5 Essential Rules of Writing Powerful Dialogue

Posted by Kristen Hamilton on November 2, 2017 at 4:20 PM

Dialogue tags! These little monsters can sometimes be tricky, but you can't avoid them: Dialogue should make up about 20% of your novel. When approaching the subject of dialogue and dialogue tags, there are a few things that should be kept in mind in order to create powerful scenes.

First, let’s define dialogue tags so we’re all on the same page. Take a look at the sentence below:

“Let’s order pizza for dinner,” said Mike.

In this example, “said Mike” is a dialogue tag—it identifies who is speaking. It's a critical part of your characters' conversation and interactions with each other.

In the best-written books, the dialogue sounds natural on the page, and incorporates dialogue tags and action tags to show what the characters are doing while speaking.

As a book editor, there are five things I consider when working with dialogue tags.

1. Don’t use dialogue tags every time someone speaks.

This is especially true when there are only two characters speaking. For example, look at how the following excerpt can get repetitive and redundant with the overuse of dialogue tags:

“Let’s go out to eat instead,” said Janice.

“I need to stop by the bank first,” said Mike.

“The bank is across the street from that new Italian restaurant,” said Janice.

“Italian sounds delicious,” said Mike.

The constant back-and-forth of “said Janice” and “said Mike” gets repetitive and redundant. When only two characters are speaking, there's no need to mark each line with a dialogue tag. Because of the basic structure of conversations (one person speaks, the other responds), it becomes necessary only to include a dialogue tag once every few lines to keep readers oriented to who's speaking.

2. Alternate between dialogue tags, action tags, and no tags.

Action tags show the reader who’s talking as well as what the character is doing:

“I need to stop by the bank first.” Mike opened his wallet, revealing only two dollars.

You can use action tags before, after, or in between what is being said. However, don’t use a dialogue tag and an action tag in the same paragraph—it’s unnecessary. If I see both, I always delete the dialogue tag. For example:

“Let’s go out to eat instead.” Janice sat up, excited at the prospect of dining out. “We can go to that new Italian restaurant,” she said.

In this case, I would delete the “she said” at the end, as it serves no purpose. Janice has already been established as the speaker with the action tag (“Janice sat up…dining out'') so there’s no need to include a dialogue tag as well.

When writing dialogue, try to switch it up—it keeps your writing exciting. Check out this masterful example of dilaogue from Lou Paduano's The Medusa Coin, which I edited earlier this year:

Reaching beneath the bar, the man retrieved his own glass of water and held it up. “To new beginnings.”

“Cheers.” Loren took a long sip, every drop satisfying him. 

“Can I get a table set for you?” the man asked, looking around for space. “How many are joining you?”

Loren hesitated, the satisfaction of the moment fleeting. He looked around at the strangers in the bar. Dozens of people he had never seen before tonight, would never see again. None were alone; all were with some companionship for the night. Laughing. Loving. Together.

“I’ll be fine.”

The bartender read his face, and knocked on the bar. “Congrats again.”

Loren held up the water. “And thanks again—”

“Dominic.” The man extended his hand. Loren took it and gave a hard shake. “Here every day.”

“Living the dream.”

Dominic smiled, heading to a group of waiting customers. “Aren’t we all?” 

3. Use “said” and “asked” for the smoothest reading experience.

You can occasionally use dialogue tags that show tone in a character’s voice, such as “shouted,” “yelled,” or “whispered,” but don’t overdo it: Overusing these dialogue tags can distract your reader. Common dialogue tags like "said" and "asked" are invisible to the reader, allowing them to know which character is speaking but without drawing their attention away from what's happening on the page.

As a side note, the following common verbs are not dialogue tags: smiled, laughed, smirked, frowned… These are considered actions and should only be used in action tags. For example: 

INCORRECT: “I don’t have any money,” he frowned.

CORRECT: “I don’t have any money.” He frowned.

Stick with the basic dialogue tags ("said," "asked," "yelled," and so on) and you're golden.

4. Use dialogue to build your story.

Dialogue is an important part of "showing," not "telling," the scene. Use dialogue to share information and building character relationships. The best-written dialogue shares information, allowing the scenes to come to life.

Important! Make sure to incorporate a nice balance between dialogue and narration in your book—remember, dialogue should make up about 20% of your book. 

Evaluating a book's dialogue scenes is one aspect of my manuscript critique service. These are the questions I ask myself as I'm reading my clients' work:

    • Does each character’s speech and style of talking match their backbground and personality?

    • Is there too much or not enough dialogue?

    • Does the dialogue sound natural, like a real conversation?

    • Is the dialogue engaging? Do dialogue scenes feel too short or too long?

    • Do dialogue scenes consistently reveal character development, reveal back story, or advance the book's plot? Are there any dialogue scenes that could be cut out without affecting the story?

    • Are there any dialogue scenes that have info dump—too much information shared at once, without a nice balance of narration to give readers time to process the information?

5. Use correct punctuation.

When using dialogue tags like “said” or “replied,” use a comma (not a period) inside the quotes. So it should read like this:

“Hi Lacey,” the principal said.

When you're ending a line of dialogue with a question mark or an exclamation point, the dialogue tag needs to start with a lowercase letter, since it’s not the start of a new sentence.

"Come back, Lacey!" the students yelled.

Dialogue tags can be confusing at times, and as an editor, the misuse of dialogue tags is one of the most common errors I see. Hopefully this list points you in the right direction of better writing. If in doubt, just send me an e-mail—I’m happy to help!

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Book editor Kristen Hamilton is the owner and sole employee of

Kristen Corrects, Inc., where she provides manuscript editing

services for traditionally and self-publishing authors. Several

authors whose books she has edited have won awards and have

topped Amazon's best sellers lists.

Reading is Kristen's passion, so when the workday is over, she

can usually be found curled up with a good book alongside her

four cats. She loves watching cat videos and scary movies,

eating pizza, teaching herself French, and traveling, and she is

likely planning her next vacation. She lives outside of Boise, ID.

Categories: writing

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