Tag Archives: writing

Three Keys to Dialog: Part 1

18 Oct

How do we write good dialog and avoid bad? It’s more than just hearing voices in our heads or channeling our characters onto paper. There is a bit of science behind the voodoo.

Maybe science is too strong a word, but there are principles, keys, that help us unlock good dialog. Understand these keys and good dialog is no longer something that shows up only when the muse does, or worse, happens by accident. It becomes something you can create at will.

Key One: Dialog is Action

Whenever you bring together two or more characters who want different things, you ignite the heat of conflict.  And how do these sparring characters interact?  Often by talking to each other–dialog.

Dialog is a verbal exchange, a give and take between characters.  

It is action.  This action, this conflict-generating verbal exchange we call dialog, is a wonderful catalyst for fiction.  In fact, the interplay of conflict and action drives fiction.  It works like this: conflict makes the characters act. Their actions reveal who they are better than any description (and that gets the reader involved enough to keep reading).  Their actions also lead to new conflicts and even more actions in response, all of which accrue (with a bit of focus) into a plot.  It’s like an engine.  An action-conflict-action plot-driving machine.

The best test for whether dialog works is whether it contains action.

Something happens–a decision is made, a problem is exposed or solved, some change occurs in the story.

When writing dialog, ask yourself whether the dialog takes the reader deeper into the story.  Has the story changed as a result of the dialog or does the dialog reveal a change?  No change equals no action.

If nothing happens, if there is no dramatic (e.g., plot-moving) action, the dialog isn’t doing its job.  It’s broken.

Dialog Problems:  Telling (a.k.a. Exposition) and Redundancy

If the dialog and the narrative parts of a scene say the same thing, one of them is unnecessary:

Gerald couldn’t tell if he had enough money for both pieces of candy. When he tried to count the coins, he became flustered.  “I’m confused,” he said.  “I don’t know how much money this is.”

This is painful and redundant because the narrative part tells (instead of shows) that Gerald is flustered and then the dialog part repeats the mistake. This is an exceedingly poor fragment of dialog–not only is it redundant and expository, nothing happens.

Gerald looked from the rock candy to the pixie sticks to the three pennies and a nickel in his palm. “Will this buy two pieces?” he asked, holding up the coins for the shopkeeper’s inspection.

Gerald rises to the challenge—there is action in his decision to ask the shopkeeper. It sets up the shopkeeper to respond in any number of ways.

If Gerald held up the coins and said something else, the reader would have a different impression of the boy and the situation:

“Give me a pixie stick and a rock candy,” he said, thrusting the change at the shopkeeper.

We could also expect a different response from the shopkeeper.  Here, the dialog is as much a part of the action as the narrative, and it complements it rather than repeats it.  It illustrates Gerald’s character and moves the story along.

Exposition. If a character talks for more than a couple or three lines, he is probably not engaging in a dialog. He is either giving a speech (monologue) or dumping information (exposition) on the reader. Dialog is action; neither speech-making nor exposition is action.  And they will both slow your story to a grinding halt.

When you review dialog you have written, you should see things happening, problems being addressed or created.  If nothing happens, backtrack to where the action stopped. Chances are you have some telling (exposition) in your dialog where showing would be more appropriate.

It can be as subtle as the first Gerald example or as egregious as page after page of an expert detailing the inner workings of a secret society. You may be in love with these details, but they aren’t action, even when they are dressed up with quotation marks.  This is true for technical and historical information, setting and character description, backstory, or any other exposition you may be tempted to dump into the story. Keep the story moving.  Try to keep exposition to a minimum and incorporate it as naturally as possible. Reveal details through story events, not as chunks of exposition masquerading as dialog.

A couple quick tips: 

Characters should not tell each other what they already know or what one character conveniently “forgot.” This is a flimsy device to bring the reader up to speed. Believe me, readers see right through it. Beyond that, it will probably have your characters resorting to forced and false dialog that doesn’t reveal their true characters, that dumps exposition on the reader, and doesn’t contain action. You are a better writer than that; you can find a more interesting and legitimate way of incorporating what your reader needs to know into the story.

Avoid wasted words such as well, like, you know, and um. Dialog isn’t exact speech, it’s an approximation designed to convey the sense of a conversation. There is a lot filler in a typical conversation, but you don’t want filler in your story. You want 100% pure story in your story.

Stay tuned…

In the next post we will explore how dialog reveals characters on many different levels at once.

Good Fiction Comes From the Minds of Your Characters

6 Sep

Time to Shape up Your Fiction

How to Get Readers to Identify with Your Characters

What makes fiction come alive?

The short answer is identification.  If the reader sees herself in your character or situation and says, “Hey that could be me,” we have identification.  That shower scene in Psycho? It’s powerful not only because it’s graphic but because we all take showers.  We identify with that experience.

Point of View

A lot of techniques help readers identify with your character.  One of the most powerful is telling the story from the character’s perspective.  When we are in a character’s head, we are in that character’s Point of View (POV).  Your story can be written in either 1st person (I did that, I saw this) or 3rd person (he saw this, he did that) and still use the same viewpoint character.

Showing a Character’s Experience

What is important is how closely we represent that character’s experience.  When we tell a character’s inner thoughts and sensations, we are in a close POV.

Jim’s heart pounded as he ran.  That is Jim’s experience.  We can feel it too because we know the sensation.

If we write Jim exerted himself as he ran, we’ve completely lost the experience.  We are telling the reader what happened instead of letting her share it.

A Simple Trap

A trap we often fall into is adding a layer between reader and character.  For example if we write, Jim felt his heart pound as he ran, we have stepped back slightly from Jim’s heart pounded as he ran.  Now we see Jim feeling his heart pound.  There is a self-conscious layer between Jim’s experience and the reader’s.  That additional layer is the author telling the reader that Jim felt.

Don’t think that if you write in 1st person you are immune.  Consider the difference between I felt my heart pound as I ran and my heart pounded as I ran.

Omit Thought Words

Words that point out what the character is thinking like knew, thought, realized or wondered also separate the reader from the experience. Which do you think is stronger?

I knew there was no hope


There was no hope.

If you aren’t sure, try reading the two sentences aloud.  You may feel more comfortable with the first one because it sounds more polite, but the second is more direct.  When we are trying convey the experience, direct is what we want.

Show Emotions, Don’t Name Them

Words that name an emotion are shortcuts that rob the reader of experience.  It’s one thing to say Jane was sad, another much more effective thing to show her in that state.

To do that we have to be in Jane’s experience and know how she would feel and respond to the situation at hand.  It’s worth the extra effort because when you show your character responding at that level of detail, the reader identifies.


Now you should have a pretty good handle on what’s expected.  Look over the last scene you wrote and find where you can make the point of view closer.  Make the changes.  Then read the scene again to see how tightening up the POV strengthens your writing.

When you’re finished, you can hit shower.