WriterStrong: Is Your Dialog Doing Double Duty?

Writers In The Storm welcomes back award-winning author and RWA RITA-nominee, Shannon Donnelly.

Today she’s talking to us about the difference between dialog that is — mediocre, and dialog that *sparkles*

By Shannon Donnelly


When I first began writing, one thing stood out like a big old red light—in any story, there’s a lot to juggle. Dialogue, description, sentence structure, punctuation…the list goes on and on. And you have the story and characters to fit into all of that. It soon became obvious that all this needed to be broken down and turned into something manageable. One exercise I began was to practice ONE technical aspect of writing in each book—and the most valuable of these was the exercise on dialogue.

Good dialogue can carry a weak plot, can make up for weak description, and can even make the reader forget to look for plot holes. Great dialogue won’t cure a bad story—but the reader’s going to forgive you pretty much every flaw. That’s because great dialogue makes the characters come alive. If you want to learn one thing that will help your writing, learn how to write (and revise until it’s wonderful) your dialogue.

So…what do you need to learn?

1. Let your characters talk—and let their personalities out.

This seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many folks put a lot into internal thoughts—and this is all the stuff that would make for great, snappy dialogue.

Look at this example from a Proper Mistress:

“I mean, I’m supposed to be smitten. But she can’t be at all acceptable—only she can’t be too coarse, either, mind. My father would twig to it at once. No, she must have manners enough that hanging out for the respectability of marriage seems obvious. And it would be best if she had red hair—m’family knows I’ve a weakness for red hair. But I’ll leave that detail to you.”

This gives you the character Theo in one paragraph—he’s not all that bright a fellow (you can hear in his dialogue that he’s got a plan which is not that well thought-out), and he’s the type to casually wave a hand and figure out he’ll get  by somehow. That’s Theo—and this dialogue introduces the reader to Theo and his problems right away.

This dialogue did not just show up in the book. It took time to find Theo’s voice and to get his opening speech sharp and exact for Theo.

2. Let your dialogue do the job—that means don’t use tags to tell what you’ve shown.

Readers hate to be bored, and there is nothing more boring than to get the same information over and over (this is why we all get sick of political commercials that hammer on us). If you have a character say, “I hate this!” You do not need to add, she said hotly. The reader already got the hot from the word hate and the exclamation mark.

Look at this example from Under the Kissing Bough, where we have the heroine Eleanor losing it:

“I lied to you. I am not sensible. I’m not anything you want, because I cannot live without love.” The tears streamed down her face to fall on the carpet. She walked blindly about the room, having to move, hugging her arms, shivering with the storm of emotions that shook her.

“I thought I could do this. I thought it would be enough just to love you and not to ask or expect anything. But I cannot. You told me that I had to learn how not to care, only I do care. I care too much. And I cannot seem to stop caring, so you ought to just divorce me, or get an annulment, or whatever it is you must do to end it. For I cannot do this.”

Her words ended in an anguished sob.

Notice that the reader has no problem knowing who is talking because of the action—we have her walking blindly, hugging herself, sobbing. The actions support the dialogue. Look what would happen if we hit the reader over the head by telling with redundant dialogue tags:

“I lied to you,” she said angrily. “I am not sensible. I’m not anything you want, because I cannot live without love,” she sobbed.

“I thought I could do this,” she went on to say, heatedly.” I thought it would be enough just to love you and not to ask or expect anything. But I cannot. You told me that I had to learn how not to care, only I do care. I care too much. And I cannot seem to stop caring, so you ought to just divorce me, or get an annulment, or whatever it is you must do to end it. For I cannot do this,” she said, sadly.

Notice that the angrily, sobbed, heatedly, and sadly weaken the dialogue; instead of actions that support showing emotion, we’re hitting the reader over the head with the point. They do not help the reader “see” a scene the way that action does.

So get rid of those awkward tags—use action to show more.

3. Let your characters change the topic, duck answering, and throw in words sometimes just to be funny.

Let’s take the example from Lady Scandal, where the hero has just hitched a ride in a carriage with the heroine and her niece:

For a moment, he did not reply, and then a low, warm laugh filled the coach. “And how very like you to cross my path when you are in deeper waters than you can navigate, my Lady Scandal.”

Her hands clenched on the muslin of her dress. “Do not call me that!”

“What, did I say scandal instead of Sandal? Old habit, I fear. But the name fits you so much better.”

A light voice interrupted. “And just why do you think my aunt scandalous when you are the one threatening us?”

Diana’s words startled Alexandria. She had focused her attention so totally on Paxten that she had forgotten everything else. As she almost had once before. She glanced at her niece and turned back to blister Paxten with a reproof for the use of that sobriquet he had once given her, and which he had lured her into earning.

However, he got his words out before she could utter hers, that charm of his now turned on Diana. “Aunt is it? How do you do? Since your aunt has already given you my name that must do for an introduction. And you are…?”

Voice prim, Diana answered without hesitation, “I doubt I should give you my name—it does not sound as if Aunt Alexandria cares overmuch for you.”

Notice that no one really answers anyone here—everyone has their own agenda to express, and their own emotions. Let’s take this now and make everyone talk to the topic:

For a moment, he did not reply, and then a low, warm laugh filled the coach. “And how very like you to cross my path when you are in deeper waters than you can navigate, my Lady Scandal.”

Her hands clenched on the muslin of her dress. “Do not call me that!”

“What, did I say scandal instead of Sandal?”

“Yes, you did.”

A light voice interrupted. “And just why do you think my aunt scandalous when you are the one threatening us?”

“She is scandalous because she almost once ran away with me.”

Notice that we now have a problem distinguishing who is talking because everyone is talking the same way—this is more about giving the reader information instead of letting the characters express themselves. We’ve revealed a plot detail that I wanted to keep from the reader (to keep the tension going) until much later. We’ve lost the great dialogue. And it’s time for the reader to yawn.

4. Change the boring bits into something that’s got emotion—make it funny or dramatic.

If you’re like most folks you think of the best come-back lines a few hours after they should have been said. One of the great joys of writing is that you get to put in all the best lines—you can think of them days later and edit them into the dialogue.

Let’s go back to A Proper Mistress, to Theo with the heroine, Molly. Their carriage has broken down beside the road, so we have them needing to pass the time. This is a light romance, so this is a chance for them to have some dialogue and let them have some fun, as they start by talking about Theo’s groom and progress onto a little bit of back and forth:

“Oh, Burke’s a good enough sort. Once you get past the sour side of him. Taught me how to ride in fact.”

“What? He hardly looks old enough to be shaving!”

“That’s his size. I’ve a suspicion he had ambitions once to ride as a jockey—he certainly did for my father for a time.”

“And why did he not continue? Did something happen?”

He glanced at her, eyes puzzled and black eyebrows lowered flat. “My sweet Sweet, I don’t go inquiring into the personal lives of my father’s servants. It would be damned prying and rude of me!”

“As I’m being now?” She turned away. Propping up her feet, she folded her hands on her knees.

“Taken a pet now?” he asked, his voice coaxing.

She wouldn’t look at him. “No, I have not.”

“Oh, come along. We’ve hours to pass, and I don’t fancy spending them staring at sheep and grass.”

Glancing at him from the corner of her eyes, she asked, “Does that mean I may ask prying, rude questions then?” She added a belated, “Ducks?”

“I suppose it does,” he said, his eyes lightening with humor. “Though it don’t mean I’ll answer them.”

“Then I’d rather talk about myself. Did you know that I once lived in India? I am rather proud of that, for I think it gives me a touch of the exotic. Don’t you think, ducks?”

Now, instead of this, I could have had them talking to the point and about the plot. But that’s dull, dull, dull—it doesn’t give the reader a sense of the character’s personalities. It’s also not going to be funny or dramatic.

Notice, too, that dialogue reads really fast—if you want to keep your story moving, put in more dialogue.

5. If you have to get some plot exposition into dialogue, make the reader wait for it (until the reader’s willing to kill for it), and don’t forget that emotion.

Emotion, emotion, emotion—it’s all about the emotion. What are the characters feeling, and what are they expressing with their words. And, yes, sometimes the plot has to fit in there—but it’s your job to make it interesting.

Here’s an example from Paths of Desire. There’s a main plot point where the heroine has to admit she can’t read—it’s been one of the issues in that the hero keeps writing her letters that she never answers.

To make this more interesting—and not have it be just plot stuffed in—her confession comes during a love scene. It’s motivated by her having become closer to the hero—he’s done a lot for her leading up to this and she feels a fraud not to have told him this before, so here we have them:

He brushed a hand across her face. “There’s only one thing I want to discover tonight. Only one peak to scale.” He rubbed his thumb across her breast. She pulled in a sharp breath. “Well, perhaps two. Do you know how many times I tried to find the words for you? Words to tell you what I felt, how I missed you, how I dreamed of—”

“I’ve never read your letters. I can’t!” She stared at him, eyes wide, the words blurted out in a guilty rush. But she’d done with secrets between them.

For a moment, he stared back, and he said, “I know.”

“You know? But—?”

“Why else wouldn’t you read them? Indifference?” He grinned and she swatted at him, but he caught her wrist and pulled her back into his arms.

Notice that in here, we also have characters interrupting each other. We have them already knowing things that didn’t need to be said. We have emotion coming out in dialogue. And we have action tags that aren’t telling the reader what the reader already knows—the dialogue can stand on its own and carry its own weight in the scene.

That’s what you want to practice. Great dialogue. Characters expressing their emotions (not just stating the obvious). Characters talking in character, interrupting each other, changing the topic. Dialogue that’s funny or dramatic, or there just because it’s a fabulous line and you can’t wait to give that line to your characters.

About Shannon Donnelly:

Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

PATHS OF DESIRE: The Sweet Regency Edition

The newest Regency Historical from award-winning author and RWA RITA-nominee, Shannon Donnelly.

For more information: Visit her Website.

Buy at Amazon.com:                   Buy at BN.com:


She wants a rich lord for a husband—she won’t end like her mother, abandoned and broken.


He wants to prove to his friend she’s the wrong woman—he knows too well the pain of a bad marriage.


The last thing either wants is to fall in love, but when desire leads to a passion that won’t be denied, how can the heart do anything but follow?

Shannon’s latest Regency Historical Romance, Paths of Desire, can be found as an ebooks, along with her Regency romances, out from Cool Gus Publishing. Shannon is a regular speaker at writing conferences, including Romance Writer’s of America’s National conference. She gives online workshops and is the author of Story Telling; Story Showing, an ebook that compliments her popular online class Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop. She can be found online at http://www.sd-writer.com, twitter.com/sdwriter, and facebook.com/sdwriter.

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31 Responses to WriterStrong: Is Your Dialog Doing Double Duty?

  1. Edith says:

    Thank you for posting this. At this stage I am trying to work through and learn about all elements of the craft of writing. Such a steep learning curve! Your suggestion to focus on one element at a time is very helpful indeed Thank you!

  2. Sharla Rae says:

    So right on! Thanks shannon for great reminder. I try to go through and get rid of the saidisms but you’ve shown a great way to do it!

  3. Vicky Green says:

    Thanks for reminding me that those great lines that I come up with at random moments do have a place in my story.


  4. As always, Shannon, a first rate article! I have sent links to several friends. and will tweet it. Very good craft article

  5. Laura Drake says:

    Shannon, as I do every month, I’ve learned something new…
    I’m with you, telling with a tag, then showing with dialog makes me crazy – stands out like a red flag when I read it.
    But I have to admit, #3 is a revelation to me. I can see how powerful it is. Another ‘reminder to self.’

    Thanks so much!

    • SD Writer says:

      I’m always amazed how many folks kill what could be good dialogue by having it be too “on the nose” — it’s so much more interesting when characters take off and don’t just talk about the plot.

  6. Shannon, as always reading your posts is like taking a free class. Thanks so much … even the best dialogue can be ruined with over-kill in tags 🙂

  7. Thank you, Shannon. As always, you are the quintessential teacher. And your timing is perfect as I work on revising dialogue.

  8. Great advice! I really struggle with dialogue so I will go look at my novel again and apply these acid tests to what I’ve written. I suspect there will be a lot of ‘sizzling’ going on…

  9. Thanks for this posting! I am struggling to find a voice for my 12 year old protagonist and my overall dialogue tends to be not quite natural at times for a number of reasons. This helps.

  10. I love to write dialogue and your points are spot on. Thank you. I’m going through one of my manuscripts right now and this is really helping me out.

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  12. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    If you’re a writer, you have to read this.

  13. Lyn Horner says:

    Great advice! I’m struggling with a scene in my WIP right now. Snappier might be the solution. Thanks much.

  14. Lyn Horner says:

    Oops! That should read “snappier dialogue.” Sorry.

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  17. Tanya Cienfuegos says:

    thanks for the wonderful post! I love writing dialog so I always worry about it being just right. Now I finally know what to look for to improve!

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  20. Bob Albury says:

    Thank you. Your comments are helpful. I am working. On my novel, going the speed of a greased snail up a tree :-$ your tips lit a little fire
    Bob a

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