The Best Dialogue Tip EVER


I can’t write a story without dialogue. I mean, dialogue brings a story alive. But have you ever read a book where the dialogue scenes just dragged and bored?

I have. And nine times out of 10, I never finish the book.

So what makes dialogue drag, and what makes it sing? I’ve been writing a long time–professionally for six years, but 22 years if you count my first story at age 7. And I’ve never been able to find that magic piece of advice that makes my dialogue unforgettable.

Until the other day. And finally, it clicked.

Every sentence must REVEAL SOMETHING about your character.

Out of every “craft” tip and professional development paragraph I’ve ever read, this one sentence drills down to the heart of the matter. Your dialogue should never be day-to-day chatter. Every line spoken needs to have a purpose—to reveal something—about the character (and sometimes, even the plot). If it doesn’t, don’t write it.

Whoa.

This got me to stop and really contemplate every line. And let me tell you, since I began thinking in these terms, my dialogue writing jumped so deep, I might as well have leaped off the Grand Canyon.

OK, now I cannot take credit for this. I actually read it on another writer’s blog (or perhaps it was a literary agent). I forgot who they are, but this advice was so good, I just had to share it with my followers.

So what’s an example? Check out The Help

I pulled a short section from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which I’m currently reading and cannot put down. I think Kathryn mastered this dialogue technique incredibly well.

Please note, I cut out some of the narration to emphasize the dialogue between Hilly and her friend, Elizabeth. The scene takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Hilly discovers one of her friends, Skeeter, supports integration and becomes upset when she finds a booklet of the Jim Crow laws in Skeeter’s briefcase…

(Hilly speaking) “I’m not talking about pots. I am talking about the laws of this great state. Now, I want you to ask yourself, do you want Mae Mobley sitting next to a colored boy in English class? Do you want Nigra people living right here in this neighborhood? Touching your bottom when you pass on the street?”

(Hilly speaking) “William had a fit when he saw what she did to our house and I can’t soil my name hanging around her anymore, not with the election coming up. I’ve already asked Jeanie Caldwell to take Skeeter’s place in bridge club.”

(Elizabeth speaking) “You kicked her out of bridge club?”

(Hilly speaking) “I sure did. And I thought about kicking her out of the League, too.”

(Elizabeth speaking) “Can you even do that?”

(Hilly speaking)”Of course I can. But I’ve decided I want her to sit in that room and see what a fool she’s made of herself. She needs to learn that she can’t carry on this way. I mean, around us, it’s one thing. But around some other people, she’s going to get in big trouble.”

(Elizabeth speaking) “It’s true. There are some racists in this town.”

(Hilly speaking) “Oh, they’re out there.”

MY QUESTION TO YOU: What did you conclude about Hilly’s character from this dialogue scene? Do you see how Kathryn used the dialogue technique I described above? How else can YOU bring your characters to life, using dialogue?

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6 thoughts on “The Best Dialogue Tip EVER

  1. I liked the dialogue above especially where the characters talk in a way that almost…almost make the other character wanna shout but then no one shouts.

    I like dialogue that doesn’t give my eyes a rest, dialogue that keeps me turning pages (like when I first read The Client by John Grisham). I like word play and characters that give fellow characters the least expected answers.

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    1. “I like dialogue that doesn’t give my eyes a rest, dialogue that keeps me turning pages.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself! I think you summed it up right there, Philos. I’m the exact same way. 🙂

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  2. This is really great advice. I haven’t read THE HELP yet but it’s definitely on my list! Reading the dialogue and your tips in this post reminded me of how I learned about dialogue in college. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a creative writing teacher but a journalism teacher who taught me that every quote you use in a story has to say something you wouldn’t be able to say through narration.

    A quote that just says, “There were 300 people at the event” is not a strong one. She said it all needs to add color. I loved this advice and try to apply it to fiction. Every time a character speaks, they need to show a little of their own color, or personality.

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  3. I understand you Shari. I read the book when it just came out and I was crying soe a bout a week after all. I lived with those characters. I recommended the book to my coworker and it was wonderful, we read it together and then went to see the movie together. Thanks for the advice!

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  4. Great dialogue advice, and so true. And I LOVED Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP. The dialogue was just one reason I found it utterly fantastic; so was her “show-don’t-tell” abilities (much of which, as you point out, was achieved through dialogue). Great post, Shari.I also have read stories where the dialogue is flat. REALLY hard to get through them…. if at all.

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    1. I just finished THE HELP last night. Was in tears. Did you read her 3-page personal narrative about Demetrie at the end? That was when I cried. Thanks for your comments, Melissa! I truly loved THE HELP too.

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