Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Month: May 2016

From the Forge: Writing Dialogue in Fiction


  1. A furnace where metals are heated or wrought.
  2. A workshop where pig iron is transformed into wrought iron.
  3. To form by heating in a forge and beating or hammering into shape.
  4. To give form or shape to, especially by means of careful effort.


The problem that most of us have when we write dialogue is that we put too much on the page. We are driven by the need to be sure the reader “gets it.” That need leads the writer to fill in all the gaps. But what we are doing, in fact, is propping up dialogue that, if done well, doesn’t need the props. In writing dialogue, it is often true that “less is more.”

In the second chapter of Writing Dialogue, from Story Press, Tom Chiarella says, “Good dialogue rises out of the way a writer makes use of individual techniques, such as interruption, silences, echoing, reversals, shifts in tone and pace, idiom, and detail.”

We have all read good dialogue that uses these techniques, but may not have stopped to think about how they work. Let’s look at the first four of the techniques mentioned by Chiarella, which are fairly easy to demonstrate. Each of the following is a two-line dialogue between two characters:


“Look, you may not like it but—“

“No, I don’t like it at all.”


“Just tell me what the problem is.”

She looked away and said nothing.


“Stop, or I’ll punch your face.”

“Punch my face? And then what?”

Reversals are a little trickier: It might be when a conversation suddenly goes sour or goes in an unexpected direction or when one of the speakers drops a little bomb on the other:

“Tonight was the beautiful. Candlelight. Cabernet.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “Johnny, I’m leaving you.”

One of the best-known dialogues in all of short fiction, from “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway, shows how a master uses these four techniques. There are only two characters in the story, and the whole story is dialogue—an argument, the topic of which is never stated directly. The two characters are sitting at an isolated train station surrounded by desert, drinking, waiting for the train:

“I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do—“

“Nor that isn’t good for me,” she said. “I know. Could we have another beer?”

“All right. But you’ve got to realize—“

“I realize,” the girl said. “Can’t we maybe stop talking?”

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

“Doesn’t it mean anything you you? We could get along.”

“Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want any one else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“Yes, you know its perfectly simple.”

“It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it.”

“Would you do something for me now?”

“I’d do anything for you.”

“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

It doesn’t take long for Interruption to show up, twice in the first four lines. Silence appears not when a character doesn’t answer, but when the girl asks the man to stop talking in line four, followed by silence. Repetition occurs when the man says, “I know it’s perfectly simple,” and the girl replies, “Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.” And finally, there is a big reversal of expectation in the final two lines. Interruption, Silence, Repetition, and Reversal. Simple techniques that we can all use to strengthen dialogue.

From the Forge: Autobiographical Material in Fiction


  1. A furnace where metals are heated or wrought.
  2. A workshop where pig iron is transformed into wrought iron.
  3. To form by heating in a forge and beating or hammering into shape.
  4. To give form or shape to, especially by means of careful effort.


This morning I was reading Betsy Lerner’s book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, and in chapter three, “The Wicked Child,” she says, “You must give yourself permission to tell. Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it.” Lerner is telling us that the writing should touch a nerve.

In this chapter Lerner is talking about the particular problem writers have using biographical material in their fiction, the fear of offending Mom or Granddad or Aunt Myrtle when a problematic character is based on her. It’s a valid concern. People are sometimes offended by what is written. Lerner comes down on the side of telling. She says, “In order to tell the truth (and I don’t mean what happened in ‘real life’ in any conventional sense, but the emotional truth), to raise what is only hinted at, the writer [has] to risk his place at the [dinner] table, which is often too threatening.”

In writing fiction, the writer is not as much concerned with what actually happened with members of the family as she is with the story she is telling. As Lerner says, “Everything you put on the page is a deliberate manipulation of what happened” in order to serve the purposes of the story. It is a fiction, after all. But most writers know that autobiographical material cannot always be concealed. If she bothers to read the book, Aunt Myrtle will recognize herself. In fact, people who never entered the writer’s mind will see themselves too. If the writer’s fear of offending a friend or relative is greater than her devotion to writing a great story, then she may have to find another story.

Not every story has to be told. But if you are going to tell it, tell it well and tell it true. If “Aunt Myrtle” is the one who drove her son to commit suicide, that emotional truth is essential to the power of your plot. You can’t remake her as the old sweetie who was blindsided by her little boy’s shocking end. Family dynamics are one of the richest sources of dark conflict. And remember, “no conflict, no story.”


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