If You Can Talk, You Can Write Dialogue, Right?

Dialogue is two or more characters talking to each other. Should be easy, shouldn’t it? Well, maybe not.

Here’s what dialogue is:

  • Talk is an ACTION. An ideal, compact way to advance your story by having one character tell the other what’s happening—to reveal, admit, incite, accuse, lie, etc. It can speed up a scene.
  • A way to define a character. The way someone speaks—accent, vocabulary, idiom, inflection—tells as much about what he is like as his actions do. And let’s us see him better than just using description. It can also reveal motive.
  • One way to show emotion and set a mood. Characters reveal themselves when under stress or angry. Dialogue is used to create an emotional effect in the reader.
  • Another way to show Point of View (POV).
  • Often used to get across what is NOT said. Example, if you want to show that someone wants to avoid an unpleasant encounter, you can show this by having them talk around the subject uppermost in their mind, but never quite touch it. In this way, you’re asking the reader to read between the lines. It’s tricky, but think about how you talk to someone yourself when you’re angry at them but don’t want to tell them exactly why—by being sarcastic, arch, nitpicky, oversolicitous, etc.
  • To intensify conflict. Dialogue is often adversarial or confrontational.

Dialogue should be natural, but never the way we really talk.


The minute the phone rang, Patty snatched the receiver, grateful for a distraction—any distraction. “Hello,” she said.

“Hey, Pat. It’s me, Cara.”

“Oh, hi. How are you?”

“Good,” replied Cara. “How about you?”

“Okay. What’re you up to?”

“Ah…you know,” said Cara. “Not much.”

“Yeah. Not much new on this end, either. I brought home a ton of case files to read.”

“Same here. We need a shift lieutenant who knows what a shift is.”

“You got that right,” Pat agreed. “But I almost wish we were still at the station. Maybe we could get some buzz on the new detective, that Ross. Supposedly he’s an investigative whiz.”

“Maybe not,” said Cara. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “He’s why I’m calling. Roger, the guy in records? He told me Ross comes with a lot of baggage—maybe even a criminal record.”

“Say what? That can’t be possible.”

Make sure your characters have something worth saying before they open their mouths, and get to the point quickly. What did Patty learn from Cara that moves the story along or tells us something critical about one or both characters?

Example rewrite:

The minute the phone rang, Patty snatched the receiver, grateful for a distraction from the case files she’d lugged home from the station.

Cara was on the other end. She said a fast hello, then dropped her voice to a whisper. “You lay eyes on that new detective yet? Ross?”

“Sure,” said Pat. “Supposedly he’s some kind of investigative whiz.”

“Maybe not. Roger, the guy in records? He told me Ross comes with a lot of baggage—maybe even a criminal record.”

“Say what? That can’t be possible.”

We’ve cut the conversation down from 17 lines to 8 and made it much more exciting. We know, without a lot of chit-chat, that she’s brought home extra work. Cara cuts right to the chase with her tidbit of gossip.

Next time, I’ll write about some of the common mistakes we all make in dialogue.

Published in: on January 16, 2011 at 5:12 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well done, Heidi, in a quick and easily referenced way. Great example, too.

  2. Thanks for the example as well as the instruction. The rewrite really brings home the lesson. Well done, as always!

  3. great topic! Love these refreshers!

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