25 Things You Should Know About Dialogue

Time for another iteration of the 25 Things series. This, I suspect, may be my last one here on the blog for awhile, but I’m contemplating putting together a small e-book of these lists with some new ones thrown in for good measure (already written part of 25 Things You Should Know About Publishing and Writing A Fucking Sentence). In the meantime, enjoy this one, and don’t hesitate to add your own in the comments.

Previous iterations of the “25 Things” series:

25 Things Every Writer Should Know

25 Things You Should Know About Storytelling

25 Things You Should Know About Character

25 Things You Should Know About Plot

25 Things You Should Know About Writing A Novel

25 Things You Should Know About Revisions

1. Dialogue Is Easy Like Sunday Morning

Our eyes flow over dialogue like butter on the hood of a hot car. This is true when reading fiction. This is true when reading scripts. What does this tell you? It tells you: you should be using a lot of dialogue.

2. Easy Isn’t The Same As Uncomplicated

We like to read dialogue because it’s easy, not because it’s stupid. Dialogue has a fast flow. We respond to it as humans because, duh, humans make talky-talky. Easy does not translate to uncomplicated or unchallenging. Dialogue isn’t, “I like hot dogs,” “I think hot dogs are stupid,” “I think you’re stupid,” “I think your Mom’s stupid,” “I think your Mom’s vagina is stupid.” Dialogue is a carrier for all aspects of the narrative experience. Put differently: it’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. I think I’m supposed to add “motherfucker” to that. I’ll let you do it. I trust you.

3. Sweet Minimalism

Let’s get this out of the way: don’t hang a bunch of gaudy ornaments upon your dialogue. In fiction, use the dialogue tags “said” and “asked” 90% of the time. Edge cases you might use “hissed,” “called,” “stammered,” etc. These are strong spices; use minimally. Also, adverbs nuzzled up against dialogue tags are an affront to all things and make Baby Jesus pee out the side of his diaper, and when he does that, people die. In scripts, you don’t have this problem but you can still clog the pipes with crap if you overuse stage directions. Oh, heavy dialect and slang? Just more ornamentation that’ll break the back of your dialogue.

4. Uh, You Do Know The Rules, Right?

Learn the structure of dialogue. If a screenplay, know the format. Capitalized name, centered above parenthetical stage direction and the line of dialogue. VO, OC, OS, contd:



I always said that life was like a box of marmots. You

never know which one’s gonna nibble off your privates.

In fiction, know when to use a comma, when to use a period, know where the punctuation goes in relation to quotation marks, know that a physical gesture (nodded, f’rex) is not a dialogue tag.

“Fuck that monkey,” John said.

“But,” Betty said, “I love that dumb chimp.”

John nodded. “I know, Betty. But he’s a bad news bonobo, baby. A bad news bonobo.”

5. Use It To Set Pace

You want a pig to run faster, you grease him up with Astroglide and stick a NASA rocket booster up his ass. You want your story to read faster, you use dialogue to move it along. Like I said: dialogue reads easy. Dialogue’s like a waterslide: a reader gets to it, they zip forth fast, fancy and free. Want to slow things down? Pull away from the dialogue. Speed things up? More dialogue. Throttle. Brake. Throttle. Brake.

6. Shape Determines Speed

Short, sharp dialogue is a prison shiv: moves fast ’cause it’s gotta, because T-Bone only has three seconds in the lunch line with Johnny the Fish to stitch a shank all up in Johnny’s kidneys. Longer dialogue moves more slowly. Wanting to create tension? Fast, short dialogue. Want to create mystery? Longer, slightly more ponderous dialogue. Want to bog your audience in word treacle? Let one character take a lecturing info-dump all over their heads.

7. Expository Dialogue Is A Pair Of Cement Shoes

One of dialogue’s functions is to convey information within the story (to other characters) and outside the story (to the audience). An info-dump is the clumsiest way to make this happen. Might as well bludgeon your audience with a piece of rebar. And yet, you still gotta convey info. You have ways to pull this off without dropping an expository turd in the word-bowl. Don’t let one character lecture; let it be a conversation. Question. Answer. Limit the information learned; pull puzzle pieces out and take them away to create mystery. Let characters be reluctant to give any info, much less dump it over someone’s head.

8. Showing Through Telling

And yet, you have to do it. Dialogue is a better way of conveying information than you, the storyteller, just straight up telling the audience. The curious nature of dialogue, however, is that it would seem to rectally violate that most sacred of writing chestnuts — show, don’t tell. I don’t open my mouth and project fucking holograms. I tell you shit. And yet, the trick with dialogue is to show through telling. You reveal things through dialogue without a character saying them. This means it’s paramount to avoid…

9. The Wart On The End Of The Nose

“On-the-nose” dialogue is dialogue where a character says exactly what he feels and what he wants for purposes of telling the audience what they need to know. When a villain spoils his own sinister plan, that’s on-the-nose. When a protagonist says, “I cannot love you, elf-lady, because an elf once touched me in my no-no hole,” that’s on-the-nose. Trust me, we’d live in a better, happier world if real world dialogue was all on-the-nose. On the other side, we’d experience duller, shittier fiction. Characters — and, frankly, real people — reveal things without saying them.

10. The Words Beneath The Words

Text versus sub-text. On-the-nose dialogue versus dialogue that is deliciously sub rosa. Meaning exists beneath what’s said. The best real world example of this is the dreaded phrase spoken by men and women the world around: “I’m fine.” Said with jaw tight. Said with averted eyes. Said in sharp, clipped tongue. Never before have two words so clearly meant something entirely different: “I’m fine” is code. It’s code for, “Yes, something is fucking wrong, but I don’t want to talk about it, but actually, I do want to talk about it but I want you to already know what’s wrong, and what’s wrong is that you had sex with my mother in a New Jersey rest-stop and put it on Youtube you giant unmerciful cock-waffle.”

11. Pay No Attention To The Dead Man Behind The Curtain

Put differently: pretend that dialogue is more about hiding than it is about revealing. The things we the audience want to know most — who killed his wife, why did he rob that bank, did he really have a romantic dalliance with that insane dancing robot — are the things the character doesn’t want to discuss. Dialogue is negotiating that revelation, and it’s a revelation that should come as easy as pulling the teeth out of a coked-up Doberman. Meaning, not easy at all.

12. Where Tension, Suspense And Mystery Have A Big Crazy Gang-Bang

The fact that characters lie, cheat, conceal, mislead and betray all in dialogue tells you that dialogue is a critical way of building tension and suspense and conveying mystery. Characters are always prime movers.

13. Quid Pro Quo, Clarice

Hannibal Lecter susses out the truth through dialogue. (Oh, and he also eats people.) But he’s also performing meta-work for the audience by sussing out character through dialogue. Clarice Starling is painted in part by Lecter’s own strokes. A character’s blood, sweat, tears, ball-hair and breast-milk lives inside their dialogue. How they speak and what they say reveals who they are, though only obliquely. After writing a conversation, ask yourself, “What does this say about the characters? Is this true to who they are?”

14. Let The Character Sign Their Own Work

Each line of dialogue from a character is that character’s signature. It contains their voice and personality. One speaks in gruff, clipped phrasing. The other goes on at length. One character is ponderous and poetic, another is meaner than two rattlesnakes fucking in a dirty boot. Don’t let a character’s voice be defined by dialect, slang, or other trickery. It’s not just how they speak. It’s also what they say when they do.

15. Dialogue Is A Theme Park

Theme is one of those things you as the author don’t really speak out loud — but sometimes characters do. They might orbit the theme. They might challenge it. They might speak it outright. Not often, and never out of nowhere. But it’s okay once in awhile to let a character be a momentary avatar of theme. It’s doubly okay if that character is played by Morgan Freeman. God, that guy’s voice. He could say anything — “Beans are a musical fruit” — and I’m like, “There it is! Such gravitas! Such power. It’s the theme. It’s the theme!”

16. Dialogue Is Action

We expect that dialogue and action are separate, but they are not. Speak is a verb. So’s talk. So’s discuss, talk, argue, yell, banter, rant, rave. Verb means action. That means, duh, dialogue is action, not separate from it. Further, dialogue works best when treated this way. Don’t stand two characters across from one another and have them talk at each other like it’s a ping-pong game. Characters act while speaking. They walk. Kick stones. Clean dishes. Load rifles. Pleasure themselves. Build thermonuclear penile implants. Eat messy sandwiches. This creates a sense of dynamism. Of an authentic world. Adds variety and interest.

17. The Real World Is Not Your Friend

I’m not talking about the MTV reality show, though one supposes there the lesson is the same (so not your friend). What I mean is, if you want to ruin good dialogue, the fastest path to that is by mimicking dialogue you hear in the real world. Dialogue in the real world is dull. It’s herky-jerky. Lots of um, mmm, hmm, uhhh, like, y’know. If you listen really hard to how people speak to one another, it’s amazing anybody communicates anything at all.

18. For The Record, You’re Not David Mamet

Yes, yes, I know. David Mamet writes “realistic” dialogue. Everyone interrupts everyone. They say inexplicable shit. They barely manage to communicate. Subtextapalooza. It’s great. It works. You’re also not David Mamet. I mean, unless you are, in which case, thanks for stopping by. Would you sign my copy of Glengarry Glen Ross? All that being said…

19. Again: Not A Ping-Pong Match

Characters don’t stand nose to nose and take turns speaking. People are selfish. So too are characters. Characters want to talk. They want to be heard. They don’t wait their turn like polite automatons. They can interrupt each other. Finish one another’s sentences. Derail conversations. Pursue agendas. Dialogue is a little bit jazz, a little bit hand-to-hand combat. It’s a battle of energy, wits, and dominance.

20. Conversation Is Conflict

Dialogue can represent a pure and potent form of conflict. Two or more characters want something, and they’re using words to get it. Before you write conversation, ask: what does each participant want? Set a goal. One character wants money. Another wants affirmation to justify her self-righteousness. A third just needs a fucking hug. Find motive. Purpose. Conscious or not. Let the conversation reflect this battle.

21. Authenticity Trumps Reality

“But it really happened,” is never an excuse for something to exist in fiction. Weird shit happens all the time in reality. Ever have something happen where you say, “Gosh, that was really convenient?” You put that in your story, the audience is going to kick you in the gut and spit in your cereal. Dialogue suffers from similar pitfalls. Just because you hear it in reality doesn’t mean it works in the context of story. Story has its own secret laws. You can make dialogue sound real without mimicking reality. One might term this “natural” dialogue; authenticity is about feeling real, not about being real.

22. Sometimes, You Just Gotta Babble That Shit Out

Writing dialogue sometimes means you just let two characters babble for awhile. Small talk, big talk, crazy talk. Let ’em circumvent the real topic. Give them voices. Open the floodgates to your sub-conscious mind. And let the conversation flow. Write big, write messy, write long. Cut later in comfort.

23. Nothing Wrong With Banter

You might write two characters just sitting down and shooting the shit and think, “I’ll cut this down later.” But don’t be so sure. Sometimes characters just need to chat, babble, mouth off. Who they are can be revealed in two people just fucking around, seeing what comes out of their heads. That can work if it’s interesting, if it puts the character on the map in terms of the audience’s mental picture, and if it eventually focuses up to be something bigger than how it began. Oh, and did I mention it has to be interesting?

24. The Greatest Crime Against Humanity Is Writing Boring Dialogue

Like I said, dialogue is easy to read. Or, it’s supposed to be. Anybody who writes dialogue that’s dull, that doesn’t flow like water and pop like popcorn, needs to be taken out back and shaken like a baby. Find the boring parts. The unnecessary stuff. The junk. Anything that doesn’t feel a) necessary and b) interesting. Stick it in a bag and set it on fire. Want to read great dialogue? Sharp, fast, entertaining, witty-as-fuck, with a lot going on? Go watch the TV show GILMORE GIRLS. No, I’m not kidding. Stop making that face.

25. Double-Duty Dialogueing

Heh, “duty.” Heh, “log.” Shut up. If you take one thing away from these 25 nonsense nuggets gems of wisdom, it’s this: let dialogue do the heavy lifting and perform double- or even triple-duty. Dialogue isn’t just dialogue. It’s a vehicle for character, theme, mood, plot, conflict, mystery, tension, horror. Dialogue does a lot of work in very short space: it’s the goddamn Swiss Army knife of storytelling. Or Macgyver. Or Trojan Horse. Or Macgyver hiding in a Trojan Horse carrying a Swiss Army knife. Didn’t I tell you to shut up already? Where’s Morgan Freeman when you need him? He’ll tell you to shut up and you’ll listen.

Corollary: “Everything Is Dialogue”

Part of why dialogue reads so easy is because it’s conversational, and conversation is how we interact with other humans and, in our heads, with the world. We talk to inanimate objects, for fuck’s sake. (What, you’ve never yelled at a stubborn jar of jelly? SHUT UP HAVE TOO.) There’s a secret, here, and that is to treat all your writing like it’s dialogue. Write things conversationally. Like you’re talking to the audience. Like you and the audience? Real BFFs. You can abuse this, of course, but the point is that in conversation you’ll use straightforward, uncomplicated language to convey your point — no value in being stodgy and academic when you’re just talking. So too is it with writing, whether it’s description in a screenplay or in fiction, you’ll find value in straightforward, uncomplicated, even talky language. Talk with the audience, don’t lecture at them. Everything is dialogue. Some of it’s just one-sided, is all.

So. How about you?

What are your rules of writing dialogue?

* * *

Did you enjoy this post? Guess what? Chuck has a book chock full of the same kind of booze-soaked, profanity-laden writing advice you found here. Look for CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY. Buy for Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), Nook, or PDF.


  • I’ve never been down with rule #3. It always seemed to be a direct rebuke to the more basic commandments of writing: Be vibrant, convey, show. Don’t use the bland when the spicy is available. Kick that shit up a notch. But both you and Patrick O’Duffy has repeated the exact same advice. Why? Why is yelling, howling, murmuring or crying bad? Never gotten it.

  • When you typed iterations I saw irritations, but that’s probably about me, not you.

    I find myself telling authors that we use more contractions in dialogue than we do in narrative, for some authenticity and some contrast, whereas you’re off in the advanced lessons I wish I could give. I guess you hang out with a better class of losers or something.

    Sean, if dialogue tags draw too much attention to themselves with all the howling, they draw attention away from the dialogue itself. If the reader is “howling” at the author’s word choice, that pulls the reader right out of the story by reminding him, painfully, “hey it’s only a story.” I can’t get lost in that world. The technique is too obviously advertising itself as technique, like a Shlamayan “twist ending” or a David Lynch confusopolis or the jerky camera work of Blair Witch Project. I can’t find the story in all that, and even if I can, I don’t feel motivated to work that hard.

    “I’m coming,” he ejaculated. Yeah, that’s what you want, your book to turn into a drunken party game.

  • I was astonished by no. 5. You say dialogue SPEEDS UP the story, and no dialogue (ie action) slows it down?? Not in my world. But maybe I am doing it wrong.

  • @Sean:

    Showing is a part of writing, but so is avoiding overly purple prose. If you rely on “vibrant” dialogue tags all of the time your work will seem like some melodrama at the primate house. Everybody’s howling and hooting their lines.

    Dialogue tags are ultimately speedbumps. We prefer as readers to gloss over them — a script doesn’t even *have* dialogue tags. The more variation to those dialogue tags, the slower the reader must read to discover what action the characters are performing.

    Further, 9 times out of 10, when I speak, I’m just speaking. I’m not screaming, crying, yowling, ejaculating. It’s just me, saying shit. That works for fiction, too — 9 times out of 10, that’s all the characters should be doing.

    At present, in fiction and in terms of getting published, this is as close to an inviolable rule as you get regarding dialogue.

    — c.

  • (Actually, @Michael says it well enough; shoulda read his comment. Also, @Michael, I like the idea of using contractions more in dialogue — though, most times, I try to make all my prose fairly conversational. But the point is true that the dialogue should be moreso.)

    — c.

  • Hey, on the dialect bit. I was afraid of that. So I’ve got all these shitkicking cowboy brigand assholes talking, well, like shitkicking cowboys brigand assholes. And my main character too is something of a drifter (though he be educated and he just does this to blend in, wink wink) so he talks in a similar fashion and now I read this and go “meh. He’s probably right.”

    But I just don’t think this is going to look right if they’re all talking like “normal” people, barristas at Starbucks or tellers at Bank of America. This is real frontier middle of nowhere bleak desert Clint Eastwood type stuff.

    I guess what I’m asking is, can setting override the dialect bit? Is there a way to reconcile it? And, ultimately, are there certain forms of typography in dialect to avoid (harder on the eye) and others that can be safely gone nuts with?

    • @Bret —

      My feeling is that you’re striving for the feel of the shitkicking assholes, but don’t need necessarily to mimic it exactly.

      I’d say if you’re writing a first draft, write it with the dialect you feel fits the bill. But then on subsequent drafts, consider pulling some of that back out — dialect is a strong spice, and too much will crap up the soup. This isn’t universally true — hell, few rules of writing are — and some writers handle dialect like a fucking scalpel.

      Even still, you want to read a writer that gets the feel of dialect — the verisimilitude — without aping it exactly, read yourself some Joe Lansdale.

      — c.

  • While feeding my youngest her bottle, I decided it was better to effect dialect through grammar (in my case, the bad variety) rather than phoenetic or funky spelling. Think you’re right about crapping up the soup. Thanks for the rec, too.

  • Do the book. DO IT.

    I talk a lot, so for me I sometimes find myself making my characters talk a lot. But I agree, that short concise dialogue is way better in most cases. What’s not said works even better at moving the story forward and all that jazz. I’m just repeating what you said.

    All I can say is that I avoid accents and dialect like crazy (or am very careful about it) and just leave it to the reader, cause I know I’ll mess it up.

  • “As you know Bob, Chuck gives good advice.”
    “Why yes, I did know this thing you are saying to me, Bob, but thank you for stating such words out loud for the convenience of people reading so they may glean such information with ease.
    “Thank you, Bob, for allowing me to dump my information on your head with my not-at-all irregular sounding words of verbage.”
    “You are quite welcome, Bob. Shall we continue using each other’s name in every line so as to make sure the likely attention-deficit reader knows which of us is speaking to the other?”
    “Gee, Bob, could that not at some point become confusing and or irritating?”
    “Do not use such words as “gee”, Bob. No one wishes to read your dialect.”

  • Hi Chuck,

    I’ve been reading this blog for a while and thought I’d chime in for a change. I don’t have a website but I do have a Live Journal blog that I haven’t written in since last October. I must say I find your way of writing delightfully profane. I think your writing advice is right on the money. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve been saving the “25 Things…” series, but if you put it into a booklet, I’ll buy it.

    I have “Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey” and “Irregular Creatures”, but I haven’t finished them. I’m nibbling “Confessions..” a little at a time to let it soak in.

    I’ve done a little writing, but it’s pretty much crap. I wrote a 51,000 word novel in last year’s NaNoWriMo that needs serious editing. Actually, it needs a complete rewrite. As I read “Confessions..” the urge to work on my story comes over me and new ideas flit through my aging brain. Thank you for the boost.

  • Very good. Dialogue is actually my favourite part of writing. It’s difficult yet fun to get it just right. In the book I’m working on, Exposing Dallas, I had to basically relay the motivations of one of the antagonist’s completely through an overheard telephone conversation. But you have to keep it interesting, tense, but reveal information that will be useful. You can also reveal a lot about the character simply by how they behave through the conversation. My guy’s doing his hair in the mirror. He’s flippant at first, but slowly grows worried, and you can see this in his eyes.

    Dialogue is one of the greatest tools we have in writing, and I hate when I read novels in which it is not realistic, too long winded, or all the characters speak like encyclopedias.

    Good post.

  • On the dialogue tag issue, my take on it is to only include tags that cannot be inferred from the lines being spoken or context. F’rex, if the line is “Push the button!” you don’t need to let us know that the character is shouting or otherwise excited. You do need one if the delivery is non-obvious, like a whisper (unless the characters have been whispering all along) or a fake Russian accent. That doesn’t change the 90% rule, though: if your characters are constantly delivering their lines in bizarre ways, the dialogue will become a chore to read.

  • If you were to put all your “25 Things” posts into one eBook, it should be required reading for anyone even thinking about writing.

    Dialogue is one of the main things I have a problem with along with rambly info-dumping, but often it’s something I look at and go “Hmm… This just doesn’t work,” sometimes without knowing WHY it doesn’t work. As soon as I read this article I starting thinking, “Ah, THAT’S why the end of chapter 1 is so rubbish!”

    I think my main gripe with dialogue in other people’s work (and I admit this is probably only a problem with medieval fantasy) is when the author decides to have the characters speaking in ‘Shakespearean’ English, spouting off “thees” and “thous” and “doth” and “verily” in the middle of every sentence. I don’t know if people actually did speak like that in the middle ages (somehow I doubt it), but surely there’s a way to write the dialogue so it sounds somewhat formal but without all that extra word vomit…

    Also, for some reason I imagined Aragorn from Lord of the Rings saying “I cannot love you, elf-lady, because an elf once touched me in my no-no hole,” and now I can’t stop laughing.

  • “Yes, something is fucking wrong, but I don’t want to talk about it, but actually, I do want to talk about it but I want you to already know what’s wrong, and what’s wrong is that you had sex with my mother in a New Jersey rest-stop and put it on Youtube you giant unmerciful cock-waffle.”

    Haha, that’s wrong on so many levels.

    Don’t pontificate, although I’ve met lots of real people who do that; they grab the stage and you can’t wrest it away. Big egos. I guess a character *can* be like that if the wirter is aware and careful.

    Sheesh, the Fourth is past. Summer will flee fast now.

  • 21. Twenty-one!! Ugh. That’s always been a pet-peeve of mine. Sitting in critique and half the class is saying that something doesn’t feel authentic or quite believable in context and the person just automatically shoots back, “Well, it happened in real life-happened to my mom-I was there-this really happened-you’re wrong-you’re wrong-you’re not my mom-you’re wrong.”

    And you know, my anger probably stems from the fact that I recognize the same impulse in myself. AHHH. It’s such a little get-out-of-jail-free card. “Oh, I’ve seen THAT happen before in my life. I’ll just pop that into this story without regard for anything else that makes a lick of sense because it actually happened.” But you’re so right: it’s gotta feel real… whatever that means… *sob, sob*

    Love these lists!

  • On dialogue tags: what John Murphy said. The flow and rhythm of the words should tell the reader how something’s being said. When I scan down a page and see that the author hasn’t just opened the thesaurus up to “said” but has torn the page out and tacked it above his/her computer, I die a little inside.

    Think of it this way: words have nuances to them. If I roar one line then shriek the next, sure, I’m talking loudly in both cases. But they convey completely different deliveries. If the characters are running the gamut of said-synonyms, they’re not having a conversation. They’re out-acting one another.

    (God damn it, now I have a blog post percolating to expound upon that. XD)

    Things I do:

    Read my dialogue out loud. It might look awesome on paper. It might even sound great echoing through the cavern that is my skull. But out loud, you get better a sense of what’s smooth and what’s clunky than you do staring at it on the page.

    Listen to how people speak. We drop words all the time. “Are you going to eat that?” turns into “You gonna eat that?” The answer to “Where’s Joe?” goes from “He went fishing” to “Fishing.”

    Lastly, on dialects: they can be wonderful and add color and character to your story. But if I have to stop reading and noodle out what the hell they’re saying every time they talk, I’m going to get distracted and yanked out of the story. Try picking a handful of words that show the dialect and stick to those. Maybe your Scotsman says “dinna” or “canna” instead of “didn’t”/”can’t.” Or your Candahoovian sneaks an aboot in here and there. I’ve seen a few writers compromise by putting the character’s initial bit of dialogue into one dialect-laden paragraph to give us an idea, then for the rest of the story they talk like everyone else except for those few key words.

  • I suggest everyone rent “My Dinner with Andre.” A conversation can be a story. It can be a movie. It can be gripping. Watch old reruns of Dick Cavett.
    “What are you doing with that knife!” is an old chestnut but that sort of thing works sometimes.
    Let them ramble. If you find yourself writing interminably long internal monologues, keep them as notes. They’re your character cheat sheet, not the story itself. Give your character someone to talk to, and you already know the subtext to their conversation. They might not be thinking about how they’re gonna kill their neighbor whose dog shits on their lawn and whose kids scream all night, but it’s going to color their conversation about Marmaduke and Dennis the Menace in the funny pages with Earl at the coffee shop, isn’t it?

  • I usually avoid Rule 3 by using dialogue tags as sparingly as possible.

    Instead of:

    “Your face looks like ass,” she said.

    “Doesn’t keep me from getting laid,” he said.

    “Not with me,” she said.

    “You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said.

    I will do something like this:

    “Your face looks like ass,” she said.

    He shrugged. “Doesn’t keep me from getting laid.”

    “Not with me.”

    That made him grin. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

    That way, I avoid the mind numbing repetition of ‘said’ and the problem of purple prose.

    Am I doing it wrong?

  • I’ve gotten into this habit of not using dialogue tags. At all. Ever. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but I fill in the gaps with facial expressions and actions. I know why I did it. When I started writing for real (and not just playing at it) I had a “he said” or “she said” on almost every piece of dialogue. It was too much. It slowed down the pacing.

  • +1 for using the Gilmore Girls as a reference. Sure everyone is crazy in the show, but that’s what makes it interesting, and the writing is superb. I’m going to ask my wife if I can research (uh, I mean spend some quality time together watching) old GG episodes.

  • @Rachel I agree with your method to a point. I feel like you need a tag every now and again. Too many times I’ve been reading tagless dialogue, and suddenly I can’t remember who is who. It’s like hopping in the car and driving to get…what was it again? Just like I have to backtrack through my thoughts to remember why I got in the car (*snaps* Lime, Hefty bags, and a shovel!), I have to move back through the dialogue until I find the last tag, and then carefully run back through the conversation again. It destroys my flow and annoys the pants clean off of me (when applicable).

    Perhaps this is because I have terrible memory, but I’m willing to bet I’m not the only victim of tagless dialogue pantsing.

  • Lauren,
    Good point about dialects. They are almost always clumsy in execution and detract from the story. Anything that stops me as a reader detracts from the story, and if I have to stop to figure out–or laugh at–dialect it’s even worse. Every time I create a character who uses some sort of dialect I end up cutting the dialect by final revision.

  • @Sara: Completely agreed — you don’t need to reiterate the tag over and over again.

    @Rachel: Yeah, I guess that can work — I think a few anchor tags will help, though.

  • I’ll need to keep #10 and #11 in mind. My characters keep only a slim barrier between what they’re thinking and what they say. Much as I wish real people would do.

  • There’s a thing I’ll do from time to time to check up on the whole differentiation-of-characters’-voices thing. I’ll go through the draft, or a good chunk of it, and color code all the dialog so that Mr. A’s dialog is red and Ms. C’s dialog is green and so forth. And then I’ll flip through reading bits hither and yon, out of context, and ask myself if I can tell who’s talking based on the voice alone — based not on what they are saying, but on how they are saying it.

    Which ain’t to say everybody’s gonna sound uni-fucking-que. Not how life works. If you’ve got, as I often do, a couple of working class guys that’s have grown up to be Chicago cops, they’re going to have a lot in common and they’re gonna sound somewhat alike. I’m not going to make one of them come off like Jeremy Irons all of a sudden just to differentiate the bastard. But you do have to dig down into the character and find something. Maybe one of them cusses a lot and the other got his mouth washed out with lye-soaked dead squirrels is he said darn it. Maybe one of them is prone to hyperbole and the other is more a just-the-facts guy. Something.

    And now I’m thinking maybe i made this comment on your blog before somewhere. I think maybe it was you. I dunno, It was so dark, there were so many. And I’m old goddamnit. My brain is toast. You’re a couple months in to one kind. I’m a quarter century in to three of them. That cute little smile that’s saving your youngin’s life right now? One of my kids comes in and smiles at me, I check the car for dents.

    I’m damaged man. Damaged.

    • There’s a thing I’ll do from time to time to check up on the whole differentiation-of-characters’-voices thing. I’ll go through the draft, or a good chunk of it, and color code all the dialog so that Mr. A’s dialog is red and Ms. C’s dialog is green and so forth. And then I’ll flip through reading bits hither and yon, out of context, and ask myself if I can tell who’s talking based on the voice alone — based not on what they are saying, but on how they are saying it.


      You have said this before, and I’ll repeat myself when I say: I adore this idea. And I’m not old, but I totally forgot about it. And I’m really for reals going to do this next time. It’s such a great idea.

      — c.

  • I don’t know how it would work in writing but HBO hit up on a clever way to keep from boring viewers during info dumps on Game of Thrones. They just toss in a naked chick.

  • I think my dialogue must be different from your dialogue, because I can’t count the times I’ve wound up screaming at my characters something along the lines of ‘would you all just shut up and DO something’ only rather less politely. That said, I think I know what you mean, it’s just I appear to have lumbered myself with a rather verbose cast who given half a chance would sit in a bar and talk about absolutely nothing for the rest of eternity or until they fall into drunken comas, whichever happens last.

    Also, on the subject of drunken conversations, I have one character who, while not actually being Irish (far future space setting… contemporary nationalities kind of completely irrelevant) but who, in my head, is voiced by Ed Byrne by way of a personal translation convention. Normally this manifests itself as a particular way of stringing his sentences together, but I’ve recently found that I have trouble stopping myself from using dialectal respellings once he starts drinking. My assumption is that my subconsciousness is trying to tell me that his accent gets stronger when he’s drunk… which come to think of it, actually happens to a lot of people I know.

    Oh also I should really watch myself with rule 10, I have at least one character who will frequently say things that no normal person would admit to, on the other hand she’s not really normal and to be fair the other characters (at least to begin with) act like she’s just sprouted bunny ears or something when she does it.

  • I think the best thing prose writers can do to learn dialogue is read lots and lots of scripts. Plays and screenplays. And read dialogue heavy books. I’ve always had a natural way with dialogue and it’s always the first thing people compliment in my work, but for the longest time I had no idea why or how I did what I did. Then I realized how many scripts I’d read to that point as an actor and how many dialogue heavy books I’d read and it made sense.

    I think this is why I’ve never been on board with the reading dialogue out loud thing. I hear dialogue in my head and use spacing and punctuation and other page tricks to convey the sound I have in my head on the page. The only dialogue tip I’ve ever actively implemented was from Dennis Lehane who mentioned how much he liked to end dialogue abruptly and have characters interrupt each other. I’d done that a wee bit but really ramped it up after that.

    And I am David Fucking Mamet. Bitch. God I loved that man before he went off the right end of his sanity.

  • I think I’m rehashing a lot of what’s already been said but I think a dialogue tag early on in the scene pretty much sets the mood for the conversation, rendering subsequent dialogue tags unnecessary. Also, once you’ve set up who’s talking, I don’t even think the ‘he said’/’she said’ is required any more – unless of course it’s a long conversation at which point, a few reminders or actions later on are helpful to keep the reader tuned in to who’s saying what. For example, off the top of my head…

    “What the hell where you thinking?” Jack yelled (Jack’s clearly pissed, although arguably the ‘hell’ might already give that away.
    “I didn’t think you’d mind” Amanda said.
    “Wouldn’t mind?”
    “Nothing happened.”
    “Lucky for you. You don’t just go around taking stuff, that’s my dad’s ’65 Oldsmobile. He knows every inch of that thing like the back of his hand. If you’d so much as put a scratch on it there’d be hell to pay.”
    “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
    He ran a hand through his hair. “All right. Just make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
    etc, etc, etc.

    By the way Chuck, I hope you have as much fun writing these lists as I do reading them.
    “I cannot love you, elf-lady, because an elf once touched me in my no-no hole,”
    That one had me crying with laughter. Thanks.

  • Oh, by the way, for a great book that’s like purely dialect, check out Riddley Walker. Hoban is one of my all-time favorites (Kleinzeit and the Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz are boss, yo, but the Mouse and His Child is probably my top pick).

  • Pet hate: names in dialogue because the writer is afraid of using ‘John said’ or otherwise identifying the speakers. Ends up sounding like a couple of period gents chatting…

    ‘Well Clarence, what do you think of that?’
    ‘Tip top and jaunty Bertie you dirty old flue faker.’

    Which is fine unless you have a contemporary setting, then you’ll end up with something that resembles the RAF pilots out of the Armstrong and Miller Show. Isn’t it though.

  • Loved the column and had to chime in here with my own thoughts, since it’s definitely worth it.

    Dialogue tags: I like them in moderation. Yeah, they’re like spices that put the parsley on a conversation; they add a little taste that reinforces the emotional timbre of a scene to my way of thinking, whether it’s pirates bellowing or ladies in the drawing room archly observing. But you make a good point, Chuck–moderation.

    The other one I’m surprised you didn’t mention is that once again, READING OUT LOUD is a terrific way of taking dialogue for a test run. As you point out, it’s a quick self-check against the bullshit meter that will keep you true to the characters who are speaking.

  • Here’s my biggest pet peeve with dialog – when characters say each other’s names every other line. “Mary, pass me the butter.” “Sure Jeff.” “Thanks Mary.” “Jeff, do you have the sports section?” “No Mary, I don’t.”

    ARGH PEOPLE DO NOT TALK THAT WAY. It’s so forced and fake sounding.

  • I hate TV dialogue. Show like Criminal Minds, NCIS and the CSIs try to demonstrate camaraderie by having moments of forced playful banter—that ultimately rings false—followed by dry procedural dialogue and exposition. House is the worse offender, its dialogue is so artificial and convoluted, I feel like it was written by some kind of alien life form.

    P.S. I’ve tried watching Gilmore Girls, but I can never hear what they’re saying. All I can focus on is their stupid, self-satisfied grins while they amuse themselves with their supposed rapid-fire wit. Ugh! And don’t get me started on Joss Whedon (“Do you know what happens to a toad when it is struck by lightning?”).

  • Thanks for sharing this. I found some helpful bits in there and enjoyed reading it. However as someone that majored in anthropology I just have to point out: a bonobo is a fucking ape, not a fucking monkey. Chimps are also apes. Though I do recognize that this was a fictional conversation between fictional characters and the word monkey probably sounds more comical than ape.

  • How can you not speak Aaron Sorkin’s name when you’re talking about dialogue? Hubba hubba. Well, it’s scripts, not fiction, so not exactly the same. But I think he’s fabulous.

    And, I love your lists. Thanks for taking the time to write all that you do!

  • I dabble in novels, but about 90% of my penmonkey time is devoted to screenplays. I use Movie Magic Screenwriter.

    After I’m done with the script, I’ll take a day and do what I refer to as a voice pass. There’s an option to just print out one character’s dialogue, and I’ll do it for each and every one of those bastards. The protag, the antag, Cock-Waffle #9. Make sure every line is organic to that specific character, each character has their own voice.

    I think I need to get out more.

  • I’ve always hated dialect because if that IS your dialect, you don’t know it. I read those words in my head with an accent; it’s just not the same as YOUR accent. When an outsider tries to mimic your voice (especially with stereotypes) it jerks you out of the narrative, leaving you back in the real world again and out of the story. It’s hard to get into a story when the doorway clearly labels you as a cultural outsider.

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