Writing Powerful Dialog

I was having an IM conversation with a friend of mine about his job situation. He had been unemployed for some time and was looking at a possible job offer that he wasn't sure he really wanted. I could understand that this job offer took him away from his dreams, but I was concerned about the hopelessness I'd seen in him lately.

So here is how the conversation went:

whoever: i really have no comment on the matter just yet
whoever: i can't know how they treat people, aside than to see that most people have been there for some time
whoever: with the exception of the direct manager i'd report to, who's been there for 3 months
Rita Webb: i think i agree with your father.
Rita Webb: to move forward cautiously, but i'm not so sure you should turn it down.
whoever: i'm not either, really. but as i said, i don't know.
Rita Webb: i mentioned earlier that i was worried about you stagnating.
whoever: mmmm, you've said that
Rita Webb: so anyway, i hope it all goes well for you.

My last line really didn't fit with the rest of the conversation. Obviously, my mind was churning on something. (Basically, I thought I said too much and was back-pedaling.) Mr. Whoever laughed at me and said that if I had put that in one of my stories, he would have ripped it apart and told me to start over.

The problem was that the glue which holds the dialog together was missing.

So here is a possible rewrite, making that conversation story worthy:

"I really have no comment on the matter just yet," he said. His face was sour as if his job prospects tasted like lemons. Quiet for a moment, he looked out the window. He was brooding.

I fidgeted, just wishing I could reach in and fix the whole thing. Finally, he turned back to me with a bitter smile. "I can't know how they treat people, aside than to see that most people have been there for some time. With the exception of the direct manager I'd report to, who's been there for 3 months."

I chewed my lip, trying to figure out what to say. I wanted to say the right thing. Something that would give him hope and courage and help him down his way. It had to be more than just "get a good job so that you can be secure." He and I both knew that was foolish advice and led you nowhere. How long had it been since we'd been laid off from that company that sold us down the river? Not even six months.

But at the same time, he had been growing more and more hopeless. More and more bitter. "I think I agree with your father," I finally said. My words were tentative, testing his reactions. "To move forward cautiously, but I'm not so sure you should turn it down."

"I'm not either, really. But as I said, I don't know."

I shut my eyes and let out a deep breath. Should I say it? I had said it yesterday—about his stagnating and my worries—but had he listened? I swallowed before I opened my mouth. "I mentioned earlier that I was worried about you stagnating."

"Mmmm, you've said that."

I felt like kicking myself. It was more of a dismissal than an acknowledgment of what I had said. I should have just kept my mouth shut. This really wasn't my business, what he did or didn't do. "So anyway, I hope it all goes well for you."

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See the difference?

Got any interesting dialog from your stories to share? Please post.

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Coming over the next few weeks I will write about how to create powerful dialog in your stories by filling out the following topics:

Short, Sweet, & Pungent
Realistic Voices
Unique Dialog of Unique Characters
Gluing Dialog Together with Prose


  1. There's a really interesting point here; since the conversation was IM, you are doubly blind to what was going on in Mr. Whoever's head.

    As an author in third person, you would have been able to write that Mr. Whoever's mind was ALSO churning, and not dismissive, perhaps, but distracted... trying to make possibilities fit the reality of the situation.

    But in first person, you can't know that. Similar to the problems of an IM; you can't know what the other person is thinking, feeling, or emoting on his or her face at the time he or she makes a comment.

    Very interesting stuff to explore.

  2. You make some very good points, Mr. GergisKhan. The story was written so that you can only see the outside of Mr. Whoever--his facial expressions and body language. Done well enough, the reader should be able to see much of what goes on his head without the author telling them.

    But what you said about third person narrative needs some revision. In third-person, omniscient narrative (where the author/god is the narrator), you could discuss what each character is thinking. But this is no longer a popular method with publishers.

    Generally speaking, third-person, objective narrative, where the view is limited by the perspective of one character, is a more popular choice.

    Thanks for sharing. I appreciate the additions of what you had to say, and you made a very good point.


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