Thursday, August 17, 2017

Whether writing memoir or fiction, authors need to learn to write dialogue

In classes that I teach, the one thing writers have the most trouble with is dialogue. We know that dialogue is seldom skipped when reading but long pages of text with no dialogue is skimmed over and skipped entirely.

When do we use quotation marks? Where do we put the quotation marks?

Do we use quotation marks when the character is thinking, not speaking out loud? Thinking is internal dialogue. It is best to show what the character is thinking rather than explain his thoughts.

Example: When the doorbell rang, Jack wondered where he should hide the money.
Better: The doorbell rang. Jack dashed around the room seeking a hiding place for the money.

If we use a question mark, do we also need a comma?
“Will you come to my house today,?”  NO NO NO. No comma is needed when using a question mark.

Today I was happy to see one of my students write a half page of dialogue using only two tags. The conversation was between a caller on the phone and the writer. It was easy to follow with only two tags—one at the beginning and one at the end.

Too often we see the “he saids” and the “she saids” over and over.
More often we see the outmoded tags with the adverbs to show attitude.

 “I’m worried,” Jack said nervously.

I ask my students to go through their stories and circle all the “ly” words. We want to use very few adverbs in our writing. Descriptive and active verbs will eliminate the need for adverbs.

Better: “I’m worried,” Jack said, running his hands through his hair, pacing up and down the room.

Good dialogue includes actions and body language, combining activities and showing emotions along with words spoken.
Stella slammed the book on the table. “I can’t do any more homework now.” She walked to the door, looked back and scowled at her mother. “I’m out of here.”

I recommend this book for learning to write dialogue and use correct punctuation.  Purge Your Prose of Problems, a Book Doctor’s Desk Reference by Bobbie Christmas . I receive no remuneration for recommending this book. I do it because it has been an excellent guide for me as a writer and as a teacher. 

Glenda Council Beall, Program Director of NCWN-West and owner of Writers Circle around the Table,


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Nancy. We spend much time on writing dialogue in my classes. It seems to be one of the hardest things to learn to do well.


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