Guest Blogger Kathy Carmichael

27 Apr

Bestselling author Kathy Carmichael is known for her award-winning romantic comedies and humorous mysteries. Her popular titles include Hot Flash, Diary of a Confessions Queen and her Texas Legacy Romantic Comedy series.

Kathy resides on Florida’s west coast, along with her Scottish husband, two not-so-wee-sons, and a bevy of cantankerous felines. Kathy’s romantic comedy, Hot Flash, was named as one of the top 10 Romance Fiction titles for 2009 by the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine. Please visit her website


No matter what genre or type of story, it’s important to use dialogue effectively.  Good dialogue gives a sense of movement to the story and increases the pacing.

Dialogue serves to move your plot forward.  Skilled use of dialogue increases conflict, exposes motivation and increases the story stakes.  Narrative can’t develop character in the same way that dialogue can reveal your character’s essence.

Tips for Creating Dynamic Dialogue

1. Envision the scene.  Pretend you’re the camera watching your characters in their setting.

2. Strive for no more than three pages of straight narrative.  You need dialogue to keep the reader from tiring.

3. A character talking to herself or an animal doesn’t count as real dialogue.  Dialogue is an interchange of either speech between two or more characters or a speech/physical reaction sequence.

4. Stand in front of a mirror.  Pretend the image you see is your POV (point of view) character and that you are the camera.  Read your manuscript aloud.  What is your character doing?  If she’s just standing there, then nothing is happening.  If she’s talking, reacting to another character’s dialogue, you’ll see that.  Those body/stage movements should be recorded in your manuscript along with the conversation.

5. Action sequences (moments of change) are “scene.”  The character’s reaction to the action/change that occurred in the previous action scene is “sequel.”  If it’s sequel rather than an action scene, you still don’t want your character static.  To keep the pacing from bogging down, a useful device for sequels is have it occur during conversation scenes or interspersed within action scenes.

6. Long paragraphs of unbroken narrative are harder for the reader to read and can slow the pacing.  Can you put some of it in dialogue?

7. Shorter sentence structure in the narrative can convey a sense of action or faster pacing.  You won’t want to use this all the time, but it can really speed up a slow scene and increase the pacing of your dialogue.

8. Talk your scenes into a tape recorder.  Listen to your dialogue on playback to see if it sounds natural and not stilted.  Strive to make conversations have a natural ebb and flow.

9. Listen and watch the people around you.  Restaurants are very good for this.  Conversation is give and take.  Often speakers are interrupted and sentences are incomplete or fragmented.  There aren’t generally long pauses during these conversations, so, too, you shouldn’t have long pauses except for intentional ones during your dialogue/action scenes.  Narrative (internal thought and description) creates pauses in the action.

10. Your job as a writer is to show the story rather than narrate it.

11. Ignore all of the above whenever story requires it.  The story itself is of primary importance and trumps all rules or guidelines.

12. Buy a second copy of a beloved book and four different colors of high-lighter markers.  Go through and highlight the dialogue with one color, description with another, internal thoughts with a third, and action/body movements/stage direction with the fourth.  After doing this for a few chapters, you’ll get a feel for the balance between these elements.  Then take a couple of chapters of your manuscript and do the same.  You’ll then have a visual of where you’re off and what element you’re using instead of dialogue.  Nine times out of ten, it’s because you’re not taking the time to fully develop each scene — instead you’re telling the scene in narrative.

13. Avoid summarizing action and dialogue.  Show it.

Here’s an example of what you shouldn’t do:

As Mary took her seat in the crowded classroom, the teacher placed the notes on the overhead projector and began to read from them.  He stopped for a moment and chastised her for being late again, then told her to stay after class.  As he read some more, she bit her lip, worried that he’d find out she wasn’t really a student after all.

Here’s an example of what you might consider doing instead:

Mary entered the darkened classroom, fumbling for a chair.  The teacher read from his notes on the overhead projector.  Suddenly he stopped, then spun and glared at her.

“Late again, I see.”

“I’m sorry, Professor.”  She ducked her head, hoping that in the dimly lit classroom he couldn’t see the blush rising on her face.  She hated lying.  She hated living a lie.

“Do you have an excuse?”

“No,” she rasped out.  “Sorry.”

“You will see me after class.”


“And don’t be late again,” he warned, his voice imbued with that deadly tone known only to college professors used to having their commandments obeyed.  He went back to reading his notes aloud.

She bit her lip.  She simply had to keep her cover for a little longer.  It was imperative that he not find out she wasn’t really a student.

14. An exercise: write a three page scene using nothing but dialogue.  You only have the words to convey setting, who the characters are and their emotions.  Because it’s pure dialogue, for the purpose of the exercise, it’s okay to venture into melodrama territory.  Here’s a possible scenario: Man and woman seated in busy restaurant and woman’s goal is to dump the man.

Use the tips above to give your dialogue that zing of reality.  It’ll make your characters spring to vivid life.


Posted by on April 27, 2012 in Idaho, writing, writing craft


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10 responses to “Guest Blogger Kathy Carmichael

  1. Janis McCurry

    April 27, 2012 at 7:09 AM

    “A character talking to herself or an animal doesn’t count as real dialogue.” This is a good reminder not to rely on this convention. I am seeing it more and more in books. Great practical example of dos and don’ts. I plan to complete the exercise and see where I end up. Thanks for guest blogging on Gem State Writers, Kathy.

  2. Kathy Carmichael

    April 27, 2012 at 7:22 AM

    Hi Janis,
    Thank you so much for inviting me today 🙂 It can be really tempting to write sequel in this way, and for every “rule” there’s an exception, but if you can find another way to get the information to the reader that’s more active, then it’s a better choice 🙂

    I’ll check back in later today to see if anyone has any questions for me.

  3. ramblingsfromtheleft

    April 27, 2012 at 7:47 AM

    Kathy, as a big fan of GSW I am happy to meet you and read your post on dialogue. It tends to be my strong suit only because I am a compulsive over-talker and most who love to talk, also love to listen and ease drop. I find my best characters in supermarkets, lunch counters and in NYC when I rode the subway.

    Since I see you are also a lover of dialogue, I’d like to ask: How do you separate the dialogue to avoid a run away train of “speak” which can be as bad as too much backstory or prose? Thanks again for the visit 🙂

    • Kathy Carmichael

      April 27, 2012 at 1:27 PM

      Thanks! It’s nice to meet you, too.

      I think it’s important for a reader to be able to follow who is speaking, but too much attribution for dialogue can slow the pacing. It’s a tough balance, but I always sin on the side of reader clarity. However, when it’s only two people talking, I often have snatches of pure dialogue as long as the reader can easily follow which of the two is doing the speaking. I often use action tags rather than dialogue tags as well.

      I hope this makes sense! And viva la dialogue!

  4. Liz Fredericks

    April 27, 2012 at 8:08 AM

    Kathy, this is great! Your suggestions on considering balance are so timely for me. That’s a rather special aspect about this blog. Between the blogs and the comments, exactly the right message comes through to hit a need or help one define a problem. Thank you . . . and, as a college professor, I really like learning about the ‘deadly tone’ – it explains so much. I should observe, however, the effect is lost upon one’s own children. 😉

    • Kathy Carmichael

      April 27, 2012 at 1:32 PM

      LOL Liz!

      Sometimes I think my kids don’t hear a word I say. Then sometimes they surprise me by repeating something I thought they hadn’t heard. Perhaps they don’t want us to know they are listening 🙂

  5. Meredith Allen Conner

    April 27, 2012 at 8:16 AM

    Great suggestions and advice. Thanks for blogging today!

  6. stephanieberget

    April 27, 2012 at 9:10 AM

    Thanks Kathy, this has given me some very important pointers. I’m off to the WIP to check out my dialogue.

    • Kathy Carmichael

      April 27, 2012 at 1:34 PM

      Hi Stephanie! Thank you. I hope your WIP is perfectly balanced and the dialogue sings 🙂


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