Dialogue Writing - A How To

Dialogue writing is the key to successful fiction writing. When writing any fiction, it is essential to incorporate dialogue into your narrative. The characters do not come alive until they speak. My advice to you is to read, read, read. See how other writers do it. Learn from the best.

Some authors, notably Robert Parker of the Spenser series and Elmore Leonard, a genius at the spoken word, move their stories along almost entirely via the words that their criminals and victims speak. Narrative and description are limited since reading these stories is like eavesdropping on the characters as they commit or solve their crimes.

These writers , each of whom died recently, had an “ear” for dialogue. They each know the language, slang, accent, dialect and speech habits of the characters they create.

Race, nationality, even gender can be detected simply by reading the dialogue. If profanity is required, they introduce it seamlessly, naturally, not for effect. Accents are woven into the geography of the story. Detroit? Boston? There are no false notes when these two contemporary authors put words into their characters’ mouths.

I like to imagine that Mr. Parker and Mr. Leonard spoke their stories out loud as they wrote their dialogue so that it stayed true to the ear. I decided to test myself to see if I could write a complete short story consisting almost completely of dialogue. The following is my attempt. Read with your ears. Listen and you may imagine more than you think possible.


by Kathy Coogan

“Have I told you this morning how much I love you?” Charles asked, coming up behind Mary Ann as she stood at the bathroom sink.

“Yeah,” Mary Ann said, as she let the water run colder onto the wash cloth.

“I do, you know,” Charles said, pressing himself hard up against her.

“I know,” Mary Ann said.

“Tell me you love me, too,” said Charles, looking into her eyes in the mirror.

She bent and held the cold cloth over her face. “I love you, too,” she said into the wash cloth.

“To my face, Sweetheart, tell me to my face,” said Charles,

She straightened up and looked into the mirror, “I love you, too.”

“Say it like you mean it, Sweetie,” Charles said.

“I mean it,” Mary Ann said.

“No, say ‘I love you, Charles,’ like you mean it.”

“I love you Charles,” said Mary Ann.

“That’s better, Babe. Put some more cold water on it.”

“I will.”

“It’ll make the swelling go down.”

“I know.”

“You won’t be able to see anything once you get your make-up on.”

“I know.”

“Use that skin-colored cream you always use.”

“You mean the concealer?”

“Don’t get fucking smart with me, Mary Ann.”

“I’m not. That’s what they call it--a concealer--in the store.”

“Is that what you asked for? You went into the fucking store and asked for fucking concealer?”

“No. I, I mean I, I just got it off the shelf. At the drug store. I never said a thing. I would never say a thing.”

“Okay. Good. You know that if you were just more affectionate, this would never happen.”

“I know.”

“Look at me when you talk to me, Mary Ann.”

“I am.”

“Don’t argue with me.”

“I’m not.

“I said, don’t argue with me.”


“What? I didn’t hear you.”

“I said I’m sorry.”

“Don’t use that tone with me, Mary Ann.”

“I’m sorry, Charles.”

“That’s better, Sweetie. I hate it when we argue. I love you so much.”

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