Write Great Fiction–Dialogue by Gloria Kempton

Dialogue is something most writers think they write well. We talk all the time. We consume huge amounts of spoken media via television and radio. Having a book turned into a movie is a badge of honor. Dialogue is easy. Dialogue is fun, both to write and to read. But was my dialogue doing all it could? I bought three how-to books on the subject, hoping that someone could teach me more than I could learn just by listening to the world. DIALOGUE, from the “Write Great Fiction” series was the best of the bunch, although I still haven’t found a truly helpful book on the art of writing dialogue.

A hundred pages into DIALOGUE, I still felt like I was reading an introduction. Dialogue can be used for pacing. Got it. It can be used for characterization. Check. It can increase the tension. Understood. Kempton uses examples from best-selling novels, really showing the reader how good dialogue works. I figured once she set down the foundation, she would move on to teaching how to write effective dialogue. It never happened. The entire book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to like in DIALOGUE, and after reading two horrid books on the subject, this one shines in comparison. Kempton explains why different genres have different dialogue requirements. She shows the importance of weaving action and narrative into the dialogue. She discusses the different personality types and how their motivations affect what they say. But none of that teaches a writer how to do the work, or how to edit something she already wrote. I can pluck any novel from my shelf and point to an example of pitch-perfect dialogue. As for getting those same results in my fiction? I’m on my own.

Near the end of the book is a tiny chapter about do’s and don’ts. Only there does Kempton write a section of bad dialogue and then show the reader how to fix it. The seven exercises at the end of the chapter are the only ones in the book worth doing.

I’m glad I read DIALOGUE, only because it confirmed what I already knew. Listening to people (both fictional and real) talk to each other is still the best way to learn how to write what they say.


rating: 2 stars


This book is best for: beginning writers


I recommend Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall instead of this book.


4 thoughts on “Write Great Fiction–Dialogue by Gloria Kempton

  1. Good to know. This has been on my shelves for ages, but I haven’t been able to get to it.

  2. Oh, man. Good dialogue is so hard. I struggle with it for sure. Glad to know about Kempton’s book, and thanks for taking the time to explain what works about it and what doesn’t.

    • Thanks for stopping by the blog, Lara!

      Apparently the only thing harder than writing good dialogue is writing a good book *about* dialogue.

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