Is Dialogue Dooming Your Novel?

Many agents say they can tell how good a novel is going to be just by how well the dialogue is written. I've even heard some say they've rejected a manuscript solely because the dialogue was sub par. You can't afford for you dialogue to be less than the very best it can be.

There's a fine line between keeping your dialogue realistic and keeping it from being so realistic it's painfully boring. Much of an actual conversation in life is full of long pauses, short phrases, and annoying words like well and uh. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use these words, it just means you need to limit them.

The dialogue you choose to put in your book should be meaningful. If the conversation doesn't move the plot or the character arc forward, chances are you don't need it in the book. If your characters are talking about something pointless that's fine as long as there's a point to the scene itself. Perhaps the reader learns something important about their mannerisms, their beliefs, or principles. In this case the conversation can be light but still meaningful.

When in doubt refer back to the books you've read. Check out the dialogue. What do they put in and more importantly, what do they leave out? You can learn a lot just by paying attention to what you're reading!

For more on the subject check out Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages, it has a great section on dialogue:

And check out this guest article on dialogue on the Writer's Digest website:


  1. This is a great post! Something I needed to hear too. I forget how meaningful dialogue needs to be and often fill the pages with stupid quotes just to get the word count or make my self say "Hey, I wrote so many pages today" when it reality, I didn't do much! Now that I'm back on the writing horse after a little break, hopefully I won't forget and actually write meaningful stuff!

  2. It's true, bad dialogue can really ruin a story! I've been pulled out of a good story because the characters don't talk like people. It's one of those things that take practice. This might sound weird, but I think transcription really helps hone your ear for dialogue. When you have to write magazine or newspaper articles and quote people, it helps develop an ear for how people talk.

  3. I love dialogue. And I've found you can learn a lot about it just by listening to people on buses, trains, in diners and laundromats, and on the street. :)

  4. I have a love/hate relationship with dialog. I love it when it's good, but it's often a pain to get it that way. I write out troublesome sections like a screenplay and picture actors playing the parts. Did what they say sound stupid? Am I bored with this show and ready to turn off the TV? If so, then I edit and rethink until they say something that makes me sit up and go "oh yeah, I'd watch that!".

  5. Great to hear that you're getting back on the writing horse Harley!

    I love your point about writing for newspapers and such Portia! That's a great way to learn how to cut to the chase!

    Welcome Sarahjanye! I'm glad you found me! Fantastic tip about listening to people in everyday places. That's always a good way to get a feel for the flow of conversations.

    Lorel, great tip as well. I never thought of it in that context. Would I turn the TV off or change the channel. I'm going to try that!

    Thanks everybody, fantastic feedback!

  6. I used to be hell on well. Had to go back and delete every well in my mss after writing it. *g*

    My opinion: Dialogue needs to move the story forward. No tedious “how are you doing” “fine” lines should be in your book. And don’t have another character conveniently remind another character about his likes, dislikes or something that has happened in the past for a sloppy back-story dump.

    Thanks for the tips and links, Heather! Great as always!

  7. Me too! Repetitive words is a great thing to check for when your done with your manuscript. If it's a character trait no problem, but if it get's annoying or is an accident, then it's time to cut it!

    I couldn't agree more with the convo needing to move the story. No meaningless words! Every word must count! And using convo's for back story is a FAST way to get rejected. Good call on that one!


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