Dialogue The Key to Effective Storytelling

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Dialogue: The Key to Effective Storytelling

Your plot is diabolically clever, your theme universal, your characters fresh and fully drawn. Readers are sure to take your compelling short story to heart. Maybe. First you must sell it to that sleep-deprived, cynical, overworked editor, and chances are he/she will use the Three-Step Approach to Choosing Manuscripts:

Dialogue The Key to Effective StorytellingYour editor will (1) consider your title, (2) read the opening lines to make sure they’ll hook and then yank Gentle Reader into your story. If you’ve made it that far, he/she will then (3) search for a sizable chunk of dialogue. That’s because in a critical five-minute scan of your characters’ conversations, your editor can discern how skilled you are at the craft of storytelling.

How? Easy. Dialogue is one of the most effective ways to show rather than tell information readers need in order to connect with your protagonist and your plot. Your editor knows this and you’d better know it, too. When you integrate your characters’ voices with action, you show; you plunge your reader into a fast-paced story. When you explain and narrate passages, you tell; you hold your reader at arm’s length.


“A little. From nerves, I guess.”

“Try this, darling.” I draped my jacket over Devon’s shoulders and pulled her
close as we started across the bluff.

“Right about here,” she whispered, just short of the lighthouse. “There. Do you hear that?”

Her hair brushed my cheek. “Sea breeze? You know it whistles in the pines as it comes off the water.”

“Come on, Jake, there’s no wind tonight.”

“Seagulls then, roosting up there on the railing.” I listened in the dark. “Or bats,” I tried. “Coming off the leaves looking for mosquitoes.”

“No way.” Her teeth chattered.

I ran my sweaty palms over my jeans as we squinted at the derelict structure looming out of the scrub pine and beach roses. I heard it all right—a soft hissing, like air let out of a kid’s balloon.


If I’ve done my job, that long-suffering editor is no longer at the desk but at the base of an abandoned lighthouse on a cool summer night with a pair of young lovers who suspect something’s going on up in the lantern room.

Through dialogue and action my editor has received:

  • Key elements to the plot
  • Information about the setting/location/time of day
  • A sense of the relationship, age, even attire of the characters
  • Small bits of information needed later, from the lighthouse and the weather to the bats
  • A feel for my ability as a writer to build tension, set pace, and develop characters

Let Dialogue Transport Your Readers

From characters and setting to theme and plot, the integration of action and dialogue adds texture and dimension to story elements. Tight, well-written dialogue balanced by action enhances the suspension of disbelief. Done well, the combination yanks those readers right into your story. They’re on a train with your heroine, privy to the argument drifting to her from the seat in front. They’re on horseback, as anxious as your rancher about the impending storm. Your readers are where you, as the author, want them.

As in real life, too much chatter or tearing around can be exhausting. The right balance of dialogue/action with narrative summary depends on variables, from your target audience to point of view, to the genre of the story. Although a romance won’t be constructed the same way as science fiction, and a Western narrated by the rancher won’t read like a hard-boiled detective story written in the third person, there are tips every writer should know:

Keep conversation relevant.

If your characters are chatting about the weather or the neighbors or what’s for dinner, those conversations must be critical to your story.

They must either move the plot forward or contribute to characterization and setting.

“Write tight.”

Dialogue The Key to Effective Storytelling - Thunder - Barn

photo credit: pixabay

Every single line must keep the reader on track. Avoid incidental dialogue that stops your readers or—worse—gets them thinking in an errant direction.

Let’s assume that at my story’s climax, my heroine Ashley must enter an abandoned barn alone in the midst of a thunderstorm. I want my readers to suspect that this is her worst nightmare. Here’s an earlier dialogue exchange as I first wrote it:


Ashley shivered and set her fork down. “Was that thunder?”

Her sister shrugged. “They predicted a storm after midnight. I brought an umbrella, just in case. Surely after all these years you’re not still—”

“Where’s our waiter? I need the check.” Ashley looked around. “These college kids pay no attention, and then they wonder why their tips are so small.”


Were the umbrella or the waiter important to the story? No. I revised and cut as follows:


Ashley took a bite of her salad, then shivered and set her fork down. “Was that thunder?”

Her sister shrugged. “They predicted a storm after midnight. Surely after all these years you’re not still—”

“I need the check. I have to go home.”


Use attribution tags only when you need to clarify who’s speaking, and keep them simple.

“I can’t believe the asking price for that apartment,” Mary said.

“What did you expect?” John replied. “This is Boston, and the market’s tight.”

“How about some space for my money?”

“How much space does a college student need?”

“At least enough so my elbows don’t bump the walls when I carry in groceries.”


Keep the emphasis and information between the quotation marks.

Avoid tacking on extraneous explanations (see examples in brackets below) of what the characters are discussing.

Dialogue The Key to Effective Storytelling - Quotation Marks

photo credit: canva

[Claire worried that Garrett wouldn’t understand.] “Since you don’t speak French, the doctor might be confusing. Take Pierre with you.”

[Jennifer explained the requirements to Amy.] “I’ll need you here by six. Please let yourself in through the back door and lock it once you’ve arrived.”

“Get rid of adverbs,” she said emphatically.

If your dialogue is effective, your reader should know how someone is speaking. Adverbs tacked onto tag lines are redundant if you’ve done your job as writer. Lose the words in brackets below:

  • “Kyle, grab your backpack,” Chris yelled [hurriedly] as he slammed the door.
  • “Wasn’t that show great?” she asked [enthusiastically].

Dialogue vs. Dialect

Write as your characters speak. Keep in mind, however, that the days of Mark Twain-style dialect are over. Editors cringe at more than an occasional dropped g or gotta. Instead use a turn of phrase for regional and colloquial flavor. Here’s your chance to sprinkle in improper grammar and slang. Like herbs in cooking, though, use sparingly for effect.

  • “Can’t say as when it’ll be ready. I might could get that tire by sunset if y’all can be patient. Depends on Hank making his run to Savannah.”
  • “You got a B? What are you, a brainiac? I flagged it big time. I had no clue about that Lady Macbeth stuff.”

Put your readers to work. Hook them with enough information, clues, and characterization to keep them reading. Whether you pitch your story with a sample page or the complete manuscript, let your characters tell the story.

Create intriguing conversations character-appropriate enough to get that overworked editor out of the chair and into your pages. It’s a surefire path to publication.

Dialogue Checklist

1. Have I indented and given each speaker his/her own line on the page?
2. Have I kept each speaker’s dialogue and related narrative in one paragraph?
3. Does my dialogue add texture and detail to characters, setting, or plot?
4. Does every line move the story forward?
5. Do the tag lines “disappear” so the reader’s eye picks up the discussion between characters instead of instructions as to how they are speaking?
6. Do I avoid extraneous adverbs and/or redundant explanations with the dialogue?
7. Do my characters have clear, recognizable voices that come through in their speech patterns and vocabulary? Have I used slang, colloquial expressions, and phraseology instead of annoying or archaic misspellings?

Related Links

With the simultaneous sale of two suspense novels, one for middle-grade readers, the other an adult romance, Leslie Davis Guccione left public relations and advertising copy writing for fiction. To date, her dozens of books have been distributed worldwide in nine languages. Her Harlequin/Silhouette romances have topped bestseller lists, and her novels for young readers have been nominated for junior book awards throughout the country.






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