Writing Fillers & Sidebars

Businessman Holding GraphWriting fillers and sidebars can offer quick and plentiful spin-off sales from your research. At 500 words or less, they are concise. When submitting these to magazines or other publications offer bunches of them at a time for the editor to choose from because only the editor knows the upcoming themes and topics for future issues.

Familiarize yourself with the type and number of fillers used by the publication and tailor yours to fit the readership. Many publications list their Editorial Calendar on their websites. Aside from the usual holiday theme issues, magazines often combine articles on a specific topic for an issue. So timing your submission to suit their topic schedule improves your chance of having your fillers and sidebars accepted.

Always include fillers and sidebars with feature articles or news pieces and editors will adore you.

The types of filler categories are: informative, links, and humor. Watch for them in magazines to see how they are used.

Quick news bites and tiny features are a great entry into national magazines. These quick bits in “front-of-book” appear before the longer feature articles in a magazine. They also keep your name in front of the editors. If you continue to offer quality quick bits in your area of expertise, then you could be approached to write a feature article on this topic or area of interest.

As you research a topic you will come across interesting bits of info that don’t merit a full article. Keep a file of these. You never know when your collection will become relevant or trending.


People are attracted to stories by visuals. In photos, always identify individuals in the photo by full name, as they appear from left to right, row by row. Use your original photos only. Do not swap out heads, or blot out things in the photo. The publisher, particularly a news publisher, requires the clean original.

Prepare a permission form and get it signed by people in your photographs so you can use the photo with the article. It will be up to the editor whether or not to use the photo, but if the editor wants to use it, he will probably ask for you to get a permission slip signed. Why chase after someone weeks after you took the photo? The permission slip is also a backup for getting the person’s name spelled correctly. Let the person know that it isn’t up to you whether or not the photograph will be used, it is up to the editor.

If photographs are being used to show steps of a process, be sure to caption them with numbers for each step. They could pass through many hands before they are published.


Informative Fillers and Sidebars:

  • How-to steps, statistics, news bits
  • Evaluations, quizzes, warning signs
  • Tips, advice
  • Historical dates
  • Humor, top-ten lists
  • Odd facts or historical data
  • Charts, graphs, maps
  • Prayers for specific needs
  • Anecdotal examples
  • Book reviews
  • Photographs with captions


  • Resource list
  • Emails
  • Websites, social media sites and connections
  • Mailing addresses
  • Phone numbers for help, toll-free or list by state or major city
  • Helpful books on this topic by experts
  • Agencies, organizations, clubs
  • Scriptures that help
  • Where to get help, support groups, experts, blogs
  • How to help


  • Jokes
  • Anecdotes
  • Lists of funny but true things
  • Original cartoon (do not use any cartoon without the express written consent of the artist and expect to pay for the use of the cartoon)
  • Famous quotations


Filler formats range from creative shapes, colors, cutouts and such. Many offer information that is perennial or evergreen, while others are tied to trends or current events. Taking the same information and targeting it toward different readership groups can make the sidebar or filler even more marketable. Formats:

  1. Bullets, shapes and icons can liven up the bullets
  2. Numbered lists (list items by order of importance or as steps in a process)
  3. Acrostics—ABCs of the subject or topic in which each line item begins with a letter of the alphabet. A is for Accuracy, B is for Brevity, C is for Clarity….
  4. Quiz and the answer key
  5. List of scriptures or famous quotations connected to the topic
  6. List of materials needed or steps to perform
  7. Charts. Compare/contrast, document trend or change. Design a chart or graph if it will dramatize a point accurately.
  8. Prayers. Chapter summaries. Mini devotionals.
  9. Games. Crossword puzzles. Fill in the blank.
  10. Recipes.

Study each publication to see how it uses fillers and sidebars and submit yours to match theirs in style and format.

To read or to receive similar articles go to: www.jonimfisher.com

How to Research a Topic

This is the time to master the narrow focus of your topic. Become more of an expert than you were. Research should uncover things that surprise you if you dig deep enough. Nail down the facts, look for experts and read what they have published. Hunt for the details that amaze you. Write down your assumptions on the topic—you need to separate fact from myth for yourself as well as for the readers. Address these myths and misunderstandings so the readers learn something new as well.

Don’t allow your assumptions to get in the way of finding deeper truth.

Know your bias and opinions on the topic. Allow yourself to consider the opposing position. You are human. If something has always been done a certain way—question the reasoning behind the tradition. Seek the broader truth. Balance opposing views with an open mind.


  • Go to places that gather information. The library. Public records. The Internet. See also: Guide to Reference Books by Constance M. Winchell. How and Where to Look It Up by Robert W. Murphy. The Reader’s Guide to Periodicals. The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English. Never rely on an Internet source alone. People can post any kind of nonsense on the internet.
  • Find the experts in the field. Make a list with contact information. Research the experts, read their work and the work of their critics.
  • Draw on friends, family and colleagues by letting them know what you’re working on.
  • Use technology. Follow the trail of evidence, the paper trail, and electronic trail and the money trail.
  • Professional organizations, clubs, corporations, agencies, consumer groups. Experts on any topic or industry will be part of their peer group.


love letter to a teacherImmersion— Books, reference materials, Internet sources, movies, pop culture, newspapers, trade journals, government publications, professional associations. Keep a running bibliography of your sources so you can track where you found information you plan to use.

Interview— Always seek more knowledgeable men and women for their input, explanations, insight, trends, quotes, leads and always record interviews. In many states it is illegal to tape a conversation without the other person’s knowledge and consent. I begin taping with a statement that identifies the name of the person in the interview and asking for permission to record the interview. This way I also record the person granting permission. Also ask for permission to give the expert’s phone number to the editor in case of last minute questions or clarifications at press time, or to verify a quote. Transcribe all interviews and submit the transcription with the submission. The act of transcribing will bring subtle quotes to your attention, things you may have missed in the heat of the interview, things that may need follow-up. Be aware that any person you interview has personal interests and bias in play. Watch for the interview subject’s agenda, so that you are not being used to promote the subject’s unspoken cause or purpose. For more on interviewing, see Interviewing Sources.

Fieldwork— What is this place, this job, this person really like? Engage your senses so you can recreate this for the reader. What are the sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and feel of the place? For example: New York City is noisy at every hour of the day. The New Orleans’ French Quarter is noisy in a different way. Many small towns in Florida have oranges along the curbs of intersections. Does the reality of this place or topic differ from the public perception of it? Are there any urban myths related to this? Common misconceptions? Cultural conflicts?

Who would sell a restaurant story without a description of the food? What sounds, smells, sights, emotions are associated with this person, place or thing? Take photos and notes so you can recreate details.

Reasoning— What does the evidence show?  What is fact and folklore? How does perception of the situation affect its resolution or conclusion? What did I learn that shocked, surprised or amused me? What did I learn that I couldn’t have learned without digging deeper? What leads develop from this story for other stories, follow-up or spin offs?

For similar articles on writing, go to www.jonimfisher.com.

Types of Articles

Editors categorize articles by type, so it helps to know these types by name so you speak the same language as the editor. The types are: Hard News, First Person Article, Opinion Piece, Informational or Service Piece, How-To Article, Personality Profile, and Think Piece. Since most Hard News articles are assigned to full-time staff, we will skip this type of article. Let’s examine the characteristics and differences of the remaining types of articles for freelancers to use to break into the market.


First person articles come from personal experience and are traditionally written in first person. They can be sold as feature articles or as essays, depending on their length and newsworthiness. Characteristics of a first person article with high market value:

  • 750-1500 words
  • setting-specific sensory details (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound), history
  • characters are vivid, newsworthy, memorable, interesting, odd
  • dialogue clearly reveals the unique character of the author
  • details a turning point-realization, discovery, or change in one’s life
  • voice is fresh, audacious, trustworthy, accurate, funny, or full of attitude
  • states its purpose in first line or paragraph to hook the reader. Example: I had to teach my child to rebel and to question authority for his own safety.

Sources of first person articles and essays:


What unusual, unique experience or perspective can you offer? How did this event affect you? What recently triggered this memory? How can you relate your experience to others?


Do I have a skill or talent that isn’t common or do I lack a skill everyone else seems to have? Examples: a male nanny, a woman pilot. The art of doing something well sets the skilled above the rest and this essay will explore the tell-tale signs that separate the novice from the expert. Or it could go the Dave Barry route, as a humorist who commentated on the Olympics, and show a klutz attempting something far out of his league.


Why does everyone (speak Spanish, wear a size 5, whatever) but me? If only I had known then what I know now…. Compare the before and after of an experience, training, or change.


Take a topic or event in the news and present the unpopular or neglected point of view. Example: Why does the media accept male bashing as funny but would scream like monkeys if the same joke were aimed at women? What makes you mad? What makes you laugh? What do you value? Dig deep to explore your answer. The reasons for your particular opinion need to be anchored and detailed from your personal experience. Are you an expert on this topic? Get to the WHY factor of your opinion on the topic.


Trends, behaviors, fashions. Go non-politically correct in the politically correct world. Go against type. See from a new perspective. Example: What happened when I took my daughter to a hockey game when neither of us understood the sport. What details capture the subject? What is the first impression? The second?

My all-time favorite first-person article is Rick Reilly’s “On a Wing and a Prayer” that appeared in Sports Illustrated. In it he describes his thrill ride in an F-14 Tomcat. I double dare you not to laugh as this civilian, non-pilot describes his ride. Take a few minutes to read this masterpiece by clicking on his name above.

To get ideas for essay and first person articles, try this exercise: write as quickly as possible at least 5 things you do well, 5 things you have strong opinions on and 5 memories from childhood. Pick something from this list and write. Now.

The following example sources buy First Person Articles from new writers:

The Christian Science Monitor seeks “upbeat, personal essays from 300 to 900 words” and pays $75-$160 on publication. Aim for humor and heartfelt personal stories. See their guidelines: http://www.csmonitor.com/aboutus/guidelines and read online archives for their tone and subject matter.

Underwired is a website that seeks women’s personal essays of 800-1200 words. See their monthly themes so your submission suits the theme. They pay $100 per essay. See their guidelines: http://uwmag.com.


An Opinion Piece or opinion essay is less personal than the First Person Article, but the piece still needs a tight focus. Writing about an entire industry will not set your writing apart from the bulk of writing on the topic. Find your niche, your sub-category. Narrow your focus by asking the journalistic questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How? To that, I add one more question that my editor in college always asked—“Who cares?” If the topic is interesting only to you, don’t expect editors to mail you a contract. Look at your essay or article from the reader’s point of view.

The main question in the reader’s mind is—why are you qualified to render an opinion? We all have opinions, but why should anyone read yours? If you’re an expert on this topic, be sure to state it up front for the reader. Let’s say you want to write an opinion piece on weight problems in America. Are you a dietitian? A physician? An athletic coach? A chronic dieter who has tried all the fad diets? Give your opinion the weight it deserves by showing your credentials.

If you plan to write often on a particular topic, and build a readership, consider syndication.

Essayists can become syndicated and sell their work in multiple newspapers. Whether you write etiquette advice like Miss Manners, humor like Dave Barry, or political analysis like Charles Krauthammer, syndication means you write one essay per week and collect checks from multiple sources. The key is to find your true topic and voice and spread the word. Though Pulitzer-Prize winning humorist Dave Barry was employed by the Miami Herald, his essays were published simultaneously in newspapers around the country because the papers did not have competing readership. Perhaps in time, blogs will replace syndication, but many writers continue to profit from syndication in print media. It takes time to build a readership or following, but syndication multiplies the income you receive from every piece you write.

Among the highest paying markets for individual essays and opinion pieces are:

  • Contests. There are a few online directories of contests. Here is one: Poets & Writers
  • The Smithsonian’s last page. (Quirky contemporary culture.) You have to read back issues to understand what they buy.


An informational or service piece builds the reader’s knowledge on a specific subject. Always interview an expert or two to get a broader view of the subject. Consumer Reports magazine, for example, is all about comparing different brands of a product so the buyer can understand which features are available and how to price each feature. Which features are gimmicks? Which ones make the product valuable in the short run, in the long run?

Consider writing for industry specific publications or publications devoted to a specific organization, club or group. Many of these smaller publications yearn for writers. They might not pay as well as the national magazines, but they can help you build readership and clips. Clips are basically examples of your published work. Start a file of them.

Characteristics of an Information or Service Piece:

  • Tend to be fact-driven and educational.
  • Present quotes from experts. If controversial, present experts from opposing views.
  • Inform readers about things that will affect their lives. This series is Informational—“10 Things You Need to Know About Writing for Magazines”.
  • Show a fact or trend.
  • Dispel rumors and misunderstandings.
  • Revisit history with a then/now comparison.
  • Have catchy titles like: Myths about ___. Secrets of ___. An Insider’s View of ___. Six Ways to___.

Always relate statistics or any enormous number with an image or put the number in human terms. For example, how can a writer make a number like a billion memorable or describe it in simple, human terms? A billion minutes ago, Jesus was alive.

Pick up a copy of Reader’s Digest and just read the titles of the articles. Just so you know, Reader’s Digest pays well, but they buy all rights. This makes reprints impossible and can strangle your ability to write similar articles on the same topic.

Lest the gentle reader believe that these types of articles are cut and dried and must forever remain separate entities, please note that the types can be, well, combined, mixed, or crossbred. I published a humor essay “Rocket Mom: Dreaming of the Right Stuff” that presented a comparison between the Space Shuttle and the average SUV in terms of mileage, features, speed and such. The structure of the essay mimicked a service piece, but the tone was purely first person. Here’s the link: https://jonimfisher.com/Rocket-mom/.


How To Articles present a step-by-step explanation of a process, like wiring a home theatre. An entire series of books is built around the concept of explaining processes and topics to industry outsiders–Electronics For Dummies, SEO For Dummies, etc. Again, if you are an expert or quote an expert, show the reader your credentials.

  • Assume the reader does not speak the special language of the trade or industry.
  • Assume the reader is inexperienced and reads at the high-school level. Even if you write for an adult, educated readership, your readers will come from a variety of backgrounds, and some may read English as a second language. Also, keep in mind that people read comfortably four grades below their last year of formal education.
  • Break your subject into its main points, explaining what each is and how it is accomplished.
  • Note any points of common misunderstanding and mistakes to avoid.
  • Use a breezy, straightforward, conversational tone.
  • Make special terminology clear and memorable. My husband is a surgeon and a pilot, but if he decided to take up sailing, he wouldn’t know his aft from his halyard.
  • Use anecdotes to illustrate points. Some How-To articles organize the steps with acronyms.
  • Include charts, graphs, or artwork to illustrate your points.
  • Narrow the focus of your article and give it an inviting title. Example titles: 7 Ways to improve your skin, 30 Minutes a Day to Ward Off A Heart Attack, or You Can Learn Magic Tricks at Home.

The How To approach can be hysterical when applied to a complex subject. Have you read the book 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter? You could also write a How-Not-To article.


A personality profile should balance facts with an interview of subject to show this person’s character and personality and explore public image versus up-close impressions. To be accurate, it also requires interviewing friends, colleagues, family—those who know the person best. What has this person done to merit attention? Is this a future Nobel Laureate? Unsung hero? Political candidate? Sports figure? Nail down why readers would find this person interesting or notable.

Be careful about choosing an anti-hero, a criminal will be likely to use publicity for revenge or to attempt to sway public opinion against the facts.

Celebrities get jaded and tend to avoid journalists who want to interview them unless they have a new project on the horizon. They will want to deflect attention from themselves and promote their project. They will also tend to avoid unknown interviewers/writers. Say, for example, you want to do a profile on an actor. Rather than focusing on his life in film and television, how about focusing on why he became the spokesman for a charity or why he took up flying as a hobby? People are more open to discussing what they love than who they are.


Investigative in tone, the think piece often shows the downside of a popular trend or hobby or sport. It might also explore the ‘why’ factor of a topic in the news. Political analysis, scientific inquiry, a think piece digs deeper than most feature articles. Interviews with experts or being an expert are a must to establish credibility to write a think piece. For example: a physician’s view of medical malpractice insurance and how it affects patient care.

After you publish in smaller magazines and newspapers, you can list these ‘clips’ in queries to bigger, better paying magazines. Keep copies of the magazines in which your work appears. You may need to photocopy the pages and the cover to submit along with queries. You might later want to use the covers or the pages as graphics on your website as samples of your work. If you rework an article for another magazine, the editor might ask for a copy of the original to see what percentage of the article is new material. More on reprints later.

So how do you discover who buys writing? Become familiar with the marketplace for selling your stories. Start with the magazines you read. Why do you like these? For a complete list of magazines and the types of articles they buy, consult The Writer’s Market. It comes out each year in print and online for less than $40. Your local library might have a copy. This book also has a vast list of annual contests.

To receive similar articles by email go to www.jonimfisher.com

Dialogue: When Characters Talk the Talk

Mounted Police Officer and HorseRemember the last time you read dialogue and it didn’t sound genuine? Something was off, odd or not quite believable? Perhaps the wording did not suit the character. For example, unless a man is a decorator, painter or artist, he won’t point to a color and call it sage. In general, men tend to label colors by the eight colors found in the Crayola crayon set they used in kindergarten. Oh, and by the way, more men than women are colorblind, so some men are even more limited in their ability to describe colors. So when a character doesn’t sound believable, often the writer failed to conduct enough research for the character to talk the talk.

The reader wants to fall into the story, to be transported into a different world, to experience things not readily available in her life, whether it is a world of horror, danger, mystery, romance or adventure. It’s up to you to make sure your characters realistically represent their profession, trade, hobby or craft. If your English butler talks like your rural American firefighter, then it’s time to dig deeper.


If your story involves characters in a specific career, then research it. You can learn basic information about any legal job from the Occupational Outlook Handbook, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ . For hundreds of different types of jobs, the Occupational Outlook Handbook describes: the training and education needed, earnings, expected job prospects, what workers do on the job, and working conditions. In addition, the Handbook gives job search tips, links to state job markets and more. Armed with the basics, you can then learn more about how your character speaks.


If at all possible, go to places where your character would go.  Find a friend or relative who does this kind of job. Listen to how they speak and what they say. At the end of their work day, what hurts? Hands, head, feet, back, ears, eyes? If your hero is a trucker, go eat at truck stops and listen. What do they talk about? How do they express themselves? What specialized vocabulary do they use? Jot down unfamiliar terms and words to look up later. What are the trends and technology that have changed their job over the years? Prepare questions and offer to buy a few of them lunch so you can ask about their work. People rarely turn down the chance to talk about themselves. Many will share stories about their life. Find one who can serve as your go-to expert.


What more do you need to know about your character’s type of work? Write factual questions, to get information, to open discussion. Write personal questions, to elicit anecdotes, to reveal personality and character. Examples: “What’s the most unusual case you’ve ever had?” “What other careers interest you?” “What hobbies do you enjoy?” “What would you like people to know about your profession?” and “What myths and misconceptions do people have about what you do?”


If you can find an expert in the field to interview, then do it.

If your character’s career is an unusual profession (airtraffic controller, coroner, animal trainer, circus performer, etc), then contact the publicity representative for an organization of the profession. Another source for locating experts on a topic is ProfNet or Professors Network. This free service is used by journalists worldwide to locate public information officers in government, business and academia. Send in your request to profnet@vyne.com and be sure to state your purpose for the information.


In person interviews work best, but phone interviews can also work. Ask for permission to record the interview, if you plan to record it. I write for magazines, so I tell subjects that I flunked shorthand and would like to record the interview so I can quote them accurately. The high-paying magazines require a written transcript of interviews, so I use that reason, but let the subject know why you are interviewing him and how long the interview will take. Time yourself and stick to the time limit you gave.

When I interview subjects, I always ask whom they would recommend for me to talk to for more information. I also ask if I can email with more questions if I need to. Most folks agree to follow-up questions. When my article is published or reprinted, I always send a copy to my interview source with a thank-you note. So far, I haven’t published a novel, but I would gladly name names of people who helped me in the front of the book and send them a copy with a thank-you note.


Though this isn’t done in newspaper or magazine work, you can ask your source to read your book and tell you if the behavior and dialogue rings true. You are not handing control of the story to the expert, but gaining his opinion. It could prevent a simple goof up. I once had an interview subject tell me he was going to use the Armstrong starter on his seaplane.  When he demonstrated it, I realized he meant he was going to hand prop the plane. If I had published that the Piper Cub used an Armstrong starter, every pilot reading it would have laughed at my gullibility. I vetted the article with my husband, who has a seaplane rating. He alerted me to the joke. I kept the Armstrong starter in the article, but used it to show the rogue nature of seaplane pilots.

Because I am working on a suspense trilogy with an FBI agent hero, I discovered that manuscripts, plays, and screenplays that involve characters who work for the FBI, can be reviewed by the Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit of the FBI to ensure an accurate portrayal of the FBI. A sign-off (showing that the manuscript has been vetted) from this unit would be helpful for marketing. This unit prioritizes work based on the likelihood of publication, so be sure to note if the manuscript is under contract with a publisher or producer.

FBI Headquarters

Publicity and Public Affairs Unit, Room 7257

935 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20535

(202) 324-3000

Website: www.fbi.gov.

Doing all this work to make the character dialogue sound real might seem extreme, but the top fiction writers create believable characters because they either have familiarity with the character’s work or they have conducted thorough research. Though she probably never worked as a coroner, Tess Gerritsen can draw on her medical degree to create the character Maura Isles. If you want your dialogue to ring true, to reveal deep character, first you have to research what makes your characters who they are. Get to know them so well that you can tell when they are walking the walk and talking the talk.


This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website. They are revamping their website, so I am posting it again to keep it available.

Dialogue: Abused and Misused

Angry, Frustrated WomanPeople recognize terrible dialogue when they hear it in movies, or on television or read it in books. It comes off wooden, robotic, confusing, lecturing, boring or in some way artificial sounding. Examples abound in B-grade movies, comic books, soap operas, and probably in the last book you refused to continue reading. Don’t be that writer.

Dialogue is NOT conversation put on paper.

Imagine that instead of writing a novel, you are writing a play or a screenplay. By their nature, these are dialogue-driven works and as such, soar or sink by the quality of the spoken interaction between the characters. The most common blunder in writing dialogue comes from trying to reproduce normal conversation. I dare you to go record random conversation at the mall and then transcribe it. It is gibberish. Stammering, unfinished sentences that leave the listener hanging on a word, interruptions, rambling, redundancies, slang, misuse of language—these are the hallmarks of normal conversation.

Think of dialogue as value-added, condensed, poetic, crafted simulations of conversation.

Learning how to craft dialogue well matters because up to half of a novel is dialogue.

In general, in literary fiction, the ratio of narrative description and dialogue runs low on dialogue. Literary fiction tends to present story through a character’s inner life, with longer sentences and longer paragraphs that emphasize the beauty of language and imagery, rather than on the action of the story. When a story encompasses a decades-long history, it demands the use of narrative to summarize, interpret and present the events within. Examples: Faulkner, Dickens, Kingsolver, Tolstoy, and Michener.

In commercial fiction, or genre fiction, the ratio of narrative to dialogue runs closer to 50/50. Readers of commercial fiction prefer the immediacy of experiencing the story over the look-back-at-one’s-life kind of story. Because of the influence of television and movies, reader’s attention span has grown shorter and this, too, affects the narrative/dialogue ratio. With almost half their story presented through dialogue, genre fiction writers benefit from developing this aspect of their craft. Examples: Elmore Leonard, Irwin Shaw, Mark Twain, Richard Price, and Tobias Wolff.

Dreadful dialogue comes from using dialogue when narrative or exposition would work better.

When writers use dialogue to deliver backstory, present flashbacks, to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings, or to explain complex issues, history, or technical information, the dialogue suffers. It’s like a carpenter using a wrench to hammer in a nail. Sure, it can be done, but why work so hard with the wrong tool for the job?

Delivering backstory through dialogue is storytelling within a story. Generally, anything longer than three consecutive lines of speech by one character comes off as lecturing, so, even if your character is supposed to be a bore, demonstrate it once, then move on. Backstory should be sprinkled, not shoveled. Can you spread out the delivery of the details of backstory for revelations?

Examine your reasons for telling backstory through dialogue. Why is one character telling so much to another character? Would it be more dramatic and interesting to have the other character discover this information in bits and pieces and then confront the ‘telling’ character for more? Allow the listening character to challenge the teller to break up the lecture.

Presenting flashbacks through dialogue is also tricky. Flashbacks are internal. Is the flashback worth stopping the flow of action? When presented in movies, they can begin with a voice-over along the lines of “I remember that morning twelve years ago when I first met Mr. Adams….” The best use of a flashback is when the character has reached a point of utter confusion or frustration and he has to make a decision. To make that decision, he will think about things from his past for clues and answers. Think of a flashback as a question answered by memory. For example, the character asks himself—How on earth did I end up in this situation? When the character recalls the decisions he made that led to his current state, he reaches the point of understanding, which answers his question, and the flashback is over. He can then apply this insight to the present situation.

Revealing a character’s thoughts and feelings through dialogue seems artificial because thoughts and feelings are internal. Who is going to declare absolutely honest thoughts and feelings with others in a conversation? Okay, children do, but unless your character is a child, it could be ‘oversharing’. Leave that stuff for the social networking souls who post “Hi, brushed my teeth today. Sure didn’t want to go to class, but have a quiz in history class I have to take.” You might as well shoot your reader to put him out of his misery. There must be a compelling reason for a character to share personal thoughts and feelings. If such sharing is necessary for the story, keep it brief and dramatic, such as in a fight scene or in a highly dramatic moment. The exception for a character sharing his thoughts with another would be two or more people brainstorming together, or in group therapy, but even then, keep it brief.

Using dialogue to explain complex issues, history or technical information is a sure-fire way to drive the reader away. Unless you can make this dialogue an argument, don’t use dialogue. It does not sound natural to use dialogue to explain complex issues or technical information because long stretches of speech are lectures. If the reader needs to know the time, don’t tell him how to build a clock. Narrative summary works best here.

If a dialogue scene in your manuscript is there to deliver backstory, present flashback, reveal character’s thoughts and feelings or explain something, then change the scene to exposition.

Dialogue is designed to perform these functions:

  • Advance the plot. The inciting incident, key turning points, the climax and other important emotional moments have the greatest impact when the events unfold in front of the reader.
  • Build to a change in a relationship, a power shift, or a turning point in the action. Make the talk between characters matter. If the talk does not cause a change or mark a change, then why is it in the story?
  • Create immediacy. The reader experiences the conversation in real time, along with the characters. This allows the reader to feel part of the story by drawing her into the experience.
  • Reveal character. How a character expresses himself changes depending on who he is interacting with—spouse, child, boss, colleague, or adversary. Characters talk differently when under stress or in danger. A person’s character is tested when having to choose between doing the right thing and doing the easy thing.
  • Set the mood to create an emotional impact on the reader. It is better to make the reader cry than to make the characters cry. In dialogue, conversations can be elevated above the commonplace because the writer can craft the dialogue with imagery and precision. Characters can speak bolder, wittier and more insightfully than real people. Brief statements hold the greatest impact.
  • Begin or heighten conflict. It is human nature to desire to witness the action rather than hear about it second hand. If the conversation does not affect the relationship of the characters involved in it, then why is this conversation being played out for the reader? Show the fight scene.
  • Create suspense. The reader knows more than the characters because the reader is privy to all the conversations and actions. Stimulate the reader’s curiosity, raise questions. Characters lie and misunderstand one another in dialogue. The reader enjoys sorting out the liars from the truthful.
  • Move action along swiftly. When the reader goes down the page quickly, it gives the feel of fast action. Dialogue increases the pacing of any scene because things happen when characters meet face to face.
  • Reveal tidbits of the past. Use it like Hansel and Gretel, dropping crumbs to leave a trail. Lead the reader along.

Great dialogue does more than one of these functions at the same time. Make sure the dialogue carries its weight—that it does double or triple duty in the scene. Read your dialogue scene out loud into a recorder. When you play it back, can you hear clunky phrases? Are you gasping for breath in long sentences? Revise. Polish. Shorten.

You can craft dialogue that resonates with readers long after they put down the book. It takes effort, insight and aiming for deep character to make your dialogue memorable.


This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website. They are revamping the site so I am posting this article here to keep it available.

Conflict in Dialogue

Sibling RivalryDialogue without conflict is talking heads. There, I’ve got it out in the open. In commercial, or genre fiction, dialogue makes up half of the novel with narration as the other half. This is why learning to craft great dialogue matters.

Inexperienced writers tend to overcompensate for lame dialogue by inflating it with fighting words, believing that the bigger the conflict, the stronger the dialogue. While dialogue without conflict is boring, dialogue with falsely melodramatic dialogue is disappointing to the reader. And no, using extra exclamation points doesn’t impress readers. When the dialogue presents a level of conflict appropriate to the characters in the situation, then the reader will believe the story.

So, how does the writer achieve this balance? Dive deeply into the characters. Like an actor, step into the character and see the world through his eyes. Write the scene or chapter from the point of view of one character, expressing and acting on that character’s goals and motives.

Every character in the story operates on his own long-term and short-term motives. So, after the first draft of the scene is done, go back and revisit the scene by exploring the motives and goals of every character in the scene—one by one. You will discover more sources of conflict, because each character can be an obstacle to the other characters unintentionally.

What do your characters want or desire in this time and place? Because everyone wants something, there will be a power struggle.

Everyone has his own motives and goals—his agenda.

This doesn’t mean the characters all have the same goal, like two men interviewing for the same job. And it doesn’t mean that the characters have opposite goals, like two football teams that want to win by defeating the other team. Sometimes the conflict arises organically from the basic nature of the people in the scene.

Here is a small list of organic character elements that can create tension or conflict between people: impatience, misunderstanding, bureaucracy, differences [gender, race, culture, age, language], experiences, attitudes, and secrets.

Let’s say we have a young mother doing chores at home with her toddler. The doorbell rings, so the mother goes to the door with her child clinging to her leg. A salesman is at the door.  We can identify the agendas of each character easily from their basic nature. The mother wants to do laundry. The salesman wants to sell a vacuum cleaner. The child wants mother’s full attention. How does power shift during the scene? Ideally, the protagonist will lose the power struggle and be driven to take greater risks next time.

The writer has inside knowledge of every character’s goals and motivations—but the characters conflict because they don’t have this knowledge. To craft the appropriate level of conflict for the scene, let’s examine a few examples of dialogue.


The lowest level of conflict is the absence of it. This is known in the publishing world as chit-chat, talking heads, plot stoppers and so on. An example of everyday chit-chat:

“Hi, Susie,” said Anne.

“Hello there, Anne,” said Susie.

“Thanks for coming.” Anne said. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you.”

“Oh, me, too. I want to hear all about your date with Mark.”

Unless this conversation offers something meaty soon, the reader will start skimming pages. If the conversation sounds like air kisses then it is chit-chat. Who wants to eavesdrop on a conversation between two best friends in cheerful agreement about anything? Yawn. If your critique partners note that your chapters seem “a little long,” perhaps they mean that your dialogue doesn’t propel the story forward. With all the books out in the world to read, readers can and will drop boring ones. A test for chit chat—strip down a scene to pure dialogue, no attributions (Bill said) and no narrative or character’s thoughts. If the naked dialogue isn’t intriguing, consider cutting it out. With nothing remotely interesting or newsworthy in this snippet of dialogue between Anne and Susie, we move on.


Taking the same Susie/Anne chit-chat to the next level, we shorten the greeting to one line each and then drop in a note of discord, just a note–still civil, but with a hint of confrontation.

“Hi, Susie,” said Anne.

“Hey,” said Susan.

“You’re late.”

“Get over it.” Susan sighed. “Tell me about your date with Mark.”

Feel that twinge of discomfort? An entire scene can be cooked up with this level of simmering conflict. Think of people at work who have to get along, but don’t particularly like one another. I believe the term for such a relationship is a combination of friend and enemy–frienemy. Ever deal with distant relatives from the shallow end of the gene pool? Or the neighbor who spouts fierce political opinions without being asked? Draw from experience and pay attention to the signs of simmering conflict at the next social gathering. I don’t suggest taking notes, but watch and learn.


Conflicts have winners and losers. Can you identify the victor in a segment of dialogue? Even friends poke fun at one another. Men often verbally spar to demonstrate their Alpha Male qualities in front of women. Siblings draw from a lifetime of stories to tease and provoke one another as an expression of intimacy.

Here’s an example of verbal sparring from Janet Evanovich’s High Five. Stephanie Plum is an inexperienced bail bondsman sent to pick up a man who skipped his court date.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “You never see a short person before?”

“Only on television.”

“Guess this is your lucky day.”

I handed him my business card. “I represent Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. You missed your court date, and we’d appreciate it if you’d reschedule.”

“No,” Briggs said.

“Excuse me?”

“No, I’m not going to reschedule. No. I’m not going to court. It was a bogus arrest.”

“The way our system works is that you’re supposed to tell that to the judge.”

“Fine. Go get the judge.”

“The judge doesn’t do house calls.”

“Listen, I got a lot of work to do,” Briggs said, closing his door. “I gotta go.”

“Hold it!” I said. “You can’t just ignore an order to appear in court.”

“Watch me.”

The man then shuts and locks his door. So are the conflicting agendas clear? Is it easy to declare a winner in this power struggle? Evanovich’s characters speak their minds boldly and without apology and her readers adore her for it.

This level of conflict keeps tension taut without car chases, bombs exploding or the usual B-movie tactics. The reader keeps turning pages to find out if the conflict escalates. An argument, by the way, is a slick way to sneak in morsels of back story as long as it sounds natural and conversational. During an argument people often dredge up old issues and events for debate.


Screenwriter Joss Whedon mastered dialogue in physical confrontations. See his television shows and movies, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “The Doll House”, Firefly, Toy Story, and The Avengers.

His characters notoriously maintain their agendas (goals and motivations) throughout the action. In “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” the character of Buffy is a valley girl, hormonal, moody, obsessed with fashion and oh, by the way, she has a supernatural gift for locating and killing paranormal creatures, especially vampires. During one scene, Buffy and her friends battle vampires in a graveyard while arguing about the challenges of finding a prom date. Buffy remains a valley girl no matter what she’s doing.

The key to writing believable dialogue for a fight scene is to remember each character’s agenda. While action and narrative overshadow dialogue in fight scenes, the dialogue still matters.

A showdown takes two-thirds of the novel to set up. Generally, one can apply an inverse ratio of conflict to dialogue—the more intense conflict, the less the need for dialogue. Ah, but that’s because by the time the showdown happens, the reader should understand why the fight matters to the warriors. The stakes have been spelled out clearly and the showdown is the natural and inevitable response to the previous smaller battles in the story. Fighting for the sake of violence should be reserved for madmen and fools. The level of conflict in the story should suit the value of winning and the value of losing. Remember to clarify for the reader why the protagonist and antagonist take the actions they take.

In the showdown scene even a brief sentence can strike like a blow. A parting example from Star Wars–“Luke, I am your father.” Dialogue that matters has power in meaning.


This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website in 2012. They have revamped their website, so I am posting it here so it remains available.