Check out some books by your tutor Fiona Veitch Smith … (click on the book covers to find out more)

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free creative writing courseThis is the sixth session in my online creative writing course. This week we’ll be looking at:

In my experience as a creative writing teacher I’ve discovered that there are two types of writers: those who are good at dialogue, and those who are not. If you are good at dialogue, make sure you’re not just writing a script; if you’re poor at dialogue, you need to allow your characters to break out of their headspace and address the reader face-to-face.

Finding your voice

dbc-pierre-vernon-god-littleWhen a publisher or editor talks about finding your voice, they’re not just talking about how your characters speak, but your distinctive tone of voice as the writer. In any piece of writing, the author, whether intentionally or not, becomes a character in their own work. This of course is more obvious in a first person text where the author is consciously taking on the voice of one of the characters to tell the story. Take for example this extract from Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre:

Ole Clarence Whoever was shaved clean like an animal, and dressed in the kind of hospital suit that psychos get, with jelly-jar glasses and all, the type of glasses worn by people with mostly gums and no teeth. They built him a zoo cage in court. Then they sentenced him to death.

Exercise 22:
Now rewrite the above passage in the voices of a male judge, a female reporter and the grandmother of Clarence. How does your voice change? How have you achieved it?

But your voice will also take on a character in a third person text where the narrator is distant and not part of the story. What do I mean by this? Writers adopt a tone to tell a story appropriate to the period, genre, intended readership and style of a piece of writing. For example, ‘she enjoys walking through a pile of leaves’ could be written in different ways:

She loves the scrunchity scrunch of the leaves on her wellies – for a children’s book

She finds a rare pleasure in walking through the leafy shed of Autumn’s fall – a historical novel

Exercise 23:
‘When he looked at her he realised for the first time that he liked being with her.’
Rewrite this for a young adult novel, a contemporary romance, a historical and a children’s book. How does your voice change? How have you achieved it?


Dialogue reveals character and the relationship between characters. No two people speak alike and you should try to give your characters a verbal as well as a physical distinctiveness. Do they use a certain turn of phrase? A slang word? A swear word? Do they stutter or um and ah? Are they pompous or verbose?

Exercise 24:
Take the three characters you used in Exercise 22 and work on giving them verbal distinctiveness.

val-mcdermid-the-mermaids-singingDialogue is also a means of exposition (communicating essential information to the reader about the background of the story) and is one of the basic ways of activating your text by showing not telling. That may sound strange but allowing a character to tell the reader something rather than just narrating it in the text, is a legitimate means of ‘showing’. Let us listen in to the following conversation between two women, Carol and Penny, in Val McDermid’s The Mermaids Singing:

‘What happened to sisterhood, Carol?’ she complained. ‘Come on, give us a break. Surely there must be something you can tell me apart from “No comment”.’
‘I’m sorry, Ms Burgess. The last thing your readers need to hear is ill-informed off-the-cuff speculation. As soon as I’ve got anything concrete to say, I promise you’ll be the first to know.’ Carol softened her words with a smile.
She turned to walk away, but Penny grabbed the sleeve of her mac. ‘Off the record?’ she pleaded. ‘Just for my guidance? So I don’t end up writing something that makes me look like a pillock?’

Exercise 25:
What does the above dialogue reveal about Carol and Penny’s characters? What does it say about their relationship? Who has the power in this exchange? If you don’t know the book, what do you think the characters’ respective jobs are?

Exercise 26:
Now take the grandmother and the judge from Exercise 22 and write a dialogue exchange between them. Do not mention that they are a grandmother and a judge – you should try to communicate that through their speaking style, vocabulary etc. The first time you do this, make sure the power is with the judge, then rewrite it with the power dynamic reversed. How did you achieve this?

Dialogue layout and punctuation

Look at ‘The Mermaids Singing’ passage from above and note how the dialogue is laid out.

Speech marks – single speech marks are used. This is the more modern style, although double speech marks (“) are preferred in children’s texts. Double speech marks are used in the passage to indicate a quote or indirect speech (“no comment”) within direct speech. It’s also considered quite ‘postmodern’ not to use speech marks at all. Sometimes the start of a speech is indicated with a dash (-) or sometimes it just flows continually in the text. The idea behind this is that the tone of the speech and the individual verbal tics, distinctive syntax and vocabularly of the character should be enough to cue the reader that someone is speaking. See for example the extract from ‘Trainspotting’ later in this post.

Commas – commas and other punctuaion (. ? !) precede the close speech mark. Note that when the reported speech was at the end of the sentence, the full-stop came after the close quote mark but before the close speech mark ‘ … “no comment”.’ However, if “no comment!” ended in an exclamation mark, it would have to be before the close quote mark as it was part of the original quote. Hence it would read ‘ …”no comment!”.’ If dialogue is broken at the end of a sentence, then resumed (eg ‘‘Off the record?’ she pleaded. ‘Just for my guidance?’) then the restarted speech will begin with a capital letter but the dialogue tag with a lower case one. If the speech is interrupted mid-sentence, then it resumes with a lower case one eg ‘Could you tell me,’ she pleaded, ‘will this be off the record?’


A good rule of thumb is that every time a character speaks, it starts a new paragraph. However, if one character speaks then performs an associated action then speaks again later, it can remain in the same paragraph. You can also have mixed actions by more than one character in one paragraph, but not mixed dialogue. For example:

John hovered in the doorway, wondering if he needed to wait for a hostess or just sit down at the first table he could find. ‘Oh miss … ‘ he said, trying to catch the uniformed blonde’s eye. She ignored him. ‘Oh miss …’ he tried again.
John fought back an urge to salute. ‘What is it?’ she snapped, looking at his finger nails.
‘I er, was wondering … er, nothing. Sorry. I’ll go somewhere else.’

Dialogue tags – the ‘he said, she said’. These should be kept to a minimum as otherwise it reads like verbal ping pong. When only two characters are talking, you only need to use a dialogue tag the first time a character speaks, thereafter the individual voice of the character should be recognisable without additional clues. You can also remind readers of who is saying what by interspersing it with action relating to the speaking character. For example: ‘… you’ll be the first to know.’ Carol softened her words with a smile.’ This technique is preferable to ‘… you’ll be the first to know, ‘ Carol said with a soft smile.’ or even worse: ‘ … you’ll be the first to know,’ Carol said placatingly with a smile.

Exercise 27:
Take this imaginary scene between the judge and the grandma and rewrite using the minimum of dialogue tags and superfluous adverbs:

‘I’m sorry Ma’am, I don’t have time to talk,’ said Judge Logan impatiently.
‘But you must,’ said Grandma Clarissa pleadingly. She grabbed his arm and held him as forcefully as her eighty years would allow her.
‘Please unhand me!’ demanded Judge Logan.
‘Not until you hear what I have to say,’ Grandma Clarissa stated steelily.

Talking heads

Beware of allowing your characters to carry on talking for any length of time without breaking it up with action or description, otherwise you’re in danger of producing a radio script.


david-almond-the-fire-eatersThe use of dialect in prose is a controversial issue. Some authors say you should never try to reproduce a character’s dialect, but others have no qualms doing so. Take this example from Irvin Welsh’s Trainspotting:

Any minute now though, auld Jean-Claude’s ready tae git doon tae some serious swedgin.
- Rents. Ah’ve goat tae see Mother Superior, Sick Boy gasped, shaking his heid.

Then compare it to the more accessible use of dialect in David Almond’s The Fire Eaters:

Dad winked at me.
‘When tomorrow comes,’ he said, and he changed the subject to McNulty. ‘Mebbe he’s there every Sunday morning,’ he said. ‘I should try to get to talk to him, eh?’
‘Aye,’ I said.

With so many variations of spoken English around the globe I think it would be arrogant to say that only one form is acceptable. However, I think it’s possible to reflect regional variation without clouding the meaning of the text. The key for me is the use of the occasional words in dialect and the use of local syntax and rhythm as long as they can be understood without too much deciphering. Less is more, as they say. But if you’re not very familiar with a dialect, don’t use it at all as it will just sound like a Dick van Dyke caricature.

Exercise 28:
Take the passage in Exercise 27 and rewrite it in a regional dialect with which you are familiar. First try writing the whole piece in dialect then just the odd word to give it flavour. Which do you prefer?

As usual, please feel free to post your comments or questions below. In the next creative writing course session, local poet Andy Philip will be talking about how to write poems.

78 comments on “Writing dialogue

  1. Rebecca Zugor on said:

    Hi Fiona,

    I love writing dialogue! I tend to find it easier than writing descriptive passages, although there’s still room for improvement in my work. I’m looking forward to trying out the exercises at the weekend.

    I always wondered what to do when having mixed actions by more than one character in a paragraph in the middle of someone’s dialogue, so now I know! Thanks.

    I hope the ‘postmodern’ idea of using no speech marks does not become commonplace. I read a story recently where there were no quote marks and it was very distracting.


  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Rebecca. I’m a fan of dialogue myself. This post came mainly from all my experience of students who struggled with something I found came so naturally. Have you tried your hand at playwrighting? You’ll probably be good at that too.

    Not a great fan of ditching speech marks myself. Have you read Morvern Callar? I would have quoted from it but I couldn’t find my copy.

  3. Rebecca Zugor on said:

    No, I haven’t read Morvern Callar, Fiona. I haven’t written any plays yet, but as I enjoy dialogue so much, maybe I should give it a go sometime.

  4. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Well Morvern Callar has a lot of f-words and no speech marks and it’s hard to effing tell who’s effing speaking at any one effing time because they all effing eff at the same time!

    Regarding playwrighting, there are some really good recommendations in my Bookshop. Also, in a few weeks time I’ll be having a guest blog from a well-staged playwright (he also writes film, radio and tv). I’ll let you know when he’s going to be on.

  5. Soobdoo on said:

    Thanks Fiona,
    As ever a lot to take in here.
    I struggled with the exercise using dialect.
    Nothing puts me off a book faster than dialect and so I can’t imagine ever using this in my writing.

  6. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Sue. I don’t mind a bit of dialect myself as long as it’s used sparingly. By all means continue to stay away from it if you don’t emjoy reading or writing it.

  7. writinggb on said:

    Dialogue IS so very important. That’s what I find the most challenging part of what I am attempting in revising my grandmother’s memoir. How does one make up dialogue for a non-fiction book? Yikes.

    And yet, if there’s no dialogue, I find it all too distant. My solution so far has been to use dialogue more as the spice of a dish and action as the meat. I know what happened (i.e. plot), and I can easily imagine the actions that must have gone with these plot points. Imagining dialogue that will not only sound authentic but also be at least essentially “true” is extrememly difficult, however.

  8. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    YOu do have a difficult job here. But I agree, best to put dialogue in. I still think the best approach is to treat it as if you were writing fiction. In fiction, you get to know your characters then allow them to speak and act in a way true to themselves. It’s no different with your grandma, other than she really existed. Good luck with it.

  9. Katiyana on said:

    Oh goodie! I’m glad to see that it’s perfectly acceptable- even preferred that when it is only two characters are speaking you don’t constantly have to say who’s speaking.

    I like dialogue.

    In fact, I’ve had a critique before in which I was told I use too much dialogue. I think I’ve cut it down a lot, but it’s still there in large amounts.

    Which is why I think going for a screenwriter would be a wise career choice for me (with working on my novel(s) on the side, of course.

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  13. Exactly what I was looking for! No other tutorial on dialogue as thus far helped me so much, thank you!!

  14. Wow, this is a unique site. It was actually fun to play around with these ideas. Would love to have feed abck on what I tried.

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Hi Pat, I’m afraid I can no longer give feedback on exercises as it was starting to take up all my time. But if you post it here maybe some of the other writers working through the course would like to give you some feedback.

      All the best

  15. Rick on said:

    You just helped English 101 at Wright State University Lake Campus :)

  16. Hi Fiona, great site. Just wondering if there are any rules on whether you should use “he said” or “said he”. For example: “I can’t remember,” John said – OR – “I can’t remember,” said John. Are they both ok? Is it a style thing? Thanks Joe

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Hi Joe, it’s a style thing. Whatever sounds best in the rhythm of the passage.

      Happy writing

  17. Mike Wallbridge on said:

    Maybe you could address writing telephone conversations. I’ve been told when writing them not to include the other end of the conversation since it looks awkward. Maybe you disagree. But that being so how does one break up the main character’s words to allow space for the other person’s unheard reply?

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Hi Mike, I would agree with that advice. Simply use elipses to break up the conversation … that’s right, elipses … you agree? … no? … oh well etc

  18. Mike Wallbridge on said:

    I’ve never heard any other options. It sounds good to me. I guess once in a while, if it’s a long conversations, once could break it up with actions, movement etc.

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      You could. But I wouldn’t advise a phone conversation longer than about a paragraph as its pretty passive writing. Rather put the phone down and allow the exposition to come out another way eg one character telling someone else in the room what was said, or the character thinking about it as they do something else.

  19. Mike Wallbridge on said:

    Good thought. Thanks for your help.

  20. Just sending my thanks 2 u,i nw have found out why i use 2 get lower marks in dialogue,u are indeed duing a wonderful work

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