Talking To Yourself

Dialogue Done right“So how do you write convincing dialogue?” He leaned over her kitchen table, pen hovering over his notebook.  “I can’t seem to do it right.”

“What?  I didn’t hear you.  Wait a second.  The teakettle is boiling.  Ah.  There it goes.”  She grabbed the teapot, opened the whistling spout, and poured the boiling water over a tea bag in a cup.”   Nothing like a good cup of tea, I always say.  Now, what were you saying?  About writing what?”

“Dialogue.  How do you go about writing it, so it doesn’t sound like… you know… an interrogation scene.  Or a lecture.”

“Oh.  That.”  She brightened up. “First you learn how real people talk.  Did I ever tell you I used to go into diners with a notebook and–”

“Yes.  Yes you did.  And about the guy with tattoos and his landlady.  Never mind that.  This is about writing.”

“Okay, okay.”  She fished the tea bag out of the tea and tossed it, then came to the table, both hands wrapped around the steaming cup as if for warmth.  “So, what do you want?  Rules?”

“Something like that.  Principles, at least.”

“Um… the most important one is that people don’t talk linearly.  You don’t have a question and then an answer all nice and orderly.  Real people interrupt each other all the time.”

He made a face.  “Isn’t that terribly rude?”

“Probably.  But… Do you remember when that woman at our writers’ group waited till everyone had shut up to talk?”

“Right.  She just kept getting madder and madder.  I thought she was going to explode.  And none of us had any clue why.”

“Yeah.  There’s some amount of cuing.  I mean, most of the time we don’t actually talk over each other as such,” she said.  “Well, maybe we do, but–”

“Not exactly.  We wait for the momentum to slow, right?”

“Right.”  She took a sip of the tea and tapped his notebook with a finger.  “The other thing is, give the characters tags or something, when you have page after page of unbroken dialogue.  Otherwise, people won’t know who is talking.”

“You mean, give one an accent or something?”
She looked at him over her glasses.  “If I ever catch you writing accents phonetically,” she said.  “I will wash my hands of you.  You have no idea how hard those are to read to non-natives or people who don’t hear very well.”  She took another sip of her tea.  “Besides, your perception of the accent might not be what most people hear.  Do you really want to make this a test in phonetic transcription?  Or are you writing a story?”

“Story, story,” he said, showing both empty hands, in a gesture of appeasement.  “So, give them different levels of discourse?  Like one of them is illiterate?”

“Not always appropriate to every story.  Consider stage business instead.”

“The thing with the dog?”


“Shakespeare,” he said.  “You know, the bit with the dog.”

“TMI about Shakespeare,” She said, then laughed at his shocked expression.  “I’m joking.  Never mind.  No, I mean give your characters something to do, like one is drinking tea.  Or one smokes, or something.”


“Not really.”  She put the cup down, but kept her hands around it.  “It becomes more or less invisible.  You know, people don’t usually just stand there and talk.”

“Okay, but what about when a character has a lot of information to impart to the other.  How do you get past a page or so of it without it seeming like a long lecture?  I always hear that readers don’t like unbroken text, but how do you switch to another paragraph?”

“Oh, that’s easy.  You just have your character talking along and then, if you need to switch paragraphs, you just leave the end quote off the line.

“Then you start the next paragraph with a quote, and everyone knows the same character is still talking, till you get to the end of that paragraph, when you close the quote.  However, if your character is going to run to multi-paragraph speeches, you really should consider stage business to mark it’s still the same person talking.”  She filled the teakettle again and set it on the stove.

“You see,” she said.  “It’s much more natural that way and people won’t wonder if you just accidentally forgot the end quotes.”

“Besides–” She rinsed her cup, got a fresh tea bag and put it in.  “You know what copyeditors are like.  They might close that quote, and you might not notice.  And then your readers will be all confused.”

“I heard stories about copyeditors.”  He wrote something in his notebook.  “Like the guy who corrected the made up language.”

“Of course you did.”  She poured water over the tea bag.  “If we were fictional, we would now be engaged in maid-and-butler dialogue, which, as you know, is a no-no.”

“So, I have to become a butler?  And I never thought of you as a maid.”  He eyed the unwashed dishes on the counter.

“Nah.  It’s called that because it was used in old English comedies of manners, in which the maid and butler talked, telling each other stuff the other already knew, as a way of introducing the master and mistress to the reader or watcher.  It’s pretty silly, really.  No one talks like that in real life.”  She seemed to realize something, suddenly.  “Hey.  I’m sorry.  I never offered you tea.”

“I can’t have tea,” he said.  “Seriously.  We don’t even have names.  If I were drinking tea, too, then our similar speech patterns would become too confusing to the readers.”

“You could always take up smoking.”

24 responses to “Talking To Yourself

  1. Outstanding lesson/example on dialogue. Wish I’d thought of doing that. I’ve had several people ask much the same question, causing me to stumble about for an answer. Thanks, Hope!

  2. A perfunctuary knock and the door opened. “Hey . . . ” Her next door neighbor was a rotund little creature, and now her eyes widened to match her figure. “Oh, I didn’t know you had a ‘friend’ over . . . so early in the morning. I’ll call you later, I just wanted to know if the Main Character noticing the reactions of the speaker could inside a dialog paragragh or need a paragraph of their own.” She finally stopped talking and ducked back out the door.

    I clutched my cup and closed my eyes in despair. “The worst gossip in the neighborhood!”

    • Momentarily disconcerted at the intrusion of first person, the narrator leaned against the door, shaking. “Listen, grasshoper, I’m going crazy. I swear I just changed to first person there for a moment. Hold me. And never mind the gossip.”

      • “Just tell me we’re not in for a complete rewrite!”

        She felt him shudder and nodded agreement. “It was almost like some inexperience writer elbowed into the Creator’s work. But surely a complete rewrite will be unnecessary! In fact,” She straightened and stepped back from his embrace, “no doubt the Creator will cut that entire, unfortunate, intrusion.”

        “Does that mean I have to take up smoking?”

  3. Not since Alexander Pope wrote a poem on how to write poems has a lesson been given so artfully. Furthermore, had Rand applied these rules, Atlas Shrugged would’ve been a pamphlet.

    I really appreciate this because I struggle with this all the time.

    Dialogue is hard, because it is inherently phoney. There’s a reason it took a genius like Aeschuylus to decide…hey…what would happen if we put another person on stage and had the two of them TALK to each other? Because it isn’t natural. Even the “interruptions” you insert above are nothing like the cross talk of real conversations. They are styled after real interruptions, just enough to convince you they are, like a lie that tells the truth, but if you wrote of a transcript of a real conversation you’d think the people were mad, it would be so rambling and incoherent. The trick is to make something that approaches naturalism without embracing it. Because once you’ve truly embraced realism, it ceases to be readable and becomes modernist literature. Ick.

    I’m going to gush here for a minute about someone that doesn’t need any more gushing, but I’m going to do it anyway. J.K. Rowling.

    No seriously.

    Think about her books. Of all the things people compliment her on, her imagination and originality (which I think is overrated, orphan chosen boys? Hasn’t that been cliche since…I dunno…Moses? Other than that she stripmines world folklore for material, nothing more) it amazes me no one compliments her on her dialogue. I love her dialogue. Large tracts of many fantasy books are given over to description or narrative, but reading her series again to my children I’m amazed at how it’s nearly ALL dialogue. She uses it to push everything. Every revelation, the narrative, the characters, everything. Even when she has to reveal a point about someone else, she has Dumbledore and the protagonist in the Pensieve watching two other people…dialogue. It’s amazing really.

    What’s even more amazing, nearly two-thirds (or more in some books) of those 3407 pages of dialogue is between just three people, Ron, Hermione and that other fellow – who in my opinion was never as interesting as any of his friends.

    Could you imagine telling someone you were going to write 3000 pages and that most of it would be dialogue between the same three people, documenting their conversations for seven years?

    Everyone would have expected some kind of modernist “Waiting for Godot” monstrosity. No one would have read it!

    And yet it flows so nicely, and feels so natural. I’m really enjoying reading HP again after having written my novel. I think Jo is overvalued for her creativity, but frankly, undervalued for her writing skills.

    I will stand in the corner awaiting tomatoes if anyone disagrees.

    • She lost the plot a little (literally) after the third book mostly, I think, through listening to critics. But in the main I agree with you. Originality my sore feet — she wrote British Boarding School Adventures with magic. I grew up with Brit YA and all the characters fit the stereotypes of those Adventures, with the difference it’s co-ed.

      But technique? D*mn the woman has technique. I’ll confess I never paid attention to the dialogue, but the way she rolls the plot? Lord a’ mercy, it’s a thing of beauty.

      • I totally agree, there is nothing remarkably original about her books. They are just VERY well written.

        Even the magic is not terribly original or consistent, but then the last thing those books are about is magic.

        Fair warning, total pet peeve here. Rant incoming.

        I have this argument all the time with friends who think I’m crazy, but that woman doesn’t give a fig about magic. There are large tomes of anthropological studies on the nature of magic, sympathetic magic, the golden bough, etc. and I don’t think she picked up a one. I seriously doubt she ever filled up a notebook on magical metaphysics, or ever set any real rules for her systems of magic. The few hard rules on magic that she sets down early in the series are jettisoned by the end. Magic is just the Macguffin she uses to get you into these character’s lives.

        If you want a view on how to use magic in a consistent creative way, I still think Aspirin’s Myth series is one of the best. It’s a total romp and farce, but under it all, you can really tell Robert stopped and thought…”So how does this magic stuff work anyway?” And in a concise and beautiful way, he lays out his magical theory and practicum. It’s really quite good. We hear about the existence of magical theory in HP, but Hermione attends those classes alone and we never hear or see much of it ever, with the exception of the Horcuxes and “Love” magic, but that’s clearly fudged and kludged together.

        I agree there is a change after the third book, but I don’t think its the critics that did it. After the third book she became intimately involved in the movies. Movies are a far more collaborative artform, and being in that environment changed her. Her action sequences became far more involved and she started describing them the way a screen writer might give directions to a production team. Also, descriptions of characters in the later books begin to resemble the characters in the movies, more than they do the descriptions form the earlier books.

  4. Bravo! An excellent demonstration of dialogue. I’m always trying to improve on mine in my writing. I’ve always felt that it was a weak area for me. Thanks for such an entertaining lesson.

  5. Tea bags? not loose leaf and strainer? Barbaric!!!

    Seriously, the use of props is important but can be abused (such as detailing the process of making the tea without bag.) OTOH, it can also provide an opportunity to impart character information while flagging the dialogue exchanges. For example, the person making tea could be depicted as precise, even prissy (think Poirot) or slightly klutzy, or her companion as either helpful (grabbing for sponge when she knocks over the tea mug) or indifferent (sitting passive while the spill spreads across the papers on the desk top.) It can also be used to display development or particular environmental conditions (e.g., growing adaptation to low-G environment.)

    • I have to confess I’m not awake enough in the morning for loose leaf. And of course the stage business should forward the plot. In this case, it just forwards a rather bad joke… 🙂

  6. Ok, serious question.

    I am writing a character who is from Belfast, but has lived in the US for…a very long time.

    If you object to phonetic spellings, which I think is sensible, how do you handle dialect?

    And I’ve already ruled out the cliche and stupid “Top of the morning” leprechaun speech idioms for obvious reasons.

    • yes, but I bet there are distinctive dialects. There are also rhythms of speech. Try those.

      • Like thusly — note I spelled NOTHING phonetically:

        Look, honey, ain’t nothing special about what I do. I wish there were. I’m not the first and I certainly won’t be the last southern girl whose mama taught her to pack her exorcism kit in her purse whenever she went out for a big date. You got your protection – in case he forgot – and your other protection all tucked into that little purse of yours, and you don’t admit to either because, well, it is all about butter not melting in your mouth, ain’t it?
        What I do is different not in kind but in degree. After spending her whole life protesting about my using grammar like ain’t and double negatives and railing against my hatred of nylons and my smoking in public, mama up and died and, son of a bitch – yes, she would have glared at me for swearing too – if she didn’t leave me stuck with the family business.
        The call had reached me on a cool spring morning, high up in my rented loft in Denver, Colorado, where I’d run away – at least that’s what mama always said – to pretend I was no Southerner or – in my view of it – to get a job in commercial art and use my degree. As Aunt Janeybelle’s slow drawl poured into my ear, slow as trickling molasses, I looked out my window, at the still-snow-capped Rockies. “Well, Honey, it ain’t no manner of use saying you didn’t break her heart, because you sure did,” she’d said. And, “Her last wish was that you’d come home.”

  7. Nice, but a bit archaic. Southerners are more likely to say “Dude” these days than “Honey.” Shame that.

    How strict is your objection to phonetic spellings? I agree that Hagrid’s “summat” for “something” was a bit of a challenge, but many are natural. For example, dropping “g’s” so “saying” becomes “sayin” and “going” becomes “goin” is pretty easy on the reader. Also, some common contractions/abbreviations like “gonna” for “going to” and “dunno” for “don’t know” are used habitually by people today in e-mail and texting.

    I realize how dropping “H’s” all over the place can get confusing, but some phonetics are pretty easy on the eye and ear.


    • yeah, but Miss Honey Childe is special… 😛

    • Yeah, dropping gs and contractions are okay, but if you get more involved than that it gets… odd. Look, as an ESL speaker, Heinlein threw me with “purty” . I had to stop and pronounce it, and you don’t want that. Now, I grant you I’m an extreme case being ESL AND having mid range hearing loss, but all the same, most people seem to object to phonetic spelling.

      • Good deal. Thanks!
        Cause after listening to a bunch of Belfast accents it became clear that the letters “H” and the final “T” are practically stricken from the land of Ulster.
        “How” becomes “‘Ow,” “happened” becomes “appened” and so forth.
        Final “T’s” are dropped everywhere, and then they replace it with a vowel! “Don’t” becomes “dona” and even the “TH” sound disappears up the hard palate until it becomes an unaspirated “t” or “d” “Think” becomes “tink” or “dink” and “that” become “dat” “The” becomes “da” and on and on and on!
        Oy. It was a ruddy nightmare. I was makin’ a right bags of it meself.

        See, your way is better. 😉 Thanks again!

        Oh, and for people trying to do Pennsylvanian or Texan accents. I’m your Huckleberry. Just remember. “Y’all” is singular, second person. “All Y’Alls” is the correct plural form.

      • “All y’all” is new-fangled and probably some Yankee plot! Y’all is perfectly plural on its own, says this Texas-bred girl! :p

        (Meanwhile, there’s this weird… Maine? accent, where “always” develops an terminal t. Alwaist. My mother-in-law (formerly in Maine, IIRC) does it. My spouse does it. They don’t even hear it. It’s weird.)

  8. Thanks! This post actually made me feel much better about my recent work, because I think I followed your example before I read your example. The story started with six writers sitting around in a room, talking. While I’m not radically anti-said, I felt like I needed other ways to distinguish who was talking. Maybe one time in ten did I use the simple “Bill said”. The rest of the time, I had them address each other or gave them “stage business”.

    And the stage business taught me things about them. When one character leaned forward and gave another a comforting pat on the arm, I realized they were married. When one character threw a stuffed tribble at another and it bounced off his head, it landed on his dog — and I realized he had a dog (who is now becoming a character in her own right). When one character got drunk enough to stop arguing with what he clearly thought was nonsense, I realized he doesn’t hold his liquor well, and maybe has a drinking problem.