Novels and short stories must have dynamic dialogue. Here are some tips to help you make the most of what your characters say. Because…the last thing we want to do is ramble on and on.

1. When your characters start talking they must say something important – something that helps to push your plot forward. Every conversation should involve a crucial piece of plot information being given to your reader.

2. Use dialogue to inject pace and impact into your stories. Try substituting a line or two of dialogue for a long, rambling description. Instead of using 500 words to describe how horrible a place is, write “What a dump!”

3. Dialogue should be a real aid to characterisation. The voices, accents and vocabulary used by your characters should tell the reader a lot about  their backgrounds.

4. Try to make dialogue reflect your characters’ emotions and frame of mind. Let the reader hear the pain, anger or delight in what they say.

5. Make sure you know the difference between direct speech: “I’m hungry. I could eat a horse!” and indirect speech: Mary said she was so hungry she could eat a horse. Direct speech is always more emotionally powerful and gives more immediacy.

6. Always use dialogue tags – he said, she replied, Mark added – unless completely necessary. Keep your tags simple. Nothing is more irritating than a hero who opines, pontificates or rejoins. Avoid long dialogue tags such as he said angrily or she replied with sadness. It should be obvious from the words your character speaks whether they are happy, angry or sad.

7. Make sure that you use contractions: “Don’t do that.”, “I can’t see it.” or “He’ll kill me!” That’s how people really speak. When was the last time you heard someone say “I cannot see it”?

8. Slang, swearing and dialect. If you’re writing a period novel it’s OK to use the appropriate slang. But if you are writing a contemporary novel, avoid it, as nothing will date your work quicker. Now on to swearing. If you are writing a gritty, realistic novel then don’t be prudish about your characters swearing. One way is to refer to it in your descriptions rather than your dialogue: The air sizzled with Dan’s non-stop cursing. He eventually wore out his fury and went quiet. Avoid trying to write out dialect as it may make your readers give up. Instead, mention that a character speaks with a specific accent – say Scottish – and then let the readers do the work for you. Alternatively, drop in a dialect word occasionally, to act as a reminder.

9. Many people worry about punctuating dialogue. The main things to remember are: Start a new line each time a different character speaks.
Use either single or double inverted commas – it doesn’t matter which
you choose. But once you have made your decision, be consistent.
Always put the inverted commas outside the sentence punctuation:
“Yes,” Derek said, defensively. “That’s my plan.”
Only use speech marks around direct speech, not reported speech, or
thoughts that your characters might have.
Study as many published novels and short stories as you can to see
how other writers do it.

10. Even though dialogue isn’t real, it must be able to pass itself off as speech. There mustn’t be anything in it that jars or sounds too stilted. Always read your dialogue out loud. See if it sounds plausible. What seems to work on the page may come across differently when you hear it actually spoken.

Follow these tips and before you know it your characters will be leaping off the page full of life.