Carol Brennan King

Creative Writing: How to Write Dialogue

First of all, don’t use dialogue just to use it. Does the scene need to have something in the character’s own words?  If it does, then evaluate what you have written through the following points to see how what you are doing with that dialogue.

  1. Keep it tight. You don’t have to say everything. Allow gaps in the communication and let the readers fill in the blanks. You don’t have to give the readers 100% of what they want. Give them 80% and letting them figure out the rest as they would in real life. Remember, we speak in sentence fragments normally.

“Look, it might not be him …”

Gaps are good. They make the reader work, and a ton of emotion and inference swirls in the gaps.

  • Watch those beats that we talked about last week. Every line of dialogue alters the emotional landscape in some way. That’s why it feels so intense & engaging.

Want to achieve the same effect? Just check the dialogue you write, line by line. Do you feel that emotional movement there all the time? If not, just delete anything unnecessary until you feel the intensity and emotional movement increase.

  • Oblique dialogue is where people never quite answer each other in a straight way. Again, the way we speak or engage normally. Think about those times where a question doesn’t get a straightforward response, where random connections are made, where we never quite know where things are going. As readers, we love that. It’s dialogue that is fun to write and great fun to read.

Want to achieve the same effect? Just keep your dialogue not quite joined up. People should drop in random things, go off at tangents, talk in non-sequiturs, respond to an emotional implication, not necessarily to the thing that’s directly on the page – or anything. Just keep it broken. Keep it real!


Want to achieve that same effect? Know that dialogue, the words people choose and the way they use them shows us the characters, as clearly as anything else in the whole book. We can hear their differences, their tentativeness, their longing. Understand your characters as fully as you can. The more you can do this, the more naturally you’ll write dialogue that’s right for them.

  • Keep your dialogue tags simple. Truth is, in a two-handed dialogue where it’s obvious who’s speaking, you don’t even need the word said. The simple rule: use dialogue tags as invisibly as you can. Keep it simple!
  • Get the punctuation right.
  • Each new line of dialogue (ie: each new speaker) needs a new paragraph – even if the dialogue is very short.
  • Action sentences within dialogue get their own paragraphs too.
  • The only exception to this rule is if the sentence interrupts an otherwise continuous piece of dialogue. for example: “Yes,” she said. She brushed away a fly that had landed on her cheek. “I do think hippos are the best animals.”
  • When you are ending a line of dialogue with he said / she said, the sentence beforehand ends with a comma, not a full stop (or period), as in this for example: “Yes,” she said.
  • If the line of dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation mark, you still don’t have a capital letter for he said / she said.  For example: “You like hippos?” he said.
  • If the he said / she said lives in the middle of one continuous sentence of dialogue, you need to deploy those commas like a comma-deploying ninja. Like this for example: “If you like hippos,” he said, “then you  deserve to be sat on by one.”
  • And use quotation marks.

Some last tips:

  • Keep speeches short. If a speech runs for more than three sentences or so, it (usually) risks being too long.
  • Ensure characters speak in their own voice. And make sure your characters don’t sound the same as each other.
  • Add intrigue. Add slang and banter. Lace character chats with foreshadowing. You needn’t be writing a thriller to do this.
  • Get in late and out early. Don’t bother with small talk. Decide the point of each interaction, begin with it as late as possible, ending as soon as your point is made.
  • Interruption is good. So are characters pursuing their own thought processes and not quite engaging with the other.

See for more

Writing Prompts:

  1. Block a passage for your character or characters. For example, two people fall in love and are headed toward the altar. But something happens that threatens to block that
  2. Insert a new person to your story, and see what happens.
  3. Have something break: this might be a relationship, a precious object, or even in an otherwise perfectly furnished and clean room and its discovery opens up a whole new story thread.

The Memoir Class


When you are writing memoirs, your job is to recreate dialogue, not create it. Sometimes, that means you cannot remember exactly what you said. In that situation, you can recreate it, getting as close as you can to what actually was said and what and how your character would have said it.

To help you get in their heads, even your own in the past, consider the following questions.

  1. What are the turns of phrase that you recall the character making? Think through funny sayings or words that he or she was known for.
  2. What are their mannerisms of speech? Did they start every inquiry with “Guess what?” or were they known for a particular accent or for clearing their throat before asking a serious question?
  3. How would your conversation proceed? Did it flow naturally or did you have to pull words out of him?
  4. What would they do while you tried to engage them in conversation? Would they look for a particular place to stand where they would lean on something, or would they find a chair before speaking?
  5. Is there anything else they might do? Prepare a pipe and light it, take a long drink, look out the window?
  6. Is there anything going on? Think of the grandparent perhaps, who could not hear well, so the television was on loud making hearing even more difficult. Were they hooked to the telephone or computer or fussing about the kitchen or workshop??

We also talked about character development. Remember, your forbears changed and grew just as you have. Explore how you can show that growth.

Remember, Character development is two things:

  1. Character development is the process by which an author develops a detailed character profile. This activity is usually done in conjunction with plot development and takes place as part of the planning process, before the writer actually starts to write. Show who the character is by his or her actions, past and present
  2. Character development also refers to the way a person, friend, or  ancestor changes through the course of the memoir, generally in response to the experiences and events gathered through the course of the story itself. This is known as the Character Arc.


There are two basic types of main character (or protagonist) in fiction and you can use them in nonfiction:

  1. The first type is an ordinary character plunged into the extraordinary. And, by this process, they become a little more extraordinary themselves.
  2. The second character type start out extraordinary – they could make things happen in an empty room.

You need to be careful about identifying which character is which.

Here’s a quick way to figure out what kind of character yours is:


  • Will typically refuse adventure, or accept it only reluctantly
  • Will typically have something of the boy next door / girl next door quality to them. That doesn’t mean they have to be boring (we’re all different after all), but it does mean that they can act as a kind of placeholder for the reader. “That person could be me. That adventure could have been mine.
  • Will typically find something heroic or extraordinary in themselves as a result of the adventure. Something that was buried becomes visible.
  • The adventure has to echo or vibrate with whatever is distinctive about the character. So at the very start of the Harry Potter series, Harry seems like an ordinary boy, except that he’s an orphan. No wonder then that the entire series revolves around Harry completing the battles of his lost parents.


  • Will often leap into adventure. May even create it.
  • Will typically seem nothing whatsoever like the nice kid next door
  • Will have something astonishing in them all the time. Something that probably makes them look awkwardly ill-at-ease in the ordinary world.
  • But, as with ordinary characters, the adventure will resonate with who they are. Sherlock Holmes is a detective – so let him solve crimes! Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a CIA guy, so drop him into a thriller, not a schmalzy love story!


You can already see how these three things need to intertwine:

  1. Your character’s profile at the start of the book
  2. The story your character plunges into
  3. The way your character develops through the course of that story

So think through the people in your memoir…how do they fare as you consider their lives and character arcs. Just thinking through their lives as you know it, and as you begin to research it may bring back your own memories or guide you to other resources that would enrich your work.

For more on this, see:


  1. Go back: Think about a time in your childhood or youth. Choose an age and them think about what music is playing, what the weather is, what you smell from the kitchen or a favorite bakery or restaurant. Think about what you see on the wall at your childhood house or school or on the wall of a building. Think about what is growing. Pick a memorable landmark from that time and write the story that comes.
    1. Choose from any of these words and write the scene where the word is used or makes sense.
      • Diaphanous
      • Elixir
      • Fracas
      • Nix
      • Lullaby
      • Or one I did not give in class: silhouette

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