“Dialogue revisions,” she said.

DHow could you have a writing blog and not talk about dialogue on day four of the A to Z Blogging Challenge? Today I’ve got Harlow Fallon talking about the importance of dialogue. Here’s Harlow!

The most successful storytellers know the keys to a good story: an engaging plot, characters that come alive, action that jumps off the page, and a setting that spreads out before the reader, as real as any film or photo. The writing must be polished, with carefully chosen words and tight prose.

But there’s one vital aspect that threads through each of these elements: dialogue. It can either make or break a story. When dialogue is done well, readers feel as if they’re part of the conversation. When done poorly, it can throw readers out of the story or make them stop reading altogether.

A good dialogue between characters is a careful blend of three parts: the dialogue tags, the actual speech, and the actions that bring the conversation and the movement of the story together.

What does good dialogue look like? How does it work?

Let’s look at an example from an aspiring writer, Hummus Papadopoulos, who struggles with dialogue. He’s written a story about cookies. Here’s a snippet:

“I baked a batch of cookies yesterday,” Mary said.

“What kind of cookies did you bake?” Lisa asked.

“I baked chocolate chip cookies,” Mary said.

“Do you have any cookies left?” Lisa asked.

“No, I don’t have any left,” Mary said.

Hummus doesn’t understand how to use dialogue tags, and he’s used too many. The main purpose of tags is to identify who’s speaking. But tags can be useful in other ways. They can reveal the emotion of the speaker, and can contribute to the tension and pace of the story.

There’s a lot of writerly opinion going around these days that insists you limit your tags to the word said. It’s a simple, bland word that does the job and doesn’t get in the way of telling the story. I’m all for that. But I’m going to swim against the current a little and say that words like replied, inquired, yelled, whispered, retorted, and others, also have a place in dialogue. Just be sparing in their use. Do they lend depth to the dialogue? Do they fit the need? If they do, then why not use them? But remember, the key word is sparing.

Often there are natural pauses in a line of dialogue, and adding a tag at the pause instead of at the end will add emphasis to it, allowing the pause to become more significant because of the inserted tag.

Sometimes a tag isn’t needed at all. When the dialogue is between two people, too many tags can slow things down. Fewer tags can increase the pace and tension of the dialogue, but too few can confuse readers, pulling them out of the story while they try to figure out who said what. It’s important to find the right balance.

After a few revisions, Hummus’ dialogue tags are looking better:

“I baked a batch of cookies yesterday,” Mary said.

“You baked cookies?” Lisa said. “What kind of cookies did you bake?”

“I baked chocolate chip cookies.”

“Do you have any left?”

“No, I don’t,” Mary said. “I don’t have any cookies left.”

Something is still missing. The dialogue doesn’t sound natural. Why? Because it doesn’t reflect the way we normally converse. Natural speech incorporates a lot of what we would consider flaws in regular prose. There are sentence fragments, dropped consonants, even single word sentences.

So Hummus gives his dialogue another revision, and ends up with this:

“I baked a batch of cookies yesterday,” Mary said.

“Yeah?” Lisa said. “What kind?”

“Chocolate chip.”

“Any left?”

“Nope,” Mary said. “Ate them all.”

Hummus is finally getting somewhere. His dialogue is taking shape with proper tags and natural speech. But another element needs to be added. Gestures, action and exposition give depth and create balance and flow within the dialogue, so readers feel as if they are in the story, involved in the conversation. Without these things dialogue can feel dry and flat. Readers want to know what the characters are doing, thinking, and feeling while they’re talking.

So Hummus takes another stab at it:

“I baked a batch of cookies yesterday,” Mary said, grinning.

Lisa raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? What kind?”

“Chocolate chip.”

A twinge of concern edged into Lisa’s thoughts. Mary had sworn off sweets three days ago, determined to lose a few pounds. Had she given up already?

Lisa gave her a narrow look. “Any left?”

“Nope,” Mary said. “Ate them all.”

Lisa’s jaw dropped. “Are you kidding? What about your diet?”

“Whatever,” Mary said with a shrug. “I’ll start tomorrow.”

Hummus has made progress. He’s used proper tags, incorporated natural speech, and included gestures, action, and exposition. Hummus is on his way to writing a winner.

Don’t make dialogue work too hard. It should support the story. It shouldn’t be a vehicle for transporting huge chunks of information, nor should it make up the bulk of the narrative. There should be a balance of dialogue and exposition, of what is spoken aloud and what is revealed internally. Dialogue should lead readers in the direction the writer want them to go, contribute to the pace of the story, and reveal the personalities of the characters. Let the dialogue do its job, but handle it judiciously. The result will be a good, strong story that will make readers ask for more.


Harlow Fallon’s love of art and literature began when she was very young. She cut her teeth on The Wizard of Oz, and as a teen discovered the worlds of Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert. Today, she channels her imagination into her own writing, fueled by the curiosities of the world and the mysteries of the universe. Science fiction and fantasy are her genres of choice. She and her husband have five grown children and have made Michigan their home for the past fifteen years. She released her first novel in February. All the Wild Places, Book 1 of the Elmwyn Journey is available on Amazon for Kindle. Book 2, The Reach of the Hand, will publish on April 7. Visit her at harlowcfallon.com.

Cindy here again.

Thanks for stopping by the blog. Great tips on dialogue. I’ll have to go back and check my dialogue.

Keep writing!

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