Posted On January 5, 2011 by Print This Post

You Don’t Say

I love dialogue. Any kind of dialogue.  My husband will testify to that on a personal level, but today we’re here to talk about dialogue within scenes and don’t need his opinion. 🙂 

Please welcome author and scriptwriter Cindy Carroll back to RU for another great lecture.

Take it away, Cindy!

Sometimes the best part about a movie is the dialogue.  But what about books?  Most of the time you remember the description.  You remember the characters.  You don’t usually come away from reading a book thinking – Wow, that dialogue was awesome.  So why not?  Dialogue is tough to get right.  Great dialogue is even tougher.  Dialogue has a big job in a book.

Dialogue should serve one or more purpose:  move the plot forward, develop character, illuminate the theme, take the story in a new direction, give the reader information.  There are other purposes of course but those are the ones I aim for.  It can also reveal how characters feel about each other, foreshadow events, provide conflict.  And as long as you do it right, dialogue is showing.

How do you do it right?  How much do you need?  I would say every scene needs dialogue.  Writing good dialogue is hard.  People say some writers just have a talent for it. And that may be true but I think writing good dialogue can be learned.  One tip writers are given is to listen to conversations around them.  Good advice, just don’t write dialogue exactly as you would hear it in the real world.  Real conversations are full of things that you don’t want in your dialogue.  You wouldn’t include the ums, the ahs, the yeses, the nos, the person’s name etc.

For example:  “Gee, Bob, remember the last time your cousin showed up?  We all ended up in jail because Hank, the town Sheriff , had a grudge against him.”

Another example of bad dialogue:

“Betty, are you going to the wedding?”


Wouldn’t it better if Betty said something like “I’ll be washing my hair.”  Or “I’d rather have a root canal without any freezing.”  Her answer is still no but it reveals so much more about Betty and the story.

One more example:

“John, what are you doing?’

“Well, um, I’m, ah, nothing really.  Just watching TV.”

Dialogue should be crisp.  Clean.  Serve at least one purpose not just to add word count.  One thing I would highly recommend is watching movies.  Listen to the dialogue.  Listen to the subtext.  Don’t have characters say something they wouldn’t normally say because you the author need to get the information out there.  Try closing your eyes and just listen to the dialogue.  How much of the story do you get?  By the end of the movie do you know all the important parts?  Do you know what happened?  You’ll miss the visuals yes, movies are a visual medium, but do you get the gist of the story?  Is the important information revealed in dialogue? Can you tell who is talking without seeing them?  If you take the dialogue tags out of your manuscript do you know who is speaking?  You should. Each character should have a unique voice.  All of your characters shouldn’t sound the same.

I love subtext.  The deeper meaning in the actions or the dialogue.  Knowing what the person means without them having to actually say it.  I saw a perfect example of subtext in X2 (X Men 2).  Jean Grey tells Logan he’s a bad boy.  Women don’t bring the bad boy home.  They marry the good guy.  Logan tells her he could be a good guy.  This speaks volumes.  He didn’t say straight out that he wanted to marry her.  But he did tell her he wanted to marry her. 

Why is dialogue so important?  White space.  It helps quicken the pace.  A lot of readers don’t like lots of narrative.  They look for those dialogue passages.  There should be a good balance of dialogue and narrative in your story.  I try to make sure I have at least some dialogue on every page.  After all your characters need to talk to each other.  Sometimes that’s the only way you can realistically get information across.  Just remember to make sure it doesn’t sound forced. 

Now get your characters talking.


RU Readers, do you have a favorite line of dialogue you would like to share?  We’d love to hear it!

Thank you to Cindy for joining us today.

BIO:Cindy Carroll joined RWA in 1992 and started out writing novels but turned to scripts when an idea for one of her favorite television shows wouldn’t leave her alone. That first attempt, and her second teleplay for the same show, garnered her honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 76th Annual Writing Competition in the screenplay category.  She graduated from Hal Croasmun’s screenwriting ProSeries intensive in June of 2008.  Her interview with David Rambo, writer/producer for CSI appeared in the summer special edition of The Rewrit, the newsletter for Scriptscene, Romance Writers of America’s screenwriting chapter.  Currently working on the rewrite of her second feature, Cindy is also developing two new television pilots.

Join us on Friday when author Zoe Winters tells us what she wishes she would have known before jumping into the self-publishing pool.

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35 Responses to “You Don’t Say”

  1. Morning Cindy!

    I love writing dialogue, but I admit my first draft is usually full of your “bad examples”…lol…but I’m getting better!

    Some of my favorite dialogue writers are Janet Evanovich and Nora Roberts. They’re snappy and fast and you can always tell who’s speaking without the tags.


    thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 5, 2011, 8:25 am
  2. Cindy, great post! I love movies with great dialogue. I think that’s why the old romantic comedies are so great. I like to have my characters say the opposite of what they feel sometimes–of course, the reader has to know it, or else it won’t work. As you say, subtext.

    I’m doing a scene with a lot of dialogue, and I needed this. Now I’m looking forward to writing the rest of the scene.

    Posted by Edie Ramer | January 5, 2011, 8:51 am
  3. Writing snappy exchanges between characters is one of my favorite parts of writing a book. Like Carrie, on first draft I commit many of the ‘real life’ dialogue errors you mentioned above.

    Thanks for the tips. Especially the reminder to be sure each character has a completely distinct voice.

    Posted by Roxanne | January 5, 2011, 9:09 am
  4. Hi Cindy. I think Harlan Coben’s dialogue is fantastic. Particularly in the Myron Bolitar books. The exchanges between Myron and Win are a riot.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | January 5, 2011, 9:15 am
  5. Good basic information on the topic. However, I think there might be situations where you would include the “ums, the ahs, the yeses, the nos, the person’s name etc.” Those instances where you want to use that to show the character’s verbal body language.

    “Um…no I don’t want to…ah…go with you downtown,” said Sue.

    is perhaps better than

    “No. I don’t want to go with you downtown,” said Sue, nervously.

    In a screenplay this might not be needed because the actor/director will adapt the person’s speech to get the proper effect, but in prose, it can be useful at times to have it in the dialogue.

    Posted by Kat Duncan | January 5, 2011, 10:08 am
    • Hi Kat!

      I agree you don’t really want to do the second version. I try to keep the -ly words as sparse as possible. But I probably wouldn’t write the um and ah either. I’d have her actions, something she always does when she’s nervous, show up when she’s saying that sentence.

      Posted by Cindy Carroll | January 5, 2011, 10:37 am
      • So you’re thinking something like this:
        “No. I don’t want to go with you downtown,” said Sue, twisting her bracelet.

        I think showing a nervous movement would work as well as my second sentence and I understand the general aversion to ly words. I was aiming at the actual dialogue to convey the tone, rather than the dialogue tag or other surrounding sentences. Good discussion. Nice to have plenty of options that will work with different characters and different story styles….

        Posted by Kat Duncan | January 5, 2011, 1:31 pm
  6. Good morning, Cindy!

    I’m with Carrie…I love me some dialogue, reading it and writing it. I’ve been known to draft a scene in all dialogue – LOL. I just read an Evanovich book where the dialogue had me laughing aloud more than once. I also recently read Jeff Lindsay’s first book in the Dexter series. Both Dexter’s dialogue and his internal monologue can be a hoot!

    One reason I think movie dialogue might stick with us more is because: 1. We actually hear and process the words. and 2. So many people see the same movie and repeat the line.

    Who are some of you favorite dialogue authors?

    Thanks for being at RU!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | January 5, 2011, 10:41 am
  7. Hi Cindy,

    So nice to have you back at RU!

    I have to say dialogue is something I struggle with. I’m not a talkative person in real life and that pours over to my writing.

    I work hard at having dialogue on every page, but some scenes start out with only one character in them and they’re mentally working through an issue before the other character comes on screen. This can sometimes lead to 3-4 pages with no dialogue.

    I’ve learned to keep my paragraphs to 4 sentences or less. A lot of times, I only have 2-3 sentences. This creates an illusion of white space. I learned that trick from author Joan Johnston.

    Thanks again! Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | January 5, 2011, 12:15 pm
  8. Hi Cindy,

    I like writing dialogue. I want my characters to laugh, fight, and confide in one another. They finish each other sentences. Or the heroine does most of the talking and the hero nods his head. Just like real life.

    Mary Jo Burke

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 5, 2011, 2:49 pm
  9. I love dialogue, too!!! I’ve been known to skip pages of description and introspection to get back to the good stuff….the dialogue. Word choice is key.

    Posted by Wendy S Marcus | January 5, 2011, 2:55 pm
  10. I actually remember dialogue from books just as much as movie dialogue. I think dialogue’s the heart of any story and that the best character description happens through dialog.

    A really great quote about dialog: ‘Dialogue is what characters do to each other.’ Don’t remember who said it, but I love it.


    Posted by Sonali | January 6, 2011, 5:08 pm


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