Editing Tips: Dialogue


Problems with the dialogue in a story can feed all sorts of deficiencies: Stilted, confusing, or condescending dialogue can reduce empathy for your characters, cut plot tension, and ruin your reputation as an author.

Get to the point

Pleasantries, equivocation, and customary responses can start readers tapping their feet in impatience. For example:

“Hi, Jamie.”

“Hi, Carson. How are you?”

Carson looked in his wallet. “Hold on a sec. I think I lost something.”

“Something valuable?”

He pulled a receipt out of his wallet at last. “There it is.” Carson paused for a moment. “What did you ask?”

If there is any dialogue you want to cut and just summarize, this is the sort you should consider doing it to. Just say that the two of them exchanged pleasantries or greeted each other and get immediately to the drama, where Carson says he must break their engagement because he realizes he’s gay, or he lost all his savings in a Ponzi scheme, or whatever moves the plot forward.

Who said that?

Some writers are in the habit of skipping dialog tags (words that identify the speaker of a quotation). In some European cultures, it is on the reader to remember whose turn it is to speak, because they don’t include any dialog tags after the first two in a conversation; they assume that the quotes will alternate from then on. But that philosophy assumes that characters are just standing still speaking, as if there were no more data to reveal than from a phone call.

Brad sat down at his desk. When he noticed Connie hovering over his left shoulder, he turned in her direction and whispered, “Is there something I can help you with?”

“I came over because we had an appointment.”


“Check your calendar.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

The fire alarm went off.

“We should probably leave the building.”


So who said the final “yes?” Did you remember? If a conversation goes on for more than two exchanges on each side, you really need to refresh readers’ memories about who is speaking. And adding dialog tags periodically or connecting a quote with an action are great ways to reduce confusion:

Connie pointed over Brad’s shoulder at his computer screen. “Check your calendar.”

Brad looked at it closer and then turned in his chair to face her. “Oh. Sorry,” he whimpered.

I already knew that!

As mentioned in my previous post (Editing Tips: Bad Advice), do not use dialogue to reveal exposition unless you can make it sound realistic. One of the most egregious things you can do with a character’s dialogue is to force them to say something the reader doesn’t know, but their more immediate audience certainly should.

“I shouldn’t have to tell you . . .”

“You probably already know . . .”

“Did you know that . . . ?”

Starting a quote with any of these preambles is a big no-no. It makes your characters sound unrealistic or really dumb if they tell others things they should already know. There is a way to reveal exposition through dialogue that doesn’t involve your characters discussing things they already know.

BAD: “You know that the Space Fleet is run by a tyrant, right?”

BETTER: “I would never join the Space Fleet; I couldn’t work for a tyrant.”

BETTER: “What do you think of the commodore of the Space Fleet?”

I have actually seen authors try to use dialogue to introduce the name of the planet they were on, like the person they were talking to didn’t already know. Sometimes it takes a bit more creativity, but you can usually slip in details about the world of your story in descriptions, thoughts, and dialogue without making quotes into history lessons.

Other stuff

Some writers and editors are really adamant about using contractions (e.g., don’t, not do not; can’t not cannot; she’s, not she is; etc.). While I fully support their characters’ right to speak with as many contractions as they want, some people, especially when they emphasize something, say “do not,” “cannot,” and “she is.”

Accents help make a character more vivid and colorful, but keep in mind, you don’t have to transcribe their speech exactly. You can just throw in a few alternate spellings here and there to suggest the accent, e.g., “I seen ya’ comin’ from a helluva long way off!” or “Ah’ve jus’ got t’get outta this unrelentin’ rain!”

When relaying thoughts, use italics, with no quotation marks. When relaying an alternate language (other than what your narrator speaks), use italics within any quote, even if it’s only the name of a single thing that doesn’t exist in the narrator’s language, e.g., “She pulled a freshly pressed abaya out of her closet.”

Don’t forget to employ ellipsis dots in your dialogue to indicate a pause or interruption at an unnatural spot in the dialogue. There should be a space on either side of each of the three dots. Some people prefer a dash when someone is being cut off.

Consider giving your characters a catch phrase or two. I had one character whose favorite response when he liked something was, “Awesome!” That allowed other characters to occasionally mimic him in a way that the reader could immediately pick up on it.


This is the fifth in a series of essays on editorial tips for writers of fiction. If you found it interesting, check out the previous posts in the series (Editing Tips: Plots, Editing Tips: Bad Advice, Editing Tips: Version Control, Editing Tips: Style Guides), and check back next week for a new post on Editorial Tips: Descriptions.

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