Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: Dialogue Dont’s.

A lot of writing tips talk about what you should do to write better, more engaging dialogue. What about things you shouldn’t do?

Oh, man, where to start?

Don’t use dialogue as exposition unnecessarily.

I call this “Voyager dialogue” because Star Trek: Voyager does this all the time, and it has some of the worst dialogue ever to dialogue with dialogue.

The worst possible thing to do with dialogue, as some other answers have said, is the “as you know” speech: “As you know, Captain, the Treaty of Fingobble means the Ratfinkians and the Globbards are now allies…” Yes, yes, people don’t generally walk about telling other people things they already know.

But expository dialogue isn’t necessarily the “as you know” speech. Any time you interrupt the flow of the action to have one character explain something to another, especially in situations where that interruption doesn’t makes sense, you have bad dialogue.

Eunice and I actually poke fun at this kind of exposition in a novel we’re working on now:

“Where am I?” Her voice came flat to her ears, “Am I dreaming?” Thunder muttered again from the cloudless sky.

“You know where you are, May.” The unfamiliar voice came from all around her, cultured, masculine, precise. “There really is only one possibility, after all. When you eliminate the impossible…”

“...whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.” Where had she heard it before?

“Very good!” The voice sounded pleased.

“I’m inside Serene’s mind. In her dream, or whatever it is she’s having.”

“Excellent! I remain impressed. Many people would be in quite a tizzy right now. You’re adaptable, for a human.”

“Who are you? One of Dormer’s crew? Trying to hack Serene’s mind?”

“One of Dormer’s crew? Me? I should think not. I’m—” The voice faded out. A loud roar filled the air. May spun. A meteor blazed across the sky, white-hot with incandescence, trailing red fire behind it. It sped directly toward her. She stood rooted in place, mouth open, as it tore through the air, growing larger…

It struck something invisible, something that flared with golden light, a brilliant dome across the sky. The meteor shattered, bright flaming chunks spinning away from the point of impact. The golden glow faded, leaving afterimages in the air, an incomprehensibly complex diagram, more intricate even than Iris’s designs, loops and curlicues and symbols that hung in the air, fading slowly.

“I’m terribly sorry.” The calm, cultured voice was back, coming from everywhere at once. “I do apologise, but my attention is distracted. I owe you an apology for biting you as well. Alas, it was the best of a limited number of options under the circumstances.”


“Who else?”

“Where are you?”

“That is a complicated question. I would love to discuss it with you at length, as it raises some absolutely fascinating philosophical inquiries, but I fear this is not an appropriate time. The situation here is becoming grave, and I do not expect I will survive the night.”

“What? Why?”

“I am expending more energy warding off attacks like the one you just witnessed than I have available to me. This is not, as you may imagine, a sustainable situation. At this rate, I do not have long to live.”

“Is it the Adversary? Are they using the accumulator to attack Serene?”

“The accumulator? Good heavens, no. With the energy available in that, they could turn her mind into a vast and barren wasteland in seconds. No, thankfully, they are not, else we would not be having this pleasant though perhaps a touch predictable conversation. Alas, at the risk of being rude, time is short so I must hurry you along. Path to your right, toward the Thames, if you please.”

May turned. “Not that right,” Spencer said, “your other right!” She heard a small sound of exasperation from the air around her. “Very well, I’ll do it. Listen, you may shortly experience some momentary disorientation, just…hold on and do try not to lose your lunch.”

“Wha—” May started. A diagram appeared in the air before her, hard lines and symbols blazing bright. The world shifted and blurred, the ground beneath her feet flowing like water in complete defiance of the way the ground ordinarily behaved. Vertigo flashed over her, and then she stood beside a small table with two chairs in an outdoor garden on the roof of a skyscraper on the water’s edge. A low row of shrubs edged the garden, their gleaming flowers casting a cool glow. She wavered on her feet, stomach protesting the violation of basic physics. Wind whistled around her, bending the tall, slender, carefully manicured trees.

When her stomach quit spinning, May walked to the edge of the roof and looked around. London spread out below her…not her London, but a bizarre, fantasy London, a storybook London from one of those stories spun of equal parts wonder and dread.
Don’t use unnecessary adjectives and adverbs

In bad dialog, people are always talking angrily, calmly, loudly, and other adverbedly. If your dialogue is well written, the emotion carries in the words, you need not add a bunch of adverbs to communicate to your readers what the people are feeling.

This doesn’t mean you should never use adverbs, just…be selective. Think carefully.

If you do need extra cues to what the characters are feeling, describe their actions as they speak, as my co-author Kitty and I do in our far-future magical realism novel.

The sun had moved noticeably in the sky before Moyer jabbed his finger triumphantly at the book. “Aha! Your Aiyah Spinner, she is one of ours. Journeyman.” He squinted. “Took her exams in Kanzit. Not from Bridgegate, though.”

“Oh?” Diego closed his book. “Where might I find her, then?”

“Half Circle Cothold. East of—”

“I’m familiar with it.” Diego steepled his fingers in thought. “Master Moyer,” he said finally, “I realize the Church and the guilds do not always see eye to eye. There have been some…tensions of late, particularly with regard to Church involvement in the internal governance of the guilds.”

Moyer folded his arms. “Aye, that’s underselling the wool and no doubt.”

“Underselling the wool. Hm.” A hint of a smile flickered across Diego’s lips. “I would like to apologize, Master Moyer, for any role the Inquisition may have played in the current state of affairs between the guildhalls and the Church.” The smile disappeared. “I hope that our actions here today might help thaw the ice. We are but two people, but in this moment, we represent two large and powerful organizations. Perhaps the Divine Plan has brought us here, to this juncture, so that we might in some small way reconcile the bond between church and guild.”

Moyer narrowed his eyes. “It seems to me, Grand Inquisitor, that you are getting…how shall I say this? Perilously close to asking something of me.”

Diego spread his arms. “Ah, to the crux of it, then. Guildmaster, I would be in your service if I could prevail upon you to send a message to Half Circle, by heliograph if they have one, or by heliograph to Bridgeport and then by messenger to Half Circle if they do not. Inform Aiyah Spinner that there has been an irregularity in her Guild membership—”

“An irregularity?” Moyer cut in. “What sort of irregularity?”

“I am certain you will think of something. Instruct her to make for Kanzit with all due haste. Stress the urgency of this, and let her know it is a matter of some immediacy.”

“And why would I do this for you?”

That hint of a smile crossed Diego’s thin lips once more. “You will do this because, Master Moyer, the Inquisition requires it of you.”

“You’re going to need to do a damn sight better than that, if I am to surrender one of my own to your clutches.”

“You will be doing no such thing, Master Moyer. You need simply inform her that her presence is required in your guild hall in Kanzit.”

“Aye, and she is not to arrive, is she?”

“What leads you to that conclusion, Master Moyer?”

“You haven’t told me what to say to her when she gets there.”

The smile vanished. Diego leaned forward. “This woman is of interest to the Church, and specifically to the Inquisition. I am not at liberty to say more, except that right now she has our sustained attention, which, while regrettable, is less…inconvenient for you personally than if that attention should be turned to the guild that she belongs to, and particularly to a guildmaster who appears to be sheltering her.”

“So it’s like that, is it?”

“You have, through no fault of your own, come upon a fork in the road, Master Moyer. One path leads to a world in which the Inquisition is in your debt. The other, to a world in which the Inquisition takes a personal interest in guild affairs in Brightchurch.”

“You can’t bully me! You have no right—”

“Master Moyer, I assure you, I have no desire to waste my time on you or your affairs here. I would much rather spend that time on more profitable matters, as I’m certain you would as well. We are all on the same side here—”

“And what side is that, exactly?”

“Why, God’s side, of course. You might do worse than to have the Church indebted to you.”

“A new era of cooperation between Church and Guild, eh?”

Diego extended his hand. “Indeed.”
Don’t make it too realistic

I’ve said this before, but good dialogue sounds authentic, in the sense that it has a natural rhythm and flow, without being authentic, because real dialogue is filled with “um” and “uh” and backtracks and such.

The trick is to get dialogue that sounds like something actual people might actually say, without all the pauses and fillers and such. Good dialogue is snappier than real dialogue.

Dialogue shouldn’t be too direct

Listen to people having real-world conversations. They don’t always provide context to each other if they share experiences. This is related to, but not quite the same as, Voyager dialogue: in addition to the fact people don’t say “As you know, Captain, the turboencabulator may overload if we reverse the tachyonic phase array transducer,” they don’t belabor shared context or shared experience at all.

This is actually a good thing, not a bad thing. When you’re a writer, you can be tempted to explain absolutely everything to your reader. It was hard for you to come up with all this backstory and shared history, you’re proud of it, naturally you want to explain it all to the reader.


Let the details emerge (if they need to come out at all!) through the action. Let the dialogue hint at that shared history without explaining it.

Kheema waited for her on a stone bench near the meditation cells where the Potentials sought communion with the Fiery One. She wore the same body she’d worn when Janaié first met her, fourteen years ago: slender, with luminous gray-green eyes and a thick spill of red hair that tumbled over her shoulders. She’d removed the thin belt, so her gossamer robe hung open. She rose with a broad smile at Janaié’s approach. “Janaié! It’s been a long time! How are you? It feels strange to be back here. I still remember the first time I meditated, right in that cell over there. Hard to believe, isn’t it? It feels like it happened a lifetime ago, but also like it happened only yesterday. I heard you were promoted to Archivist. Congratulations! How have you been?”

Janaié’s mouth went dry. All the ways she’d played this conversation in her head, all the times she’d imagined it, fled at once, leaving her with nothing to say. “I…” She looked down at her feet. “Not well,” she said softly.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Why haven’t you been well?”

Janaié took a deep breath. “Kheema, I haven’t been well because of you.”

Kheema blinked. “Because of me? Why?”

“Why? How can you ask me that? You know why!”

Puzzlement wrote itself across Kheema’s face. “How can I? We haven’t seen each other for—”

“That’s the point! You just…” Janaié waved her arms. “You left! You did your time as Avatar, and then you just left. You walked away from me, the Temple, everything. But even before you left the Temple, you left me. That year you were Avatar, it’s like you weren’t there any more. When you came to bed at night, you were right there beside me, but you were really somewhere else. Do you have any idea how lonely that is, to be lying next to you and not even feel like you’re with me?”

“I…” Kheema’s lip trembled. “I was…I had responsibilities to the Temple.”

“You had responsibilities to me! Everyone in the entire City got your attention but me. It was like…” She paused, flush with anger and frustration. “It was like I became a supporting character in your life instead of a real person. You made me into what you wanted me to be so I could play the role you needed from me, and then just like that, you were gone.”

“I didn’t leave you!” Kheema said. “You could have come with me when my time as Avatar was up! I thought you wanted to stay. You had your life here, your friends. The Temple seemed like your home—”

“I went into the Wastelands to get away from the memory of you!” Janaié cried. “After you left, I couldn’t bear to be here any more! Everything reminded me of you. The Temple, the service, this garden, I couldn’t take any of it. I left the City for three years because of you!”

Kheema looked at her in shock. The silence stretched out. Janaié’s eyes swam. “Say something.”

Kheema sat heavily on the bench. “What do you want me to say? I had fond memories of our time together. I thought you did, too. I just…it seemed…I don’t know. You never…” Kheema shook her head. “I didn’t know I hurt you,” she said softly.

“You didn’t pay attention!”

Another silence fell. Janaié folded her arms. Kheema looked away. “You ask me how I’ve been,” Janaié said after a time. “I’ve climbed back out of the hole. I’ve made a life for myself, here, in the Temple. I have someone who loves me even though I live, as she says, in the shadow of the past. Now you come back, and you ask me how I’ve been. What am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to do with that? Do you have any idea how cruel that is?”

“I…I didn’t, I wasn’t…” Kheema’s eyes brimmed with tears.

“You didn’t ask! You didn’t think about the needs of anyone but yourself!”

“That’s all I thought about!” Kheema cried. “Why do you think I left? My entire time as Avatar, the needs of the City always came first! I was so busy being the representative of a god, I couldn’t be Kheema any more.” She wrapped her arms tightly around herself as she wept. “I didn’t mean to hurt you! I didn’t mean to hurt anyone!”

“Yet you did.”

Kheema put her head in her hands and wept until her body shook. Janaié sat awkwardly beside her, not quite touching her. Her heart melted. “Listen, it’s…” She stopped herself. “No. I won’t say it. It’s not okay. I…why am I trying to comfort you? You’re the one who hurt me! This is why we aren’t good for each other. Somewhere I lost myself with you.”

“I don’t understand how I hurt you,” Kheema sobbed.

“I know! I don’t…” Janaié sighed. “I don’t think you meant to do it. It would have been easier if you had. If you did what you did through malice, I could just hate you and move on with my life. I tried to make myself hate you, when I was out in the Wastelands distracting myself by cataloging birds. I think…I think maybe I had this idea that if I talked to you, I could find something to let me hate you so I’d have closure. But you aren’t even giving me that, are you? You were never malicious, just careless with the feelings of others.”

“I didn’t know!”

“I believe you. What matters is what you did.” Janaié rose and paced, restless and jittery. “It doesn’t matter if you did it on purpose. You broke something in me. It’s still just as broken whether you broke it deliberately or carelessly.”

“Tell me how to fix it!”

“You can’t fix it!” Janaié cried. “It happened! It’s done! The time for fixing it passed thirteen years ago. Some broken things can’t be mended.”

“I’m sorry!”

“That doesn’t change anything!” Janaié took a deep breath to steady herself. “Look,” she said in a calmer voice, “I appreciate you saying that. But it doesn’t undo or rectify the past. It doesn’t make me whole again. I can’t…I don’t think you’re a bad person. You still hurt me. You took me for granted, and then you left. You never stopped to ask what it might mean to anyone else.”