Mary-Lou Stephens on Dialogue 

Mary-Lou Stephens on Dialogue 

‘Two Orchards’ is Mary-Lou Stephens’ new novel about the tumultuous years of the Tasmanian apple industry after the 1967 bushfires. Here she talks about the power of getting the dialogue right. 

For Mary-Lou Stephens dialogue can do a lot more heavy lifting than merely the words in quote marks. Done well, it can reveal much about a story, its characters and its context – and it can set the tone for a novel. 

“You have tension, you have emotion, information. You have setting, plot, you have everything in there if you do it well,” she says. 

But she warns, “It can be incredibly boring if not done well.”

This versatility of dialogue makes it a powerful storytelling tool to develop characters and story lines. Dialogue can also be essential to world-building, it establishes context and setting. But it is just as important to know what to leave out and Mary-Lou admits that she has to be careful not to overdo it. 

“Dialogue for me – you can do everything. And sometimes I have to pull back on the dialogue,” she says.

What characters choose to leave out of conversations can be just as important as what is said and how that relates to the context and story.

“People don’t always answer every question,” she says, “The other thing is that people often say what they don’t mean. And then there’s the matter of the other person not understanding the subject of what has been said. Unintentionally or willfully people misunderstand each other all the time.” 

Mary-Lou’s novel, set among the apple orchards of 1960s Tasmania, relies heavily on dialogue to develop the context and characters. In a research trip down to the apple isle at the end of 2018 she had the opportunity to speak to people who gave her insight into the dialect of the time. Her research gave voice, depth and a realism to her characters that they would be otherwise lacking. 

‘It was great to speak to someone who was 18 in 1967 – and then I spoke with older people who were the age of my protagonists. I recorded it all. And it was interesting to hear the different phrases and vocabulary between generations,” she says.

Capturing the natural length and rhythm of the way people talk is crucial to writing effective dialogue and evoking emotion in the story. 

“When people are relaxed and comfortable they will naturally use longer sentences. When they are pissed off or stressed, they will be curt. It might be just a grunt,” Mary-Lou explains.

“It kind of sits in with the way people are. We contract when we are angry or under pressure. And so that is when I find sentences will contract. For me that kind of happens naturally if I am in the flow. It seems to be a natural thing.”

Mary-Lou discusses the need for pauses or ‘beats’ between lines of dialogue, to contextualise the characters and illustrate emotion through their actions. These ‘beats’ can illuminate the conversation for the reader, but if overused, they can become a distraction. She points out that it is unnecessary to fill out every line of dialogue with an action or attribution. There is power in an unattributed dialogue. A full stop can speak volumes. 

You have to include what are called ‘beats’ – there might be a cause or a typical action. But don’t give them ‘dialogue tourettes’ where at the end of every line of dialogue someone does an action. Don’t do that.”

“But the dialogue needs to be interspersed with a bit of description, action. But not too much.”

This ‘action’ at the end of a line of dialogue can completely change the meaning of what the character is saying, adding depth and tension to the conversation and story. 

“I’m happy to do that!” she said with a frown. That is a bad example – but clearly the body is saying something other than the dialogue.”

Mary-Lou believes in simplifying dialogue attributions to clarify who is speaking. Using ‘said’ is the most unobtrusive dialogue attribution. Adverbs such as ‘bleakly’ or ‘angrily’ can interrupt the natural flow of dialogue if overused. The context of the dialogue should set up the emotion behind what the characters are saying. 

“Sometimes dialogue can get really confusing if you have more than two people. You need to be really clear about attribution – who is  talking? Often it is he said, she said – they are the best ways to do it.”

For Mary Lou, using expressions and phrases relevant to the time is important to the story of ‘Two Orchards.’ People in 1960s Tasmania would have used era specific expressions in their day to day conversations and jargon relating to the apple industry which may be lost on today’s readership.

“I steer away from accents or brogues – but an important point is that everyone talks differently. They have their same favourite sayings, phrases. I think the first novel I had everyone using the same kind of modern day phrases. And then you get into your second draft and you think ‘gosh, that 70 year old woman would never use those words,” she says.

When writing dialogue for a character with an accent it would be clearer to say, for example, the Russian woman spoke with a heavy accent rather than write her dialogue phonetically. This method maintains the flow of the writing without detracting from the character. In regards to using language from a different era Mary-Lou reminds writers to think of their audience.

“You also need to bear in mind that you have a modern reader so you don’t want to confuse people either. Sometimes accents can be hard to read on the page. And the use of too many obscure words could well have your readers reaching for a dictionary instead of staying engrossed in your book.”

Dialogue has the power to mislead and create tension. It also has the power to explain and resolve. Get it right and it is a powerful storytelling tool.

About Mary-Lou Stephens

Mary-Lou Stephens is a Queensland based author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation and How to Stay Married: The Adventures of a Woman Who Learned to Travel Light in Life, Love and Relationships. She is a musician, writer and a former radio presenter who spent 15 years with ABC on the Sunshine Coast.


David Leser will be presenting The Craft of Writing on the following dates: 

Sydney on 8 March 2019,

Wollongong on 22 March 2019

Mudgee on 5 April 2019

For more information on the Craft of Writing follow the link:


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