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All You Need to Know About Dialogue with Tracy Culleton

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Writing Dialogue

Tracy Culleton

Tracy Culleton is the best selling author of Looking Good, a teacher and regular faciliator for Inkwell, here she tells you exactly how to make your dialogue sing.

Points to remember:

  • Dialogue does not attempt to replicate real speech.
    • Leave out most of the ‘um’s and ‘ah’s and the repetitions and the half sentences.
  • But it should give the flavourof real speech, by including things like, “You know,” in moderation. For example:
    • Real people often speak in asides, and it can be good to include in moderation in your dialogue. For example: “I was heading into town – do you know, the traffic gets worse every day, I swear – when I met John”.
  • Real dialogue can often just be for the sake of it, for social intercourse, the human equivalent of picking fleas off each other! But fictional dialogue always has a purpose.
  • The purposes of dialogue include the following. If your story’s dialogue does none of these things, delete it. Aim for the dialogue to do at least two or three at the same time. This gives richness and depth to the story.
    • Establishing setting, time, occupation etc
    • Telling back story (But be careful with this. See example 1 below)
    • Revealing characterisation
    • Revealing characters’ motivation
    • Loving Lucy Tracy CulletonMoving the plot forward
    • Revealing what the character is thinking (or what s/he says s/he’s thinking)
    • Creating, showing, or building conflict
    • Injecting humour
    • Establishing tone or mood of the scene
    • Help the readers get to know the character – building empathy
  • But whatever you do, DON’T info-dump.
    • Trick to avoid info-dump – NEVER have the characters tell information they already know. They can refer to it, but the assumptions of knowledge must be there. (See my example 2 below)
  • All scenes – and that includes all dialogue – must have a point to them.
  • In dialogue at least one character wants something – whether that’s something simple like conveying information, or as difficult as persuading the other party to do something they don’t want to do. The second character might be neutral, or might be determined that the first character will not get what they want. (See my example 3 below)
  • Dialogue has two layers
    • The purpose of the characters, as in the point above
    • The real purpose, i.e. the writer conveying information to the reader. But this purpose must be hidden and subtle.

More Than Friends Tracy Culleton


  • If at all possible in the story, try to limit the number of people in a conversation. Two is the ideal number. The more characters, the more potential for readers’ confusion.
  • But don’t artificially manipulate the story to achieve this – story is king, and everything must serve that.
  • The more characters in the conversation, the harder you’ll have to work to differentiate them.
  • Use the dialogue tag early to identify the speaker. Don’t leave the reader wondering. An example:
    • “I wonder,” said Jane, “if we could try building a raft out of those trees.” This is better than:
    • “I wonder if we could try building a raft out of those trees,” said Jane.
  • Don’t be scared to use “he said/she said” over and over. It doesn’t get annoying to the reader.
  • But don’t use it in every sentence – for many lines you don’t need any tags at all.
  • Sparingly use tags like whispered, shouted, yelled, etc.
  • NEVER use tags like expostulated, ejaculated, etc. They’re too purple and flowery.
  • Avoid adverbs if possible, e.g. “He said happily”, or “She said sadly”. See the separate adverbs section.
  • Don’t write accents.
  • However, try to make your characters’ voices distinctive.
  • Try to “hear” your characters speaking. As Holly Lisle (www.hollylisle.com) says: “As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, writing good dialogue comes from being able to hear voices in your head that aren’t there—which in times past has been enough to get you burned at the stake or drowned at a dunking post, and which currently, if you admit to it in the wrong company, can get you a quiet room with rubber walls and all the free Thorazine you can swallow.”
  • Read your work aloud (dialogue and narration). Does it flow? Is it easy to read? If not, if you’re tripping over words, then it needs re-writing.
  • Dialogue sentences should be short. This is for several reasons:
    • That’s the way people really speak – they don’t speechify.
    • Short dialogue sentences keep the momentum going. A speech/monologue would slow the pace down.
    • They are also tiring to read.
    • Short dialogue means that there’s lots of white spaces on the page (See the section on formatting dialogue), and that’s much easier on the eyes. Lots of black text is tiring for the eyes.
  • Make your dialogue match the flavour of the period of history in which your story is set. If it’s set in Elizabethan times, for example, read lots of Shakespeare. But modernize the speech to a certain extent. Genuine Elizabethan English would be hard to read.
  • But don’t use too much modern slang for a present-day story – slang dates very quickly, and that’ll date your story.
  • Use bad language very sparingly, if at all (depending on your genre). It has huge impact – so just use it where you want huge impact.


  • Use correct punctuation. Check out this website for detailed punctuation advice. Here’s some advice in brief:
  • All dialogue is in inverted commas.
  • Each speaker starts a different paragraph (which leads to the large amounts of white space mentioned earlier).
  • Make sure the reader knows who’s speaking, without overdoing the tags.
  • Include description with the dialogue, e.g.: Philip shrugged. “I don’t know what to say to that.”. This has three benefits:

o   It breaks up the dialogue, to stop it getting monotonous.

o   It sets or embeds the dialogue – the readers can picture what’s happening.

o   It helps reduce the number of tags.

  • Here are some examples of different punctuation:

o   Mary said, “How are you?” (Note that How is capitalised, because it’s the beginning of Mary’s sentence.)

o   “How are you?” asked Mary. (The capitalised How serves both as the beginning of Mary’s sentenceand the writer’s sentence.)

o   Mary said, “Good morning,” and then sat down. (Note the comma within the inverted commas.)


Ah, the curse of the dreaded adverb. I’m speaking now of adverbs used in dialogue, e.g.

  • He walked briskly
  • She said loudly
  • He said angrily

As you may well know, the golden rule in writing is: “Show, don’t tell”.

Well, adverbs fall perilously into the trap of telling. As such they really should be avoided as much as possible. I know my writing is evolving to use less of them.

There are three choices for how you can show how the character spoke without using an adverb:

  • Use a stronger verb.

o   So, instead of: “He walked briskly ….” say, “He strode …”

o   Instead of “She said loudly …” say, “She shouted …” or “She boomed …”

o   Obviously do this in moderation, as already described.

  • Describe (i.e. ‘show’) the character’s demeanour/tone.

o   Instead of: “Blah blah,” he said happily, try something like, “Blah, blah,” he said. His kindly face was creased into a broad beam of a smile at the prospect.

o   Instead of “Blah blah,” she said crossly, try, “Blah blah,” she said, her mouth pinched tight with annoyance.

  • Actually use the dialogue to describe how the character spoke.

o   Instead of: “Let’s go for a walk,” he said hesitantly, you could try this: “Sandra, I was wondering … well, you know … it’s a beautiful day … we could … if you liked … go for a walk”. Okay, that’s a bit hammy and exaggerated, but you get the idea.

o   Instead of “Do you really think so?” he said sarcastically, try: “Do you really think so?”

You won’t get rid of all adverbs; nor, in my opinion, should you try. But make each adverb earn its place honestly by being sure that that’s the absolute best way to relate this particular piece of text, rather than just throwing them in there any old how.

A quick hint: When I’m writing the first draft, I use my adverbs gaily. They’re great place-holders, and a shorthand to me of what’s going on. But in subsequent drafts I literally do a search for ‘ly’, and I remove every one I can using the above methods.


Back story through dialogue.

Now, this should be used VERY CAREFULLY! You risk committing the cardinal sin of information dumping. An example of that might be:

“Oh, hi Mary, how are you? I see you’ve lost lots of weight.”

“Yes I have. Well, I wanted to do something different since Phil left me.”

“Oh right – when he went off with that floozie from his office?”

“That’s right. Majella the stick insect. I’ve been heart-broken ever since.”

Etc etc. It’s awful, isn’t it?

Here’s an example from my novel Looking Good, showing how dialogue can do a good job of giving back story. The first-person narrator, Grainne, and her friend Sinead have gone to dinner at the house of Grainne’s friends Stephen and Richard. There’s a new acquaintance of Stephen and Richard’s there – Justin. As he’s new to them all it’s reasonable that they should tell him (really, the readers) a bit about themselves.

As the evening passed we all relaxed more and more into each others’ company.  We fell into chatting about how we met our respective partners, past and present, and eventually it was my turn.

“I met Patrick in Greece,” I told Justin. “I was working in a bar for the summer, and he came in. I couldn’t believe it, though, when he picked me. He’s so gorgeous!  He’s tall, just about six feet, with black hair and blue eyes.  His face is quite angular – no fear of him losing his cheek-bones!  And he’s got a fabulous body, quite lean, but beautifully proportioned.  I don’t know what he saw in me at all!”

“Oh, come on,” said Sinead, “you’re gorgeous too.”

“Yes!” echoed Stephen and Richard loyally.

I smiled my thanks at their words. I suppose I’m not too bad.  Fairly average really.  Medium height, medium build, quite pretty.  And I’m lucky in that I’ve got really nice hair, long and thick.  Brown, mind, but you can’t have everything.  And blue eyes which everyone says are my best feature.

“And,” went on Sinead, slightly undermining her previous words, “you’ve got so much personality! And a wonderful sense of humour!”

“You mean,” I said tartly, “that I don’t need looks seeing as I’m so much fun to be with?”

This issued forth another round of denials – which may well have been the idea.

“Mind you,” said Stephen, “Patrick was lucky to get her.  I nearly got there first!  Apart from the minor detail of being gay.  Having said that,” he added musingly, “maybe I wouldn’t have taken her on, even if I was straight.  The thought of having Grainne’s mother as your mother-in-law would put the most stalwart suitor off, I’d imagine.  I don’t know how Patrick manages.”

“Oh, she thinks the world of Patrick,” interjected Sinead.  “His background suits her social-mountaineering ambitions perfectly.”

Once the laughter had died down, Stephen said reflectively, “The thing I really have against her is the fact that she talked Grainne out of coming to art college with me.” He turned to Justin. “Grainne’s a brilliant water-colourist and she’s a genius at drawing faces – honestly, she could meet someone once, and draw them perfectly.  She used to make great pocket-money at school, doing pencil-portraits of the pupils and caricatures of the teachers.  And she was quite keen on going to art college.  But no, that wasn’t good enough for her mother!  Not nearly posh enough.  What would she tell her friends?”

“It wasn’t just her,” I said. “It was my dad too.  He wasn’t worried about the image thing, more about the insecurity.  I remember,” I laughed a little, “he told me he didn’t want to see me starving in a garret.  And I said, ‘studio’, and he was really confused.  I had to explain to him that it’s poets who starve in garrets; artists starve in studios.  I thought it was quite witty myself, but it just went over his head.  He said worriedly that he didn’t want me starving anywhere. So it was hard to stand up against the pair of them.  But as well, maybe I was just as glad – not having to prove myself as an artist.  Maybe I was scared.  I always admire you so much,” I said directly to Stephen, “having the courage and commitment to keep at your sculpting, even during those years before you became successful.”

“You could have done it too,” he said.  “I don’t think you even paint any more, do you?”

“Haven’t the time,” I said and, realising that it sounded like such an excuse, I added quickly, “Anyway, I love teaching.  And I’m good at it too.”

“I know you are,” said Stephen, the few glasses of wine he’d had making him tenacious, “but it’s such a waste, it really is.”

Justin interjected then, recognising, as did we all, that a change of subject might not come amiss.  He turned quickly to Sinead, asking her, “And do you have a partner?”

“No,” she said lightly, “too busy being a super-career woman.”  And if her voice was too bright, a little brittle, Justin found some tact from somewhere, and didn’t comment on that.  He changed the subject again, and we all just chatted light-heartedly for the rest of the evening.

Do you see how, in just 750 words, we learn a lot of information – and learn it very naturally. We learn:

  • That Patrick is extremely handsome,
  • That Grainne is just quite pretty, fairly average (this is from her own description of herself – it’s always a challenge with first person narration to get in the description of the narrator.)
  • That she is either prettier than she thinks, or her friends think a lot of her, enough to reassure her.
  • That she has tons of personality.
  • That Grainne’s mother is a bit of a dragon, and a social climber.
  • That Grainne wanted to go to art college.
  • That she was too scared to follow her dream (this is important as finding courage is a large part of Grainne’s character arc in the novel)
  • That she has a talent for drawing faces (this is very important later in the novel)
  • That she’s a teacher now.
  • That her friend Sinead is single, and probably not too happy about being single.

This information is presented in a very natural way – and that’s what you’re aiming for. The bit about Grainne’s dad being worried about her starving in a garret is humorous for its own sake, but it helps the naturalness of the delivery.

I wrote this book about five or six years ago. Now I would never have Grainne say, “He said worriedly …” Nobody talks like that, it’s more narration than speech. I’d have her say, “He said – and God but you should have seen the worried expression on his face, the poor man! – [rest of sentence]”

Also Grainne’s speech about her father’s concern is too long. If I was doing it again I’d break it up.


Characters never refer to things they all already know. So sometimes the reader has to read between the lines, and it’s the writer’s job to make sure that there’s enough evidence to enable the reader to do that, without being clumsy about this.

The following example is from my as-yet-unpublished novel Yellow Brick Road.

Laura is the receptionist at the hotel, and she’s trying to persuade her boss to let her take on the project of decorating the lobby. We already know that everybody, including Laura herself, believes her to be a bit ditzy. The first speaker is her boss (this is clear from the preceding dialogue).

As well as noting how we learn what they’re referring to without it being specifically mentioned, note how few dialogue tags I’m using, and note too how the extract shows Laura’s character.

“Hm. Look Laura, I’ll be honest with you. I’m a little concerned that you might make a mess of it. That you mightn’t have thought it through. After all, you do tend to jump into things. Remember the time you decided you’d try your hand at marketing, and you organised all those coach tours to come here?”

“Yes,” she answered. She knew exactly where this was heading. Was she never to be allowed forget about it?

“Now it didn’t matter, honestly it didn’t. We managed to find hotels in nearby towns for most of them, after all. And they were nearly all very nice about it, said they didn’t mind staying somewhere different than they’d expected. As for that group which was quite nasty, well, you always get some awkward ones.”

“I was just trying to help you get business, and I got so excited when the bookings came in that I couldn’t bear to turn anybody down.”

“I know, I know. You didn’t mean any harm, your heart’s in the right place. But as I said, sometimes you don’t think things through.”


Dialogue with conflict.

This scene is also from Yellow Brick Road. The characters are Imelda Doran, her mother Dympna Doran, and Matthias Muller. Matthias has just asked Imelda to go for lunch with him. Imelda had hoped to do it without her mother finding out she was doing it, and without her mother meeting Matthias. But it didn’t work.

I’ve suggested not using accents. However, Matthias is Swiss, so I use little tricks like making sure he speaks a little more formally than native speakers would – for example he doesn’t use many contractions.

“Hello, Mrs Doran,” said Matthias cheerfully.

“Good afternoon,” said Dympna in tones which would have made a glacier reach to turn up the thermostat.

But Matthias seemed not to notice – either that, or he had made the decision not to notice. He continued, still cheerful, “It is a beautiful day, do you not think so?”

Dympna seemed not to have an opinion on meteorological conditions.

Matthias, to his credit, was still making an effort, “I have just invited Imelda out to lunch.”

“Indeed. And what makes you think she will have anything to do with you?”

“Oh,” said Matthias, clinging determinedly to his good humour, “I am being hopeful, that is all!”

“Hmph,” said Dympna. Then she spoke in precise tones: “You know, young man –” (Oh, oh, thought Imelda as her eyes went from one to the other like a spectator at a tennis match, this is getting serious – Mam’s icy- politeness level is escalating dangerously.) “- I think you are misguided. I don’t think my daughter will choose to spend time with hippies.”

“Mrs Doran,” Matthias answered extremely, extremely, courteously, not to be outdone in the politeness arms-race, “I am not a hippie. I am merely somebody who wishes to live in an environmentally sustainable way. I do not take drugs – I do not even smoke! I work hard for my money and I pay my taxes. I am not a hippie,” he said again.

“Hmph.” Dympna dismissed this entirely as it did not match her world view.

“It is true that sometimes we think differently about things than most people, but surely you do not say that I am not entitled to my opinions.”

“You’re entitled to any opinions you want, young man, but we here in Cilltubber don’t want to hear them. Save them for your weird friends, and don’t inflict them on my daughter.”

“Mrs. Doran, I am glad to hear that you entitle me to my opinions. Of course I will not impose them on you. And I will tell you my name so you don’t have to keep calling me ‘young man’ – it is Matthias Muller. You may call me Mr. Muller, or,” he added in tones of great generosity, “since I am very much your junior I give you my permission to call me Matthias.”

Dympna stared at him, doing a very credible impression of a goldfish, repeatedly opening her mouth to respond, and closing it again when she couldn’t think of anything to say. The temerity of it. Nobody – nobody! – had spoken to her like that.

And maybe he felt sorry for her, and/or maybe he remembered that he was friends with her daughter, because he smiled then, an attempt at reconciliation.

“But surely, Mrs. Doran, we can be friends. We are neighbours now after all.”

Imelda, a helpless spectator to this duel, could have told him he was wasting his time. But he learned quickly enough.

Dympna spoke in icy tones, her enunciation becoming more and more precise until Imelda thought that England’s Queen could have taken elocution lessons from her. “Young man, you are uncouth and arrogant. You have no place in our community, no matter how you convince yourself you do. And you may not bring my daughter to lunch.”

Matthias’ tone changed. It was no longer so friendly and accommodating. Rather he spoke with absolute confidence and a subtle challenge.

“Mrs. Doran, whether or not I bring Imelda to lunch depends upon her decision.”

Both pairs of eyes turned swivelled to look at her, put on the spot as she was.

See here for Blogging.com’s list of writing resources. It has 32 other sites and tools writers are sure to find helpful.

About the author

Copyright Tracy Culleton for Writing.ie

Tracy Culleton was born in Dublin in 1964. She has been writing all her life, but began her professional writing career in 2002 with the non-fiction book ‘Simply Vegetarian’. Her fiction career began when she won the 2003 ‘Write A Bestseller’ Competition jointly run by Poolbeg and RTE’s Open House. This winning novel, Looking Good, went on to spend three weeks in the top ten. Loving Lucy was published in 2004 and More Than Friends in 2005. She is currently working on her fourth novel, Grace Under Pressure.Tracy has extensive experience in adult education, having worked with NALA as an adult literacy tutor. Tracy focuses on commercial fiction, and has a special interest in the reasons for, and the cures for, writer’s block, and has written a non-fiction ebook about this.

She had several very useful websites:

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Tracy currently offers both an online workshop ‘Write That Book’, and a critquing service in association with Inkwell. More information on this can be found at Tracy’s own website, or the Inkwell site.

  • www.designforwriters.com
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