How To Use Dialogue To Show And Not Tell


Writers Write creates resources for writers. This post will show you how to use dialogue to show and not tell.

How To Use Dialogue To Show And Not Tell

Writing dialogue might just be my favourite thing in the world and it is the simplest way to go from telling to showing. The moment your characters start talking to each other you have an action scene. A scene where things happen. You have movement. You have body language, you have them interacting with their setting. You have a scene that engages a reader.

You don’t really want to write about a guy lying in bed thinking about his day, do you? No, you want to write about a guy who wakes up, spills his coffee, drives into his gate, misses his meeting, but then meets the love of his life. You need action, and dialogue forces action. It advances the story, gives us much-wanted white space, and it helps us to show character.

Example 1:

Sarah sank to her knees on the bathmat. She couldn’t believe it. He had just proposed and she blew it. She was clutching her towel, trying to minimise the dripping water from her hair. If only he’d ask again. She would get it right. How could she mess this up? This was why she put up with him. She just didn’t expect it in the shower. The bridesmaids’ dresses that filled her closet filled her heart with agony. Everyone was getting married. She’d be the only one left. He must ask again. She dried the water that had dripped on the floor. He hated it when she dripped on the floor. She shuddered. She was going to have to do ‘the thing’. He had to ask again.

Example 2: 

“Will you marry me?”
Sarah froze, one foot on the tiny bathmat, the other still dripping in the shower. She clutched her towel, trying to compose her features. Tears threatened. Not like this.
“Yes.” She whispered.
“You hesitated.” He stomped back to the bedroom.
“You caught me off guard.”
“You hesitated. You don’t love me.”
She gritted her teeth.
“James, I do love you, but I am also getting out of the shower, trying hard not to drip on the floor.”
“So, you care more about the floor than you do about me.”
“Last week you threatened to throw me out the house if I dripped water on the floor.”
“Well, I wasn’t proposing last week.”
“James, I love you and yes, I do want to marry you.”
“I don’t want to marry someone who cares more about the floor. I take it back.”
“You can’t a proposal back.” She shrieked. All pretence gone.
“It’s my proposal and I can take it back.”
“Baby, James. Please.”
Sarah took a deep breath. She had to do this. The gaudy chintz of the bridesmaids’ dresses peeped out of the cupboard, two pink, one blue and one a particularly unfortunate shade of orange. She was so close. Dammit. She was going to be the only one left.
“No, I take it back and I am not asking again.”
There was only one thing that would save her now. She suppressed a shudder as she dropped her towel and whispered, “James.”

Analysis

Ok, so it is safe to say that Sarah and James do not have a healthy relationship, but can you see how much more you know about them after reading the second example? His OCD-ish tendencies? Her desperation?

We rely on interior thought to tell a lot of our story. If we make our characters talk, we force them to voice their opinions out loud. We force them to become real. We increase the conflict. We make them hide behind their words. We make them give themselves away.

Often we find our characters alone in a scene. Guard against this. Lengthy solo scenes will make you lapse back to telling. Make them phone a friend if it is physically impossible for them to be near someone. Make them talk to the barman, the waitress, the guy at the gas station.

Unless, of course, they are schizophrenic. Then let them talk to themselves.

[Remember that there are times when you should tell and not show. Follow the link to read more: 5 Instances When You Need To Tell (And Not Show)]

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

 by Mia Botha

This article has 3 comments

  1. Kristina Stanley

    Making a character talk to a pet is another way to add some dialogue to a scene where the character is alone. He/she could use any animal really, a squirrel, a bird, whatever happens to be in the neighbourhood. Then the character doesn’t look crazy. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Chloe Osborn

    I think I live on this website now…Any how, a example of description to add-on to the dialogue would be lovely.

  3. Mia

    Hi Chloe, thanks for the idea and keep up the writing.

Comments are now closed.