My Books

Buy one of my books... Available above at Amazon. Also available at SmashWords, Barnes & Noble and iTunes

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

13. Writing Dialog - Or 'He Said, She Said' (Writing for Success)

Note: This is part 13 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series (NEW: Buy the book HERE).

13. Writing Dialog - Or 'He Said, She Said'
“Don’t you dare do that,” Sarah carefully said. 
“Why not?” David daringly replied. 
“Because it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Sarah nervously laughed. 
“In that case, I’ll do it,” David triumphantly replied.
We’ve all read these passages before. And from time to time we all write them. Even my novels still have a few that I need to root out and destroy at some point! Sometimes they’re called Swifties (after Tom Swifty). Basically they are pieces of dialog where the writer has used adverbs to describe an emotion that has been added to the actual dialog. These adverbs usually end in –ly. The simple rule here is cut them out. Why? Two reasons. First they sound stupid. Try reading the passage above out loud. It just doesn’t sound right. Second you should be trying to convey emotion in the dialog and not in the description of the sentence. At the very least, add a little action to the dialog to help convey the proper emotion of the words spoken.

First let’s try the above example without the adverbs:
“Don’t you dare do that,” Sarah said. 
“Why not?” David replied. 
“Because it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” 
“In that case, I’ll do it,” David replied.
Okay not bad, better than the original but now you need to get in that daring, joking, worried part. So let’s add a little action into the dialog:
Sarah took a step back before she spoke. “Don’t you dare do that.” 
“Why not?” David replied, picking up the paddle and waving it at his sister. 
“Just because. And besides, it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” 
“In that case, I’ll do it!” David splashed the paddle into the pool, covering his sister with water.
A totally different passage of writing! It’s amazing what you can do with a few words if you try hard enough. Of course these are very short examples, written in a limited space, but you get the idea.

So that’s part one of our lesson – try not to use descriptive adverbs in dialog. Part two is even easier. Basically, you are allowed to use the following constructs in dialog: said, replied, asked, whispered, said quietly, said softly (the last two are allowed because they qualify the said, and are not new adverbs). On very rare occasions you may choose to use other words, but they must be very rare occasions. Then when you have mastered only using these words, you can further cut out how many times you actually use them.

How do you know how often you should use he said, she said in a section of dialog? Well, it depends on three things: the age group of your readers, the length of the passage of dialog, and the number of people speaking. Simply put, the younger the age group, the longer the passage, the more people speaking - the more you need the he said, she said parts. Mature readers, short passage, two people – maybe one or two he said, she said parts. Lesson over.

Dialog needn’t be that difficult to write, but it is a very important part of the story. It’s also the part that many people struggle with the most trying to create something that seems natural. It’s weird really if you think about it. We spend our lives in one part of a dialog and yet we have difficulty writing it down so that it seems natural. Try recording a piece of dialog between two people and play it back. It will sound nothing at all like you remember. And without the circumstantial surroundings you may not even remember what a certain part of the dialog was about! Creating good dialog is something that is a little artificial and yet when you get it right, readers will love your dialog. One of the things I’ve realized is that good dialog reads fast and keeps the plot moving forward. So bearing that in mind, make dialog say something and don’t complicate it too much with descriptive stuff. Pretty straightforward. Readers like reading dialog because the pages look empty and they can be skipped through. Also, they get a chance to see how two characters interact and that is always enjoyable (or should be). Let’s end with a piece of dialog that hopefully demonstrates all the points we have talked about. Good luck!
“You took your time,” Sam said, pushing a Guinness towards him. 
“Cheers,” Beau said, taking a sip and putting the glass back down. “I told you I had a couple of things to do. And then I hit the traffic. No one in this city knows how to drive once it starts raining.” 
“Tell me about it.” 
“So Beau, who’s going to be in your team?” 
Beau looked up to see Tim anxiously looking his way. “Tomorrow, Tim. I’ll be sorting this all out tomorrow. Tonight we are celebrating.” 
“To Beau,” Sam shouted above the conversation. “May he prosper and not suffer the same fate as his predecessor.” 
“To Beau,” everyone replied. 
“Thanks,” said Beau. “That’s very reassuring.” 
“You’ll be fine. You always seem to land on your feet,” Sam said. “I don’t know how you do it. I wish I had a tenth of your luck.” 
“Luck, eh? You think it’s luck. More like hard work.” 
“Sure Beau. Hard work. Cheers!”


  1. That last piece was very good dialog. You followed all your rules.

    Now I feel I have to look over my own stuff again. Argh! I hate good advice.

  2. Mmm, this is the third Twitter-led post I've read on your blog this evening John. I must read more at the weekend ie when I have the time!

    PS, just downloaded samples of Xannu & How to write & self-pub. Of course, I'll buy them if they are as good as your posts!

    Keep up the good work Mr Cox.

  3. Awesome! Thanks for sharing. I was just wondering about the he said, she said dialogue this morning!And you did a great job of showing me how. :-)

  4. I'm curious about your thoughts on the recent trend I'm seeing in fiction where he said, she said is never used at all; or where the author uses slash to define dialog. What is your thought or opinion on that? Is it the NEW dialog or a fad? Thanks! Marissa

  5. Marissa - An example of screenplay technique mixing with novels. Where will it all end? We'll have to see if it gets any traction. I'm thinking, no.

  6. Awesome! We should SO be paying you for this post... (No, stop it; don't go getting any ideas, she said. Her finger wagged at him in poignant threat...") ;o) Thanks! Cheers, ~RR

  7. Thanks, helped clarify a few writing errors I have as well. Any advice for dialogue in a business article or non-fiction book?

  8. paul, marissa - is the avoiding of 'he said, she said' all that new. certainly the slash is new but it seems to me more than a few writers, my fave palahnuik for eg., have used this staccato style.

  9. Excellent point on all sides. I always slash words ending in ly, and speech tags? Please, lets have action instead.

  10. So they're the onws that argan oil onega 6 are not measured.

    Ellie Krieger, smoothies are marketed as a health drink argan oil omega 6 forr health conscious people.
    There's more to it then that, and how can you grow tyat going forwrd given this ongoing consumer
    weakness? Many people have recognized the importance of Omega-3 fatty acids.
    Crandall also suggests sprinkling them in yogurt, oatmeal or rice dishes, or tossing a few iin your next

    Also visit my web-site argan oil ffor hair (