Ah, dialogue. It’s so very fun. It’s fun to write and, if written well, fun to read. It’s also a very powerful way to show character. But, if not given the amount of careful attention it requires, your dialogue will ‘sound’ flat, stilted, or, worst of all, completely indistinguishable from every other character’s. That would be bad.

I’ve come up with two areas that I think are very important to dialogue—the way the actual characters speak, and the way the words are presented.

I. The words themselves


Every person has a distinct vocabulary and speaking style. This is largely influenced by the people they interact with regularly, their education level, and if they read frequently or not. It is very important to keep in mind these influences as you develop your character’s speaking style. A farm boy, for example, is going to have an informal manner of speech and probably a more basic vocabulary. Paolini completely ignores the laws of common sense when he has backwater Roran say (actually, he thinks this, which is all the more egregious) things like this:

“Why did Galbatorix countenance my father’s torture?” (Eldest)

No farm boy speaks like that. He’s not going to have enough education to have a vocabulary like this, and he’s most definitely not going to speak like this. No one else around him would speak like this, either, given he’s in a small village. Nobles (sometimes) talk this way. Farm boys do not. If you give your character a vocabulary or overly formal style of speech that they shouldn’t realistically have, it’s going to be extremely obvious.


How often and how much your character speaks hinges mostly on their personality. If they are shy and not very self-confident, for example, they’re more likely to speak when spoken to and not initiate conversation, and they’ll speak in shorter sentences. If your character is extremely confident or effervescent, they’ll probably initiate conversation frequently and do all they can to keep it going. It’s important to tie your character’s personality to the way they speak. It influences how we see the character and how we perceive their personality. You don’t want a shy, demure wallflower to be expounding on herself for a breadth of lines while your suave, self-confident ladies’ man sits tight-lipped.


Most people have a quirk or two in the way that they speak. Some people use bunches of odd little sayings or use heavy amounts of slang. Some people drop the g’s off of words or shorten syllables whenever they can (“He’s gonna be payin’ dearly for that,” for example). Some people use very few contractions, others use them constantly. Which contractions they use also varies (e.g. “It’s not your fault,” versus “It isn’t your fault.”). Some people ramble and go on wild and barely-related tangents, while others pick their words carefully and thoughtfully. Some people speak differently when they’re mad or upset, while others remain perfectly composed. Keep in mind which quirks your character is likely to have picked up and made a part of their speech, as a result of either their environment, personality, or both. It’s another aspect that can help set your character’s dialogue apart from everyone else’s.

II. Nuance

There are lots of little details you can add to your dialogue to make it much richer and more subtle. You can also vary speech patterns this way.

First, there’s the long dash. This is the semicolon’s prettier cousin. It serves the same purpose, but (at least to my eyes) it looks like a natural pause that would appear in speech as opposed to a tricky grammatical gremlin. Some characters will use the long dash, while others will break up their sentences.

“It’s extremely complicated—the sheer number of things that could go wrong is staggering.”

“It’s extremely complicated. The sheer number of things that could go wrong is staggering.”

The difference is subtle—the main thing is the length of the pause and how the next sentence is inflected. That sounds needlessly complicated, I know. Try reading the two sentences out loud and listen to the subtle shifts in your voice. See what I mean?

Then there’s the ellipse. Where you place these can have a drastic effect on the sentence.

“…no, that’s not it.”

“No…that’s not it.”

“No, that’s…not it.”

“No, that’s not…it.”

“No, that’s not it…”

Some people hate ellipses and avoid them like the plague. It’s entirely up to you, though I think they can be quite effective.

There’s also the period versus the comma. An example will explain better than I can.

“No, not really.”
“No. Not really.”

“I would never do something like that. Honest.”
“I would never do something like that, honest.”

A small difference, but not an insignificant one.

This is my absolute favorite little tool: the italics. These can make an enormous difference in your sentences. Observe.

“I am sorry.

“I am sorry.”

I am sorry.”

Two examples are better than one, no?

You need to do this.”

“You need to do this.”

“You need to do this.”

“You need to do this.

It’s like magic! Italics can do wonders for a sentence, and the meaning can change drastically. Use this powerful tool to make your dialogue that much more real.

If you already knew all of this, that’s great. If you knew but forgot and just now remembered, that’s even better.

So, there we go. Four areas that can help spice up, spruce up, and improve your dialogue. These areas can help make your character’s voice more distinct and make your dialogue overall more readable. I know I didn’t cover every area there is to consider, but I hope this was at least an interesting read. Happy writing!

Tagged as:


  1. Steph the Sue on 15 July 2009, 09:15 said:

    One thing I do when writing dialogue is to read it aloud the way I think my character would. If it doesn’t sound like it’d come out of the mouth of a similar person, somebody I actually know, I’ve gotten it wrong.

    Great job, and well-written in terms of both style and content.

    /freaky editor-speak.

  2. Romantic Vampire Lover on 15 July 2009, 11:10 said:

    Nice name Steph. ;)

    Simple and to the point, this article was very good. Thanks!

  3. Puppet on 15 July 2009, 12:28 said:

    Great article, this will help me a lot. =)

  4. Luin Kaimelar on 15 July 2009, 12:59 said:

    Lovely work! I picked up quite a few tips I’ll try to incorporate into my own work—thanks a ton!

  5. Spanman on 15 July 2009, 14:26 said:

    Hooray! I’ve been waiting for an article like this. I use all of these lil’ tricks (probably entirely too often) and they’ve served me well. Thanks for a great article. :)

  6. Asahel on 15 July 2009, 18:45 said:

    I like the article, but please allow me a tangent:

    When you did the part about italics, I couldn’t get that bit of Toucan Sam auditioning in Family Guy out of my head.

    “Follow your nose.”
    “Follow your nose.”
    Follow your nose.”

  7. LucyWannabe on 15 July 2009, 22:41 said:

    Lol @ Asahel…but that’s a great example, too. XD

    Ohhh, yeah. Dialogue is something I try very hard at. I know, for instance, that my streetwise character isn’t going to be talking the same way that my nobleman’s daughter would.

    I’ve never actually spoken the dialogue out loud, though, mostly because I feel awkward doing that and also because I don’t live alone—and with the hours I write in, I’d disturb people (hell, I’d disturb them anyway, considering some of the things my characters get into XD).

    Oh, and…I love the ellipse! ;D (And long dashes, haha)

  8. Proserpinafc on 16 July 2009, 10:28 said:

    Hahaha! Great article. Direct and to the point, this one.

    I tried to write a Straight Man in a comedy duo who wasn’t used to his inane, insane partner, so I had him hesitate responding to dialogue.

    “I dunno, Makara. Lord Michel sounds like a woman’s name, but its French, so I can’t tell which it’s supposed to be.”

    “The ‘Lord’ part didn’t clue you in?”

    “Me Headmaster was a woman.”

    “He’s standing right in front of us, dolt!”

    leans in, whispers “Like I said, he’s French. Still can’t tell the difference.”

    “… I assure you. Lord Michel the Third is a man.”

  9. Falstar on 17 July 2009, 00:21 said:

    I enjoyed that article thoroughly. Good job!

  10. Steph the Stuffed Tiger: LONG LIVE HOBBES! on 18 July 2009, 02:12 said:

    Oh, and another thing- you might want to provide an example of what Roran COULD have said, instead of just criticising CP’s choice of words.

    Proserpinafc, can I read your dialogue in full? PLEASE???

    @RVL: why thankyou!

  11. DrAlligator on 18 July 2009, 15:43 said:

    Giving characters a distinct way of speech is also a very effective tool in their development; if their personality shows through their dialogue well enough, the reader will know when something has happened (whether bad or good) from the character’s changed speaking patterns.

  12. Virgil on 21 July 2009, 00:44 said:

    When testing dialogue, I put it through the computer’s speech recognition and voice. If I can still see personality in that voice, I know I’m good.