Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Mastering the Art of of Writing Dialog

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

We basically have four ways to allow a character to express: 
  • through action
  • through body language
  • through thoughts (in the POV character)
  • through what they say
So, what do they say?

Like each unhappy family is unhappy in their own way—my thanks to Charles Dickens—each character expresses in their own, very individual ways. An angry character might slam a door, for instance, or shout. Another one may smile with just their mouth, where a twitch in their cheek is the only thing that gives that anger away. Some get very calm and talk very softly. All these reactions are normal, easy to describe, and very evocative of anger, based on the character. 

But dialog is magic. 

Words can flow and stop, depending on how the character feels. We can hide great secrets behind a blank face, with words barely cracking the fa├žade. We can allow our characters to bellow their joy from the housetop. We can tell our character's truth in the darkness, choking back tears. And we can use words to comfort or harm, please or irritate, calm or kill. It all comes back to what you choose to have your characters say.

Dialog should be tight, concise, believable, and intriguing. It should constantly be deeply integrated into the story, with each word paying its own way. Ultimately, it should make the story real.

Here are a few tips:
  • No small talk (How are you today? I'm fine, thanks.) unless the answer to the question is extremely important.
  • Keep dialog short. No big speeches.
  • No talking heads or long stretches of only dialog. The reader can easily get lost in the weeds.
  • Make sure the dialog reflects the speaking character's emotional state at the time. That will change as the story changes. In so many words, a character who always talks exactly the same way throughout the book, is boring.
  • Characters should not sound like you. Or like the other characters. Make each of them an individual.
  • Don't use a lot of accents/dialects. They are hard to read.
  • Allow your character to hide his or her feelings in dialog. Use sub-text to conceal what they feel.
  • Don't try to make your dialog sound like real speech, or to be perfectly grammatical. Neither works. 
  • Read it out loud. To yourself, to another person, to your cat. Let someone else read the dialog to you. Listen for stilted, unnatural phrases. Create interesting ways for your characters to express.
  • Don't be boring!
And, once you get the dialog right and your characters speak their truth, you'll be amazed at how they come alive.

Post a line of your best dialog. I'd love to hear it!


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction—‚she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Well Sally, I'll have to go do some revising before posting dialog from my novel here - thanks for the detailed directions!
    However this example from Star Trek (2009) popped up easily: Elder Mr Spock to younger Mr Spock - "Since my customary farewell would appear oddly self-serving, I shall simply say.... Good luck."

  2. Thanks for the great tips! I do love writing out my characters' conversations. Here's one of my favorites:

    “I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought you were someone else.”

    “That’s too bad.” The owner of the voice had a perceptive glint in his eye.

    “I wouldn’t say that,” I said, fumbling to grasp the smock so that I could set to work. “The other fellow is rather insufferable.”

    He smirked at this, looking over his shoulder. “I cannot say as I’d argue that matter. Nora tells me you’re going to be painting for us?”

    “Aye, so long as I do well enough.” I turned from the selection of brushes to face him. There was a regrettably long moment of silence as I took another look at the young man until memory bounded through me like a bolt of electricity.

    “Saints preserve us. Seamus Riordan.”

    His eyes widened a fraction. It was him. It had been nearly ten years, but I remembered the boy with the mess of wavy hair that sat in the back of the schoolroom every day, until one day he suddenly stopped coming to school.

    “You died.” This was a foolish thing to accuse a living person of. “Your father said you’d fallen off the cliffs. There was a funeral.”

    His brows raised, his lip curling in amusement. “Was there, now?” His dark eyes flickered over me. “And how did you come to know my father, colleen?”

    “We were in school together. Not your father and I. You and I. That is, we were in the same schoolroom, but I was—I am, I suppose—three years younger than you, so I don’t think you would—” I took a deep breath. My thoughts had suddenly become very scattered.

    “I’m Belle Malone,” I said at last.

    “Malone. Malone…” His grin widened. “Not the little girl who cried when her braid got dipped in an inkwell?”

    He would remember that one. “Aye, I’m afraid so.”

    “Belle Malone.” He mused it in a familiar, lilting Irish voice, and I felt my cheeks grow warm at how very pleasant it was to hear my name spoken by someone that sounded like home. “You must have done a great deal of growing up in the past ten years. I would have remembered a face as pretty as yours.”

    My cheeks grew warmer, but I said nothing as I reached for the smock hanging on the peg. I shook it free and attempted to wrestle myself into the sleeves. In a fell swoop, Seamus tugged the fabric to better get it around my shoulders. The gesture was kind, but I felt an awkward flutter in my stomach. “This is a busy place. So many people going here and there. You must have a great deal of work to do.”

    “That’s true. But a fellow can take a breather once in a while, wouldn’t you say?”

    1. Very nice! I think you could find a way to get rid of the first two "I saids", but beyond that, I think it's great! (I think the word "said" is wasted space. I think tags with action or emotion or no tag at all are much more evocative. A lot of people disagree with me, so it's really up to you.)

      Good job!

  3. Sally, great, helpful information. Thank you for sharing with all of us. Keep up your good work!

  4. HUGE apologies to Leo Tolstoy who actually talked about happy families in Anna Karenina. Not Charles Dickens.