Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Writing Realistic Dialogue

guest post by Michael Shay

The best advice I ever heard about writing effective dialogue goes something like this:
“Bad dialogue tells, good dialogue shows, excellent dialogue shows more than the writer intended.”
This comes from fiction writer David Milofsky, my advisor when I was in the writing program at Colorado State University. I haven’t been able to find this quote online, but think it’s from satiric novelist Stanley Elkin.

It tells writers a few things. Don’t use dialogue to impart information – the dreaded info dump. It looks and sounds artificial. Much better to show the characters interacting in distinctive ways.

Ernest Hemingway was a master at dialogue. He heard a lot of it as a newspaper reporter and a war correspondent. Journalists are always on the prowl for a meaty quote.

Hemingway wrote quick bursts of dialogue in his short stories. This is the opening conversation between two waiters in a café from “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” They are discussing one of their patrons, a deaf old man:

"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said. 


"He was in despair." 

"What about?" 


"How do you know it was nothing?" 

"He has plenty of money." 

A few short words reveals so much about the story. The old man tried to kill himself. This perplexes the café’s waiters because the old man has plenty of money. He couldn’t possibly be sick or depressed or lonely. It raises a whole world of possibilities about the old man who hasn’t spoken yet. And it tells us a lot about the waiters and the café and the town. Did the author intend the conversation to be so loaded with meaning? Difficult to say until you reach the end of this short-short story and find out what troubles the old man.

In my short stories, I use dialogue to move the story along, to build conflict, and to flesh out the characters. Many contemporary stories concern themselves more with character than plot. The protagonist faces a dilemma. The dilemma is important. But it’s how the characters confronts it that is important. Inner (and outer) turmoil is revealed in conversation.

Here’s an example:

In my story entitled “Baggage,” an airline employee named Millie notices something odd in the airport baggage claim. Among the luggage on the conveyor belt was a black pool the size of a dinner plate.

“Uh oh,” she said. 

“What?” said a man wearing a white shirt and tie. He was the lone passenger waiting for luggage. 

“We may need Homeland Security.” 

“Probably not.” He held his suitcase in one hand, reached down and scraped his left index finger through the liquid. 

“Don’t,” she said. “It could be dangerous.” 

The man smelled his finger. He laughed. “Crisis averted.” 

“What?” He proffered his hand. 

She inhaled. “It’s sweet.” 

He drew closer and they inhaled together. She wanted to move away because she didn’t know this man and hadn’t really been with anyone since her divorce. The liquid’s sweet smell mixed with his cologne and confused her nose. Vanilla? Licorice? “Some kind of liquor?” 

“Smell again,” he said. 

She grabbed his hand and again inhaled the sweet smells of the evening. She noticed that his skin was warm, his fingernails trimmed. 

This happens early in the story. We get to see the two characters in action, get to know a bit about them. He’s an impulsive guy. She’s more cautious, for several reasons. The spilled substance may not be crucial to the story. However, this little incident allows our two main characters to meet and reveal some key elements about themselves through dialogue.

Short story writers are stingy with dialogue. Less usually is more.

But that’s not always the case. As in life, some characters are more interesting than others. It may be more important to hear more from some characters as what they say is crucial to the story. But avoid monologues. Have your character interact more with others. That also may boost the level of tension.

Novelists may need more room to flesh out their characters or to advance the story. In detective novels, cops grill witnesses and perpetrators. Imagine how long and mundane most of those discussions are. The writer wants to hit the high points, advance the story, and then move us on to the next chapter. If dialogue gets too drawn out, you risk losing your reader.

In Michael Connelly’s City of Bones, Detective Harry Bosch questions a doctor whose dog has brought home from the woods a human bone. It’s a chapter-long swatch of dialogue, filled with intriguing detail. But Connelly makes things a bit more interesting when he sends the characters out into the woods to investigate. One way to keep the story moving along is to have your characters converse while they too are moving along.

Write thousands of lines of dialogue and it gets easier. Your instincts take over. Study excellent writers such as Alice Munro and Elmore Leonard. Leonard may possess the most recognizable cadence of any American fiction writer. It didn’t happen overnight. Said Leonard in an interview: “It took about ten years before my ‘sound’ emerged. That’s about a million words.”

You may have to sacrifice a good many of those million words to write dialogue as snappy as Leonard’s.

Mike Shay sitting at Hemingway's writing desk at Spear-O-Wigwam in the Big Horn Mountains

Michael Shay is the author of the short story collection, “The Weight of a Body.” He retired in January as communications and literary arts specialist at the Wyoming Arts Council.


  1. Just starting to resurrect a novel from years ago, to see if it can be salvaged, so this is good help for me. I'm having to use some dialog to explain technical things, so that gets tricky. Thanks.

  2. That's tricky, isn't it, when you're faced with explaining tech stuff in dialogue? Might be able to loosen it up with some humor or snarky comments. Leonard is a master at this.

    1. Thanks, Michael. I'm joining a Vet Writer's Critique Group which might help with the technical stuff. I have people who are new in country asking what terms mean in the context in which they pop up. We'll see how that flies with the other writers.

    2. Vet Writers Critique Group sounds like a good place to go. Vietnam-era writers may have to include a glossary with their work. I'm not saying that time marches on, but it does. How come "chopper" now is "heli" or "copter?"

    3. A million words -- that's a lot, isn't it? When Elmore Leonard was in his prime, he may have written that many before breakfast. Ditto for Stephen King.

  3. I love the examples of Hemingway's dialogue and yours which you have used in this piece to illustrate your point. It makes me want to read more of each. Ten years ... a million words ... not sure I have the time or talent, but I sure am glad there are those that do!


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