Don’t Forget the Dialogue

For many of us, dialogue is one of the most enjoyable parts to write in any story—which makes it kind of surprising that we can sometimes end up neglecting it to a story’s detriment.

Today, I’d like to use as an example one of C.S. Forester’s little-known works, Rifleman Dodd. This is a tiny book of 150 pages about a rifleman in the British army during the Peninsular War in the early 19th century. The book is a very interesting and surprisingly unsentimental look at a soldier’s life during that period.

The main part of the book is about our heroic rifleman trying to work his way through Portugal and Spain to return to his regiment. Since the protagonist can’t speak Portuguese, this segment contains almost no dialogue. In contrast, the book also features a handful of scenes about a squad of French soldiers. These scenes, although about the story’s antagonists, are by far the more interesting, if only because they feature (drumroll, please!) dialogue.

The obvious lesson here is: include dialogue. This absolutely doesn’t mean that description, internal narrative, and action scenes aren’t interesting. However, a good story will include a balance of everything, and dialogue goes a long way toward breaking up potentially tedious scenes and keeping readers focused. You can think of dialogue as salt. It perks up the readerly taste buds and makes everything else taste better.

Be on the watch for scenes that could be spiced up with a little dialogue exchange. However, don’t insert dialogue just for the sake of inserting it. Dialogue must always drive the plot forward and, ideally, feature a deep underlying context of conflict and/or tension. If you can prominently feature that kind of dialogue in your story, you’re likely to keep readers solidly hooked.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you enjoy writing dialogue? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. So what do you do in this circumstance then, where one character can’t physically HAVE a dialogue with the other characters? How can you slot dialogue into the story, in this type of situation?

  2. I love writing dialogue and have been told it is my strength. But recently an agent told me the that I had too much “back and forth” dialogue and not enough description. I’m not sure what she meant by that other than what you mentioned as dialogue that doesn’t move the plot forward. I have compared my first three chapters to some other books and don’t see much difference in the dialogue content. Is it ok to use dialogue to establish character personality – especially in the first few chapters? That’s kind of what I did. Maybe I need more description instead?
    Thanks K.M. another great post.

  3. Evidently, I break one of the “rules of writing” all of time. The one about balancing dialogue and narrative. Well over 60% of my novels are in dialogue. I suppose it’s because I misspent my youth in movie theaters and in front of television. I’ve learned to move the plot and the characterization forward with dialogue. I don’t know if I’m wrong or it just doesn’t matter. I do know that my beta readers love it. My comments on Amazon are also positive.

    And Jan, you point out another reason why I believe authors should follow K.M.’s road and avoid outside interference from Agents and Publishers until you and your books have a degree of success.

    I’m reading Saul Bellow’s The Victim, which is packed with dialogue, self-talk, and minimal narrative. Not a chance in the world the book would be published today.

  4. Brian, I am finding that it’s easy to get bounced around by publishing professional’s opinions. It’s a matter of taste I think and I don’t want to lose my “voice”. I’ve learned so much from K.M. over the last year or more that I’ve been following her – I like her style! 🙂

  5. @Ignorant: Ah, the old Robinson Crusoe dilemma (although you’ll note that even he got to talk to Friday eventually). The success of one-character scenes ultimately comes down to two factors: 1) An interesting narrative voice on the part of the solitary character and 2) a showing (vs. telling) of events.

    @Jan: Dialogue is a fabulous way to establish character, since it effectively shows who these people are. However, it’s possible your agent may have been frustrated not with the dialogue itself but with an imbalance between it and the descriptive elements. Perhaps the scene was suffering from “white wall” syndrome in which the setting wasn’t described or the characters’ actions and expressions weren’t included?

    @Brian: Unquestionably, movies are influencing the reading public. Nowadays, we like our books to “cineramic,” and part of that is utilizing the power of dialogue. It’s still a balance, but tapping into readers’ love of talking characters is never a bad thing. The trick is making sure we’re also giving them enough visual details so they can see what’s going on as well as hear it.

  6. I write tons of dialog. My hands seem to go into auto-pilot as I create the ‘,’ followed by the ‘”‘ and ‘she said.’ – however, I find that Microsoft Word does not like ‘doesn’t’ in colloquial language, (which it is most likely to be inside speech marks!), correcting me with ‘does not’ which I really don’t think the character would be saying…

  7. I love writing dialogue! It’s one of my favorite parts of writing… especially figuring out just what they say and just how they should say it! It can definitely be tricky, but incredibly worth it!

  8. @Steve: Honestly, Microsoft Word’s grammar checker is an old fuddy-dud. :p

    @Joanna: Mine too. Scene’s never flow faster than when two characters are having a gabfest.

  9. Dialogue is absolutely one of my favorite things to write :). Someone once told me I should consider screenwriting since I love writing it so much, but I do love creating that balance that you mentioned, between action, narrative, and dialogue.

    When I’m struggling with characterization, I find that dialogue is a good way for me to get a grasp on that character. There’s so much of someone’s personality that comes out in the way they speak.

  10. Dialogue has so many levels. There’s what the person’s saying, what he’s not saying, what he wishes he was saying, and what he’s really saying that he doesn’t even realize he’s saying. So much good stuff to explore!

  11. Dialogue was always my fav part in any book as a child…

    Looking back, I don’t think I’ve changed…oh, the shame of it! 😉 hehe

  12. As a reporter for many years, I had to pay close attention to how people talk and act while they talk. Great experience that helps me write dialogue. In fiction, I like dialogue that advances the story. — Joan Livingston

  13. I’ve been told dialogue is my strong suit, but I worry sometimes whether I’m capturing “the age and voice” of a character just right. In particular, younger ones. Children. I don’t want them to sound adult and yet, I don’t want to dumb down their language either…

  14. I am terrible at writing dialogue into most of my flash fiction, which is strange as when I envisage a scene it is usually through dialogue. I tend to just forget, though when I realised this I ended up writing a longer piece, the dialogue was effortless and worked well with the story.

  15. @Musings: You’re in good company!

    @Joan: Life experience is especially useful in writing dialogue, since creating unique and realistic dialogue for a character is one of the easiest ways to present him as a unique personality.

    @Traci: Children’s dialogue is tough. It’s a wobbly balance between making them sound too mature and making them sound too cutesy.

    @sjp: Depending on how “flashy” (i.e., short) the flash fiction is, sometimes there just isn’t going to be room for dialogue. But, by the same token, a well placed line of dialogue can convey more than twice as much narrative or description.

  16. Making kids “sound” like they are talking like kids can be tricky. I write both adult and middle-grade fiction. Luckily, I have six kids so I have had lots of practice listening to the way they relate. After I finished my MG novel The Twin Jinn I realized I modeled the brother and sister after my two youngest and how they react to each other.
    – Joan

  17. I don’t have kids, so I’m out of luck on that score. But I will sometimes pull old home videos of when my siblings and I were young. Helps revive memories of what it was like to actually be that age.

  18. Dialog can also assist in revealing character, as well as thought and action. I love dialog and use it as much as I can, being careful not to over use it. As you stated everything must move the story forward and be balanced, not too much of anything. Thanks, Katie.

  19. The author who aces the balance of everything that makes up a novel is the author who’s the master. Confidentially, I have yet to people this person. 😉

  20. Rule of literature are guidelines. All so called rules of writing are constantly being revised and updated. Dialog is an easy and great way to jump right in to a new tale. I don’t recommend a long winded drawn out conversation where you don’t identify the people talking except through the words they exchange with one another. But I certainly don’t have the audacity to say it can’t be done. The only rule usually applied to the start of a story is to make sure you catch the reader’s attention and make them yearn for more. Strong dialog has that power. Dialog is fun and can be used to describe setting. Speech alone can even let the reader know who’s talking without he said, she said or anything else needed. Dialog sets the tone, the mood, the ambiance. Thanks,, Edward Itor

  21. I’ve always wanted to play around with a short story that was entirely dialogue. It’s a bit gimmicky, but there’s so much room for subtextual resonance.

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