Les Edgerton & Two Tips to Take Your Dialogue to a WHOLE New Level–Part 3

Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton

Hey, Guys. You wanted to learn how to write AMAZING, PAGE-TURNING DIALOGUE, so I kidnapped  recruited the best. Les Edgerton has been so generous with his time and talent, and we are SUPER grateful. I promise to release Les back into the wild…eventually :D.

Take it away, Les!

Thanks for having me back on, Kristen! There were several things I neglected to talk about on dialogue in the first two posts, so I wanted to include them here. There are many other elements of good dialogue than posted here, but these are kind of important.

Now, here are the couple of things I neglected to cover in the first two posts.

Format with Tags

One is the format of dialogue with tags. I suspect that this one will draw as many responses from folks who don’t buy it as there were who resisted using “said” as dialogue tag verbs. It’s your choice—I’m just relaying the mindset of many editors.

It’s very simple. The accepted format for dialogue tags these days is “He/she/name said.” Almost always. What is considered archaic and musty is this construction: “Said he/she/name.”

About the only folks still using this latter format are some older journalists, some writers from other cultures (Canada comes to mind), brand names, and writers who haven’t kept up with current usages. Which leads me to make a big point—brand names—those authors with significant followings—can make every mistake in the book and get away with it. They’re beyond such limitations, simply because their readerships are such that publishers will accept just about anything they publish.

Stephen King could probably publish his grocery list and it would hit the bestseller lists… Although, King is such a terrific writer, he wouldn’t (and doesn’t) break very many of these rules and conventions. This is just to make you aware that many times brand name authors aren’t always the folks to go to for writing models. Simply because they can get away with things that unknown writers can’t.

The reality is, King can do things we can’t. Same goes for any brand name author. That doesn’t mean their work is valueless for instruction—it has immense value. There’s a reason they’re popular and it’s almost always the writing. But, always look at it with a grain of salt and become thoroughly familiar with the direction fiction is taking because there are popular authors who haven’t kept up and whose books, if modeled for your own efforts, may work against you.

Whenever I have a student point out an example in a published book that goes contrary to the advice I’ve given them, my first question is: “Is this from a brand-name author?” If it is, then I ask them to consider the source. And to gently let them know that while it may not be fair, it’s the reality that we (unknowns) have to be better in many ways that established writers with significant followings don’t have to be.

If anyone’s parents told them the world was fair, they did them a disservice…


The second thing I neglected to touch on is conflict. We all know that there has to be conflict on every single page of a novel for it to work, and this is especially true in dialogue. That’s why Q&A dialogue doesn’t work. There’s virtually no conflict in it.

I advise my novel writing students and clients constantly that the protagonist should never, ever gain anything easily, no matter how seemingly trivial the exchange is.

An example I give often is to tell them that if they have their protagonist stop a bum on the street to ask directions to a bar she’s pretty sure is a block or two away but isn’t sure in what direction, she should have the bum say something to the effect of: “Whadda I look like, Sweetpea? The frickin’ Chamber of Commerce?” And, then, either give up the info grudgingly or walk off and let her find her own way. The point being, never let the protagonist gain things easily. Never.

In dialogue, when the protagonist is trying to gain information, it should be like pulling teeth. Now, that doesn’t mean there should be a war created to gain a simple piece of information. The writer needs to tailor the conflict proportionally to the value of what she’s after.

In the example above, this is plenty. What she’s after is just a simple direction. It doesn’t rise to the level of WWIII. But… there should be at least a bit of conflict and resistance to gain her answer. When the information is valuable, the conflict needs to be ratcheted up in proportion.

This is one of the primary keys to creating tension and tension is the lifeblood of a successful novel. Nothing should be gained easily and the opposition to her gaining it should be proportional to the value it holds. The other primary key to a quality read is to keep posing story questions, one after another after another after another… ad nauseum.

I’ve barely touched on the subject, but hope there’s some food for thought here for most readers.

The main thing is—keep up on what passes for contemporary usages these days and keep those red flags to a minimum. And, remember, no one has ever written a perfect novel. Every single novel ever published has flaws. Perfection is an impossible goal. Can’t be done. Just get it as good as you possibly can and send it out. And begin on a new work and try to make it even “gooder.”

Remember: When you’re green, you’re growing. And, when you’re ripe, you’re rotten. Writing has changed greatly in the past ten-twenty years and it’s going to keep on changing. What I said here—at least some of it—will eventually be outdated. It’s one reason to keep reading voraciously and to keep reading craft books.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,


Les, THANK YOU SO MUCH. For my readers, Les will be back tomorrow with some final advice about your writing and your careers as authors, so I hope you’ll join us.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Les Edgerton is the author of HOOKEDTHE RAPISTTHE BITCH and others.


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  1. Thanks to Les Edgerton for all his terrific advice on writing dialogue. I know that I’m sometimes guilty of Q & A, and these posts have prompted me to delve back into my WIP and adding some misdirection to my dialogue exchanges.

  2. I LOVE the advice we’ve been getting from Les the past several days.

  3. It’s a pleasure to learn when things are said so directly, much enjoyed!

  4. Great thoughts to make the reciept of any information to the protagonist be hard and the more important, the harder. I have some work to do.

  5. Loved this one. Great advice. Thanks to you and Les.

  6. Love this! I was just writing a bit of dialogue this morning that just seemed soooo flat. It wasn’t crucial to the purpose of the scene, but I felt that I needed to include it. I think I’ll give my silent character something to complain about. 😀

    • laurel on April 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm
    • Reply

    Just what I needed to think about as I make changes to some bland sections of dialogue. Making the difficulty of gaining information correlate to its importance gives me a better Idea of how to fix it.
    Thanks to Les for the wise words, and to Kristen for sharing her friends and captives with us.

  7. Very good series. Thank you.

  8. Great stuff. I included the first two of this series as links on my blog this week (http://rosihollinbeckthewritestuff.blogspot.com/2013/04/double-giveaway-gingersnap-and-road-trip.html) and will link this one as well next week. Thanks!

  9. On behalf of all Canadians, I say, ‘Harrumph!’ … but seriously, thanks for these posts. Greatly appreciated.

  10. Man I just LOVE this:

    The second thing I neglected to touch on is conflict. We all know that there has to be conflict on every single page of a novel for it to work, and this is especially true in dialogue. That’s why Q&A dialogue doesn’t work. There’s virtually no conflict in it.

    Just keeping this in mind should improve everyone’s writing, right? The reader wants to read a story, an INTERESTING COMPELLING story. And this means there has to be high stakes and conflict all the time — not just in between lovely descriptions of stuff.

    • SamaLamaWama on April 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve loved this series, even posted a few reminders around my desk. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Les is the BOMB. He is so generous and brilliant and we are so blessed to have him. Thanks for taking time to comment and thank him.

  11. Kristen, thanks for getting Les to help us out. I am going to go find some of his work. As always, I am including the link on SAWG and SARA for FB. Thanks again. And thank you, Les. Awesome info..

  12. I’m thoroughly enjoying this advice. I have a question. Even though the ‘name brand’ authors can get away with things newbies can’t, do you feel their sales drop off if they don’t change with the times?

    I’m thinking of a particular author who pumps out a book a year. I love her columns in the paper and enjoy her on fb, but the last book I read was so blah. Is there pressure from publishers to produce a new novel a year? Or is this just because she makes enough money to live comfortably and as long as they’ll print it she’ll write it?

    I don’t mean to sound disparaging of her. The first few books were brilliant. It’s just become quite stale. Wouldn’t it be better if publishers and editors and agents held the ‘name brands’ to similar standards?

    1. Barbara, great question! And, it’s obvious sales begin to drop when brand names stay the same. The best ones don’t allow this to happen–King, for instance. But, sadly, others have and they’re no longer selling, at least as much as they did. As for if if it would be better if they were held to the same standards, actually, they are. The thing is, most have earned a pass or two by their past records and rightfully so. They’ve done what it takes to have earned capital. But, after a couple of stale books, they, too, are dropped. Happens all the time. Won’t name names, but it sounds as if you’re onto at least one of them. It all comes down to: When you’re green, you’re growing and when you’re ripe, you’re rotten. It pays all of us if we remind ourselves nobody has ever written the perfect novel but we should always strive to with each new book.

  13. It’s always great to get advice from those who know.

  14. I started writing “Lee said.” And it is a brand new complete sentence. It was with my very first completed novel several years ago. It was to see if it prevented the monotony of always saying “, said Lee.”

    But like you pointed out in Part Two, tags have to be written or assumed with other means to prevent confusion, so it becomes automatic and accepted by some readers, expected.

    I am back writing the conservative way of “, said Lee.”

    Someone wrote the advice to be consistent throughout the novel if you decide on a rule or follow trends of those published and extremely well-paid.

    The more I read it; the more the repetition is normal as much as redundancy. I do not stop to figure out who said the dialogue.

    Back to PART TWO, I have to watch my writing and try to remember if I pointed out which character is the MALE and which is the FEMALE.

    Lee is a male in my novels. He was not a former Miss America and TV Star.

    It started out with a dead guy named “BABOY” or pig in Filipino. He started a Filipino fast food called Baboy and Manok (pork and chicken), which gave him the nickname, and he became wealthy creating a reason or a motive for a murder. When I was trying to figure a name for the hero, I thought of Lechon or the Filipino roasted pig from head to tail with crackling skin so I decided to create a hero named LEE CHON – a Filipino-Chinese-American private detective.

    Creating the character, it helps me with creating the dialogues and the names become important.

  15. Awesome advice Les. I already do the tag thing as much as possible. Using “..said He/She/or whoever” just sounded unnatural to me. As far as the conflict part, this is something I didn’t realized made for good dialogue. I will definitely keep this in mind. May even go back a change some diaolgue in my current wip. Thanks, Les. (PS: Stephen King is my hero!)

  16. Les,

    Your dialogue series has been absolutely FANTASTIC! Thank you so much for sharing your writing wisdom with us! Looking forward to your final words tomorrow. 😀

  17. I’ve also thought that ‘he said, she said, they said,’ was too boring. But normally we eat, drink and sleep. Not devour, gulp or slumber….

  18. Whoa. Hold on a minute, as my mind has been blown. The problem I have, is that we are missing examples. So, we should write something like:

    “You are going to tell us where the body is,” Patrick said.


    Patrick said, “You are going to tell us where the body is.”


    I still see both ways as repetitive for dialogue tags, whether we have them before or after the “said”, but I think it makes more sense to say it the second way? ie. “Patrick said, ‘This is a test.'”

    1. “You are going to tell us where the body is,” Patrick said.


      Patrick said, “You are going to tell us where the body is.” “You are going to tell us where the body is,” Patrick said.


      Patrick said, “You are going to tell us where the body is.”

      — I would ask the publishing house if they consider the two sentences to be complete sentences and it might need a semi-colon or a period. Self-publishing gives you the freedom, but I think that each publishing house has HOUSE RULES on editing.

  19. P.s. don’t get me wrong, I meant that tags in general can be repetitive 😉 Les, thanks for the advice! Just want to know how is the right way of writing tags?

    • Christine Campbell on April 8, 2013 at 7:41 pm
    • Reply

    Very helpful. Thank you.

  20. Excellent point about the conflict! I need to do that more often with my conversations!

  21. “Stephen King could probably publish his grocery list and it would hit the bestseller lists…”

    The F.B.I. would appreciate it. They would not have to rummage through his garbage to find out his diet at home or the bills, which he pays or not.

    The F.B.I. sent me “a what to write”, but I decided to just put “bureau” in my novels. Scotland Yard as well sent an E-mail.

    The Secret Service wrote back to read their website.

    You have those that will tell you that they do not really care about the F.B.I. or Scotland Yard in FICTION, just the fictional story.

  22. Thanks Les, great tips and Kristen for bringing us all this craft knowledge.

  23. So useful and so timely! I really appreciate all the helpful instruction/advice. Though, I have to admit, probably the best advice I got from the page (not that it isn’t all good) was to simply make my work the best I can, send it out, and start working on another one! Thanks Les and Kristen!

  24. I like that: “When you’re green, you’re growing…” Don’t get used to anything because it’s going to change! I saw that you are going to be at the Crested Butte Writer’s conference in June. I’m going to be in the area on the 26th and thought about going early to catch the conference. Have you done this conference before?

    1. Margie, I assume ur addressing me. I have never done this conference before and am really looking forward to it :D. Will be great to meet you.

    • Matthew Ridenour on April 8, 2013 at 10:40 pm
    • Reply

    Great posts on writing dialogue. It always helps me to remember that characters are real people, and therefore will have real dialogue, and real emotion.

    • Aerisa on April 9, 2013 at 7:12 am
    • Reply

    Thanks for all the great tips & thanks Kristen for getting Les on board for a few posts. They’ve been super helpful.

  25. Great Advice – thank you!

  26. More good stuff.

  1. […] Les Edgerton & Two Tips to Take Your Dialogue to a WHOLE New Level–Part 3 | Kristen Lamb&#8217…. […]

  2. […] “When you’re green, you’re growing. And when you’re ripe, you’re rotten.”  Part 3 of Kristen Lamb’s guest post with Les Edgerton: http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/les-edgerton-two-tips-to-take-your-dialogue-to-a-whol… […]

  3. […] Edgerton: Two Tips to Take Your Dialogue to a WHOLE New Level. Excerpt: “Here are the couple of things I neglected to cover in the first two posts. Format […]

  4. […] Les Edgerton & Two Tips to Take Your Dialogue to a WHOLE New Level – Part 3 (warriorwriters.wordpress.com) […]

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