Posted On September 19, 2012 by Print This Post

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Writing Dialogue with Maria McKenzie

Our scheduled guest wasn’t able to join us today, but we’ve dug through the archives and found this fabulous post on dialogue by author Maria McKenzie. 

Think of your plot as a blank linen canvas stretched  over a stiff wooden frame, and your dialogue as the oil paint you will use to create a masterpiece. Well written dialogue produces a vivid image that truly brings your story to life in living color!  It’s also one of the first things agents and editors look at when reviewing a manuscript.

If dialogue is choppy, wooden and stilted, a potential agent will assume that that sets the tone for your writing, and then reject your manuscript.  For the indie published, poor dialogue is what makes a potential reader either skip a purchase, or write a very bad review!

Dialogue has many functions, but two of the most important are to advance the story and intensify the conflict, all the while keeping it natural.  So here are a few ways to craft dialogue into a more compelling and natural sounding work of art.

Red: Tension, Conflict, Emotion

In Writing Fiction For Dummies, Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy say, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story.”

  • Skip the pleasantries.  No one cares about the “Hi, how are yous?” Jump right into the heat of the moment.
  • Stay away from the info dump monologue.  Providing information without tension is boring.
  • Never use dialogue as filler.  Dialogue has to  heighten conflict, advance the story or display character development.  If it does none of this, hit delete.
  • Show emotional tension in dialogue through your characters actions and reactions. Perhaps a he falls silent, she interrupts, or the teen changes the subject.

The Abstract: Loose and Free Flowing

Dialogue has to have a natural flow, but a common mistake among many new writers is to make it stiff and formal. Use these guidelines to make yours sound real:

  • Read dialogue out loud.  Does it pass the “ear test” and sound like actual conversation? Avoid fancy words.  In The Elements of Style Strunk and White say, “Do not be tempted by a twenty dollar word when there is a ten-center handy.”  “Seeing her confused him” is plain and simple. “Upon looking at her, he became discombobulated” is not.  It’s also too wordy. Streamline your dialogue and cut out unnecessary words.
  • Use contractions:  will not/ won’t, do not/ don’t, we will/we’ll, etc. They’re much less formal.
  • Think about real conversations with family and friends. It’s okay to be grammatically incorrect by ending a sentence with a preposition. “So what was that about?” sounds more realistic than “So about what was that?”  In stressful situations, you can use sentence fragments and one word answers.
  • Avoid the lecture.  A character expounding in detail about a subject will bore your reader. You’ve done your research, but it’s not necessary to show how much!

Flesh Tone: Make it Real

Stay away from unnatural dialogue.  Would your sister really say, “How’s your husband Ed and your step-son Frank, the child by Ed’s ex-wife, Beth?”  Using dialogue like that sounds artificial. Find a subtle way to convey those facts.  For example:

“So where’s Ed?”

“I left him at home working on my honey-do list.”

“Is Frank helping him?”

“No, he’s with his mom, this weekend.”

“Beth, the wench?”

The Portrait: Provide a Distinct Voice for Each Character

Dialogue is an important part of characterization. Keep in mind the time period, age, gender, social status, education and geographic locale.

Imagine how different a Wall Street executive would sound compared to a Georgia factory worker.  White collar professionals are more likely to use correct grammar and speak in longer sentences, whereas blue collar workers might use rougher language and shorter sentences.

Take into account individual personalities: quiet, talkative, cruel, manipulative, compassionate, insecure, outgoing. Be mindful of the situations they’re in; dialogue has to be suitable for their action and reaction.

The Difference Between the Male Still Life and the Female Landscape   

According to Richard Drobnick from an article in YourTango:

“He believes communication should have a clear purpose. Behind every conversation is a problem that needs solving or a point that needs to be made.”

“She uses communication to discover how she is feeling and what it is she wants to say. She sees conversation as an act of sharing and an opportunity to increase intimacy with her partner.”

So keep in mind that men are more direct and brusque in tone. They use simpler vocabulary with fewer modifiers, and are likely to use one word responses and shorter sentences.  Instead of talking about people and feelings, they’d rather talk about things.  Also, dialogue is action for men.  Instead of discussing a way to save the heroine, the hero plans and executes it.

Women, however, love talking about people and relationships.  Their language is softer, and they’re more likely to talk around a subject.  “I’m not too happy about this,” she might say, while he says, “I’m mad as hell!”  Women express themselves in complete sentences, and want to share their feelings.

In closing, always keep your dialogue tension filled, loose, naturalistic and distinct for each individual character to create your masterpiece!

What’s your trick for writing believable dialogue?



Maria has a new release, ESCAPE and in Maria’s words, “The title of the trilogy is Unchained. Lori was born a slave, but escapes from slavery. Her granddaughter, Selina, who passes as white, carries the secret of her African American ancestry like a painful chain, bound around her heart. Only when she tells her family the truth can she free herself from the pain of that secret. Escape is part one of the trilogy. While Lori escapes from bondage, her daughter, Lavinia, escapes from living as a “Negro.” In part two, Masquerade, Lavinia becomes a great actress in New York, all the while hiding her true identity. Revelation is part three, and in this story, Lavinia’s daughter, Selina, reveals the truth about her ancestry.”

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34 Responses to “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Writing Dialogue with Maria McKenzie”

  1. Carrie, thanks so much for hosting me at Romance University! I’m looking forward to meeting your readers:).

    Posted by Maria Mckenzie | November 12, 2012, 4:33 am
  2. Thanks for the fantastic tips, Maria. I can get wordy as hell in my dialogue,so really appreciate the “ten center” idea ;), and I’ve definitely used dialogue as filler before, doh. Thank you, Nas Dean for sending me to romance university!

    Posted by Melissa Jolley | November 12, 2012, 7:26 am
  3. Hi Maria,

    I like writing dialogue, but have fallen into the information overflow pit. When someone talks for a paragraph, make her stop.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | November 12, 2012, 7:41 am
  4. Morning Maria!

    My biggest challenge in dialogue is to make the people sound different. Argh. They all sound like me! =) My CP’s catch me on that over and over again….lol.

    One day I’ll catch on!

    Thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 12, 2012, 9:14 am
  5. Hi, Maria. Terrific post. I’m a big fan of reading just the dialogue of my work in progress out loud. This helps me figure out if the conversation flows without the help of any tags, blocking, etc.

    Thanks for being here.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | November 12, 2012, 9:46 am
  6. Maria – *waves madly* Thanks so much for joining us at RU – I love seeing familiar faces here! (Maria and I are both members of the Ohio Valley Romance Writers chapter.)

    Congratulations on your new release – I’m excited to read all three books in the trilogy!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 12, 2012, 10:17 am
  7. Hi Maria!

    Ah, ending a sentence on a preposition is a major peeve of mine, but doing so makes the dialogue sound more natural.

    I wrote two pages of dialogue last night between two male characters and cut it down to one page after a quick edit. Male #1 is the schmoozer, so he can’t shut up while the other is reticent. His responses are short. My biggest challenge is finding the right words that a particular character would use based on their background or upbringing.

    Thanks so much for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 12, 2012, 2:09 pm
    • Hi, Jennifer! I appreciate the chance to visit;). I understand your feelings about the preposition rule–my mom was a stickler about that!

      Shaping a character’s speech based on background can be a challenge. I think old movies have helped me since I watched so many growing up!

      Posted by Maria Mckenzie | November 12, 2012, 2:25 pm
  8. Wonderful post, Maria! I love writing dialogue. That’s when I have the most fun with my characters. I’m always looking for ways to improve this element of my writing because, as you pointed out, it is so critical to a well-written story.

    I have to remind myself that each character’s voice must be distinctive and to eliminate dialogue that, while courteous in real life, is superfluous in fiction, like greetings.

    Thank you for sharing these tips and resources.

    Posted by Roxanne | November 12, 2012, 2:21 pm
  9. Hi Maria!! What a nice place to find you! Yay!

    I think dialogue is about the only place I know where I don’t have to worry so much whether my grammar is correct or not!

    Take care

    Posted by Old Kitty | November 12, 2012, 4:08 pm
  10. Maria, thanks for the great tips! I think it’s extra-tricky to write believeable dialogue for a historical setting – in that we need to make it sound authentic, but still be readable and flow for the modern reader – something I think you pull off with aplomb! And hopefully I do too. 🙂

    Posted by Jennette Marie Powell | November 12, 2012, 5:57 pm
  11. Great tips! I look forward to hearing your great lines of dialogue every Saturday morning.

    Posted by Lisa | November 12, 2012, 8:05 pm
  12. Thanks so much Maria for visiting with us today – and congrats on your new release!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 12, 2012, 8:21 pm
  13. Hi Maria.
    Great post! Thank you by giving me permission to ignore some of the rules that were drilled into me since high school. Dialouge should be simple and natural and reflect the way the way the way real people express themselves. Sometimes advice this simple sounds too good to be true!

    Posted by Donna Figueroa | November 12, 2012, 8:28 pm
  14. Sound advice and a great post, Maria. Well done.

    Posted by Maria | November 13, 2012, 7:08 am
  15. Great post, Maria!

    I’m presently engaged in final polishes, and paying particular attention to dialogue, keeping it sharp and clear and true to form.

    Posted by WIlliam Kendall | November 17, 2012, 6:50 pm
  16. A very simple, compelling and historically authentic read.

    Posted by Adam | November 24, 2016, 1:42 am


  1. […] back to Maria McKenzie! Maria joined us last fall with a fabulous post on The Art of Writing Dialogue. Today she tells us how to engage the […]

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