28 July 2017

Tips for new writers Part Two - Dialogue, by Wendy Janes

As a proofreader I come across the same types of errors over and over again and thought it would be helpful to group some by theme and share them. The themes are repetition, dialogue, rules and consistency, and although they’re not intended to be comprehensive guides, I hope they’ll help you improve elements of your writing.

These suggestions are things you can do when you’ve finished pouring the first draft of your story onto the page/screen and you’re revising, editing or proofreading prior to sending your work to an editor or proofreader. The more polished your work is before it goes to the professionals, the better job they can do.

Welcome to the second post in the series: Dialogue

I don’t like to begin with a moan, but I can’t tell you how much time I spend correcting punctuation of speech. Honestly, you really don’t want your editor or your proofreader to be adding masses of missed commas and quote marks when they could be using their skills more efficiently and effectively. So, I’m going to start with some basics.

As a general rule, if you have a dialogue tag following speech, the dialogue ends with a comma, or question mark or exclamation mark, followed by the close quote, and the dialogue tag begins with a lower case letter. For example:

‘I seem to have forgotten my wallet,’ said Vincent.

And if you have an action tag following speech, the dialogue ends with a full stop, or question mark or exclamation mark, followed by the close quote, and the action tag begins with an upper case letter. For example:

‘I seem to have forgotten my wallet.’ He patted his jacket and trouser pockets.

Although the differences between action tags and dialogue tags seem very clear, readers and writers have different tolerance levels when characters are doing things like laughing or crying or sighing. To demonstrate my own preferences, let’s continue with Vincent and Anton.

‘I can’t believe I’ve done it again, Anton. This is so embarrassing.’ Vincent laughed.

‘Oh,’ sighed Anton, reaching for his credit card.

I would suggest that the above is correct because Vincent couldn’t have laughed all those words, and so his laugh is something that happens after his speech. I also think it’s quite reasonable for Anton to sigh a single word.

Modern dialogue tends to avoid too many he said/she said tags, and definitely shuns anything flowery such as ‘she implored beseechingly’. Ideally the words themselves will convey the drama, not the dialogue tag. A neat way to get around too many tags of the he said/she said variety is to choose an action tag instead. Let’s continue the story of Vincent’s missing wallet:

‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Not again,’ said Anton, crossing his arms and fixing Vincent with his ice blue eyes.

The above could be altered to:

‘You have got to be kidding me. Not again.’ Anton crossed his arms and fixed Vincent with his ice blue eyes.

Another issue I often come across is when the author states the obvious, and the dialogue is merely taking up space on the page. For example:

‘Hello,’ said Carla.
‘Hello,’ replied Duncan.

Simple greetings usually aren’t needed. However, greetings can be useful when they convey significant information, such as something unusual or interesting about the relationship between the two characters.

I suggest you also cut down on exclamation marks as much as possible. Ideally the words should convey the drama.

In order to avoid writing unrealistic dialogue, it can help if you read it out loud. Most characters will speak using contractions and it’s only very well-spoken formal or historical characters that will require the usual contractions to be written out in full. And when writing dialect, it’s a good idea to try and make it accessible and not stereotyped. Too many dropped aitches for your Londoner could be difficult to read, and slightly irritating too.

Make sure your characters speak in the language of their time. A word such as teenager has only been around since the mid-1930s, so if your book is set any earlier it’s important that none of your characters use that term to refer to anyone of that age.

Thinking carefully about your characters’ voices will really enhance your writing. Their style of speech can convey their personality or mood. For example, while it would be great for a professor of English to use the word ‘esoteric’, it would be out of character for someone who hadn’t completed high school or picked up a book since then. It’s also important to consider how each of your characters differ in their speech in terms of choice of language, vocal tics, style and length of sentences. If everyone in your novel sounds the same it’s difficult for the reader to tell them apart.

I hope you’re now ready to return to your manuscript with lots of ideas about the words you want to put in your characters’ mouths.

Wendy Janes 
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About the Author

Wendy Janes is a freelance proofreader for a number of publishers and many individual authors. She is also a caseworker for The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service. Author of the novel, What Jennifer Knows and a collection of short stories, What Tim Knows, and other stories, she loves to take real life and turn it into fiction. She lives in London with her husband and youngest son. You can connect with Wendy online and discover more about her via her Facebook author page, her website, Amazon author pages (UK/US) and Twitter @wendyproof.  


  1. Good, helpful reminders here, Wendy. Thank you.

    1. Really pleased to hear that these reminders are helpful, Christine.

  2. Love the way you present the information Wendy! Super helpful!


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