Monday, October 5, 2009


I wrote murder mysteries for theatre companies for many years. I came up with a plot and characters and the actors would improvise the dialogue. Good fun for all, and I got paid. Nice! Then I was commissioned to write a mystery play and panic struck. I would have to write the dialogue! I made my way through it and now, four years later, I find writing dialogue for my characters the least of my problems. Along the way I have learned a few things to keep in mind:

  • Vocabulary. Every character has his/her own way of speaking. A university professor will express a thought very differently than a teenager. A forensic investigator's vocabulary will be peppered with medical terms that an amateur detective would never use.
  • Colloquialisms. Know your location to give your dialogue the ring of authenticity. But beware; too many colloquialisms will alienate readers from other parts of the world.
  • Rhythm. Every character has their own rhythm of speaking. Some are staccato, some are sustained notes, some use long pauses for emphasis. Find each character's rhythm. It's there if you listen.
  • Humor. Never underestimate the power of humor. Characters who are capable of making a small joke or a clever pun are more multi-dimensional.
Creating realistic dialogue is easier for some writers than for others. I have learned it is a valuable tool in fleshing out my characters. There is often a large difference between what my characters say and what they do. Some just lie. Some are incapable of lying. Dialogue is what makes characters come alive for both the author and the reader.

Have fun discovering your characters' voices. If you listen, they will come!


  1. Great post, Elspeth. Good dialogue is wonderful to read. I love it when there's no doubt which character is speaking.

  2. When you break fiction down, it becomes evident what a difficult task we have ahead of us. I love writing dialogue.

  3. Like, Elizabeth, I enjoy writing dialogue. Not sure I’m any good at it, but I do like it. Fun and easy. Couple of problems. If I’m not careful, my characters can sound the same. My WIP uses dialect, and I overdid it. I can understand what they’re saying…sadly, it seems that’s not true for the average reader. I gotta go back and clean it up.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  4. I'm working on it! That sounds like an interesting job, though, writing mysteries for theater companies. What a great training ground for writing novels!

  5. Dialogue is definitely my favorite Elizabeth and Galen. You've brought up some great tips!

    I love it when dialogue *doesn't* sound just like everyday speech...with all our ums, uhs, and small talk. It's nice not to have those fillers in a book.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Elspeth - These are definitely helpful ideas for dialogue! One of the things that strikes me about your ideas is how useful they'll be in making the dialogue authentic.

    Authentic dialogue is critical to a good mystery; without it, the characters fall flat, the story falters and the reader never really engages with the plot or the characters.

    What's challenging (but a very good exercise) is writing in a voice that's very different from one's own. I'm a linguist, so this aspect of writing fascinates me. Language is affected by our culture, gender, etc, so when we write dialogue, we basically adopt a different identity. We have to essentially "become" someone else. In that way, writing isn't much different from acting.

  7. Carol; Thanks! That's the trick, isn't it? To make every voice unique.

    Elizabeth; It can be fun, can't it? I now find dialogue the easiest part of writing my WIP.

    Galen; It's a common trap to fall into. I have to remind myself my WIP takes place in England and to use English phraseology.

    Elizabeth; It is nice. But I must confess that people's erm, uhs, etc. drive me crazy in real life!

    Margot: I'm glad you think they're helpful. You make a good point about having to 'become' someone else. Maybe that's why I don't find writing dialogue very difficult! Once an actor...

  8. Stephanie; It was fun. Never thought it would be training for writing novels, but life can be strange!

  9. Good advice and tutorial here. I love working up a character's "voice" and also like to use colloquialisms, even adding quirky phrases or certain words they use a lot (not too much though - you can overdo it).

    Marvin D Wilson

  10. I too love writing dialogue. Thanks for the excellent tips!

  11. I think I like writing dialogue better than writing anything else except for "THE END."

  12. Like many of the others, I really enjoy writing dialogue. I love the challenge of making their voices unique and entertaining. Lots of good tips :)

  13. Thanks for this Elspeth. I find it tough to write dialogue. It's funny you mention play-writing and theatre because lately I've tried to visualize my characters as the people who I think should play them in the movie :-). This has helped quite a bit!

  14. Marv; I envy you your ease with colloquialisms. I find it a narrow path to tread.

    Elisa; Of course YOU do! What writer do we both adore?

    Alan; You're so right. Nothing beats "The End".

    Jemi; Glad you found it useful.

    J.L. Welcome! I mention the theatre because that's my background. Glad you found the post helpful. Thanks for dropping by!

  15. Thanks for the helpful tips, Elspeth!

  16. Love this post, as I do most of yours.
    My characters always speak up for themselves!


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