What Should Your Characters Talk About?

What Should Your Characters Talk About in Dialogue PinterestDialogue is the best part of stories. (Yes, even better than Dickensian narratorial diatribes about crooked politics.) But it’s tough to write scintillating dialogue when you find yourself asking that fundamental question: “What should your characters talk about?”

As writers, we’re familiar with the rant about “show, don’t tell.” We’re supposed to bring our stories to life so vividly readers can see it all happening and forget they’re being told a story. But the truth is all our best efforts at showing are really just a magic trick. Written fiction is always and inevitably about us telling our readers a story—with one exception. And brownie points for you if you already know that exception is dialogue.

Dialogue is the one aspect of story you can share with readers without needing to describe, embellish, or otherwise bring it to life. All you have to do is record exactly what your characters say, and let their words speak for themselves.

But first your characters need something to talk about, right? And it’s gotta be good. Like Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn good. More than that, it’s got to be good and it’s got to move the plot in meaningful ways. No pressure, right?

A few weeks ago, “Jamie” left a comment talking about this common dilemma among writers and offering some excellent advice:

I had a colleague ask me once about dialogue, as in the characters having something to say to each other. Not even making dialogue witty or full of subtext, but just talking to each other, period….

[F]or me the idea is that characters should have something to say to each other, or there’s something wrong. There should be an immediate purpose—“hey, want to get a pizza?”—and a larger purpose, e.g., strategizing how to thwart an upcoming heist while they eat the pizza. Dialogue should reveal something of the characters, as in maybe one character always orders something different on her pizza, and the other one has a specific topping combination named for her because she only ever orders that one.

I think I advised her to consider her plot and themes, on the grounds that dialogue may flow from there. I don’t know if you’ve ever addressed dialogue from the angle of “what do they say when they’re talking?” But I’ve seen a few other writers struggle with that question. I suspect it would be a breakthrough if they could crack that particular element.

To that end, let’s take a look at what meaningful dialogue looks like and how you can find answers to “what should your characters talk about?” on every single page.

3 Different Types of Dialogue

Dialogue manifests in several different ways, all of which are perfectly legit.

1. Conversation in a Scene (Action-Oriented)

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

First off and most obvious is dialogue that occurs in the action half of scene structure—the scene portion which focuses on goalconflict, and disaster. These are the scenes in which your POV character wants something. She has a goal, and it’s very likely she’s going to need to talk to someone else along the way because:

  • She needs information (a goal in itself).
  • Another character is creating conflict by verbally and/or physically blocking her ability to reach that goal.
  • She’s voicing her emotions about the goal.
For Example: The Time Traveler’s Wife

“I’m okay. Can you guys do me a favor?” They nod. “Gomez, go back to the church. I’m there, waiting in the vestibule. Pick me up and bring me here. Smuggle me into the downstairs men’s john and leave me there. Ben, keep an eye on me,” (I point at my chest) “and when I tell you to, grab my tux and bring it to me in the men’s room. Okay?”

Gomez asks, “How much time do we have?”

“Not much.”

He nods and walks away.

Time Traveler's Wife Wedding Rachel McAdams Eric Bana

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), Warner Bros.

2. Conversations in a Sequel (Reaction-Oriented)

After the action-focused scene portion comes the sequel, in which characters react to their thwarted or semi-thwarted goal in the previous segment and figure out what to do about it via reactiondilemma, and decision. These scenes are often the talkiest of the entire story. This is where a lot of great character reflection and development can happen and where characters can share interesting facts about each other—insofar as those facts are pertinent to the conflict. These conversations aren’t usually as focused as the dialogue in scenes. They offer the opportunity to deep-dive into character motivations.

For Example: Open Range

BOSS: I married once. Never knowed that, did you, Charley? Had a wife and child. Sweet little spread, too. It was nothing fancy, but we was young. Loved each other. Never had a cross word. They caught the typhus and died. And after that, home didn’t seem a place to spend time. Believe I’ve changed my mind on that now that I’m getting on in years. If Button lives and we survive Baxter, I swear I aim to see to it there’s a home he’s sleeping in instead of the cold prairie. Have yourself a last cup of tea, Charley. I’d like to see Button again, Miss Barlow.

SUE: Of course.

BOSS: I know the way.

CHARLEY: Whew. Been riding with him years. Never said nothing about being married.

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Open Range.

Open Range Kevin Costner Annette Bening

Open Range (2003), Touchstone Pictures.

3. Standalone Dialogue

Not all dialogue will be part of an in-depth exchange. Throughout your story, you’ll also need standalone or throwaway lines of dialogue that serve any number of purposes:

  • Sharing information.
  • Creating verisimilitude via background noise.
  • Offering catalysts for your narrating character’s goals and reactions.
For Example: Gilmore Girls

LUKE: Hey, wrong table.

RORY: Since when is there a right table?

LUKE: Since the coffee cake I baked for you and the stupid balloons I blew up are at that table, over there.

RORY: You blew up balloons for me?

LUKE: Yep.

RORY: Oh, Luke, you old softie.

LUKE: I count to three, it’s gone.

RORY: Thank you.

Gilmore Girls Rory's Birthday Luke

Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), The CW.

4 Types of Information Dialogue Can Share

What should your characters talk about?

In a nutshell, a story is a sharing of information. This is just as true of dialogue as any other device used to tell that story. This means that whatever your characters are talking about should be designed to share information of one sort or another, in one way or another.

Although dialogue should never be used to info dump information (especially via the clumsy “as you know, Bob” crutch), it is actually one of the best ways to share info. This only works, however, when what you’re sharing moves the plot. Done skillfully, the very sharing between characters becomes a plot movement in itself.

There are three types of information you might share in your dialogue:

1. Your Characters Can Talk About Worldbuilding

Story is a give and take between characters and the world in which they live. The things your character knows about the setting and the things he does not will always be pertinent. Many setting facts will be shared in narrative, but the most interesting and important can be shared in dialogue. This is especially true in the beginning of the story, when readers are being introduced to the setting, the rules that govern it, and the specific problems it is presenting the protagonist.

For Example: The Great Escape

RAMSEY: Colonel, do you expect officers to forget their duty?

VON LUGER: No. It is because we expect the opposite that we have brought you here. This is a new camp. It has been built to hold you and your men. It is organised to incorporate all we have learned of security measures. And in me, you will not be dealing with a common jailer, but with a staff officer personally selected for the task by the Luftwaffe high command. We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket, and we intend to watch this basket carefully.

RAMSEY: Very wise.

VON LUGER: You will not be denied the usual facilities. Sports, a library, a recreation hall, and for gardening we will give you tools. We trust you to use them for gardening. Devote your energies to these things. Give up your hopeless attempts to escape. And, with intelligent cooperation, we may all sit out the war as comfortably as possible.

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of The Great Escape.

Colonel Von Luger Great Escape

The Great Escape (1963), The Mirisch Company.

2. Your Characters Can Talk About Themselves

Most people like to talk about themselves. Same goes for characters. And if they don’t like to talk about themselves, why so much more the delicious, since other interested characters get to pry out the details. But the tricky key here is that, as with all dialogue, the character information can’t be just random info.

Your protagonist had a treehouse when she was eight, loves red licorice, and can’t stand penny loafers—so what?

Taken at face value, none of these facts are particularly interesting and, out of context, certainly don’t seem likely to move the plot. But if she hid in the treehouse when her scary uncle came to visit, associates red licorice with her best friend’s funeral, and resents loafers because her lazy first boyfriend wore them—now you have something worth exploring in dialogue, especially if these details and another character’s learning of them via dialogue will advance the plot.

For example: Mistborn

“Do you always read at balls?” she asked.

The young man looked up. “Whenever I can get away with it.”

“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of coming?” Vin asked. “Why attend if you’re just goign to avoid socializing?”

“You’re up here too,” he pointed out.

Vin flushed. “I just wanted to get a brief view of the hall.”:

“Oh? And why di you refuse all three men who asked you to dance?”

Vin paused. the man smiled, then turned back to his book.

“There were four,” Vin said with a huff. “And I refused them because I don’t know how to dance very well.”

3. Your Characters Can Talk About the Plot

Your characters don’t live in a vacuum. They live in a plot. So when in doubt about an appropriate subject for them to discuss, take a look at that delightful little humdinger of a plot you’ve got going on. Your protag’s a detective trying to solve a mystery? He can talk about that. She’s a single mom trying to keep her kid out of trouble? Tons of conversation fodder right there. He’s a soldier trying to overcome PTSD? Sounds juicy to me.

For Example: Captain America: Winter Soldier

FURY: This is Project Insight. Three next generation helicarriers synced to a network of targeting satellites.

STEVE: Launched from the Lemurian Star.

FURY: Once we get them in the air they never need to come down. Continuous suborbital flight courtesy of our new repulsor engines.

STEVE: Stark?

FURY: Well, he had a few suggestions once he got an up close look at our old turbines. These new long range precision guns can eliminate a thousand hostiles a minute. The satellites can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.

STEVE: I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.

FURY: We can’t afford to wait that long.

STEVE: Who’s “we”?

FURY: After New York, I convinced the World Security Council we needed a quantum surge in threat analysis. For once we’re way ahead of the curve.

STEVE: By holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection.

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Captain America: Winter Soldier

nick fury steve rogers captain america winter soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

5 Questions to Help You Vet Your Dialogue

The best way to write dialogue is to start with a focus (what does this conversation need to accomplish in the story?) and then just loose the characters’ wagging tongues. Writing fast and furious dialogue is not just fun, it’s also a great way to come up with some gems. But once you’ve got all those quote marks littering your page, how do you know if what your characters are saying is actually important enough to keep?

Here are five questions to ask about every dialogue exchange.

1. Does It Have a Point?

This is the big one. Are these characters talking just to fill space—because they’re bored and have nothing better to do and because you’re bored and didn’t know what else to write? Or is there a reason they’re talking? Does one—or preferably both—characters have a goal in this conversation?

The goal doesn’t always have to be explicit (e.g., the detective wants to to know where his suspect was on the night of the murder, so he says, “Tell me where you were on the night of the fifteenth!”). Sometimes it can be implicit subtext buried beneath what is otherwise meaningless nothings (the single mom is worried about her kid but doesn’t want to smother him, so she says, “Did you see that cute cat video?”).

For Example: Star Wars: A New Hope

THREEPIO: He says he’s the property of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a resident of these parts. And it’s a private message for him.  Quite frankly, sir I don’t know what he’s talking about. Our last master  was Captain Antilles, but with what
we’ve been through, this little R2 unit has become a bit eccentric.

LUKE: Obi-Wan Kenobi? I wonder if he means old Ben Kenobi?

THREEPIO: I beg your pardon, sir, but do you know what he’s talking about?

LUKE: Well, I don’t know anyone named Obi-Wan, but old Ben lives out beyond the dune sea. He’s kind of a strange
old hermit. I wonder who she is. It sounds like she’s in trouble. I’d better play back the whole thing.

>>Click to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Star Wars: A New Hope.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), 20th Century Fox.

2. Does It Move the Plot?

Like all scenes, dialogue can’t exist in a vacuum. If the story remains unchanged at the end of any conversation, then it’s probably extraneous. Change is the only way to know if your plot is progressing. If that “hi, how are you?” across the fence with the neighbor adds no new information that prompts a new action (or conversation) from your character, then it’s not moving the plot. This is where conflict plays a vital role. Dialogue exchanges between characters with opposing goals can be a fabulous way of presenting obstacles and, thus, conflict.

For Example: A Little Princess

“She has frocks of every other color. Has she a black one?”

Miss Amelia began to turn pale.

“No—ye-es!” she sniffed. “Oh, sister! What can have happened?”

Miss Minchin wasted no words.

“Captain Crewe is dead,” she said. “He has died without a penny. That spoiled, pampered, fanciful child is left a pauper on my hands.”

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess (1995), Warner Bros.

3. Does It Share Important Information?

Whether or not a piece of information is important is entirely contextual. “My favorite color is fuchsia” could be either incredibly boring nonsense—or that one clue upon which the whole story pivots.

So here’s the rule of thumb: even the most boring and seemingly surface bits of dialogue should have deeper meaning. If you need a character to be momentarily distracted on the subway by a walk-on character, then try your best to make even that tiny exchange have at least a thematic purpose. Nothing in your story should ever be throwaway—including the dialogue.

For Example: Ender’s Game

“Somebody had to have built all this,” Abra said. “Look, this skull place, it’s not rock, look at it. This is concrete.”

“I know,” Ender said. “They built it for me.”


“I know this place, Abra. The buggers built it for me.”

“The buggers were all dead fifty years before we got here.”

“You’re right, it’s impossible. But I know what I know.”

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Ender’s Game.

Asa Butterfield Ender Wiggin Ender's Game Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game (2013), Lionsgate.

4. Does It Share Something Interesting?

And now, I’m sorry to say, I’m about to complicate everything. It’s not enough for dialogue to ace all the above by being pointed and purposeful and the natural outgrowth of your character’s super-important goal. It’s also got to be interesting. This is the single greatest factor separating bad dialogue from good dialogue and good dialogue from masterful dialogue. Is what your characters are talking about interesting? Is it entertaining? If readers opened your book to this conversation, would they want to read it even though they have no idea what’s happening in the story’s larger context?

For Example: Casablanca

RENAULT: I’ve often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds?
Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.

RICK: It’s a combination of all three.

RENAULT: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

RICK: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

RENAULT: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

RICK: I was misinformed.


Casablanca (1942), Warner Bros.

5. What Are the Characters’ Motives?

If you find you’re struggling with any of the above, take a step back. Dialogue is a surface interaction. It is an external manifestation of the characters’ deeper workings. In other words, dialogue never just pops out of nowhere. It is always motivated by something. This is particularly important when creating wonderful subtextual dialogue—in which the words of the conversation actually have nothing to do with what is really being said. Take a look at each speaker’s motive for pursuing this conversation. What does each person really want?

For Example: The Book Thief

“You told me all about the goal,” he said, “but I don’t know what sort of day it is up there. I don’t know if you scored it in the sun, or if the clouds have covered everything.” His hand prodded at his short-cropped hair, and his swampy eyes pleaded for the simplest of simple things. “Could you go up and tell me how the weather looks?”

Naturally, Liesel hurried up the stairs. She stood a few feet from the spit-stained door and turned on the spot, observing the sky.

When she returned to the basement, she told him.

“The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole….”

The Book Thief uses its World War II setting to appropriately set up its plot and themes.

The Book Thief (2013), 20th Century Fox.


Character is story. Story is character. Dialogue is a tool to represent both in an entertaining and accessible way. The next time you find yourself asking “what should your characters talk about?”, figure out what topic would best serve the advancement of the plot and the development of the characters—and then let those quote marks fly!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What should your characters talk about in your current scene? 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. Mmmm, pizza…

    I think that opening concept, of “getting pizza to talk about a heist” brings so much of this together. Hitchcock said drama is life with the dull bits cut out, but I look at the key as being speed control:

    When you’re properly in your characters’ heads, and also in the reader’s following the excitement, everything has momentum. And so sometimes the next thing that will happen is enough of a change –in plot, in world, or in understanding the character– that it needs to be discussed. Or that next thing is important but could be better paced by mentioning it at another moment instead. Or it’s just worth skipping.

    So the more a moment changes the story –or is the right moment to view part of another change– the more it deserves to be covered. I call it “speed bumps”: everything’s happening in sequence, but those changes are what the story slows down for.

    It’s really a more general principle, but it’s especially important for dialogue, because characters could talk about anything at any time. So I think there’s value in starting with a sense of what’s on people’s minds at each moment, and then finding which moments are worth talking out.

  2. Robert Billing says

    This was a really good article, thanks very much.

    Heinlein does a rather neat trick in “The Roads Must Roll” where the protagonist has to explain the crucial backstory to a VIP guest while dealing with a crisis. Because the guest is a VIP the protag can’t get rid of him, or ignore his questions, so we have a plot tension causing the necessary backstory to be presented.

    For me it’s often a case of simply getting the characters so clear in my mind that I know how they talk, and then effectively taking dictation. Doing this also lets me use dialogue to build the character in the reader’s mind.

    Dr Heloise McAllistair, my chief spaceship designer, for example, never appears stressed because she always has anticipated the next disaster and has a plan ready. Jane, who is usually in the thick of the action, has to react quickly, and can be very sharp tongued when something needs doing instantly. Jane also is firmly of the opinion that people should not take liberties just because she is a small woman. Of course they do, this is what happens when Arthur sends his minion Peters to “soften her up for interrogation.”

    Jane placed her hands on her hips and glared at Arthur. ‘I don’t care what this is about, or why you think you’ve a private war against Space Fleet, but if you ever, ever again think of doing something like that to a woman, and a woman’s body, then to hell with Space Fleet’s rules of engagement, I shall personally neuter you with a chainsaw.’ She spat each word. ‘Do I make myself clear? Now get this carrion out of my bedroom, it’s bleeding on the carpet.’ She aimed a kick with her heel at Peters’ remaining eye. Peters whimpered. ‘And don’t,’ she added, ‘waste time looking for the key to the handcuffs. It’s broken in the lock. You’ll have to cut them off him.’

    In the current WIP I am facing something of a problem because I want the backstory to come out very slowly. In the next scene Diana thinks Kit is a murderer (in fact he was falsely accused), but is actively trying to get closer to him. Why does she want a killer in her life? There is a very real reason, but finding it is what the story is about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally, you can turn even the biggest info-dump into a great scene when you’re driving it with conflict.

  3. Good article, I have a thing about good…no, great dialogue that furthers the story and drops a finger post or two along the way. Here is a sample from my WIP…Steeldust. Modern day cops, Bone and Loraine, are transported back 120 years in time to help a couple of local law officers , Sheriff Flynn and his wife, Deputy US Marshal Fiona Mae Flynn (finger post) take care of a local evil land baron who’s trying to capture a wild horse that the teenaged protagonist, Lisanne, wants.

    Bone helped Flynn put a sullen Carter, Fats and Big Jim French into their saddles outside the mouth of the canyon.
    “By, the way, Bone, where are ya’ll from? I know you’re cops.”
    “Don’t think you’d believe me if I told you, Sheriff.”
    “You might be surprised…An’ where’d you get those side arms? That .50 cal is somethin’ else…not to say anythin’ about that semiautomatic of Loraine’s…Seen a picture of one made in Germany in the Police Gazette…but it didn’t look nothin’ like hers.”
    “Yeah, I know…’Fraid that falls into the same category as where we’re from.”
    “We need to talk,” said Fiona. “Why don’t ya’ll go ahead and ride into Jacksboro with us. We can visit after we get these malefactors behind bars.”
    “Well, like to, but we’re kinda headed in the opposite direction…Right, Pard?”
    “So you say, Bone,” replied Loraine.
    “Where’bouts?” asked Flynn.
    “Lookin’ for the Wilson ranch. It’s to the northeast from here.”
    Mason’s head snapped around from tying the leads of the prisoner’s mounts in a daisy chain. “Whose ranch?”
    “The Wilsons.”
    “Cletus and Mary Lou?”
    “Yeah, think that’s it. Got…uh, a daughter, Lucy?”
    Flynn grinned. “Uh, huh…Mary Lou’s my sister.”
    “Oh, really?”
    “How do you know them?” asked Flynn.
    “Well, don’t really know Cletus and your sis, but, again, that’s part of that thing you wouldn’t believe.” Bone glanced over at the prisoners.
    Flynn caught his look and for the first time, noticed the gold and turquoise bracelet peeking out from Bone’s sleeve.
    “Ah, get your point…Notice you failed to include Lucy…”
    “Uh…well, yeah.” Bone looked at Loraine and pulled his sleeve back down.
    “Tell you what do, ya’ll go ahead and come to Jacksboro with us so we can lock these lawbreakers up an’ we’ll have us a long chat…an’ maybe some lunch at the best restaurant north of Fort Worth…Then me an’ Fiona will take ya’ll to my sister’s an’ interduce you proper.”
    “Wish I could go, too. Like to meet your sister an’ her family, but Slim an’ I got a new hired hand we’re breakin’ in,” said Lisanne.
    “A new hired hand? Where’d he come from?” asked Fiona.
    “Caught him stealin’ meat from my smokehouse.”
    “An’ you hired him?” inquired an incredulous Flynn.
    “Yeah, long story.” She also cast a hard look at the prisoners.
    “Whew, there’s a whole lot we don’t know that we need to catch up on,” said the sheriff.
    “You don’t know the half of it…Why don’t ya’ll stop by on the way to the Wilsons. Fill you in…Think you and Fiona will be interested.”
    “Well, like I always say…When you don’t know that you don’t know…it’s a whole lot different than when you know that you don’t know…until you know it,” commented Bone.
    “What?” quipped Flynn.
    “Explain later, Dear,” said Fiona.
    “I’ll be interested in hearing that too, Marshal,” commented Loraine as she looked out of the corner of her eye at Bone.
    He just looked back at her, arched his eyebrows and grinned.
    “Is he like this all the time, Loraine?” asked Flynn.
    She nodded. “Pretty much.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Love the premise! Great title too.

    • I like it.

      Minor note: I think the “tying the leads” is out of sequence. It should be mentioned just a bit earlier, when it starts. Also that will give you an opportunity to break up some dialog which is not currently broken up. And then the head snapping around would stand alone — would be the only thing that happens in that paragraph.

  4. Nice article. There’s a lot to cover, for sure. Dialogue is such an important part of fiction, and when done poorly, it can really stand out to a reader.

    For what it’s worth, the two biggest dialogue mistakes I see in my ezine are characters either having mundane, meaningless conversations to fill word-counts, or characters telling each other things they should already know in order to pass information on to the reader.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Another one I see frequently in unpubbed manuscripts is characters re-hashing info that’s already been iterated at least once before. I notice this in my own rough drafts too. It’s easy for authors to forget what characters have already covered sometimes.

      • Very good point. Yet another thing to look for in my own writing as well.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I think part of the problem is that writing a book is often a lengthy process–years sometimes–so it’s easy to feel like you, the author, need refreshed on something’s that already been said, even though readers will have just read it a couple hours ago at most.

  5. Excellent post. Thank you! I was mentioned to my husband last night in the car, coming home from a visit with my best friend, that I feel like I’ve finally nailed down the dialogue in the novel that I’m working on. I started it in 2012, and I feel much more comfortable now. I also find that I leave pieces of myself in the characters, and their dialogue. It’s pretty cool.

  6. A wonderful article, thank you for writing it! I really needed the advice.

  7. Lately I’ve been thinking about reading screenplays as a way of learning more about dialogue. Some of my favorite movies have such compelling dialogue. And yeah maybe I want to write a film script one day…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. I recommend going back to some Golden Hollywood classics. The dialogue back then is unsurpassed.

  8. Since I visualise my stories as movies in my head, I tend to write my dialogue first, followed by a couple of emotional or physical/action cues:

    Zerin: Javith, it’s Zerin. You got anything?
    Javith: Nothing yet. The report I sent through said the last sighting was in the Atchafalaya Basin. None of my eyes and ears down there have seen anything else.
    Zerin: Dead end?
    Javith: Possibly not. Beau wants to lay low. He knows we’re onto him.
    Zerin: We found the girl and her sister. Both stripped to the bone from the neck down. Even took the organs.
    Javith: *shakes his head; feeling sick* Really? Again?
    Zerin: Virgin flesh is damn near impossible to peddle on the shifter market, but like every good free-market system, there’s a…
    Javith: *runs hands through hair; frustrated* Black market, yeah, I know. Any of the usual suspects hear anything?
    Zerin: Nah, these guys are good. They don’t go through intermediaries; they kill to order and deliver in person.
    Javith: Call me when you hear something.

    As the story evolves, so does the dialogue. I might even throw out/edit the initial dialogue if a piece of information is mentioned earlier. The above dialogue will probably look nothing like that in the finished piece.

    The Hollywood Classics are amazing for dialogue, and my favourite authors for studying it are Douglas Adams and Elmore Leonard. Can’t get enough of their work; their dialogue is short, sharp, witty, and to the point.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I do this too sometimes. I’ll set up a scene with bare-bones dialogue before writing it.

  9. I am commenting off topic the digital and DVD release date of Black panther is 5/8 and 5/15 respectively. And are you going to an article on Avengers Infinity War?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! Definitely. Going to see it this afternoon. I think I’ll hold off on the Avengers article until I can see BP, so I can write the articles in order.

      • Why watch Avengers before BP? Avengers takes place after BP.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          ‘Cuz there was no way I was missing Avengers in the theater. 😉

          • Katrina Thomas says

            K.M., I must say I’m a little disappointed (a lot of disappointed actually). The Black Panther has been in theaters since February and still is in some locations. If you can make time to since Infinity War, why couldn’t you for BP? I believe I recall you saying in a post that you would be too busy to, which I found odd since it was a Marvel movie and considered a blockbuster far exceeding expectations. It was a must-see for many fans so I am/was puzzled at your dismissal of it especially when your breakdown of Marvel films are something your visitors really look forward to reading (including myself! I love them). I don’t believe I’ve ever read you say before that you would have to wait to catch one on Blu-Ray before doing an analysis. What gives?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Black Panther isn’t the first. I missed Iron Man 3 and Doctor Strange as well. In this instance, not being able to see it in theaters wasn’t for lack of wanting to. I loved T’Challa in Civil War and thought the trailers looked excellent.

            Unfortunately, life just conspired to get in the way. I was travelling and came home really sick, and then my one-and-only local theater closed unexpectedly for renovations (I live in the middle of nowhere); it only reopened the day before Infinity War came out. I was disappointed Black Panther didn’t come out on VOD sooner so I could see them in order, but I was too excited about Infinity War to wait a couple weeks. :p If anything, seeing Wakanda in Infinity War has only made me more excited about Black Panther.

            So I apologize for the delay, but not to worry. If all goes well, I’ll be watching it this coming week. I should have both posts up before the end of the month.

          • Katrina Thomas says

            Well now, that certainly sounds like a series of unfortunate events. Hope you enjoy both movies. They were both great.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Thanks! I’m sure I will. 🙂

  10. I never thought to ask the question this post asks, but once I saw it, I knew I should have. This is a very good post. But I have a question: Is there a way for the characters to figure something out (e.g. who the villain is, how the crook did the crime) without talking about it a lot? Or what is a tactful way to have them figure it out while talking about it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Make it all about the clues. Instead of relying too much on the characters’ intuitive process (which can often end up feeling too convenient in fiction), make sure you’re creating “physical” clues or bits of outside information that the characters can then put together like puzzle pieces. Basically, the readers should be given the same information or awareness as the characters, so any realization on the characters’ part doesn’t come out of the blue.

    • Winnie the Pooh has some good examples of this. So a child reader can feel proud of outsmarting the characters by figuring it out before they do!

  11. Wow! This turned out even better than I was expecting! Thank you for tackling this; I now have a handy guide to give my writer friends.

    Also, the part about the “sequel” being talkiest is reassuring to me personally, since I’m trying to get over my fear of large word counts. It’s not a given that a long chapter/scene is necessarily “too wordy,” if it’s a little longer than others. I’m learning to tell myself that “the story will be as long as it needs to be.” The same should go for scenes and chapters in general.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for the suggestion!

      Personally, I write long first drafts. I have to “talk” it out on the page, before figuring out what stays and what goes. I often end up cutting upwards of a quarter of the original word count.

  12. Michael says

    I think I struggle with dialogue partly because of my personality. I am quite thoughtful and listen a lot so I tend to limit it naturally, but have to force myself to include more. I might have to experiment more though to see what I can do as dialogue is key to unpacking character relationships and a useful tool for communicating elements of the story without just relying on general description. Its a learning curve.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s the great thing about writing. We get to pretend we’re other people with other skills.

  13. John Swain says

    Thanks for talking about this! I’ve always had a skill at descriptive and allegorical writing, but the one thing that I always suffered at is animating my characters and particularly finding the right way to shape up the dialogue. Its always so rigid and soulless. I guess its because I never had great interpersonal skills anyways, and it shows in my writing. Its important for me to break this barrier, because even the greatest story ideas can’t get far if the characters are mindless, soulless projections…

  14. I have a chapter just before the climax kicks into high gear that’s basically them conversing with one guy around a fire. And what he’s saying is heavy stuff that doesn’t just come out of nowhere, it couldn’t be said earlier.

    It’s basically a “tying up loose ends before the big battle” chapter. Is this normal for story flow?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, not unusual at all. Just make sure whatever is said in this scene leads directly into what follows.

  15. David Franklin says

    I love it (as a reader) when dialogue isn’t ostensibly about anything, doesn’t look like it’s advancing the plot at all, but then you get a bit further down the road and realize that the story has advanced and the characters have opened up.
    It’s a subtle approach that I think Neal Shusterman does very well in his Unwind series.

  16. I might continue editing my first book as well and my dialogue is basically about the situations that StarGirl encounters.

  17. You are my hero now because you mentioned ‘Gilmore Girls’.

    Sometimes I feel like I use SO MUCH dialogue. On occasion, I end up with long conversations between the characters. Some of them have a lot of interesting stuff to say, and their interactions with each other are entertaining. I’ll have to remember the ‘what’s important’ thing more when editing, because it would aid the process. “Do I actually NEED this scene/conversation/plot thread?”
    Maybe part of it’s also because with early drafts, sometimes you just dump whatever’s in your head on the page, even if it turns out to be filler or unrealistic or doesn’t fit well with the plot. I have a first draft that I must have chopped about 20-30k from while editing. And now that I’m rewriting, I’m abandoning even more scenes. But the scenes I’m keeping are incorporating new character development and world-building info, so…

  18. Aaron Little says

    What are your thoughts on characters talking to themselves? I feel like it could easily go wrong, or at least diminish character development. People talk to themselves all the time (I tell myself anyway) but maybe it’s not a good idea in fiction. I’m thinking about having a character give herself a little pep talk before the next action she’s nervous about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Generally, I think this is tricky to pull off. Unless it is meant to be a quirky characterization, I would err on the side of no more than a few one liners where appropriate. POV characters can usually reveal all the reader needs to know without necessarily resorting to dialogue.


  1. […] break your story. Jim Dempsey shows how to keep your characters consistent, K.M. Weiland discusses what your characters should talk about, J.M. Williams advises us of the problems with quirky dialogue tags, and Janice Hardy tells us how […]

  2. […] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/what-should-your-characters-talk-about/ “Dialogue is the one aspect of story you can share with readers without needing to describe, embellish, or otherwise bring it to life. All you have to do is record exactly what your characters say, and let their words speak for themselves.” […]

  3. […] What Should Your Characters Talk About? – Helping Writers Become Authors […]

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