WRITING: Creating believable dialogue.

Creating believable dialogue is an art, but part of the craft can be learned.

First of all, there are two adages that come to mind when writing dialogue. Strunk & White’s ‘Omit needless words’, and Elmore Leonard’s ‘Skip the boring parts’.

My own process:

What I most often do is write pages and pages of dialogue before I start culling the pages back to paragraphs. I’m a stickler for verisimilitude, so I tend to write dialogue that’s close to the real thing.

However, dialogue has a function in fiction, so I remove the quotidian from the verbiage and keep that which hints or tells something about the situation or the perspective of the character, as well as moving the plot forward.

I dislike ‘exposition’, but you can inform the reader in dialogue without info dumps if you infer rather than inform. So hint at stuff, instead of explaining things outright.

Another thing is that in real life, people rarely say what they mean. So that’s important to keep in your fictional dialogue–sometimes people are direct, other times they’re circumspect. Some characters are blunt, others tend to be more sophisticated.

An example from my current WIP, In Pocket. Wolfgang the pickpocket visits his fence to cash in his plastic:

I slipped into the booth, ignored the smoke from his cigar smouldering in the chipped glass ashtray, and placed a stack of credit cards in front of him. Mink sifted through the cards, refused three and pocketed the rest. His pudgy hand reappeared with cash and a gold-plated necklace, the lock broken to make it appear snatched.

“Two hundred retail,” Mink said. “Yours for twenty.”

“I don’t wear jewellery.”

He dangled the necklace from his thick fingers. “It’s a woman’s.”

“Don’t have a woman.”

I stuffed the money he gave me in my breast pocket, not eager to let him know where I stash my cash.

Mink smoothed the necklace on the table. “You should get out more.”

“If that advice had come from someone who didn’t live inside a dingy bar stuffed in a back alley, I might’ve taken it.”

“Always the smart mouth.” Mink shook his head. “One day you’ll learn that moving around isn’t the same as moving up.”

“Is that the voice of experience?”

He steepled his stubby fingers. “Don’t push your luck.”

“Respect goes two ways,” I said, “Don’t insult my intelligence pushing that gold-plated crap on me.”

Grinning, Mink put the necklace away. “You’re right, I should’ve known better.”

I got up to leave, but he flapped a pudgy hand. “Sit back down, we need to talk.”

“We do?” I sat back down, even though I didn’t really want to. Mink is connected and while I don’t want him to disrespect me, I also don’t want to piss him off.

Mink leaned back and drew on the stub of his cigar. “You work hotels?”

“Lobbies, on occasion. Sometimes hotel restaurants at breakfast time.”

He blew a plume of smoke at the ceiling. “But no further?”

“Not much to gain from venturing into the corridors.”

“Not for a pickpocket.” Mink ground out the cigarette in the ashtray with a savage twist. I heard somewhere that he used to have a highly volatile temper. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t be useful.”

I didn’t respond. Sometimes it’s better not to talk.

“I’m putting together a small crew for hotel burglaries,” Mink said. “You’d be a good addition.”

“I’m not into team sports, Mink.”

“I’m talking about a crew, not a team.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Members of a team all work towards the same goal, although there can be different tasks. A crew unites members with diverse specialties to work together as a cohesive unit.” He steepled his fingers. “You’d be part of a three-man crew. One stays by the door while two work the room. You have a good eye for valuables.”

I pointed at his pocket. “That necklace was a test?”

“You’d be in charge. I have passkeys, maps of the rooms, floor plans of the hotels. Three-way split. You, me and them.”

I shook my head. “Three people triple the risk.”

“I forgot, you don’t like to take risks.” Mink grinned, but his eyes stayed dead. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

I left the bar, glad to be back in the sunlight again.

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WRITING: Dialogue and the ‘Said’ rule

After someone had read an article on Writing World on the abuse of dialogue tags, there was a discussion on Quora whether the dialogue tag ‘said’ was the best and only tag.

This is what I had to say on the subject:

The main reason for the ‘said’ rule, is that ‘said’ is invisible.

If you write a whole page of dialogue, readers need to be able to distinguish between the speakers.
There are several ways of doing that:

  • action tag: Peter threw the mug across the kitchen. “Don’t ever talk to me that way again.”
  • name of the character in the dialogue: “Don’t ever talk to me that way again, Mary.”
  • distinctive speech pattern: “D-don’t ever talk to m-me that way again.”
  • inserting ‘stop’ words particular to the character. “Like, you know, don’t talk ever talk to me that way again, you know?”
  • dialect: “Don’ evah talk t’me them way agin.”
  • emphasize the words: “Don’t. Ever. Talk. To. Me. That. Way. Again.”

If you need to add a speech tag, ‘Peter said’ is pretty invisible. It’s similar to a stage direction:
(Peter:) Don’t ever talk to me that way again.

The other part of the rule is that novice writers are tempted to pimp up their speech tags instead of the dialogue.

  • “Don’t ever talk to me that way again,” Peter hissed.
  • “Don’t ever talk to me that way again,” Peter threatened.
  • “Don’t ever talk to me that way again,” Peter yelled.
  • “Don’t ever talk to me that way again,” Peter bellowed.

If you need to increase the impact of a dialogue and you cannot think of a way to change the dialogue, adding an action tag is better than changing the speech tag from ‘said’ to ‘threatened’.


The twinkle disappeared from Peter’s eyes and he stepped closer. His voice was low, almost a growl. “Don’t ever talk to me that way again.”

Every rule can be broken, but most can be circumvented…


My Quora answer was re-blogged on several other blogs, most specifically on Reference For Writers, so I figured it was time to give it an article page on my own blog…

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