You Talkin’ To Me? (Dialogue in Fiction)

To me, dialogue is the best part of writing a fiction story because it can be fun – especially when there is an emotional exchange or disagreement.  But it can also be the most challenging because it has to be interesting and believable.  If dialogue isn’t done well, the reader may decide not to read on.

The tricky thing about dialogue is that it has so many other jobs to do in the story.  It must also:

  • Advance the plot
  • Reveal character
  • Reflect mood or emotions
  • Carry information or exposition
  • Foreshadow what’s to come
  • Have an emotional impact

While doing all of this, the writer must avoid the following problems when crafting dialogue:

  • Being too stilted or formal – or always grammatically correct (I don’t believe I should have to expound further to convey the potential pitfalls of this problem)
  • A dialect written in such a way that it’s hard to read (I’ve read that dialects from the Southern U.S. (Louisiana or Mississippi, for instance) are particularly difficult)
  • Allowing a character to talk too much (if a character’s response is a paragraph or reads like a speech, it’s too long.  In real life, someone like this would be interrupted long before they finished)
  • Every character talking the same (the idea is that if you removed the dialogue tags, you could still tell who said what by how the dialogue is written)
  • Predictable dialogue (unless they are psychics, the readers shouldn’t be able to anticipate the exact exchange between characters)
  • Dialogue that is flat or bland (if the dialogue bores you, it will definitely bore the reader)
  • Dialogue that is too expository (save heavy exposition for research papers or essays)

And the most common problem?

  • Dialogue that is “on the nose” about what the character thinks or wants (in real-life, people will rarely give up their true intentions or motivations – especially if they have something to hide or are trying to get information from someone else)

This information came from notes that I took during my manuscript writing class that ended last month.  Next week, I will share tips for great dialogue – also taken from my class notes.

So, here’s a sample scene:

“I did not know you would attend the Nineteenth Century Fashion Ball tonight, Sophie,” Angela said.  “I presumed you would rather desire an evening nestling with your malodorous felines.”

“I should have suspected that you would be unable to attend this soiree deprived of your imperious sarcasm.  However, to contribute to the success of the charity banquet, please deposit your broom in the closet, unless you propose to tidy the floors.”

“Why did you make your presence known?” Angela asked.  “I am sure an invitation was not delivered to your plebeian residence.”

“My goal is to assure that you make an oaf of yourself in front of Mr. Joshua Robinson.  He is the most eligible bachelor and it is my intention to reveal my interest in being his future wife.  Of course, he must fathom that I am better suited to the task than you are.  Unless he has established no standards at all, he would not select you as his partner for the first dance, for you have no grace at all.  Not to mention the layers of your dress drape upon your waist in a matronly manner; so much so that you bear an uncanny resemblance to his own great-grandmother.”

Angela planted her hands on her hips.  “I most certainly do not!”

“You most certainly do,” Sophie said.

“Do not!”

“Do to!”



“Okey dokey, ya’ll break it up right now, ya hear?  Fight’n like a coon n’ possum in a burlap sack jus’ won’t do!” Gail said as she wormed her way between Sophie and Angela.

I guess I have some work to do, eh?

What do you love (or dislike) about reading (or writing) dialogue?  Feel free to share any other dialogue problems that you’ve encountered 🙂


28 thoughts on “You Talkin’ To Me? (Dialogue in Fiction)

  1. Aligaeta January 3, 2011 / 8:13 AM

    Nice of you to share your notes! My creative writing courses were Autobiographical Writing and Advanced Composition, so I’m intrigued by your notes for fiction writing. For the dialogue of the southerner’s I found Faulkner to be the master. My favorite dialogue is found in African-American feminist literature, master the dialect to find strong, passionate characters. I would never attempt either the southern, nor the African-American dialogue, although it has been most pleasurable reading.

    • jannatwrites January 3, 2011 / 4:09 PM

      I think on the dialect, they key is subtlety. I’m with you though, I don’ t think I would try southern or African-American – I don’t know them well enough to even go there.

      It’s interesting to me how the ‘rules’ of writing change depending on the writing type. I don’t pay attention to the structure of writing when I read, which I guess is the point: when we read, we shouldn’t be able to see that deep.

      Thanks for your comment, Aligaeta 🙂

  2. nrhatch January 3, 2011 / 1:33 PM

    I recently submitted a short story to the NPR Challenge written in Pure Dialogue:

    I didn’t win, but it was fun to write the entire story through dialogue.

    I find that the most effective way to write “real” dialogue is to read it out loud and make sure it sounds “true” to my ears based on the characters involved.

    • jannatwrites January 3, 2011 / 4:19 PM

      I read the story, and I enjoyed it very much. I love the reading out loud idea; it’s a great way to get the bugs out. Thanks for adding that one 🙂

  3. chlost January 3, 2011 / 4:25 PM

    I was interested to look at the graphic novel that my nephew loved so much. It is almost all dialogue. The drawings do help with the story, but most of it is told through the word balloons. Not my style, but interesting nonetheless.Try reading one of those out loud!!! 🙂

    • jannatwrites January 3, 2011 / 4:42 PM

      It’s good that you had enough interest to check out what your nephew reads. I think in a graphic novel, you NEED the pictures to define it when reading out loud. Otherwise, I think it could be confusing.

      My son has read some graphic novels and I have yet to find one that I truly enjoyed. It’s just a matter of preference, I suppose 🙂

  4. Brown Eyed Mystic January 3, 2011 / 6:39 PM

    You’re a sweetheart to share your learning with all, Janna. Thank you.

    I believe the tags like “said” are not necessary, for most of the times. However, we cannot completely cut them off and say we’ve done a good job. These “basic” tags are there for a reason, and I don’t mind a cautious sprinkle of a two or three every now and then.

    I love dialogues that reflect a character’s traits clearly through their slang or dialect. I especially love how you portray Gail via your dialogue.


    • jannatwrites January 3, 2011 / 8:20 PM

      Thanks, BrownEyed 🙂 I hope that the information will be of use to someone. I’m not good about analyzing dialogue structure when I read because I get too into the story – I just know when it’s not working for me when I can step out of the story and realize that it’s not working for me.

  5. Tim Weaver January 3, 2011 / 6:45 PM

    As you know, Janna, I am big on dialogue. One of the few things I can do in fiction is “hear” the characters talking…which is why I get a lot of “Well”, “Um”, and the like into my writing. 🙂

    • jannatwrites January 3, 2011 / 8:22 PM

      I do think that dialogue is a huge part of modern stories, so it’s good that you “hear” their voices (as long as they’re not telling you to hide the Nilla wafers from your MIL.) Realistic dialogue definitely helps a story 🙂

  6. Ollin January 3, 2011 / 9:22 PM

    “Dialogue that is “on the nose” about what the character thinks or wants (in real-life, people will rarely give up their true intentions or motivations – especially if they have something to hide or are trying to get information from someone else)”

    This is such an important point! Thank you for reminding us Janna.

    I fall into this trap often, I’m ashamed to say. I guess it’s just what writers tend to do, too afraid that we might not be revealing enough I guess. But I found that the more I pull back from the dialogue, the better.

    There needs to be SOME element of mystery.

    By the way, good luck in 2011, I’m excited to see what you write about this year. Can’t wait. 🙂

    • jannatwrites January 3, 2011 / 9:45 PM

      Thanks for the well-wishes, Ollin. I have to admit that I am guilty of that one also. There’s a thin line to walk between mystery and confusion, so getting off balance at times isn’t something to be ashamed of 🙂 Besides, that’s what revisions are for!

      Best of luck to you in 2011 also, though I don’t think you need it – you’ve got a great momentum going and I have no doubt it will be a terrific year for you!

  7. suzicate January 4, 2011 / 7:41 AM

    excellent post. I recently attended a workshop which told us NEVER to use dialect in dialogue that it would never be accepted for publication. I submitted my essay anyway and it was published! Dialogue can make or break a script…it’s all in knowing how to do it properly. I was afriad of dialogue for years, but I am getting braver!

    • Tim Weaver January 4, 2011 / 5:59 PM

      I was in the same class with Janna, and one of the things the instructor said was to just write it like you would regular dialogue and let the reader fill in what they “hear” when they read it. If you try and force an accent on them via spellings and dropped endings (e.g. darlin’), then it would probably sound forced to the reader.

      If I wanted to convey my mother in law speaks with an eastern New Mexico / west Texas accent, I don’t need to “spell” anything differently. Using her words, with proper (well, as proper as you can get), I think I can convey it quite nicely, and it will still sound true in your head:

      What one might say in “standard” English:

      “I am going to the grocery store. Do you need anything?”

      What she said (no, this isn’t made up), worked into a dialogue that I did make up:

      I got up late, but luckily there was still coffee in the pot. Normally, this wouldn’t be the case, since folks in Lubbock tend to get up much earlier than we do in California. My mother in law had her purse in hand as I stumbled into the kitchen.

      “Tim, I’m fixing to go to the grocery store. Y’all need anything?”

      “No, thank you. Wait, actually, could you pick up some Benadryl, my allergies are acting up.”

      “Uh huh. But before I go, would you please open this bottle of Dr. Pepper for me? My hands are a might sore this morning. Thank you.”


      Both her lines are real conversations we had. Now, here’s how they would sound to me (remember, these are actual lines used in different contexts, but is what she said):

      (Tea-yim, I’m fixin’ t’go to the groc’ry store. Y’all need ene-thin’?”
      “I’m fixing to go to the grocery store. Y’all need anything?”

      (uh hun. But ‘fore I go, wouldja please open this bott’l of Dr. Paypper for me? My hayn’s are a might sore this morn’. Thank ye-uh)

      “Uh huh. But before I go, would you please open this bottle of Dr. Pepper for me? My hands are a might sore this morning. Thank you.”


      Now, if I tried to write that? Oh my gosh would that sound stupid. Also, what if the person reading had no idea what someone from Lubbock sounded like? Or wasn’t a native speaker of English?

      Once the instructor explained why “writing” in accent wasn’t good, it made sense.

      Dialect/phrases can be used, certainly. I mean, nobody from California…well, almost nobody from the Coast, at least, would use “fixing to” to mean “going to” or “getting ready to” do something. 🙂

      • jannatwrites January 4, 2011 / 7:24 PM

        Thanks for the back up on this one, Tim. In trying to keep the post brief, I didn’t go into deep detail on any of the points. I laughed at the ‘fixing to’ example, because that’s one I’ve heard (and used) all my life. And ya’ll? That one I never used…until I spent a week in Texas visiting family. Thank goodness I broke that habit quickly 🙂

      • suzicate January 8, 2011 / 7:56 AM

        The dialogue used in my accepted script was no where near that extreme. It was a southern dialect of my grandmothers (60’s) but I did not change standard English but used the words she used back then that make absolutely no sense in this age, but was pertinent to the story at hand. It is a matter of knowing how and when and not overusing…and of course, the main thing is who you are writing for (publisher and audience). I agree that it can totally screw up a manuscript, but I am also saying it can be done if it is done properly. There’s a very fine line that takes a lot of work (and bravery) to achieve. I’d never attempt the examples you showed, nor would I use dialect as standard use. I only wanted to point out that one shouldn’t be afraid to use it with care when it’s necessary to the story.

        • jannatwrites January 8, 2011 / 12:38 PM

          I’m glad you wouldn’t attempt the examples I showed – it took me quite a while to write such exaggerated dialogue that broke many of the ‘rules’ (and not in a good way, either.) In my real writing, I don’t write like that either. The closest I’ve come to writing a dialect is a Native American Apache character I had in one of my stories.

          The story you wrote sounds like it would be interesting. I just finished reading a book that had a modern-day story tied to a sixteenth century story – it was interesting how the writing style (word choices and phrasing) differed between the two and made the period change believable.

          Thanks for your input on dialects in dialogue, Suzicate!

    • jannatwrites January 4, 2011 / 7:13 PM

      I’m glad you’ve gotten braver, and it’s so cool that your essay was published! Practice and taking risks are the best ways to improve the writing experience (and results) 🙂

  8. Richard W Scott January 4, 2011 / 7:11 PM

    Good post, Janna.
    I am also a fan of well-written dialogue, and can typically tell if I will like a novel by just skimming through the exposition to the first bit of conversation.
    There was a time that I would (and did) attempt dialects, thinking it would add to a story. I thought of how well Mark Twain handled it, and despite the non-pc-ness of it, gave it a try. If failed horribly.
    As one of your commenters above implied, you can get the same result by a careful choice of words and rhythm, describing the accent, and letting your reader fill it in for you. In the long-run, I think, that works best.
    As another of your commenters mentioned, writing a story all in dialogue–sans tags–is a wonderful experiment. Some of my favorite short fictin is written that way.
    Happy to have found your blog!

    • jannatwrites January 4, 2011 / 7:57 PM

      Thanks for your comment, Richard! I’ve never been brave enough to try dialects, but, on the positive side, failures are great learning experiences. (Figuring out what not to do is valuable information.)

      I prefer stories with a lot of dialogue, as long as I find it interesting. If I start thinking about how many loads of laundry I have left or wondering whether or not I fed the dog, it’s not a good sign 🙂

    • Tim Weaver January 4, 2011 / 8:26 PM

      That’s because he’s Mark Twain, and we’re not.


  9. Aligaeta January 5, 2011 / 9:05 AM

    Funny that you mentioned Twain, Tim. I had written Twain and Faulkner as examples of superb southern dialect and deleted Twain before posting the comment as I don’t think Twain’s dialect usage in dialogue is any longer acceptable. Is it that we are no longer interested in what the southern uneducated has to say? Are reader’s not interested in working that hard to comprehend or is that the publisher’s opinion? I think in order to write dialect what is being said must be profound.
    Say you character is autistic and your writing brillant thoughts but then what the others hear: the quotes are brief and gibberish, now that would be awesome. (ha, I guess that would be Faulkner).

  10. Miss Rosemary January 11, 2011 / 12:35 PM

    Dialogue is my favorite! It’s my chance to make up for all those times when I’ve come up with the PERFECT thing to say in real life … three hours after the argument.

    But you’re right, it is tricky, though I’d much rather write that than descriptions. My current challenge right now is making my character sound uneducated but not stupid. There are some fantastic words I want to use that she is capable of understanding but since she never went to school wouldn’t necessarily know what they mean and use them on her own.

    • jannatwrites January 11, 2011 / 4:08 PM

      Miss Rosemary, I agree that uneducated but intelligent would be a difficult objective. If the dialogue in Ensnared is any indication, I know you’ll pull it off 🙂

  11. nrhatch August 18, 2011 / 9:32 AM

    Another perfect pick for the challenge.

    As they say in NOLA, “Ya heard me!” 😉

    • jannatwrites August 18, 2011 / 8:30 PM

      Thanks, Nancy. I’m not very helpful (on my blog posts, at least) so there weren’t many choices for that category!

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