Published in Institute of Children’s Literature, Novel Advice, Gotta Write Network


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By Richelle Putnam


     Dialogue is like a main artery, pumping life into your manuscript.  So much more than simple speech and conversation, dialogue develops storyline action with each passing word.  It is an author’s best tool for revealing character strengths and weaknesses.

     So, how can a writer develop realistic dialogue?  First, you must learn to be quiet and listen.  Go to any public place and observe, take notes.  I believe you’ll find out several things.  Women talk differently than men, children differently than women, teenagers differently than children.  Women stop to admire a blouse, and start back up on the same conversation.  Children dart to the Kaybee Toys’ window, and brag about what they’re getting next.  Most likely, teenagers will be hanging out in groups at record shops and food courts.

You’ll discover lots of jabber filled with incomplete sentences, okay in real life, but not in stories or books.  Why not?  It’s boring and doesn’t move the story forward.  If a character’s trait happens to be babbling, that’s different.  You’re defining the individual. 

Allow dialogue to build tension.  Here’s an example:


“Hello, William.”

“Whoa.  Since when did I become William?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Come on, Julie.  What gives?”

“Forget it.”

“Please, Julie.”

“Never mind.”

“Well, okay.”

“I saw you and Cindy.  In the gym.  Alone.  And.  And…”

“Hey, Julie, come back!”

That’s short and sweet, but the conversation paints an unmistakable conflict with only dialogue.

When characters communicate, they don’t stand or sit like zombies, but shuffle, pick, or move some part of their bodies.

The following dialect is from S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

“You ain’t a’woofin’,” I said, rubbing my bare arms between drags on my cigarette.  I started to say something about the film of ice developing on the outer edges of the fountain when a sudden blast from a car horn made us both jump.  The blue Mustang was circling the park slowly.

Johnny swore under his breath, and I muttered, “What do they want?  This is our territory.  What are Socs doing this far east?”

Johnny shook his head.  “I don’t know.  But I bet they’re looking for us.  We picked up their girls.”

Character gestures blended with dialogue breathe life into each page.

There are chatterers, braggarts, those who stammer, repeat themselves, the silent types, boisterous types, and so on.  When you build characters, the way they speak, what they say, and how they say it is vital.

Dialect is never spoken in the same dull tone, but with various ranges of highs and lows.  Also, consider tones, such as angry, kind, empathetic, and frustrated.

But dialogue can’t handle everything.  Don’t force conversation to reveal important history and think that you’re showing, not telling.  For instance:

“Sis, I know you’ve been upset about Mom and Dad’s divorce.  And of course Mom not showing up for your spelling bee in the fourth grade has haunted you for years, not to mention when Dad didn’t come that afternoon you waited on the back steps until way past dark for him to teach you how to ride your bike without training wheels, and to top it off you’ve been dealing with adolescence, peer pressure, cheerleader tryouts, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Whew!  These may be important events for your readers to know, but not in casual conversation.  Divulge these through emotions, thoughts, actions, or good old juicy gossip.  How about:

“Isn’t it just awful about Dan.”  Evelyn glanced passed Judy.  Judy twisted in her chair, yearning to glimpse her secret love.  “Don’t turn around,” Evelyn whispered through clenched teeth.  “He’s looking at us.”

“What are you talking about?” Judy’s heart rapped like a furious woodpecker. She wondered which one of them Dan was looking at.

Evelyn leaned into the table, eyed the library, first left and then right.  “He’s HIV positive.”

Judy froze.  If her chest had had a hole in it, her heart would have plummeted to the cold tile floor.  Her hands flew to her face.  “Oh, my God, no!” she said.  The “Shh’s,” that hissed all around them sounded like a million snakes.  But, at that moment, Judy would’ve chosen being thrown into a den of poisonous vipers to this.

In the above conversation, with added gestures and thoughts, we discovered a lot about Judy, something very important about Dan, and even a little about gossipy Evelyn.

And what is dialog without dialog tags?

“Come on,” Jan said.

“I’m coming,” Bill said.

“Well, hurry up,” Jan said.

“I said I was coming,” Bill said.

“You say a lot of things,” Jan said.

“What’s that supposed to mean,” Bill Said.

“Just come on,” Jan said.

“I said I was coming,” Bill said.

“Said” becomes monotonous used line after line.  How does this sound?

“Come on,” Jan demanded.

“I’m coming,” Bill answered.

“Well, hurry up,” barked Jan.

“I said I was coming,” Bill snarled.

“You say a lot of things,” Jan shouted.

“What’s that supposed to mean,” Bill yelled.

“Just come on,” Jan spouted.

“I said I was coming,” Bill spewed.

Yuck!  That’s even worse.  Let’s try this?

“Come on, Bill.”

“I’m coming.”

Jan’s hands flew to her hips.  “Well, hurry up.”

“Don’t get short with me, Jan.  I said I was coming.”

“You say a lot of things.”

“I’m right here,” Bill said.  “You don’t have to yell.  And what do you mean I say a lot of things?”

Jan rolled her eyes. “Just come on.”

“I said I was coming.”

Notice there are very few dialog tags.  Use tags, such as barked, hacked, and spewed very seldom, and choose the appropriate word when you do.  These are very strong verbs that affect tone and also say a lot about the person speaking.

Another overuse tends to be the exclamation point.  Too many erase the affect throughout the entire story.  The exclamation point is a sharp edged tool to be handled carefully so that it engraves rather than gouges.

Watch adverbs that adjoin dialog tags.  He said angrily.  She said shyly.  When your manuscript fills up with –ly adverbs, your work appears lazy and non-descriptive.  Create a personal anger for him and shyness for her.  Everyone’s anger and shyness is not handled in the same manner.

That brings us to those present participles.  Read the following.

“You see,” she said, wiping her tears.  “It always ends up like this.”

“Like what?” he said, tapping his foot under the table.

“Like this,” she answered, holding her hands in the air as if she were praising him instead of scolding him.

“I still don’t see,” he said, taking a sip of his Coke.

“You see!” she cried, glaring at him.

Find the gesture that works best.  Your reader doesn’t want to visualize every single motion, just enough to make the scene and characters genuine.

In summary, dialogue must sound realistic without being too realistic.  Mingle it with gesture and emotion.  Use adverbs and present participles in strict moderation.  Don’t use dialogue to communicate past history in long narrative passages.

Read your dialogue aloud.  Find its rhythm, the heartbeat.  Where it skips a beat, revise it until it reaches that thump, thump, thump.  Keep your main artery pumping life into your manuscript.


Copyright 2000 by Richelle Putnam


Richelle Putnam is a former writer for All Headline News.  She has been published in Common Ties, E2K Literary Journal, World Wide Writers, Orchard Press Mysteries, Southern Hum, The Copperfield Review, Cayuse Press, Writer’s Journal, Obadiah Press’s Living By Faith Anthology, A tribute to Mothers Anthology, A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Daughters, and more.  Her children’s literature has been published on the Institute of Children’s Literature’s website, Writing Korner, and Wee Ones, Boy’s Quest, Appleseeds, and Hopscotch Magazine for Girls; Her work is soon to be released in Flashquake, Fireflies in Fruit Jars Anthology, and GCWA “Mississippi” Anthology. Her novel, Fallout, was released in 2000; She is the Founder and President of Mississippi Writers Guild.