Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dialog Checklist

Dialog is one of the best ways to bring your characters to life. A sharp line of dialog can tell you more about a character than an entire paragraph of description. I've compiled a list of some of the good and bad ways to approach dialog. There are exceptions to everything, of course, but I find that these are pretty good rules of thumb.


• Dialog Steeped in the Character's Voice - An expert is going to use the vernacular of their field. A street urchin is not going to use erudite vocabulary.

• Altering Characters' Speech Depending on Who's in the Room – Most characters will speak differently to their boss than they would with their buddies at the bar. If they're irreverent with both you need to consider what the consequences of that are.

• Brevity.

• Wit - But make sure it's truly witty and suited to the character. If your beta readers don't chuckle, or worse, if they groan when they get to that bit– it's not witty.

• Differing Character Voices – The words should let you know who's speaking before you get to the dialog tag.

• Dialog Tags – As many as necessary, as few as you can get away with.

• Interspersing Actions Within a Conversation – Use to show character mood or attitude and for pacing. You can also use this to reduce the need for dialog tags.


• "As you know, Bob…" – This is a bad way to get an explanation into your story. Never have one character explain something to someone that should already know the information. Use a foil or put it in your exposition.

• "Said Bookisms" – I'm not as against these as some people, but use sparingly. 'He whispered', or 'she yelled' can be effective and unobtrusive alternates to 'said' and 'asked'. But don't have your characters spouting, snarling, screaming, moaning, and ejaculating all over the place.

• Boring Introductions – When someone is introduced to a group don't bother with, "Hi, nice to meet you." Put it in the exposition. Susie was introduced to everyone in the board room. However, if there's something important about the way two characters meet, by all means show the introduction. A good case for this would be instant attraction or animosity. Leading off with a charming smile or a killer grip to show dominance can be very telling about the characters.

• Using a Class Lecture to Present World Building – A sentence, or two, maybe, if it makes sense for the character to be in that class and if something else is going on in the scene. But don't use a history class as an excuse to info dump your extensive world building onto the reader.

• Inappropriate Colloquialisms – Make sure your turns of phrase are appropriate to the time and place of your story. A medieval peasant would not use the phrase, 'totally awesome' or 'crackalackin', and really, neither would a human five hundred years from now on another planet.

Did I miss something? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I hate when people ejaculate all over the place. Snort. I'm sorry. I have a very loud teenage boy in my head most the time, and sometimes...

    ahem. Another great tip on dialog I've read, is to skip the hello and the pleasantries, and go straight to the meat. As an introvert, that makes me happy. I've also been reading scripts with particularly awesome dialog, hoping that it'll rub off. Read this one, for example, So brilliant. You'll notice how quickly the action moves and how every word counts and says something about the story, the character, and does it while sparkling.

    Great post.


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