Writing advice

Notes on Dialogue, Part One

Last week I mentioned that I would be spending the weekend at the South Coast Writers Conference, gathering material and, I hope, learning some new skills and brushing up some old ones. Now I can truthfully say I am not disappointed. It is always an amazing experience, learning new things, meeting fellow writers and networking. Though it took a couple of days to recover I am now refreshed and have a new enthusiasm for the craft.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you have the opportunity to attend a writers conference, by all means, do. You will not regret it.

So now, to business.

On Friday, I attended a full-day workshop on dialogue. For a writer of fiction, one must above all be a master of dialogue. Many thanks to Tess Thompson, author of Blue Midnight and many more romantic suspense titles for helping us brush up on this skill.

Without further ado: Notes on Dialogue.

Three types of dialogue.

Summarized: the conversation is condensed and simplified. Lowest dramatic action.

Example: At home in the first few months, he and Maizie had talked brightly about changes that would make the company more profitable and more attractive to a prospective buyer: new cuts, new packaging, new advertising, new incentives to make supermarkets carry the brand.

Joan Wickersham “Commuter Marriage”

Indirect Speech: carries the feel of conversation without quotation. Medium dramatic action.

Example: Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.

God, no, he hadn’t. Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough.

Katherine Anne Porter “Rope”

Direct Quotation: the exchange is quoted as it happens. Highest dramatic action.


“But I thought you hardly knew her, Mr. Morning.”
He picked up a pencil and began to doodle on a notebook page. “Did I tell you that?”
“Yes, you did.”
“It’s true. I didn’t know her well.”
“What is it you’re after, then? Who was this person you’re investigating?”
“I would like to know that too.”

Siri Hustvedt “Mr. Morning”

The Four Functions of Dialogue

To help reveal and express characterization

This is what most of us associate with dialogue.


“So I talked to Johnson,” Parish said. “He says go ahead. But if it blows up in our faces, it’s our asses.”
“Figures. Plausible deniability.”

The author of this passage has one character give a summary of another conversation to advance the plot. (They received conditional permission from their boss).

Sets the Scene

“We didn’t know no one was up here. We thought hit a summer camp all closed up. Curtains all closed up. Nothing here. No cars or gear, not nothing. Looks closed to me, don’t hit to you, J.J.?”

Joy Williams “Woods”

Reading just the above passage, we can make assumptions about where the story is taking place and much about the characters involved, all in two short, heavily-loaded lines.

Advances the action

“The surgeon will speak to you,” says the Radiologist.
“Are you finding something?”
“The surgeon will speak to you,” the Radiologist says again. “There seems to be something there, but the surgeon will talk to you about it.”
“My uncle once had something on his kidney,” says the Mother. “So they removed the kidney and it turned out the something was benign.”
The Radiologist smiles a broad, ominous smile. “That’s always the way it is,” he says. “You don’t know exactly what it is until it’s in the bucket.”
“The bucket,” the Mother repeats.
“That’s doctor talk,” the Radiologist says.
“It’s very appealing,” says the Mother. “It’s a very appealing way to talk.”

Lorrie Moore “People Like That Are The Only People Here”

In this passage, the author lets us know that something bad is about to happen and demonstrates the character’s attitude toward the doctors and their jargon.

Read a passage of your own dialogue. It must do at least two of the four tasks listed. If it doesn’t, re-work or delete it.

Some General Principles:

Dialogue concentrates on characters feelings; narrative states the facts.

Every character should speak differently. Try switching the attribution between characters. If the dialogue still works, the dialogue is not defined well enough.

Every character’s speech changes depending on what audience she’s addressing. We do not speak the same way to our buddy on the softball team, as we do to our pastor, as we do to our boss at work.

Every character’s speech changes according to mood. He will not speak the same after his girlfriend agrees to marry him as he does after another day of fruitless job hunting.

So, that’s a brief overview of the principles of dialogue. Much of this we already knew, but a refresher course is always a good idea. Next week we’ll look at some of the more subtle aspects of creating killer dialogue.


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