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A Presentation by Cheryl Bolen

Before we get into a discussion of dialogue, we need to define terms. Dialogue is conversation said aloud to at least one other person. Attribution is the manner in which credit is given--or attributed--to the person who said the words. Most of the time attribution is expressed with the simple word said.

I. Purposes of dialogue

A.  Dialogue must move the story forward. Cut greetings, leave-takings and idle chit-chat that does not pertain to or advance the plot.


AKate, this is Lenny. Lenny, Kate.@

AHow are you, Lenny?@

AFine,@ he said. AYou?@

B.  Dialogue can give Aback-story@ better than pages of boring narrative or unnecessary scenes.


AYou had it tough. Our play toys were rats.@ -- Miracle Worker

Or this dialogue from Animal House:

Dean Wormer: AWhat=s the worst fraternity on campus? Who dumped a truckload of fizzies in the swimming pool? Who strung underwear on trees?@

Reply: AThat would be Delta House, sir.@

C.  Dialogue can reveal character and setting.

AI=ve come to a good station =ere, except for Mister Nose-in-the-Air. You=d think =e was the duke =imself. Too good to eat with the rest of the servants.@--A Duke Deceived--Cheryl Bolen

He grabbed the deck of cards. AI will have a look at the cards, Miss de Mouchet.@--A Lady By Chance--Cheryl Bolen

D. Dialogue can be used to inject humor.

         ASo this it the chit you married?@ Color rose to his face. ASo sorry, your grace,@ Twigs said to Bonny. ANot a chit. Don=t know what I was thinking to say such a thing.@

AThat=s quite all right, Mr. Twickingham,@ Bonny said.

Twigs looked behind him.

         AShe=s talking to you, Twigs,@ the duke said.

AOh, quite so,@ Twigs replied. ANot used to anyone calling me Mr. Twickingham. Thought me father had come.@ -- A Duke Deceived--Cheryl Bolen

II  Correct methods for using dialogue

A.  Every time the speaker changes, begin a new paragraph; otherwise, the reader will be  confused over who=s talking.

B.  Said is the preferred form of attribution.

C.  Though said is the preferred attribution, it should not be overdone. There is nothing wrong with back-to-back sentences with said as attribution; however, three in a row seems excessive. One way to eliminate excessive saids is to use an action to let us know who=s speaking.

         ANow, if you please, rise so that I might determine if you will do,@ Haverstock said.

AI am sure I will do, my lord, for your mother herself cast approval on this gown,@ Anna said with false confidence as she stood up.

Haverstock circled her. AI can see I will be the envy of every man at Lord Wentworth=s tonight.@

From his action, we know Haverstock is the speaker of the last sentence.

D.  Don=t overuse attribution. In the following dialogue, the underlined words should have been omitted:

         AOh please, Morgie, enter a wager for me,@ Lydia said.

APon my word, Lydie,@ Morgie answered, Aeven your brother would draw the line at that.@

She pouted. ABut being the gentleman you are, I know you won=t disappoint me,@ she said.

The first underlined attribution (Morgie answered) is unnecessary. The second (she said) is not needed because she pouted tells us who the speaker is.

E.   If there are several speakers attribution is necessary so the reader knows who=s speaking, but in such a case, said can be overdone. Therefore, to avoid using too many saids, some of the following words might be used instead:

















F.   Avoid stilted, unnatural dialogue. Generally, shorter is better.


AI saw an Apache hiding when we were coming here to the fort.@

AI doubt if it could have been an Apache you saw because Indians of that tribe are noted for their stealth.@


AI saw an Apache hiding when we were coming here to the fort.@

AIf you saw him, he wasn=t an Apache.@--John Wayne in Fort Apache


AMayor Lee Brown, the first Black elected mayor of Houston, won re-election in a runoff.@

Delete the underlined phrase (appositive.) Appositives are almost never used in dialogue.

An exception:

AHe wanted her to help him--and his sister--gain social acceptance.@

And his sister is separated by dashes, which indicate a conversational quality that is acceptable in fiction, provided it is short. Make sure the words within the dashes are located next to the noun they modify.

G.  In dialogue, contractions should almost always be used because that=s how people really talk.

Don=t: AI will give you two days to leave.@

Instead: AI=ll give you two days to leave.@

The second sentence is not only more natural sounding, it conveys more urgency.

Exceptions are permissible for foreigners or royalty or some characters in historical books.


AMy English, it is not very good.@ Here, it=s better to say Ait is@ than Ait=s@.

AOblige me by telling me what you have done.@ In this case, a historical character is speaking as they would have at that time. AYou have@ is better here than Ayou=ve.@

H.  Avoid overuse of character=s names in dialogue.

Not: AJoe, she had 73 pairs of shoes.@

Joe has nothing to do with that statement.

I.    Give different characters different speech and speech patterns.

In the book Angela=s Ashes the reader always knows when the father (from Northern Ireland) is speaking because he=s the only character in the book who says, AOoch, aye.@

A bimbo=s dialogue could be peppered with Aya know?@.

J.   Use foreign words sparingly. If they are used, be sure to explain them.

AEl diablo.@       

AOh, but I assure you I=m not the devil.@

K.  Use dialect sparingly, but be consistent. When using dialect in dialogue, I usually narrow it down to one verbal trait to convey the class of the person. For lower class English, I simply drop the AH@ sound. For some ethnic groups, the AD@ sound takes the place of the ATH@ sound, as in dis for this.

L.   Women and men do not speak the same.

Men=s speech is shorter, with fewer adjectives and adverbs. Men speak of news, politics, sports and jokes.

Women=s speech is longer with more questions (Aisn=t it?@) and qualifiers (AI think@) Women like to discuss personal experiences, friends, thoughts, feelings and everyday events.

A male would say, AThen you must seek permission.@

A female would say, AI really think you ought to try to get permission.@

M.  Attribution is always set apart from the rest of the sentence with a comma and quotation marks around the exact words being said.  If the attribution precedes the quotation, the comma goes with the attribution, not the words said.  If, however, the attribution goes at the end of the sentence, the comma goes with the words being said.


AI love cake,@ he said.

He said, AI love cake.@

If the character is asking a question, the question mark must go inside of  the quotation marks. 


AIs my father here?@ he asked.

Cheryl Bolen is indebted to the University of St. Thomas's Sam Havens, to bestseller Barbara Dawson Smith and to Houston author Thelma Zirkelbach whose excellent workshops contributed to her body of knowledge on dialogue.


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