Jun 17 2011

Dialogue Checklist

Published by at 1:12 pm under Dialogue,Writing Articles

1. Do the characters have distinct voices? Voice can be influenced by diction and syntax, the sorts of details they’d notice and/or mention, personality, how educated they sound, accents, etc. If the characters sound distinct, readers should usually be able to tell who is saying what even if you cut out most of the dialogue tags (like “John yelled” and “Mary said”).


2.  Are characters talking naturally, rather than just narrating for the benefit of readers? One red flag here is that the characters are recapping what they already know (“As you know, Bob…”).  If characters talk about things they already know, you can use the conversation to develop some new angle, like what they’re doing moving forward.  Make sure that your characters have a reason of their own to talk–if they’re talking about something because you want them to, it will probably feel stilted.


3.  Please don’t have characters incessantly address each other by name. That’s annoying, Greg.  People don’t talk like that, Greg.  If the characters are well-voiced and/or have distinct goals, it should usually be obvious who’s delivering each line without such addresses. If not, adding a dialogue tag like “Mary said” is usually less annoying than adding an address. (I wouldn’t recommend using one every line, though).


4.  Does all of the dialogue develop a character and/or advance the plot? Please stay away from chatting, idle chatter that doesn’t go anywhere.  Chatting tends to waste space and stall the plot.  For example, it’d probably be boring for characters to talk about the weather unless you’re, say, trying to foreshadow an impending hurricane.


4.1.  Are the characters trying to accomplish anything? If the characters are just idly talking without any particular goal, I think that’s a red flag that the characters are chatting.  Give the characters objectives that really matter to them.  For example, if a detective is trying to figure out whether Jim is the murderer and Jim is trying to allay the detective’s concerns, it’d be really surprising if the conversation weren’t interesting.


5.  Have you handled your dialogue tags well? Here are some common problems that can arise with dialogue tags.

  • Don’t use unnecessary tags.  For example, “I’ll never leave you,” he promised uses an unnecessary “he promised.”  Readers can easily tell this is a promise, so you don’t need to beat them over the head with it.
  • Please don’t load up on exotic substitutes for “said” that don’t add anything.  I wouldn’t recommend using an exotic substitute for “John said” unless the substitute word provides some information to readers that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For more details on how to use substitutes for “said” effectively, please see this article.

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Dialogue Checklist”

  1. Contra Gloveon 17 Jun 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Please don’t load up on exotic substitutes for “said” that don’t add anything.

    Substitutes such as “ejaculated,” for example. 🙂

  2. B. Macon 17 Jun 2011 at 9:11 pm


  3. The Jedi Penguinon 17 Jun 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Brain Bleach mixed with mental vodka can still help though!

  4. B. Macon 18 Jun 2011 at 12:54 am

    Fair enough, but it’ll take a lot of mental vodka.

  5. Contra Gloveon 18 Jun 2011 at 4:18 am

    Fair enough, but it’ll take a lot of mental vodka.

    A mental vodka martini, perhaps? And if so, shaken or stirred?

  6. B. Macon 18 Jun 2011 at 10:08 am

    I’m not sure about the martini, but I’m definitely more shaken than stirred by what has been imagined and cannot be unimagined. 🙂

  7. Wingson 18 Jun 2011 at 11:59 am

    …Eh. I’ve seen worse than misused dialogue tags. It takes a lot to send me scrambling for the brain-bleach-vodka.

    Then again, I can’t go into children’s theme parks and listen to their songs without immediately spitting out whatever I’m eating and banging my head into a wall. This, friends, is the reason why I can’t hear the phrases “wet stuff”, “white stuff”, and “hot stuff” in conjunction without wanting to die*.

    – Wings

    *This was, to put it in perspective, a song about fire safety.

  8. The Jedi Penguinon 18 Jun 2011 at 12:08 pm

    That… that was very bad. Couldn’t they just have said “Put the water on the fire”? Please? It would have made everything so much more bearable…

  9. Wingson 18 Jun 2011 at 12:14 pm

    It was weird enough being the oldest people at that show*. They really didn’t have to throw those lyrics into the mix.

    And all the innuendos besides those…It made the cheesiness looks positively minuscule.

    – Wings

    * …We had free tickets.

  10. The Jedi Penguinon 18 Jun 2011 at 10:59 pm

    At least we had ice cream! Ice cream makes everything better!

    Parental Bonus up to 11

  11. […] Nation offers writers this Dialogue Checklist. #dd_ajax_float{ background:none repeat scroll 0 0 #FFFFFF; border:1px solid #DDDDDD; float:left; […]

  12. XosMelon 12 Jun 2013 at 9:31 am

    “Brain Bleach mixed with mental vodka can still help though!”

    I think a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster would be more effective. It’s like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large, gold brick.

  13. B. McKenzieon 13 Jun 2013 at 6:31 am

    Incidentally, Patricia Wrede (the author of the ____ing to Dragons series) is also a Chicagoan. I’m not expecting to see her at ALA Chicago, but that would be pretty awesome.

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