Five Tips for Writing Good Dialogue

Throwback Thursday! I thought it might be fun to resurrect this post from my other blog two years ago this month!

Five Tips for Writing Good Dialogue

Many writers struggle with dialogue, maybe because there is so much pressure to get it right. Speaking in someone else’s voice isn’t always easy, yet as writers we end up with a whole cast of characters who all need distinct, unique voices, and it is up to us to provide them. Who would want to read a book where all the characters sound the same? Boring…and confusing.

But creating our characters’ voices is only the beginning—they still need something authentic and interesting to say, not to mention the writing itself must have all the correct grammar and punctuation.

I thought this week I might share some tips for writing dialogue, and anyone who wants to add their own in the comments section is welcome. No, I am not an expert. These are based on my own experience as a writer/editor, and on advice I have received from others over the years. I am still learning and improving, and frequently need to go through and re-examine my own dialogue when I am editing.

Tip 1 – Finding your character’s voice.

As I mentioned earlier, the last thing you want is for all of your characters to sound the same. Even people growing up in the same household will vary in their speech patterns. An outgoing person might have the tendency to talk a lot, while a more reserved person may say very little at all. Knowing your characters well is vital to writing good dialogue. What are their personalities and thought processes? What would they say, and how would they say it? Would they use big words or simple ones, formal speech or slang? Does she talk faster when excited? Does he deliberate over every word? Do they live in a region with a dialect? All things to consider. A good test is to strip away the identifiers in a section of dialogue. Can you still tell who is speaking, just from the way the words are spoken?

Tip 2 – How much realism is necessary?

I took a writing class once where we had an unusual assignment to help us learn about dialogue; go sit in a public place and listen in on the surrounding conversations.   We were supposed to return with our observations about how people naturally speak to each other. Several things stood out for me.

  1. People rarely give direct, simple answers to a question. They tend to dance around it and give explanations rather than just say yes or no.
  2. They easily tangent from subject to subject, sometimes having multiple conversations simultaneously. They might eventually circle back to the original topic, or never resolve it at all.
  3. There tend to be lots of extra pauses, ummm’s, uh’s, like’s, and external interruptions.

Does all of this really belong in a story?  Probably not, especially the latter two.

While the point of that assignment might have been learning how to re-create realistic conversation, I think for me it was a lesson in how not to write dialogue. When it comes to what our characters do, we don’t think twice about skipping over all the mundane parts of the daily routine. No one wants to follow their characters to the bathroom ten times a day, or watch them cruise around the grocery store checking package labels—unless there is a point to doing so. Why should dialogue be any different? If it does not enhance our character’s development or further the plot in some way, it doesn’t belong. Make every spoken word count so that it has purpose and meaning, otherwise it is just taking up valuable real estate.

Tip 3 – What about special speech?

Regional dialects, “thee and thou,” historical, and traditional fantasy dialogue are all under this category. My advice is to proceed carefully. It is usually better to give the occasional flavor of a dialect than try to replicate the whole thing, especially if you do not speak in that dialect yourself. It won’t sound authentic, and you’re bound to make mistakes. Writing in dialect can get very tedious for the writer and hard to understand for the reader. Choosing a selection of words that will make it obvious where the speaker is from, and using them consistently, can be quite effective.

Thee and thou I wouldn’t use at all in a long piece, unless you know you can authentically pull it off and the story absolutely needs it. Most writers don’t get the grammar right consistently and it just doesn’t work. Readers also tire of it pretty quickly.

Historic and fantasy-specific language is pretty well accepted. Readers of these genres are quite comfortable with the tradition and actually expect the use of older words and more formal, elegant speech.

What they are not as likely to forgive is language that will pull them out of whatever era they have settled into. Don’t use modern sounding words, or worse yet, metaphors or sayings that refer to things that would not have even existed yet. This is where an online dictionary can be your best friend. Yes, you already know what a given word means, but scroll down to see the word’s origin, or etymology. You can find out where the word came from, and when it came into use. If you’re writing a medieval era story for example, don’t use words that didn’t come into use until the 1700’s or later. It will greatly annoy your more savvy readers and make you look like an amateur.

Tip 4 – What comes after the quote?

One of the most difficult parts of writing dialogue can be knowing what to say after the quotation marks are closed. There are lots of different opinions out there, and I can’t say that I agree with all of them. He said, she said—pretty standard. Some advocate that you shouldn’t use much else, that the reader will just tune it out after a while and focus only on the dialogue itself. Others say varying it up strengthens the writing; he stated, she replied, they inquired, etc.

Both camps are pretty adamant, but I think this is one of those areas where writers have some leeway. Neither is technically right or wrong—it is just a matter of personal taste and writing style. I tend to vary it up because as a writer I get bored with just he said, she said. And sometimes including some extra descriptive words (yes, even those controversial words ending in “ly”) help me convey the emotions and facial expressions of the speaker.

That being said, be careful of ending your dialogue with phrases like, he laughed. Try to laugh an entire sentence sometime and let me know how that works out. It is more correct to say something like, he said as he laughed. The difference may seem subtle, but grammatically there is a difference. Also, be aware of whether your character is making a statement or asking a question. If there is a question mark at the end of the sentence, use he asked rather than he said, and vice versa.

Tip 5 – Commas, and periods, and quotation marks, oh my!

Quotation Rules








Yeah, this is grammar, and I’m sorry. But as an editor, it makes me crazy when writers don’t know how to correctly punctuate their dialogue. If you are an American writer, please keep your periods and commas inside the quotation marks. “Yep, just like this,” she said. “Not like this”. Also note that I did not write, “Yep, just like this.” She said. She said is not a sentence by itself.

If someone in your story is speaking for a long time, requiring more than one paragraph of dialogue, do not end each paragraph with closing quotation marks. However, every time you start a new paragraph, begin it with quotation marks. The reader will understand your character is still speaking. Reserve your ending quotation marks for the end of the very last paragraph of the dialogue.

Quotation marks can also be confusing when someone who is already speaking quotes another person. For instance, My grandmother always used to say, ‘cheaters never win, and winners never cheat.’ The regular double quotes are for the person speaking, while the information being quoted is enclosed in single quotation marks. Make sure that you have both beginning and ending quotation marks for each.

Quotation marks should be reserved for spoken words only. Inner thoughts written as dialogue should always be in italics. That guy is crazy, she thought.

Lastly, check to make sure all your quotation marks face the right way. When typing things for the first time, your word processing program will position them correctly. But once you start editing, cutting, pasting, inserting, and moving text around, sometimes they can get turned the wrong way. It is easy not to notice unless you are looking, so make this part of your self-editing process. It is way easier to fix these issues as you go, rather than having to find and correct them in an entire manuscript after the fact.

These are just a few of my thoughts on writing dialogue. What makes good dialogue for you as a writer or reader? What makes the story stronger, and what makes you want to stop reading? How can you let what others have done inform your own writing to make it better?

Thoughts on Time & World Building Concept in Fantasy

World building is a time consuming process. There is a lot to take into account when you are considering every aspect of a new world…how it came to be, what kinds of people lived there, how its landscape, history, economy, religion, and politics developed over time to the point where your book plot begins. How is what you write going to shape that world’s future for any additional books you may be planning?

Part of building a new world is figuring out how time works. Is your brand new world governed by the same rules we’re already familiar with? Or is it more subjective and non-linear; “a big ball of wibbily wobbly timey wimey…stuff” as David Tennant (still the best Doctor!) describes time in Doctor Who? Do you mark the passage of time with minutes, hours, days, months, years? And are those at the same intervals we are accustomed to? Maybe you are doing something radically different. If so, how do you get your reader to let go of what they know and embrace your vision of how time moves?

When I started working on my series I ran into two issues which affected my perspective on time. First, even though my world is a complete fantasy, the setting mimics that of medieval Europe. I relied heavily on research to inform the details of what daily life would have been like. One thing I discovered is that while people of that era had the ability to keep time with mechanical clocks and other means, ordinary people simply didn’t bother. They didn’t even necessarily know their birthdays. They often had a general idea based on the season, but didn’t keep track of the specific date. They might mark certain years based on memorable events, like the year the river flooded, or lightning struck the bell tower. Religious days and festivals were more regimented, but by the Church, which was more exact with its time keeping. For most, the days were governed by the position of the sun, and the passage of time by the seasons and the demands required by them in turn. I’ve tried to express this different sense of time through the eyes of my characters—hopefully I have been successful. I also purposely did not give my characters specific ages. I have a general idea of how old they are, and so do they. But they won’t be celebrating any birthdays.

Second, our present day calendar and numeric way of tracking the passage of years is unique to our history. It occurred to me that in my world, their way of keeping time should be unique to theirs. Trying to track years with numbers quickly became too complicated, especially since I created a historic timeline that started way back at the very creation of my world.

I decided instead to split my world up into different eras, their names determined by a special group of prophets within the monastic community. Each era of time has its own important events, and its own feel, much like the decades of the 20th century. The 60’s had a very different feel from the 80’s. The names given to each era describe their significance in history, starting with the Era of the Ancients, the very first era in which the world was created and humanity made its appearance. Later on The Era of Desolation marked a period of great turmoil and suffering, followed by The Era of Varol, where my world’s greatest hero (Varol) emerges to change the course of history. I may include a listing of all the eras and their significance as supplemental material when I publish the next book, but am not sure about that yet.

If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer, how do you mark time in your world? If you’re a reader, what are some of the most interesting ways your favorite authors have played with the concept of time in theirs?

Fantasy Writing

Fantasy is a highly versatile genre, encompassing everything from traditional, mythical fantasy, to that which is more modern and even futuristic. When people ask me why I love fantasy, the answer is pretty simple. Because there are no rules, and no limitations. Fantasy can take you to amazing places, both magnificent and mysterious, filled with creatures that defy nature and captivate our imaginations. Anything we can dream becomes reality for our world and characters. It’s a beautiful thing!

My love for fantasy began when I was a young girl discovering the magic of books. I would traipse to the library and come home with a stack I could barely carry. Before they were due back, I read them all…some of them more than once. My favorites were those that pulled me out of my everyday reality and into a world I could love, with characters and creatures I longed to make real. Even as an adult, I would give anything to be able to travel to Narnia and have afternoon tea with Mr. Tumnus, or visit Cair Paravel. Those stories grabbed hold of me in a very real way; they shaped my ideas, comforted me in difficult times, and left me spellbound with a sense of wonder that has remained with me ever since. As fantastical as they were, they were actually quite real—to me. Fantasy holds that kind of power in a way no other genre does.

As an adult I have also come to realize that the fantasy I read as a youth was not only entertaining, it was showing me how to be a better person. The epic struggles between good and evil teach us something about ourselves, showing us just what we are capable of, whether for good or bad. We learn about courage, honor, and integrity in the face of overwhelming adversity, and how to persevere through the trials that push the limits of our physical and mental strength. We learn how to hope, against all sense of reason, that good will always win in the end. Fantasy can in some ways prepare us for the epic struggles of real life that we all face from time to time.

As I learned from the Narnia Chronicles, fantasy can also speak to faith. Lewis imparted the simple, life-changing truths of Christianity through his children’s stories. Through them I could hear God’s voice calling to me, lifting me, and preparing me for a more mature walk with God as I grew into my faith. That has stayed with me, and I am still so thankful for those stories. Sure, they were only fantasy…but they were infused with a depth and meaning that changed me. Not all fantasy is Christian, of course. Even so, most strong fantasy characters believe in something greater than themselves. Maybe they believe in a god, a powerful object, a person, place, or an ideal. Whatever their belief, it is core to their being, and fuels the determination that drives them to fight for a higher purpose, despite the hardships they must endure.

Now that I am a fantasy writer myself, my greatest desire is to have the deeper truths underlying my own stories touch readers in a meaningful way. I’ve tried to create a rich fantasy world, full of beauty and mystery, with epic struggles, both external and from within. My hope is that I’m contributing something to the genre; joining with other writers to pass down the power of fantasy to another generation of readers, just waiting to be transported to another realm.

How Video Games Can Transform Your Writing (Guest post by Author Allison D. Reid)…

No, I haven’t lost my mind, and I’m not a video game addict either—I am totally serious. I’ve been passionate about writing my whole life; participated in writing groups, gone to conferences, taken more classes on writing than I can remember, and even majored in writing in college. But it was through a video game that I learned to really be a story teller and develop characters that breathed a life of their own.

Find a game where you can roleplay with others.

I’m not talking about your standard shoot-em-up, follow the canned story line from point A to point Z until you defeat the big boss kind of game though. I’m talking about the open-ended kind. The games that give you an interactive world full of other players, and opportunities to challenge yourself by building skills and going on quests, either of the game’s making or your own. The games where you can engage with other storytellers and actually roleplay. As writers, we sometimes enjoy good reviews or fan mail, but we don’t typically get to experience the immediate reactions of those reading our stories. Getting to not only experience those reactions, but have readers respond back in a way that influences what you write next, teaches you a lot about what it takes to make an engaging character or story.

Build your own narrative within the game, and connect your stories.

My own book series has its distant origins in one such game, called Ultima Online. As far as I know, its servers are still running, though I no longer play. What started out as something entertaining to do in the evenings after work, became an incredible creative outlet. It resulted in a massive collection of interconnected stories and vignettes that I and a small group of other players built upon for years. The interplay between world, history, and character became a wellspring for the imagination—a boundless source of ideas just waiting to be explored. Even though the game world had its own official history and storyline, following it wasn’t necessary. We made up our own history for that world, our own mythology, and tied it into our individual storylines. Everything we did in game continued to feed into the larger story, so it just kept growing.

Become your character(s) when you’re in game, flaws and all.

Morganne and Elowyn

The Original Morganne and Elowyn, circa 1998.

Roleplaying taught me more about character development than all of my previous writing coursework combined. Why? My characters were no longer theoretical. There was no omniscient narrator between me and their deepest inner thoughts and feelings. With no set plotline to consider, and no need to balance out the actions and thoughts of other characters at the same time, all I needed to focus on was being my chosen character at that moment in time. When I stepped into the role of Morganne, for instance, I really pulled on her boots and peered out at the world through her eyes rather than my own. I spoke, thought, felt, and reasoned like she did.

Unlike in a story or novel where I maintained control over what would happen next, I never knew what Morganne might encounter from day to day. Different situations would arise based on the actions of other players, and I would have to react, not as myself, but as Morganne. And I didn’t have days or weeks to mull the implications of those reactions, either. I had to quickly base them on what I knew of her as a person and stay true to her integrity as a character. Whatever I did, whatever I said, could not be taken back or re-written later.

With real-time roleplaying there could always be unanticipated consequences, of course. After all, I was dealing with the varied personalities of other players’ characters and their background stories. I might make new friends who would come to my defense in times of need. Or I might make new enemies, who would from then on make a point of coming after me. But every decision, every interaction became a part of who Morganne was, and got woven into her larger narrative, until thread by thread, a rich and complex character came into being.

Take the characters you love beyond the game.

The game gradually changed; friends came and went, and my own life circumstances left me little time to play. The day I shut down my account, it literally felt like a part of me had died. It’s a strange thing to grieve over people that aren’t real, yet they had become real to me. What would become of those characters I had invested so many years, and so much of my inner self, into developing? Instead of shelving all of those old stories, and resigning my beloved characters to oblivion, I preserved them in the form of my first novel, and then my second, with still more to come. Not just my characters either, but the memories of so many others that I had met and been influenced by along the way. Fifteen years later I’m still drawing from that infinite wellspring I discovered in, yes, a video game. I’ll probably still be drawing from it fifteen years from now, because I truly love my characters and the new world and storylines I’ve made for them.

Other ways video games can help your writing.

I still play other video games on occasion, though I’m careful not to let them suck too much of my writing time away. Here are some other simple ways they can help.

  • If you’re in a game where roleplaying is possible, this can be a great time to experiment with unusual characters or story lines—particularly those that take you out of your comfort zone. Try them in the game before making them part of your current work in progress. Let the other people you play with serve as a sounding board to bounce ideas off of. See how they react to your experimental character/storyline, and ask for feedback that will help you decide if it works or not.
  • World building can be challenging. If you’re having trouble visualizing your own world, how can you make it a real place for your readers? Maybe you are trying to figure out a castle’s layout, how a certain village would look, or describe some other important location in your book. Build it in Minecraft. It’s not a roleplaying game, but in it you can build just about anything you can imagine, block by block. I’ve terraformed landscapes, made castles, medieval villages, seaside mansions, and all sorts of other things. Sometimes through the building process you realize that the vision in your head isn’t actually possible or practical, or takes up way more, or way less space than you thought.
  • Sometimes when I’m struggling with ideas or something I’m working on isn’t quite right, video games provide a much needed mental break. Ideas can still be percolating in the back of my mind while I get myself refocused, or re-energized.

So the next time you’re looking for a video game diversion, don’t feel guilty about it—make it count. Pick a game that can actually help you hone your writing skills while you play. You might get more out of it than you ever thought possible.


Thanks to Chris Graham for posting my article on The Story Reading Ape blog!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

No, I haven’t lost my mind, and I’m not a video game addict either—I am totally serious. I’ve been passionate about writing my whole life; participated in writing groups, gone to conferences, taken more classes on writing than I can remember, and even majored in writing in college. But it was through a video game that I learned to really be a story teller and develop characters that breathed a life of their own.

Find a game where you can roleplay with others.

I’m not talking about your standard shoot-em-up, follow the canned story line from point A to point Z until you defeat the big boss kind of game though. I’m talking about the open-ended kind. The games that give you an interactive world full of other players, and opportunities to challenge yourself by building skills and going on quests, either of the game’s making or your own. The…

View original post 1,405 more words

Self-Editing: The Importance of Consistency

When you’re editing your own work for publication, one of the easiest ways to look like an amateur is by not being consistent. Character names, place names, capitalization, spacing, indentations, and general formatting can end up varying a lot when you’re working on a lengthy manuscript that takes months or years to complete.

Even though I’m an editor, I can’t always keep that hat on while I’m in theeditor creative process of writing. There are times when just getting the words out is the most important thing, and the detail work of refining must be set aside for a later time. But that later time must eventually come, and all of those little inconsistencies must be fixed for the sake of the work’s integrity.

To help you understand what I’m talking about in practical terms, here are some actual examples of inconsistencies I found (and fixed) when I got to the final editing stage of Ancient Voices:

    • The name of one of my minor characters had been spelled 3 different ways.
      An easy way to prevent this is to save all of your character names into your spell check. That way if a name gets redlined, you know you need to pay attention instead of just ignoring it. For some reason I hadn’t done that with this character’s name and it almost got past me…almost. 
    • I had sometimes capitalized Winter Festival (making it a proper name) and at other times left it lower case, indicating it was just a general description of the event. I had to decide whether or not to make it a proper name, then go back and adjust everything accordingly. I had done the same thing for words like Shrine and Troll.
      A simple find/replace will work if you have the “match case” box checked. 
    • Ok, so this betrays my age a little, but in High School Business class I learned to type on an electric typewriter. Back then, it was drilled into our heads that you put two spaces after every period and colon. This rule has since changed, but I can’t seem to re-train my fingers. I try for a while, inevitably lapsing back into hitting that spacebar twice after every period. I’ve kind of given up. But obviously I have to fix this before publication, and this involves thousands of minor corrections in a full length work.
      Thankfully, find/replace will correct this also. 
    • At the beginning of some chapters I had included the chapter numbers, and for others just the name was there. For one in particular I had changed my mind about the chapter name, changing it in the body of the writing, but not in the Table of Contents.
      Always make sure that your chapter headers are consistent in terms of formatting, and in content. Do a final check that your Table of Contents page matches up. 
    • Word’s grammar check is frequently dead wrong, but when you’re all finished editing and think you’ve fixed absolutely everything, run it anyway. It caught a couple of errors for me that I was happy to fix. In one place I had written “in” twice but not picked up on it. In another I had used the incorrect word…spelled right…but contextually incorrect. Simple mistakes, yet I would not have wanted them in the published book. 
    • Spoken words are always in quotes, whereas direct thoughts are in italics. I found several places where I had forgotten to italicize thoughts.
      Sadly there is no easy way to find this, you just have to be very aware when you’re proofing. 
    • When your publisher offers you the option of a printed proof or digital one, take the printed proof! Yes, you may have to pay for it. Yes, it will take time to get delivered. All of that is really annoying, when all you want to do is quickly scan through the digital copy and click that “approve” button. But considering how long you’ve worked on your manuscript, you can wait another week. 

Make sure your cover looks good in print and not just on screen. You may have reached the point where you feel like you can’t possibly read through your book one…more…time!  When you’re done having your mental temper tantrum, man up, find a comfy chair, and read it again anyway. Pretend you’re a reader who has just paid for this book and is hoping it will be worth the investment. I found stray errors in my printed proof that I did not see, or could not have seen, in my submitted file. Among other things, I found places with weird spacing and formatting from the conversion process, two places where closing quotes were missing, and not all of the italicized thoughts that I had so carefully looked for and fixed were showing up. I had to correct the ones that had not converted properly. I was extremely glad that I had taken the time to read through the printed proof.

All lessons learned, and I’m sharing them because I know from experience how easy it is to get tripped up by the little things. Self-editing is extremely hard—way harder than the writing itself, and harder than editing for someone else. I hope my book is perfect, but I can’t make any promises. Maybe some reader has already found a mistake I missed and snickered about it. But there are plenty of books out there from big publishing houses that end up with small errors in them, too. I’ve even found some in my beloved Narnia Chronicles collection. Nobody is perfect, not even publishing house staff editors. That doesn’t mean we give up trying, because when there are too many little problems in a book, that’s all the reader will notice and remember. It is a major hazard of self-editing, so if you have to go that route, be prepared to do a lot of extra work, and ask others around you for help. In the end, your creative masterpiece is worth the effort.

Want more self-editing tips?  Click here for another article on the subject from earlier this year.

Dare to imagine an unforgettable place.

fantasy_worldWhat gives an imaginary place life?  You can see its landscape across the written page so clearly that you could very well be watching a movie.  You can touch the objects around you, smell the air, hear every sound.  The author has successfully transported you from this world into theirs.  You’re on a journey with a cast of characters you’re just getting to know, swept along the road to wherever the plot takes you.

Some books make for a fast, entertaining read.  They are enjoyable in the moment, but ultimately forgettable amidst a growing mound of other books you’ve read over the years. But other books stay with you.  For whatever reason, they speak to your heart, burn into your memory.  When you think of that imaginary place, there is a deep sense of longing within you.  You want to go there again and again—you want to believe that it is not just imaginary…that it is real.  When the book ends, you go into a form of silent mourning because you’ve left a little piece of yourself between the pages.  The only way to go back is to read it again, and so you do, and over time that place becomes part of who you are.

How does the author do it?  There’s no simple answer to that.  What speaks to one person’s soul might put a different person right to sleep.  In addition to a well-crafted plot and lovable characters, there are certain qualities that seem to exist in each of those unforgettable imaginary places that withstand the test of time.

  • The world contains wonder and beauty, so vividly described that I can imagine myself there. Going to that world is like taking a vacation from my own, and I care what happens to it as the plot progresses.  When a world contains nothing but darkness and hardship, I can’t get away from it fast enough—what incentive do I have to stay?
  • There is still an element of mystery. The world of my daily routine is pretty tame; well-groomed and largely cemented over.  Convenient, yes.  Inspiring?  Not especially.  But I won’t be braving the wilds of the Alaskan frontier any time soon, so getting to explore an unknown landscape is fun, even if I can only do it from my recliner.
  • The world has its own distinct history and culture. I lived in Germany for 6 years, and driving just a few hours in any one direction could take me to a completely different country, with its own language, traditions, and history.  Each culture was distinct and fiercely guarded.  The best imaginary worlds are those that feel as authentic as the real one, as if I could hop in my car and drive there (or walk, or ride a horse, or take a boat depending on the era).  Authors who can infuse their worlds with a rich history and culture really make us believers.
  • The people have a faith, or at least a mythology, that ties in with its history and culture. This has been part of our humanity from the very beginning—it is who we are.  The nature of our beliefs may be diverse, but we all believe in something.
  • The way people live is real. A whole world full of royalty, or perfect, rich, Hollywood types would make me roll my eyes and close the book, I fully admit it.  While interesting in small doses, that’s not the kind of life experience I can relate to, and what makes me keep reading is the ability to make a connection.  I need to be able to empathize with what the characters are going through and put myself in their place.
  • The author doesn’t gloss over the details of daily life, but lets the reader see how people work, eat, play, sing, learn, and create. This puts me one step closer to being a character myself, and becoming immersed in that imaginary world. When I can mentally make a life for myself there, and all of the other elements of a good book fall into place too, I’m hooked.

For all of you who have fallen in love with other people’s worlds over the years, what won your heart?  What is the source of that internal ache, that longing to go back even when the adventure is long over?