Look Who’s Talking

I’ve posted about dialogue before but it’s buried under mounds of other posts. In Who Cares About Dialogue Anyway? I went in-depth about styles of speech and breaking the rules for fillers and slang. Did you miss it? Well it’s a good think I linked back to it isn’t it?

Here are two great articles on dialogue and sentence structure.

9 Tricks For Writing Organic Dialogue
Writer’s Tip: Writing Effective Sentences


Note: I will not be talking about sentence structure in this post.




Oh we’re talking about talking? Joy.

I hate writing dialogue. It’s a game of minesweeper – one mistake and game over. You go from readable to, “what in the world?” Least, that’s one way to think about it. If you’re lucky enough to avoid the mines, you can impress yourself.


“Why can’t we just talk?”
    “Why can’t you just talk and I pretend to listen?
“It takes two people for a conversation.”
    “Good thing we have two people.”

Let’s look at the first two lines. It comes off as a little bland, right? Maybe not the second line but definitely the first. If this was surrounded by paragraphs, actions, thoughts, or adjectives we’d see a lot more spice, like in the last two lines. But you know what else spices up dialogue? Punctuation!


“Why can’t we just, talk?” vs “Why can’t we just talk?”

The presence of the comma makes us pause and places an emphasis on the word talk. It’s isolated by the character. Even if we don’t see action or know what they’re feeling, we get a sense that they are upset and this talk matters.


“Why? Can’t we just talk?” vs “Why can’t we just talk?”

Again, look how the addition of one punctuation changes the flow. Instead of reading it straight through like our first example or pausing like in our second we’re breaking the sentence in two parts. The isolated “why” makes us also emphasize this question. We naturally want to know what’s the big deal too. We also get the sense that there was something said before this. Something big maybe.


“Why can’t we just…talk?” vs “Why can’t we just talk?”

This example is similar to the first one but the flow is different. Though both puts in a pause, the use of ellipsis makes us really notice it. Here, the character could have been thinking of the right word and questioned their own word choice. They could have been nervous, upset, bemused, or purposely omitting something.

Punctuation can take you to infinity and beyond. That said, sometimes a little straight forward dialogue does the trick too. Play around with it. Take out the last book you read and check out how the author did their dialogue. Did you hate it? Love it? Feel like tweaking it a bit? Try your hand it. You’re sure to discover your own way of doing dialogue in no time. Just don’t get too complacent.

Time to have some fun with the rest of our dialogue.
“It takes two people for a conversation.”
    “Good thing we have two people.”

What if we add some action?
“It takes two people for a conversation,” Lillian sighed.
    Jim licked his thumb and smoothed down his eyebrow. “Good thing we have two people.”

Now we’re talking! We see that Lillian isn’t happy with Jim or how their situation. A sigh can be frustrated, weary, lonely, heavy, and long to name a few. Try plugging some at the end of her sigh and read it again. Doesn’t the little voice in your head have a different style of speech now?

I did something different with Jim. I went for full action. We can assume he’s looking at his reflection, since he’s primping, and we can also assume he doesn’t care what Lillian wants to talk about or if he upsets her. This is where dialogue gets fun. You get to see the scene come alive. Characters take shape and their personalities jump off the page between every quotation mark. Don’t believe me? Look at our finished dialogue.
“Why can’t we just, talk?
    “Why can’t you just talk and I pretend to listen?”
“It takes two people for a conversation,” Lillian sighed.
    Jim licked his thumb and smoothed down his eyebrow. “Good thing we have two people.”

There’s clear tension between the two and that’s thanks to some punctuation and detail. Okay, it’s not the best dialogue out there but now you have a better idea of two tricks that will spruce up your writing.

Always be mindful of overuse. Too much details back to back breaks up the flow for the reader so mix it up like we did here. Also, be sure to toss in who is saying what. Sometimes it gets fuzzy when there is a large chunk of dialogue. If you have more than two characters, include who is speaking to who. It sounds silly to mention but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget the basics.


Have any other tips? Want to ask a question? Leave a comment or email us directly.

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