Writing advice

Notes on Dialogue, Part Two

Last week, I went over some of the notes I’d taken during the workshop I attended at the South Coast Writers Conference on dialogue, taught by Tess Thompson, author of seven romantic suspense novels. Much of it is refresher, but we all need to be reminded time and again, right?

This week, part two of dialogue, some of which I hadn’t actually put a name to, though I instinctively tried to use it in my own work.

But enough of my prattle. On with Notes on Dialogue, Part Two.

What to Avoid?

Dialogue is not a source of facts. This is not to say that there are no facts presented in dialogue, just that any facts presented are of less importance than the characterization. The primary place to reveal facts is narration/exposition.

Dialogue should not be used to describe people, places, or objects. Unless it’s in the context of characterization, (so what’s said may or may not be true).

Dialogue is not a substitute for narrative.

Dialogue is not used to express the extended brooding of a character. This almost never happens in real life (most people wouldn’t put up with it). Instead, this brooding type passage should be dealt with in internal speech or narrative.


Dialogue is not always grammatically correct. In fact, it usually isn’t. Most people, even the most highly-educated, seldom speak in complex or complete sentences. This gets worse in times of stress. Dialogue should reflect this, but not so tied to reality as to be boring.

Vernacular or Dialect

It is out of fashion these days to phonetically spell how people speak. It slows readers down and makes the dialogue hard to understand. Instead, suggest the difference through word and vocabulary choice, syntax, and content to render the dialect. Or you could just say she spoke with a deep southern drawl and leave it at that.


In ninety-nine percent of all cases, use the simplest attribution possible: he said, she said, etc. All you’re trying to do is show the reader who is talking where it can be confusing. Beyond that, “he said” is nearly invisible. Using clever attributions like “she surmised” or “he inquired” is amateurish and falls under the category of telling, not showing.

The other one percent forms the exception to the rule and should be limited to an occasional “whispered” or “groaned,” something that works.

This next portion is what I found particularly interesting, the non-vocal part of dialogue. I have been instinctively reaching for that aspect as my skill level increased, but never had a truly intellectual grasp of the subject before now. Now there it is, written in simple phrases, silence and subtext and how to use it to add richness and depth to our dialogue.

Other parts of dialogue (besides speaking).


It can be a method of conveying how something is said. If you show a character shaking his fist in someone’s face as he speaks, saying “he shouted” is unnecessary.

It adds realism and authenticity to the dialogue because it is how we experience conversation in real life. People talk with their hands, they slump back in their chairs, or lean forward over the table. Conversation is never a sterile exchange of words.

It adds subtext to the dialogue, such as when the gesture or body language does not match the words being spoken. A cliché’s example is the couple arguing. The woman finally says “Fine.” But everything about her body language says everything is not fine.


Think about it. Few real conversations involve non-stop talking. Real conversation is a collage of our own vocals, our conversation partner’s vocals, reaction to the other person’s speech, interactions with the physical environment, and memories awakened or associated by the experience.

The object of dialogue is to create an illusion of real conversation, not a faithful copy of real conversation. (Real conversation is boring for the most part.)

How to evoke the silences.

A descriptive passage of the setting.

We see this often (in real life) as people engaged in conversation enter a new room or building. Their conversation pauses as they acquaint themselves with their new surroundings. Dialogue mimics this by inserting a quick sketch of a new location, then the conversation resumes.

Provide an unspoken thought or memory as a reaction to something said.

It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. Someone in a conversation says something that triggers a memory. For a moment or two, we may even be concentrating on the memory so much we miss part of what is being said.

Provide an association related to the dialogue.

It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or profound. Her dinner partner says something about the parking garage at work and she wonders whether she remembered to close her garage door.


What characters don’t say is as important (often more important) than what they do say. Using body language, gestures, and oblique references, the character will signal what they really want, even when it’s at odds with what they say they want.

Think of the age-old courtship rituals of the teen-aged human. She really, really wants him to ask her to the prom, but will go to great lengths to pretend it isn’t important to her. The boy will do the same, agonizing over the mixed signals he’s receiving, but pretending to not care. It would be so much easier if both would just admit what they want. But it would also be much less interesting.

That’s what we’re also shooting for in our fictional dialogue.

The best dialogue conveys what is being said as well as what is being implied.

Consider this passage from the master of understatement, Ernest Hemingway, in his story “Hills Like White Elephants:”

“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
The girl looked at the beaded curtain. “They’ve painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”

The passage absolutely oozes unspoken tension between the couple, though nothing is actually said about the subject. In fact, they seem to be actively avoiding the subject of their disagreement as well as the disagreement itself.

It’s why I call him the master, because he is very, very good.


Characters need to be constantly saying (literally and figuratively) no to each other. This is what causes tension in the scene. Without it there is none and the scene should be cut.

The whole subject of non-verbal communication in fiction reminds me of a semi-famous quote from the jazz great Miles Davis. He was speaking about music, but the idea applies to the literary arts also.

“Music is the space between the notes. It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”

Great dialogue is not about the words our characters say; it’s the ones they don’t say.

Just something to think about.

And thanks again to Tess Thompson for providing these insights.


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