Say what?

The first books to make me aware of how effective dialogue could be were Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.  In some parts of the stories, the dialogue goes on for pages and you can forget who is talking if you aren’t paying full attention to the story.  But despite this, or perhaps because of it, the characters become real and the story seems to flow seamlessly.  I know that, as a reader, I prefer character-driven stories and I find that dialogue is one of the most effective ways to reveal character.

Every story I have written has started with the character or characters talking to me. Sometimes we’ll have a conversation and other times I’ll have to ‘formally’ interview them to find out what their story is.

I just realized how weird that sounds 😀

In my contemporary fantasy novel, Unholy Triptych, there are three main characters.  One of the key ways I differentiate between the characters is through their dialogue and inner monologue.

The first character is a woman of few words, and her inner dialogue is quite terse – but both the quantity and quality of her dialogue change over the course of the first novel mirroring her character growth.

The second character very seldom speaks, but her inner dialogue reveals a conflicted and reflective nature.  She also uses archaic language, which is in keeping with both her age and background.

The third character has a lot to say and, besides the fact that it’s not always polite, it also sometimes doesn’t gel with her inner dialogue, which reveals her duplicity.   She also – despite my dire warnings to write her out of the next book – cusses a h#!! of a lot.

Another dialogue technique I find useful is having the dialogue be out of sync with the inner thoughts, because it’s not only what people say and how they say it that reveals character, but what they choose not to say.

I’ve gathered some of my favorite dialogue tips for you, most of which are books or articles that I have collected over the past couple of years.  I hope you find them useful.

  • April Kihlstrom, in her Book in a Week course suggests writing dialogue between two characters (even one not in the current story) to help you figure out a plot point or issue with a character.
  • In And in the Bad News Department…. Eight Ways Research Can Kill Your Novel, Lisa Gardner advises against using too much jargon, which can take the reader out of the story by inserting the writer into the story.
  • Adrianne Lee, in an article for the RWA Kiss of Death newsletter suggests that it is better to remind your reader of a character’s accent than use dialect to show it.
  • In Mugging the Muse Dialog Workshop, Holly Lisle reminds us that dialogue is about demonstrating character through internal or external conflict.
  • Jennifer Crusie says that dialogue, speech, internal monologue, and thoughts are different ways to create beats within a scene.
  • Stephanie Bond states that the best way to achieve seamless dialogue is to ‘keep it lean’, and that editing out the tags can reduce the bloat in a manuscript.
  • The Turkey City Lexicon – A primer for SFF workshops has a number of descriptive phrases to describe dialogue that is less than stellar (sorry, couldn’t resist):
    • Brenda Starr – also known as ‘bubble dialogue’ – long sections of dialogue that has no background or description
    • Tom Swifty – an urge to follow the ‘said’ with a colorful adverb.  Tom Swifty is also a form of wordplay where there is a punning relationship between what is said and the adverb attached to the dialogue tag, e.g. “What a charming doorway,” said Tom, entranced.
    • Countersinking – expositional redundancy in which action implied by dialogue is made explicit.
    • ‘As you know Bob’ – where the writer dumps information into the story through the characters dialogue
  • Elmore Leonard advises writers to never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue, and to use patois sparingly.
  • Jack M. Bickham says that in addition to the three main functions of dialogue – illuminating character, advancing the plot, and informing the reader of events – dialogue is also useful as a pacing device.  Short sentences tend to be read quicker and speed up the pace of the story; longer sentences slow the story down.


Just for fun, I thought I’d throw in a few writing prompts I found in some old issues of Writers Digest:

  1. Personify two objects in nature. Then create a dialogue between them. For instance, is the ocean feuding with the sky?   (August 28, 2004)
  2. Imagine three strangers stuck in an elevator: a born-again Baptist preacher, an atheist, and a satanic high priest. Write the dialogue.  (July 13, 2004)
  3. Create a dialogue between yourself and your former boss. Say what you’ve always wanted to say. Then twist the scenario. Write a conversation where you’re now the boss and he’s your employee.  (June 12, 2004)

Let me know what your characters say!



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