Dialogue, a Few Sins and a Sinner

by Alex Keegan

Stories are character and character is found in actions and speech. Speech is dialogue and dialogue is nothing like people speak! So to write stories with great themes (shown through the actions of our characters) we must first learn to write false dialogue. Good dialogue represents, but does not mimic real speech.

"Er, yes, um yes - cough - um, absolutely, but - but nevertheless, um - cough, sniff - yes but it's true, it is, true - it's what y'have t'do, be false I mean, to be true, um."

Argh! In real life conversations, as listeners, we edit out the junk. In our fiction we have to do the same. If you don't believe me, try this party game. Someone starts off and says this, with actions drawing a face.

"The moon is round, " - cough - "it has two eyes a nose and a mouth."

Each person, one by one has to repeat the words and actions exactly. They presume, when they are told they have it wrong that they've got the actions wrong. Obviously they have listened intently to the speaker. Time and again as the next person and the next, and the next tries it, and they get it wrong, they get more frustrated. Let the game go a while and gradually emphasise the thing they are missing, the cough. Even exaggerated, even hyped to the heavens and over-acted, it will be missed. People edit. Writers must edit.

Dialogue is an illusion. First a stripping out, a tamping down, and then a zipping and zapping up, an enhancing of everyday speech, until, while we wallow in the fictive dream, we feel and hear the characters, more alive, more real, more exciting and interesting.

There is no need to be exact to represent the truth.

The same goes for dialect. If we are in our own environment we don't hear dialect and accent, we LIVE dialect and accent. Like the man who didn't know he'd spoken prose all his life, colloquialisms are often taken for granted and often unnoticed. When we write, if we over-egg the idiosyncratic speech, the reader ends up working to understand rather than simply going with the story's flow. This is almost always bad news, and don't take the rare exceptions (Irving Welsh's Trainspotting, or the works of William Faulkner) as proof that complex dialogue full of apostrophes is the way to go. Even the greats can go badly wrong as Hemingway did with For Whom the Bell Tolls, trying so desperately to write Spanish English.

The specialness of speech can often be represented by telling the reader quickly, altering the rhythms of speech and adding the odd word here and there. It's amazing what the occasional "hombre" will do, or a little judicious rhythm change. Here in Razorbill, Caz (English) talks to a German running the cycle store who has learned some English but from all sorts of sources.

Otto said hello. "Cazzy right?"
"It's Kathy, call me Caz."
"Just Caz."
"You wanna bike, Caz?" Otto asked with a little smile. His accent and delivery was strange, some German there, some American, bits and pieces of lots of other places.
"No, thanks, Otto. I'm after some advice."
"Shoot away. What I don't know about mountain bikes, fuh, not worth knowing. And if it's road-racing, fuh, then Yoseph, he is your man!"
Caz nodded to Joseph who smiled bashfully back through the bike frame.
"You know I'm going to be working as a running coach, Otto? Well, I'd like to know a bit about cross-training, long-distance biking for runners who are trying to stay fit but can't run."
"Knees, achilles?"
"Whatever," Caz said. "I'm just curious for now."
"With the knees, sometimes biking is good. Fuh! If the problem is the jarring, the hard road making the knee sore, for example, fuh!, then the bike is great! But, if you have ITB or other soreness, sometimes, to get on a bike is worse, then you are completely fuh."
"Do a lot of runners bike?"
"Fuh, yes! And they do always much too much first times. Big surprise, next day they cannot walk! I warn them but they all say, fuh, bike is easy. Next day they change their mind."

Or here, in this first person narrative from a recent story.

In the villages all down this valley, from Senghennydd down to Caerphilly, they call me Ernie the Egg.

I do not mind this, but for the record, I am Ernest Jones, poultry farmer, son of Robert Jones, Deacon, and they are my hens that run amok on the hill above the town. You may eat whosoever's pigs you wish, but it is my eggs that you shall have on your plate if you sup anywhere in the valley from Park Hamlet right through Abertridwr. My eggs is on the plates for most the best part of Caerphilly, too, though I know of some Cardiff eggs there.

Erle Stanley Gardner once wrote, "The reader isn't interested in what you tell him about the character of one of the actors in the story. He's more convinced if he finds out for himself in the way he would in real life. This is through conversation in relation to action." Absolutely. Dialogue should always be there for a specific purpose, expanding character, advancing the plot, adding atmosphere or all three. Characters must be believable and the fictive dream maintained so they remain believable, and the reader will be happier when he is involved in the analysis of character. That involvement comes from revealing character without stating things (we're back to show-tell again). Showing an action by a character, then him saying he did something else, we don't need to read, "he lied" or "he said falsely", nor do we need to state that he is a liar the evidence is there.

This brings me round to my pet hate, "said avoidance". In a screenplay we get the words of the characters, rarely how they should express those words. In a story we should write dialogue which doesn't need explaining every line.

"Hello," Alex SMILED.
"Hello, to you," Jane REPLIED.
"Do you come here often?" he ENQUIRED.
"Every week" Jane ANSWERED.
"Every week!" Alex LAUGHED.
"What's wrong with that?" she RETORTED.
"Place is a dump," Alex GRUNTED.
"My husband owns this dump!" she HUFFED.

What's wrong with using SAID?

Occasionally a bright spark will decide to use said, a weak but invisible verb and insert adverbs instead. Both methods approach parody but they are not uncommon...

"Hello," Alex said ENIGMATICALLY.
"Hello, to you," Jane replied COYLY.
"Do you come here often?" he asked GENTLY.
"Every week" Jane said BRIGHTLY.
"Every week!" Alex said SLIGHTLY TONGUE-IN-CHEEK.
"What's wrong with that?" Jane said QUIETLY.
"Place is a dump," Alex told her BRUSQUELY
"My husband owns this dump!" she said HUFFILY.

In an excellent article, "Secrets of Writing Powerful Dialogue" (The Writers Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing Volume II), Gary Provost listed six dialogue mistakes. When I am asked about dialogue in creative writing classes I often start by using Gary's list and expanding on it.

Gary's first was, Too Many Direct References.

"Hi, Mary, how's the course going?"
"Oh, hi, Ron, not too bad thanks."
"So how's the book coming along, Mary?"
"Good, Ron. Fifty thousand words already!"
"That's brilliant, Mary!"
"Yes, Ron, I know."

Do I need to explain further? You never do it? You sure?


(And Cheating, Telling and Information Dumping).

Writers should remain invisible. But sometimes they try too hard and they want to get back story in. The test is always, does this sound real and natural, would these two people really talk like this?

"Hi, Mary, how's the course going?"
"Oh, pretty good, Ron. As you know we were muddling along and we had a nice group at Middelton Writers' in 1994 but then we met and I thought how useful it would be for a real author to come along regularly to our meetings. You came along and you suggested we structure the course more. D'you remember?"
"Oh, yes, Mary. But sometimes I wonder how I fit in everything, writing Cuckoo, (published by Headline Books at £16:99 in hardback and now just out in paperback at £4:99) and selling well along with my second book Vulture also from Headline and going well..."

When the writer gets characters to impart information as if in natural speech it sounds false and lifeless. If you feel it's necessary for characters to carry direct information to the reader, find a way you can make the conversation sound real. It's not that tough!

Try to find ways of letting some of the exposition out in a separate scene, thereby lessening the artificiality. Or find ways of making the characters say these things in a natural and real way. Give them a need to say them.

"Written much lately, Alex?"
"Are you joking? I've been running around like a headless chicken; library talks, book signings, radio, TV. My feet haven"t touched the ground since the paperback of Cuckoo came out."
"It's going well then?"
"Brilliant! I've sold out three times in Murder One and I'm a best-seller in Southampton, neck and neck with Stephen King."

Another example of this is when at the end of a thriller or mystery the author needs to impart to the reader how it all was plotted. The Poirot/Miss Marple Library Scene is a classic example of this contrivance. It looks and is only half believable. Another clichéd trick is where the bad guy ties up the hero, then explains everything just before the hero breaks free. Oh p-l-l-lease!

Try breaking these "expositions" up - one classic trick is where the villain and good guy are fighting it out and shouting back questions and answers. That's a cliché too, but still can be done well.


Alex came into the room and Mary introduced him to the eighteen members of the writing circle.

"Keith, this is Alex Keegan. Alex this is Keith."
"Geoff, Alex Keegan, Alex, Geoff Thomas."
"Jane, this is Alex Keegan."
"Hello, Jane," Alex said with a smile.
"Frank, this is..."
Joe, Bill, Albert, John, President Clinton, Ghandi...


There's a particular dialogue trap I see in many of the manuscripts I receive. Picture a mystery or a thriller and the hero is going to the bar to buy a drink. Perhaps he will see a villain in the shadows or be absent when a bomb goes off. This is the fictional PURPOSE of his trip to the bar.

But we get:

Hank walked to the bar, a long wooden affair, chipped, covered in beer slops. The bar-tender was fat, looked like a mid-eastern European.
"What'll y'have, pal?" the bar-keep said. (add "slyly" for lower marks). "I need a bourbon, some beer for my friends."

Then we get an excruciating breakdown of the types of beer, types of spirits, lots of gesturing and posturing, all to "pass the time" at the bar.
This is another example of unnecessary dialogue. Why not Hank walked to the bar, a long wooden affair, chipped, covered in beer slops. The bar-tender was fat, looked like a mid-eastern European but Hank gave him a look which cut out any wise-cracks. He came away with two ice-cold Coors and a slug of Wild Turkey, no ice.


No one ever does this, right?

The professor walked in, anger in his face. "I dunno what the bleedin' 'ell's goin' on but some stupid prat's gonnun buggered up my nuclear experiment. (well, let's get as many things wrong as possible...)

The janitor walked by.

"Professor Hardy? Oh please accept my humble and abject apology, the fault is entirely mine, mea culpa! I was passing your quite excellent apparatus when, on reflection, I considered that the inherent logic of your design had one apparently trivial but, in fact, crucial flaw..."

It does happen and it happens two ways, inexperience and lack of thinking is one but the second is through editing. Sometimes a line or three have been removed and "wrong" dialogue is attributed to a character. Beware!


Alex Keegan stood at the lectern and explained to the class that he was the author of three crime books, Cuckoo, Vulture and Kingfisher. "Good morning everyone. My name is Alex Keegan, I'm a crime writer. My first book was Cuckoo, then came Vulture and Kingfisher."

Not as rare as you think!!


In the bar scene earlier, the buying of drinks was trivial, had no importance to the plot, other than moving the hero from his table to see something or avoid something. The conversation with the bar-keep was flat and boring. Here are two examples, based on Gary Provost.

"So what d'you do for a living?"
I work part-time at Jackson's."
"That's nice. It pay well?"
Pretty good."
"Great. What are the hours?"
Six to midnight."
"That's nice.."
"Yes, I have a cute uniform."

Boring....! So how about?

"So what d'you do for a living?"
"I work part-time at Jackson's."
"Jackson's? That dive, Christ!"
"What's wrong? It pays well."
"Pays well? I should hope so. A gay bar, male strippers, under-age drinkers, druggies. I thought you had more sense."
"I need the money Dad!"

Always remember dialogue should have a purpose. It should reveal elements of the plot or reveal character. It should not be thrown in simply to fill white space. And look for "tics" in your written dialogue. One I see a fair amount is dialogue followed by a half-sentence of expanding thought.

"I love you," he said. He was thinking about Maria.
"I know you do," she said. She was thinking about a pot-roast.

Done occasionally this can be very effective, done line after line, for pages it becomes reasonable provocation for murder.

Lastly (there are two "lastlys") be prepared to rethink how you lay out your dialogue. Learn to pace it, put in beats and longer pauses, experiment and read it out loud. Play around with dialogue, try the words with and without "he saids", see if you can get rid of every modifier and realise there are more than 1 or 2 or even 3 ways of dialoguing the same facts.

Ron said hello and walked in.
Ron walked in saying hello.
Ron walked in. "Hello", he said.
Ron said hello as he was walking in.
"Hello" Ron said as he walked in.
"Hello" said Ron as he walked in.
Ron walked in. Hello.

Split up narrative with dialogue but also split up dialogue with narrative, even a single phrase might suffice. Sometimes it pays to split up dialogue with narrated speech. Like here.

I may have fainted, I do not know, but my next recollection was the close breath of spearmint and the voice of Toop calming me, telling me to be still.
I said, "Toop, what has happened, Toop?" and he told me that there had been a terrific explosion and many were surely killed.
"And we must go out, boy, and walk."

Lastly, I said there were two "lastlys".

I once gave a talk based on the ten deadly sins of dialogue. It went well, they loved me, they understood all the pitfalls, they laughed in all the right places. So I opened a copy of Cuckoo to read some REAL dialogue. It was a random page... and I was found sinful. Five times...

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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