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September 25, 2017
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she explores writing convincing dialogue

Dear Editor:

Could you offer any tips on writing convincing dialogue? I find it a real struggle.

In the right hands, dialogue can move things along in a way that will leave you breathless,” Anne Lamott once wrote. But what’s the secret to creating that kind of dialogue? In my opinion, three things are required.

First, learn to listen. Listen to everyone around you—the couple chatting at the next table in the restaurant, your teenage daughter’s phone conversation with her best friend—and take notes. Pay attention to clever expressions, subtle innuendo, imaginative phrasing. The dialogue in your novel will be more succinct and character specific than what you hear around you, but careful listening is a great way to develop an ear for creating natural-sounding conversations.

Second, study the masters: Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, and Eudora Welty. Notice how what one character says to another reveals vulnerability and underlying motives, and moves the story forward.

And, third, read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural to you? Have you made every word count? If the answer is no, give it another go.

I’m also a big believer that less is more when it comes to dialogue tags. A simple “he said” or “she said” almost always does the trick. Adding adverbs such as lovingly feels amateurish and slows the momentum. Keep it crisp and short, and when in doubt—don’t.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.

If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.