Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader

Whenever I’m reading a novel or editing an unpublished manuscript with heaps of dense descriptive text, it’s always a welcome relief to turn a page and see more white than black, which is usually in the form of dialogue. More importantly, successful dialogue excites most readers because it not only advances the story and fleshes out the characters, but enlivens the narrative. It isn’t dreary conversations about the weather or the food being eaten, or an opportunity for a character to ‘endlessly’ philosophise and talk about her or his life. A back story, if given all at once by one character in dialogue, can be painful for readers. A gradual reveal with snippets of information provided along the way is more intriguing.

Dialogue in fiction has multiple functions: developing characters’ personalities, building trust or tension between characters, providing light relief, and revealing new information that keeps the story moving forward.

In other words, dialogue is a great opportunity for the writer to ‘show’ rather than just ‘tell’ (‘show, don’t tell’ is the fiction writer’s mantra). I often ask authors to play around with dialogue so it magnifies characters’ idiosyncrasies not only through what they say, but also through their body language. The following is an example of where improvement could be made:

The gardener wasn’t vaguely interested in talking to Madelaine. All Tom wanted to know was when her husband, Richard, would be there.

‘He’s coming,’ Madelaine said. ‘Just finishing up a phone call.’

Instead of the narrator ‘telling’ the reader what Tom was thinking, delete the first sentence and let him ‘show’ his impatience. By intensifying the conversation between the two characters, and adding body language, readers will ‘see’ more evidence of Tom’s belligerence and Madelaine’s timid and submissive personality (that has already been established). Body language gives readers clues that they’ll use to recreate the scene and ‘see’ what the characters look like in their mind.

Tom sighed deeply and glared at Madelaine. ‘I have limited time Mrs Delaney. When can I discuss the garden with your husband?’

Avoiding his eyes, Madelaine looked down at a brown patch in the lawn and pulled her scarf tightly around her neck as she mumbled, ‘Sorry … Richard will be here soon. He’s just finishing up a phone call.’

Here’s another example of ‘telling’:

Richard was shocked when Bruce told him he had killed Bob.

By ‘showing’ how shocked and distressed Richard is through his dialogue and body language, the narrative is invigorated and the reader is drawn into Richard’s distress.

‘What? You mean you killed Bob? No!’ bellowed Richard, his eyes bulging.

But some authors are tempted to add filler words, usually adverbs ending in ‘ly’ or ‘very’, such as: ‘What? You mean you killed Bob? No!’ bellowed Richard loudly, his eyes bulging.

The word ‘bellowed’ indicates that Richard is speaking loudly!

Remember to be consistent with your characters’ language. A shy character who speaks in a self-depreciating manner won’t automatically become out-spoken and combative. So, when your characters speak, they should stay true to who they are, or how they have developed along the way. Even without character tags or identifiers such as ‘she said/he said’, the reader should be able to figure out who’s talking as the narrative progresses. Let’s imagine that Richard is relating to Madelaine the phone conversation he had with Bruce. Notice how personalities are accentuated.

‘Bloody hell, Maddie! Bruce’s gone and done it.’

‘Done what, Richard?’

‘Jesus, Maddie . . . He’s done what he threatened he’d do!’

‘Please don’t swear, Richard. Mary is in her garden . . .’

‘Christ . . .’

‘Let’s go inside, dear. I have a cake in the oven.’

Not only has personality been consolidated, but the plot is also moved forward. And the seriousness of the reveal is counteracted with a touch of humour in the dialogue.

Where are your characters when they’re speaking? What is the atmosphere like? The dialogue above was carried out in a garden where the conversation can be overheard by a neighbour.

Weather can add to the mood and drama of a critical moment. I worked with one author whose two main characters were discussing a major finding in a murder/mystery investigation during a violent storm, which could have been used to intensify the conversation between them. Instead, the author wrote something like (details have been changed):

A storm was building. After Harry had told me how he knew Marshall, I was speechless. How many more secrets did Harry have?

I suggested that this critical moment could have been enhanced with dialogue and by the storm’s intervention, such as:

‘I can’t believe you knew Marshall and didn’t tell me.’ Lightning struck and the room lit up. ‘How many more secrets do you have, Harry?’

Readers know that at times it’s human nature for people to withhold what they know, or what they’re thinking or feeling. People leave a lot unsaid, and this is also true for the characters in a novel, with the reader understanding that some characters are more prone to remain silent.

I have written about silences in fiction where I discussed Fanny Price’s silences in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (1814). Austen tells us that Fanny is the ‘quiet auditor of the whole’; she gains moral strength through silent observation. Her silences move from silences that are created through her abject misery of resignation, to a life as the poor relation, to silences that are a means of gaining an acute perception of self and the world around her. When Mary Crawford articulates her brother’s self-serving love for Fanny, the narrator tells us: ‘Fanny could not avoid a faint smile but had nothing to say’.

It is a pleasure to read novels where the dialogue is effortless and achieves precisely what is expected of dialogue in fiction—to drive the narrative forward through the characters’ words and physical responses. The following extract is from Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book (2008), which shows the tension between the three characters (Faber, Serif and Josip):

“And now, if you please, the haggadah.”

Serif felt a rivulet of scalding sweat run down his back. He turned up his palms and shrugged. “That’s impossible, Herr General,” he said.

Josip’s face, which had been flushed, turned quite pale.

“What do you mean, ‘impossible’?” Faber’s quiet voice was cold.

Dialogue can be punctuated and formatted in inventive ways. My one peeve is the use of semi-colons in dialogue. When characters speak, they either pause for a breath (comma) or stop for emphasis before making another point (full stop). If you were reading a book aloud, how would you know what sort of pause a semi-colon would require?

So, my final tip when reading dialogue during the editing process is to read it aloud.


I have written an article that explores the use of dialogue when writing a memoir.


If you are ready to have your writing edited, or you would like an appraisal of your writing, whether it is a complete manuscript or a work-in-progress, then please email me on or via my contact page with a brief overview of your needs.






Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn, ‘Two old men disputing’, 1628, oil on wood panel, NGV, Melbourne

Leave a Reply