Charlie Laidlaw is an author and tutor at Creating Writers

In a recent post, I highlighted how easy it is to write clunky dialogue.

The trick to good dialogue is about advancing your story or developing or reinforcing character.

But every bit of dialogue should sound real.  It must never sound contrived.

Always consider whether the dialogue you’ve written is true to character.  If you can’t see them as real people, with their own distinctive voices, it’s less easy to put words in their mouth.

First, therefore, is to get to know your characters.  Not how they are now, but who they were.  Real people.

Real people who have  individual voices.  Simplistically, for example:

“Mummy, I am just going to school now.  Can I have my packed lunch, please?  I think I may be hungry by lunchtime.” 

This might be fine if the child is suffering from a form of autism, and may fit the character.  But for all other children, it sounds daft.

Please also avoid:


A good lesson (in both dialogue and narrative) is to treat your reader with respect.  If you’ve already told them something, you don’t have to repeat it.

This can be particularly irksome in a detective story where, after each bit of action, the main characters rehearse what they know so far – repeating what we know already.  Repetition is boring!


We all say “er” and “um” all the time.  But don’t keep using it in every piece of dialogue, unless the intention is to make your character sound indecisive or stupid.  Think of TV interviews with celebrities or politicians.  They’ve been trained not to “er” and “um” all the time – and when we do hear it on TV, it’s unexpected and jarring.  The same is true in books.

Too many exclamation marks!!

Please, please, please don’t overdo them, unless your character really is shouting or exclaiming in surprise, or if the conversation is taking place in a loud nightclub.  Otherwise it’s irritating.

Questions and answers

Dialogue often requires characters to ask questions.  But endless questions usually serve no purpose, and quickly become irritating.  For example:

“Would you like some toast?”

“Yes, please.”

“And would you like jam?”

“Yes, please.”

“And butter?”

“Yes, please.”

That exchange might work well if the whole purpose of the dialogue is to show an underlying tension between the two.  Otherwise, as an everyday exchange, it’s stilted and – quite probably – irrelevant.

New authors often fall into the trap of using dialogue to pad things out.  When they can’t think of what to write.  Don’t fall into that trap.


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