How to Write Novel Dialogue That Sounds Right

There’s every chance that 1/3 of any novel will be given over to dialogue. It is an important aspect of story-telling and can add considerably to the charm and success of a good book. When done well, dialogue goes almost unnoticed and sinks into the subconscious in such a way that the reader could almost mentally identify that character’s voice. Done poorly, dialogue can be clumsy, ugly and boring and throw the reader out of the story.

How to Write Dialogue

  • Dialogue should achieve something. It cannot be a filler. It must further the plot, reveal something important or expand the characterization. As such, hellos and comments about the weather and ‘How’s the family?’ are usually presumed and passed over in favour of the real message in the dialogue.
  • Dialogue must not be used to dump back story on the reader by having one character tell another what he or she must surely know: “Your mother, Elizabeth Boston, who lives in London, came to see me the other day to tell me about the death of your only brother, Alfred. Do you think your position as head of the family company Williams and Sons is still secure?”

Dialogue Tags

  • Dialogue tags should be ‘invisible’ to the reader. Sure, those tags are there but they must never draw attention away from the words. The reader should be lost in the action, hearing the very voices of the characters. A tag such as ‘she expostulated with consternation’ will drag the reader out of the story and destroy any illusion of reality that the reader has created for him or herself.
  • Writers who believe that tags should have variety will be distraught to learn that by far the best and most ‘invisible’ tag is the familiar old ‘he said, ’ or ‘George said’. Others in the same category are ‘he replied’ and ‘he asked’. Bear in mind that ‘he questioned’ is an action, and not suitable as a dialogue tag.
  • It is hard to resist the occasional more specific tag such as ‘he grumbled’ or ‘John whispered,’ but examine each instance to ensure that it adds something valuable to the meaning. Take care with verbs such as ‘he barked’ or ‘she hissed’. Remember that someone can’t bark four lines of text….it pertains to a single word or very few. Similarly, it is impossible to hiss words that aren’t sibilant; ‘You blasted big-headed caricature of a human being!” is not hissable.
  • Novice writers should ensure that the ‘dialogue tag’ they have chosen is not, in fact, an action tag. Actions can‘t say words and should not be connected to dialogue with a comma as a dialogue tag. Thus, this sentence is wrong: “I want nothing to do with you,” she rejected his advances with a shake of her head. An action tag connected with a comma prior to the dialogue is also wrong: He grabbed a sandwich off the tray, “I’m as hungry as a horse.” In each case, that comma should be a period (full stop).

Writing Dialect in the Novel

  • Dialect in dialogue should not be so authentic that it becomes impossible for the reader to make sense of it. A Scottish character might justifiably say: ”The bauchle cam ben the hoose; I cood nae sae Awa an bile yer heid! Whit’s a body tae die?” but the average reader might find the effort of interpreting lengthy speeches like this too great and just give up on such a novel.
  • Similarly, be careful about using snippets of foreign languages to create authenticity and then using some obvious contrivance to explain it to the reader. For example: “Punktlickeit ist Alles!” Helmut said, but it came as no surprise to me that he, being German, valued punctuality above all else.

It is important for novice writers to learn the conventions of dialogue as readers recognise dialogue that doesn’t look and sound right. Such conventions are identical for both short story writing and structuring a novel. Novice writers should not overlook the value of a good writing course.

By James Parsons

You can describe your character’s feelings in more exact terms than just “happy” or “sad.” Check these lists for the exact nuance to describe your character’s intensity of feelings.

45 ways to avoid using the word ‘very’ by Amanda Patterson from Writer’s Write

Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language by Amanda Patterson of Writer’s Write. Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language by Amanda Patterson of Writer’s Write.

Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language by Amanda Patterson of Writer’s Write.


Here’s a handy dandy color reference chart for you artists, writers, or any one else who needs it! Inspired by this post x

Here’s a handy dandy color reference chart for you artists, writers, or any one else who needs it! Inspired by this post x

Here’s a handy dandy color reference chart for you artists, writers, or any one else who needs it! Inspired by this post x

Here’s a handy dandy color reference chart for you artists, writers, or any one else who needs it! Inspired by this post x

Here’s a handy dandy color reference chart for you artists, writers, or any one else who needs it! Inspired by this post x

Here’s a handy dandy color reference chart for you artists, writers, or any one else who needs it! Inspired by this post x

Here’s a handy dandy color reference chart for you artists, writers, or any one else who needs it! Inspired by this post x


Here’s a handy dandy color reference chart for you artists, writers, or any one else who needs it! Inspired by this post x

(via writeworld)

Things you should know about each of your characters


These are what I would consider to be the most basic, bare-bones questions of character creation.

  • What would completely break your character?
  • What was the best thing in your character’s life?
  • What was the worst thing in your character’s life?
  • What seemingly insignificant memories stuck with your character?
  • Does your character work so that they can support their hobbies or use their hobbies as a way of filling up the time they aren’t working?
  • What is your character reluctant to tell people?
  • How does your character feel about sex?
  • How many friends does your character have?
  • How many friends does your character want?
  • What would your character make a scene in public about?
  • What would your character give their life for?
  • What are your character’s major flaws?
  • What does your character pretend or try to care about?
  • How does the image your character tries to project differ from the image they actually project?
  • What is your character afraid of?
  • What is something most people in your setting do that your character things is dumb?
  • Where would your character fall on a politeness/rudeness scale?

Point of View - The Complexities


On Tuesday, we looked at the basics of point of view; but there’s far more to it than simply choosing between 1st, 2nd and 3rd POVs.

The POV choice you make for your story will be based on a number of different factors, and will result in a number of different effects. It’s an important decision to make.

Let’s go back to 1st, 2nd and 3rd viewpoints.

1st Person:

  • Seeing a resurgence in popularity.
  • The usual choice for writing a story in the form of letters or diary entries (epistolary narrative voice).
  • Commonly used in the gothic horror and noir genres.
  • If used as 1st person limited, the reader only sees what the narrating character sees, hears, feels, thinks. They only go where the narrator goes, only sees through their eyes, which can be very limiting.
  • You can use 1st person omnisciently, so that the narrating character can see into the minds of all the characters. This is often used if the narrator is dead, or some kind of deity or supernatural being. You’d have to have a good reason for them to have so much insight.

2nd Person:

  • This is the least popular and most unusual choice for literature, which may alienate some readers.
  • It does bring them into the story, giving them a sense of intimacy to the characters and plot.
  • It can be a hard-sell, however. If you chose to use 2nd person narrative, you would have to have a very specific reason for doing it, and be sure that you can pull it off.

3rd Person:

  • The most common choice and what readers are most used to reading, so there is little or no learning curve.
  • 3rd Person Objective: there is no insight into the heads of any characters, allowing the narrator, and the reader, to view the story neutrally and objectively. More common in journalism, it disconnects the reader from the characters, and would be an unusual choice for fiction.
  • 3rd Person Limited/Subjective: the story is seen through the eyes of one or just a small number of characters. You do not know every character’s thoughts, only those chosen. Allows a wider viewpoint of the story than 1st person, but without opening it up to every single character.
  • 3rd Person Omniscient: the narrator can see into the head of every character. While previously the most popular POV, it is losing favour to a preference for 3rd Person Limited. It can become a little overwhelming for readers who, thrown quickly from head to head, find it difficult to get to know any one character enough to really empathise with them.

Unreliable Narrator:

  • For one reason or another, the narrating character is deemed untrustworthy. They may simply be naive or inexperienced, or they may be bias, or purposefully skewing the facts for their own gain.
  • Usually found in 1st person narrative.
  • They may omit information, either by accident or on purpose, or see things differently to the way anyone else would.
  • Examples of unreliable narrators could include children, characters with mental health issues, characters that are drunk or have drug addictions. It could include characters with amnesia or sensory impairments. It may simply be a character who is very modest and downplays their own part in the story.
  • Their unreliable nature may be evident from the start, or may only come to light further into the book.
  • While it can be used to great effect, it can run the risk of leaving readers feeling angry or frustrated.

Furthermore, you have the choice of past, present or future tense, which all lend themselves to different POVs in different ways.

And even so, this is still a bit of a whistle-stop tour to POV, and there are a lot more things to consider. If you are deciding to use a less common POV, go and read other books using the same one, see how it has been done well, and see how it has been done badly too.

Body Language in writing


How many times has someone rammed the phrase “Show, don’t tell” down your throat without actually offering you any help as to how you could do that?

It must have happened to me about eight. million. times. Literally.

Ok so not literally… but the point stands.

Showing, rather than telling, is quite easy in first person; all you have to do is relay information and facts e.g

Rather than saying

"I was ill. I felt so sick."

You say

"My head was thumping and, as I tried to concentrate on the lecture, a bead of cold sweat worked its way down my back. I suppressed a cough, cracking my dry, itchy throat painfully."

However in third person it can be more difficult, mainly because the reader has no direct access to the characters thoughts and innermost feelings. It can be done, though.

Body language is very important to this and can really help to make a point well. In the most basic sense it gives your character life as, honestly, no one stays still as a mannequin through a whole conversation. Or, if they do, its a suspicious way of acting and should be noted. Of course it can also say alot more about your character than they’d like!

The example of Anxiety;

Anxiety, on a personal level (that is to say on the inside), causes feelings of sickness, nervousness, even fear in extreme cases but, while anxiety attacks are pretty obvious, the physical symptoms can be surprisingly subtle and complex. 

The first this to remember is peoples ‘tells’ will show something about them too: a young, vain man might smooth his hair, check for dirt under his nails etc. A woman might repeatedly check her make-up, smooth her dress and apply lipgloss/stick while someone who’s seen violence and known ambushes (a soldier or police officer, for example) might take to scrutinizing those around them.

for example;


"The anxiety was crippling him."


"The air was oppressive and, as Hunters stomach churned, it pressed on him; crushing his shaking throat beneath the boot of reality. He was trapped. Trapped in here with all these staring goons…"

The example of a liar;

When someone is lying they will, if they’re smart, try their hardest to act normally though the result will, usually, appear contrived. Unless they have no moral compass or are trained to lie with skill (or have a lot of practice).


" ‘Of course I love you.’ She lied smoothly."


"She blinked quickly, eyes darting from his face to her hands, 

'Of course I love you, Don….” She smiled and laughed, a high, panicked sound, 'How could you doubt me?'”

The example of sexual arousal;

Hard nipples or tingling nether regions are not body language. Keep in mind that, ideally, your reader should know nothing, or little, more than what characters do. When people are aroused their pupils dilate, their heart rate and body heat rises: this is universal but the way they display this changes from person to person. Some may lean forward, lick their lips, touch their neck or hair, push their chest out (women), splay their legs (men) but it all says something!


"Gary wanted him so badly; Rob was perfect. Sexy as hell and confident too."


"Gary swallowed and let his eyes flicked quickly over Robs lips and face; he was gorgeous but it was more than that. He leaned in and smiled as he recited a story about a childhood dog; it was the way he spoke and smiled. Gary rubbed his lips and squirmed in his seat a little; it was the way he flexed his hands and bit his lips.”

Obviously such examples are not comprehensive but they give an idea of how to move forward. Perhaps a useful thing to do, as a starting point, is to ask 

'what do I do when I feel like this/do this?'  

Then build upon your findings from there. Alternatively you can study those closest to you; watch what they do with their limbs and face when they say certain things.

(via fixyourwritinghabits)



Writer Beware makes posts on which publishing houses to avoid at all costs, which words to look for and which words to watch out for in contracts, and several other things that will keep you in control and knowledgeable about the publishing process.  I’d suggest reading through the website if you want to avoid getting ripped off, cheated, or scammed.

I’m just going to reblog this every so often because it’s a site that every writer needs to see.

(via the-right-writing)