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The Writer's Toolkit: Dialogue

Let's join our scene, already in progress:

Just outside the window, searchlights lit up the sky as the crowd chanted the countdown. "TEN!"

Bob swirled champagne in the flute as the phone rang. Really? Right now?


Phyllis picked up the handset. "Happy almost-New Year!"


Bob glanced out the window as he approached his wife, sure she was going to call him over anyway.


Phyllis blinked as the phone dropped from her hand. "Oh, my god."

Show, don't tell.

It’s an oft-repeated story rule.

What do you do, though, when you need your reader to know something that's essential to the plot or character development but is otherwise... dry. Maybe it happened in the past. Maybe it happens elsewhere, but just announcing it gives no sense of emotional context. How do we get past these challenges without grinding the story to a halt?

This is a job for dialogue!

Two characters talking bridges the gap between showing and telling: they're literally telling each other that something happened. You, the writer, can sprinkle in little details to give hints about plot or character, as well as context and impact to what went down.

In the brief scene above, the first sentence tells us that somebody is inside looking out, that it's dark, that there's a gathering, and that's probably for New Year's Eve. The first dialogue ("TEN!") isn't even between individual characters: it's people at that gathering and they're counting down, out-loud.

Our second sentence establishes Bob as the Point-of-View for the scene. One simple action to reinforce the event and timing, then it caps with Bob's internal dialogue. It also gives just a hint of foreshadowing. Who would be calling now?

"NINE!" Back to the crowd.

From TEN to NINE, we've created movement of the characters through time. It lets us know there's a deadline and hints what's going to happen at the end of it: loud noise, shouting... and hopefully joy.

Now we introduce Phyllis. We're not sure what her relationship is to Bob, just yet, but we get a hint of character insight by the way she answers the phone. "Happy almost-New Year!" She's festive, in-the-moment, and the exclamation point in her dialogue is the extra little bit that tells us she's got plenty of energy, even though it's 11:59 at night and there's an open bottle of champagne somewhere.

"EIGHT!" Okay, so the chant of the crowd is pretty loud. We're not sure exactly where we're at yet, but we know it's close to the action. Living room off Main Street? Hotel lounge? Office?

Bob reminds us of the physical space, creates the first physical movement through that space, and finally establishes what the relationship is between he and Phyllis. His internal dialogue hints at the wavelength of communication they're used to.

"SEVEN!" We're staying with the countdown. It's that close to midnight, the critical moment for the holiday, and one of our characters is already dealing with an awkward, ill-timed distraction: that phone call. By staying with the crowd dialogue, though, we're cheating a little extra tension into the scene. We know that something is going to happen at zero, and we're leaning into expectations to build a little external, undefined pressure.

Here's a little bit of unspoken dialogue. Buried under the dialogue of the crowd chant, somebody is talking to Phyllis. Who was on the other side of that call? What did they just tell her?

...Then Phyllis blinks and drops the handset. "Oh, my god."


One little "Oh, my God," packs a major punch. Is Phyllis talking to Bob? To herself? Both? We're not sure yet. Use that uncertainty to your advantage.

The scene stops here, but think of all the ways it could it carry on. It could be great news, but dropping the phone...? We assume it's bad news, like hearing a family member just died. Maybe Phyllis is getting blackmailed. Maybe Bob was getting blackmailed, and the secret was just revealed to his wife. Maybe Phyllis is the chief of police, and that voice was the Mad Bomber, telling her the explosives are on the backside of the jumbotron just before it detonates. What do you think Phyllis just heard?

Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in narration, and you can use it in ways that reach far, far beyond a volley of he-said/she-said. My challenge to you, readers, is to take anything you've written that doesn't have dialogue in it... and do a version that has characters speaking about the same plot points. Who speaks? What's the setting?

More importantly, when you're done with the scene, which version is more interesting?

Share your dialogue moments in the comments below. What was your greatest triumph or biggest frustration when creating the words others had to speak?

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