Dialog: “What on earth is that?” she said.

I have been working on my Work In Progress (yes! my next book!) and I truly love drafting dialog between my characters. I think dialog is where the characters really show their personalities to me. And that put me in mind of a blog post I wrote on dialog back in June for Edits That Rock (a venture in which I am co-founder, along with fabulous editor, Rochelle French).

Dialog is what the characters say to each other. However, it is not JUST that. Every bit of dialog should either add information about the characters OR push the story forward by providing information about the plot OR both these things.

For example, this talk between two characters does none of the above:

“How is the soup?” Lynn asked.

“Wonderful. The leeks are the best I have ever tasted. How is your steak?” Amy asked.

“Very good,” Lynn replied.

This is conversation, perhaps, but it is not dialog. Besides being boring, this little chat doesn’t tell us anything about the story question, or how the characters might be in CONFLICT. (Unless, perhaps, Amy is a vegetarian…)

Compare the above conversation to the following dialog between characters from the FBI thriller Got the Look by James Grippando:

“… if I’m not mistaken, the police never recovered a body, did they?”


“Then how do you know your sister is dead?”

“Because we’re sisters. Family.” She leaned closer to the old woman. “We look after our family.”

Grippando uses dialog here to tell us something about the character whose sister is dead—she values family. He also gives the reader something to wonder about. Is the sister dead? There is also conflict. The questioning is personal, and the answers ratchet up the tension.

Dialog needs to do a lot of the heavy lifting of moving the story forward in a novel. Character conversation should never be just about the weather, for example, unless a cloudy day or a sweltering night is important to the story.

So, if we add some conflict and character development to Lynn and Amy’s conversation above, it might go more like this:

Lynn cut into her medium rare filet and sighed at its perfect blood-red center. She cast a quick glance at Amy’s bowl. “Is that the same green stuff you ate the other night?”

Amy dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her napkin. “Yes. These leeks are the best I’ve ever tasted. How’s that bit of charred animal flesh you’re sawing on?”

Lynn grinned around a large bite. “Delicious.”

Now that we’ve established tension between Lynn and Amy, we’ve also established a reader expectation that this conflict is somehow important to the story. The reader now will anticipate that Lynn and Amy will butt heads again over food choices or other choices they might make.

Dialog is often easy to write, but more difficult to edit. The key is to make sure your characters are revealing themselves and forwarding the motion of the story, not simply chatting up a storm.

What about you? What makes you connect with your story? An image, a character, a snippet of song? Do you like to write dialog? How about vegetables? 🙂

8 thoughts on “Dialog: “What on earth is that?” she said.

  1. Melinda says:

    I’m not a big fan of vegetables ;-). I’m a carnivore. That aside, I have the hardest time editing dialogue. For some reason, once I put something in quotes my mind says “you can’t change that, it’s what they said!” like I’m a journalist merely documenting an actual event. Then I have to tell myself I’m being silly…yep, I need to get out more.

  2. Kecia thank you for posting this. There is so much to dialog. More than I had ever imagined. But you broke it down and simplified it for us. But I love to write dialog. It’s my favorite thing to write in my WIP. Like your picture by the way. Let me know when you post more on writing Kecia.

    Thank you! 🙂

  3. Terrific post, Kecia.

    I like everything and anything about characterization and am a big believer in using dialogue to reveal character.

    Roasted vegetables and a juicy steak sound perfect to me.

  4. I love writing dialogue. Getting subtext and other nuances into it is more of a challenge. While I’d like to think I’ve moved beyond the bland exchange like in your first example, I do find it and try to get rid of it (or add conflict!) in revision.

    I read my entire story out loud after my first revision, and that makes the stilted and boring parts much more obvious!

    • Kecia Adams says:

      Reading out loud is a great technique for catching all those repetitive mistakes and favored little phrases we have…I know you all have them. One of mine is “poignant.” I seem to love that word, though I don’t know if I’ve EVER used it in conversation. Thanks for your comment, Jeannette.

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