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Writing Killer Dialogue by Louise Phillips

Writing.ie | Resources | Writing Dialogue

Louise Phillips

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Many of us make the mistake of thinking that because we use dialogue every day, it should be easy to recreate.  One of the things I learned early on was that nowhere will your fictional world be more questioned, or exposed, than in your dialogue. Bad dialogue will kill you, your characters, and your reader’s interest (and in the case of crime novels, it will happen long before any fictional murder takes place).

But, when it is done well, it has many gifts….

a) It will advance the story – one sentence can change a multitude of perceptions and beliefs.

b) It offers insight into your characters, aiding further development as to ‘who’ they are as people, inclusive of their narrative voice.

c) It will add layers on a number of levels to the plot, character and sundry sources.

d) It will have energy of its own.

e) It will also illuminate theme or meaning.

f) It is a great means of time transition – ‘I can’t believe it is Tuesday already…..’

g) It can change the direction of the story, through conflict or the passing of fresh information etc.

h) It will add drama – whether through conflict or resolution.

i) It can form a break between large pieces of exposition which can be important for both rhythm and shape.

j) Not only does it move the plot, but it is the quickest means of providing information.

k) It can also lead the reader into all sorts of assumptions, which can prove be very useful for many a twist and turn.

So, if dialogue does all this, you can see it is an extremely powerful tool at a writer’s disposal. Realistic dialogue will submerge the reader into your story, but as mentioned above, nothing pulls the reader out of it faster than bad dialogue!!

It takes time to develop a good ear, but being aware of some simple guidelines and obvious pitfalls can make a huge difference.

LouisePhillipsListen to How People Talk

As writers, we need to listen to conversations. We need to study dialogue. Natural speech patterns are essential to good dialogue, so pay attention to the expressions people use and what everyday conversation sounds like. Develop your ear. Listen in whenever you can and write the conversations down.

The more you listen, the more you will realise that natural speech has its own rhythm and shape. Three friends in a group may finish each other’s sentences, so don’t be afraid to let some sentences go unfinished. Nor in real life will any of the three friends be allowed to talk incessantly for five hundred words non-stop, unless two of them are blind drunk!

Conversely, in a particularly emotional reveal, the reader will give you time and space to let your character talk for longer periods, because they will want to hear what they have to say – the same as in real life!

Over time you will get a sense of when it is okay for long uninterrupted conversations, and when the tone and tension of the narrative dictates short, clear, effective sentences or the very opposite.

Learn your character’s voice

Remember, a man of few words isn’t going to suddenly develop verbal overload, or change his or her accent, or act out of character or become someone else.

Of course, within a story, a character can develop, they can become something that the reader may not have fully realised at the beginning, but these movements in character development are best done in a controlled manner and with consistency.

In many ways, dialogue is like all forms of research – you have to study it before you can take poetic license with it.

Here are some Quick Tips on getting it right…

  • Edit out the filler words and unessential dialogue, dialogue that doesn’t contribute to the plot/story/character insight in some way.
  • Break up dialogue with action. Your characters are physical human beings, they won’t stay in the one spot like frozen dummies.
  • Ground dialogue in the physical world, it will make it more realistic.
  • Long periods of dialogue are easier for the reader’s eye when broken up as noted above.
  • Dialogue Tags are a necessary evil at times, but avoid overuse of -I said, he said, she said, or too many alternatives to it.
  • Don’t give too much information at once – It shouldn’t be obvious to the reader that they are being fed important facts. Let the story unfold with ease and in a natural manner.

Like plot, you don’t have to tell the reader everything up front – the reader will remember the snippets of information and slot them in as the story develops.  If you do need to put in a reminder because of a large gap – make sure you don’t hit the reader over the head with a hammer.

Avoid Ping Pong dialogue – Brisk alternating lines of dialogue are not a bad thing, but not when there isn’t much else going on.

Remember, in real life we don’t sit there immobile and talk: speech is only part of the interaction of two characters. There is gesture and body-language. We move, or meet the other person’s gaze, or avoid it, or think one thing, and say another. We also have displacement activities, like fiddling with our keys or smoothing our hair – we offer coffee, by waving the coffee pot.

A good rule of thumb is to have something attached to every fifth line of dialogue telling the reader who is speaking (this doesn’t have to be a dialogue tag).

With dialogue it’s best to think in terms of compression, focusing the reader on what’s important.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good story was ‘life with the dull bits taken out.’ This absolutely applies to dialogue, but a great starting point, is listening.

Finally, remember, you will be whoever your story dictates you to be, and that includes getting their voice right!

(c) Louise Phillips

About The Game Changer


When criminal psychologist Dr Kate Pearson was twelve years old she was abducted, but she has no memory of the time she was held.

Over twenty years later, an anonymous note is pushed under her door….


And suddenly Kate’s distant past becomes her present.

When Kate discovers that her parents lied to her about the length of time she was missing, she is forced to question everything about her childhood.

Could the suspected suicide of an ex-headmaster in Dublin and a brutal murder in New York be connected to her abduction all those years ago?

And was her father involved?

While Kate delves deeper into the recesses of her memory to uncover the truth, a murderous cult leader is bearing down on her.

THE GAME CHANGER is out for revenge. Someone has to pay for the sins of the past.

The Game Changer is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here!

About the author

LOUISE PHILLIPS is an author of bestselling psychological crime thrillers. Her debut novel RED RIBBONS was nominated for the Best Irish Crime Novel of the Year 2012, and her second novel, THE DOLL’S HOUSE, won the award in 2013. LAST KISS, her third novel was also shortlisted. Louise’s work has formed part of many literary anthologies, and she has won both the Jonathan Swift Award and the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice platform, along with being shortlisted for the Molly Keane Memorial Award, Bridport UK, and many others. In 2015, she was awarded a writing residency at Cill Rialaig Artist retreat in Kerry and was also a judge on the Irish panel for the EU Literary Award. Her current novel, THE GAME CHANGER, will be published in September 2015. Louise Phillips is the crime writing mastermind behind writing.ie’s Crime Scene blog.

Follow Louise online, on Twitter and on Facebook.

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