Dialogue Basics: Part Three

Sorry I haven’t written a blog in a few weeks. But I’m very busy. I mean, I’ve got this magazine I’m reading. And I have a cat. So…yeah.

Anyway, before moving on to other writing topics, I wanted to finish the dialogue discussion with some examples illustrating the points made in Parts One and Two.

Give this scene a whirl:


“Where were you last night at eleven o’clock?” she asked Burton.
“Home watching television,” he said sharply.
“Where’s home?”
“637 South Third.”
“Anyone with you?” she inquired.
“No, I live alone,” he replied.
“Sure you weren’t up here on Talbot and Twenty-eighth?”
He nodded. “Positive.”
“1271 Talbot?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Apartment 3D?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know it.”
“Watching television with a girl named Lorraine Riddock?”
“No, I wasn’t,” he snapped angrily. “I was home alone.”
“You know Lorraine, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” he said. “But I wasn’t with her last night.”
“Well, you were with her at the First Baptist Church, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but not later,” he said, wiping his forehead. “Not at eleven o’clock, which is what you asked me.”
“You were present at Gabriel Foster’s press conference, weren’t you?”
He nodded. “Yes, I was.”
“The television tape substantiates that.”
“I know,” he said. “I saw it.”
“Lorraine’s standing right there next to you. On the tape.”
“I know,” he admitted.

Okay, this one is pretty obvious. There are clearly way too many tags and beats. Remember, only use tags if there’s possible confusion regarding the speaker’s identity or if you want to slow pacing for dramatic effect. And if a tag doesn’t add to characterization or advance story, cut it.

Now, here’s the same scene as it was actually written. See if you can recognize the author.   


“Where were you last night at eleven o’clock?” she asked Burton.
“Home watching television,” he said.
“Where’s home?”
“637 South Third,”
“Anyone with you?”
“No, I live alone.”
“Sure you weren’t up here on Talbot and Twenty-eighth?”
“1271 Talbot?”
“Apartment 3D?”
“Don’t know it.”
“Watching television with a girl named Lorraine Riddock?”
“No, I wasn’t. I was home alone.”
“You know Lorraine, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. But I wasn’t with her last night.”
“Well, you were with her at the First Baptist Church, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but not later. Not at eleven o’clock, which is what you asked me.”
“You were present at Gabriel Foster’s press conference, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was.”
“The television tape substantiates that.”
“I know. I saw it.”
“Lorraine’s standing right there next to you. On the tape.”
“I know.”

That quote is from Ed McBain’s The Last Dance. McBain was known for his crisp dialogue, and look how efficient he is here. Two tags and no beats. And really, he could have cut the “he said” in the second line since Burton is addressed in the preceding tag; there is no possible speaker confusion. But the pacing throughout the conversation is spectacular. Listen to the rhythm. Notice the cadence. No wasted words. And that rhythm builds conflict and reveals character.

Next up:


Raylan said, “Did you really think I had shot that guy today?”
“I was kind of wondering about it.”
“You thought I shot a guy who was lying in bed asleep?”
“It wouldn't have been the first time I saw you shoot and kill a man,” Joyce said. Not twenty feet from the table when he shot Tommy Bucks three times, Joyce watching it happen. She said, “We’ve never talked about the shooting. How did you feel after you shot him?”
He wasn’t sure how he felt. Relieved? It was hard to explain. He said, “After it happened, just thinking about it scared me. I don’t feel sorry for shooting him, and I don't even regret shooting him. I didn’t have any other options. It was the only way I could have stopped him.”
“Was it a personal matter between the two of you?”
“Yeah, I guess it was in a way.”
“So you had to settle it man to man. You were living up to your image as a lawman.”
“I am a lawman.”
She said, “What would you have done if he wasn’t armed?”
“He had a gun.”
“You know that for sure?”
“He wouldn’t have been there without a gun.”
She said, “Let me put it another way. If you knew he didn’t have a gun, would you have shot him anyway?”
“But he did have a gun. That's why I had to shoot him. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
She said, “Well, then think about it.”
“I’d like to know what you think,” Raylan said. “Do you think I would have shot him if I knew he didn't have a gun?”
Joyce said, “I don’t know what to think anymore.” She waited a few moments and said, “Do you want another beer or not?”

That scene’s pretty good the way it is, no? If most folks read that in a book, they’d be happy. But good isn’t great. That scene is from Elmore Leonard’s Riding the Rap. Except here’s how Leonard, a true master of dialogue, handled things:


Raylan said, “Did you think I had shot that guy today?”
“I wondered, that’s all.”
“Really? A guy lying in bed asleep?”
“I saw you shoot and kill a man,” Joyce said. Not twenty feet from the table when he shot Tommy Bucks three times, Joyce watching it happen. She said, “But we’ve never talked about it, have we? How you felt?”
He wasn’t sure how he felt. Relieved? It was hard to explain. He said, “It scares you, after, thinking about it. I don’t feel sorry for him or wish I hadn’t done it. I didn’t see any other way to stop him.”
“It was a personal matter?”
“In a way.”
“Man to man. You have an image of yourself, the lawman.”
“It’s what I am.”
She said, “You want to know what I wonder about? What if he wasn’t armed?”
“But he was.”
“You know that?”
“He wouldn’t have been there without a gun.”
She said, “Let me put it another way. If you knew he didn’t have a gun, would you have shot him anyway?”
“But he did. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
She said, “Well, then think about it.”
“I’d like to know what you think,” Raylan said. “Would I have shot him knowing he was unarmed?”
Joyce said, “I don’t know.” She waited a few moments and said, “You want another beer or not?”

Same basic scene. No drastic changes. However, the first version was 301 words, and the second one was 232. If I handed you that first version and said cut 69 words, your first thought would be “Why?” Then you’d probably wonder where the hell you’d cut.

The best word to describe Leonard’s dialogue is “authentic.” He writes like people talk. Real folks seldom speak in complete sentences or use correct grammar. He uses just enough words to convey the point.

Read the two versions again. Pay attention to the number of words used and the distance covered. I want to point out two subtle but significant changes.

First, this exchange:

“So you had to settle it man to man. You were living up to your image as a lawman.”
“I am a lawman.”

Becomes this:

“Man to man. You have an image of yourself, the lawman.”
“It’s what I am.”

In the real version, Leonard uses three words, “Man to man,” instead of the nine-word “So you had to settle it man to man.”

Notice the “You were living up to your image as a lawman.” Sure, it’s a more complete thought, but compare it to “You have an image of yourself, the lawman.” The former sounds stilted in comparison.

Even the “I am a lawman” pales next to “It’s what I am,” not because of any change in word count but due to the phrasing’s more natural flow and the statement’s conviction.

Now consider the final line:

“Do you want another beer or not?”

It becomes:

"You want another beer or not?”

One word. That’s it. The first version opens with “Do,” and the second version skips it. Yet notice how different those two lines feel. How does losing that one word change the line’s emotion?

Keep it tight. Use as few words as possible. And the result will be improved pacing and enhanced authenticity.

Also, look how Leonard avoids the obvious. When Joyce says, “You know that?” The obvious reply would be a simple “Yeah” or “Of course I did.” But Raylan responds with “He wouldn’t have been there without a gun.” Because readers wouldn’t see that line coming, Leonard stays one step ahead of them and effectively pulls them through the conversation.

Leonard deserves another look. Here’s our buddy Raylan again. Different book.



McCormick had picked up his iced tea. He sipped it looking at Raylan and said, “I’ve meant to ask you, when Harry Arno gave you the slip, did he stick you with the dinner check?”
Giving Raylan a serious, interested expression now, waiting.
“Sixty bucks,” Raylan said. “I paid it.”
“I hope you don’t put it on your expense account.” Raylan didn’t say anything and McCormick said, “What grade level are you?”
“For how long?”
“Seven years.”
“Stuck, huh? That’s a shame. I understand this is the second time you’ve let Harry Arno get away. Is he a friend of yours?”
“I’ve never thought of him as such, no.”
“Didn’t they teach you never let a prisoner out of your sight?”
Raylan said, “He wasn’t a prisoner,” and knew right away he shouldn’t have. It was like talking back to the teacher.
McCormick said, “Well, you were watching him, weren’t you? That’s what we’re talking about.”
Raylan felt now he had to keep going and said, “You want to know how I see it?”
“How you see what?”
“This situation, with Harry.”
“I sure would, but wait,” McCormick said, and called out, “Jerry, come in here.” Crowder appeared in the bedroom doorway, almost filling it, and McCormick motioned to him. “Have an iced tea. Raylan’s going to tell us how he sees it.”
Coming over to the table Jerry said, “How he sees what?”
“That’s what we’re going to find out.” McCormick looked at Raylan. “Go on.”
“Well, first of all,” Raylan said, “I can’t think of a reason why Harry would take off knowing he needs protection. Another reason, he’s too smart to become a fugitive, have to hide out the rest of his life.”
McCormick said, “You know Harry pretty well?”
“I was with him on two occasions. Both times we talked, shared experiences, you might say.”
“If he realizes he needs protection,” McCormick said, “and knows he’ll become a wanted fugitive if he runs, then why did he?”
“Maybe he didn’t,” Raylan said. “Maybe he was abducted.”

That’s a scene from Leonard’s Pronto, and that’s exactly how it was written. No edits needed. But this scene is a great example of how dialogue can show tone and characterization.

When Raylan, a U.S. Marshal, says he’s been at the same rank for seven years, McCormick answers with “Stuck, huh?” That sets the tone for the conversation. Right there, we know it’s an adversarial relationship. The dialogue introduces conflict, and the scene immediately becomes more interesting.

The dialogue also reveals both men’s characters. McCormick’s insults and sarcastic replies show he’s a jerk, but dig Raylan’s response when asked if Harry, a fella who has gotten away from him twice, is a friend of his:

“I’ve never thought of him as such, no.”   

That line shows us who Raylan is. He could have easily fired back with an angry “Screw you” or some form of indignation. Instead, we get a polite, almost gentle, response. Leonard uses the dialogue to show us Raylan doesn’t rattle. He’s a good guy even when he doesn’t need to be.

Later, Raylan also shows another side to his character when he tells McCormick “how he sees it”:

“I can’t think of a reason why Harry would take off knowing he needs protection. Another reason, he’s too smart to become a fugitive, have to hide out the rest of his life.”

Even though Raylan is an affable fella, he’s no rube. He uses sound, expert logic, yet he still manages to convey it in a non-threatening, humble manner. Raylan isn’t someone who should be underestimated.

One quick point about tags. Look at the tag placement in the closing line:

“Maybe he didn’t,” Raylan said. “Maybe he was abducted.”

We don’t need a tag there to identify the speaker. The context clearly indicates Raylan is speaking because it’s his turn and we just had a McCormick tag in the previous line. So why is that tag so great? Timing. Leonard inserts the tag there to slow the reader and to place greater emphasis on the next line. That one extra beat gives the “Maybe he was abducted” much greater significance, making it seem like a profound revelation.

This next one is from Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island. This scene is right at the start of the book. When you read it, pay attention to how the dialogue is used to establish the narrator’s character, as well as the book’s tone.



Max said, “It doesn’t hurt to look.”
“Sure it does. What if I get subpoenaed to testify out here at some inconvenient time? I’m not getting paid for this.”
“Actually, I called the town supervisor and got an okay to hire you, officially, as a consultant. A hundred bucks a day.”
“Wow. Sounds like the kind of job I have to save up for.”
Max allowed himself a smile. “Hey, it covers your gas and phone. You’re not doing anything anyway.”
“I’m trying to get the hole in my right lung to close.”
“This won’t be strenuous.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s your chance to be a good Southold citizen.”
“I’m a New Yorker. I’m not supposed to be a good citizen.”
“Hey, did you know the Gordons well? Were they friends?”
“Sort of.”
“So? There’s your motivation. Come on, John. Get up. Let’s go. I’ll owe you a favor. Fix a ticket.”
In truth, I was bored, and the Gordons were good people…. I stood and put down my beer. “I’ll take the job at a buck a week to make me official.”
“Good. You won’t regret it.”
“Of course I will.” I turned off 'Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog' and asked Max, “Is there a lot of blood?”
“A little. Head wounds.”
“You think I need my flip-flops?”
“Well … some brains and skull blew out the back….”
“Okay.” I slipped into my flip-flops, and Max and I walked around the porch to the circular driveway in the front of the house. 

Here’s a beauty:

“Wow. Sounds like the kind of job I have to save up for.”

That line tells us exactly who the narrator is and the tone we can expect from the rest of the book.

The next example comes from one of my writing teachers, Michael Arnzen. This scene is from his book Play Dead. Pay attention to how he uses dialect to heighten characterization and how he introduces a participle phrase or two with his tags.



She turned and caught him staring at her.
But this time he didn’t blush. He needed to get a good picture of her in his mind, to cleanse his conscience of the morning’s nightmare. And just seeing her made it feel good to be back.
She smiled, blinking at the sun behind him.
“You smoke too much,” Johnny said, stepping between her and the door that led to the kitchen, smiling back.
Gin leaned forward, studying his face and neck as she offered him a menthol. Cute wrinkles squiggled up her forehead. “You look different.”
“Yeah,” Johnny said, somehow feeling different, too. “I’m clean for once.” He lit up.
“A change for the better.” Gin leaned back against the wall, smoking. “Does this mean you’re outta this hell hole already?”
Johnny swallowed, thinking about Axe’s promise to kill him if he saw him. “Yeah, for a while anyway.” He inhaled the menthol cigarette smoke, realizing that he was getting used to it. Kind of liking it, too. It tasted clean. He wondered if Gin’s lips tasted this way—cool metallic mint with a hint of tar. “Didja miss me?”

A line like “Didja miss me” and then sprinkling in an “outta” adds to characterization and increases authenticity. That’s how people talk.

And while this blog is about dialogue, I also wanted to highlight how Arnzen used sensory imagery to produce a damn fine description:

cool metallic mint with a hint of tar.

He combined two senses: touch (“cool metallic”) and smell (“hint of tar”). Always appeal to the senses!

Finally, I want to close with a selection from my pal John Dixon’s Phoenix Island. John is a hell of a writer and an even better guy, and in this scene, look at how he uses a variety of tags and beats and how the dialogue reveals the protagonist’s character.



“Honestly,” Carl said, “he can't fight. He puts too much faith into muscle. He's always flexing and everything. He lets anger get in the way, too. And he pretends things are what he wants them to be, not what they really are.”
“Interesting. Please elaborate.”
“When you fight, you have to know the situation. Like I understood he was really strong, so I wasn't going to wrestle him. And I knew he was left-handed, so I moved mostly to my left, away from his power. I just worked speed and angles and broke him down, and that made him mad, so he kept getting sloppier and sloppier, and that made it so I could start landing heavier shots.”
“What about his weapons?”
“He tried the stun gun, but I knocked that out of his hand. That messed with his head.”
“The knife?”
“I wasn't happy to see it. Blades are scary. But part of me...” He shrugged. “Maybe part of me was happy to see it. I mean I was scared, but I also knew I had his heart in my back pocket then. If he was confident, he wouldn't have brought it out. But he must have thought he needed it.”
“What should he have done instead?”
“Readjusted. He should have let go of what he wanted to happen and taken a good look at what was really happening and done something about it.”
“Could he have beaten you if he had?”
Carl was silent for a second. Then he said, “No. Probably not.”
Look at “He shrugged.” Yes, writers tend to overuse beats like “shrugged” and “nodded” and “smiled,” but here it works perfectly. It’s an action that works for characterization. That shrug has meaning. Carl is shrugging because he’s reluctantly admitting something important about who he is.

Now jump to the closing line:

Carl was silent for a second. Then he said. “No. Probably not.”

That Carl was silent for a second is great. Once again, it shows Carl’s humility. He doesn’t want to just come out and say, “Yeah, I would have beat the hell out of him.” Nope. Carl hesitates. Thinks a moment. And then says, “No. Probably not.”

Only Carl, humble badass, would deliver that line. Beautiful characterization.

If you want to learn how to write dialogue, study those who do it well. And as always, feel free to let me know if you have any questions.

Thank you.  


Dialogue Basics: Part Two

Writers can pull all sorts of shenanigans and assorted monkeyshines to cover up technical flaws in plotting and other aspects of storytelling, but dialogue exposes all. There's no place to hide. Authentic, snappy dialogue earns trust. I'll follow a writer anywhere if the dialogue sings.

But strong dialogue requires work. And the more effortless and natural the dialogue, the more work required. Here are four quick tips to ease the burden:

1. Ignore the Reader: I mentioned this in the previous blog post, but it needs to be emphasized again. Dialogue is a conversation between characters. Keep the reader out of it. Weak dialogue explains things to the reader instead of allowing the reader to overhear a conversation. Every word spoken must be for the characters’ benefit, not the reader’s. You want readers to feel like they’re eavesdropping on a private discussion.

2. Keep It Tight: If you can say something in five words, chances are you can say it better in three. Now, that doesn’t literally mean to cut things down to three words, but instead of cutting from five to four, always strive to cut deeper. Edit all unnecessary words and useless phrases. Slice to the bone. Don't edit until every character ends up sounding alike, but you want the dialogue to be crisp and free of wasted effort. Make every word count.

3. Stay One Step Ahead: Avoid writing the obvious. Cut canned responses and courtesy small talk. Think of the first line that comes to mind, write it even, and then cut it. Jumping ahead and starting with the “second” line is a nifty little trick that keeps you one step ahead and effectively pulls the reader through the conversation. You never want your dialogue to be predictable. If readers can guess what your character is going to say, don’t write it.

4. Remember Motivation: Obviously, motivation is essential for any scene construction, but it can be particularly important in dialogue exchanges. Each character must enter the conversation with a specific goal in mind. And when you have two characters with opposing goals, the result is great dialogue.

For instance, think of a detective interviewing a murder suspect. The detective’s motivation is to learn if the suspect is guilty, and the suspect’s motivation is to stay out of prison. There will be a natural conflict of interests there, and it’s pretty easy to see. But what about when the detective is just interviewing a possible witness or someone who knows a suspect? Here’s where a lot of folks slip up. The person being interviewed can’t just roll over and give the detective whatever she needs. The interviewee needs motivation that conflicts with the detective’s goal. Put up obstacles. Make your detective work.



Columbo was the best at interviewing suspects. Study how he would disguise his true motivation behind stories about his wife to manipulate suspects and get them to lower their guards. He was a master, and the reason why those scenes always worked is because Columbo and the people he interacted with always had opposing motivations, even when Columbo was doing his best to act like they didn’t.

And those motivations don’t have to be dramatic. There’s a classic Columbo scene where he needs to interview a driving instructor, played by the great Larry Storch. The instructor’s car actually breaks down, and Columbo offers him a ride home. The instructor’s sole motivation is trying to survive Columbo’s distracted driving. The whole time Columbo is asking questions, the instructor is critiquing his driving and trying not to have an aneurysm. The two opposing motivations clash, and the result is comedy gold.

Ignore the reader, keep it tight, stay one step ahead, and remember motivation. They’re the Four Horsemen of writing dialogue. In the next post, I’ll provide some real-world examples to illustrate all these dialogue basics.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch some Columbo. Lots and lots of Columbo.


Dialogue Basics

I always pay attention to dialogue. If I’m ever stuck writing a scene, I’ll start with dialogue and go from there. And if I’m ever browsing a bookstore, I’ll flip to any page of dialogue and tell within a line or two if the book is worth the trouble.

In future posts, I’ll get into some specific techniques for how to improve dialogue, but first, it’s a good idea to start with the basics.


Dialogue serves six essential purposes:

1. Convey Information – *Only* from character to character; never communicate from the character to the reader.

2. Advance Plot – Make sure the information is important. Readers don’t need to waste time on meaningless chatter. Unless the conversation moves the story forward, cut it.

3. Characterization – This means how someone talks, the words they use, etc. You don't want everyone sounding alike. Characters must be distinctive. The words people use reveal a lot about who they are. So make them count.

4. Set Mood – Dialogue can be used to express comedy, conflict, tension, suspense, etc.

5. Pacing – Dialogue can quicken a story’s pace. Listen for the rhythm.  

6. White Space – Reading large blocks of text can be exhausting. Dialogue breaks up heavy prose and gives weary eyes some much needed relief.

The key to writing effective dialogue is doing multiple things at once. If you’re just doing one of those six points, you need to try harder. Convey information AND advance plot AND define characters.


* Make sure the punctuation is inside the closing quotation mark.

* Commas can separate a tag between two incomplete thoughts.

* Paragraph break between speakers.

* Don’t overuse exclamation points. Elmore Leonard recommends no more than two or three per 100,000 words, and that’s a good standard.


* Avoid descriptive tags. Always use “said.” The occasional “asked” or “whispered” won't offend most readers, but avoid descriptive tags like “cheered,” “smiled,” “celebrated,” “snapped,” “snarled,” etc. If you need a descriptive tag, it means the dialogue is weak. If you want that extra emotion conveyed, choose stronger words for the character or show it with an action beat.

* Never use adverbs to modify “said.” Again, if you need an adverb to convey the emotion, then your dialogue needs to be stronger. Rewrite it. Adverb tags distract the reader, shifting focus from what is said to how it’s said.

* Place the speaker in front of the verb to keep things active: “John said.”

* When the dialogue contains more than one line, place the tag after the first line. Don’t make the reader wait to find out who is speaking. Get the tag in as early as possible to avoid any speaker confusion.

* Participle phrases (“Take this,” Jimmy said, handing the monkey the banana.) should be used sparingly. I recommend no more than one per chapter. They’re so easy to use, they can get repetitive in a hurry. And a distracted reader will quit turning pages. 


* Action beats are descriptive actions used to identify the speaker. Beats can be used to eliminate repetitive tags and also to reveal characterization.

* Always place the beat up front. If you place the beat at the end of the dialogue, it can create confusion as to the speaker.

* Try not to make them empty gestures. Strive to make the beat reveal character. Never waste an opportunity for characterization.

* Avoid repetitive beats like “nodded,” “smiled,” “laughed,” etc. Nodded is, without doubt, the biggest culprit. Strive for one nod per book. I dare you.


* A little dialect goes a long way. Don’t overdo it. Try to avoid weird, phonetic spelling. Focus more on phrasing.

* Avoid repetitive openings, particularly “Well.”

* Always avoid exposition. This goes back to the first of the six dialogue purposes. Convey information from character to character; leave the reader out of it. If you need to explain something to the reader, have a character within the scene act as a surrogate. Even then, you need to be subtle so it doesn’t come across as explaining plot points through dialogue. This also involves the old “Show Don’t Tell” chestnut.  



“I like monkeys,” Jimmy said.

“I like monkeys?” Jimmy said.

“I like monkeys!” Jimmy said.

“Wow,” Jimmy said, “I like monkeys.”


“I like monkeys,” Jimmy said merrily. (INCORRECT)

“I like monkeys,” Jimmy trumpeted. (INCORRECT)

“I like monkeys,” Jimmy said, peeling the banana. (Correct, but don’t overuse it)


Jimmy took a big bite of banana. “I like monkeys.”