Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thursday Q&A: Dialogue

Today’s question comes from Dawn H.:

My critique partner says my dialogue needs work. How can I make my dialogue better?

Dialogue is a funny thing. It can work for you, or against you.

Dialogue is all about the character. Simply put, rarely would you have a low educated character talk with perfect grammar or an English butler talk in slang.  Few people speak grammatically correct, so it is important to have your dialogue not be perfect so to speak LOL.  

"I cannot come over to dine with you this evening because my mother has installed a new restriction on my social activities."  

Okay, obviously that is a little extreme LOL, but that's the point.  A teenager would not speak in such a refined manor, but rather in contractions, slang and inflection.

"I can't come over for supper 'cause my mom grounded me, again."

Being natural is important. Which brings up another good point, you want to be careful of stereotypical dialogue—TOO much character ie: Cowboys that are darlin’ every girl in the story, or a mob guy asking, “You lookin’ at me? You lookin’ at me?” of everyone who may pass him on the sidewalk LOL.

The best way to research dialogue and natural flow is to observe.  Take an afternoon to sit in a coffee shop, open a book (so you don’t look stalkerish LOL) and just listen. Listen to inflection, contractions, tones, emotions (excitement and/or anger.) If you are writing a Young Adult, go where the teens are. If you have doctors and nurses maybe try the lobby or cafeteria of a hospital—listen, observe and assimilate.

And remember, not all conversations are all talk. This is important because if you have a page with a lot of dialogue but no actions dotted in here and there to show HOW the characters are speaking, showing HOW the characters are acting/reacting to the conversation, then the scene can become stilted and be pictured by the reader as simply two people standing face to face, arms at their side and speaking monotone. He said this; she said that. Bland.

On your observances, I’m sure you’ll find someone raising their hands in frustration or whipping around when offended in order to defend themselves. A subtle smile when they are being coy or tight fists around a coffee cup when they are trying to control their anger. All these observances are part of a conversation—part of the dialogue. Part of the character.

As always, most important is picking and choosing your words (or rather their words) carefully and placing the action drop ins only in the most dynamic area for the scene, because the last thing you want to do is overwrite a conversation with too many descriptions. Balance here is the key.

Observe. Natural. Balance.

LOL, now isn’t that saying it all.



Thank you again to Dawn H. for her question today. She will receive an envelope with a pen, bookmark and other fun stuff from me and authors I have worked with.

Questions about writing, editing or the publishing process?  No question is too little, too silly or should be too embarrassing to ask--knowledge is the key that opens many doors. So, go ahead and ask me:

And if I use your question on my blog, I will send you a small thank you envelope, too.


  1. I think my dialogue is okay - although I'm dodgy about attributions which can be too clunky. What I'm really bad at is descriptions both of scenes and people. I think this is because when I'm a reader, I skip those. I find it extremely hard to slow down and add those fundamentals.

    1. Maddy! I still haven't been able to get the email to go through from last Thursday, please email me at Thanks.

      And yes, what we write is often what we like to read, which makes those areas we don't read harder to manage, out of our comfort zone. The good part is that you recongnize this as a weaker area for you, because once you know, then it is easier to spot and focus on with each draft of the story.

  2. What gets me are dialogues where each speaker goes on for ten or twelve lines without anybody DOING anything. Dang, they'r'e not a pastor at a pulpit. Have them sip wine or punch a wall or Something!

    1. ROFL! Exactly Tanya. Those little action beats helps break up a monotonous monologue instead of the reader taking a break from the story.

  3. My trouble is writing dialog that progresses the story line. The dialog flows when it's just the characters bantering back and forth, but when it's there for a specific point, I struggle to keep me out of it. Does that make sense?

    1. Yes, it does make sense. It is one thing to describe a visit between friends, yet another when you need very specific information in that conversation. It's trying to find a way to bring up a new topic in a conversation that has nothing to do with it LOL. Again, this is where action drops can be useful. Use an action as the subject change...this can be anything from picking a piece of lint of their clothes while pausing to think of how to speak to turning and seeing a picture on the wall that reminds them of what needs to be said or has them uttering something almost involuntarily