Writing Interesting and Effective Dialog

Dialog performs several functions in a story.

1. Dialog allows the reader to hear the voice of the character. It is an opportunity to use regionalisms and particularities of speech. Even to write in pauses if that was typical of the person.

“Ain’t much wrong with it,” my grandfather would say when he was pleased with something.

2. Dialog allows us to show and not tell. It permits the writer to put “tell” elements into the voice of the character rather than that of the author. It thus becomes “show.” When the author present info, however it is “tell.”

“I’ve always been an immature person,” he said. vs. John was an immature person.

3. Dialog imparts immediacy to the story. It has a “you are there” quality.

“Look at me, she said. “Look at these hands.”

Tips for Writing Great Dialog

1. Keep it short. It’s harder to mess up short dialog than it is to mess up long dialog. Keep explanations for the narrative.

Terrible dialog:

“This is my cousin Elizabeth,” she replied, “whose father once had a hardware store on the corner of Huntington and Blake and whose business won best in the state three times in a row, but who finally got sick of hardware and turned to accounting.”

Better dialog (short) with accompanying narrative:

“This is my cousin Elizabeth,” she replied. Elizabeth’s father once had a hardware store on the corner of Huntington and Blake. His business won best in the state three times in a row, but he finally got sick of hardware and turned to accounting.

2. Insert feeling and emotion in the dialog. (Again keep analysis or interpretation for the narrative.)

“‘I hate you!’ he snarled. He had been putting up with his brother for a long time and now…

3. Do not replicate most dialog from real life in your story. Next time you are in a public place, listen to dialog around you. You will easily notice how repetitive, aimless, and meaningless it often is. Much of it just fills the air! Lifestory dialog has to move your memoir along. It cannot be a filler. It cannot be used because “That’s really what we said.”

In the first example below, the dialog doesn’t move the story along. It’s simply imitative of real life. In the second, we have a glimpse of the character’s life and so htis bit of dialog moves the story along.

Terrible dialog that imitates life:

“What will you ladies have today?” the waitress asked Theresa and me.

“What’s the special?” I asked.

“Halibut.”

“Halibut! Oh, I had halibut at my daughter’s the other day. No, I want something else.”

Better dialog:

“What will you ladies have today?” the waitress asked Theresa and me.

“What’s the special?” I asked.

“Halibut.”

“Halibut!” For a moment, I was taken away by a feeling that I could not describe, but then it came to me. I had ordered halibut the day Tom had taken me out to lunch to tell me he was divorcing me.

4. Skip dialog if it doesn’t add anything. Yes, dialog can give voice to a character, but let’s not make that voice boring. In the restaurant scene above, it would be preferable to skip the dialog with the waitress and just move on to what happened between you and Theresa. If nothing happened, skip the restaurant scene altogether.

Good luck writing the dialog of your stories!

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About Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux began helping people to turn their memories into memoirs in 1988. Denis was named Lifewriting Professional of the Year by the Association of Personal Historians in 1996. Today, Denis is a writer, educator, teacher, autobiography co-author, memoir-writing coach, editor and publisher. He directs The Memoir Network, an international group of memoir professionals who use his method and materials to help people write lifestories. Denis also offers writing tele-classes and leads memoir writing tele-groups.
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