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Good dialogue keeps people reading

Listen to how people talk. They spend a lot of time greeting each other before getting to the point. They might interrupt and talk over each other. They often don’t listen carefully and must ask the other person to repeat what they’ve said.

That is dialogue in real life. But imagine if dialogue in short stories and novels was like that. As readers we’d quickly lose interest. Though you may have been advised to produce realistic dialogue in your writing, I’m sure the person didn’t mean for you to write dialogue exactly like we talk. Dialogue in fiction is better than real life.

All dialogue in your stories should have a purpose. It should escalate the story, for example. It should make whatever is happening even worse or more dramatic. Look at this scene:

 “We got something, outside, sir,” Constable Palalani said. Detective Ramotshabi made to follow his junior out the back of his house just when his partner came in the door.

She stopped him. “You don’t want to go out there.”


“Just trust me.”

“Worse than we thought?” he asked not wanting the answer.

“Much worse, Detective.”

The dialogue in this scene is effective because it ups the tension, what is out that back door?

A few other things to notice in this scene is the use of dialogue tags (i.e. he said, she asked). It is best to stick to said and asked, writing busy with dialogue tags such as “ she screamed”  or “he demanded”, are weak and distracting. The dialogue itself should be strong enough for the reader to know if the person is screaming or being demanding. Also, you don’t need dialogue tags after every line of dialogue, it begins to clutter up the flow. Use them sparingly only to assist the reader to keep track of who is speaking. There are also other ways to do that. One way is as is done in the last line above, mentioning the name of the person who is being spoken to. Look at the first line of dialogue of Detective Ramotshabi’s partner. There’s prose before the dailogue that is linked to it so you know that she’s the one speaking. This is another way to help your reader know who is speaking.

Another thing to notice in this scene is that the characters are not always speaking in complete sentences or using correct grammar. The detective says: “Worse than we thought?” We all know he means:

“Is it worse than we thought?” but people rarely speak like that and especially characters in stories.

The other thing to keep in mind when having your characters speak is who they are. If your character is a doctor, it might be common for her to drop medical jargon into her conversation. A combi driver is not likely to be using Shakespeare quotes, if he does then there better be a point to it.

Also, the type of person your character is will decide how they approach a situation. If your character needs to discuss a difficult issue with her roommate, but your character is timid and the roommate is aggressive, then the conversation will be very different than if it was the other way around.

People come to conversations with an objective, but they rarely speak directly to it. For example:

“You must be tired,” her husband asked.

“Why would you say that? I’m fine.”

“You were home late; you and Dave must have had fun catching up.”

“I might as well wear a leash with you.”  She slammed the cupboard door.

He refilled his coffee and sat down.

The husband in the conversation wants to know what his wife and Dave were up to the previous night, but he’s not going to ask her directly. So he comes from a position of concern. Also note, silence and not answering is also part of this dialogue, it’s the subtext.

Here the wife dodges the questions and instead goes on the attack. This tells us about her and about how she sees their relationship. Him deciding to keep silent at the end also gives us more information about his character.

This is a good example of dialogue doing many things for the story at one time. It’s increasing the knowledge the reader is gaining about the characters, it’s escalating the tension, and furthering the plot. Dialogue needs to be there for a reason.

If you can take out a scene with dialogue and the story is not affected, then that dialogue is unnecessary and must be removed. Strong, effective, tight dialogue can make an average story pop and catch the reader and not let them go until the end.

Its all I write



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