Dialogue Revisited

First, I want to report that my interview with Jim Christina and Bobbi Bell on LATalkRadio “The Writer’s Block” went well and was fun. I always like talking about my books and writing in general. Also it was great that they both liked A Killer Past. (Wouldn’t it be terrible if the hosts said something like, “Why did you write such a terrible book?” Or “What makes you think you’re a writer.”)

But they didn’t say that, and if you would like to hear the interview, go to LATalkRadio “Writer’s Block” , scroll down to the archives and click on December 2016.  (My interview is December 8, and even if it doesn’t have a description of the interview, if you click on download it will start.) My only complaint is I sound so OLD. Really old.

Now, on to the topic of this blog:

Last week I attended a critique group that includes both multi-published and new-to-writing members. One of the pieces reviewed had errors in how the dialogue was presented. A few days later, I started reading an “Independently Published” (vs Traditionally Published) book and gave up because of the way the dialogue was written. Therefore, I’m listing a few points to remember when writing dialogue.


Double quotes are used to indicate spoken (aloud) dialogue. They are not used to indicate thoughts. Those should be indicated using italics or by rewording how the internal thought is expressed. Such as: I’m dead meat, Susan thought. Or, Susan knew she was dead meat.

If a speaker is quoting what someone else said, the single quote is used to indicate what the other person said, and the double quotes start and finish what the speaker says. That is, He said, “My mother told me, ‘John, it will come back to haunt you,’ and she was right.”

Commas and periods fall within the quotation marks; the colon and semicolon fall outside, and the dash, question mark, and exclamation point fall within when they refer to the quoted matter, outside when they refer to the whole sentence.

If writing a lengthy bit of dialogue that will take more than one paragraph, the double quote mark is left off the end of the first paragraph, is used to start the second paragraph, and so on until it appears at the end of the paragraph that ends that speaker’s dialogue.

You start a new paragraph whenever the speaker changes.


 Written dialogue is not the same as spoken dialogue. A lot of what people say to each other is mundane and repetitive. Dialogue is written so it moves the story forward. Use narration to convey mundane information such as people greeting each other or asking about the weather. Writing dialogue isn’t about replicating a real-life conversation. Leave out the ers and ums. Leave out whatever isn’t necessary.

Do not use dialogue as an information dump. Yes, you can work information into dialogue, but make sure it isn’t something the characters would already know, and don’t use it to convey the information to the reader if it doesn’t make sense. Don’t let the dialogue go on longer than people would normally talk without being interrupted. The exception might be if someone is training another person (and even then we usually interrupt or ask questions, or add our own information or opinion).


Don’t just have talking heads. Use action tags (rather than just he said or she asked) to indicate what the characters are doing while this conversation is going on. It might be facial reactions or physical movements.


Try to make the words and style of speaking unique for each character so what they say or how they say it indicates the speaker as well as a tag line.

Men, women, and children are going to say things in different ways. Men usually use shorter sentences (except when talking about something they really like or know a lot about, such as cars, sports, their job). Women often use more descriptive, longer sentences. They are more apt to know who the designer is, that something is fuchsia not just pink, but not why the car is making a strange noise. Children will often leave words out, talk fast, especially if excited, or will talk in a halting manner if shy or afraid. For most children the choice of words will be simpler.

Poorly educated speakers and Harvard grads will probably use different words and examples when they talk. Foreigners, speaking in English will probably use different speech patterns. (Remember foreign words are italicized.)

But don’t over use dialect or accents. Just a few words can indicate the speaker’s dialect or accent. Too many words make reading the dialogue difficult and can draw the reader out of the story.


All dialogue should have a purpose. Use it to develop character, to move the story line forward, and/or to create tension. (A good way to do this is have what the character says and thinks be in opposition.)

Study how other writers handle dialogue.


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18 Responses to Dialogue Revisited

  1. Anne Schelzig says:

    “Very helpful, Maris,” she said,

  2. Anne Schelzig says:

    “Uh oh,” she said when she noticed the comma at the end of the sentence.

  3. Cindy Nord says:

    Lots o’ marvelous reminders here, Maris…I so look forward to each of your blog posts. Happy holidays to you & yours, sweetie.

    And keep writing…keep focused…keep true to your lovely ‘voice’.

    ~ Cindy

  4. JoAnn McGrath says:

    You are a wealth! Thanks. JoAnn

  5. This is a great reminder for all of us, Maris! Sounds like a perfect presentation at a writers’ conference 😉

  6. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful tips! I hope everyone reads them and takes them to heart!

  7. Maris Soule says:

    Thanks, Melissa. I’m always surprised when a writer doesn’t do the punctuation correctly. It seems like that should be something that’s taught in school.

  8. Hi Maris,

    First, congrats on the successful interview. Second, all the info and advice regarding use of dialogue is very helpful and good reminders to many of us.

  9. More great info as usual, Maris!
    Thanks for sharing
    Good luck and God’s blessing

  10. Carole Price says:

    Always an excellent reminder, Maris.