Tips for Writing Dialogue

Here are some tips for making the dialogue in your novel or screenplay feel real without the waffle…


Hello folks, one day to the haircut. Right, before that, let’s talk about dialogue. There’s a knack to writing  dialogue, and some people have it, and others have to learn it. It’s a bit like playing an instrument. Some people can pick up a guitar and strum chords straight away. Other people, like me, need a little more practise, but that’s fine because soon we’ll all be playing Kumbayah in perfect rhythm.

Now, first thing with dialogue: maybe record yourself having a conversation with someone.

Make sure the other person knows for legal reasons, of course. Make it long enough to forget that you’re recording the conversation to avoid being too self-conscious, then transcribe the conversation. I did this with a friend of mine years ago, back when I first started writing plays, and it was amazing to know just how much waffle and repetition people speak before they actually get to the point. And we’ll discuss waffle in more detail in a moment.

Readers in reviews, they’ll say that they like their dialogue to feel naturalistic and real. But the trouble is, naturalistic and real is waffly, boring and distracting. The knack is to make it sound natural, while cutting out all the excess waffles.

Here are a few pointers; listen to others.

My cousin used to live tweet conversations he overheard on the bus to work and they were always hilarious with phrases that were absolute gems of dialogue. So whenever you hear a colourful exchange or phrase, jot it down in a notebook or your smartphone, you know, send it to yourself, keep a file of them somewhere. You may never use it, but doing this regularly will attune your ear to great dialogue. The more attuned you get, the better and more sparky your dialogue will be.

Cut the small talk.

Every now and then I hear someone complain that, “Oh, people in films never say hello when they pick up the phone. How rude.” There is a reason for that. We cut the unimportant stuff and get to the essence of the stuff that drives the story forward. This comes back to my point about naturalistic dialogue. I’ve literally had conversations that go like this: Mark, it’s your mum. How are you? Good. How are you and Dad? Oh, fine, fine, fine. Oh, good, good, good, good. That’s nice. Everything alright? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s all fine. Lovely, lovely. Good, good. That’s great. That’s lovely. That’s great… Oh your Great uncle died… What!?

You could never get away with that in a novel, unless it was a comedy bit. But the thing is, small talk… If small talk is essential for a character, then maybe fold that into the descriptive prose, you know: Mum called. She made the usual small talk, then hit me with the news. “Mark, I’m sorry, but your great uncle died.”

Next tip: Say it out loud.

I highly recommend talking to yourself. Write the first pass of your dialogue as freely and waffly as you like, go full naturalistic if you want, and then cut out all the fat. How to identify waffle and fat? Well, yeah, you’ve heard of the phrase chewing the fat? Apparently, this comes from small talk that sailors would make when chewing on salt hardened fat while they worked. This kind of chit chat that passed the time, you know. But as authors, we’re not passing the time with idle gossip.

We need to grip the reader. So our dialogue needs to do three things:

One: Move the story forward. Any exchange of dialogue needs to bring us closer to the end. Asking about the weather won’t necessarily do this.

Two: it needs to reveal character. Does your dialogue give us any insight into the character’s feelings and motivations?

Three: Build relationships. Does the dialogue create a dynamic that helps the reader understand relationships? For example, a father might yell at his kids, but be meek around his boss. That tells us something about him. If your dialogue doesn’t meet these criteria, then prepare the cutting snippers, because that dialogue might need to go. And you can get messy.

OK, so while we’re avoiding all the small talk, we can still sound naturalistic with interruptions, overlapping, half-finished thoughts, stammering… All these and more can help make your characters sound distinct.

Now, a quick word on slang, jargon and patois.

Use it very, very sparingly, especially when writing outside of your own experience. There’s nothing more likely to make the reader cringe than, say, a white person writing Jamaican patois, for example.

Some of you might have read the novel I co-wrote, Back to Reality. There’s an Italian character in that, Federica, who has a very distinct way of speaking. But we kept any overt Italian-isms to an absolute minimum to stop her sounding like Super Mario. We also gave it to an Italian friend to read to make sure we weren’t going to be banned from the country for life. You just need a tiny sprinkle of slang, patois to let the reader know the speech patterns, and they’ll hear the voice in their head and create their own accent and rhythm. You know, if you start emphasising it in every sentence of dialogue, it’s just too much. When it comes to jargon — military, police, scientific tech talk, doctors, things like that — use just enough to be authentic and avoid characters telling each other stuff they already know. You know, you get, “As you know, Dr. Smith, we make an incision here…” Use your prose to let the reader know just enough to add two plus two.

Again, I know it’s easier said than done, but it comes with practise. You have to keep the voices distinct as well. How can you stop characters from all sounding the same, or sounding like you? It’s important to make characters distinct. And a fun exercise is to remove all of the dialogue tags in an exchange and see if you can tell who’s saying what. Maybe give it to someone else to read and see if they can tell the difference.

This is where you need to get in character. If you find a character’s dialogue is bland, then, as an exercise, write the scene from their first person point of view, think about any moments of hesitation, frustration, what they really want to say, as opposed to what they actually say, how they hear the voice of others in that exchange. Do they find some people annoying, grating? Are they in a position of power in this scene, or are they having to watch what they say in order to get what they want?

Also, think about word choice. Do they use short, abrupt phrases? Or are they verbose and erudite? Do they use any slang, do they swear ten to the dozen? Think about their background and their world. You know, a working class docker will have very different dialogue to a nun… She’ll swear more for a start. Once you’ve done that, I think you’ll find it easier to write in their voice when it comes to dialogue. And have a think about subtext. You know, having characters blurt out exactly what they mean can be effective.

But mostly we should work with subtext:

Dialogue that defelcts, defends and skirts can be really engaging. Saying exactly what’s on your mind can have terrible consequences. You know, only the cold hearted tell their boyfriend or girlfriend that they want to break up. You know, characters that feel real will do everything they can to avoid delivering bad news. No one likes that. Or they will tailor what they say to the social situation.

Body language is also your friend.

We pick up so many clues from body language that it’s important to pair dialogue with descriptions of your character’s posture and mannerisms. Something like, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with a shake of the hand and a smile, is very different to, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with pursed lips and a withering glare. And tension. Thinking about subtext and body language brings me to how dialogue can build tension. Tension in a story comes from unanswered questions. Will he propose? Will she say yes? And dialogue can really help drive that tension and resolve it. Make every word count, keep the story moving forward, and keep the reader on the hook, which is easier said than done, of course. Well, I hope that was helpful.

And until next time, happy writing.

Author Talk with Kent Libraries

I had great fun chatting to Simon at Kent libraries about the books and authors that changed my life…

Theme is Story Fuel (and why you’ll never get stuck again)

What is your story’s theme? How can you figure out what it is? And how will knowing your theme ensure that you’ll never get stuck again…

Here’s the transcript of the Craig Maizin episode of Scriptnotes:


Hello, folks, apologies again for the lockdown hair. Two weeks to go. Let’s talk about theme. Sometimes, if you ask writers about the theme of their story, they’ll probably give you a one word reply like: family, war… Chickens.

Okay, probably not chickens, but it’s usually something monolithic. Some writers might not know the theme of their work-in-progress at all. And that’s fine because there are times when, you know, I don’t figure out what it is until I finish a draft. But, the sooner you can figure out what your theme is, the better. Because the theme, my friends, is story fuel. We’ll come back to that. First of all, what is theme exactly? Well, first of all, theme is not “an idea”.

Anyone can have an idea. Drunk uncles stagger up to me at barbecues and say, “I got a great idea for a book and you can write it for me”. No? It’s just me? Okay. Anyway, the point is: ideas are two-a-penny and they are not the theme. An idea is: a man dresses up as a bat to fight crime. The theme can change with every man bat story. Your theme is the central dramatic argument of your story.

It’s the question that the story and its characters will interrogate from the beginning, through the middle, and right to the end. And that’s the key to figuring out what your theme is: make it a question. Imagine that your book has been published and it’s being read by a book group. What’s the main topic of conversation for that book? What’s the big question that they will be asking? And here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering or original.

It just needs to be a little bit tricky to answer. So going back to our Man Bat example… the theme for that might be: can a man fight crime and not become a criminal himself? It’s the age old question of vigilantism, and it’s a good one. One that has fuelled all kinds of very different stories for time immemorial. So, how is theme story fuel? Well, we all get stuck when writing. And I find that if I know what my theme is, I’m much more likely to find a solution when I’m wondering what happens next.

So, for example, in my current book, the big overarching theme is: are we stronger together or on our own?

Now, as an old liberal lefty, I’m all for unity and working with others. But there are times when we need to strike out on our own. And when I’m working on the story, and wondering what happens next, I ask, how can I present this dilemma and dramatise it in the story? How can I divide my united characters? Or how can I take someone who works alone and make them realise that they might need help? All good stuff. You really should give it a try.

It really does. The screenwriter Craig Mazin, who wrote Chernobyl and many other things goes into this in greater detail in Episode 403 of the Scriptnotes podcast, and how it ties into protagonist’s story of change. And it’s really good stuff. I think the episode is behind a paywall now, but you can check out the transcript online. I’ll pop a link below. Well, I hope that was useful, and happy writing.

Here’s One Way To Write A First Draft

I’ve been working on a new way of writing the first draft of my novel. And it’s been working really well… so far…


Hello, folks. Apologies for the hair. Still in lockdown and two weeks till I get a haircut, so this is going to get worse before it gets better. Anyway, I’m working on the first draft of Skyclad, the third Witches of Woodville book.

Regulars will know that I used to be a big outliner when it came to writing, but I’m becoming more and more of a pantser or discovery writer, whatever you want to call it.

That is, I’m making it up as I go along. Well, sort of. I do have a rough idea of where I’m going and I know how I want the story to end. And I have a few key notes on a few key moments, but I thought you might be interested to know how I’m working with this one. Again, regulars might know that I have a different notebook dedicated to each project. Here’s the one for Book Three of the witches of Woodville, Skyclad.

This was bought at the National Trust Gift Shop at the White Cliffs of Dover, which is a little clue as to where some of the book will take place. What I’ve taken to doing with this story is switching from day to day between paper — the notebook — and the screen — the laptop — and it’s really working for me. So to give you some idea… On, say, Monday, I will start noodling ideas for what happens next in the story in The Notebook.

So here I’ve written in big letters, “How can the Poltergeist exorcism go wrong?” Slight spoiler, but it’s the opening scene. I’ve made notes on what can happen in that scene and they are imperfect notes. I’ve given myself permission to wander off, and noodle and try different scenarios, and scribble stuff out, and put other things in boxes and underline them, and highlight them. And what I find is that by the end of the writing session, I have a really good idea of how that chapter pans out.

The level of detail varies from session to session. But the next day, Tuesday, when I open up the laptop, I’m not victim to the tyranny of the blinking cursor. You know that feeling when you look at a blank page of Word or Scrivener that bastard cursor is flashing at you, “Go on, write something. What are you waiting for? Call yourself a writer?” Well, now I just go to my notes and start typing, and before I know it I’m up and running. I used the less formalised version of this with The Crow Folk and the second book, Babes in the Wood, available to pre-order now.

And it worked really well. So this is an evolution of that. A few caveats. I’m only 10,000 words into this novel and, in my experience, openings are pretty easy when compared to the rest of the book… not least the middle section, which can lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. So I’ll check in with this in about a month’s time and see if I’m feeling quite so smug still. Also, I’m writing the third book in a series.

I know the characters and situations really well. I have a very good idea of how people will react when presented with challenges. And that makes a writer’s life much, much easier and makes me wonder why it’s taken me so long to write a series. This is so much fun. Anyway, I hope you found that helpful. How is your writing going? Does this sort of method work for you? Pop a comment below or drop me a line. In the meantime, happy writing.

Another FREE short story for you…

Part two of The Miss Charlotte Quartet — The Last Night of the Witchfinder General — is now available completely free to anyone who subscribes to the Woodville Village Newsletter. Sign up and grab your copy here…

Manningtree, Summer, 1647

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, has come out of retirement for one last trial. And now Charlotte Southill is here to show him what a real witch can do…

Charlotte Southill vows revenge when one of her friends falls victim to the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. But someone doesn’t want him dead and Charlotte must confront some raw and painful memories.


Hello folks. I’m delighted to announce that the second story in the Miss Charlotte Quartet — The Last Night of the Witchfinder General — is available to download… completely and utterly FREE for all the lucky people who have signed up to the Woodville Village library newsletter.

If you’ve read The Crow Folk you will know that Miss Charlotte has something of a secret history and these stories will go some way to letting you into her dark past.

Yes, these stories are a little darker than the Witches of Woodville novels and this one in particular contains hanging, torture, vomiting, farting, drowning, poisoning, shooting, stabbing and al fresco urination.

What more could you ask for in a 5000 word short story? It’s available as an eBook and audiobook. Let’s have a quick listen…

ESSEX WAS no place to be a witch.
Charlotte stood in the shadow of the gallows, watching
her friend Dorothy Marsh sway in the summer breeze. Flies buzzed around Dorothy’s gaping mouth. Her bloodshot eyes bulged as if in fright, her last terrified words left unsaid. Dorothy’s pepper hair was matted with blood and the mob had taken all but her stained smock and a single shoe.

A dark rage grew inside Charlotte, rising like bile. She had seen too many women like Dorothy hanging from a noose these past three years. Dorothy wasn’t even a witch, but a midwife. A woman of compassion and kindness who offered Charlotte shelter and food when she was last here.

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, had come out of retirement for one last trial.

And now Charlotte Southill was here to show him what a real witch could do.

I had great fun writing this one, but even a short story is not written is isolation. My thanks to Julian Barr for editorial wisdom, Andrew Bowden for another cracking cover design and the lovely new logo for Woodville Village (points)…

Thanks also to Dominic Currie for the music. Head Librarian Araminta Cranberry for her introduction and afterword, and Claire Burgess for the usual.

Part Three of The Miss Charlotte Quartet will be available on 4th May and will again be FREE to all newsletter subscribers, so if you haven’t already please click on the link below and sign up. You can also get a free recipe for Jam Roly Poly as featured in The Crow Folk and much more besides. It will also be the first place where you will soon be able to read an extract from book two of The Witches of Woodville BABES IN THE WOOD (which is available to pre-order). Thanks again to everyone who’s read The Crow Folk, and especially those delightful people who have left reviews online and such.

Until next time, happy reading!