What Did She Say by Avantika

“I can remember the gist of my conversations with Shekar. But not every word,” said Sara. This is a common comment I hear from those who write biographies. They have a need to provide documents and tapes of conversations before anyone believes their story.

“It’s evidence,” Sara says.

True, but it’s not always necessary. There are ways of getting around this. Let’s look at my article ‘Umbrella of Faith’ which was published in the New Straits Times (https://www.nst.com.my/news/2015/10/umbrella-faith). My story was a profile piece about the architect of Masjid Negara in Kuala Lumpur, Dato Dr.HjBaharuddin Abu Kassim.

From a monograph written by Azim A Aziz, ‘50 Years National Mosque: 1965 – 2015’, I already knew that Dato’ Baharuddin hates domes. When we met, I asked him about this. This is what was eventually published:
“Eeee,” he shudders. “I benci (hate) domes.”
Determined to avoid the use of onion-shaped domes and the Mughal designs made famous during the Colonial era, Baharuddin chose, instead, to be inspired by what he saw around him and his own history.

I could have written a simple sentence like ‘Domes are the one design element that Dato’ Dr Baharuddin hates.’ Instead, by writing the exact words that he said, the impact was powerful.

Dialogue, therefore, is your way of sharing information without expressly telling the reader this information.

Dialogue has four main functions:

  • To progress the story. Every conversation must involve a crucial piece of information, fact or revelation that the reader needs to know.
  • To create excitement. Your aim should be to make your readers experience what the character experiences. For example, imagine if one of your characters says this: “Oh my God. We’re all going to die soon.” Can you see how this dialogue will create the necessary tension to give the story a dangerous feel?
  • To tell your readers more about a character’s background. For instance, imagine that one of your characters says this: “We need to get that appointment with that famous surgeon, lah.” By using ‘lah’, we convey that this person is Malaysian. 
  • To give pace to the story. Dialogue allows you to convey large chunks of information in a concise manner. For instance, if your character barges into a flat and says, “What a dump!” the reader will understand that the flat is in a mess and untidy.

Believable and realistic dialogue
When I transcribed my interview with Dato’ Dr.Baharuddin, there were times when he stumbled or paused. There were lots of ‘Errr…’ and ‘Um…’ If I followed exactly what he said, the text would have been like this:
“Eeee. Huh!” he shudders. Looking at us, he shakes his head and closes his eyes. “Eeee… I bencilah. I benci domes.”

This would have made the dialogue rambling, repetitive and untidy. Modify such speech so that whatever dialogue you write appears forceful, sharp, and clean.

Direct or indirect speech 
Direct speech means that the reader actually ‘hears’ the words the character speaks. Here’s an example: “I’m angry with you, Sally. How could you have criticised Mary?” John said.

Indirect speech means that the narrator will outline what has been said: ‘John said he was so angry with Sally and questioned why she criticised Mary.’

Naturally, direct speech has more impact, is more powerful and the preferred option for many writers. You should only use indirect speech to summarise huge chunks of information, when the information is inconsequential to the reader or the characters are repeating information already given to the reader.

The suggestions made above are a guide to help you get started. When you have mastered the art of writing dynamic dialogue, your story will become an exciting piece of work that readers will never forget.


  • Coulmas, Florian (Editor). Direct and Indirect Speech Mouton de Gruyter (1 April 1986)
  • WritersandArtists.co.uk. Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. A&C Black (June 30, 2010)
  • Editors of Writer’s Digest Books. The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing: Everything You Need to Know About Creating & Selling Your Work. Writer’s Digest Books; 2 edition (August 22, 2010).


Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
Sara decides to pretend that she and Shekar are seated at a table and having a conversation. She will write only the words either one says. Although it is probably not going to make sense right now, here is an excerpt of what she wrote:
“Shekar, there are only two Scorpios in the group and the other one is currently in favour. I’m not. And I talked to three friends about this. They all knew she was referring to me.”
“OK. I remember you texting me. Something more about Scorpios.”
“Oh ya! I forgot. Good ah, your memory. When you have only one friend on FB and it’s Molly Gun, not difficult to find.
“Breathe, Sara, breathe.”
 “Since you took the phone, you stopped breathing. You’re becoming pale. Breathe.”

Boxed information
Making your dialogue dynamic
Dialogue can be made to appear dynamic by incorporating some of the ideas explained below:

  • Dialogue tags. Instead of common tags like, ‘he said,’ or ‘she said,’ you can try more dynamic ones like, ‘John added,’ or ‘Dorina interrupted’.
  • Slang. While slang might make your novel modern, but it will date your story. 
  • Swearing. The general advice is your characters should swear only under the most extreme situations. Too much swearing and you may upset your readers. But too little, and your character may sound fake. 


Aneeta Sundararaj tells the stories of a diverse group of people from cardiologists and Ayurveda practitioners to independent financial advisors. ‘Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time’ is included in a collection of stories that she is working on. Subscribe to the free newsletter on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).


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