What Two Experts Say About Writing Dialogue

“What’s the first thing acquisition editors look for when they begin reading a fiction submission? … ‘The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn’t work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it’s good, I start reading.’” —Renni Browne and Dave King (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers)

image by geralt
image by geralt

For me, dialogue:

  • Brings characters alive with personality and moral character.
  • Moves the plot along.
  • Supplies information in a way that’s often more interesting than narration.
  • Breaks up narration and furnishes a delightful interlude.

The following quotes are from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers —Renni Browne and Dave King. Examples are mine.

image by WikimediaImages
image by WikimediaImages

Explaining your dialogue.

  • “When your dialogue is well written, describing your characters’ emotions to your readers is just as patronizing as a playwright running onto the stage and yelling at the audience. … Resist the Urge to Explain (R.U.E.)”



  • “If you show how she is astonished through her dialogue or through a beat, then your readers will know a little more about her.”
    • Examples (Before-B and After-A):

B. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said in irritation.

A. He whisked off his glasses and rapped them against the document. “You’ve got to be kidding.”


B. “Oh, Suz. I love what you’ve done. I really do,” Liza gushed.

A. Lisa clasped her hands under her chin. “Oh, Suz. I love what you’ve done. I really do.” (Obvious gushing.)


B. “I’m not sure … I know what you’re talking about,” John said guardedly.

A. John lowered his brow and stepped back. “I’m not sure … I know what you’re talking about.”


The following quotes are from The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction —Jeff Gerke. Examples are mine.

Sticking to said.

  • “Why do [novelists] feel that said wouldn’t work? To avoid using said they insist that their characters not say words but growl, proclaim, or laugh them out, as if such a thing were possible. Try moaning out words. Go on, try it. You’re either moaning or you’re speaking not both. … Anything but said is painfully visible.”
    • image by Fotari70D4
      image by Fotari70D4

B. “I’ve got to wash the floor all over again,” Sandi groaned.

A. “Oh nooo! Now I’ve got to wash the floor all over again,” Sandi said.

Sounding authentic.

  • “What I mean by authentic is that dialogue must be realistic, layered, and right for the character and the moment.”
  • “Realistic dialogue is not formal or polite.”
    • Example: “Now I must wash the floor again,” Sandi said.
image by stux
image by stux
  • “Dialogue carries layers of meaning beneath the surface of the words actually uttered.”
    • Example: “Thanks a lot,” Sandi said, glaring at the muddy footprints.
  • “If you had, say, three characters speaking together and you removed all beats and speech attributes … the reader still ought to be able to know which character is speaking at any time.” 

“By how he speaks, what he thinks about that comes out in his words, by the vocabulary he chooses, by his syntax and grammar and length of sentences.”

Example: Which is Sandi, her mother, and her husband?

“Oh nooo! Now I’ve got to wash the floor all over again.”

“Oops. Sorry, hon. Guess wiping my boots on the garage mat wasn’t enough, huh?”

“I’ll make quick work of cleaning up the mud. You two sit outside and enjoy a few minutes rest together.”

Heed these 2 experts’ teachings and make your dialogue shine. Click to tweet.

What do you enjoy most about good dialogue?

2 Tips to Pump Up Flat Characters in Your Story

“Men are not moved by things, but the views they take of them.” —Epitectus

We storytellers want our characters to be interesting, plausible, and memorable. But often our characters come across as one-dimensional.

But with a little work, we can do two things that will inflate our flat characters.

sunset.jpgTo make your plot work, let’s say, three-quarters of the way into your story, your hero needs to remove an engine from an RV and restore a 1970 Chevelle. So right before this event you write: He’d spent many of his teen years working on cars and dreaming of restoring a 1970 Chevelle, so he set to work removing the engine from the old RV’s chassis.

Tips to round out your character. 

1. Layer his dreams and expertizes throughout your story so they don’t seem contrived when the plot suddenly needs them. However, don’t overdo this and slow the story down with many prior events. Your hero might admire a shiny Chevelle early in the story and recall when he worked on cars in high school. Later, a Chevelle in a junkyard might catch his eye. This layering will make your character’s dreams and expertizes more plausible.

2. Understand his passions and the value he sees in things that mean nothing to you. It’s difficult to write an interesting, memorable character if you can’t put your opinions aside and understand what he considers valuable and why. Try interviewing him.

The example below shows what you might need to know to understand your hero’s dreams, expertizes, and values. You wouldn’t employ all the details in your story. You’d simply understand him.


In 2007, John and I bought a 1983 Winnebago RV, dubbed it Winnie, and parked it on our land before we built our house. Our youngest son popped the hood, and his eyes lit up. He said the 454 engine was the biggest and one of the rarer engines. His dream 1970 Chevelle was the first model year to have such an engine as an option.

I hadn’t thought about the engine, other than it worked. I cared more about the bed, sinks, and shower. Over the next four years, our son occasionally asked how Winnie’s engine was doing. “Still running,” we’d say.

After we built our house in 2011, our son advised us not to give Winnie away. He said the engine and transmission were valuable. So we put Winnie up for sale on a nearby RV lot.

After a year, it hadn’t sold. We mentioned to our son, we’d be glad if the owner of the RV lot junked Winnie to rid her from our responsibility.

Later, we received a call from our son. He said if we planned to junk Winnie, he’d like to have the engine and transmission. With our happy consent, he:

  • old-chevelle.jpgcalled around until he found a nearby scrape metal place that would take Winnie,
  • purchased a 1970 Chevy Chevelle to put the engine in,
  • ordered original 1970 parts for the Chevelle on eBay,
  • traveled four hours to our house with his family,
  • drove Winnie from the RV lot to the salvage yard, and
  • made the four-hour trip again in his truck the next weekend to get the engine and transmission.

the-engine.jpgWhile I write this, he’s at the salvage yard in 26-degree weather, removing his treasure from Winnie.

My son saw value in something we were ready to trash. He pictured more than an old engine and transmission. He envisioned a rusty Chevelle restored to its original beauty. He grasped the opportunity to make his dream come true. And he enjoyed honoring Winnie’s retirement. I received a deeper understanding of my son’s passion with cars.

What have you done or could do to understand your story character better?


How to Layer a Message to Create a Memorable Learning Experience

The true method of knowledge is experiment.” —William Blake

In another post on creating a memorable learning experience, I promised to talk more about layering activities that add to, build on, or complement the message during a learning session.

5 Possible Layering Ideas

An Illustration of Layering: A preschool Sunday school lesson on Jesus and the Miraculous Catch of Fish as told in the Gospel of John.

1.  Start the learning as soon as participants enter the room. Decorate the space with items or pictures that relate to the subject that will be addressed.

Example: For a dog training class, hang posters around the room of dogs heeling, waiting, and responding to other commands the dog owners will learn.

2.  Provide activities for participants to enjoy while people are still arriving. Make sure each connects in some way to the main lesson.

 Example: Have resource materials related to a conference’s subject displayed on tables for participants to peruse before the conference starts.

3.  Take advantage of layering in all periods of a class, a conference, or workshop. It’s okay if the connection is minor in some.

 Example: If times for singing or physical exercise are included, relate the songs or games to the class’s theme.

 4.  Use roleplaying to layer what has just been presented. Make sure it’s more fun than intimidating.

 Example: In an English As a Second Language class on food, set up a café complete with round table and inexpensive plastic food. Invite participants to take turns ordering and serving.

 5.  Send home with participants a goody that encourages using the new knowledge. Something tangible will remind participants of the learning experience days later.

 Example: In a workshop on prayer, have participants make prayer chains with animal beads that represent people to be prayed for.

An Illustration of Layering: A preschool Sunday school lesson on Jesus and the Miraculous Catch of Fish as told in the Gospel of John.

Story: This was the third time Jesus appeared to His disciples after His death and resurrection. Some of His disciples fished from a boat close to shore, not catching anything. They didn’t recognize the man on the shore who told them to throw their nets to the other side. They obeyed and caught 153 fish.

When Peter realized the man was Jesus he jumped into the water and headed to Jesus while the others followed in the boat. Jesus had cooked them a breakfast of fish and bread before imparting directives to Peter.

Did you count 153?

Opening Free Play: Layer fishing and cooking. Three stations 1) make breakfast with cooking gear and play food; 2) form fishes and bread loaves from playdough; 3) fish for paper-clipped fish with pole and magnet hook.

Storytime: Layer message. Dramatic telling of the Bible story.

Scripture: Layer message. Children teach verse to their sock “fishing” worm puppets.

Story Reinforcement: Layer message. Children make bell ring by answering 5 story questions.

Large Muscle Exercise: Layer story. Role-play the story wearing Bible clothes, rowing, jumping out of boat, cooking, and eating.

Music: Layer message. Brief introductions to lesson-reinforcing songs stress the message.

Snack: Layer fish. Enjoy eating goldfish crackers.

Take-home Craft: Layer message. Talk about the story while children creatively decorate their fish with the Bible verse on the backs.

Closing: Layer boat. Play Doggy, Doggy Where’s Your Bone? substituting a plastic boat for the bone.

How have you layered activities for a learning experience?

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