More to Say About Dialogue

My most recent post, Much to be Said About Dialogue, touched on a few common problems (and how to fix them) when contemplating dialogue in your stories. One was the use of said as the go-to attribution to identify the speaker.

But said can be overused.

“I don’t want to go to the movies,” Justin said.
“You never want to see a movie,” Josie said. “How about dinner at that little seafood place on the pier?”
“Nah, the service is terrible,” he said.
“But the food’s good,” she said.

As a reader, boredom quickly sets in and casts a pall over the conversation and the story as a whole. Can you think of a worse response?

Once the characters are established within a conversation, the attributions and beats are only necessary if the back-and-forth is prolonged, in order to keep the reader “in place.”

In the example, tension exists but is minimal—conflict does not (and cannot) be earth-shattering all the time, but should be apparent at least as an undercurrent.

Rewriting the example conversation might look like this:

“I don’t want to go to the movies,” Justin said.
Josie sighed. “You never want to see a movie. How about dinner at that little seafood place on the pier?”
“Nah, the service is terrible.”
“So what do you want to do? The pub and a plate a fries, I suppose.”
His face lit up. “That’s a great idea.”
So much for a nice quiet night, just the two of us.

One of the main purposes of using dialogue attributions is showing who is speaking—the reader must never be confused. Adding character movements, beats, or thoughts helps make clear who is speaking; the reader will know the speaker and their emotional status, which should include tension. Differences in vocabulary, emphasis, and cadence will also help differentiate the characters.

Adding an -ly adverb to describe how the character is talking (Frank said nervously) weakens the character’s words. Here’s another type of attribution that will throw off a reader and scream amateur:

“You better not be going over to that boy’s house,” he snarled.
“Billy’s a nice boy,” she replied, “and he treats me good.”
“What do you know about it? You’re only fifteen.”
“I know enough,” she exclaimed.
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady,” he said through gritted teeth.

Had enough? For one thing, people don’t snarl, dogs do; replied is redundant; if the girl in this encounter (supposedly the daughter) exclaims, let her do so, but don’t tell the reader.

Through gritted teeth. As a writer, you may be able to get away with that particular phrase once in a novel . . . maybe. Putting the action before the spoken words would be more effective:

He gritted his teeth. “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Add her reaction and you have a scene rife with tension. Or, even better, leave off the last beat and let the words speak for themselves—they show the rising emotions and tension during the exchange.

“You better not be going over to that boy’s house,” he said.
“Billy’s a nice boy, and he treats me good.”
“What do you know about it? You’re only fifteen.”
“I know enough!”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Smoother, wouldn’t you agree? Smooth transition from one character to another is the key to believable dialogue. And please, never this:

“How you doing?” Ralph asked. (asked is unnecessary because of the obvious question.)
“Great, you?”
“Fine, thanks. What did you do last night?”
“Stayed home and played video games. What’d you do?”

As a reader, do you care?

Believable and trustworthy dialogue in fiction is vital. Having your characters speak to one another accomplishes several things in relatively few words: adds depth and substance to the characters, an important aspect in the reader’s illusion that the “people” populating your stories are real and multi-dimensional; dialogue, and the white space breaking up long narrative blocks of print, allows the reader to catch a breath; people talking speeds up the prose, the action, and the plot.

The last point is invaluable. If while reading your story over and you find it’s dragging, adding dialogue moves the story into second gear.

Word of caution: don’t use dialogue to inform the reader information you deem necessary that the characters would already be aware of.

“As you know, Dobson, a person’s molecular structure changes when in space. Your experiments prove that space travel can also alter DNA, if only marginally.”

“That’s true, David, but it has only been tested while in orbit. What you are talking about is inter-planetary travel. There’s a difference.”


I enjoy writing dialogue: it’s challenging, and when done right, brings to life the characters, their conflicts, and adds a robust flare to the other story parts.

Practice writing dialogue. Here’s a little exercise to open a well-spring of ideas:

“I know you love me, honey. I’m just not sure if you like me.”

See how many different paths a conversation begun this way might travel. A husband and wife? Lovers? Remove “honey” and have the conversation take place between a father and son, mother and daughter, or siblings—tension is inherent in these few words regardless of the cast of characters.

See you on the next page,


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Writing Quote:

Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” ~Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction, 1991

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The Making of a Hero — Part 3

Words Express Clearer Than Thoughts

“Shut up and sit down.”
“Please be quiet and find your seats.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you will kindly take your places. Quietly, please.”

Three distinctly different people spoke the words in the examples, and each addressed a unique audience. In the first, perhaps a drill sergeant or caustic CEO; the second might be a high school teacher cajoling his students; the third sounds like a preacher getting ready to start a round of church Bingo.

People speak differently given their personality, background, and situation. This is especially true of your hero.

Heroes are not wimps, nor indecisive, and usually not overly introspective: their yea is yea, their nay is nay—wishy-washy does not suit a hero. Heroes do not whine about their lot in life, or bemoan that things are unfair—their speech reflects this attitude.

When confronted, your protagonist does not respond apologetically with, “But, gee, Captain, I only led the men over the west ridge because I thought it was a better choice.” Instead, a hero says, “Captain, I led the men the best way.”

Notice the confrontation in the example—dialogue is best served with a side of tension, or at the least, a dollop of disagreement.

Conflict is a required ingredient in fiction, and where better to demonstrate than people’s conversations?

The way people speak and the words they use define them, and it’s important to be aware of the subtle differences when giving your characters a voice.

“I seen Billy at the car wash,” would not be uttered by an educated person (unless in mocking), nor would a person who did not finish sixth grade say, “It’s unfathomable to consider global warming untrue when you view the collected data,” (unless they are self-taught and you’ve previously shown this trait, as in the Matt Damon film, Good Will Hunting).

In the same way a King will be authoritative, a Priest may be demur, a commoner tentative when addressing one above their status. The words each say (and the way they say them) demonstrate their state of mind and their societal position.

Different people may say the exact same words, but their emphasis will alter, and thereby, better describe them and their peculiar views.

Italics can illustrate the differences. Read the following examples aloud with emphasis on the italicized word (and bold to make it easier to see).

What have you done?
What have you done?
What have you done?

Why are you going there?
Why are you going there?
Why are you going there?

Each asks the same question with a subtle difference, the italicized word highlighting the importance of the character’s concern, thus a peek deeper into their personality.


Nowadays most people speak using contractions: I’m going to the store, we’re going to the movies, I’ll stay home with the kids. This was not always so. Historical novels seldom use contractions in speech.

I have a character (an educated scribe) that never uses a contraction, which gives him a more formal characterization. Other characters use contractions sometimes, some at every opportunity, each depending on the character illustrated and the scene circumstances. By the scribe not using a contraction—even when appropriate or even preferable—spotlights a portion of his personality.

Dialogue + Action = Deeper Characterization

Dialogue interspersed with an action beat speaks volumes about a character and their mood.

Jack crushed the beer can with one hand and tossed it aside. “I told you not to come back here.”

“But, why?” Julie took one step back, clutching her handbag, and remembered she had left the gun in the nightstand.

“I think you better tell me what happened,” Mike said, his hand reaching across the table like a snake coiling to strike.

“I thought you’d think that,” he said, laughing, “and so did ma.”

Clear and believable dialogue is essential to giving your characters life and showing the nuances that make David different than Frank.

If you find your characters sounding the same, go back to your Character Sketch and tweak something about their upbringing, world view, or education: each character needs to be unique, and most importantly, true to themselves.

Next Post: The Making of a Hero — Part Four: Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description

See you on the next page,


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