Let dialogue move the story forward. The Authors Collection.


Jews bringing their belongings to a railroad station in Germany. The Final Solution had begun.
Jews bringing their belongings to a railroad station in Germany. The Final Solution had begun.

NOVELS MAY BE FICTION, but they are alive and have traits similar to humans.

The plot is the heart of a novel.

Characters are the soul of a novel.

Dialogue is what keeps the engines running.

Strong, active, decisive dialogue, I believe, is critical to the success of any piece of writing, be it a novel, a short story, or narrative nonfiction.

You’ve heard the mantra time and again.

Don’t let the narrator tell the story.

The narrator should be invisible.

Let the characters tell the story.

And how do they accomplish it?

With dialogue.

I have written more than once that in today’s wide, wonderful world of digital publishing, novels should be written like screenplays.

Use narration to set the stage, and keep it brief and simple.

In Night Side of Dark, a World War II thriller still in the editing process, I opened a scene this way:

Ambrose Lincoln did not expect to find Devra at the railroad station where he left her. He was not disappointed. When he walked into the depot, all talking and the low buzz of idle chatter came to a stop. A heavy pall of silence fell across the room, and even the two dust-ridden overhead lights seemed to lose their energy. They cast a darker web of yellow shadows inside the building. The image of an officer and a Storm Trooper made blood run cold in the veins of the innocent and boil over in the heartbeat of the guilty.

Got the picture?

Nothing else, in my mind, needs to be said.

It is time to jump wildly into dialogue.

At that junction, here is what I find so many novels. Too often, it seems to me that authors throw down inane dialogue because they are writing a 300-page story and need to fill up space.

The dialogue starts nowhere.

And it goes nowhere.

It is little more than verbal exchanges that stop a story cold.

It is what I call “gum flapping.”

When characters sit around and flap their gums, nothing is happening.

I believe that every passage of dialogue should have three things:

It creates conflict.

It adds tension.

It moves the story along.

Even humor, if written correctly, has conflict and tension. Those are what ultimately make the punch line work.

After setting the scene with Ambrose Lincoln at the railroad station, I could have written:

Lincoln strode briskly to the ticket agent.

“Have you seen Devra?” he asked.

“You mean the blonde?”

“Yes. I was in here with her earlier today.”

“I remember when you came in,” the ticket agent said, “I just assume she left with you.”

“Any good restaurants around here?”

“There’s a good sausage place down on the corner.” The agent shrugged.

“I may find her there,” Lincoln said.

Tension faded away.

Conflict flew out the window.

The story bogged down.

Such dialogue is dull.

It’s boring.

It should be left out at all costs.

Instead I wrote:

Lincoln strode briskly to the ticket agent.

“The Jews, do they come through here?” Lincoln’s voice was harsh and direct.

“The Jews are boarded onto the trains here,” the agent said. “So are the Christians. The Gypsies. The Bohemians. They all come through here.” His were words were hesitant and hoarse, barely audible.

“Do their belongings go with them?”


“Where are they kept?”

The ticket agent shrugged. “They are thrown away,” he said.


“There are ditches south of the station.” The short, balding agent rubbed his chin nervously. He was sweating even though the room was as old as the snows outside. “Their bags and clothing are dumped there.”

“Only the Jews?”

“None of them are coming back.”

“Do you keep anything?”

“Are you asking if I steal from them?”

“I am.”

“No.” The agent was adamant. Or was he afraid? His shoulders had a slight tremor. “No one here wants anything the Jews had,” he said. “Even God curses the Jews.”

“And the Christians?”

“They are no better than the Jews.”

The dialogue is brisk.

It’s direct.

It’s to the point.

And, I hope, it keeps the story moving.


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Posts