Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Thirteen Secrets for Sizzling Dialogue

By Guest Author Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Please join me in welcoming Rayne Hall to the blog today to share a few secrets on writing great dialogue.

Rayne has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Recent books include Storm Dancer (dark epic fantasy novel), 13 British Horror Stories, Six Scary Tales Vol. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (creepy horror stories), Thirty Scary Tales, Six Historical Tales Vol. 1 and 2 (short stories), Six Quirky Tales (humorous fantasy stories), The Colour of Dishonour: Stories from the Storm Dancer World, Writing Fight Scenes, The World-Loss Diet, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic, Writing Dark Stories, and Writing Scary Scenes (practical guides for authors).

She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing. Currently, she edits the Ten Tales series of multi-author short story anthologies: Bites: Ten Tales of Vampires, Haunted: Ten Tales of Ghosts, Scared: Ten Tales of Horror, Cutlass: Ten Tales of Pirates, Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft, Spells: Ten Tales of Magic, Undead: Ten Tales of Zombies, Seers: Ten Tales of Clairvoyance, Dragons: Ten Tales of Fiery Beasts and more.

Rayne has lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal and has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian grandeur on the south coast of England.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Pinterest | Amazon

Take it away Rayne...

Here are thirteen techniques professional writers use to make their dialogue sharp, realistic and entertaining.

1. Use questions. Questions hook the reader's interest more than statements. Let the characters talk in questions as much as possible.
  • “What do you want?”
  • “Why are you doing this?”
  • “Where are we going?”
  • “Why didn’t you tell me?”
2. Let characters answer questions with questions. This hints at evasion, power struggles or secrets. Each time a question is answered with another question, the tension rises.

Example 1 – Wife and Husband 

  • “Do you still love me?”
  • “Why are you asking?”
  • “Do you still truly love me?”
  • “Are you suddenly doubting my love?”
  • “Why don’t you tell me that you still love me?”
  • “Do we have to talk about this now?”
  • “Why aren’t you answering my question?”
  • “What do you want me to say?”

Example 2: Police Officer and Suspect
  • “Where were you between ten and eleven last night?”
  • “Why do you want to know?”
  • “Where were you between ten and eleven last night?”
  • “Where should I have been?”
  • “Why don’t you tell me where you were?”
  • “Are you accusing me of something?”
  • “Do you have something to hide?”
  • “What makes you think I have something to hide?”

3. Let the characters do something while they talk. Give them a job, a task, an assignment, whether it's washing the dishes, mending the garden shed or cracking a safe.

4. Write as tightly as possible, cutting superfluous words. Great dialogue is less wordy than real-life conversations. One-liners have great impact.

5. Use short sentences. Real life dialogue often rambles on in long sentences, but fictional dialogue comes across as more real if the sentences are short.

6. Use tags (he said, she asked, he replied) only when they're needed for clarity of who's talking. If the characters are busy doing things, then you can simply write their spoken sentences before or after the action, and it’s clear who’s talking.
  • Elsa turned the tap off. “What now?”
  • Ben tightened his grip on the gun. “Give me the money.”
7. Use short words for tags. He said, she asked, he yelled, she screamed. Avoid long words that draw attention to themselves: he expostulated, she interrogated.

8. Avoid adding adverbs to the tags. Instead of ‘he said loudly’ write ‘he shouted’, instead of ‘she said irritably’ write ‘she snapped’, instead of ‘he said furiously’ write ‘he yelled’, instead of ‘she said quietly’ write ‘she muttered’. Better still, let the dialogue itself imply how something is said: “I’ve had enough, you bastard!” is clear; you don’t need to add ‘he said angrily’.

9. Add body language. Posture, facial expression, movements, especially for the non-POV character. This contributes clarity and meaning without the need for tags.
  • “I don’t like this.” John scratched his ear. “Do we have to go through with it?”
  • Bill leaned forward. “Tell me more.”
  • Jane twisted her necklace in her fingers. “What if someone sees us?”
  • Fred glanced at his watch. “Time to go.”
10. Drop hints. Hint at dishonesty or secrets by showing body language that contradicts what the character says. Use this technique sparingly.
  • “No need to hurry.” Mary drummed her fingers on the table.
  • Mary glanced at her watch. “Take all the time you need.”
  • “I can wait,” Mary assured him. Her feet jiggled and bounced.
11. Limit swear words. Frequent swear words can make a character appear unintelligent, so use them sparingly, if at all. You may want to reserve them for a minor character who is not overly bright, or for a character who has the weaker arguments in a confrontation and is losing his cool.

12. Consider the person's level of education. A high-school dropout uses a different vocabulary than a PhD graduate. How ‘educated’ is this character’s speech?

13. Use the character's voice. Characters don't talk the way their authors do. Think of each character’s key personality traits. How would a person with these characteristics talk? What kind of speech patterns reflect this personality?
  • A self-centered person probably uses the words ‘I’, ‘my’ and ‘me’ a lot.
  • A timid person may preface requests and statements with an apology: “I'm sorry to bother you. I wonder if it's possible to...” “I'm probably wrong, but...”
  • An insecure person may use ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’.
  • A bossy person may phrase many sentences as a command. “Take a taxi.” “Call me tomorrow.”
  • A status-seeking person may name-drop and mention status symbols at every opportunity “Last week, the duchess told me...” “When I parked my Porsche...”
  • A pompous person may speak in multi-syllabic words.

Which of these techniques are you already using in your fiction? Which are new?

I look forward to your comments. If you have questions, ask and I will reply.

About The Writing Craft Series

The ebooks in Rayne Hall's Writing Craft series equip authors with tools for their writing craft.

Writing Fight Scenes shows how to construct an exciting, realistic fight scene even if you've never held a weapon. Learn to write vivid duels, riots, ambushes, battles and self-defense scenes.

Writing Scary Scenes helps create scenes that make your readers' hearts hammer with suspense, their breaths quicken with excitement, and their skins tingle with goosebumps of delicious fright.

Writing About Villains gives you the tools for creating fiends your readers love to hate and will never forget.

The Word-Loss Diet guides writers to slim and tone their writing style, stripping away layers of word-fat to reveal the muscle of their unique author voice.


  1. This is a great list. Looking back at books I love, I couldn't agree more with these rules. Thank you for putting them together and sharing it with us.

    1. Hi Christine, I'm glad you like them. They're not meant to be 'rules' though, just suggestions. I wouldn't want to set 'rules' for what other authors may or may not write. :-)

  2. Hi Christine, I'm glad you like them. They're not meant to be 'rules' though, just suggestions. I wouldn't want to set 'rules' for what other authors may or may not write. :-)

  3. I love writing my characters with subtext! That said, though, there are situations (like children's fiction, or specific characters), where you want them to answer directly or you want their actions and speech to always match up. Some characters can even, instead of responding to a question with a question, respond with a statement…which may or may not answer the question asked.

    • Wife: Do you love me?
    • Husband: Made you asparagus with dinner last night.
    • Wife: So?
    • Husband: I hate asparagus.
    • Wife: Funny how you say that, but you don't seem to mind eating it.
    • Husband: I'm being polite! (beat) So that's what's bothering you. That I'm good at eating asparagus without gagging, because you like it.
    • Wife: You're missing the point—
    • Husband: I got your point. And if you honestly think I'm cheating on you, I don't know what to say.

    I'm having fun with one character who answers questions by saying or doing something that encourages the questioner to assume a particular answer. And when she tells the truth, she often intentionally uses her body language to promote misunderstanding of what she says.

  4. Hi Rayne
    Good stuff, thanks.
    I've got some of these sorted, such as the tags, no adverbs, actions and body language whilst talking.
    I particularly want to work on the questions. I don't use enough, and they are common. I also need to shorten my dialogue. I'm always striving for realism, but it's interesting that you think shorter works. My editor clearly agrees because he's often chopping the ends off my dialogue :)
    I can also still get much better at using the character's voice. It's easier with the extreme characters, but with the rest, I need to find those little phrases and ways of speaking that identify them and make them unique.
    What are your thoughts on dialect? I enjoy creating weird versions of dialects for fantasy characters, but getting the right balance of character and ease of reading is a tough one.
    thanks again, great stuff.

    1. Hi Mike,
      With dialogue, just a hint is usually best. If you write dialect as broad as in reality, it becomes difficult to read, so just use the occasional word or pronunciation oddity.
      For the character's voice, think about their personalities, and base their speech patterns on them. I'm sure your main characters have individual personalities, at least as much as the minor ones. Think about how their personality traits might reflect in their dialogue. Then apply that when you revise the dialogue scenes.
      That's much more convincing than trying to give them quirky speaking habits.
      Working on questions can be fun. When I discovered this trick, I experimented at first hesitantly, then became bold. I rewrote one staid dialogue scene so that the characters were talking in nothing but questions. I didn't expect it to work. But - wow! That scene suddenly bristled with tension.
      You may want to play with these dialogue scenes and experiment how to best make them work for you.

  5. Great post! I especially appreciate your advice on using shorter sentences, it does help create realism so the characters aren't lecturing. Adding action/activities/body language is another favorite bit of advice I offer to those I beta read for. These are all fantastic tips. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Love these tips! I've read her book, Word Loss Diet, which is packed with useful tips as well.

    1. Thanks, Julie. I enjoy sharing techniques with fellow writers - through books, classes, tweets, blog posts. :-)

  7. I stopped reading books by David Baldacci because he overuses "creative" speech tags. Sometimes he uses a simple "he said," but far too often it's "he observed," or stated or remarked or clarified or insisted or advised or countered or warned or ... It get very annoying very quickly. Then again, his plots are just silly.

    Another pet peeve is when the tag doesn't agree with the speech, such as the following:

    "No," he explained.

    That's not an explanation! Grrrrrr...

    1. I know what you mean. 'Creative' speech tags get on my nerves, too. I can tolerate a moderate number of S/he observed/stated/clarified, but draw the line at S/he extrapolated/interrogated/elucidated . :-D

      "No," he explained. Yes, that's just silly.
      It reminds me of
      "I warned you you about going there," she hissed. (Words can't be hissed unless they have s-sounds.)
      "I'm so sorry that this happened, and believe me, none of this was my intention," he sighed. (It's not physically possible to sigh so many words - try it.)

    2. Seems like there should be one more point saying "Make sure the line is pronouncable" :D
      By the way, thanks for the tips. I found them really helpful.

    3. Pronouncable is a must. :-)

  8. What a great list! I am working on a novel rewrite and found this so helpful. I'm trying to avoid too many redundant she said, she said's (I have 2 main female characters) so using actions instead of tags is great.

    1. I'm glad the tips are helping you, Dana. Use this tips when they feel right for your novel (and ignore them when they don't). :-)

  9. Hi Rayne, thanks for a great post! How do you feel about including facial expressions?

    His mouth turned down at the corners like a politician caught with an intern. “Why do you say that?”

    I guess it could work in small doses? I can see how it might get silly quick.

    1. Hi Aimee,
      Facial expressions are great, as are other forms of body language. They're much more vivid than 'he said/she said' tags.
      Just keep the point of view in mind. The PoV character can't see his/her own facial expression.

  10. Shenae Richards10/29/2016 11:47 PM

    I'm not very good with writing dialog and so I found this post very helpful. I was very delighted to see that one of the recommendations was to answer a question with another question. Jamaicans are known for doing that and a few of the other islands even make fun of us for always answering a question with another question. That one I know I could do with my eyes closed. I never really thought of incorporating it in my writing, but it might be time to start. After all, it comes naturally to me.

    1. Oh, a whole culture where answering questions with questions is the norm! I imagine this drives some non-Jamaicans mad. :-)

  11. Good dialogues can save any bad story. I agree with Rayne, it is so important to have smartly picked dialogues in a story.
    A half page well written dialogue can tell more about the character than a page of detailed description.

    1. It can. But half a page of dull dialogue can bore readers as much as half a page of dragging description. It all depends on how well you write it.
      And usually it's best to mix things up, so there's dialogue and description on that page, and some action, too.

  12. I'm big on dialogues when it comes to my story and I agree with how important they are. I've been told that my dialogues really bring my characters to life.

  13. That's a great compliment, and fantastic especially when your fans say this. :-)