[Tipster] How to Use Dialogue in Your Book

tipster post Aug 04, 2023

I loaned my sister a book last week.

She was in a reading slump. So, I offered her a romance novel I thought she might enjoy.

The first night she read, she told me she was skimming sections. She was only reading the dialogue. I told her I understood. I’m guilty of doing it too.

But a part of me was gutted by her initial disinterest. I thought that was a sign my sister wouldn’t like the book.

She finished it in a week. A record for her. And now she wants to buy her own copy.

From the dialogue alone, the book is now a favorite of hers.

Dialogue is one of the four pillars to great scene-writing. It relays important information, introduces tension, engages your story’s characters, advances the plot, and creates mood.

But too many writers struggle to write compelling dialogue.

Dialogue Must Move Your Story Forward

Dialogue must fall into one of two categories: 1) It moves the story forward, or 2) It reveals information pertinent to the story’s plot. Dialogue can also fall into both categories.

A few years ago, I read a manuscript with a dinner “scene.” The FMC (female main character) was meeting the MMC’s (main male character’s) family. The conversation went like this:

“What are you ordering?"
“I was thinking the lobster. What about you?”
“The steak sounds good.”
“Do you eat here often?”
“We do.”

The “scene” then devolved into the MMC’s family asking the FMC about her career, personal life, etc. All things the reader knew from the 30-page lead up.

The “scene” was a recap. It was bland and boring because it didn’t propel the story forward.

If anything, it stopped the story.

(By-the-by, this is NOT a scene. To learn more about scenes, check out our blog posts here: Part 1 and Part 2.)

Dialogue is not an opportunity to recap what your reader already knows.

It is not an opportunity to provide impertinent background information.

Dialogue should move your story forward. And if you’re relaying information your reader already knows, then you’re slowing the story. And boring your reader. 

Dialogue Reveals Something about Your Characters

Dialogue shouldn’t be characters discussing the mundane—like sharing their favorite colors, talking about the weather, catching up on familial and friend drama. This type of dialogue is typically irrelevant to the plot and characters’ arcs.

Instead, dialogue should be used to reveal something about your characters.

But there’s a catch.

Dialogue should reveal something important about your characters. Something important about your characters that is relevant to the plot. 

One of my favorite book series is the Hunger Games. In the second book, Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta—our main characters—are trying to survive a politically fraught environment post-Hunger Games. They pretended to be in love to survive the Games, and now their relationship is rocky. 

They saved one another. And yet they know so little about the other.

A conversation ensues when they share their favorite colors.

I know what you’re thinking, “Didn’t you just say not to share ‘the mundane’?”

Yes. But this scene actually reveals important information about the characters, and it moves the story forward.

Katniss is mistrustful and private. She doesn’t share personal things about her life. Even something as simple as her favorite color. Her willingness to answer Peeta’s question, as well as her lack of hesitation and her amusement at his question, show an important development in their relationship. 

Not only is this the jumping point that allows their conversation to deepen and their relationship to shift from guarded wariness to trust, it also plays an important role in the third book, Mockingjay.

Kidnapped and tortured for weeks, Peeta is forced to work with Katniss. Except he can’t tell the difference between reality and hallucinations. He doesn’t remember why he befriended and loved Katniss. He thinks she knows nothing about him.

To help Peeta discern reality from hallucinations, Katniss tells Peeta simple facts about himself. One of these facts is his favorite color. But she doesn’t just say his favorite color is orange. She says it’s orange like the sunset. Because Peeta made it clear in Catching Fire that he liked a certain type of orange.

From this brief exchange, Peeta starts to realize Katniss does care for him. And the dialogue moves the story forward by establishing a plot-significant dynamic between our main characters.  

As you work on your manuscript, reassess your dialogue exchanges.

  • Do they move your story forward?
  • Do they reveal important information about your characters relevant to your story’s plot?

Now buckle up and write.
Allison Parks
Production Manager and Book Coach



Email: [email protected]