Callan Summarizes Dialog


James R. Callan.[1] 2015. How to Write Great Dialog. Pennant Publishing.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

How many times do you hear a suggestion before accepting and implementing it? I normally spring into action after a couple reminders, assuming a reasonable suggestion. Among world class procrastinators (reminder, what reminder?), I apparently would be cut in the qualifying round.


James Callan’s book How to Write Great Dialog is a how-to book that cites these objectives:

  1. Develop characters through dialog
  2. Further the plot with dialog
  3. Establish relationships between characters
  4. Create tension and conflict through dialog
  5. Build a dialog signature for major characters
  6. Handle attributions to improve dialog
  7. Learn the power of internal dialog and the restrictions (back cover).

Callan lists three types of dialog–regular, summary, and internal dialog (2)—which made perfect sense to me, although summary came as an unexpected surprise.  Summary dialog is useful in repeating previous dialog in paraphrase, a way to emphasize points covered without boring the reader. Another surprise was the term, dialog signature, where you give characters a verbal tick—I have done it, but not for all my major characters.

What is dialog? For Callan, it is simply a conversation (1). What does dialog do? It must either further the plot or help to define the characters (5). Unlike natural dialog, novel dialog must be lean and free from superfluous words (20).

Internal Dialog

Callan’s discussion of internal dialog is especially rich. Internal dialog is powerful because it shows the true feelings of the character (35). It allows us to enter into the conflict between the internal and external self of the character, the sinful side of the character that the Apostle refers to when writes: For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:19 ESV) Callan sees three caveats to using internal dialog:

  1. It can only come from the point of view character.
  2. It is often overdone.
  3. Expressing two much of the interior life of characters can confuse the reader (38)

Apparently, internal dialog is overlooked by many authors and there is no standard way to illustrate it in text (73).


James Callan’s book, How to Write Great Dialog, provides a short, concise reminder of how to write effective dialog. Authors trying to improve their use of dialog will want to take a look.



Callan Summarizes Dialog

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