Don’t Overlook the Hook

So the other day, I was talking to a friend who told me that when he was in his early twenties, he got into a fight with his girlfriend. In the heat of the moment, she stormed out of the apartment and killed herself. My friend wept as he confessed this to me.


“I need to make a confession to you,” my friend said to me as he wiped his eyes.

“When I was in my early twenties, I was in a toxic relationship with my girlfriend. We fought a lot. Threw things. Sometimes worse.”

“Wow,” I replied. “That doesn’t seem like you.”

“I know. A lot has changed since then. But it gets worse.

“One night, we were drinking pretty heavily. She was the jealous type and brought up a good friend of mine—an old girlfriend, actually—from high school.

“Earlier that day, we had bumped into each other at the grocery store. Ann was in a pretty serious relationship, but we spent a little time catching up. To keep everything in the open, I told my girlfriend about our conversation.”

Ben stared at the floor and continued.

“After hours of drinking, she brought up my conversation with Ann from earlier that day. The argument grew more and more intense. Then she stormed out of my apartment…

“And hung herself.”

“I’m so sorry, Ben.”

Let’s Talk About Talking

Which was more compelling—the opening example or the dialogue that followed?

The dialogue, of course. (Just so you know, the events didn’t really happen.)

A few weeks ago in a blog post, I began sharing the biggest mistakes I see in manuscripts from first-time authors. The first mistake many writers make is they fail to include enough white space, both on the cover and in the manuscript.

Today’s mistake: not incorporating enough dialogue.

Stories are the strongest hooks you can employ in your writing. Even if you’re writing a book about quantum mechanics, scattering a few anecdotes here and there will make it immensely more readable.

And the fuel that powers the story? Dialogue.

Nothing attracts the eyeballs of your easily distracted readers more than quotation marks.

Multiple reader analytics studies support this.

There’s an old adage in publishing circles that says, “Show me, don’t tell me.”

In other words, show the dialogue, don’t just tell your readers about it.

Here’s How Often You Should Use It

You need to incorporate dialogue into your manuscript early and often. Any chance I can begin the introduction and first chapter of a book with dialogue, I do it.

Now, dialogue doesn’t need to be that complicated. All too often, writers overthink their dialogue. For example:

“That’s a very arrogant comment,” Ellen snorted. “You need to keep your opinions to yourself!”

For the most part, all you need is the word said with a smattering of replieds and askeds to break up the monotony. When you get fancy attaching the dialogue to a more descriptive word than “said,” it becomes a distraction from the dialogue itself.

You can add other details like gestures, actions, and punctuation, to create the scene.

More Tips on Talking

Here are a few more tips on crafting your compelling dialogue:

1. It’s okay to skip repeating the name of the speaker. In the back and forth of conversation, your reader will make sense of who’s saying what.

Don’t write:

“What’s wrong with you?” said Mike.

“I’m tired of you criticizing me all the time,” said Lani.

“I don’t criticize you all the time–only when you deserve it,” said Mike.

Instead write:

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m tired of you criticizing me all the time.”

“I don’t criticize you all the time–only when you deserve it.”

2. Don’t bury it in a long paragraph. Lead with it. And keep the paragraph short.

3. Dialogue usually works well as a standalone paragraph. But again, keep the paragraph short. If one character’s part in the dialogue gets overly long, just hit return and bring it into another paragraph. I did that in the opening example.

4. Make tension your friend. I like to begin a scene with a tense moment, and then jump to other action in the scene without resolving it. Tension in your dialogue keeps your reader in the manuscript.

A few years ago, I ghostwrote a book for a former Wall Street executive. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to tell you what happened rather than spend 2,000 words showing it.

The book opens with a phone call from the executive’s lawyer, telling him that the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC)  was taking him to court and he could serve time in jail if he was convicted.

And that the Seattle Times was going to run the story the next day.

After hanging up, the man stands in his condo, all alone. He pours himself a drink while contemplating how he might take his life.

Then his cellphone rings.

“Hello, Stuart. The is Charles Colson. I heard that you’re about to be sued by the SEC. When I served in the Nixon administration, I was convicted and sent to jail…”

I didn’t resolve the conversation until two-thirds of the way into the book.


5. It’s okay to use contractions. Normal people normally use contractions when they talk. Don’t listen to your seventh-grade English teacher. Incorporate contractions into your dialogue.

Speaking of dialogue…

How to Make Dialogue Work for You

If you’ve ever considered publishing your book idea, let’s talk.

I take time to look through every manuscript written by an author who schedules an appointment with me. Then we discuss how to make it stronger. No pressure. All positive.


This reflects our philosophy we call “Collaborative Publishing.” It’s the future of publishing—and we’re the pioneers in this area.