Guest post, Ali Isaac on dialog

Maybe for Ali’s sake I should spell it dialogue. I kind of like it that way myself. When I was looking for someone to do a guest post about writing dialog, Ali answered the call.

Ali has two of three books available in her Tir Na Nog series. She had a huge hurdle to get over with her main character. I’ll let Ali tell you in her words.


I’ve never been one for giving writerly advice. The way I see it, there are a million and one authors out there who can do it far better than me, who have huge book sales and successful marketing platforms to back them up.

Google it, if you want… I’m sure most of you already have. There’s reams of advice on the subject; dialogue makes a story easy to read, it helps create flow and pace, it’s all about interaction, we can all relate to it because it’s something we use on a daily basis, it breaks up long chunks of text, it gets us inside characters heads, keeps the momentum going etc…

Not to mention the basics, such as proper use of speech marks, new speaker on a new line, don’t use distracting fancy speech tags, avoid the use of ‘ly’ adverbs, and so on. You’ve heard it all before, so I won’t elaborate on it any further. It’s all good stuff that we need to know as writers.

But when Craig asked for something on the topic of ‘Dialogue’, he touched a nerve; you see, the main character in my books can’t talk, at least not at first. And by all accounts, speech is pretty crucial when it comes to writing books these days. So how did I get round it?

I’m just a newbie Indie author with two and a bit books to my name, I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve worked hard on the dialogue in my books; writing for teens, and with a mute main protagonist, I’ve had to. So here is what I’ve learned.

1. Know your characters. Know them inside out, how they move, how they think, how they speak. Make them sound like themselves, not carbon copies of each other, or even worse, of you. Give them their own voices.

For example, a teenager speaks differently than their parents, a boy speaks differently to a girl, a shop assistant speaks differently to a doctor. Are they well educated? Do they come from the poor side of town? Are they local, or blow-ins? Their upbringing and life experiences will define how they react and speak.

In the first book of my trilogy, Conor Kelly and The Four Treasures of Eirean, Conor is fourteen, stuck in a wheelchair, unable to control his limbs or his voice, but his mind is as active as any other teenage boy.

He’s full of anger, despair, self-pity, self-doubt, frustration, yet his condition has forced him to think deeply and reflect on his life. His greatest longing is to be able to run like his rugby hero. His greatest fear is to be left on his own. He’s a typical teenager in some respects, unusual in others. I let it all show in his thoughts, and his interactions with others.

2. Avoid accents. Nothing turns me off a book quicker than an author’s attempt to replicate an accent by spelling the whole conversation phonetically. No need. Unless you’re Mark Twain, don’t do it. It slows the pace, creates confusion, looks and sounds ugly. Most likely, the reader will not ‘get’ the accent you are trying to portray.

Amazon sells books all around the world; don’t alienate potential readers for whom English might not be a first language by thoughtless portrayal of accents.

My Tir na Nog Trilogy is about an Irish boy, and is set in Ireland. Contrary to what most people believe, we don’t greet each other with a “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!” We do have “great craic!” instead of fun, however, and we might thank someone by saying “Thanks a-million!” Irish people will often pronounce a ‘th’ as ‘t’, and say ‘filum’ instead of ‘film’.

In Conor Kelly and The Four Treasures of Eirean, a farmer greets Conor with a “Hoo-a-ye?” I’ll translate… it means ‘How are you?’

Be authentic, drop in the odd hint of an accent, but don’t overdo it, and make sure you know the accent inside out, don’t rely on stereotypes, or your readers will soon get tired of it.

3. Listen in on real conversations. Real people swear, use slang, drop word endings, leave sentences unfinished, speak over each other, interrupt each other, say ‘um’ and ‘err’ a lot, belch, talk with their mouths full… you get the picture.

They don’t adopt a sterile pose facing each other, and stand still whilst they take part in a conversation; they chop the veg, feed the baby, dig the garden, watch tv, all while they are actually talking.

You can tell a lot about a person by how fast they chop that carrot, or how viciously they stab their trowel into the flower bed, or how fluently they drop expletives into their chat. Keep it real, but don’t go overboard, or it just becomes a parody.

Often, real conversations are incredibly boring to listen to, and take forever to get to the point. You don’t have that luxury; every word has to fight for its place.

4. Use internal dialogue, and make it as clear as external speech. Listening to your characters converse really gets the reader inside their heads. Eavesdropping on their thoughts takes it to the next level, but will only work if you are writing from one POV at a time.

Head jumping is a big no-no. Most authors get around this by giving each character with a POV their own chapter. This can have a dramatic and dynamic effect, as their stories converge. Unless you are George RR Martin, just stick to a handful of characters at most, otherwise it gets hopelessly confusing, and I’ll stop caring about all your multitude of characters.

Most authors differentiate thought from speech by the use of italics. This works really well in short bursts; pages of italics can be very wearing to wade through, and will probably result in most readers flinging their Kindle across the room in exasperation.

Ok, maybe not, but they might close your book and never open it again. You have been warned.

I use italics often in my Tir na Nog Trilogy. For a boy who can’t speak, Conor Kelly sure has a lot to say, and it’s all in his head. I make sure the reader is part of this. Not only that, but the Sidhe and Denann people communicate by telepathy, so italics has become a useful technique for demonstrating this to the reader.

5. Dialogue is the ultimate ‘show, don’t tell’. Have some backstory you need to divulge? Don’t dump it from on high, give it to your characters to handle in their conversation.

This will immediately lighten the load, maintain the flow rather than slow it, and help us get to know the characters that bit better as they give it their own personal treatment; they might be angry about it, or perhaps disbelieving, for example.

In my first book, part of the legend of the invasion of the Tuatha de Denann is told by two minor characters, Airmid and her brother Miach, who observe an argument between their father and Goibniu, the smith, as they vie for power over the new settlement. In a couple of pages of light banter, which becomes relevant later on in the book too, the story is told with never an info dump in sight.

However, don’t fall into the trap of relating everything second hand; as readers, we want to be a part of the action, not always hear everyone else talking about it.

Finally, I’d just like to add that while ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘use lots of dialogue’ have become buzz words for today’s style of writing, they are not rules to be slavishly followed.

The old classics are still as loved and well-read today as they ever were, and contain long stretches of description and scene-setting, with less emphasis on conversation. If you are writing a literary novel, they might not be so relevant, but if you are writing genre fiction, particularly for the younger audience, I would say ‘show don’t tell’ and dialogue are far more important.

Thanks for reading this post! Hope you found something useful/ interesting in it!


Thanks for visiting, Ali. I’ve personally read both of the Conor Kelly stories and am looking forward to the third one. I also have a copy of Gra Mo Chroí up next on my list. Please check out Ali’s work on her author page.

She also has a tremendously interesting blog, and is one of the best researchers I know. Please visit her blog and consider giving her a follow. I’m over there talking about writing in multiple genres today.


Filed under Writing

30 responses to “Guest post, Ali Isaac on dialog

  1. Ali Isaac

    Thanks for having me over and blethering on, Craig! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lots of great tips here. Dialogue can make or break a story. If it’s cheesy and unrealistic, even the best story will struggle.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ali Isaac

    Reblogged this on aliisaacstoryteller and commented:
    I’m guesting on author friend Craig Boyack’s blog, Entertaining Stories, today. Even though he’s very busy with his Will o’ the Wisp blog tour, he still finds time (and space on his blog) to support other authors… thanks Craig!


  4. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    A common sense and practical article by Ali Isaac on dialogue in writing.


  5. Great stuff told with wit and style all her own.
    Thanks for pointing out that writing styles/rules/trends do fade in and out with time.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That is all wonderful advice, Ali – as expected by a fine writer, such as yourself.

    I would add one thing: using beats instead of tags. I’ve learnt to avoid using the usual “he said-she said” dialogue tags, preferring small beats instead to indicate who does the talking, such as the cutting of the carrots or the feeding of the baby you mention. When only a few lines are exchanged (under five), I only use a beat for the first one, then just have them talk. It comes across as more natural, IMHO, and speeds up the pace. This has, probably, been the biggest change in my dialogues as my writing skills have improved.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Useful and down-to-earth advice. 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Ali is a fabulous writer, and I LOVE her advice, especially on accents. Thanks for sharing her amazing wisdom! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Ali Isaac

    Gosh thank you you guys! 😍

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Excellent, entertaining and un-preachy article Ali. I had a right chuckle though. My present WIP has an elderly Munster couple in England for the first time and I really go for the non-stop commentary by the wife in her home town accent and idiom while the husband maintains a benign watching brief. I hope I get away with it in what is a light story. I agree it’s a parody one wouldn’t get away with in serious literature.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I find dialogue difficult but I do think (well hope) I’m getting better at it! This was a very interesting blog post, thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Reblogged this on kyrosmagica and commented:
    Ali Isaac guest posting on C.S. Boyak’s blog Coldhandboyack, Ali’s talking about dialogue. Dialogue’s a tricky business well I think so. Sharing this great post, just had to reblog.

    Liked by 2 people

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