How to Improve Your Dialogue

How to Improve Your Dialogue

by Kathy Lynch Carmichael

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009 Kathy Lynch Carmichael. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in print or on the Internet without the prior written approval of Kathy.

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In a recent discussion with a writing pal, she mentioned she was having trouble adding dialogue to her story.

If this is a problem for you, it might help if you think of your book in terms of scene/sequel. The action sequences (moments of change) are ‘scene.’ The character’s reaction to the action/change that occurred in the previous action scene is ‘sequel.’ During an action scene, you want more action and to a reader (as opposed to a movie where the opposite is true), dialogue translates as action. Narrative translates as inaction.

Fourteen tips/guidelines:

  1. Envision the scene. Pretend you’re the camera watching your characters in their setting.
  2. Strive for no more than 3 pages of straight narrative—you need dialogue to keep the reader from tiring.
  3. A character talking to herself or an animal doesn’t count as real dialogue. Dialogue is an interchange of either speech between two or more characters or a speech/physical reaction sequence.
  4. Stand in front of a mirror—pretend the image of yourself that you see is your POV (point of view) character and that you are the camera—what is the POV character doing? Read your manuscript aloud. If she/he’s just standing there—then nothing is happening—if she’s talking, reacting to another character’s dialogue, you’ll see that. Those body/stage movements should be recorded along with the dialogue/conversation.
  5. If it’s sequel rather than an action scene, you still don’t want your character static—I often have sequels set up during conversation scenes with a friend/confidant/or interspersed within action scenes to help speed things along. In an older Jo Beverly book, she did something interesting during a sequel—she had her heroine thinking/reacting in narrative but physically active, tying bedsheets together. At the end of this passage, the heroine makes up her mind to escape and flings said bedsheet ‘rope’ from the window—and the reader realizes that she intended this all along even though she had to convince herself via the narrative that she should do this. Even though this passage went longer than three pages without real dialogue, it was not the least bit slow or draggy.
  6. Long paragraphs of unbroken narrative are harder for the reader to read and slows the pacing.
  7. Another thing to try is shorter sentence structure in the narrative to convey a sense of action or faster pacing—you won’t want to use this all the time, but it can really speed up a slow scene.
  8. Talk your scenes into a tape recorder—listen to your dialogue on playback to see if it sounds natural and not stilted.
  9. Listen and watch the people around you. Restaurants are very good for this. Conversation is give and take—often speakers are interrupted and sentences are incomplete or fragmented. There aren’t generally long pauses during these conversations—so, too, you shouldn’t have long pauses except for intentional ones during your dialogue/action scenes. Remember, narrative (internal thought and description) creates pauses in the action. I personally think this is why so many writers have scenes occur over food—we’re used to studying other people’s conversations in those settings!
  10. Your job as a writer is to show (record) the story rather than tell it.
  11. Ignore all of the above whenever story requires it. The story itself is of primary importance and trumps all rules/guidelines.
  12. Buy a second copy of a beloved book and four different colors of highligher markers. Go through and highlight the dialogue with one color, description with another, internal thoughts with a third, and action/body movements/stage direction with the 4th. After doing this for a few chapters, you’ll get a feel for the balance between these elements. Then take a couple of chapters of your manuscript and do the same. You’ll then have a visual of where you’re off—and what element you’re using instead of dialogue. Nine times out of ten, it’s because you’re not taking the time to fully develop each scene—instead you’re telling the scene in narrative.
  13. Sometimes, because a newer writer hasn’t quite adjusted to writing in third person past tense, she summarizes action and dialogue rather telling it as if it were occurring but in past tense.Here’s an example of what you shouldn’t do:

    As Mary took her seat in the crowded classroom, the teacher placed the notes on the overhead projector and began to read from them. He stopped for a moment and chastised her for being late again, then told her to stay after class. As he read some more, she bit her lip, worried that he’d find out she wasn’t really a student after all.

    Here’s an example of what you might consider doing instead:

    Mary entered the darkened classroom, fumbling for a chair. The teacher read from his notes on the overhead projector. Suddenly he stopped, then spun and glared at her.

    “Late again, I see.”

    “I’m sorry, Professor.” She ducked her head, hoping that in the dimly lit classroom he couldn’t see the blush rising on her face. She hated lying. She hated living a lie.

    “Do you have an excuse?”

    “No,” she rasped out. “Sorry.”

    “You will see me after class.”


    “And don’t be late again,” he warned, his voice imbued with that deadly tone known only to college professors used to having their commandments obeyed. He went back to reading his notes aloud.

    She bit her lip. She simply had to keep her cover for a little longer. It was imperative that he not find out she wasn’t really a student.

  14. An exercise to try: write a three page scene using nothing but dialogue. You only have the words to convey setting, who the characters are and their emotions. Because it’s pure dialogue, for the purpose of the exercise, it’s okay to venture into melodrama territory! Here’s a possible scenario: Man and woman seated in busy restaurant and woman’s goal is to dump the man.

Using the fourteen tips above, I believe it’s possible to give your dialogue that zing of reality. I hope this helps!