Making Dialogue Work for You

Proper dialogue will bring your characters to life, but poorly executed dialogue can kill your characters, and no amount of clever exposition or narrative can revive them.

Because dialogue in a manuscript is easy to spot, a potential reader can quickly skim your story and judge your writing skills. If you want to sell your book to that reader, you’d better make your dialogue work for you. Here are some pointers.

1. Use incomplete sentences. When we speak, we often use clipped sentences. Listen to other conversations and you will see what I mean.

2. Eliminate chit chat. Check out this piece of dialogue.
“Hi, Jane. It’s good to see you. How are you?”
“Good thanks. You?”
“Oh, can’t complain.”
“Anything new in your life?”
“No, just the usual.” Blah, blah, blah.

BORING! Yes, we often speak like that, but it will make a reader slam your book shut and put it back on the shelf. Chit chat words are empty words and they take up valuable space and time.  Good dialogue is purposeful. It reveals and helps move the story forward

3. Long dialogue speeches usually don’t work. Unless the speaker is giving a lecture, it is nearly impossible for the second party of the conversation not to cut in and add his own opinion. And doesn’t it drive you crazy when one person talks and doesn’t let you get a word in edgewise, sideways or upside down? I does me.

4. Even when the dialogue is simple, there is always a way to add interest and a hint of conflict (which also adds interest). Compare the following two dialogue snippets:

“Did you hand in your assignment?” Mr. Ericson asked.

“Yes, I put it on your desk this morning,” Mark answered.

“Oh right, I remember now. I hope you edited it,” he said.

“Yup, I always do” Mark said.

“Good then,” Ericson continued marking papers, while Mark waited. “Was there something else?” Ericson asked.

“Yes, I was wondering why you gave me such a poor mark on my last essay.”

AND now the second snippet:

“Did you hand in your assignment?” Mr. Ericson asked.

“I put it on your desk this morning,” Mark answered.

“Edited well?”

“Like always.”

Erickson continued marking papers, while Mark waited. “Was there something else?”

“Why did you give me such a poor mark on my last essay?”

THE second piece is more interesting because:

a. some of the cooperative words (“Yes”, “Oh, right” and “Good then”) were eliminated.

b. a question was answered by asking another question.

c. some dialogue tags were removed.

DID you also feel a wee bit more tension or conflict in the second passage? Conflict keeps the reader reading. It doesn’t have to be an out-and-out fight.

5. Dialogue tags (he demanded, she murmured, he pleaded, etc.) can often be eliminated. Tags should only be used when it is unclear who is speaking. There are ways to get around using tags.

a. Use an action to show which character is speaking, but be sure the action suits the dialogue. If a character throws a pot across the room, he isn’t likely to say, “I love you.”

b. When there are only two people talking, just by starting a new paragraph, the reader will know there is a new speaker.

c. A character’s style of speech will reveal who is talking. “Aye, he was a mighty fine lad.”

6.The best dialogue tag to use is “said.” It disappears on the page, unless the page is peppered with it. That would be a no-no.

7. A character cannot laugh dialogue. “And then he fell off his chair,” he laughed. “I knew he was drunk.” This needs to be changed. How’s this? “And then he fell off his chair,” he said, laughing. “I knew he was drunk” Or: “And then he fell off his chair.” He laughed. “I knew he was drunk.”

8. If you want a character to hiss something, you’d better have some “ss” sounds in the sentence. It’s pretty hard to hiss this comment. “That man killed my uncle.”

9. Don’t overuse proper names in dialogue.  Here’s an example of name overuse.

“Tell me, Jim, what were you thinking?”

“To tell the truth, Bill, I wasn’t. I just reacted.”

“Then may I suggest the next time you get yourself into such a predicament, Jim, think first.”

“Bill, you’ve got my word on it.”

THIS might be a good time to do a little name dropping. Really, as in drop the names from this dialogue!

EMPLOY a few of these techniques and you will soon be a dialogue dynamo!



Sometimes there is a lot of back information which needs to be presented to the reader so the story makes sense. Often, new writers plop that information in at the start. Don’t. The beginning of your book needs action, something to capture the reader’s attention. Unless the back story is full of action, it needs to be given in small doses elsewhere.  A rule of thumb is to include only what is absolutely necessary and to place that information closest to where it is needed.

Okay, so now we know how much to include and where to put a flashback. But how does one go about doing a flashback? Really it can be accomplished quite easily and you don’t need to go “had” crazy. Assuming you are writing the main body of your book in regular past tense, follow these simple steps:

1. Employ the word “had” in the first one or two sentences. This is the past perfect tense and will indicate you have moved into a flashback.

2. You don’t need to use the word “had” all the way through. You can if the flashback is very short, but on longer pieces, it gets a bit monotonous reading “had” this and “had” that.

3. Once you are near the end of the flashback, simply use the past perfect verb tense a few times and the reader will know the flashback is coming to an end.

4. If your character interrupts a task to enter a flashback, you can show the flashback is over by resuming the same task. See the next example:

“Can you teach me how to knit, Grandma?”

“I’m not sure you’re old enough,” Maureen answered, as the knitting needles she held seemed to move on their own accord. “After all, you’re only seven.” As she said this, she felt a tinge of guilt.

Maureen had been only seven when her own grandmother had painstakingly showed her how to hold the needles properly and make the stitches. At first, knitting was a struggle and the piece she made looked nothing like a square. She expected her grandmother to laugh at her efforts, but instead the dear woman praised her for not giving up. Her grandmother had always been supportive and because of that Maureen had loved her–sometimes more than she had loved her own mother.

Maureen set aside her knitting. “But since you’re such a smart seven-year-old, I think I can give you your first lesson. Let’s go find a pair of needles and some practice wool.”

See how bracketing the flashback portion with the two knitting actions is used? They clearly mark the start and finish of the flashback. And when you pair that technique with the past perfect verb tense at the beginning and end, there will be no confusion to the reader. Though most of the third paragraph is flashback, the word “had” is used only five of the possible ten times.

I hope this post helps you.

Tips and Lessons for Writers

I’ve been writing for some time and I thought why not share the writing related wisdom I’ve managed to retain before it disappears into a brain crevice, never to resurface. So under the category, Tips and Lessons for Writers, I will from time to time write helpful articles for scribes and wannabe scribes. At least I hope you’ll find them helpful. Regardless, it will be a nice way to remind myself what good writing involves! Plus, I write romantic fiction and the right side of my brain is taking over. I need to exercise the left side  and write with logical thinking and precision. Believe me, that is a very difficult assignment!