Monday, March 3, 2014

How to Write Great Dialog

Lorna: My guest today is James Callan. I had the privilege of reading his latest book, How to Write Great Dialog, before it was published. I recommend it for all writers. Welcome, James.

First, let me thank Lorna for inviting me. She asked that I give a little summary of my latest book, How to Write Great Dialog (Oak Tree Press, 2014).

First I discuss what I call “natural” dialog, what we hear every day, on the street, in the post office or grocery store, at church, and at home. And then I talk about how this is different from “novel” dialog, what you put into a novel. Novel dialog must be better, tighter, more powerful than natural dialog.

As an example, ask yourself how many times you’ve thought of a great response to someone, but too late. For the novelist, it isn’t too late. The novelist can put it in tomorrow or next week. She can select the right word, even if she has to check her thesaurus. The novelist can make it better.

I discuss what dialog must do. It is generally agreed that dialog should either advance the plot or enhance the reader’s understanding of a character. Here and throughout the book, I give many examples to illustrate the ideas.

The three types of dialog are outlined: regular dialog, summation dialog, and internal dialog.

Regular dialog can do many other things, such as setting the scene, creating tension, providing foreshadowing, showing relationships, and other aspects of the novel. And it can do these and still meet the requirement of advancing the plot or our understanding of a character.

Summation dialog is just what its name says. It summaries what has happened. But I tell you what this type of dialog can and cannot or should not do.

I spend a good bit of time on internal dialog, what I call the Super Dialog. I give the three reasons why it is so important, and of course, include many examples.

You often hear you should have conflict on every page. I explain just how you can do that using dialog. Here are three examples from my suspense book A Ton of Gold (Oak Tree Press, 2013).
“No. He did not dump me.” (A minor conflict or disagreement).

“I shouldn’t have done that, Crissie.”
“My name is Crystal.” (This shows tension between two people.)

“I’ll go ask if she wants to see you.”
“Mr. O’Malley, I’ve known Crystal a lot longer than you have. I probably understand her and her feelings better, too. I’m going to offer my sympathy. And you can stay here.”
(Here, we’ve established real tension between these two men.)

All three of these put conflict on a page through dialog. This is a perfect example of showing not telling.

Attribution is often discussed at writer’s groups. I go into how and when to handle this. This is important as it shows ways to make the book read smoothly.

I talk about the importance of establishing a dialog signature for your major characters. This is an area often overlooked, yet very important.

Briefly I cover the need to consider the audience the speaker is addressing. It isn’t enough to consider the speaker. You must also take into consideration the hearer. There is a chapter on the use of dialects and accents, how to handle them and not slow the reader.

And last, I give the basic rules of the road. How do you correctly handle the punctuation in various situations? These seem simple, but today, many books are printed with gross mistakes in this area. For example, when does a question mark go inside the quotation mark and when does it go outside.

To help clarify many of the concepts, I have included over 80 examples. To cement the ideas, I’ve added in 40 exercises.

Thank you, Lorna, for having me on your blog. I hope your readers find this information helpful.

James R. Callan

After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing.  He wrote a monthly column for a national magazine for two years, and published several non-fiction books.  He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mystery/suspense, with his sixth book releasing in Spring, 2014.
Amazon Author page:
Twitter: @jamesrcallan

A Ton of Gold, (Oak Tree Press, 2013)
On Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions:

How to Write Great Dialog, (Oak Tree Press, 2014)
On Amazon in paperback:


  1. Thank you, Lorna, for inviting me to your blog. I consider it an honor to be among writers like you and your husband.

  2. James, We have spent most of the week at the hospital with Larry's best friend and his wife. Sorry I didn't get the notice sent until today. But this will be up for another week. I hope lots of writers will read your book!

    1. Sorry to hear a good friend required the hospital. I hope all turned out well. And again, thank you for not only hosting my post, but for your very generous words about the book.

  3. Interesting and helpful blog.
    JL Greger, author medical thrillers- Ignore the Pain & Coming Flu

    1. Thanks for stopping by. It's a good book.

    2. Thanks for stopping by, Janet. Glad you found the blog helpful.

  4. Thanks Lorna for posting this on your blog. I think it is a book I'll order. And thanks James for providing us with the opportunity to learn more about effective writing. Beryl

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. The book is very well done!

    2. Thanks, Beryl, for your nice comment. I hope you found some helpful ideas in the blog.

  5. James, this is such an important topic, the heart of a novel is how well the dialog flows and reveals. Thanks for the brief summation. Fortunately, I will soon have your book for more detail and support!

  6. Sharon, I recommend this one to all my editing clients.