Dealing With Dialogue

One of the hardest things for me to write is dialogue. Too often my dialogue comes out clunky, unrealistic, boring or lacking a purpose to the overall story. As a result, it’s the dialogue that requires the most work when I edit.

So I started thinking, how can I change this? How can I improve my fictional conversations so I don’t break out in a sweat every time my characters need to talk to one another.

And here is what I did.

1) Learn to Listen

When I started to listen, really listen, to other people’s conversations, I was surprised by how differently people spoke, compared to how I thought they spoke. Eavesdropping is part of being a writer, as it opens your ears to words, voices, and human interaction. Studying how conversation flows, helps me get across what I want my characters to say in a more realistic way.

2) Turn a Scene into a Script

If I’m struggling to make the dialogue in a scene work, I sometimes turn the scene into a play script. I basically turn the whole chapter into a conversation. I then highlight the main lines that get across what I want, before I re-insert all the description, action etc.

3) Read Great Dialogue

I often know that a book is wonderful, when I realise that I was so carried away by the story that I forgot to study how it was written. I think this is particularly true with dialogue, as it is such an important part of learning who the characters are. When I finish a book and can’t remember why the dialogue worked, I know that the dialogue must have been so well written that it fused perfectly into the story. Then I know I need to go back and study it.

4) Read Bad Dialogue

When I read a piece of dialogue that jars and sounds unrealistic, I pause and consider what it is that makes it fail. A big step in learning what does work, is learning what doesn’t work.

5) Rewind to a Piece of Dialogue That Did Work

If I can’t make the dialogue in a scene work, I often rewind and find a chapter that I know it did work in. As I read it, I let myself get into the voice of the character again, which helps me to write the new conversation with that character’s way of thinking and talking fresh in my head.

6) Study Dialogue in Other Art Forms.

Sometimes I need a break from dialogue in books, and seek out other forms of inspiration. I’ve often been struck by scenes of T.V. programmes where the dialogue is so good that I go back to listen to it again. There are times I suddenly became aware that someone somewhere wrote the script, and I think wow, how did they write such a perfect conversation? I listen to radio interviews, radio plays, go to the theatre; all excellent ways of studying dialogue; what sounds real and what sounds fake.

7) Ask Yourself: Does Your Dialogue Fit the Time the Story is Set?

It’s important to be aware of the correct conversation for the time or genre of your book. Phrases do go out of date. I watch a lot of period dramas and have a fondness for old-fashioned and classic books. And although I write in the modern day, I often find myself editing out Enid Blighton type phrases. It sometimes takes an outside eye to spot this in your writing.

8) Get to Know Your Characters

It is much harder to write dialogue when you don’t yet know your characters. It took me awhile to realise this, and now I tend to go easy on myself on a first draft, and even a second draft. Once I know my character inside out, I find the dialogue comes naturally as I can hear their voice clearly. If I’m struggling with the dialogue of a secondary character, it often helps to write a character sheet on them, or even a quick short scene or story about them in first person, so I can get into their head.

9) Age-Appropriate Conversation

It is naturally easier for me to write a conversation between two women in their thirties than two nine year old boys (as I don’t know any 9 year old boys), or a group of teenager girls (as I haven’t been a teenage girl for quite a long time). Adult phrases can sneakily creep into dialogue between children, but it doesn’t belong. It is therefore essential to question whether the conversation is realistic for the age group having it.


All in all, the more I write, the better I get at dialogue. Practise is key. I once spent one month writing a play just to force myself to write conversation. I had no aspirations for the play, it was simply an exercise to train myself. It was difficult at the time, but when I then switched back to the novel, I found it so much easier to write the dialogue. The time between novel drafts, when it’s hiding in a drawer, is the perfect time to train up your skills, and hone in on your weakest areas. Your next draft will thank you for it.


Make Every Word Count

When I began writing, I used to plough through drafts like a bulldozer, more obsessed with the word count than the quality of writing. Draft after draft, I’d rush to meet 1000 words a day, whether the words were good, bad or ugly. Now that I’ve calmed down about getting the novel finished, submitted and published (because what is the ACTUAL rush?), I’ve changed the way I write. This came from hearing many writers say “Make every word count”. It took me at least 2 years of writing to finally start listening to this advice, and here’s how I’m doing it:

Stick To The Story

One of the biggest writing sins I was guilty of, was going off in a tangent that had no relevance to the story. No matter how beautiful or funny your writing is, if you forget about the story, you will lose readers. I didn’t notice this problem in my own work at first; someone else had to point it out to me. But now that I know it, I stick to a story plan. If a chapter has no relevance and is not necessary to the rest of the story, then it has to go. No matter how beautifully it’s written.

Play With Poetry:

I started to write and read poems. This got me thinking about words in a new way. I started listening to their sounds, and experimenting with sentences. I let myself loose to play with words, and to trust my ability to get across my message without being blunt and over-obvious. This helped me bring out the beauty in a sentence, or the humour in a twisted phrase. Poems by the their nature are short, which meant I had to cut out waffle and too much description, and taught me how to get to the point in a neater, nicer fashion.

Study Other People’s Sentences:

I slowed down my reading. This helped me step back from the story, and allowed me to concentrate on what I liked in other people’s writing, and what I didn’t like. As I read, I ask myself, what makes a sentence bounce off the page and into my memory, and what makes it sink into the slush of ugly or over-used phrases?

Recognise Repetition

Becoming aware of words I used repeatedly, helped me think outside the box. This wasn’t easy, and I occassionally have to ask other people to read my work to spot my repetitive words. I also started looking out for words that other writers use repeatedly. Some obvious words and phrases I spotted again and again in other people’s work were ‘suddenly’, ‘my heart thumped’ , and ‘Oh my God’. The less obvious ones were ‘ochre’, ‘sepia’, and variations of the moon like a ‘torch in the sky’. If you don’t recognise repetition, you can’t avoid using it.


When you keep reading the same old metaphors and similes, you start to skim over them, and they might as well not be there. There is nothing as smile-inducing as reading a book and finding original metaphors. Discovering a new way to express a feeling or a vision is one of my favourite parts of writing, and if I achieve only 10 words in a day, but I know they’re absolutely original, then that’s a happy day for me.

First-draft Freedom

If I tried to make every word count from the beginning of my first draft, I’d never ever finish it. You have to pick your time to polish. I recently read an article by Ciara O’Connor, who concluded that when you stop trying to make your writing perfect, that’s when you find your flow. And I totally agree. I need to get my initial story down in a stream of consciousness, and then I can shape it. Just like a sculptor can’t start their work without a sizeable lump of clay. This might be two or three drafts in, once I know the story outline and the characters, and where I’m going with it. Only then can I start filtering the sentences until all the words left need to be there.

The longer I write, the better I get at making every word count. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a stage where everything I write is perfect. Does anyone? Have I ever read anything 100% perfect? Probably not. Art doesn’t have to be perfect to be lovely. Once I’ve got a piece of writing to the best I can get it, I recall my mantra “Art is never finished, only abandoned” (Da Vinci) and then I move on with the hope that even more words will count in my next piece.

The Story Behind Young Adult Books

I put this post together for those of you interested in learning what YA (Young Adult) books are, and why people read and love them, including adults. I was recently at the Mountains to Sea Literary Festival, and have drawn some answers from the panels of YA writers. Plus my own reasons for loving these books, as an adult.

What is a “Young Adult” Book

General consensus is a YA book is one where the protagonist is a teenager. That doesn’t mean that it’s only for teenagers. It’s not a secret that more adults buy and read YA books than teenagers. Some writers do keep their teenage audience in mind and direct their story towards a teenage reader, whereas some don’t think about the reader at all, and simply let the story flow exactly as it comes to them.


Why do People Write YA

This, as with any genre, is always going to be personal. I’ve heard a few writers (myself included) say they never planned to write YA, it’s just what came out when they started writing. Every writer has to find their own writing voice, and sometimes they can suffer disappointment when they realise that they can’t actually write like their favourite author or style of book. (I was rather disappointed when I realised that I am never going to be a Maeve Binchy for teenagers). But once they persist, they will find their own unique voice. It could be in YA, or fantasy, or Literary fiction. Until you start writing, you won’t know where your own voice leads you. So really, if you’re a YA writer, YA picked you.

Normalising the Abnormal

A common theme I noticed at the event, was the amount of writers who talk about how hard being a teenager is. How everything seems so difficult, and every little problem explodes. That teenagers often feel abnormal and isolated. YA books can help to normalise these feelings, to shed some light on a teenager’s problems and hardships, and make them see that they’re not alone. To say “I hear you” to the reader. When I was a teenage reader I loved reading books where the protagonist clearly had a much harder time than me, so I could reassure myself that no matter how bad I had it, someone else had it too. Or had it even worse, meaning if they could get through it, so could I.

Why do Adults Read YA

There were a few answers to this. But ultimately a book is only as good as it’s story and writing, and I personally believe that there is an abundance of excellent YA books around at the moment. A good story will always tempt adults into reading them, whether written for teenagers or adults.

YA books are shorter in general, they get to the point quicker, meaning you don’t have to make a daunting commitment to a block of a book. I love small books. It means I finish it quicker and can feel that wonderful glow of satisfaction at reaching the end sooner. I also like fitting as many books into my reading time as possible, so would rather read three shorter books (meaning three complete stories) than one long book. There are always exceptions to the rule, I know.

There is also a theory that some people (ahem) don’t ever feel like they’ve fully grown up, they still feel like a teenager at heart and therefore love reading about a character who they can connect with, and live a little through their experiences.

Truths and Lies

Every YA book panel or talk I’ve been to, there’s always a question around how the writer decides how far to go, how much truth to put in. Are young adults able to deal with the heavy issues being dealt with in so many YA books nowadays? I think the answer to this will always be personal. Everyone has a different opinion, because it IS an opinion.

But one thing I did take away, is that teenagers are very good self-censors. I’ve heard writers talk of their own reading experiences as a child and as a teen, how they often read advanced books (being the book worms that writers are), but they knew what to take, and what to leave behind. Teenagers know when a topic gets too heavy for them, and if a book is making them squirm then they will stop reading that passage.

There is also a big difference between reading about a heavy issue in the comfort of ones safe bedroom, and experiencing it first hand, or even watching it on screen. I am still haunted by images I saw on videos (yes, videos, I’m showing my age) as a teenager, but I have absolutely no haunting images in my head from books I read. Perhaps I didn’t read particularly heavy books then, but I believe it’s more to do with the fact that a reader creates their own images. The writer can explain, and describe, but every reader will imagine a different picture. Your imagination doesn’t wish to traumatise you like a Hollywood director.


A good YA book is well worth reading, same as any good story. They’re not all fantasy or sci-fi, but unfortunately they do tend to get shelved together in book shops, despite covering a range of genres. There are plenty of contemporary, funny, dystopian, and terrifying YA books to be found, and they’re all as different as adult books of different genres. So if you haven’t already read a YA book, give a teenage protagonist a go. You might just find yourself hooked.

Online YA Festival #YAieDay


Where: #YAieDay will be an online festival taking place on the hashtag #YAieDay on Twitter.

The authors, bloggers, and publishing peeps will be chatting about topics and having the LOLs throughout the day. Anyone can join in and chat to their favourite author.

Also, lots of very cool publishers will be holding competitions where you could win books.


Remember to use  the hashtag #YAieDay on Twitter

10:10  –  10:50am  Lack  of  parents in  YA  –  thoughts?

Sheena  Wilkinson

Helen Falconer

11:10  –  11:50am  Food  in  literature  –  how  do you  write  it and  is it important to have lashings of  ginger  beer?

Lucy  Coats

Oisin McGann

11:50  –  12:10  Readers please  tweet your  thoughts to #YAieDay   on  your towering TBR pile.

12:10  –  1:00pm  –  Please  tell  us about your next book  –  inspiration, drafting,  editing, marketing.

Lauren James

Sarah Crossan

Sarah Webb

Brian Conaghan

1:10  –  1:50pm  Bad  language  in  books  with young protagonists  –  thoughts?

Sally  Nicholls

Kim Hood

R. F. Long

2:00  –  2:40pm  All  YA  need  is love  –  thoughts?

Jennifer Niven

Catherynne  M. Valente

Sarah Rees Brennan

Readers, tweet your shelfies.

2:50  –  3:30 pm  –  Debut  authors. Please tell  us  about your  new  world  of  being  a  published author.

Simon P. Clark

Martin Stewart

Dave  Rudden

3:40  –  4:20pm  The  publishing  world- tweet your questions to these publishing peeps.

Vanessa O  Loughlin

Gráinne Clear

4.30  –  4:55 Children’s Books  Ireland  –  Book  Doctor Clinic  –  ask  the book doctor for book recommendations.

5:00  –  5:40 Hosted  by book  blogger  –  Christopher  Moore,  Co-founder of  @YAfictionados  –  He  will be  asking the  authors about writing  in  the  age  of  the internet.

Brenna  Yovanoff

Samantha Shannon

5:45  –  6:15 Hosted  by book  blogger  –    Jenny Duffy  of  The  Books, the Art, and  me.  Let’s talk writing practises  –  how  to ‘get it  down.’

Tatum  Flynn

Judi  Curtin

Nigel Quinlan

Elizabeth R. Murray

Deirdre Sullivan

The End!


This info is copied from @MoloneyKing, as requested!!

Grassy Toes (From the Sally in the garden series).

Mum was trying to put Jamie to sleep but he was making an awful lot of noise. Jamie was Sally’s baby brother and he didn’t like when it was nap time.

“Why don’t you go out in the garden Sally? It’s nice and quiet outside,” said Dad.

“Can I bring my blanket? I could have a picnic,” said Sally.

“Only if it’s an imaginary picnic. It’s nearly lunchtime,” said Dad.

Sally went to her bedroom. She took off her shoes and socks and put on her big sunhat. She picked up her blanket ,doll ,two teddies and her toy picnic basket. With so much in her arms she couldn’t see where she was going. She dropped them all on the ground and went to find her shopping trolley.

“Have you seen my shopping trolley? I need it to carry my things outside” Sally asked Dad.

“It’s in Jamie’s room. But you can’t go in there because Mum is trying to get Jamie to sleep,” said Dad.

Sally was about to cry but Dad had an idea.

“Why not use you doll’s pram? That’s in the hall,” said Dad.

“That’s a great idea!” said Sally.

Sally put everything she needed into the pram. She pushed it to the kitchen but it got stuck in the backdoor.

“Let me lift that down for you,” said Dad.

“Thank you,” said Sally.

It was much quieter outside. The only noises were the birds in the garden trees but Sally liked that noise. It was much nicer than the noise of Jamie crying.

The pram was easy to push on the patio but was much harder to push on the grass.

Sally took out her blanket and lay it on the ground, trying not to squash too many buttercups.

“You sit there Dolly Lucy, you here Teddy Tom and Teddy Tickles can sit next to you,” said Sally as she put her toys on the blanket.

Sally gave them each a pretend cup of tea.

“I forgot to bring any bread and butter so you’ll have you eat daisies instead,” Sally said to her toys.

Sally sat down and had some pretend milk in her cup but didn’t eat a daisy because she knew that could give her a sick tummy. Toys didn’t get sick tummies so it was okay for them.

Dad came into the garden.

“I’d love a cup of your tea” said Dad.

“You can share with Dolly Lucy. She doesn’t really like tea anyway. She prefers milk.” said Sally.

“Like you,” said Dad.

Dad sat down on the blanket and Teddy Tom fell over.

“Daddy! You knocked over Teddy Tom” said Sally.

“Sorry Teddy Tom, the blanket is a bit small for all of us” said Dad sitting Teddy Tom up again.

“Here’s your tea,” said Sally.

“Thank you. Mmm, delicious,” said Dad pretending to sip his tea.

“Do you know you have no shoes on Sally?” Dad said.

“They’re in my bedroom,” said Sally

“Silly Billy, you’re always supposed to wear shoes in the garden,” said Dad, “What if you stand on a stone?”

“I won’t. I watch where I’m going,” said Sally. “I like wearing no shoes in the garden.”

“Why?” said Dad.

“The grass feels nice under my toe-toes,” said Sally, “It’s tickley and soft and sometimes a bit bumpy and I like it.”

Dad smiled. “That’s a good reason not to wear shoes. I think I’ll try it.”

Dad took off his shoes and socks. He put his socks into his shoes because Mum always tells him his socks are smelly and there’s less smell when they are hidden in the shoes.

Dad wriggled his toes in the grass.

“That does feel nice,” said Dad, “It feels airy.”

“Grass isn’t airy. It’s grassy,” said Sally.

Sally lay down on her blanket and closed her eyes, which is what mum wanted Jamie to do inside. Sally thought it was easy to close her eyes and didn’t know why Jamie found it so hard.

“If you’re going to sleep then I’ll go back inside,” said Dad, “I’m supposed to be getting lunch ready anyway.”

“Can I have my lunch out here?” said Sally.

“Why not?” said Dad standing up. He picked up his shoes and carried them to the house.

“Yippee!” said Sally.

“Oww!” said Dad.

Sally looked up at dad. He was holding his foot in his hand.

“What happened?” said Sally.

“I stood on a stone,” said Dad.

“Silly Billy Daddy,” said Sally, “You should have been looking where you were going because you’ve no shoes on.”

Sally lay down again and waited for her picnic.