Dialogue Dos and Don’ts

dialogue dos donts

Dialogue is essential to every genre of fiction; however, sometimes it’s hard to get it just right. Bad dialogue can trip up a reader, and sometimes doing so will make them want to stop reading altogether. That being said, here are a few dialogue dos and don’ts that can help you with writing speech:


  • Try breaking up characters’ dialogue with action. Full pages of dialogue tend to make the reader’s mind wander (that being said… don’t overdo dialogue tags, e.g. said, exclaimed, whispered).
  • Do research. Sit in a coffeehouse, restaurant, movie theater, etc. and listen to the conversations around you (make sure you’re not caught!). This can help you establish natural ways of speaking without needing to rack your brains.
  • Read your dialogue out loud and act it out if necessary. Does it feel unnatural? Edit it out.


  • Don’t have characters tell each other things they already know just because the reader doesn’t know those things. For example, if two sisters are talking, it’s highly unlikely that one would say, “When Mom and Dad adopted our brother John, I was devastated.” Find another way to convey relevant relationships or bits of backstory to the reader.
  • Don’t have an exchange between two people weighed down by repeatedly calling each other by name. “Hello, John.” “Hi, Sharon.” “How are you doing, John?” “Oh, Sharon, I am so low I have to reach up to touch bottom.”
  • Don’t put in greetings and leave-takings that are pro-forma, tell us nothing about the characters, or don’t move the story forward. Just because they would happen in real life doesn’t mean that every amenity has to be spelled out to the point of diluting the scene.

There are many more resources online that can help you with writing dialogue. Check them out for more inspiration!

Use Slang and Clichés Effectively

see you later alligator
In my opinion, the best use of slang is setting the time of the story. Using any of the above farewells screams the 1950s. “Gag me with a spoon” is soooo 1980s.


Slang has always been with us, evolving from docks, gutters, gambling dens, and society soirees. It changes with the times. That is its strength and its weakness. Used effectively, it lends authenticity to dialogue. But if writing about any time other than the present, tread carefully. Inappropriate slang can ruin the tone and undermine the credibility of the entire story.
dewdroppers waldos slackers rosemarie ostler
As with so many things, there are books for that! When writing “historical” fiction in any genre, books such as this should rest alongside a good dictionary and a convenient thesaurus.


A seldom recognized use for really old slang: when used judiciously, it can add freshness to writing.
The Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose
When the meaning is clear but the phrase isn’t current, it can sound creative. E.g., cow-handed to mean awkward, brazen faced to mean impudent or shameless, sugar stick to mean a penis.


When not to avoid clichés: when adding authenticity to dialogue. Some say you should avoid clichés like the plague, but at the end of the day, using them is as American as apple pie. Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many kick-ass expressions already out there? Don’t overdo it, but recognize that people really do say things like, “I’m wound tight as an eight-day clock” or “nutty as a fruitcake” or “Keep a stiff upper lip.” Sometimes a repeated cliché can be an effective speech tag for a specific character.


Last but not least, browsing a good book of clichés can be informative. Kick the bucket has meant to die since at least 1785!  And keep your shirt on, meaning to stay calm, predates 1854. On the other hand, kick up your heels, meaning show spirit or having a great time, is a far cry from 1500, when it meant to die. So, one more for the reference shelf!


use slang cliches effectively dictionary cliches james rogers

Attributing Words to Characters

We are often in need of indicating who is speaking and/or how. In doing so, beware of distracting—or irritating—your reader. Here are my personal Rules of Thumb for making attributions.
attributing words characters
Use “said” 99.44% of the time. It calls least attention to itself. If you are desperate to find an alternative, it may mean that you are making too many attributions. When only two people are talking, you need only the occasional attribution to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. Also, if you embed dialogue in a paragraph of narrative, the subject of the narrative is—and should be—the speaker, so no attribution is needed. For example, Sarah turned to the window. “Whatever do you mean?” N.B. that in this instance, you needn’t add she asked; the question mark says that.


Use an alternative only when it clarifies delivery—and then sparingly. Personally, I’ve been known to have a character murmur, whisper, or mutter.


Let punctuation do its job. When you’ve used a question mark, you needn’t say the character asked. When you’ve used an exclamation point, you needn’t add that the character shouted, exclaimed, etc. Using ellipses at the end of an incomplete sentence conveys that the speaker trailed off.


If you must use an alternative to “said,” make it the most common alternative available.


attributing words characters thesaurus
say,  acknowledge, aver, babble, badger, bemoan, brag, comment, enunciate, express, harangue, interject, interrupt, moralize, observe, pontificate, preach ramble, spout, state, vent, voice, articulate, blab, recite, relate, unfold, utter
accuse, blame, charge, impute, rant, rebuke, reprimand, reproach, reprove, upbraid
answer, agree, acknowledge, deny, react, reply, respond, retort
ask, appeal, beg, beseech, inquire, entreat, implore, interrogate, pester, plead, pump, query, question, quiz
assert, adduce, affirm, allege, announce, attest, avow, bemoan, boast, brag, crow, declaim, declare, deny, emphasize, exclaim, gloat, gush, insinuate, insist, intimate, justify, maintain, mock, plead, proclaim, profess, pronounce, purport, rave, refuse, retract, spout, state, swear, testify, voice, vouch
demand, beg, bid, charge, command, enjoin, entreat, importune, insist, order
deny, blame, contradict, demur, deride, disclaim, minimize, protest, refute, scoff, scold,tattle, taunt
describe, define, delineate, denote, detail, outline, paraphrase, portray, recite, recount, relate, state, summarize, tell
discuss, argue, belabor, communicate, consult, debate, deliberate, gossip, jabber, jaw, rehash, talk
explain, account for, admit, apprise, clarify, confide, elaborate elucidate. enlighten, excuse, illuminate, own, prove, rationalize, specify


These examples are substantially fewer than half of those listed in a thesaurus. Use them seldom, if ever. As I said before, they call attention to themselves. In addition, using many different words to replace “said” creates a pathetic tone of an amateur just trying too hard. And, finally, most of these variations in meaning are better handled by the dialogue itself, the setting, the narrative, and the punctuation.


Last but not least, don’t replace said with words like giggled, snorted, groaned, moaned, etc. These are separate actions, not the method of delivery.


attributing words characters
Bottom line: Use your thesaurus and dictionary as aids to narrative and dialogue, not for varying attribution.

Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.
Vivian Lawry Agile Writers

Kids Say the Darndest Things!

kids say darndest things vivian lawry
I have two favorite anecdotes about my children’s language. The first was when Helen was four and Sara was three weeks old. Helen had an appointment for her annual check-up and Sara had a terrible diaper rash, so we were on our way to the pediatrician’s office. Helen was anxious and asked question after question about what was going to happen. Eventually she asked whether he would see her first or Sara. I said, “I don’t know—whichever he chooses.” She said, “Oh. It’s his prerogative.” Yes, this really happened.


Time passed. When Sara was four and Helen was eight, I scolded Helen for hitting her sister and sent her to her room. Helen ranted about it not being fair, Sara had grabbed her book. Sara said, “But you hit me. You know the contingencies!”


Truth: I’ve sometimes told these anecdotes for their entertainment value. But I’ve recounted them here for different reasons. First: just because it really happened doesn’t make it believable. If you were to use this dialogue in a scene, you would have to lay the groundwork carefully. Let the reader know the parents are Ph.D.s who never talked baby talk to their children.You might want to let readers know that the father is an English professor and the mother a psychologist.


children's writer's word book
If you are writing stories for children or scenes involving children, choose your words carefully. There’s help out there. Although this reference is for people writing books for children, it’s a great resource for words children would understand and/or use. The words are grouped by grade level, beginning with kindergarten. It also includes synonyms.


children's writer's word book
Use the most recent word book you can find. A lot of words enter the language in fifteen years. Keep up.


These particular books start with kindergarten. For younger children, consult Dr. Spock or a good child development textbook. The usual tendency is to have children speaking too old for their years. But writers missing the target of believability ruins their credibility.