Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you write dialog? (07/15/12)

Featured writer: Barbara Shine

Contributors this month:
Catherine Crawford
Claudia Larson
Kay Butzin
Sara Baker
Theresa Sanders
Trudy Martin

Exploiting Dialog

by Barbara Shine

Dialog is a tool that helps to enliven a story, keep it on pace, and avoid needless narrative. I milk it for all it can give.

I try to write dialog that readers can "hear" and from which they can start to "see" which characters are talking. Readers will dress up people and move them around in the mind-movie they create from our narratives, and they "hear" the conversations we write. Those lines of dialog have to sound realistic while painting portraits and moving the story forward. Elmore Leonard is my dialog idol.

Dialog helps me give readers necessary information in a more engaging form than straight narrative. In some stories, those set entirely in my head, I need to portray only my own voice. Other times, though, other people in my life, and hence in my stories, help me convey details that might otherwise seem dry.

I don't have to describe a friend's bounteous garden if he talks about the dinner party menu planned around his homegrown heirloom tomatoes. I don't have to describe a battered woman's injuries if the sewing circle ladies gossip: "Did you see that cast under her sleeve?" "She had on sunglasses inside the Wal-Mart!"

I can write that I've started dying my hair auburn (just to cover the few gray strands, of course) since I got home from vacation (ho-hum), or I can show my friend Nikki greeting me with, "Oh, I love your new hair! Those red highlights really set off your tan. How was Myrtle Beach?" And look how much you learned about me without my telling you.

The trick for creating effective dialog, I think, is a combination of mindful listening, realistic telling of what the ear catches, and graceful editing to tame the whole mélange.

I listen to people talking and mentally flag their idiosyncrasies. For instance, one of my brilliant writer friends pronounces "terrible" as "turrible." It's an interesting quirk that could enhance any written character who needs a distinguishing mark. I'd apply it to all the "terr-". "her-", and "fer-" words. (No, I do not think it's wrong to attribute one person's quirk to another character. It's creative nonfiction.)

According to author Sarah Collins Honenberger, realistic dialog also demands that people usually respond indirectly to questions. For example, husband stands at the door, jangling keys, and asks wife, "Do we need milk?" She replies, "Are you going to Safeway or the Quik-Mart?" He parries with, "You have a list?"

The graceful editing part of the equation means deciding how much of a conversation is needed, when people's speech wants fixing, and when it's better left alone. My editor friend Janice says "fustrated," ignoring the first R. I'll correct it in her dialog—it's not a useful quirk. But when an excited fifth-grader tells his teacher, "Imma be a archeologist someday," that assertion is golden and it stands. When to correct our loved ones, ensuring they save face, and when to cherish their verbal faux pas? That's a question for another essay.

Barbara Shine is a freelance writer-editor, mixed-media artist, and victim advocate in Virginia. She is pleased to be a frequent flyer at You can reach Barbara for writing, coaching, or editorial assistance by email:

Mindful of Words

  by Catherine Crawford

None of the writing I've done in my life has required me to write dialog. When I try, my imagination freezes up, but that may be a good thing. Sharp tongues run in my family, and I got the gene. Sometimes, I'm shocked by the cutting words my tongue wants to say.

Dialog for me means conversing in a civil or at least a revealing way. In my family of origin, that was the rule, but usually we broke it. When I write dialog, I feel like a ping pong player with two paddles and one ball who can't hit anything. My reserve kicks in, and like the classical mediator—or a lightning rod—I try to calm things down.

One form of dialog I do enjoy is letter writing. Talking that isn't face-to-face but page to-page. Letters, I know, can be angry and shallow like talk of any kind. But letters do allow a writer to speak more deliberately if she chooses. To go back and see how a relationship has grown. To opt for wisdom and tender pre-planning. To slay the dragon of thoughtless interruption.

My attempts to write dialog are like fireworks that don't explode but just fizzle away. Someday, I may try harder to do this, but not today. In my head, I hold the perfect conversation: I'm fishing on a lake with someone I love. We pass the tackle box back and forth in silent understanding. The air is quiet. Fish don't intrude by getting caught. I'm completely happy with dialog like that.

Catherine admits she talks to herself sometimes with surprising results. Her email in Washington State:

Discomfort and Its Opposite

  by Claudia Larson

Writing dialogue is as much fun as sticking my hand into a pile of gravel, grabbing a handful of its sharp-edged pieces and then attempting to glue them to my arm, using honey. I don't enjoy it. It doesn't flow, unlike the dialogue my friend B spins from her pen. When I hear snippets of her work-in-progress, the room disappears, I disappear, and all that exists is the couple whose simple, everyday dialogue outlines a furrowed brow or a slight smile. The dialogue indicates where they've been and telegraphs the likelihood of what's next. B's dialogue is clean, simple and minus the gravel dust.

Claudia Larson would much rather write about her apple trees and the fog still wrapping the morning in Sebastopol, CA.

Say What?

  by Kay Butzin

The F-bomb is a versatile word. In everyday conversation, it can serve as an interjection, noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or participle.

But so-called realistic dialogue that substitutes the curse for those other parts of speech bores me. I prefer nouns and verbs that paint pictures. Swearing illustrates little beyond the limited vocabulary of the speaker, so my characters don't use vulgar language.

They do spout stale similes, because I am the self-dubbed Cliché Queen. Since tired comparisons trip off the end of my pen, I've learned to legitimize them by putting them in characters' mouths.

My living room is the stage where I rehearse their lines. I tread the carpet, reading them aloud, and revise again and again until the sentences sound authentic. It helps that I often borrow exact words from actual conversations; but lacking a direct quote, I ask myself how I'd react in a situation as awesome or awful as the one I've invented. What might I say?

That is, after I've exclaimed, "&*@#!"

On Sunday evening when the weekend tourists are returning to Austin and Houston, Kay Butzin gets to stay at home in Rockport, TX. Her email address is

Distancing Myself

  by Sara Baker

The economy recently forced me out of retirement. As I returned to the workforce, I felt a bit awkward—like the way I felt as an adolescent in the middle school cafeteria on the first day of school—surrounded by unfamiliar people and deafening chatter hoping somehow to find my niche.

Understandably my initial conversations with my new co-workers were strained; dialogue between us was forced as we struggled to find common ground. One cohort babbled on and on with a multitude of disrupting phrases such as: "Like, I was, you know. Like. Right. Seriously?! Okay, well. Um… What's that? Right."

Another shared way too much information early on. Without taking a breath, she said, "Hey, did I tell you about my brother, Steve?…he dropped out of engineering school, became a welder but fell off a bridge and injured his back, but—can you believe it?—he never received a cent from worker's comp!"

Then there was the amiable co-worker I barely understood. "Crimany! My son ain't got no cow sense! He's just like his father—an ol' coot who spends way too much time gamblin' with them California Prayer Books."

My new co-workers demanded my attention—striving to be heard; yet they were distracting me from work. So, after a few days I was faced with a dilemma. Do I remain friendly and get along, or do I distance myself from my co-workers' conversations and get the job done?

I share a similar dilemma with my new characters and their dialogue; as with their real-life counterparts, we struggle at first to find a common ground. Then, each demands my attention wanting to be heard.

Sooner or later, I ask myself: Does this character babble on and on endlessly with no direction or point to make? Does this character share way too much information in one breath? What about that affable, stereotypical character with the Texas twang? Is he just downright disruptive?

I now realize that writing effective dialogue—like great conversation—is a delicate and fine art. Like good conversation, dialogue must be authentic, realistic, and captivating without being distracting.

So, how do I write dialogue? I distance myself from my characters' conversations and listen to them from the reader's perspective. Doing so helps me get the job done.

Sara Baker—a contented quasi-retiree—writes memoirs, short stories, and personal narratives. Aside from writing, her favorite pasttime is spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she’s been married for 29 years.

I am Girl

  by Theresa Sanders

When my husband and I adopted our twin daughters, Holly and Wendy, from Korea, they had just turned five years old. We knew from the moment we saw their round cherubic faces and short, coal-dark hair that they made our family complete. One thing we had to overcome, however, was the language barrier. The girls didn't speak English, so my husband and I and our two sons employed gestures and facial expressions to communicate with our new family members.

A particular hardship for the girls was that in their native Korean language there is no use of definite or indefinite articles, so those words aren't translatable. Thus, we had some interesting sentence constructions. There were gradual progressions from things like "Dress, want," to "Want dress," to "I want dress," to finally "I want the dress." One of my fondest memories is of taking my shy little daughters to work and introducing them to my colleagues, only to have Wendy, clinging to my leg, peek around me and proclaim, "I am girl." My co-workers fell in love with her immediately.

As I look back now, I'm not sure how we accomplished it, the whole dialogue thing. All I know is that the girls listened to the way we spoke, somehow captured the rhythm and idiosyncrasies of our words, and repeated what they heard. I think that for writers too this process of listening to how people talk (including pauses, inflections, contractions, and incomplete sentences) is one of the best ways to learn how to craft dialogue.

In essence, we writers must be conversation thieves. That guy bursting with tipsy excitement at the hockey game? I have a character like that guy. His play-by-play is priceless, so into my story it goes. That teenage girl at the supermarket talking oh-so-loudly on her cell phone about last night's big date? Annoying as this is, it's a stealable moment. I have a character like that gal, so voila, dialogue is born. I tailor the words to fit, of course; I add a bit of action and description, but you get my point.

And the point is this: to sound authentic, dialogue must read authentically . Our story worlds must feel like the real world, and the real world revolves around dialogue. It's what hooks our readers and holds them close. Further, dialogue is character-driven. If we return to my account of the gal in the supermarket, even that word ‘gal' connotes something about the speaker—in this case, a slightly scattered mom-of-four who would really-like-some-peace-and-quiet-please-to-focus-on-her-grocery-list-so-she-can-get-home-to-her-writing, thanks-very-much. If my daughter were the speaker, she might say the gal is a poser. My son might say she's a tool. My husband might not say much at all but simply advise, "get off the bleepin' phone!"

So regarding dialogue, I'll leave you with a question. If you and I were characters meeting at a supermarket in Chapter 3 of a book called Life, and I introduced myself by saying, "I am girl," would you believe I'm for real?

Right. That's what I thought.

Theresa Sanders is keeping it real in suburban St. Louis Missouri. Email her at:

Just Listen

  by Trudy Martin

I settle comfortably in the over-sized lounge chair. A stack of used printer sheets sits on the clipboard, unused side up. Sharpened pencils wait on the end table. I snap off the light and in darkness, enter the ‘setting' of my essay.

Tonight we will visit the old ranch house. There's nothing pretentious about this house; it's a family's home, nothing more, nothing less. Naked of paint, it makes no apologies for its appearance, and opens wide its front-door arms to welcome any visitor, whether stranger or friend. Warmth and love radiate from within. I hear Mother humming as she prepares supper. A pale blue apron, the ever-present threaded needle stuck carefully in the corner of its bib, protects her print cotton dress.

The aroma of homemade rolls envelops me as I watch Sylvia, my older sister, take the pan from the oven. Handling the hot rolls gingerly, she places them in a shallow basket. She's a carbon copy of Mother, Sylvia is, with the same hazel eyes and brunette hair.

Marie, my 'just-older-than-me' sister, and I play and giggle, avoiding homework. From his chair Daddy rattles the newspaper. His blue eyes warn us to get to work on lessons.

Brother Hardie and little brother Fred sit on the front room floor, building a house with Lincoln Logs, and talking about which of them is the hungrier.

In the dining room the china cupboard stands just as it did more than eighty years ago. Across the room the tall, wind-up Victrola is silent. I run my fingers over its smooth surface. Inside its cabinet, fragile, flat black records in paper jackets rest under the turntable.

Mismatched china provides nine places at the table. Soon Mother will ask Daddy to call the hired men from the bunkhouse and we'll take our places around the table.

At supper time we talk about events of the day and share our news. All day, I've kept MY news from everyone.Now the big moment is here. I know just how I'll start my story--I've been practicing because some day, when I grow up, I'm going to be a newspaper reporter or a writer.

There! The setting is complete.

I switch the light back on, pick up clipboard and pencil and begin the first draft. It matters not what my age is in the story, nor where in the world I am. I put myself back in time to a familiar location. Suddenly I can become the little girl, teenager, Navy wife, mother, grandmother or yes, even the widow or great grandmother.

The dialog I need flows easily and naturally, for I am right there reliving my past.

Trudy Martin is a Sonoma County writer who has often contributed to Searchlights.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email:

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at, or visit her blog at

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at:

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