Wednesday, September 2, 2015

He Said, She Said--Writing Compelling Dialogue

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about pacing. (SeePace: The Vibrant Rhythm of Storytelling) I had comments posed to me via email and Facebook about the helpfulness of remembering to shorten chapters or edit superfluous details.

Those are editing issues.

But one brave soul actually left a comment on the post itself—I’m doing a happy dance!!! Love it when my readers leave a comment!!! This reader admitted that sometimes writing compelling dialogue is a problem. Constructing dialogue is a writing issue and one I want to address here.

The first critique I ever received at a writing conference came from author +Jack Cavanaugh. After telling me to lose the first two pages of text and jump in with the action, he wrote on my manuscript that my dialogue was great. I treasure that note.

I think in dialogue.

So for today’s blog post I researched writing tips on using dialogue. I offer them below with my comments about what I view as the big takeaway from each article.

I have also included a couple of exercises you can use to strengthen your own writing. After all, that’s what this blog is about: writers helping writers.

Top three sites I like on writing dialogue:

1. The 7 Tools of Dialogue by James Scott Bell 

I like all of the hints shared in this article, but the two I want to point out are numbers 3 and 4.  Tip #3 suggests we sidestep the obvious. Eliminate the everyday banter –it’s boring. Number 4 tells us to cultivate silence. Silence is powerful in dialogue. I’ve often wished it would happen more often in real life. It’s true. Sometimes what is not said provokes more thinking than trying to find the clever comeback or watering down a scene or argument

This is a guest post by Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz There is a part II dealing with attributions (Who’s talking) If you need that piece, you can access it from this first article.

The big takeaway here is the notion of not allowing your characters to speak in complete sentences. Listen to people around you. Rarely do people speak in full, formal sentences in everyday conversation. Using cryptic, punchy phrases helps keep your story moving at a quick pace.

3. 10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Dialogue
The author of this piece points out why dialogue is powerful:
·      Dialogue helps you SHOW instead of TELL
·      Dialogue helps you build tension and drama
·      Dialogue reveals the speaker’s character
·      Dialogue creates white space on the page (very appealing)

All of that is true, but the tips offered here are excellent. Particularly if you are using accents and tips on giving your characters distinct speech patterns.

Remember I promised a couple of exercises you could use to strengthen your own
dialogue delivery?

1. You’ve seen it in the movies. Observers from afar watch the interaction between two individuals and “put words in their mouths.” They construct dialogue. Two quick examples The Italian Job and an episode of M.A.S.H. where  Hawkeye and BJ speak for Margaret and Frank who appear to be engaged in an argument across the compound. Try it for yourself. Go to a public area such as a restaurant or shopping mall…but be careful to not take this too far, you don’t want to be arrested for stalking.

2. Listen in on conversations. You aren’t worried with the content. You are interested in the structure. You’ll find people taking grammatical shortcuts when they speak. Including some of those will make your dialogue sound more natural. Make sure you sprinkle enough reality to make your dialogue believable.

What other ideas can we try to help us all write better dialogue?


  1. Very helpful tips! (note sentence fragment) :) I've always tended to write as I talk and this encourages me. Thanks for yet another informative blog and great links I'll be checking out!

    1. So glad it was helpful. (note fragment). It is going to be fun as you embark on your new career.

  2. I'm so glad I saw your post this morning. I took another writing challenge using 10 prompts to create a story, of which, dialogue has been included. I'll definitely visit the links you've shared to see how I can better improve. I especially appreciate the advice on silence. Thanks, again.

    1. These links are excellent, Shelley. I'm glad you found the post useful. Writing is a constant learning experience, isn't it?


Leave your comments here. I look forward to hearing from you.