LOIS WINSTON – Let’s Talk Dialogue

USA Today and Amazon bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.”

In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry. Learn more about Lois and her books at her website, www.loiswinston.com where you can also sign up for her newsletter and follow her on various social media sites.

 Show, Don’t Tell. It’s common writing advice, but how do you “show” your story instead of “telling” it? Either through dialogue or active narrative (scenes where “stuff” happens.)

All dialogue in a novel should either advance the plot and/or tell the reader something she needs to know at that moment. If the dialogue doesn’t do either, it’s filler. Filler is deadly in a novel. It bores readers and drags down pacing.

There are paradoxes regarding dialogue, though. Although dialogue should sound natural and realistic, it should be written crisply. Most people speak with lots of extraneous words and interjections, often repeating themselves. Many of us occasionally uhm and uhr. Or stutter and stumble over words. Just because these are natural speech patterns for humans, with a few exceptions and minimal use, they shouldn’t be part of a book’s dialogue. No author wants to make readers shout, “Spit it out already!” and toss the book aside.

Dialogue should always be more than chit-chat. It needs to cut to the chase, not be loaded with banal pleasantries.

Tag lines (he said, etc.) should only be used when it would confuse the reader not to use them. If the dialogue is between two characters, tag lines are extraneous because it’s obvious who is speaking. The dialogue alternates between the two characters.

But here’s another paradox. You don’t want talking heads. Body language and narrative should complement the dialogue within the scene. For instance, if a character has a nervous habit of jiggling the change in his pocket when he’s lying, the change jiggling is a tell and should be mentioned. If it’s included simply to break up dialogue, it’s filler and doesn’t belong.

Use adverbs sparingly. They have their place, but a descriptive verb trumps a generic verb + adverb every time.

Characters should never describe themselves. When you brush your hair, do you think to yourself that you’re brushing your long, wavy brown tresses? No, you just brush your hair. The same holds true for your characters. For example, if she’s angry, you can enhance her anger by having her forcefully brush her hair, but she wouldn’t forcefully brush her wavy brown tresses. Describe characters through the eyes or dialogue of another character and only when it enhances the scene.

Dialogue must also ring true to the setting and period of the story. A book set in sixteenth-century Scotland won’t use dialogue common to nineteenth-century Scotland or twenty-first-century America. A scullery maid won’t speak like an aristocrat. The same holds true for the characters’ internalizations. What they say and how they say it or think it is equally important.

However, this doesn’t mean you should be writing in the style of Chaucer if your story is set in the fourteenth century. Research needs to be balanced with common sense. A sprinkling of dialect goes a long way to add richness to your story without confusing readers.

Additionally, if you’re writing a story set in fourteenth-century Ireland, you shouldn’t be using words and phrases that didn’t come into use until the twentieth century. A farmer wouldn’t describe his thatch-roofed cottage as being as cold as the inside of a freezer when freezers won’t be invented for another 600 years.

The following snippet of dialogue from Sorry, Knot Sorry, my latest Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, illustrates the points I’ve made above. The scene takes place at the offices of a TV production company. Anastasia, her husband, and her attorney are in a conference room speaking with the owner of the company:

He turned back to me. “This is the first I’ve heard of you. Leave me a copy of your book. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised, but don’t expect the kind of option offer you received from my former intern. We’re a small startup with limited funds. Most of our options are only for a few hundred dollars. We negotiate beyond that after we receive financial backing and a studio commitment.”

“There is no book,” I said.

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re a journalist?”

“I’m a magazine crafts editor.”

“We don’t produce craft shows.”

“No problem. I wouldn’t want to be on one.”

He threw up his hands. “Then why on earth are you here, Ms. Pollack?”

“I’m a dead body magnet.” I went on to explain my status as a reluctant amateur sleuth and the series of podcasts the kids had created. “Your intern wanted to option the podcasts for a TV series.”

The dialogue moves quickly, and the writing is tight. Although there are other people at the meeting, there is only one tagline because once I establish that the producer is speaking to Anastasia, no others are necessary. The conversation then alternates between the two of them.

The body movements are minimal, the first to establish that the producer turned to speak to Anastasia, the second to enhance his frustration over the conversation. The last piece of dialogue is broken up with a summarization sentence because it’s not necessary to repeat what the reader has already learned prior to this point.

Always remember, crafting dialogue is as important as crafting engaging characters and a page-turning plot.

Sorry, Knot Sorry – An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 13

 Magazine crafts editor Anastasia Pollack may finally be able to pay off the remaining debt she found herself saddled with when her duplicitous first husband dropped dead in a Las Vegas casino. But as Anastasia has discovered, nothing in her life is ever straightforward. Strings are always attached. Thanks to the success of an unauthorized true crime podcast, a television production company wants to option her life—warts and all—as a reluctant amateur sleuth.

Is such exposure worth a clean financial slate? Anastasia isn’t sure, but at the same time, rumors are flying about layoffs at the office. Whether she wants national exposure or not, Anastasia may be forced to sign on the dotted line to keep from standing in the unemployment line. But the dead bodies keep coming, and they’re not in the script.

Craft tips included.

Find Buy Links at https://www.loiswinston.com/sorry-knot-sorry.



  1. Nancy Lynn Jarvis

    Great, informative article, Lois. Thanks for having her, George.

  2. Peg Roche

    Always great advice, Lois. Thanks for the reminders!

    • Lois Winston

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Peg.

  3. Donnell Ann Bell

    Well done, Lois. Among your other talents, dialogue is among them. Thanks, George!

    • Lois Winston

      Thanks, Donnell. When I write, I usually get the dialogue down first, then go back and add the narrative.

  4. M.E. Proctor

    Good point about dialect. A little goes a long way. I find myself getting irritated by regionalisms after a while. I read a Southern grit lit novel recently, and I thought if I see the word Deddy (for Daddy) once more I’m going to scream! It’s OK when people talk. It really grated in the narrative sections, what’s wrong with saying father????

    • Lois Winston

      M.E., I suppose the author was going for authenticity. Daddy seems quite common in the south, no matter the age of the offspring. We all have pet annoyances, and I certainly have mine. I find when the annoyances start taking over the enjoyment of the read, it’s time to move on to another book. I’m not someone who feels compelled to finish every book I begin.

  5. Lois Winston

    So glad you found the article useful, Barbara!

  6. Barbara Hodges

    Love your examples. It’s the way I absorb what I learn.

  7. Michael A. Black

    Excellent tutorial on the art of writing dialogue, Lois. You should write a book on writing techniques. Best of luck to you with your new one.

    • Lois Winston

      Thanks, Michael. I did write a writing book quite a few years ago. Top Ten Reasons Your Novel is Rejected is filled with what I learned from working at a literary agency for 12 years. The book probably needs updating at this point, though.

  8. Pamela Ruth Meyer

    This post provides so many excellent pointers for writing dialogue. THANK YOU, George and Lois. I love the ‘freezer’ example. Do you find that not only dialogue but also the narration in and around the dialogue has to be true to the world the author creates? For example, the fourteenth-century farmer wouldn’t SAY ‘cold as a freezer,’ but the narrator wouldn’t make such an analogy either. Right?

    • Lois Winston

      Hi Pam–
      No, the narrator would definitely not use language that wasn’t around at the time of your book’s setting. However, keep in mind, you never want to write in omniscient voice. It’s archaic. Although it is sometimes used in literary fiction, even to this day, I wouldn’t recommend it. When you’re writing narrative, it should always be through the eyes of one of your characters.

  9. Gay Yellen

    A good, concise primer, Lois.

  10. Lois Winston

    George, thanks so much for hosting me today!


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