Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 25, 2012

Dialogue is King

By Tiffany Lawson Inman

In theatre, dialogue is king. It is the lifeline of the story.  Character's lines bouncing back and forth between each other.  Confiding, conspiring, commiserating, coercing, or caring.  Dialogue works to create emotion, conflict, show character, and it always moves the dramatic action forward.

It seems that in fiction writing, dialogue isn’t seen as being as important as it is in theatre.  Although I think I should be. You should too.

When I write, dialogue comes first.

When I read, dialogue had better woo me.

When I edit, dialogue is one of the main factors between flop and fabulous.

The purpose of dialogue sometimes gets lost with writers.  They save it till last, rush through it because they are unsure of themselves, don’t put enough in because they are unsure of themselves, or worse,  the writer thinks it’s easy because it’s “the same as copying down a conversation.”

Do not fall victim to these dialogue blunders.

Dialogue is just as important as every other aspect of fiction writing.


Refresher, reminder, recount of the purpose of dialogue:

  • Show character.
  • Show conflict.
  • Show voice.
  • Show action.
  • Show backstory
  • Show story.

Who doesn’t think character, conflict, voice, action, backstory, and story are important to fiction writing?  A show of hands?

Didn’t think so.

Here is an example of dialogue that really wooed and wowed me.  I was wooed because I can tell the author took her time and thought about each word of this dialogue, it was not slopped together. I was wowed because of the amount of tension, character, relationship, and voice oozing from this little scene. You will see what I mean.

In the example I’ve taken out everything but the dialogue, so you can see how strong it is on its own. In the style of a theatre script. After, I will dramatically dissect the scene for you to get a closer look.

To note: When I edit, I will pull out all dialogue to analyze, separate from the other pieces of writing craft. To see how well the conversation is built. Because of my background in theatre, I look at the scene as if it were in a play.

Short background on the example scene from Darkness, My Old Friend, a book written by the lovely and absolutely full of talent, Lisa Unger.  Eloise is a widowed psychic. Ray, retired detective, is her long time friend and ex-lover. They both have somewhat sad pasts, and are still drawn to each other. Here, they talk about an active case from one of her visions.

Before we start, the key to not letting the character names distract you: don’t read them. Keep them in your periphery and concentrate on the lines. It might take a second to get used to it.

            Ray:  Where were you? Out partying with your new best friend, Jones Cooper?

            Eloise:   Not exactly. Do you want to come in?

            Ray:  I thought you were retiring?

            Eloise:   Vacationing is not the same thing as retiring, anyway, what choice did I have? I    couldn’t just let him drown.

            Ray:  I thought you had a policy about speaking your vision but not getting physically         involved. You know, after what happened in Kansas.

            Eloise:   I changed my policy, just this once.

            Ray:  Because of Maggie Cooper?

            Eloise:   Maybe. (pause)  What about your visit with Claudia Miller?

            Ray:  She wouldn’t talk to me. And the Holt house? I poked around in there some. The       place is a nightmare. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

            Eloise:  Some boxes stay locked.

            Ray:  I guess you heard.

            Eloise:  About Michael? Yes, I heard.

            Ray:  You knew all along, didn’t you?

            Eloise:  I suspected.

            Ray:  She told you.

            Eloise:  She hinted.

            Ray:  This is ugly work, Eloise.

Dramatic Dissection:

            Ray:  Where were you? Out partying with your new best friend, Jones Cooper?

            Eloise:   Not exactly. Do you want to come in?

            Ray:  I thought you were retiring?

            Eloise:   Vacationing is not the same thing as retiring, anyway, what choice did I have? I    couldn’t just let him drown.

I see: Friendship. Joking banter. Candidness. Honesty.

            Ray:  I thought you had a policy about speaking your vision but not getting physically involved. You know, after what happened in Kansas?

Now Unger shows us a little more meat to their relationship.

Ray asks a hard question. He presses her a little bit.  Not to be mean, but because he cares. Something terrible happened in the Kansas situation and he doesn’t want her to get hurt again.

            Eloise:   I changed my policy, just this once.

She is acknowledging his concern and not fighting back.

            Ray:  Because of Maggie Cooper?

He presses further by using a name that will hopefully make her pay attention to what she is doing. Just an extra nudge to make his point.

            Eloise:   Maybe. (pause)What about your visit with Claudia Miller?

One word answers always tell us more than the one word. “Maybe” tells us she isn’t ready to tell him he is right…but he is probably right.

I added a simple pause to show the length of time passing between her lines.  In the book, there is a physical moment between Eloise and Ray, two sentences worth, and then she speaks again. The silence is like an unsaid exclamation point. It means she is acknowledging Ray’s point and it is emotional, even now. There is an emotional shift between her two lines.

Her second line after the emotional shift is not on the current subject, she might as well be saying: “End of topic. I get your point. Moving on to the issue at hand.”

            Ray:  She wouldn’t talk to me. And the Holt house? I poked around in there some. The       place is a nightmare. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

He is sharing information in this line, but he is also accepting her push to move on to the next subject. It is also a gesture of understanding and respecting her feelings.

Notice how much he crams in here. His tone completely changed. Almost nervously. As if he is afraid he overstepped his friendship bounds with the moment before.

Ray is sharing specific information, even though it sounds haphazard. As you see in the next lines, he is looking for an answer.

            Eloise:  Some boxes stay locked.

This is a HUGE showing line.  It’s up to reader discretion if she is speaking about the fact that the woman he went to interview wasn’t forthcoming with any information, or if she is still talking about the Kansas situation.  One or the other or both, they all show an increase in tension and a big hint to the reader that not everything is on the surface.

            Ray:  I guess you heard.

            Eloise:  About Michael? (no reply)  Yes, I heard.

These two lines could have been said like this:

            Ray: I guess you heard about Michael?

             Eloise: Yes, I heard.  

But Lisa Unger wanted to show more than just a traditional question/answer.  Ray is saying something else when he doesn’t insert Michaels name into his question. He’s leading her on a bit, letting her fill in the blank. An interesting tactic to force her into admitting something without going through the motions of a handful of question/answers.

This produces tension. Thank you, Lisa Unger!

Eloise:   About Michael?  (no reply) Yes, I heard.

She answers the question with a question, which really isn’t an answer. Her half-hearted attempt to dislodge guilt from his questioning tactic.

When he doesn’t answer, she knows he is waiting for a real answer. She chooses to use the same word he used in the question, “heard.”  She doesn’t disclose any more or less information, therefore trying to softening her guilt again.

            Ray:  You knew all along, didn’t you?     

Only after she gives up the answer, does he make an official accusation.

            Eloise:  I suspected.

            Ray:  She told you.

            Eloise:  She hinted.

Look at the cadence and weight of these lines. So much is being said in these seven words!

            Eloise:  I suspected.

 Eloise tries deflecting his accusation again.

Ray:   She told you.

Ray is not conceding. And not using any backwards interviewing techniques anymore. He is telling her not to distort the facts because he knows the truth.

            Eloise:  She hinted.

Finally she gives in and tells the truth, but even in doing so, she tries to stay out of the dirt, with another sidestep. It could have been written like this:

            Ray: She told you.

            Eloise:  Yes, she told me.

This doesn’t show character and relationship as well as the original version, does it? Nope.

Hinted instead of told.

            Ray:  This is ugly work, Eloise.

Truth be told, I’m not sure if he is talking about the case, or if he is saying he doesn’t like the fact that they are forced to play this word game as a consequence of their involvement in other people’s indiscretions. Especially when they are such close friends. Either way, the line holds emotion.  He uses her name here, instead of at the end of one of his accusations above (which would have been a sign of increased anger.)  Here, the use of her name softens the line.  It’s almost a plea for continued friendship and honesty in any upcoming conflicts they might be up against.

Gosh, I’m glad I didn’t post one of her high tension scenes. This blog would’ve ended up being 20 pages long with all of the fabulous insights I could pull from that dialogue.

I know it seems daunting to want to stand next to Lisa Unger in the bestselling dialogue arena, but it can be done.

Here are a few building blocks to get you started.  Remember they can and should be used for high and low tension scenes.  Every chunk of dialogue is important.  These building blocks should be reviewed before, during, and in the editing phase of writing the scene.

This list is just the beginning. The waters of learning how to write dialogue run deeeep.

  • What are your POV character’s goals walking into the scene? List them.
  • Do they change throughout the scene?
  • Have you written enough emphasis around the change, or left it understated for more intrigue?
  • What are your non-POV character’s goals walking into the scene? List them.
    • Do they get in the way of the POVs goals? Decide if the interference should be exaggerated or underplayed.
    • What story moving information are you going to share in the scene? List it.
    • Make sure character and voice are different for each of the characters in the scene. Drag out your character sketches!
    • Think about the rate-of-speech, attitude, word usage for each character.
      • Do they match the character, the moment?
      • Differ from each other?
      • Show Highs and Lows?
      • Show the correct emotion for the scene?
      • What kind of changes or sacrifices will be made inside each character through this dialogue?
        • Remember to show these inner changes through voice, action, body language, and dialogue.  Don’t leave it all up to internalizations.
        • How is your POV character affected by the conversation?
          • Did it raise the stakes?
          • Change them emotionally?
          • Motivate a new direction of action?
          • Make sure this dialogue scene moves the story forward. It cannot be chitchat just to be chitchat.  These conversations must show the reader something new and move story forward!
          • Look at the placement of your scene within the structure of your plot.  Is it in the best location to heighten tension?
          • Keep in-mind, characters are not always forthcoming with every detail of information. Or with their true emotion, depending on the situation, of course.
            • Think about the tension of the scene and the theme of your book.  How your characters share and use information is a big player in storyline conflict.
            • Where will you add subtext?
            • Leave a few reader questions open at the end of the scene to draw intrigue and tension.
              • Ask yourself what is left for the next time these characters speak.
              • Through every line of your dialogue, ask yourselves, “How can you show character, conflict, voice, action, backstory, and story without using that much exposition?”


            Thank you very much for joining me for the last Friday of the month here on WITS! I hope you took notes!  Comment below and share which authors have wooed and wowed you with their dialogue. As per usual, if you comment, your name will be in the hat to win a free spot in one of Tiffany’s future online courses offered through Lawson Writer’s Academy.

            If you are hankering for an in-depth workshop on dialogue (learning HOW TO implement everything on the above list and more more more) I’ll be teaching a month long workshop online for LWA in fall/winter. Follow me on twitter @NakedEditor to see what’s happening and when. New workshops taught month at Lawson Writer’s Academy check it out!

Workshops taught by Tiffany Lawson Inman:

**These courses will be taught at least twice a year. You won’t miss out!**

Want to learn from me in person?  I will be presenting a workshop at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference this year. Registration is open!

You can find Tiffany at her website , info-packed-blogs starting up in late summer.

Tiffany Lawson Inman (NakedEditor) claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. Here, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. She teaches for Lawson Writer’s Academy and presents hands-on-action workshops. As a freelance editor, she provides story analysis and editing services.

0 comments on “Dialogue is King”

  1. Thanks for this post! It's very insightful. I always enjoy writing dialogue the most, but feel it can be lacking. So I will definitely try to implement these tips!

  2. Love how you break down the analysis, Tiffany. A good reminder that dialog always has to serve more than one purpose, or it should be cut! Thanks for blogging with WITS!

    1. Laura - I think I'm addicted to analysis....I've just gotten home from the grocery store and got to witness dialogue between neighbors - soooo much subtext! I stood in front of the yogurt for way too long, just to listen. Ha! 🙂

  3. It's amazing how much your acting craft and talent bring to the page, Tiffany. I want to, need to, must take the dialog course. You are the bomb! (Humor me. Pretend we're in the seventies.)

    The scenes you edited for me are so much stronger because of your comments. Yes, I pat myself on the back each time I read the 'after Tiffany' versions of those scenes.

    I now look at my manuscripts during edits to make them both Margie-ized and Tiffany-fied. ARGH! on not living close enough to attend the upcoming conference.

    I'll be on the look out for your upcoming classes.

  4. Thanks, Tiffany. I found this to be very useful. Now I need to scour my book and make adjustments, and I'm sure there are many to be made. Would you be willing to edit a handful of pages and give your insight? I like the fact that you've worked in theatre too, so you have a keen eye for superfluous dialogue.

    1. Barbara~

      Go forth and scour! 🙂

      Best way to get my eyes on your work - take one of my classes towards late summer to learn learn learn learn and get a few pages edited, or head over to my website and look at my services. I would absolutely be willing to edit pages in 10 to 30 page increments instead of 1/2 to full manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you!

  5. I find I'm pretty good at dialogue and it flows well in my scenes but these tips will definitely help to make it even better.
    Thanks for the post!

  6. Love the dialogue dissection Tiffany. An excellent reminder. Sometimes we get so involved in the plot, we forget the spices that makes for a fabulous book.

  7. I love writing dialogue and didn't find this out until after I wrote my first book and it was totally first person, inner musing, telling = awful. After the millionth rewrite, it has changed dramatically to incorporate a lot of interchange between the characters. I'm in the middle of edits right now for the publisher and will go back and see how my dialogue looks after reading this post.
    Thank you so much.

  8. Interesting post, Tiffany. 🙂 I often use dialogue as a pre-writing tool to map out a scene. I won't keep all of it as dialogue in the final version, but the characters' interactions tell me how they respond to the plot event, which helps me know what they're thinking and feeling. Then I can start planning the next scene. -- Karen Duvall

  9. Tiffany, it is a pleasure to read you here at WITS, my fav group blog. Although I have always felt dialogue was my strong suit, I also learned the hard way that it must be structured and cut down to size or we can risk losing the reader in "babble." I will save your tips. Taking the Deep Editing Class at the MLA in June and look forward to the wealth of knowledge I know it can offer. Thanks again 🙂

  10. I've noticed a tendency in my writing (and others') to want a conversation on the page to go like a real conversation would. Booooring. I like your breakdown of the purpose of dialogue and the checklist of questions. The dialogue must show something about the characters or the plot or it's a waste of space. Thanks, Tiffany! I need to work on this with my current YA!

  11. Great post, Tiffany. I have three of Lisa Unger's novels on my favorites shelf. I'll go pull them out and review for more dialogue lessons.

  12. The breakdown is awesome. In my own writing I can usually tell when the dialogue is crappy, but can't always fix it. Thanks for the primer, very helpful!

  13. Tiffany -

    Your talent is showing.

    Love the Unger excerpt you chose. Love your dissection too. Strong and powerful!

    So glad you're my daughter. 🙂

  14. This was insightful - never thought about taking action out of the dialogue and reading it as a script - that would show weakness and strength. I appreciate you commenting line by line. I learned a lot. Am saving your checklist to sort through my dialogue - I'm still learning. For me the challenge is aging the speaker - I'm working on a memoir that covers from the age of seven to adulthood. Have a blessed day.

  15. You always bring us great insight Tiffany and it is a joy to know you. Thank you

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