Part 3 – Sentences and dialogue

Creating the right rhythm for dialogue sentences is just as important as ordinary sentences within the narrative. How you break up speech, how you punctuate it, how you show the reader who is speaking, requires skill.

Effective dialogue greatly depends on how you structure your sentences. They can end up becoming clunky or stilted without you even noticing, if you are not careful, but these things can be easily amended at editing stage.

Dialogue Sentence Structures

Speech tags show the reader who is speaking, but sometimes, new writers frequently add speech tags to dialogue which are not actually required. For example:

Peter climbed out the car and put his sunglasses on. ‘Let’s check out our new house,’ he said.

The problem here is the tag placement. By telling the reader at the beginning of the sentence that Peter climbed out the car, the reader knows who is talking. This means the ‘he said’ is not required. If you make it clear who is speaking, then you don't need to further identify the speaker with ‘he said or she said’.

Another thing that inexperienced writers tend to do is they put description after the actual action/description. For example:

“Hi, don’t know if you remember me, but it’s Tom, we used to work together.”

“Did we? That must have been so long ago. Sorry Tom, I really didn’t recognise you.” The man’s voice seemed deeper than what John remembered.

The description here is in the wrong place, and its effectiveness is lost because it has been placed at the end of the sentence. If the sentence is changed, then emphasis also changes, and we can show the description before the dialogue, like this:

“Hi, don’t know if you remember me, but it’s Tom, we used to work together.”
“Did we? That must have been so long ago.” The man’s voice seemed deeper than what John remembered. “Sorry Tom, I really didn’t recognise you.”

It’s that easy to change the effectiveness of your sentences. By placing the description immediately after John has spoken about it, we re-affirm the vague memory and how he remembers his friend, before continuing with some more dialogue.’

Rhythm and pace

The rhythm of the sentences ensures a better flow when dealing with dialogue. Every sentence has a pulse – they can be fast or slow, short or long, they can be blunt or soft.  Imagine filling the pages with dialogue made up of sentences of around the same length. It would quickly become stilted and boring, like this:

“I came here to get you,” she said.
“Then you had a wasted journey.”
“I’m not leaving empty handed,” she said.
“I don’t care,” he said.
“I’m taking you back home,” she said.
“I told you, I’m not going back.”

In real life, speech is made up of long flowing sentences, short staccato sentences, there are pauses, there are ums and ahs, there are people talking over each other, people being cut off mid sentence etc. A writer can bring some of these representations into dialogue to inject a little reality, but they should be used sparingly. Too many will irritate the reader.

By varying the length of the sentences, you find tempo and pace:

“I came here to get you,” she said, eyeing him.
His voice became abrupt, nonchalant. “Then you had a wasted journey.”
She sighed, tried not to let him upset her. “I’m not leaving empty handed.”
He looked away. “I don’t care.”
“I’m taking you back home,” she said.
He turned as though to walk away from her. “I told you, I’m not going back.”

There will be occasions were you have a character that has a lot of dialogue and makes quite a long speech. You will need to keep your reader’s attention during this and one of the strategies used by writers is to break up the speech with description. For example, here’s a long section of dialogue from one character speaking to another:

“We were never on the same side, him and me. I know Michael wanted to be a part of the organisation, he wanted all the money and the girls and he could have anything he wanted, but he didn’t know when to stop. He found out about me and he wanted a slice of the real action, he thought he could blackmail me, but he had no idea how deep he was in. No idea who he was dealing with.” His face darkened as though stained by a shadow, his eyes remained cold. “You got problems when that happens, when you want more and more; it’s like a drug, an addiction...”

While this paragraph is perfectly reasonable on its own, the insertion of a brief snippet of description to break up the dialogue helps the reader a) understand what the speaking character is feeling, because the darkening face represents a darkening mood, b) allows the reader to retain interest and attention and c) it varies the pace and length of the sentence to make it interesting.

While great chunks of dialogue are not uncommon in some novels, sometimes a little snippet of description inserted in the right place is all it needs to break the monotony of dialogue.

This is also true with short speech sentences, like dialogue written on its own. Many novels use this, for example:

“I really don’t care what you think...”
“You should, it’s all your fault.”
“Your threats don’t scare me anymore.”
“What, you suddenly found a backbone?”

Dialogue only sentences are okay, in short bursts, but without any background information for the reader, they will easily become bored with nothing to go on other than dialogue alone, and unfortunately the biggest drawback to this is that the nature of dialogue is telling, not showing.

Also, you will notice that they are all pretty much the same length – there is no variation.

Now, by adding description placement – it doesn’t have to be a lot – you can vary the length, keep your reader interested and you can also show what the characters are feeling:

She picked up the knife. “I really don’t care what you think...”
His eyes flashed at the blade in her hand. “You should, it’s all your fault.”
“Your threats don’t scare me anymore.”
His brows creased into an incredulous scowl. “What, you suddenly found a backbone?”

The varying length of sentences gives the writing pace and rhythm and provides more for the reader, but the brief descriptions also provide the sentences with a little nuance which flavour otherwise potentially boring dialogue.

Description placement within dialogue

So where do you tag that little bit of description? At the beginning? At the end? Somewhere in the middle of the dialogue? Does it really matter, so long as you are telling reader what’s happening?

It does matter. How you change the sentence would depend on the kind of structure you want and the overall effect you want to achieve. This is why structuring your dialogue sentences is important because it lends emphasis to the different parts of the sentence, for example:

‘It’s my birthday today,’ Jim said, smiling. ‘We’ll go out for a meal, so let’s not bother cooking.’ He could treat all the family.

Jim smiled. He could treat all the family. ‘It’s my birthday today. We’ll go out for a meal, so let’s not bother cooking.’

‘It’s my birthday today. We’ll go out for a meal,’ Jim said. ‘So let’s not bother cooking.’ He could treat all the family.

Jim smiled. ‘It’s my birthday today. We’ll go out for a meal.’ He could treat all the family. ‘So let’s not bother cooking.’

Which of those sentences is the best one? While all of them are acceptable to a lesser degree, the second sentence is the better choice. Here’s why:

Sentence 1 has Jim speaking, followed by the verb ‘smiling’ which has been turned into a gerund. Then the last part of the sentence has the action after the speech rather than before.

Sentence 2 is much stronger. It has the verb, but it shows the action prior to the speech. It tells us that Jim smiled and what he wants to do next, i.e. treat all the family. It has a logical order.

Sentence 3 dispenses with the verb, but still has the action after the speech and so it is not as strong as the other sentences.

Sentence 4 is strong because it doesn’t have the verb and it also places action before the speech. It tells us Jim smiled; it tells us he will treat the family; this is represented by the writer telling the reader the family need not bother cooking. Each section of the sentence has a logical order.

Where possible, try to make your sentences follow a logical order. This is much better for your reader because such structures allow fluidity within your narrative, it allows them to easily understand what you’ve written and it allows them to follow both your narrative and your dialogue.

You as a writer are looking for the best way to convey your story to your reader. In turn, your reader is looking for accessibility to your fictional creation. How you arrange and structure your sentences is important in ensuring a smooth, fluid read with varying pace and length, but also ensuring that you have written something that logically and chronologically makes sense.

Next week: Part 4: Common sentence errors, how to eliminate them.


  1. Isn't it odd that if we write dialogue exactly as people speak, it doesn't sound natural?

  2. Very true, Patsy, and just as odd, but fiction can only stand a small amount of said 'reality'.

  3. I've actually heard the opposite of "putting description before dialogue." Here:

    "8) Don’t describe the way someone speaks before he or she actually speaks

    If you use introductory dialogue tags, you can end up describing the way a character speaks before he or she even says a word. Place the description of how a line of dialogue is spoken after the dialogue."

    1. In real-life dialogue, we experience the way someone speaks at the same time that he speaks, but that's not possible in written dialogue.

      If you place the description of the voice before the dialogue, you have the advantage that can imagine the tone while they're reading the line of dialogue. But, unfortunately, we don't experience dialogue like that. We don't know if someone is shouting, whispering, speaking harshly, etc. before he opens his mouth.

      So, personally, I prefer to stick to chronological order and put the description after the dialogue.

      Sandra Gerth
      Senior Editor
      Ylva Publishing

    2. As with most fiction, there are no absolutes. A writer must use his or her common sense. Introductory dialogue tags can and do work, depending how skilled the writer is, and a really clever one won't actually describe the way a character speaks. This can be used to great effect, and many writers do. But again, it is all down to the individuality of the writer and how comfortable they are at being able to do it.


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