Say What You Mean: Dialogue Workshop Part 1

Last night in our November Columbia Writers’ Alliance meeting, I presented a workshop on dialogue.

I used clips from a favorite novel, Water for Elephants, which had short pieces of dialogue of each type. Here, I’ve used my own work because I wanted to see if I’d been successfully applying what I know about the fundamentals of dialogue in a story.

Here’s what dialogue does in a story:

Set the scene

Tell the reader where and when they are. What is the weather like? Is it daylight or darkness? Is the sun shining or is it overcast? Are we amid flowers and manicured pathways or desolation and ruin?

From Sunday School:

“So what should we talk about?” Preacher asked.

“Heard they won’t get power back to Calvert County till Tuesday,” Popeye Logan said.

“Heard that, too,” Ed Duncan confirmed.

“Your son out workin’ today?” Mr. Mahoney asked Preacher.

“Sure is,” Preacher said, “came home for dinner around 2 a.m. and then back out again. Been on for 48 hours.”

“Heard the resort got power back yesterday morning,” Mr. Cleary said.

“Got money,” Popeye Logan said, “Gonna have that.”

“Ain’t the money,” Mr. Mahoney said.

“Sure ‘tis,” Popeye said.

“It’s a business. No power, people go home. They go home, you issue refunds. Gotta keep the power on. Plus, they got their own grounds guys up there.” Mr. Mahoney blotted his upper lip with a handkerchief.

“Gotta have money to have all that,” Popeye said.

Advance action

This kind of dialogue changes the story. You can find it by locating the beginning of the dialogue passage and jotting down each character’s condition: sad, anxious, worried, angry; then read the dialogue and jot down the characters’ positions. If they’re the same, the dialogue has not advanced the action.

From The Second Sister:

We’d been far enough from water for long enough that our own skin had itched with filth. But we hadn’t seen nothin as far gone as Byron Meade.

“What is this, Dad?” Erika said.

“Hello,” Emelyne said, reaching her hand out.

“Don’t touch it,” Erika snapped, smacking Emelyne’s hand away.

“This man saved me,” Dad said.

“Saved you from what?” I asked.

“And I’ve brought him here to repay him.” Dad clapped his hands together and looked at each of us who were starin at that bear.

We stood there, the father and the daughters and the bear in the empty swimming pool with our shelter behind us and the fire tossing shadows around us. The Old Texas sky arched above us full of stars.

“Repay him how?” Erika asked.

“You’ll marry him,” Dad said.

“You must be joking,” I said.

Give insight into characterization

Characters can speak with a dialect, can use splendiferous vocabularies, can stutter, or can drift off the main point of the conversation. They can use one-syllable expressions, purposefully shortening names and employing slang like, “k” and “huh?” All of these are ways to show character. How a character speaks is an indicator of his education, his interest in what’s happening, and his origins.

From Gordon Finch’s Miracle:

“Whaddaya doin?” she said.

Gordon looked at his raisin toast then back at her, lumpy and bulging across from him. “I don’t understand the question,” Gordon said.

“I mean every night? Right at twelve.”

“Twelve thirty.”

“Other people are sleepin’. Whaddaya doin’?” she asked again.

“I work,” he said, then, “at the tire plant, I work at the plant. I get off at twelve. I come here to eat.”

“Every night?” she said.

“No,” he said. The toast was cooling in his hands. The cheese on his eggs gone gelatinous now. He said, “Only when I work.”

Who Does it Best?

I’m a Hemingway fan and he’s prone to dialogue exchanges that are so lengthy one can lose track of who says what. I also have a spot of playwriting in me and because of that I like for the words the character uses to stand alone, without tag or narration, and I believe that if those words are good enough, one doesn’t need the excess.

Just to indulge myself, from The Sun Also Rises (p.128):

“Say,” Bill said, “what about this Brett business?”

“What about it?”

“Were you ever in love with her?”


“For how long?”

“Off and on for a long time.”

“Oh, hell!” Bill said. “I’m sorry, fella.”

“It’s alright,” I said. “I don’t give a damn anymore.”


“Really. Only I’d a hell of a lot rather not talk about it.”

We know there are some firm rules about how to incorporate dialogue. The most important rule is:

Speak only those things which no one else knows or could possibly know without it being said.

If the dialogue is merely repeating what the reader or the characters already know, then it isn’t being productive. Remember that most people don’t speak what they’re really thinking, so you must somehow convey their thoughts through the words they choose.

Until the next workshop installment, why not share your thoughts on dialogue? Who does it really well? What makes a dialogue passage stink?

Additional resources: Write to Done, Writer’s Digest, Roz Morris via a G+ from Melanie Marttila of Wordsmith Studio 

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