Similar to my previous post regarding straightforward, nuts-and-bolts writing advice, here is some practical advice about dialogue.

(Previous caveats apply. 1. The reason advice looks contradictory is because it literally is different for everyone — shit that works for one person won’t work for someone else. Just stick it in your toolbox and move along. 2. I will say obvious shit that you already know. Because it’s possible somebody else doesn’t. 3. You may totally disagree with anything/everything I say, oh my god, that’s fine.)

1. As I mentioned in my previous post, use the word “said”. It’s invisible. “She declaimed,” “he cried,” “she howled,” and the ever-popular “he ejaculated” are always fun, and can have their place (particularly in comedic writing) but “said” can be used as many times as you like and nobody will blink an eye. 

2. People use more contractions than you think they do. When they don’t, they sound angry or stiff or both.

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This is all good ju-ju, and that’s fine, except I’m just going to throw out there with number 4 that I always say goodbye on the phone. It’s how I double check that I’m safe to hang up, because the conversation is over. I realise mileage varies on that one (and when I’m writing, I tend to go with “the conversation drew to a close and they hung up” or some variation there of) but “goodbye” does happen in casual phone calls as well, and I won’t judge someone for writing it.

Mostly, though, I love these posts. I’m fascinated by the hows of other people’s writing. Literary nerd, it turns me on.


Oh, dude, for real, I say goodbye in real life on the phone all the time. I’m one of those people who say “bye” around forty times because I want to be really certain everybody’s okay with the conversation coming to a close (including myself). “Bye,” “goodbye,” and variants thereof happen all the time, and there’s no shame whatsoever. In real life.

My point is more that you gotta think about why you’re doing it in dialogue. Everything you put into a story has to have a purpose, or it’s wasted space. Farewells are already costly in terms of reader attention span – they’re a call and response by nature, so that’s two lines of dialogue that are essentially doing just one thing: ending a conversation. Make it do double-duty, and then you’ve got a reason to keep it.

Some examples:

“I’m not sure I can meet you,” she said, holding the phone close.

“Just try. I’ll be in the park. You know where.”

“Okay.” She let out a shaky breath. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Maybe. Bye.”


I’m not loving it. I think it takes away from (presumably) the tension in the call. So what happens if I try to gracefully remove the farewells:

“I’m not sure I can meet you,” she said, holding the phone close.

“Just try. I’ll be in the park. You know where.”

She let out a shaky breath. “Okay. I’ll– I’ll see you tomorrow.” They hung up, and she stared at the phone in her hands for a long time.

So there’s that. You’ll notice, as with point 10 in the original post, that I ended up recasting the last paragraph even though I technically could’ve just removed the “bye"s and moved on. But it would’ve sounded weird, so I changed it. It also changed the meaning somewhat, but not so much that I mind.

Now here’s what happens if I do want to have them exchanging farewells, but I want the “bye"s to pull their weight:

"I’m not sure I can meet you,” Anna said, holding the phone close.

“Just try. I’ll be in the park. You know where.”

“Okay.” She let out a shaky breath. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Maybe.” She hesitated, uncertain what to say, how to say it.

“Goodnight,” the woman on the other end whispered, barely there.

Anna pressed the phone closer, like it was a hand she could hold. “Goodnight,” she said back, just as quiet, a word that almost said too much.

Whoops, that went long. As you can see, I still don’t really like saying “goodbye” or “bye,” but I stuck farewells in there that ended the conversation and added something to the characters and the presumptive story going on with them. It also hopefully sounded pretty, which I generally go for (“pretty” being shorthand for “rhythmically satisfying”).

At its best, “bye” is as powerful a tool as any other piece of dialogue. At its worst, using it doesn’t tell us anything about the characters, the plot, or the theme – it just stops the reader from getting to the next interesting thing as fast as they ought.

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