Make dialogue meaningful, not empty.

Make dialogue meaningful, not empty.

A Lesson by Kathleen Rowland

Dialogue has three parts-- speech, action, and thought.


         We’ve heard the adage about a character’s scene.  To be worthy of a reader’s interest, a scene must have goal, motivation, and conflict.  Popular Harlequin author Charlene Sands does one point of view per chapter.  You already know to start your book at a point in change.  The opening goal needs to be your book’s goal.  In some way your heroine or hero wants to do something—start living again or escape from something. 

         Readers like dialogue.  Although this probably isn’t the case for erotica, many studies reveal readers of fiction skip over narration to get to the dialogue.  Writers need narrative to flesh out their character with just a tad of backlog. A character must stay in the moment but can have a fleeting thought that fits with that moment.  Each character speaks authentically, not like the writer and not like another character.  A reader will love your writing if your characters have unique voices.  Write “what they say” with emotion and impact.

         “My God, that woman looks dead.  I’ll bet she died weeks ago,” says a character with a certain take on life.

         You want your reader to worry about what is behind the door or out in the parking lot if you are writing romantic suspense.  In a love scene, heighten the physical wanting of each other, but let it progress.  Knowing they are wrong for each other adds tension.  A couple’s attraction (Deeds of Deceit) jeopardizes staying out of horrible danger.  Do you have a cop hero or heroine?  What does he/she hold most dear?  Does this cop have an emotional connection to the killer?  What happens when the cop tries to get into the mind of the psycho?  How does the killer hide his/her identity?  Let your reader in on it.  In romantic suspense a writer usually includes the villain’s POV.  As writers we know the story we are writing, but it is wise to keep a roster on character action.  In my book, A KEY TO ALL THAT GLITTERS, my editor, Melanie Billings, caught the sheriff starting out in his official cruiser and then driving his personal vehicle, a Dodge Ram.  This was a good find a reader would notice.

         There is more to writing good dialogue than giving words to characters.  Dialogue is made up of a triple set of elements:  speech, action, and thought.

What Jenny and Brandon Said

         “Did you go to the doctor’s today?” Jenny asked.

         “Sure,” Brandon replied.  “I said I would, didn’t I?”

         “I know what you said,” Jenny said.  “But you don’t always do what you say.”

         “Well, I did.  Sometimes it’d be nice, you know, if you took me at my word,” Brandon said.

         “And what did he tell you?” Jenny asked.

         “That I’m going to live to be a hundred.”

         “Oh,” Jenny responded.


What Jenny and Brandon said, Action Added

         Jenny turned off a rerun of Desperate Housewives when her husband came in.  “Did you go to the doctor’s today?” she asked.

         “Sure,” Brandon replied.  He walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge.  “I said I would, didn’t I?”

         “I know what you said,” Jenny said.  She leaned back wearily against the soft-cushioned recliner.  “But you don’t always do what you say.”

         Brandon took a handful of ice from the ice-maker tray.  “Well, I did,” he said.  “Sometimes it’d be nice, you know, if you took me at my word.”

         Jenny closed her eyes hard and took a deep, deliberate breath.  “And what did he tell you?”

         “That I’m going to live to be a hundred,” Brandon said, smiling as he poured his favorite scotch over the ice.

         Jenny opened her eyes and stared vacantly at the ceiling.  “Oh,” she said and turned the TV on again.


What Jenny and Brandon Said, Action and Thought Added

         Jenny turned off a rerun of Desperate Housewives when her husband came in.  “Did you go to the doctor’s today?” she asked, twisting a tissue.  She wondered if he would tell the truth just this once.

         “Sure,” Brandon replied.  He walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge.  “I said I would, didn’t I?”

         “I know what you said.” For a moment Jenny thought she might get up and walk out now, but she leaned back wearily against the soft-cushioned recliner instead.  “You don’t always do what you say.”  She heard him take a handful of ice from the ice-maker tray.  She hated that sound.

         “Well, I did.  Sometimes it’d be nice, you know, if you took me at my word.”  His voice was louder, angrier, as it always was when he felt defensive.

         Jenny closed her eyes hard and took a deep, deliberate breath.  “And what did he tell you?”  She waited for the lie.  She had called to check.  There had never been an appointment.

         “That I’m going to live to be a hundred.”  Brandon was pouring his favorite Scotch on ice.  In another moment he walked, smiling, into the living room.

         Jenny opened her eyes and stared vacantly at the ceiling.  “Oh.”  Instead of turning the T.V. back on, she logged onto her laptop.  She knew exactly what she had to do—find an Al-anon meeting.  

* * *

         Can you see how each scene progresses to more complexity with expanded possibilities when action and inner thoughts (internal dialogue) are added to dialogue between Jenny and Brandon?  By the way a few years ago, it was the practice to write thoughts in italics.  Now most editors prefer to go without the italics. Anyway, Jenny’s scene advances not only by what she says, but also by her body language and inner thoughts.  Many writers overlook the technique of combining action, speech, and thought with their dialogue.  You don’t always need to have all three elements present.  Try mixing dialogue with thought, or dialogue and action, in whatever combination suits your purpose. 

         One of the first decisions you make as you start your scene is the point of view from which it is told.  Who (your hero or heroine) has the most to lose in that scene?  Who has the problem?  That should be your viewpoint character, and your reader will be closely involved in the action, seeing and feeling the tension with your character.

         Just an added note to those of you writing a romantic suspense or thriller, and this is an exception to the rule.  Sometimes you will have pure action.  Write that scene as if you are reporting; there is no time for dialogue and feelings.  For a mostly action example with a minimum of dialogue, in my book WINDWARD WHISPERINGS, the hero, Garrett, is purposefully coming along on villain Bud’s yacht with his sidekick, Jovanovich, a Croatian thug.  This is Garrett’s scene.

         They sped south.  At the helm Bud talked about equipment on the boat, the GPS, and satellite dish.  Garrett turned sideways and saw that the man in the back was watching him.  The Croatian’s eyes shifted away as he cupped his hands and lit a cigarette.

         Bud stood up. “Garrett, can you take the wheel for a minute?  I need to use the head.  Keep it between the channel markers if you see them.  Red triangles on your left.”  He paused at the cooler and pulled out a beer.  He opened it on his way down the steps. 

         A few minutes passed before Bud came topside, wearing a jacket.  “My turn.  We’re getting close to the marina.  We’ll refuel.”

         Garrett moved to the stern cockpit, taking a corner seat opposite Jovanovich. With white caps, the ride in the back was getting rougher.  He dropped his backpack in the corner.  To keep it there, he tied it with the line.  He decided to let Jovanovich experience the bounces alone and got up.

         Garrett was the only one standing when Bud shoved the throttles forward and the big engine roared in response.  The bow shot up, left the water completely, and then slammed down.  It leveled onto a plane at around fifty.  If Garrett hadn’t grabbed the handhold on the back of the captain’s bench, he would have been knocked in the water.  “You’re an a*s, Bud.”

         “I’m kidding around, that’s all.  See?  I’m wet.”  Bud’s hat few off. His beer bottle fell from its holder and spun on the deck floor.  Garrett’s feet left the floor each time the boat dropped from crest to trough.  Jovanovich came from behind, put an arm around his throat, and lifted quickly.  Garrett gagged, afraid he’d pass out but more afraid the thug would snap his neck.  A second later, he was going backward, his feet dragging across the deck.  The hairy, thick arm had his neck in a squeeze.  Garrett dug his fingers into his arm, thrashed his legs, and felt his chest slam against metal.  He was pushed down an incline and was conscious of being underwater.  Jovanovich’s fist held the back of his pullover.  The boat moved up and down which gave him a chance to breathe.  The waves swirled over his head.  Jovanovich let to, but Garrett had a tight grip on the swim platform.  He managed to find a stronger hold with one hand on the brace under the walk-through.  The boat dipped again and again, but he held his breath through each wave.  He didn’t dare cough.


         Before starting this action scene, I staged a boarding the boat scene, describing the swim platform.  This scene ends with Garrett sneaking off when the boat is refueled:


         It was still dark when the boat approached the narrow channel.  Bud finally closed in on a rundown dock, not a customary entry.  Garret thought of his backpack.  He reached an arm and felt for the rope.  The boat dipped slightly, and he tried again.  He had the rope, pulled it, and the backpack dropped.  It was halfway in the water when he caught it.  He coiled the stern line and shoved it over the deck.  With his pack above him, he slid into the water, hoping he hadn’t been seen.  Under the dock, he took a dark shape of shadows.


         Okay, I just wanted to make that point about action scenes.

         Don’t be surprised if you make some false starts and change your mind about the point of view you are using.  The only way to get it right is by experimenting and then judging the result.  Most of you have a work-in-progress or have one in mind.  Think about the triple elements of dialog as your write:  speech, action, and thought. 

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Posted 3 Years Ago

My thanks for your help. I'm trying to improve on my dialogue skills with my book-in-progress. Your advice is deeply appreciated.
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Kathleen Rowland
Kathleen Rowland


The first book of my Intervenus Series for teens, A BRAND NEW ADDRESS, is available. Life on 22nd Century Ice Age Earth is harsh. The same asteroid impact affected Mars and Venus, morphing their atm..