Robert Buckley

What You Say? Using Dialogue to Strengthen Your Stories

By Lisabet Sarai

It may be a bit presumptuous for me to write a craft-focused article about dialogue. Creating engaging, lively, believable conversations has never been one of my strong points. I did a major revision of my first novel a few months ago. I found the dialogue I wrote back in 1999 to be truly cringe-worthy. All the characters speak in full sentences, rarely employing contractions. They use each other’s names far more frequently than people do in real life. There are no pauses, no hesitations, no interruptions. As a result, the dialogue feels stiff, awkward and unrealistic.

I’ve learned a great deal since then, however. Some reviewers of my most recent novel, The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, have explicitly commented on the authenticity of the interactions between my hero and heroine. I’ve become far more conscious of the entire issue of dialogue, and more aware of my own weaknesses. In addition, I’ve come to understand the important roles dialogue can play in strengthening the story as a whole.

Dialogue can reveal and develop your characters.

Your readers learn a great deal about a character from what she says, as well as how she says it. Speech reveals education level, cultural background, and mood, in addition to shining light on the relationship between the partners in a conversation. What sort of vocabulary and sentence structure does the character use? What level of formality? How long are the typical sentences? Are there profanities expletives, emotional outbursts? Endearments? What about words and phrases like “maybe”, “in my opinion”, “you might not agree but” that indicate a power differential or a lack of confidence?

Here’s an example from “Fortune’s Fool”, by Robert Buckley (who is an absolute master of dialogue):

“Oh, Maleek, oh, can you do me a big favor, Oh, please, please, please …?”

“Tianna, baby, I’m on my break and I’ve done all the favors I’m doing for you for one week.”

She grabbed his meaty arm and nuzzled her delicate chin in the hollow of his massive biceps. “Oh, Maleek, honey, just this one favor?”

Damn, she’s good, I thought. Poor Maleek didn’t stand a chance.

“Ain’t no such thing as one favor with you, Tianna. Okay, what you want?”

“Take this guy up to CT scan for me so I can go see Terry Hanchuck.”

Maleek made a face and whined, “Oh, what you want to bother with that chump for?”

Tianna just smiled, her green eyes gleaming. Maleek just shrugged his shoulders, took hold of the gurney and guided it and its passenger onto the elevator as Tianna bolted away like a fawn.

Now Maleek was muttering under his breath.

“You hear anything about Hanchuck?” I asked him.

“Huh? Ah, well, sir, a friend told me his arm’s broken in four places. Looks like his career might be finished.”

“I guess he shouldn’t have disrespected Mr. Bubba Washington.”

Maleek’s face broadened into the widest smile I could imagine on a human. “Damn,” he said, “I thought I was the only one who thought like that in this town.”

“Serves the prick right,” I said. “Maybe he’ll have to get a real job now, like cleaning out pay toilets.”

Maleek’s smile became even broader and brighter. When we got to CT scan he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Be cool, man.”

After reading this snippet, I’ll bet you can tell me quite a bit about Tianna’s, Maleek’s and the narrator’s ethnicity, power relations, and personality. Tianna and Maleek are minor characters, but the effective dialogue brings them to life.

Dialogue can reveal history and advance the plot.

Novice authors have a tendency to write long passages of description or back story, which interfere with the forward motion of the narrative. Dialogue provides an effective alternative. Characters can mention past events as part of a conversation, seamlessly weaving back story into the current action. They can also comment on the environment or the appearance of another character, helping readers to visualize what’s going on in a more natural and integrated way.

Furthermore, speech is action. Conversations can generate or resolve conflicts, changing relationships or exposing secrets. Here’s an example from the story “El Pimientero”, by C. Sanchez-Garcia:

I picked up the pepper grinder and ran my finger over the black signature scrawled on the bottom. I am looking, I said to myself, with knowledge, at the autograph of a man who knows what she looks like naked. A man who has had his dick in her. A man who has fucked her. And then I knew who he was—who he really was.

“Doña , tell me about your first time.”

She began dropping pieces of okra into the oil. She stirred them with a fork.

“May I know?”

“I suppose.” She glanced at me sideways. “But only because it’s you. It’s between us.”

“How old were you?”

“Younger than you.”

“How did it happen?”

She watched the okra frying for a moment, then put down the fork. “In my father’s house.”

“Tell me please. What was it like?”

“We had a guest. He had been a friend of my father’s for many years. He was working in the movies, but he wasn’t famous then, not yet. But you knew he would be. His name was Gabriel.”

“He made love to you? How?”

“In the kitchen, just like this.”

“A kitchen?”

She put down the fork and leaned a little on the stove, looking me over, that wicked twinkle in her eyes. “You don’t think people fuck each other in the kitchen? The kitchen is a good place to fuck.”

The story of Doña Soledad’s first lover helps the reader to understand who she is and why she behaves as she does. It also foreshadows her encounter with the much younger narrator.

Dialogue can hook the reader.

I really admire authors who can write “snappy” dialogue—conversations that are more than realistic, conversations that make me laugh or yearn, that make me want to read more. Janet Evanovich, author of the Stephanie Plum mystery series, has this skill. I am seriously jealous.

Recently I hosted romance author Amy Armstrong at my blog. The excerpt she provided, from her paranormal novella A Hellhound in Hollywood, was so lively and funny that I went out and bought a copy of the book. I rarely do that. But she had me hooked. Here’s an example:

“You wouldn’t shoot me,” he said smugly, briefly glancing at the gun, his mouth twisting into a smirk. “And what’s more, you couldn’t.”

Now see? That pissed me off and I forgot about the instant attraction I felt toward him.

“Oh, I could,” I assured him. “And each time you open your mouth, it gets more and more likely that I will.”

He chuckled again, and this time, able to see the movement on his lips as well as hear the sound, produced an even stronger reaction in me. Arousal flooded my system. The masculinity that oozed out of him caused my pulse to accelerate and I was pretty sure my heart was trying

to beat its way out of my chest.

“You couldn’t,” he repeated. “You want to know why?”

I gritted my teeth. “Humor me.”

“Because the safety is on, and even if you did somehow get it off before I managed to get the gun out of your hand, you wouldn’t risk losing your job by shooting a fellow hunter.”

“A fellow…what?” I cocked my head to one side and lowered the gun a little. “You’re kidding me.”

I was usually great at sniffing out a lie, but I didn’t detect one.

That was a relief. For some strange reason, I didn’t want this beautiful man to turn out to be a liar. Arrogant jerk was bad enough.

A grin was his only reply—a really sexy grin—but I pretended not to notice it and continued to scowl at him.

“How do you know I’m a hunter?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Only hunters hang around in alleyways in the dead of night.”


“Or hookers,” he mused.

I was so furious that my glare, already frosty, must have turned glacial.

“Drug addicts or…”

“Okay, I get it. I get it. Good call.”

“Besides, you’re carrying a stake.”

I really wish I could write dialogue that could sell books with a single excerpt!

How can you write effective dialogue?

So here I am, five pages into this essay, and finally getting to the meat of my topic! I wish I could say I knew the secret to writing great conversations, like the ones I’ve quoted. However, all I can offer are some general recommendations, based on my own experience.

Listen to the way people really talk. Listen to people on the street, people on the radio, on TV and in the movies. Eavesdrop in coffee shops. Pay attention to the rhythm of real speech. Try to internalize it. I’ve found that my best dialogue comes when I “hear” my characters in my head and transcribe their conversations.

Allow your characters to pause and to interrupt one another. Real conversations are messy things. You don’t want to transcribe every “uh” and “um”, but used judiciously, this sort of expression can make your dialogue more realistic.

Avoid dialect, especially if it requires non-standard spellings or excessive contractions. To capture ethnicity, use word choice or word order. For instance, Bob Buckley’s excerpt suggests that Maleek is probably a black man without a lot of formal education, without using a single bit of dialect.

Use speech tags sparingly. The question of speech tags (“he said”, “she said”) is to some extent a matter of style. There are some cases where they’re essential, in order to clarify the identify of the speaker. A conversation where every utterance is attributed, though, starts to feel unnatural.

Use other actions to break up speech. All the examples I’ve cited do this, to a greater or lesser extent. Remember that people don’t usually just sit there talking. They do other things as they’re conversing, and frequently what they do, or the manner in which they do it, reveals additional details about the character’s state of mind.

On the other hand, composing dialogue-only flashers can be a great way to hone your skills in writing speech. Can you create a two-hundred word story that includes no speech tags, no action, nothing but quotations?

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from this type of exercise. Here’s a recent example—not exactly realistic, perhaps, but I think it clearly distinguishes between the characters, as well as explicating the plot!


By Lisabet Sarai

“Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”

“Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”

“No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”

“But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”

“To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”

“Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”

“We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”

“I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”

“All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“

“Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”

“But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”

“Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”

“You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”

“Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”

 Until next month…!

Sex-free Erotica

Once upon a time, I was nominated for a Silver Clitoride – seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. The story that prompted this honor didn’t have a single sex act depicted, no intercourse, no fellatio, no cunnilingus – none of the activities that most people, not including Bill Clinton, would define as actual sex. But enough readers thought it was erotic. Alas, not quite enough to push it over the top and earn me the coveted Golden Clitoride.

The story is a bit of a downer too; not only no sex, but it occurs on the very last day of a marriage of two “best friends” who had shared a bed for ten years, but are splitting because the woman has met her soul mate, a possibility each had accepted going into the marriage. The man won’t stand in the way of his wife’s/friend’s happiness, but on their last day together he offers to give her a backrub … yeah, a backrub … just a backrub.

Okay, you’re thinking, but backrubs can be sexy. Well, yes, any application of warm hands on bare skin can summon the blood to the erogenous zones. But anyone who gives a good backrub, and I unabashedly number myself amongst such artists, knows a backrub as foreplay has an inherent downside; it tends to put the recipient to sleep. If your partner cajoles you into giving a backrub, you have to know that you are investing in morning sex. For the nonce, you’re hugging your pillow out of frustration.

The woman in my story also falls asleep. She awakes feeling ten years younger, but also alone. He’s left the divorce papers on her kitchen table, signed, and taken his broken heart and moved on.

A friend pointed out to me recently that many of my stories don’t have sex scenes. I begged to disagree: “Ah, go on!”

But when I surveyed my story archive I was mildly astounded. She was right. Not that I can’t write an arousing sex scene, but I have to admit that when I do, they are work. Most depictions of the act, to borrow that running gag from “Betelgeuse,” read like stereo instructions. One could easily substitute the mechanics of a piston engine for a sex scene and I doubt anyone would be the wiser.

So not only have I come to a realization that I’ve been penning stories with no, or perfunctory sex scenes, it’s also occurred to me that I tend to read past those scenes in other’s books and stories. I suppose I should be drummed out of the ranks of erotica writers, but really, how many ways can you describe screwing? A novice may fall back on florid language – how many times have you read the term jackhammer used as a verb? But even old hands can slip into that trap. I admit to concentrating on the viscosity of pussy secretions to the point where I had to stop and think: He’s screwing her; he’s not changing her oil.

Actual sex is less important to me than how characters get to having sex, or not having sex. The best stories I’ve read unfold like extended foreplay, and I’d rather describe over multiple paragraphs how a man kisses a woman’s leg or licks her belly button. Oy! Don’t get me started on belly buttons.

I’m content to end a story with a hand slipping under a sweater, or a kiss applied to a knee exposed by a tear in a lady’s jeans.

But actual penetration? Hey, a paragraph will do.

And what if there’s no chance of penetration? I’m at an age now when things aren’t as easy, nor as frequent. Still, you like to think you’ll die in the saddle, or go down fighting. More than likely, you’ll have given up your guns long before you go knock-knock-knocking at Heaven’s door. And Viagra, with the myth of a hours-long erection? I’m convinced it is all a marketing ploy.

I’ve used erotica to look mortality in the face, imagining an elderly man who can still appreciate a young girl’s beauty and yearn for her. He’d rather yearn for her in vain than not feel anything. A form of masochism to be sure. Sex isn’t going to happen, and it doesn’t in that story. Is it erotic?

How about a couple holding hands on a bench savoring the sights of beautiful young women in summer attire? He’s a straight widower; she’s an elderly lesbian who has recently lost her partner of many years. Together they appear like any old couple slipping into their twilight, when in fact they’re a pair of friends who share a hobby. I dunno … you think that’s erotic?

Is there anything more erotic than a broken heart? I’ve peeked in on a couple, a guy and a girl, who are also best friends. And because he is the one person she trusts implicitly with her secrets, she asks him to give her an enema in preparation for the anal sex she plans to have with her boyfriend. It’s slapstick; but it’s also heartbreaking for her devoted friend. Erotic?

Over on the ERWA discussion lists we can count on the latest newbie to raise the question: what’s the difference between erotica and porn? And everyone sort of heaves a sigh and says, well, here we go again. I make no attempt at definitions. To borrow from Justice Brennan, I can’t define it, but I know it when I read it … and write it. And, you don’t have to agree.



2001 Golden Clitoride nominee

He had offered to massage her shoulders … a parting gesture. She had let him, knowing better, knowing where it would lead. Now she lay on her bed, on her belly, stripped to her panties as his hands roamed, not randomly, but deliberately over her shoulders, then down, thumbs pressing deeply but gently along her spine until the heels of his palms pillowed up against her tailbone.

His hands began their return track up her back, trailing a wake of friction … heat that saturated her flesh and sought out every knot, every muscle made tight by frustration, stress or anxiety. She felt herself dissolve under his hands and enter a state of total relaxation.

His hands pressed over her hips and up her sides. His fingers subtly ploughed the valleys between her ribs. Then farther up to where he kneaded the soft flesh just beneath her arm before sharply turning, pressing over her shoulder blade, a thumb and pinky finger gauging its width.

His cock grazed her right thigh like a velvet wand, dabbing and streaking precum that had already cooled at the tip. She wondered when he had shed his trousers, but in the state he had put her in, she hadn’t noticed much.

He could take her now. She would not, could not resist. Warm syrup flowed out of her pussy that would coat his cock and slicken its way to her pulsing center. He could also toss her over on her back as if she were a rag doll. Either way made no difference … she was open, unguarded, utterly pliant.

Her mind darted to the day they met. They had been tossed together, the only two responsible for an impossible task. They had cursed their lot with humor and teasing and shared the camaraderie of the “screwed over.” Somehow they had completed the project on deadline. Their superiors made them a permanent team.

They were the best of friends. Their bond was that of two people who had endured against the odds and met a challenge arm-in-arm. Friendship became something deeper and marriage seemed like a good idea at the time.

They had carried their teasing and humor into their married life. She believed in soul mates, and flatly pronounced that he wasn’t hers. They had laughed about it then, even though she said if she found her true soul mate she would be torn to leave him. He said he could accept it if it meant her happiness. They decided then that the odds were that they were stuck together in this lifetime, best friends, lovers and companions.

That was ten years ago. Today she had called him home from the apartment he had taken recently. The divorce papers were ready to be signed. In defiance of the odds, her soul mate had stepped into their lives. She knew immediately, and explained to her husband.

… “I feel complete with this man, I won’t be complete without him,” she said.

She told him even as the aroma of the sex she had shared with her lover lingered about her. He drew deep breaths of it and replied, “Looks like I’m yesterday.” He said it as a statement of fact, no bitterness, no anger. He was like that. He would not fight the facts.

He insisted on a no-contest divorce, one lawyer for both. He didn’t want to take anything out of the marriage. It was all hers. He would shed himself of her entirely, except the memories. He had already lined up a new job more than a thousand miles away. …

He had sensed her anxiety as she greeted him at the door. Before she even had a chance to make small talk, he said, “You’re a bundle of nerves. You don’t have to be that way.”

“I guess I can’t help it,” she replied.

“Let me massage your shoulders … one last time.”

She knew she should have said no. His hands were magic. He called running his hands over her naked body “worship” and approached her not so much as a lover, but a supplicant. It was as if he entered a zone of spirituality, while she absorbed his total attention. She felt venerated. It was a heady, erotic elixir that his hands served.

The heat from his touch had opened her pores. Her skin became moist. Now he just lightly grazed his palms over her back, then ever more lightly still. Her body was a feather, inanimate on the bed.

She awoke just two hours into the new day. She lay on the bed for a long moment before she tested her muscles’ ability to lift herself into a sit. Her panties were still on. He hadn’t fucked her.

She stood and pulled on a robe that she let hang open. Her skin tingled and felt new. It seemed like ten years had been filtered out of her. As she started downstairs she looked at herself in the mirror on the landing. She nearly glowed and had to say to herself, “I’m beautiful.”

Stepping off the stairs she sensed at once that she was alone in the house, but more than that she sensed his absence.

She found the divorce papers signed on the kitchen table. Beneath his signature he had written, “Goodbye.”

A single tear fell from her cheek and smudged the ink. She knew she would never see him again.

About the Author

Bob Buckley was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a hospital that doesn’t exist anymore, but was a conveniently short ride over the Prison Point Bridge from the Charlestown housing projects, in the shadow of the Bunker Hill Monument, where his family lived. He may even have passed Malcolm X, who was finishing up his time at the old state prison, when his parents took him home.

When he was four they moved to a brand new project in Boston’s Columbia Point, the site of a former WWII prison camp for Italian prisoners, and hard by the city dump. It’s now the site of the JFK Library and the University of Massachusetts. So wherever he went he came in touch with history, or history in the making.

Finally leaving the projects behind, he lived in a series of triple-decker houses in Boston’s blue collar Irish-Polish neighborhoods where one identified oneself not by the neighborhood one lived in, but what parish. It was a boisterous place peopled by folks who were casually violent and racist, tribal, spiteful, gossip-ridden, intensely loyal and unconditionally loving. The parish church and the greater Apostolic Catholic Church held sway over all aspects of life, so it was a repressed place, but the stronger the repression, the more likely renegade ideas and—Oh, my heavens!—questions are spawned.

Saturday afternoons one was obligated to confess not only actual sinful deeds, but also thoughts. Can you imagine how many times a day a young boy might visualize a naked girl? Never mind that he might have no foundation at all for his imaginings of what a girl might look like without her clothes on. He still had to tell the priest.

Every so often, one of the neighborhood kids would swipe his older brother’s or bachelor uncle’s Playboy.

Wow! Did they really look like that? Then how come Mary Theresa O’Halloran or Anya Wisniewski looked so unfilled under their parochial school uniforms?

Bob had his suspicions that the girls in Playboy were not precisely representative of real girls, so while he enjoyed sneaking peeks at the pictures, he noticed the short stories and fiction that surrounded those pictures. And that began his fascination with words in general, but especially erotic words. And it’s a fascination he’s maintained long since escaping the old neighborhood and finding out for himself what girls look like when they’re naked.

Today he still finds himself a stone’s throw from history, living up the hill from the spot where they hanged the victims of the Salem Witch Hysteria. He enjoys using words to uncover the erotic in places you might never expect to find it—like everyday, mundane life. He especially enjoys writing about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary erotic situations. So, far, it’s been fun.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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