7 Ways to Add Variety to Your Dialogue

writing dialogueA simple back and forth exchange in dialogue is like a plain chicken breast. It’ll keep your body full and moving, but pretty soon your taste buds are going to get bored. You need BBQ sauce. Or Ranch shake-and-bake. Or spicy raspberry-balsamic marinade. You need to add variety.

The same principle applies to your dialogue, and the best way to add variety is to imitate real speech patterns.

(1)   Answer with a Question

When someone asks you a question you’d rather not answer, how do you react? Most people deflect.

“I tried calling you yesterday night. Where were you?”
“Where do you think I was?”

(2)   Interrupt

Interruption can characterize a person who’s impatient or self-centered by nature. It can also heat up an argument or give the reader insight into a deteriorating relationship.

“You really need to—”
“I know. You don’t need to keep reminding me.”

(3)   Let Silence Speak

In Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” a man is trying to convince a woman to get an abortion. Her reaction—silence. And it conveys her resistance to his suggestion more clearly than if she’d said it aloud.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”

Your character might resort to silence for a number of reasons. Maybe they’re passive-aggressive, maybe they’re afraid of angering the person they’re talking to, or maybe they feel like nothing they could say would make a difference anyway.

(4)   Add a Beat in the Middle

Sometimes you’ll notice a pattern like this appearing in your dialogue.

Action beat. “Dialogue.”
“Dialogue,” tag.
Feeling. Action beat. “Dialogue.”
Action beat. “Dialogue.”
“Dialogue,” tag.

If it goes on for too long, the lack of variety in structure can become boring regardless of how thrilling the content of your dialogue is. Often you can fix it by simply inserting a beat in the middle of two sentences of dialogue.

Original: Melody crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t like it here. I want to go home.”
Revised: “I don’t like it here.” Melody crossed her arms over her chest. “I want to go home.”

It adds a pause to the rhythm.

When to add a beat and when to leave the dialogue straight is almost more a matter of instinct and hearing the cadence of your character’s speech patterns than it is a scientific formula of tag here + beat there = interesting dialogue.

(This doesn’t violate the concept of F-A-D explained in my previous post on dialogue. It’s a variation of it. You’ll notice that the beat isn’t moved to the end of the dialogue, but is instead used as a pause in it, almost like the speaker is taking a breath–the same way we do in real life.)

(5)   Add Subtext

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, author and Hollywood script director Linda Seger describes subtext as “what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines.”

It’s that argument with your husband about the toothpaste tube that has nothing to do with toothpaste at all, the talk with your child that lets them know you found out they’ve been stealing even though you never mention the word theft, or the veiled threat from the woman whose job you got.

Try using subtext in an emotionally charged conversation that would otherwise be in danger of melodrama if you wrote it directly. You’ll also often find subtext in a conversation where characters can’t speak openly for fear of being overheard.

(6)   Echo

In real life, we often echo a word when we’re nervous, lying, or stalling for time.

“Do you think she’s pretty?”

(7) Misdirection/Non-Response

And sometimes, if the conversation isn’t going where we want it to, we just refuse to go along with it.

“We’re going to lose our reservation. You almost ready to go?”
“I saw you with her again today.”

If you missed Part 1 of my series on dialogue, “5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know,” now’s a great time to go back and check it out.

I’d love to have your input as well. How do you add variety to your dialogue?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

How To Make Deep POV Enrich Your Internal Dialogue

Marcy and I have recently written posts about deep POV, internal dialogue, and dialogue (Marcy’s great series about dialogue continues next week), but now it’s time to take the pieces, put them together, and make your writing sing.

woman thinkingUsing deep POV for internal dialogue is a valuable tool for writers, but in the various critiques we’ve given this is also one of the areas that POV violation happens most frequently. Here are the most common offenders.


Let’s try a small experiment. Think back to the first time you entered a friend’s apartment or home. I’m betting the first details you noted were the big picture things, maybe the color on the walls, the furniture, the painting above the sofa, or the floor-to-ceiling bookcase? What did your friend notice? Maybe she apologizes for the blotch of wall color on the ceiling where her roller slipped, or warns you that the bathroom door won’t completely shut. She notes the hole in the wall where she moved the curtain rods, the dust on the books maybe, or that she hasn’t vacuumed in more than a week. Familiarity lets us overlook details in setting others would focus on.

When writing in deep POV, keep in mind what your character would notice – and not notice. Do you make a mental note of the way the sofa matches the walls in your living room? Or would you zero in on the book upended on the floor because someone’s lost your place and it will take forever to find where you left off? There are things that your character will take for granted, not mention or notice, in any situation because it’s familiar to them.

The Work-Around

If there are details that the reader needs to know about a setting that your POV character wouldn’t notice, have another character make a comment about it. “Did you paint again?” “No, but the sofa’s new.” Think about what your character would notice. Sometimes all that’s needed is a minor tweak.


Each character will bring their own prejudices, history, and preferences to the story that they may not be willing to admit to themselves and therefore not mention or notice for the reader. 3 men walk into a bar. One’s looking for his daughter, the other is looking to get drunk because he’s just signed divorce papers, and the third is looking to get laid. Their motivations for being in that setting will influence how they interpret and view what’s going on around them. One sees every man in the room as the villain who’s corrupted his baby. Another sees every woman there as a possible conquest and focuses on their ‘assets’. The third man doesn’t see any of the women there, the only face he can think about is the cheating wretch who ripped his heart to shreds.

The Work-Around

Careful word choice will give readers insight into the character’s motivation without the character necessarily having to mention it. What words would the scoundrel looking to get laid use to describe the women he sees, the music? Let his word choice and the details he notices give the reader clues about his motivations for being there.


Your POV character knows why they’re seeking any particular goal. In the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, we know from what Jack says about himself, and what others say about him, that he’s a scallywag with no honor, but he never tells us why he’s chasing the Black Pearl or keeps a pistol with only one shot. Why would he mention it, he already knows! Gibbs tells Will a story about Jack that’s mostly true, answering one or two audience questions, but leaving us with another unanswered.

The Work-Around

The best way to use backstory is in small snippets. Backstory should answer a question for the reader, but always leave them with a new one. Take the men in the example above. How would the man drowning his sorrow talk to himself? Would he dwell on his pain, remind himself why he’s trying to get drunk, describe the betrayal in detail? Would he reminisce about meeting the woman in question, sharing breakfast that morning. Not likely. Jim downed the third shot of whiskey, his throat and chest burning. Not enough. He still remembered her name — could still see them together in his bed. He slammed the shot glass on the bar and nodded to the bartender.

Attention To Detail

When you first met your spouse/significant other, what was it about them that first struck you? Was it because they had beautiful eyes, or beautiful blue eyes? We often remember small things, but in great detail. It’s the specific details that jog our memory or create what Malcolm Gladwell calls stickiness in his book The Tipping Point. We’re all attracted to different characteristics, use those details to tell the reader about your character.

The Work-Around

Don’t have your character catalog every detail about a setting, event or another character. Rather, choose one or two details that are sticky. Choose details that are specific and memorable to that POV character.

Kait Nolan’s new ebook Red is a YA urban fantasy and has fantastic use of internal dialogue. Notice what Sawyer (male protag) first notices about Elodie (female protag). “She was crying. Not that she was being noisy about it. She wasn’t hysterical or red-faced or wailing. She was absolutely silent. I caught the faint glimmer of tears on her cheeks, saw her shoulders shudder with the effort to hold in her grief.” What does this observation tell us about Sawyer?


There’s a line from the first Pirates movie where they talk about the Pirate code “The code is more like guidelines than actual rules.” There are always exceptions to writing rules, but a couple of quick thoughts before I finish. If it’s part of your character’s personality to break one of these guidelines, then do it. If your character has OCD, then having them catalog their morning routine might be a characterization technique. If your character has just miscarried, perhaps they’re painfully aware of every pregnant woman they see. Just be sure you have a good reason to break the rule.

Do you agree with these ‘guidelines’ or have one of your own to add? Share it in the comments.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know

dialogue in fiction

“Dialogue is conversation–nothing more, nothing less” (Gloria Kempton).

This is Part 1 in a three-part series I’ll be doing over the next few weeks on dialogue. Before I can get to ways to add variety to your dialogue (Part 2) and handling some of the most common challenges in writing dialogue (Part 3), we need to tackle the basics of beats, tags, and punctuation. Get them wrong and you can ruin an otherwise well-written scene (and mark yourself as an amateur).

(1)   Choose the Correct Form of Punctuation

Improper punctuation of dialogue is one of the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts I edit and critique.

Use a comma at the end of a segment of dialogue (even a complete sentence) when followed by a tag.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said.

Use a question mark without a comma for a question. (This applies to exclamation marks too.)
Example: “Do you like cinnamon jelly beans?” Marcy asked.

If a tag is dividing a sentence, use a comma at the end of the first section of dialogue (even if the comma wouldn’t normally go there in the same sentence if it wasn’t dialogue) and use a comma after the tag.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said, “because they burn my tongue.”

Use a period after a tag when the first segment of dialogue is a complete sentence.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said. “I refuse to eat them.”

Use a dash when dialogue is cut off or interrupted.
“It wasn’t my—”
“Enough excuses.”

Use an ellipsis for dialogue that fades away.
Example: “I just . . .” She wrapped her arms around her stomach. “I thought he loved me.”

Use exclamation marks sparingly! They’re usually a sign that you’re trying to bolster weak dialogue. They’re also distracting!!

Don’t use colons or semi-colons in your dialogue at all. While this might seem like an arbitrary rule, colons and semi-colons just look unnatural in dialogue. For the most part, you should avoid them in your fiction entirely. The old joke is that you’re allowed one semi-colon per career, so use it wisely.

Punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks in North America. If you’re not in North America, check some of the traditionally published books on your shelf to see where they place punctuation.

(2)   Use a Tag or a Beat, But Not Both

A tag is a word such as “said” or “asked.” A beat is a piece of action used in place of a tag.

The point of a tag is to let the reader know who’s saying what. If you’ve shown them who’s talking through a beat, you don’t need to also tell them through a tag. It’s awkward and wordy to use both.

Wrong: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said, patting Luna on the head.

Right: My brother patted Luna on the head. “Your dog looks like an alien.”

Right: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said.

(3)   F-A-D (Feelings-Action-Dialogue)

Another common mistake is to place your beat after your dialogue. Beats always come before dialogue.

Wrong: “I don’t know why he would steal the cinnamon jelly beans.” Emily shrugged.

Right: Emily shrugged. “I don’t know why he would steal the cinnamon jelly beans.”

I don’t remember where I found the acronym FAD, but it’s a helpful way to remember the natural order of items in your writing.

(4)   Avoid Creativity In Your Tags

Lisa did an excellent post on why you should stick to basic dialogue tags such as said and asked (and occasionally whispered and shouted), so I won’t repeat it here. In essence though, our minds are trained to skip simple tags. Plus, go ahead and try hissing or growling a word.

(5)   Place Your Tags/Beats Strategically

Always write John said, never said John. You’ll often find the latter in classic literature, but it went out of style decades ago. And this is one style that won’t be coming back.

When you have long passages of dialogue, it’s usually best to either begin with a beat so readers know who’s talking before they start, or place a beat or tag at the first natural pause.
Example: “We have come to witness our finest warriors compete,” Penthesilea said. “Scythia offers their best to us, so we offer them no less. Six stand ready today. We need only three.”

What’s your greatest struggle when it comes to writing dialogue?

Join us on Thursday for an interview about historical fiction and social media with special guest Jody Hedlund, as well as a giveaway of her newest novel The Doctor’s Lady.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Internal Dialogue: The voices in your head

Have you ever had a conversation with yourself? Ever had to convince yourself to do something, go somewhere, kiss a boy/girl, walk away from a fight, bite your tongue? We all have. Internal dialogue is those conversations your POV character has with themselves.

girl staring at her reflectionWhy use internal dialogue?

What would a novel be without internal dialogue? This is somewhat lost in movies because it’s hard to show what a character is thinking unless they talk to themselves out loud. This is what’s so exciting about a book. You can jump right inside a character’s head and understand why they hesitate, charge in, or run away. Internal dialogue often answers the Why question – but it also answers the Who. Internal dialogue is a great device for characterization.

Internal dialogue is not narration. Two movies demonstrate this really well. Eat, Pray, Love is narrated with a voice-over. You hear Julia Robert’s thoughts, but she’s speaking to the audience not to herself. “Maybe my life hasn’t been so chaotic. It’s just the world that is and the only real trap is getting attached to any of it. Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.”

The 1995 movie While You Were Sleeping is one of my favorites – I watch it every Christmas. The entire movie is predicated on someone else overhearing a conversation Sandra Bullock has with herself. “I was gonna marry that guy.” She has many neurotic conversations with herself: “Forty-five dollars for a Christmas tree and they don’t deliver? You order $10 worth of chow mein from Mr. Wong’s, they bring it to your door. Ooh, I should have got the blue spruce – they’re lighter.”

See the difference?


There is no trick to punctuating internal dialogue. You don’t need to use single or double quotation marks, or use italics. The transition should be natural. Punctuate internal dialogue as you would any other sentence. If you use quotations to designate internal dialogue, you’re forced to use the he thought/she thought dialogue tag to distinguish been spoken and internal dialogue, and it’s going to become tedious and hard to read.

Use Deep POV

Use deep POV for your internal dialogue to bring readers closer to the action. Put them in the driver’s lap as they experience the story. There seems to be a great debate about whether internal dialogue in deep POV needs to be 1st person present tense, no matter if the rest of the story is written in 3rd person, past tense. I’ve read novels that changed for internal dialogue, and those that haven’t. As long as it was consistent, I didn’t find either jarring as a reader. I think it’s personal choice. Know the rules, then break them – that’s my advice. Know why you’re choosing one over the other.

One word of caution – it’s tempting to use internal dialogue to tell the reader backstory, perfom an info dump – tell the reader everything. All the rules of Show Don’t Tell still apply.

Be Brutally Honest

Have you ever analyzed the conversations you have with yourself? Do you use proper syntax? When I have those private conversations, they are short and to the point and I’m blunt with myself.

Do you call yourself bad names for being clumsy or obtuse? Have you rationalized things you’ve regretted later? Do you run through a mental to-do list? Bolstered your courage? Ever had a conversation with someone who would ask a question, silently answer it and ask another before you have time to respond? You need that kind of authenticity for your internal dialogue.

Internal Conflict

The easiest way to show internal conflict is through internal dialogue. One of the protags in the historical fantasy Marcy and I are writing is a princess. She’s developed this rock-hard exterior persona who’s self-assured, strong, courageous, impermeable to doubt. Early critiques showed us that readers had a hard time relating to this character – they didn’t like her. She had no flaws. We focused on the internal dialogue to show readers that her exterior persona was just that, a facade.  She unceasingly over-achieves to maintain that confident cover, but that’s a flaw that readers can relate to rather than a spoiled rich kid who’s had everything come easy or handed to them.

Marcy is blogging about dialogue, beats and tags next week.

How effective is internal dialogue in your WIP? Do you struggle with writing internal dialogue? 


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

5 Ways To Know If You’re Showing Or Telling

Show don’t tell is a basic writing concept that applies to both non-fiction and fiction writers. It makes our writing so much more interesting – but it’s a hard concept to grasp when you’re starting out. Here’s 5 easy ways to know if you’re showing or telling.

Naming Emotions
man screamingHe was angry. She hated him. He waited anxiously. She paced with pent-up anger. This is telling. Naming emotions is a quick way for writers to tell the reader what’s going on. But it’s not very interesting to read. SHOW how they feel, and dive deeper than clenched fists. Watch the people around you, think about your own body language. What does someone who’s angry look like? How do they carry themselves? Does their voice change tone or pitch?

Emotions can have many layers. Anger especially isn’t a primary emotion, but is a reaction to another emotion generally. When my son was 3, I turned for just one minute to pick out some apples, and he was gone. I frantically searched up and down the produce department. I called out his name. Other shoppers turned to stare. How could I lose my son? What’s he wearing one asked me. When I finally found him, he held up a loaf of bread with a huge smile on his face. “I found the bread for you, Mommy.”

First thing I did was hug him, grateful to have found him safe and whole. Then I grabbed the bread from his hands and jammed it onto a nearby shelf not caring if it was smushed or not. Was I really upset with the bread? No. The anger was a reaction to being scared and a little embarrassed.

Dialogue Tags
He growled. She screamed. He bellowed. She begged. This is telling. Write dialogue that’s clear and succinct, and use action beats to SHOW the reader how to interpret what the character is saying – or not saying. Check out our post on the Power of Said.

Telling: “Get out,” she screamed. “I never want to see you again.”
Showing: “Get out.” She pointed a stiff finger toward the door, her body rigid. “I never want to see you again.”

Showing will mean extra words, but you’ll get better at writing tight and being concise.

Abstract Descriptions
She was good looking. The lake is beautiful. These, and other terms like these, are too abstract and only tell the reader about a scene or a person. This is a great opportunity for character development. Show the reader why the character finds something beautiful, let the reader see the world through their eyes. What makes the lake scene beautiful to them? Is it the tall birch trees reflected in the water just like at the cottage when she was a kid? Is it the morning mist and the knowledge that the fish will be biting, or the view of her family in the canoe? What is it about her that he finds good looking? Is she dressed immodestly? Does she remind him of his mother? Is it because she sacrifices her Saturday mornings to weed her grandmother’s gardens? Use the opportunity to give readers a glimpse inside the character’s mind, motivations and desires.

Weak Verbs
Choosing strong descriptive verbs over weak verbs is an easy way to pump life into your writing. He walked to the principal’s office. What does this show us about the character? Nothing – it tells the reader where he is and what he is doing. Walked is a functional verb, and there are times when this is appropriate. Sometimes you just walk to the door, pick up the phone, start the car… Enough said. But reexamine how you use these verbs. Choosing stronger verbs that do double duty and show the reader more about how the character feels, what they’re thinking, etc. are more economical and keep movement in your story. Skipped, marched, strolled, trudged – these are all going to give the reader more insight into the character than walked.

He marched to the principal’s office. The girls skipped down the hall holding hands and giggling. With his hands in his pockets, he avoided looking at anyone as he rushed to the principal’s office.

Author Intrusion

Andy shrugged. “I don’t know.” If you’d been around when Andy was younger, you’d know he was hearing his father run him down again even though his old man had been dead for ten years.

Author intrusion is a POV problem, but it’s also telling. When you have to interrupt the action or conflict to tell the reader something, or to make sure the reader ‘gets it’ that’s author intrusion. In the days of Mark Twain and others, writing from an omniscient narrator POV was popular, but it’s not done anymore. When you find yourself doing this, stop. Use internal dialogue to show the reader what’s going on, or have the point of view character observe the change in Andy’s demeanor and body language. What if instead the scene went like this:

Andy shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Elaine held his hand and waited for him to look at her. “Hey, you’re not that little kid anymore. Your dad’s gone. You can do this.”
The corner of his mouth turned up. “Yeah, maybe.”

You see how the second example gives the reader all the same information without the huge flashing neon lights from the author that says – see this! Make sure you get this. This is important. Isn’t the second example more interesting to read? Give your readers some credit. This is what critiques are for. If the reader doesn’t get it, then you go back and edit – but don’t jump into the story. Let your reader experience the story alongside your characters.

Do you have any more clues about recognizing if you’re showing or telling?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

The Power Of ‘Said’

Writing fiction is my first writing love, and I try to spend at least a few hours every week honing my craft and working on my manuscripts in process. While I’ve not had a fiction manuscript published (yet), I think I’ve learned a few things worth passing on. One that took me by surprise was the misuse and abuse of dialogue tags.

(As an aside, I’m not good with rules–so this is my happy pantser dance all over Marcy’s blog schedule 🙂 Love ya, Marcy!)

I learned to love writing in a high school English class called Writers Craft. One of the ‘rules’ forever imprinted on my memory by Mr. Borek is ‘Show Don’t Tell’. The ladies in my writer’s group will tell you I’m all about show don’t tell.

Attributing dialogue to a speaker is called a dialogue tag. He said, she asked, etc. Using verbs in dialogue tags to ‘tell’ the reader more about what’s being said is considered weak writing, and after a while gets extremely irritating.

“Please,” she whined.

The word ‘whined’ is being used to ‘tell’ more than the dialogue gives us itself. Instead, rewrite the sentence to ‘show’ the speaker is whining.

“Please. Why can’t I have a cookie?” She tugged on her mother’s skirt. “Mom. Why can’t I have a cookie? Jake got one, why can’t I have one too?”

Said and asked are the best ways to tell readers who is speaking. It’s simple, and I find I just skip over it when I’m reading. It doesn’t slow me down or pull me out of the story the way other words can. Said can appear several times on a page and I won’t notice. On rare occasions, adding verbs or adverbs to a dialogue tag is considered acceptable.

I used to think that it would be annoying to read said over and over, so I replaced said with a variety of other verbs and adverbs to add variety. I exhausted the thesaurus, and the patience of everyone who read my early work.

Words like bellowed, hollered, whispered, whined, begged, demanded, shouted, muttered, shrieked, growled, etc. are considered amateurish. When you require strong verbs to prop up your dialogue, rewrite.

Some of those tags are just impossible. He growled, “Get out.” Can you really growl the words get out? Try it. Try hissing something? Instead, just write it as an action. If you put the action next to the dialogue the reader will figure out who’s speaking. He growled. “Get out.”

But I want the reader to know the character is mad or angry or…

You need to give your reader a little credit and assume this isn’t their first foray into fiction. If the dialogue is written well, the reader should pick up on the character’s feelings or emotions without you having to hit them over the head with it. Use action following the dialogue to add meaning instead.

My personal preference is to rewrite the dialogue if said or asked won’t suffice. I use action to attribute dialogue often as well. Keep it simple. Keep the focus on the story and avoid jerking the reader from the scene they’re reading.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.