Writing Wednesdays Guest Post: Non Pratt - Advice on writing dialogue

YA author extraordinaire Non Pratt shares her ultimate advice on how to write dialogue in this guest post.

Rounding up a brilliant month of Writing Wednesday guest posts is none other than the legendary Non Pratt! 

Find Non on Twitter and Tumblr, and check out her website

You can get her first (utterly unbelievably fantastic) novel, Trouble, and her latest book, Remix, if you haven’t already read them.

Dialogue is my favourite part of the job, so much so that I can often be found shouting, “JUST STOP TALKING!” at my computer because once I’ve given my characters a voice, they don’t shut up. 

Many writers find dialogue easiest to get into because so much of today’s conversational communication is conducted through writing texts, emails, tweets, comments etc. So online chats with our friends have us warmed up, but how do we convert that kind of conversation to the page?


You can’t have a conversation until the people involve exist (even if it’s only in your imagination). 

What people say is determined by who they are, and as a writer, you’re not just speaking for yourself, but for every character you’ve created. Obviously character work is whole other blogpost, but when it comes to dialogue, I like to think about the following:

What are the characters into in terms of film/music/books/games etc? 

Pop culture preferences influence the things people talk about as well as the way they talk.

How old are they? 

Parents rarely talk like teens.

How articulate?

Words are writers’ currency because we like books, but the same may not be true of the people you’re writing about.

How witty/sarcastic/guarded/literal are they? 

This tip speaks for itself.


For key scenes (confrontations, initial meetings, flirtation and frisson) I ditch my tortoise-like write a sentence, delete a sentence, rewrite a sentence and go for broke. 

I turn off my computer, get out a pen a paper and play ping pong, with each character batting the conversation between them. No narrative interruptions, no speech tags (if I’m really into it, I don’t even bother with quotation marks) – just talking.

Who said that?

The main function of a speech tag is so the reader knows who’s speaking. 

With this in mind, the best possible speech tag is ‘said’ used only when using nothing at all would be confusing. Other tags that are sufficiently common they don’t draw too much attention to themselves are ‘asked’ and ‘replied’ although they get exponentially more noticeable with each repetition. 

Contrary to popular advice I like to throw in the occasional ‘called/shouted/whispered/mumbled/muttered’, but please note the word occasional – words that describe the volume/tone of what’s being said draw attention to themselves rather than the speech they are supposed to be describing.

Here are some words that look like they could be speech tags:

These are not speech tags; they are expressions that describe the emotional state of the person talking and would be put to better use in a sentence. And on that note…

Action & Reaction:

A reply is not the only way for a character to react. Online etc we use emojis because words alone aren’t enough to communicate how we feel about something that’s been said: people have feelings and thoughts. Once I’ve nailed the talking, I fill in the emotional gaps with narrative – not too much, or it will slow the whole thing down, but enough that the reader has insight into the characters as well as the story itself.

First drafts:

The inimitable Terry Pratchett said “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” 

At first draft, a lot of the conversations between my characters are helping me get to know them better – I uncover the story by listening in to their conversations. 

At second draft, those conversations need to work harder. Once I know what point the conversation is making, I write it on a Post-It, stick it on the wall and redraft the conversation to see if I can get there any quicker…

Telling not showing:

…and sometimes I would get there a lot quicker if I just wrote one sentence of narrative.

Other random thoughts on dialogue that don't fit into any of the above categories:

  • Writers find it easy to express themselves on the page, but dialogue is supposed to represent how people express themselves out loud – make of that what you will.
  • Some writers (*cough-John-Green-cough*) have teen characters who talk like an episode of Dawson’s Creek with an uncannily articulate knack for insight. Some writers (usually writing for older audiences) will have mundane conversations where the way someone takes their tea is a metaphor for their ruined marriage. There is room for the hyper-real the real and everything in between, so long as the flavour of dialogue fits with the tone of your writing, we’re all good here.
  • Idiolect is good, but accents written out verbatim can be hard to read. If you’re going to do the latter, make sure you do it with confidence, you do it well and you do it with reason.
  • It doesn’t matter whether you use double or single speech marks. Just be consistent.
  • Punctuation convention is thus:

“Hi,” said Non, using a comma after the word Hi but before the quotation mark closing her speech. 
“Hello.” Beth wasn’t using a speech tag, so she finished her speech with a full stop and started a new sentence in narrative. 
“I was thinking about telling people about,” Non said, “the conventions for punctuating a continuous sentence of dialogue with a speech tag.” 
“That’s a good idea,” said Beth. “Although I prefer to wait until I’ve completed a sentence before adding the speech tag and then going on to the next.” 
Non shrugged and said, “Don’t forget about putting commas before your characters start talking.”Beth nodded. “But only if you’re leading with a speech tag and not a gesture.”

- Huge thank you to Non for a brilliant and super-comprehensive advice post! And thanks for concluding a great month of guest WW posts.

Well, that’s it for this month, folks! I hope you all enjoyed an epic month of advice from epic writers. Next month it’s back to normal with lil ol’ me.

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