Only Hammocks Should Sag
Part II

By Martha Powers


Hints for Better Dialogue:

1. Dialect--If you're going to use dialect, be very careful. Suggest it by key words and rhythms. Never make the reader have to sound out each letter to understand the words. If you're planning to use any dialect, be absolutely sure of your research. The worst mistake you can possibly make is to use dialect incorrectly. There is an enormous difference between Irish, Scottish and Northern English dialects. Use the wrong words or rhythm and you destroy your credibility.

2. If you have two characters in a scene, don't let them agree for very long. They need to question or oppose each other in order to create tension that will lead to character development or plot expansion.

"Today's Wednesday," Charlotte said.

"It's been a lovely day." Jessica bit off her sewing thread.

"Would you like some tea?" Charlotte answered.

"Thank you, sister, I'd love some."

Not too exciting that way.

"Today's Wednesday," Charlotte said.

"It's Thursday." Jessica bit off her thread with decision.

"I'm quite sure it said Wednesday in the paper this morning."

"It's a weekly paper, sister dear. Comes out on Thursday."

"Would you like some cocoa, Jess?"

"You know how I loathe the stuff."

It's not classic dialogue, but there's more interest in the second example because of the disagreement. The tension between the two characters gives life to the scene. You can picture two old ladies snarling politely over their sewing.

3. In general each section of a character's dialogue should contain one main idea. This is especially true if the idea is important.

"Last night the murderer crept into the bedroom, killed Jeffrey and then escaped to Albania. In the meantime the boatload of narcotics was shipped to Hong Kong and Teddy committed suicide."

There's too much information in the speech. The reader has no idea which elements are most significant. The important facts may be totally missed.

4. Watch where you put the name of the character you are addressing. Names at the beginning of a line of dialogue are always stronger because it flags what you are about to say. "Gwen, stop picking your nose." You really don't need an exclamation point after that because it's implied. "Stop picking your nose, Gwen." This is obviously said by a tired mother correcting her daughter out of habit.

5. There are two strong points in a line of dialogue or in a whole speech: the beginning and the end. The end is the stronger position. Everything in the middle is just dressing.

"Where did I bury the gold? In your backyard, I think."

"The gold? I think I buried it in your backyard." There's quite a difference between those two lines. The first is much weaker, mainly because along with the gold you buried your emphasis.

6. Start your scenes with interesting dialogue. Don't do introductions of people, like at a party, unless your editor forces you to or unless there's an emotional reason that will come across in the introductions.

"Ah, Gwen. You remember Nigel, the man who killed your sister, burned your house and stole your dog." That would be worth putting in.

7. End the dialogue in a scene with a snap. Don't let it fizzle out with useless dialogue that dilutes it.

"At the risk of my life, Gwen, I shall find the family jewels or you will never see me again."

"Bye, Nigel. Have a good trip." Give Nigel a break and let him have the last good line.

8. Do not overuse adverb tags. If the emotional content of the dialogue is clear, you don't need them. "You flea-bitten, washed -up dirtbag," Hank said angrily. You don't need to tell us what to feel. The line tells us. Use a tag when there is some question as to the emotions: "I'm pregnant," Gwen said in horror. "I'm pregnant," Gwen said excitedly.

9. Try to establish a separate voice for each character by your choice of words and speech patterns. Listen to your friends. Each of them speaks in a distinct rhythm.

"Gonna buy me that car today. Jest you wait and see."

"Give me a break. He's like nowhere with me."

"Can't go today. Didn't finish my work. Got a headache."

Minor characters are especially easy to work with because you can give them unusual speech patterns and dialects.

10. Watch where you put your tags. It can make a big difference to what you're trying to say.

"You are the murderer," he said.

"You," he said, "are the murderer."

"You are," he said, "the murderer."

Notice the different nuances created by a change of tag lines. The first example is lousy writing because the tag line weakens the sentence. The second places the emphasis squarely on the 'you.' In the third sentence there's an archness to the wording.

11. Read plays. A book is nothing more than a play with narrative descriptions rather than director's notes. The dialogue of a play always seems stronger to me, more concise and meaningful.

12. Say your dialogue out loud. Listen to the sound of each person's voice. Do they all sound the same? Are they stilted? Would someone really say those words?

Now you've got this terrific opening where the Tower of London has just been blown up on the very day that Gwen meets Nigel. Surely any editor worth her salt will believe the ending where Nigel and Gwen battle five hundred ex-Nazi's armed with only a lighter, a can of hairspray, three spools of heavy thread and a St. Bernard. Of course she will.

In the middle of your book, your hero Nigel wines and dines Gwen across the face of Europe while baring his soul, discovering the depths of her character and fighting off great bands of rabid dogs, wheezing camels and assorted frenzied natives.

What more could an editor ask for?

For Part One of this article, click here!

Martha is the author of several Regency romances, including FALSE PRETENSES and her 1985 Golden Heart winner PROXY BRIDE.

Her upcoming release is a mystery thriller suspense entitled SUNFLOWER from Random House, due out mid-August.

You can visit her website at

To order Martha's books from, visit our Bookstore.

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Copyright 1998, M. Powers