Dialogue – What Is It Good For?

Are we all singing Edwin Starr’s “War”? I know I am.

But dialogue IS good for something. It’s good for a lot of somethings, or it should be. If dialog doesn’t fulfill at least two of these purposes, it’s just yak-yak and it needs to be cut.

Dialogue, of course, is the sound of characters talking. It can be expressed in the equation: Plot + Character = Dialogue. Like characters, all dialogue should be genuinely functional. It should serve one of these purposes:

1. Show character – How much and in what way a character talks can tell a lot about him or her. Being a chatterbox or being tight-lipped. The kind of grammar used, the sort of words used, the style of speaking. The verbal response a character makes to a situation or to what another character has to say.

A common error in beginning writing is “They said”ing: “Uncle Joe walked into the room carrying a big box. ‘Hi, Uncle Joe,’ everyone said.” Chances are, each person in the room would say something different. “Hi, Joe” “What’s in the box” “Not you again” “You look beat” “Who’s that for” …depending on what they notice, who they are, and how they feel.

2. Advance action – Tim Sandlin says that, “Each conversation must end with some condition different from what it was at the beginning…. Your viewpoint character is in more trouble or thinks he is moving closer to the solution to the conflict.”

3. Give information – This can be done by one character telling another some news the reader needs to hear (“Chad broke his leg.”), or it can be done indirectly, with a character mentioning something in passing (“I drew a flower on Chad’s cast.”).

4. Set tone, voice – I know I’ve said it before, but different people, in different places, at different time periods, in different situations, in different sorts of books, will speak differently. One of my daughters used to say, “We ’bout cracked up,” when she meant she and her friends found something funny. Her dad objected. She asked what he wanted her to say instead. I suggested, “How we lahfed.” She didn’t consider that appropriate.

5. Break up long passages of narration – Solid blocks of description or background can be broken with passages of dialogue. A long speech by one character can be broken up by comments other characters throw in.

This dialogue, of course, should do more than break up the text with some quotes, but should have some function of its own – at least one of the other six purposes of dialogue.

6. Foreshadow – “This balloon is perfectly safe, so long as the anchor line is tied.”

7. Establish setting – “Chicago is great! The only thing I don’t like about this place is how cold it gets in the winter.”

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Write a scene in which every line of dialogue performs at least two of these tasks. Don’t worry if it’s silly; it’s just an exercise.


I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Dialogue – What Is It Good For?

  1. Jane

    November 5, 2012 at 11:18am

    Hi. Really good post.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 5, 2012 at 9:50pm

      Aw, you’re just being nice — I know which one of us is the dialogue expert. I’m not forgetting your two-line-dialogue scene. 😉

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
      • Jane

        November 7, 2012 at 1:36pm

        “But Angelique…”
        “Shut up, Gregory, and row!”

        I hadn’t thought of that one in a while.

        Permalink  ⋅ Reply
        • Author
  2. Darcy

    November 5, 2012 at 6:47pm

    A really nice post, Marian. I’m enjoying the site a great deal. You’ve proudly stated that you love cooking and writing – my two loves also – so I feel there will be a lot on your little corner of the world that I look forward to reading through!

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply

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