Do You Hear The Voices?

Dialogue should be short, snappy, and punchy. Image: photostock /

Dialogue that is short, snappy, and punchy, engages other characters as well as the reader. Dialogue is meant to be experienced, not studied. Halting over a line of dialogue can interrupt the reader’s experience.” ~~ Sol Stein

At a recent writer’s conference, an agent said dialogue could make the difference in making a request for more of a writer’s work. She takes the first five pages of a manuscript and looks for the white space created by dialogue. Then she puts the manuscript aside and picks up the next one.

From that conversation, I gathered dialogue is an important part of novel writing. Internal monologue is not dialogue. So, even if no one else is in the room, the character should talk aloud to himself, or to his pet.

Conversations in real life often have little or no purpose. In fiction, that’s a killer. What do you hear as the characters meet and greet? Is it meaningless chitchat? Or are they talking about anything and everything to avoid the deeper subject they know they should discuss? That’s great. Avoidance dialogue is called subtext.

Who’s talking? Do the characters sound alike? Are they predictable? Do they always say what you’d expect them to say?

If so, the writer’s in trouble. You see, dialogue has to sound natural, but it also has to be more condensed and much more interesting than everyday language.

Info dumps are boring. Just as you don’t enjoy listening to a person who talks on and on without giving others a chance to get a word in edgewise, neither do your readers. Most exchanges in dialogue should be brief. Consider using five word exchanges or less in your dialogue. Avoid using more than three sentences without a break or at least an action tag on the part of the speaker.

Can the reader visualize the characters? Characters don’t talk in a vacuum. To avoid the talking heads syndrome show us what they’re doing. Is Mary cooking dinner? Is LeRoy chopping wood? And by the way, is the ax dull?

Speaking of what’s happening, in your own writing, don’t mix the actions of one character with the dialogue of another. Be sure each speaker gets his own paragraph. Even if the character only uses one word. Make it easy for your reader to know who is talking.

And while we’re on the subject of give and take between characters, teach them to give another character a chance to react. Short dialogue paragraphs leave that coveted white space and increase pacing.

Last but not least, dialogue should move the story along. Do the characters have an agenda? Does dialogue reveal the different sides of an issue?

For dialogue to do its job, it needs to create an emotional effect in the reader. How much of the dialogue reveals disagreements and misunderstandings that affect the other characters’ goals? Does it increase suspense and uncertainty?

Q4U: Would you care to share a tip for stronger dialogue?

13 Replies to “Do You Hear The Voices?”

  1. Great post, and one I agree with strongly. Dialogue is one of my strong suits, and I have to hear it to get it right. So I talk to myself (or to whoever will listen), reading the dialogue for clarity and credibility. I reach hard, practicing without tags, in hopes that the characters come across without obvious identification.

    Hope Clark
    Lowcountry Bribe, A Carolina Slade Mystery

  2. Great post, Sharon!

    Well-written dialogue is one of the best tools in a writer’s bag. Anywhere you find telling rather than showing while editing, consider working the information naturally into dialogue or through movements instead.

    1. You are so right, Janalyn.
      Showing a character’s reaction through movement, a twist of the lips, stepping backwards, etc, brings the reader into the scene better than simply saying, “Kally was upset.”

  3. I also love dialogue where the character’s say something, but mean something else entirely. I love your points about giving details for the tags, going deeper about not just the axe but it’s dull. Brilliant.

  4. I love all the tips on this blog about improving fiction writing.

    I write Christian non-fiction, but am always looking for tools to communicate in a way that is inspirational, and keeps things moving. Just as a fiction writer, I want to captivate my reader’s attention.

    I’m not sure how the dialogue tips will directly impact my writing, but I think it helps just to be frequently reminded of the need.


  5. I am writing YA Fiction about a group of teens…so I work with a group of teens at church. it helps to sit by and listen to their conversations without really taking in the details of what they’re saying (I don’t eavesdrop). Instead, I listen to the pacing, the nuances, and the slang, etc.

    It has really helped me to write more realistic dialogue!

  6. Great post! Even as a non-fiction writer, I still have need of dialogue skills. It may be a simple tip but I find it’s very important not to be consistent with the placing of the tags in the sentence. Ex:

    “You folks are just brilliant,” Shellie said.
    “Aw, it’s nothing,” Sharon replied.

    becomes much stronger as

    “You folks are just brilliant,” Shellie said.
    “Aw,” Sharon responded. “It’s nothing!”

    THANKS, folks. I’m not always good about weighing in, but I’m learning tons from y’all!


    1. Dialog tags in the middle of the speech can sometimes give the character a much needed pause. Sometimes a pause gives just the correct emphasis to what is being said.

  7. The use of dialogue is important in both fiction and non-fiction. I continue to take classes and attend conferences to improve my craft and the use of dialogue is a constant, regardless of the style of writing. My original non-fiction manuscript didn’t have a lot but after I took some time to develop some dialogue to create more scenes, my overall story was strengthened.

    My greatest struggle to add the dialogue was the fact I can’t remember word for word the conversations held. It took much prodding by one of my professors and hearing it at workshops — it is okay not to be exact. It is MY manuscript so it is MY memory. Phew. This made the revisions and dialogue additions an easier concept to incorporate.

    The greatest compliment I received after making the initial changes, “This could be made in to a movie now.” Wow, that was inspiring.

    Thank you for the reminder. Great blog.
    Lisa M. Buske

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