Monday, 17 November 2008

More About Dialogue - From Ian McMillan

Whether you’re writing a novel or a short story, dialogue should always serve some purpose – it should either advance the plot or develop a character, preferably both at the same time. Dialogue is never simple small-talk or conversation for its own sake – or simply because you happen to like the line! Here are a few tips that may come in useful, especially if you are currently rewriting a piece that doesn’t quite seem to work.

Always try to write dialogue that doesn’t require you to tell the reader – through narrative – how it is to be said (for example, use angry words rather than have to add “he said angrily”).
Be aware that dialogue doesn’t have to follow the grammatical and syntactical rules of English that you would use in the narrative, but at the same time avoid the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ that practically everyone uses in daily speech (unless you want to make a specific point about a character’s indecision).

Dialogue is often a fencing match – one speaker doesn’t always let the other speak have her/his full say – but it’s not always a fencing match. Used carefully, this sort of broken interchange can help speed up the action and/or add to character development.
“S/he said” is merely a pointer as to who is speaking, nothing else. Even in a full page of dialogue, unbroken by narrative, you should only need to use such pointers at every third or fourth exchange.

Avoid full pages of dialogue, unbroken by narrative! People do not stop what they’re doing in order to speak, and speech is often a response to action, not just to another speech. Try to vary it.

Elegant variations of “s/he said” – ‘he exclaimed’, ‘she riposted’, ‘she declaimed’, ‘he retorted’ – are no longer fashionable, and are nowadays seen as amateurish. They draw attention to themselves, not to what is being said, and often contain information that already exists (or should exist) in the dialogue itself. “S/he said”, since it’s nothing more than a pointer to who is speaking, is actually invisible to the reader.
Dialect and slang should be used sparingly, just to give a flavour of how a character speaks. Slang dates quickly and dialect doesn’t travel far – your writing should be understandable a hundred years from now and 3,000 miles away.


  1. The above is just one man's take on dialogue, but he is successful!

    Love the last statement Ian makes, that writing should be understandable a hundred years from now and 3,000 miles away. I totally get that.

  2. I love Ian McMillan. He was tutor on my first Arvon course, and full of energy and enthusiasm. I agree generally with everything he says here, but these are very broad statements (as I'm sure he himself would admit).

  3. Ooooh, how exciting, Kate. I can imagine him being full of enthusiasm.

  4. I love your blog style, so bright.

    I'm happy to read this as I've been giving my students advice about writing dialogue this week and it corresponds overall with McMillan's ideas.

    I told my students you can't overuse "said" as a dialogue tag, although this is because they tend to vary "said" into anything else such as "admitted", "grumbled", "replied" etc, even when it isn't at all an admittance, a grump or a reply !

    I also told them dialogue must have a purpose, to impart information of some kind: be it setting, a character's personality or some key nugget of information. Again, students will often use dialogue to fill up word counts.

    I also like dialogue for changing the "speed" of a narrative, dialogues seem to move on at a much faster pace [long monologues excepted] and can freshen up an overly heavy piece of writing.


  5. Great advice you're givng your students, Tam.

    If you go onto the BBC Writersroom, you'll see a link to Scripts on the left. You can download them or e mail them to your students. There are some brilliant ones, and the best tv drama script I've seen so far is 'Hustle'. Fab. Read itand you'll see what I mean.

    If this link doesn't work, just put and you'll find the Hustle link, amongst others.

  6. Thisis a great website for tips and advice about writing for performance:

  7. Thanks Higgs, I might check those out in the future. Thinking of giving my classes a script-writing and performance element next semester :)


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