel of communicating with others, the small talk we use to strike up acquaintanceships and maintain friendships; but dialogue in fiction should always fulfill at least one of three functions:

1. To reveal character

2. To impart relevant information

3. To progress the story

Cut out ‘empty’ speech which does not do any of these.

Large as Life and Twice As Natural

There are various ways of making speech sound natural, and each character’s style of speech distinctive. In speech, we rarely say ‘it is’ or ‘cannot’ or ‘would not’ – ‘it’s’, ‘can’t’ or ‘wouldn’t’ are perfectly acceptable. We also have our own distinctive ways of talking. One of your friends may have a strong local accent and use many dialect words; another may have pet phrases or clichés that litter her speech. Assign your characters quirks of speech such as these as a way of developing their personalities.

But these things should be handled carefully – too many quirks can become irritating to the reader. Avoid the ‘cor blimey’ effect when conveying dialect. Just hints here and there of the slang and non-standard grammar are enough to allow the reader to ‘hear’ the speaker’s dialect without transliterating the whole speech.

Avoid over-using names – listen to normal speech and you will find people don’t generally use the name of the person they are addressing very often, unless they need to attract their attention.

Equally, there is no need to use the name in the narrative every time a person speaks, as long as it is clear from context who is speaking at that point.

Vary the length of speeches – a passage of short snappy exchanges can work well, but if it goes on too long it can lose the reader’s attention. Add variety with longer speeches, but again, don’t make them too long, unless you want to create the impression of a character who is in love with the sound of their own voice. If you do have one character holding forth as a means of conveying necessary information within your story, break it up by brief descriptions of their movements or behaviour as they speak.

Direct or Indirect?

There are two main ways of representing speech on the page, direct and indirect speech. Direct speech is trapped within speech marks and hedged about with speech tags such as he said, she replied. Indirect, or reported speech, does not use speech marks, but speech tags are usually required.

In most cases, direct speech works best. As its name implies, it is the most vivid and lively, as the character speaks directly to the reader. What should be noted is that direct and indirect speech differ in more than the presence or absence of speech marks. To take an example:

‘I’ve come about the job. Saw the advert in yesterday’s Herald,’ said Bridget. (Direct speech)

Bridget said she had come about the job that had been advertised in the previous day’s newspaper. (Indirect speech)

Note that once it is changed to reported speech the language becomes more formal, and both the pronouns and the time indications are changed. ‘I’ve’ becomes ‘she had’; ‘yesterday’s Herald’ becomes ‘the previous day’s newspaper’, and so on.

Punctuation of Dialogue

Remember that you should always write in complete sentences and that punctuation marks always come before the final speech marks.

‘I’ve come about the job.’ Bridget smiled nervously at the receptionist. (Correct)

Here you have two sentences, each one ending with a full stop. This is fine, each sentence can stand alone and make perfect sense.

‘We’re rushed off our feet today.’ Said the receptionist. (Incorrect)

Although We’re rushed off our feet today is a complete sentence, Said the receptionist cannot stand alone. It does not make sense without additional information. What is it that she said? We don’t know. If we turn the words spoken into a clause by ending it with a comma, the entire (single) sentence becomes completely understandable:

‘We’re rushed off our feet today,’ said the receptionist. (Correct)

Similar rules apply when narrative breaks up the dialogue:

‘What I can’t seem to grasp,’ he said disconsolately, ‘is what happens in the middle of a broken speech.’

The words spoken are one sentence, so the narrative which interrupts it is part of the same sentence.

‘I find it very confusing,’ he said. ‘The punctuation doesn’t seem to follow any regular pattern.’

Here, the words spoken are two separate sentences, and he said ends the first sentence. So the words spoken after the interruption start with a capital letter because it’s the start of a new sentence.

If the interrupting narrative is a sentence in its own right, then you have three sentences.

‘What about this paragraph?’ He pointed at the page. ‘There doesn’t seem any sense to it.’

Don’t forget that a new paragraph is started every time the speaker changes. This is the simplest way of ensuring that the reader is never confused about who is speaking.

So there you have it. Now go and listen in on people, but try not to get arrested for stalking in the process.

Nicola Taylor has an MA in Literary Research and was for a time a lecturer in English at the University of Central Lancashire. Since starting her writing career in earnest by taking The Writers Bureau course in the 1990s, she has been published in a wide variety of publications and has had four non-fiction books published. She has ghost-written several books, edited a number of travel books and has run a small publishing company. You can find out more about her at her websites www.nicolajtaylor.co.uk and www.highland-dreams.co.uk.