Dialogue: The Writer's Swiss Army Knife


Photo from Victorinox
The more I study the topic of writing dialogue, the more convinced I’ve become that dialogue is the writer’s Swiss Army Knife. You don’t have to know what all the other tools on the knife are for if all you want to do is whittle the tip of a willow pole for roasting a marshmallow. But it’s handy to know about the tweezers when someone gets a splinter, and the little scissors are a godsend for snipping off loose threads and hangnails. Screwdrivers come in handy every now and then, and so it goes. Swiss Army knives prune, snip, and open all sorts of things, and so does dialogue.

Even those of us who are fortunate enough to have dialogue pour forth naturally can benefit from learning more about the functions it serves, and how it works. Some of these functions include
  • Setting a mood
  • Concisely conveying information
  • Adding rhythm and color
  • Developing character
  • And more
Even if you include dialogue in your initial draft (most people don’t), you are likely to overlook hidden opportunities to put it to best use. Do you know the secret signals for sliding it in the perfect spots? I don’t think you’ll find that answer on the Internet. How do you make it clear who is speaking without including the name every time? Do you know when to use single quotes and when to use double? Should you write about the voices in your head, and the conversations they have? What about the accuracy of the words you put in the mouths of other people?

Ever since I announced this class and the preview call, questions on that last topic have been pouring in. Truth in Dialogue seems to be the number one concern of memoir writers. I will address that topic in the preview call, so be sure to click over to the NAMW site and register for the call before it begins at 6 pm eastern time, Wednesday, August 26. If you register, you’ll receive a link to download the recording, so you won’t miss the call even if you can’t dial in live.

I’ve also written a guest post on this topic which will appear the day of the call on Karen Walker’s Following the Whispers blog.

Please join me on the call, in the class, and over at Karen’s blog to learn more about adding dynamic dialogue to your stories.

Write now: write a story and include as much dialogue as you can recall. If you don't remember what people said, write whatever you think they would have said. Don't worry if you aren't 100% accurate. Just write it!


Pat's Place said...

I guess I need to make a stab at doing dialogue. Dialogue scares me and thus I usually avoid it at all costs--well, maybe it is costly for me to avoid it!! I am not even sure how to include dialogue in memoir??

Sharon Lippincott said...

Pat, maybe you could try giving yourself permission to write some dialogue in a trial story. Play around with it and see how it works. Think of it as an experiment. You can always delete it and start over the old way if you aren't happy with the results.

I'll have no doubt you'll amaze yourself if you just cut loose and try!

Lindsay Price said...

I agree Pat, do the things that scare you. Especially in writing! It's only on the page and can be deleted at the push of a button...

Sharon Lippincott said...


Here, here. In fact, the advice to try new things and toss the unsatisfactory results can apply to so much. I feel a blog coming on...

Karen Walker said...

I didn't feel comfortable writing dialogue until I took a class at University of New Mexico and learnt some rules, so my advice is to check out Sharon's class and just give it a shot. She's a great teacher!

Sharon Lippincott said...


Rules, tools, aren't they great? Like a map or a guidebook. We don't need rules or tools (beyond pen or keyboard) to get words on paper, but crafting those raw diamonds of early drafts into polished jewels? You've got to have tools.

JustWriteCat said...

I love your swiss army knife analogy - very true now that I consider it that way. As I was doing a readthrough of my first draft I found several areas where my dialog fell out of voice of my protag (it's first person). Hmmm....maybe I used the corkscrew tool for those parts. I just pulled out large pieces and revised.