I recently took several pages from my work in process to my weekly critique meeting. They are a great bunch of writers, lots of fun, and intuitive.

I liked the scene, which had lots of dialogue and showed the characters moving and interacting in the sheriff’s office of a western town. It was more of a transitional scene between two scenes which generated lots of tension and drama.

For the most part everyone liked the writing, but one member said that for him it fell flat and didn’t seem to have the energy my stuff usually has. He couldn’t put his finger on the problem, but I trusted his instincts. The group brainstormed and we realized I had missed one of the key reasons we write dialogue—to move the story forward.

There were bits of information I needed to convey and there was a minor character (the sheriff), who need to be introduced. Other than that, the scene was nothing more than pleasantries and chit chat—all stuff that didn’t need to be there. Once I deleted the greeting and introduction, coffee cups and seating, there wasn’t much left. Nothing that couldn’t be reworked into another scene.

I’d forgotten that every chapter and every scene has to contribute to that all important story arc. And every chapter and every scene must also contribute to one of the main characters arc. My scene did nothing to build toward my hero or heroine’s growth, either forward or backward. There was nothing there to engage the reader which is why the scene felt flat to my friend.

Every bit of dialogue we write should be used to show character, mood, tension, conflict and growth. It needs to contribute to the story through the characters, through back story or pacing. My scene didn’t make anyone laugh or cry or scream. It didn’t raise any new questions and the only reason anyone would be turning pages would be to skip ahead.

I can usually find mistakes like this in other people’s work, but sometimes I just can’t see the forest for the trees.

One of the most common reasons manuscripts are rejected is because the author tells too much of the story and doesn’t engage the reader by showing action. Dialogue is action.

Sounds simple, just write the way people talk. However, good dialogue, while creating the impression of simple, can be more complicated than many writers anticipate when they sit at their computer to write their story.

The first rule of thumb is that dialogue needs to be is realistic. Right? Here is a bit of conversation you might overhear in a restaurant, minus any discussion of food on the menu and the waitress taking their order.

“Glad you could make it.”

“Me too, it’s been a while.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to get in touch, maybe grab a beer.”

“I know, but things have been busy. Tom’s on a leave of absence and I’ve taken on part of his case load.”

“It’s been crazy for me, too. My son’s soccer team needed a coach and practice has taken up most of my evenings.”

“Life can be pretty hectic.”

“Tell me about it.”


“I was hoping you’d be able to make it today.”

“It sounded important.”

“It is.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Did you see the paper this morning?”

“Yeah, I read it while I was drinking my coffee.”

“Then you saw that John was arrested for Marcie’s murder.”

Immediately you can see that while this conversation is actually realistic, it is also boring. There are some elements here which show character. Both characters are busy. One has taken on additional work. Case load, suggests, social worker, lawyer, or detective. One character has a son who plays soccer. Grabbing a beer suggests the characters are male.

If you sit in a coffee shop or restaurant and listen to people talk, you’ll realize that people use long pauses, they use stall words like, um, well, yeah, like and you know. They discuss mundane subjects such as the weather, sports, shopping, and food. While chit chat and pleasantries are natural in real life, on the page it slows the story.

Also, conversations do not always flow in sequence. People sometimes leap around referring back to something discussed earlier or even the day before. To do this on the page would likely confuse the reader. In your story dialogue must follow a logical progression.

The difficulty in writing dialogue is that it has to be more compressed and focused than real speech. It has to sound realistic without actually being realistic. Dialogue must have a purpose or it doesn’t belong on the page.

In this bit of dialogue nothing really happens until the end. Up to that point the reader is bored, and has probably skipped past most of it. As writers we don’t ever want the reader to skip the boring parts. If it’s boring, it doesn’t belong.

To keep this interesting this conversation could be tightened down to four simple lines.

“What’s wrong?”

“Did you see the paper this morning?”

“Yeah, I read it while I was drinking my coffee.”

“Then you saw that John was arrested for Marcie’s murder.”

Now things are interesting. Questions have been raised.

  • Murder?
  • What happened?
  • Who is John?
  • How is he related to Marcie?
  • Are these people all friends, relatives?

Now the reader is looking for more. The pacing of the story has increased. The dialogue has a purpose.

“So you wanted to talk about John’s arrest?” asked Frank.

“Yeah, I’d like you to represent him. His arraignment is the day after tomorrow and he can’t afford a lawyer. All he’ll end up with is some court appointed kid who just passed the bar,” said Jesse.

“Alright, but I’m not sure I can do any better,” said Frank.

Again, in this tiny bit of dialogue the reader has been shown things about the characters and the conflict without being told.

  • Frank and Jesse apparently both know John and the victim, Marcie.
  • Frank is an attorney.
  • John doesn’t seem to have enough money to afford a good one.
  • Frank doesn’t seem to have much confidence in his ability. Either that or he’s hedging about taking on this case for some reason.

Not only can dialogue move the story forward through pacing and by raising questions, it can also reveal back story.

“Yeah. I couldn’t believe it when I saw that two boys out fishing, had found Marcie’s body in the river.”

Here dialogue conveys information which the reader needs to know but isn’t important enough to write a scene around. Building a lengthy scene about two boys who are not important to the story, who go fishing and discover a body would be much like my scene in the sheriff’s office, interesting but flat.

Remember dialogue needs to have a reason for being on the page. Ask yourself what your dialogue is showing? Think about incorporating character, mood, tension, and conflict. Keep pleasantries and chit-chat to a minimum. If your dialogue sounds believable, your reader will be hooked and turning pages.

“All the information you need can be given in dialogue.” –Elmore Leonard

If you are interested in learning more about dialogue, I will be presenting the workshop, Page Turning Dialogue, here at Savvy Authors May 15 through June 12th. We’ll take a more in depth look at why and how we write dialogue, using speech and action tags, as well as the grammar of dialogue.


Kathy OttenKathy Otten is the published author of multiple historical romance novels, novellas, and short stories. She is also published in contemporary romance and historical fiction. She is a 2016 Northwest Houston RWA Lone Star winner. She lives in the rolling farmland of western New York where she can often be found walking her dog through the woods and fields. She has been married for thirty-four years and is the mother of three grown children and one grandson. Currently, she is putting the finishing touches on a Civil War romance and doing rewrites on a contemporary young adult. A Tarnished Knight is her third full-length novel .

 New Release:

A Tarnished Knight CoverFleeing her abusive husband, Victoria Van der Beck is captured by down-on-his-luck bounty hunter, Ryder MacKenzie. As she comes to love this man who hides his face in shadows, she wonders if he could be the valiant knight for whom she’s been longing. Is he the champion of who would save her from the evil prince, or is McKenzie just a paid lackey determined to return her to her husband?

Ryder MacKenzie never believed anyone could love him, for he was cursed the day he was born. He only wants to be left alone to live on his ranch in peace. But rustlers have stolen his cattle. He’s been ambushed and his horse killed. Now his one chance to get his life back to simply return a society princess to her husband. Maybe his luck is about to change. At least she isn’t pretty.

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