Let's Talk About Writing Dialogue

…Or, Let’s Talk About Writing About Talking.  Snort.  You know what I mean.

Writing good dialogue isn’t easy, and bad dialogue is one of the things that immediately reveals the author as an amateur, not to be trusted by the reader.

One of the things that can help you write better dialogue is knowing when to use summary dialogue, indirect dialogue and direct dialogue.

In prose, speech can be written with varying decrees of directness, depending on how important the information in the dialogue is, the immediacy desired and how fast or slow the author wants the pacing to be at that moment.

First, let’s look at summarized dialogue.  Here a good deal of the conversation is condensed.

At home in the first few months, he and Maizie had talked brightly about changes that would make the company more profitable and more attractive to a prospective buyer: new cuts, new packaging, new advertising, new incentives to make supermarkets carry the brand.

– Joan Wikersham, “Commuter Marriage”

You see how here all the dull little bits of the conversation have disappeared.  It’s a grand sweep, but still reveals the necessary information.  Use this when you want to move the story along quickly and not get bogged down.

Then there’s indirect dialogue, which carries the feel of dialogue, without actual quotation:

Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee.  They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.

 Gosh, no, he hadn’t.  Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him.  He thought, though, he had everything else.  She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough.

– Katherine Anne Porter, “Rope”

 In that excerpt, there’s no doubt in the reader’s mind the characters are conversing, but the tone is different than if it were in direction quotation.

A little digression here — Indirect dialogue is closely related to “indirect discourse,” which is a form of point of view in which some of the narration is assumed to be from inside the third-person character’s mind.  With indirect discourse the narrations weaves in and out of the character’s consciousness.  Virginia Woolf, was a fan.  So was James Joyce.  Consider this example from A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.

The muddy streets were gay. He strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs. In spite of all he had done it. He had confessed and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy. It would be beautiful to die if God so willed. It was beautiful to live in grace a life of peace and virtue and forbearance with others.

In that excerpt the narrator reports the thoughts and sensations of the character.  It’s in the third person, but the narrator and the reader are able to peek inside the character’s heart and soul.  It can be a highly effective tool and one I’ve used often, most recently in THE EMPTY ROOM, where I wanted to reader to experience the world as Colleen, the protagonist, did.

But usually, especially when the exchange contains the possibility of discovery or decision, and therefore dramatic action, it will be presented in direct quotation:

 “But, I thought you hardly knew her, Mr. Morning.”

   He picked up a pencil and began to doodle on a notebook page. “Did I tell you that?”

   “Yes, you did.”

   “It’s true. I didn’t know her well.”

   “What is it you’re after, then? Who was this person you’re investigating?”

   “I would like to know that too.”

    – Siri Hustvedt, “Mr. Morning”

 Now, the accomplished writer will master the technique of using a combination of all three methods in order to take advantage of the strengths of each:

They differed on the issue of the holiday, and couldn’t seem to find a common ground. (Summary) She had an idea: why not some Caribbean island over Christmas? Well, but his mother expected them for turkey. (Indirect)
     “Oh, lord, yes. I wouldn’t want to go without a yuletide gizzard.” (Direct)

Summary and indirect speech are often useful to get us quickly to the core of the scene, or when, for example, one character has to inform another of events that we already know, or when the emotional point of a conversation is that it has become tedious.

He kept his voice calm, not wanting to frighten her, and told her what had happened. Sylvia said she was devastated. The Bakers could give their cats the run of the place if they so chose, but she wasn’t going to take responsibility for Wendy’s hamsters, that was for sure.  

But nothing is more frustrating to a reader than to be told significant events are taking place through dialogue and to be denied the drama by having it happen ‘off stage’.

 They whispered to each other all night long, and as he told her all about his past, she began to realize she was falling in love with him.

Really?  Come on now.  We want to hear that conversation, be part of it.  Why?  Because we want not only the information, but to fall in love with him ourselves.

So, there are a few more tools to put in your writers’ tool box.  Hope they help.  Talk on!


  1. Christine Peets on May 23, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Thank you so much for this, Laura. I lead/meet with/teach a small writing group in Napanee each week and we are starting to talk about writing dialogue. Your tips here are brilliant.

    I will pass on the link to the blog. I’ve already shared my review of The Empty Room with the group, and will look at the dialogue there as good examples.


    • Lauren B. Davis on May 23, 2014 at 12:41 pm

      Thanks, Christine. Glad there’s something useful for you here!

  2. janet macaulay on May 24, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Lauren, thanks for this succinct lesson in dialogue – it’s brilliant! I can see why your own writing is so captivating, you have a very good sense and ability to engage the reader. I enjoy your writing and your blog, so keep it coming. many thanks, Janet M.

    • Lauren B. Davis on May 24, 2014 at 3:33 pm

      Thanks very much, Janet. I really appreciate your support.

  3. Fred Allingham on May 31, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    hi Lauren, I really enjoyed this post, thanks for providing such a clear explanation on the different forms of dialogue. I wished I lived closer and could join your Sharpening The Quill writing class. regards, Fred

    • Lauren B. Davis on May 31, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      Hi Fred! Thanks for the comment. I wish you could come to a class, too! L.

  4. Donna Wolfe on June 14, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Just read The Empty Room. Wow!

    Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins wanted to give a writer their highest praise they would say,’He (or she) got it just right.” you got it just right.


    • Lauren B. Davis on June 15, 2014 at 6:03 pm

      Thanks so much, Donna. I’m delighted. You’ve made my day.

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