Writing Exercise – Dialogue

by | May 6, 2012 | Writing Exercise | 2 comments

By Ashley Lister

My wife informs me there are four types of orgasm.
The Positive Orgasm, characterised by the exclamation, “Oh! Yes!  Oh! Yes!”
The Negative Orgasm, suggested by cries of, “Oh! No!  Oh! No!”
The Religious Orgasm, identified by exclamations such as “Jesus!  God! Jesus!” and the Fake Orgasm, typified by the words, “Oh! Ashley!”

Dialogue in fiction serves three main functions:

  • Dialogue advances plot.
  • Dialogue demonstrates character.
  • Dialogue shows relationships.

Dialogue is one of the main challenges that needs to be mastered for anyone wishing to write credible erotic fiction.  Connoisseurs of pornography repeatedly complain of unconvincing conversations and asinine interjections
spoiling the ambience of sexually explicit material.  Editors of erotica frequently bemoan the monological exchanges typified by banal exclamatories in erotic scenes.  No one expects the fictional participants of a sexually explicit encounter to exchange pithy views on Keats or Kierkegaard.  Yet most readers would prefer characters who can say something more insightful than, “Yeah, baby,” or “Oh! No!” or even “Oh! Ashley!”

It’s worth noting here that the current vogue in writing stands against the overuse of speech tags and modifiers in dialogue.  Whilst it is occasionally helpful to say, John complained; Jane asked; he stammered; or she exclaimed (etc), it is acknowledged that these verbs should be redundant if the dialogue has been well-crafted and is fulfilling its function correctly.

Consider the following:

Text 1

“What are you telling me?” John demanded.

Jane glared at him.  “I’m telling you that it’s over,” she bawled.

“It’s-” he began.

“Don’t make this any more difficult than it already is,” she interrupted.

He shook his head.  “I’m not making anything diff-”

She didn’t let him finish the words.  “Goodbye, John,” she said finally.

Text 2

“What are you telling me?”

“I’m telling you that it’s over.”


“Don’t make this any more difficult than it already is.”

“I’m not making anything diff-”

“Goodbye, John.”

The modifiers in Text 1 slow the pace of this exchange. In the first line, “What are you telling me?” John demanded, it can be argued that John demanded is redundant. John is asking an explicit question and these are not usually ‘whispered’ or ‘said huskily’ or ‘ muttered whimsically.’ The reader should be able to infer from the heated nature of this exchange’s opening that John is demanding an answer. Telling the reader this much borders on being too expository and writing beneath the readers’ abilities to understand the narrative.

Similarly, in lines 3 and 4, it can be seen that the modifiers are unnecessary.

“It’s-” he began.

“Don’t make this any more difficult than it
already is,” she interrupted.

Because the reader will understand that John has been interrupted – a fact implied by his single word utterance, ending in an abrupt en-dash – there is little need to tell the reader that John has been interrupted. This over-explaining carries connotations of the annoying tautology found in exchanges such as:

“Why don’t you smile?” asked Jane, urging John to smile.

“I am smiling,” said John, smiling.

Perhaps the most intrusive redundancy in Text 1 is the last line.

She didn’t let him finish the words.  “Goodbye, John,” she said finally.

All the previous arguments against overexposing the interruption can be applied to the first sentence in this line.  John’s previous utterance finished halfway through a word and ended with an abrupt en-dash.  Whatever Jane says after that is almost certainly an interruption.

The sentence could have effectively ended with Jane saying, “Goodbye, John.”  The final three words, ‘she said finally’ are unnecessary and potentially confusing. We already know that Jane is saying these words so there is no need for the author to tell us ‘she said’ them. We also know that they have been spoken at the end of the exchange so
there was no real need for the word ‘finally.’ In some ways this provides a dead-cat bounce: the initial impact of the statement being followed by an unneeded echo that does not offer the reader anything new and dilutes the finality of the original statement.  This is the author being overly indulgent at the expense of the story and the characters.
In this argument Jane should be given the last word but the author has taken that privilege away from her.

Having said all of the above, the conservative use of modifiers does help to ascertain the identity of the speaker.  Modifiers can also convey additional meaning that is not explicitly or implicitly present in the reported speech.  In line 2 of Text 1, the reader is shown that Jane glared at him.  This is necessary information for providing story detail.  Without this information the reader doesn’t know if Jane is avoiding eye-contact or fighting back tears of regret or shampooing her hair and considering a henna rinse.  Because no one glares at people when they are joking (or doing anything other than being part of a confrontation) the single verb is giving the reader a lot of detail about the vitriolic nature of this exchange.

As with all matters in creating enjoyable fiction, the onus is on the writer to present a clear and unambiguous text for the readers’ interpretation and entertainment. And, as with all erotic fiction, the essential point is to keep thinking about the reader with every word that’s written.

Ashley Lister

Ashley Lister is a UK author responsible for more than two-dozen erotic novels written under a variety of pseudonyms. His most recent work, a non-fiction book recounting the exploits of UK swingers, is his second title published under his own name: Swingers: Female Confidential by Ashley Lister (Virgin Books; ISBN: 0753513439) Ashley’s non-fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, including Forum, Chapter & Verse and The International Journal of Erotica. Nexus, Chimera and Silver Moon have published his full-length fiction, with shorter stories appearing in anthologies edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Mitzi Szereto. He is very proud to be a regular contributor to ERWA.


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Oh, Ashley! ;^)

    Excellent post. I've been struggling to improve my dialogue ever since I first started to publish. When I read the conversations in my first novel, I cringe. Not so much because of too many speech tags (though there's some of that too), but everyone talks in complete sentences, nobody uses contractions, and hence the dialogue comes across as stiff and pretentious (not my intention at all).

  2. Ashley R Lister


    I love doing dialogue lessons because they invariably prove to be so much fun.

    But I also think it's easy to be too harsh with dialogue. What works for one reader can fail abysmally for another. And, as you point out, we can be our harshest critics.


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