Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Let's Talk Dialogue

by Debby Giusti

Dialogue can make or break a book. Does the exchange ring true? Do the characters have unique voices? Does the information presented in conversation move the story forward?

Many editors flip though the pages of a submission looking for white space to check the amount of dialogue interspersed throughout the narrative. What they find is important. Snappy banter can sell a story, while tepid exchanges are a quick route to rejection. Not enough dialogue and the first page won’t be read.

Beginners struggle to make their dialogue authentic, but even multi-published authors admit character exchanges are the most challenging part of creating a story. The best way to master the craft is through trial and error. Here are a few rules of the trade that can help speed the process.

•Use “he said/she said,” which readers’ eyes skip over, instead of other tags, such as “he hissed” or “she questioned.”
•Cut adverbs.
•Trash formality. Dialogue exchanges should be informal unless your character is a highbrow aristocrat.
•Use contractions and sentence fragments.
•Read your text aloud to ensure the dialogue works.
•Choose simple words over complex.
•Use dialect sparingly.
•Don’t overuse characters’ names within the dialogue. “What, Bob?” “I need the butter, Jane.”
•Divide long dialogue with action beats.
•Each character’s exchange needs its own paragraph.
•Insert a speaker attribution or tag at the first natural break in a long paragraph of dialogue.
•Action beats can be used instead of tags to identify the speaker.
•Insert action or dialogue from a second character to break monologues into shorter sections.
•Don’t bury your dialogue. Instead pull the spoken line down into a new paragraph.
•Cut hellos and goodbyes, which don’t move the story forward.
•Introductions usually aren’t needed on the page.
•Don’t allow your characters to discuss the obvious.
•Remember RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain.
•Each character should have his or her own distinctive voice.

Debby’s tip: Write a first draft of dialogue without tags or beats. Go back and include them on the second run through. Shorten long sentences. Work to freshen action. Read aloud. Sound stilted? Shorten, tighten, rework.

Reference books to check out:
DIALOGUE, by Lewis Turco, Writer’s Digest Books, 1989.

TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITERS, by Dwight V. Swain, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, by Renni Browne and Dave King, HarperCollins, 2004.

Let’s talk. Add a comment and share your tips and advice on writing dialogue.

Celebrate with me! COUNTDOWN TO DEATH launched my Magnolia Medical Series and won the CataRomance Reviewers’ Choice Award. Include your email address along with your comment for a chance to win a copy of my book.

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti
Watch for PROTECTING HER CHILD, out in May.


  1. Hi Debby:

    You have made many strong points on dialogue. I have a question on voice that might be of interest.

    Have you used or considered using learning styles in your character profile for the effect it would have on voice?

    The visual learner will use sight words: ‘I see what you mean’ and ‘it looks good to go’ and ‘I get the picture now’.

    The auditory learner will use sound words: “I hear where you're coming from’, ‘sounds good to me’ and ‘it’s as clear as a bell’.

    The Kinesthetic learner will use ‘touch’ and ‘feeling’ words: ‘it feels good to me’, ‘I have a grip on the problem now’, ‘I think I have a solution locked-in”.

    I wonder if this were done consistently, would the reader even notice it? What do you think?


  2. Great post, Debby! Vince, that's interesting to think about. I've used dialogue and thoughts that had to do with the person's career (my waitress would liken things to food and food smells, my banker would uses expressions that had to do with money or the banking business). But I've never thought using their learning style. Great idea!


  3. Debby, I absolutely 100% LOVE this.

    I am printing it out for use with my books. You, like Missy, have a gift of teaching that I SO do not.

    Thank you for sharing your gift, your wisdom and your knowlege of the craft with others.

    I could listen to you all day.



  4. Debby,

    This is perfect timing for me. I'm struggling with the dialogue for that all-important first meeting between h/h.

    I'm really far along in the book and the dialogue isn't too bad. Part of the problem in the beginning is I feel so pressured to get it just right. I know how quickly an editor tosses a mss.

    I'm writing in the dreaded first person POV (that's a story in itself). So I need the hero to make an impression and keep coming up with dialogue that is over-the-top. It's maybe clever but not realistic.

    Do you have any tips or tricks for the first meeting dialogue? Can it be fairly simple or should it reveal quite a lot about them and their future connection? There may not be any rule for this.

    Alright, I'll just get started on it.



  5. Hey Deb, Super congrats on the CataRomance Reviewers’ Choice Award!! And what a GREAT blog today -- I know I'm walkin' away with more than a few things to take back to the keyboard -- Thanks!


  6. Hi Debby, I second the congrats from Julie. You're quite a writer. And I love your snappy and realistic dialogue in your books. Thanks for sharing your techniques for attaining that skill. It is important, esp in today's fast action style of writing.

    Hey, its early here in the west. How about some coffee and bagels with cream cheese to start the day. I have bunches of the sweetest grapes to go with that.

  7. Congrats on the award!

    Good tip about writing the dialogue without tags then going back and filling in. I'm going to try that!

    Hope to see you on Saturday.

  8. Hi, Debby!

    Oh, my goodness, dialogue is such a needed topic. I have read over and over that you shouldn't write heavy dialect, but in two books that I recently read by multi-pubbed authors, there were a couple of characters whose dialogue was written all in heavy dialect. It was awful. Of course, ALL the dialogue was really bad in both of those books, very stilted, much of it unnecessary small talk, or just plain inane and not believable. But the heavy dialect just started to sound insulting after a while, not to mention hard to read. ANNOYINGGGGG!

    But dialogue is very tricky to do well. I entered a contest once in which one judge praise my dialogue very highly, and another judge criticized it, saying it was stilted. Of course, that's the book I'm not sure anyone will ever read, but I am still confused about why one judge liked it and one didn't.

  9. Sorry. I didn't mean to sound so critical!!! But I realize now why I don't like dialect and I don't ever want to write it. Even Mark Twain wasn't perfect at it.

  10. I agree wth Cheryl. I'm printing things off every day this week. It's very informative here in Seekeville. (Now I just need to fill up my coffee cup. :-) )

  11. Thanks for a great post, Debby. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is my favorite book on writing! I'm going to print your post out--it's a great condensed version for dialogue.

    Congrats on your success!

  12. "Well said," she said.

    One thing you mentioned is buried dialogue. I see this often in contest entries.

    The other problem..male voices that sound feminine.

    I know this is an area I am strong in and I learned dialogue by eavesdropping to conversations. Well it helps I am ADD and can't help it, lol. My typical day I can hear all the conversations in a room like super hearing.

  13. And, mega congrats on the CataRomance Reviewers’ Choice Award!!

  14. I totally agree with dialect being distracting and sometimes even insulting. I'd much rather hear it through the odd word missing, etc. Much easier to digest.

  15. Thanks for advice on dialog. Answered some questions for me.

    When I'm reading, I do notice if dialog is funny, I read it out loud to the family. That's always a good sign.

    I noticed reading through my WIP that ... arrgghh! ... over time everybody started to sound alike. Even people from the far ends of the earth with different education levels. *sigh*

    I think writing dialect phonetically really trips people up, too.

    Good stuff, Debby.

    Thanks to everybody this week. I'm trying to "pimp" my contest entry for Genesis and this will all help :-)

  16. Cheryl, you have an amazing gift for teaching! I've learned from all of your posts, especially since I learn so much by seeing examples. You're the one who gave me the idea to share examples! :)

    Debby, I especially appreciate your reminder not to bury dialogue. It's something I never think of and need to make sure I haven't done that.

  17. You know, as a reader, I love the dialogue best of all. Scenic descriptions are great too, but I love it when a book uses the conversations to move things along.

    Great post Debby!


    kimfurd at hotmail dot com

  18. Sorry I'm late getting online today. I had a function at church and just got home. It's cold in Georgia so I brought a pot of chili and corn bread for everyone. Help yourself. Also a picture of sweet tea and a pot of coffee.

  19. Hey, Vince,
    What a great idea!!! Love it! If the learning style carries over into the character's personality and ties in with the character's development throughout the story, readers would probably notice. At least it would be another layer on the onion.
    Thanks for the interesting suggestion!

  20. Hey Missy,
    Thanks for sharing about pulling your character's jobs into the way they think about things. A woman would be home and hearth. A guy might be focused on the tools of his trade.

    Did you see the shrimp and grits? I used Paula Dean's recipe.

  21. Cheryl, honey! You're the one who posted the great character chart yesterday, which I'm still drooling over. Told a new writer today she had to download your info. So nice when we all share ideas and the tips we've learned.

    Dialogue is a tough nut to crack. I'm eager to see other Seeker suggestions posted today.

  22. Hey Debby, mega congrats on the CataRomance Reviewers' Choice Award! Great to hear!

    I'm sure editors react the same way to submissions as contest judges do to entries--only the editor doesn't try to help the submitor out by explaining why the dialogue doesn't work! We're moving into big time contest season and dialogue will make or break a story. Listen to the feed back you've received and consider it where dialogue is concerned.

    Especially historicals. Like you said, use dialect sparingly!! Great advice about reading it out loud without tags. If you can't wrap your tongue around the words, your characters probably won't be able to either.

    Timely post, Debby! I'm on a final review of my mss now!!


  23. "What does hidden dialogue mean, Tina," she asked.

    I have an idea what you mean but can you or someone explain?
    thanks, Debra

  24. Cathy,
    Thanks for your comments. That first meeting is so tricky. My suggestion, get something down on paper, keep writing, then go back and rework the scene later, perhaps in the morning when you're fresh.

    I'm working on a similar scene in my current WIP. I had to spend time and analyze where they both were coming from. The hero and heroine met briefly years before. Both were attracted to the other, but a relationship never developed. Now they're forced together ... so what's their first reaction?

    Sometimes guys trip over themselves when they're nervous. I've had heroes say some pretty dumb lines. Of course, I'm in their POV so they immediately realize their mistake, which causes them to become more tongue-tied.

    The same could happen to the heroine, especially if she tends to be a loveable airhead.

    A little antagonism works as well. They put up that I-don't-like-what-you're-doing front when inside they're thinking this guy or gal is hot.

    If your hero is trying to make an impression but falling short, the play between what he says and what he thinks can engage the reader and allow him or her to form an instant connection with the character.

  25. Over the course of two years, I checked a library book out four or five times. And never read past the first page either time.



    So why did I keep checking it out? Because I liked the cover and backcover blurb and I have a rather short-term memory and couldn't remember this was the book with the annoying dialect.

  26. Hi Julie,
    Thanks for stopping by ... hope you got some chili and grits!

    Love your new cover. So, so pretty!

    If you stop by again, share some of the secrets you use for writing great dialogue. You handle the big family scenes so well.

  27. Sandra,
    Thanks for bringing the bagels and coffee. I tucked myself into bed last night after midnight. Since I knew I wouldn't be on the blog until late morning, I should have plugged in the coffee. Thanks for taking up the slack!

  28. Hi Chicki,
    Hope your writing is going well! BTW, Chicki has a great blog.

    Mention your URL sometime so others can log on. It's a fun place for writers to visit.

  29. Judges can be confused, right, Melanie? It's hard to know what to do when one praises you and the other finds fault. I always go with the praise! :)

    Formality kills dialogue, IMHO. When I listen to people chatting, they talk in tiny sound bites. Often switching topics rapidly or answering one question with another, which is sometimes called asymmetrical dialogue. The standard question-answer format is symmetrical. Asymmetrical is usually thought to be more creative

  30. Melanie,
    You're never critical. BTW, I've got chocolate for you from the Seekerville Valentine contest. It'll be heading your way in the morning. Enjoy!

  31. Hey Walt, how's the book going? I love this blog as well. So much good info. Glad you're a regular!

  32. Hi Jill,
    Thanks for your kind words about the blog today. Dialogue is never easy. I started out writing yucky one-liners. Adding action beats helped. Then I realized my characters were too formal so I cut long sentences and often used sentence fragments.

    Making changes based on those easy mechanical tips can improve a stilted exchange and give it personality.

  33. Debby read the comment Tina had posted and smiled. "So she likes to eavesdrop? Hmmmm? Note to self, don't discuss secret information if Tina's close by."

    Guy talk is different from girl talk, no doubt about it. Guy's usually speak in shorter sentences, and they're more to the point.

  34. Hi Eileen,
    When dialogue doesn't ring true, the story falls flat. As a reader, I'm more forgiving with narrative.

  35. Ann,
    Talk about humorous dialogue and I instantly think of Mary. Hope she stops by later to add her two cents. She's a pro when it comes to the funny one-liners.

    Dialect has been mentioned a few times today. Instead of changing the spelling of words, which causes reading difficulty, play around with the choice of words.

    In MIA: MISSING IN ATLANTA, I had a secondary character from South America. She never used contractions, and I'd occasionally add a "Yes?" at the end of a question she had asked, such as:

    "The weather is nice today, yes?"

    Hopefully, it provided a subtle prompt so the reader could recognize her unique voice.

  36. Hi Missy,
    I love lots of white space so I usually don't bury my dialogue. It's especially important for those power-packed hooks that might end a scene or reveal something significant in the story.

  37. Hi Kim,
    Many folks skim books and only read the dialogue. Now that's something to think about as a writer. Perhaps we should all skim our own stories, reading the dialogue to see if it works.

    Bob Meyer, in his THE NOVEL WRITER'S TOOLKIT, says to highlight each character's dialogue in a different color. Then read all the lines for one character to see if the voice remains constant. Then move on to another character and do the same thing. Are the voices different and unique? Or do they both sound the same?

  38. Thanks for adding your email, Kim. I've entered you in the drawing for a copy of COUNTDOWN TO DEATH.

  39. Good luck on your submission, Audra! And to all who are entering contests ...

    Yes, double check your dialogue before you print off the final copy of your manuscript. If something hits you the wrong way, change it.

  40. I am sure Debby can explain more concisely, but I can tell you what I recently read while critiquing someone's work.

    A very important line was said by the protagonist in the middle of several sentences of narrative action.

    I told them to separate it from the narrative, because wow this was an important statement. Huge, in fact to the plot. Don't let the reader miss it.

  41. Hi Debra!
    Hiding your dialogue refers to when you have a few lines of description or narrative or action and then add a line of dialogue at the end of that paragraph. The reader's eyes may skim the action/description and fail to notice the important spoken sentence at the end.

    So...pull that line of dialogue down and create a new paragraph where it can stand alone.

  42. Thanks, Tina. Important point to remember!

  43. Gina, love it!!! I used to finish every book I started. That's when I had time on my hands. Now, I'm like a NY editor. I read the first page. If it grabs me, I'll read on. Otherwise, I toss it aside and find another book.

  44. Can't remember where I heard or read this dialogue tip, but here it is:

    A great way to figure out how your character speaks, have him/her answer a yes/no question.

  45. Give us a few more details, Gina. Can you explain how "yes" or "no" would reveal the character? Because of the beats perhaps?

  46. Debby, thanks for the excellent post on writing dialogue! I'm copying your points to use as a check list for my wip.

    And huge congrats on the CataRomance Reviewer's Choice Award!


  47. Sorry, Deb, for not elaborating more. Hubby was standing next to my shoulder and I just can't think and type when someone is standing next to me.

    Answering the yes/no question.

    What type of person do you picture when s/he is asked, "Would you like to go to the movies?" and s/he answers...



    "Most certainly."

    "I suppose that might be fun to do."

    "O. M. G. Are you out of your ever-livin' mind? Of course, I do."

    "Do you want to go?"

    "Why are you asking?"

    Or what if the character doesn't answer at all or avoids answering by changing the subject?

  48. Thanks for stopping by today, Janet. You write such great dialogue. Doubt you need any tip sheets!

  49. One thing about when Tina said this:

    A very important line was said by the protagonist in the middle of several sentences of narrative action.

    I told them to separate it from the narrative, because wow this was an important statement. Huge, in fact to the plot. Don't let the reader miss it.

    First, let me clarify that I highly agree with her, and I'm not just saying this so she'll send me a birthday present (BTW, it's July 7th). :-)

    When judging contests and you have a situation like the one Tina mentioned, I suggest making a note to the author but not deducting a point for this. Why?

    Well, often contest entrants will "pimp" their entries to squeeze in a couple extra lines so the scene/entry will end on a hook. I confess I did that with the last contest I entered. In my actualy ms pages, the dialogue is on in a separate paragraph.

    With crit partners...

    This reminds me of one gal. She would write a pretty long paragraph of action (hero and villain), then she tacked the hero's short line of dialogue at the end.


    They ran around the bush and past the river. Water splashed in John's face hindering his ability to see, yet he followed the sound of Xavier's footfalls. As his sweat mixed in with the water, John brushed his face. Xavier was almost to the fence. And freedom. "Stop, or I'll shoot!"

  50. Now I understand. Thanks for the clarification, Gina, and the nice list of how to say more than just "yes."

  51. Gina, good point about contest entries. I've condensed paragraphs so I could get more on a page. And changed fonts.

    Your last example shows how dialogue can be hidden at the end of a paragraph. The "Stop or I'll shoot" line should stand alone.

  52. I'll have to check out that Lewis Turco book. I've set a goal of reading five books on writing craft this year, and I wanted one of those to be on the art of great dialogue.

    Thanks Debby!

  53. Thanks so much for this post and all the comments! I need to go back and pull out the hidden dialog I have tucked in paragraphs.

    And congrats on the award!!
    patterly at gmail dot com

  54. Oh my gosh, this was/is a great exchange.

    Deb, super kudos on the CataRomance Reviewer's Choice!!! Yay you! That's solid and I'm proud of you, kid.

    And this is another great post on putting together good scenes/characters/settings/dialogue/plots. It takes all of the above (and more) to put together a strong book, but it's tricky to 'see' them clearly. These recent posts have laid it right out there and I love how concise you guys have made dialogue points today.

    And Gina, that's a great!!!!! litmus test of 'feeling' the dialogue for a character. It's easy to slip up and blend character speak into our speak and ruin that individualism.

    I'm grabbing some of that chili and a plate of grits. Deb, we need more lemons for the tea, 'kay?

    I'm watching for more good stuff.


  55. Erica,
    DIALOGUE is a different how-to book. It's written with two characters chatting back and forth. That provides examples for every point the author is trying to make. Interesting and unique.

  56. Hi Patty,
    I've entered you in today's contest as well. Yeah, check for hidden dialogue. You may be pleasantly surprised and find you've been "exposing" your character's words without realizing it.

  57. HI Ruthy,
    More lemon coming up! Hope the chili's still hot.

    BTW, there's a storm rolling into my area. We're under a tornado watch so if I don't log on for awhile it's because of Mother Nature.

  58. Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great post. Every one of those bullet points is rock solid.

    I'll comment on this one.

    Action beats can be used instead of tags to identify the speaker.

    This is huge. Use the tags for action. Yes, use 'he said.' but mostly you want to say:

    "How dare you say that to me." Her hands fisted.
    He glanced down and saw her hands. Good, she hoped he was afraid.
    That tags the sentence so the reader knows who said it, but without said, but with the actions that tell you how she sounded, her attitude, her actions, their affect on the hero.

  59. On dialogue with dialects being a burden, I really agree with that.

    It's something I struggle with in my historical westerns because it is so tempting to drop the G in 'ing' words. "I'm thinkin' about it, Ma'am."

    A little is good, too much stops the reader.

    ONe place I've seen this done badly and very, very well is in scottish highlander type books.

    An occasional, "Aye, Lass." is fantastic, and keeps you rooted in time and place. But some books go way, way too far with it until you almost have to translate it and that pulls me out of the story.

  60. Y'all pray for Debby! It looks like she's really getting hit hard right now with storms. There have been several tornados around the Atlanta area. I'm thankful it hasn't gotten very close to us. But I just saw Debby's town in the middle of a big "red" area on the weather map!

  61. Hi Debbie,

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. This blog always has helpful information.
    Congrats on your award!
    I think most of the storms have passed now...but be safe!

  62. Deb,

    It's late in the day, but I am finally "stopping by" and boy, you hauled in a ton of comments today, girl!!

    You told me: If you stop by again, share some of the secrets you use for writing great dialogue. You handle the big family scenes so well.

    Funny you should mention that -- just wrote a free-for-all family fight scene that had my shaking by the time I was done, which gets me to thinking about your question. I was raised in a family of 13 where there were LOTS of fights, so writing that scene today was almost like therapy. But the thing that struck me the most while I was writing this dialogue was how I would close my eyes and see the whole scene like a movie in my head. Don't know if that's a volatile upbringing coming out there or too many movies, but it worked ... I was crying before I was through, and hopefully the reader will too! :)


  63. Debby:

    Thanks for the tips on the first meeting between the h/h.

    Also, to be in the drawing do we have to provide our e-mail address?

    Just in case, mine is cathy underscore shouse at yahoo dot com.


  64. Hi Everyone,
    I'm back online today. One of three tornados hit close by. We had lightning and storms until after I went to bed. We stayed in the basement until 11PM. Luckily, everything swept over our house.

    Sorry I couldn't log back on because of the lightning.

    Mary, thanks for giving a great example of replacing tags with action beats! So good!!!

    And you're right about dialect. A little goes a long way.

    Missy, hope you were okay in your section of the metro area.

    Hi Lindi! Thanks for your sweet words. How's that wonderful manuscript of yours going?

    Julie, I knew you had a talent for writing the big family stories. No wonder! Thirteen in your family. What a houseful. Bet it was fun!!! I'm an only child. Would have loved to borrow a couple of your siblings.

    Can't wait to read your "big fight scene." Will it be in the next book? Or the one after that?

    Cathy, got you in the drawing!!!

    Thanks all for a fun day. Keep writing!