Let’s Talk Dialogue – Part 1 – How To Shape And Structure Spoken Words

Let’s Talk Dialogue – Part 1 – How To Shape And Structure Spoken Words


Writers Write creates writing resources and shares writing tips. In this post from our Let’s Talk Dialogues series, we discuss how to shape and structure spoken words.

I kind of like corny jokes, especially ones involving nuns. I’ll leave the dirtier ones out of today’s blog – but the great thing about jokes is that they usually have lots of dialogue. Let’s take an old joke and turn it into story dialogue.

‘Waitress, there’s something in my soup, I think it’s a fly,’ I complained.
‘That’s not a fly, it’s a burned crouton,’ answered the waitress as she chewed gum.
‘I’m pretty sure it’s a fly. What’s it doing in my soup?’ I demanded, pointing to the bowl.
‘I think it’s doing backstroke,’ the waitress said.

The right dialogue for the right genre

OK, it’s pretty bad, isn’t it? I mean the dialogue and the joke. After some thought, here are some ways to make it read better. (The dialogue, not the joke.)

  1. Every line is structured the same – it’s going be the equivalent of a singsong voice on the page (i.e., annoying). We need to break it up a bit.
  2. The idea of a joke is to be short and punchy. Let’s make the dialogue work for it, not against it. If you’re writing an action-packed story, your dialogue should be action-packed. If you’re writing a drama, it can be more weighted.
  3. Oops, there are no dialogue tags. These descriptors add texture to the speakers. They need to give character, movement, style, the tone of the story. We can’t just add them in randomly.
  4. And the dialogue here could be a little more colloquial ­– it needs to sound like real people talking. 

Source for cartoon

Waiter, there’s great dialogue in my story!

Here is what the dialogue could look like if we structure and shape it in the right way.

‘Waitress, there’s a fly in my soup!’ I jabbed a finger at the bowl.
She cracked a big piece of pink gum in the side of her mouth. ‘Nah,’ she said, ‘it’s just a burned crouton.’
‘It’s a fly!’  I felt my face turn red. ‘What’s it doing in my soup?’
She peered down for a closer look. ‘Backstroke?’

Look, don’t just listen

Many of us tend to focus on just the words our characters are saying in the story. This is good, but we also need to pay attention to how it’s going to look on the flat surface of a page. Structure doesn’t just give us a better-looking story; it also makes the experience more enjoyable for the reader. The reader must see it and hear it in his or her imagination.

If you enjoyed this post, you will love Talk Show — How to let your characters tell their story

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to know more about dialogue, you will love:

  1. Let’s Talk Dialogue – How To Shape And Structure Spoken Words
  2. Let’s Talk Dialogue – Do You Say It Out Loud Or Keep It To Yourself?
  3. Let’s Talk Dialogue – 6 Ways Emphasis Can Change Meaning In Dialogue
  4. Let’s Talk Dialogue – 5 Ways Punctuation Makes It Perfect!
  5. Let’s Talk Dialogue – How Social Media Has Changed Dialogue

This article has 0 comments

  1. Miriam Wesselink

    What do you mean by ‘dialogue tags’?

  2. Writers Write

    Dialogue tags are the words used after a character speaks, for example, ‘he said’, and ‘she said’. Their main purpose is to show which character is speaking.

  3. Miriam Wesselink

    But in de first, flawed example, tehre ARE dialogue tags, aren’t there?

  4. Anthony Ehlers

    You’re absolutely right, Miriam. Dialogue tags are, as Amanda said, the attributions to give us information about the speaker. In the ‘bad’ example, they’re not doing much work; in the second they give a lot more information. I guess I should’ve said there aren’t any good dialogue tags.

  5. Miriam Wesselink

    Thanks a lot for your feedback, Anthony, you are very helpful!

  6. Bruce

    Im writing a book that is nearly all dialogue. I know every novel is largely dialogue, but mine is mostly a conversation between two characters. There’s no landscape to describe and character attributes are built and revealed in the conversation. I’ve been stuck for 6 months trying to figure out how to structure the conversation so I can move the story forward. This was hugely helpful. My only issue now is that I feel like, because the whole book is a conversation, I might be repetitive in the dialogue tags I use. Is it possible to overuse dialogue tags?

  7. Anthony Ehlers

    Hi Bruce. I think it could be possible to overdo the tags. I’d suggest you look at authors like Jonathan Kellerman or James Patterson, who use a lot of dialogue, to see how much or how little you can get away with.

Comments are now closed.