Working with Dialogue

By Kristen
Updated November 24, 2007

Leave Out the Filler

Most of the time, we say "um" and "uh" and such in daily conversation, but those words take up space and bore the reader. Unless your character stutters or stammers for a reason, leave out the unnecessary noises.

Leave Out the Small Talk

"Hello."

"Hi."

"How are you doing today?"

"Fine. How are you?"

"I'm doing well. Beautiful weather outside."

"Yes, lovely."

"Did you see the news this morning?"

"Terrible, wasn't it?"

"So what are your plans for today?"

Unless you're trying to make a point that your characters tend to focus on the small talk and never get to the important stuff, then leave out the chit-chat. It slows down the story, takes up space, and is boring to read.

Sum Up Unimportant Details

George told Bertha how he met Susan in the deli on the corner of his street.

If it isn't necessary to give the details of a conversation, then skip the details. If we don't need to know exactly what he said, then just tell us that they had the conversation and what the conversation was about.

Don't Repeat Your Actions in Dialogue and Vice Versa

Susan picked up the knife.

"What are you doing with that knife?" said George. "Please, put it down. I don't want to have to hurt you."

Susan lunged at George. He grabbed her arm but tried not to hurt her.

"Stop it, Susan! I don't want to hurt you."

Repeating the actions in the dialogue slows down the story and takes the reader away from the action. It's much more efficient and effective to write:

"What are you doing with that knife?" said George. "Please, put it down. I don't want to have to hurt you."

Susan lunged at George. He grabbed her arm.

"Stop it, Susan! I don't want to hurt you."

Give Your Character's Personality with Dialogue

You can create a description of characters without actually describing them by giving them dialects. Notice the character's personality changes just by changing the dialect.

"I don't know why she tried to stab me."

"I can't imagine why she would try to do such a thing, to stab me."

"I done can't reckon why she would stab me."

"Damn woman! She mus' o' been crazy to try'n stab me."

Don't Interrupt Dialogue with Excessive Gestures

When you write a conversation, you often have images in your mind of your characters making facial or hand gestures. As writers we want to ensure that the reader is seeing the action as well as hearing it, but the show don't tell rule can get out of hand during dialogue. Excessive description of gestures gets in the way of the dialogue. Your goal is to write dialogue that expresses emotion without gestures. Let your readers fill in the details with their imagination.

Here is a conversation that is filled with emotion, but the gestures get distracting.

"Why would she do that to me?" George scowled in disgust and threw down his newspaper.

"She was sick, George," said Bertha, placing her hands on his shoulders.

"I did everything for her!" George sat at the table and buried his head in his hands. "Everything."

"It's not your fault." She sat down next to him.

George looked up the ceiling and cried out, "Why God! Why would you hand me the love of my life and take her away like this?"

Now try removing those excess gestures. Notice how even though the images in your head aren't exactly the same as what the author imagined, the emotion is still there, and you're less distracted from that emotion.

"Why would she do that to me?" George threw down his newspaper.

"She was sick, George," said Bertha.

"I did everything for her! Everything."

"It's not your fault."

"Why God!" George cried out. "Why would you hand me the love of my life and take her away like this?"

Don't Put Thoughts in Quotes

When you write thoughts in quotes, your readers will have a difficult time figuring out what is being said openly and what is being said internally.

"I think she thought I was cheating on her," said George. Maybe she knew about Maggie.

If you absolutely feel that you must make your characters' thoughts stand apart from the narration, put it in italics. You can also write he thought to let the reader know that your character is thinking, but just as he said can clutter a paragraph of dialogue, he thought can get annoying as well.