Write Dialogue or Pull Teeth? What to do, what to do…

by Neeks

It’s often difficult to write a believable dialogue on the page, and that could be because we don’t “write” a conversation the way we speak one.  Have you ever listened to people talk?  We often mangle the language a little when we speak.   When is the last time you asked someone, “Do you think that we will be on time?”  When we speak it the question more often comes out “Do you think we’ll be on time?” Or simply “You think we’re on time?” 

This may not be the best example but you can see what I mean.  With speech we tend to get in a hurry or we get too familiar with our subject and find ourselves taking shortcuts.  When writing we have to remember that the rules do still apply.

I recently read a post by Dave Farmer, he did a short story completely in dialogue.  No clues, no descriptions, nothing but dialogue between two people.  He did a great job and you can check his story out here,  That Day.  He got the idea from another blog which you can check out here, Indigo Spider.   They used a photograph as a visual clue and wrote a story using only dialogue.  I even tried my hand at it, and found it a fantastic exercise!

Why not give it a go and post a link to it here?  Remember to let the characters speak clearly, you can’t use he said, she said.  The reader must be able to distinguish the speaker.  I’m much less scared of dialogue now, I think I conquered my fear!  Here’s mine!  A Call to the Vet.


42 Responses to “Write Dialogue or Pull Teeth? What to do, what to do…”

  1. The book The Graduate has huge sections of nothing but dialogue without any of the he said she said in there. It’s pretty enteresting to read that and have it make sense. What a good exercise!

    • Good example Laura, that movie did have a lot of dialogue in it. I try to stretch my “writing” self when I can and this was a good way to do that. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  2. An interesting thought. I may have to try that.

    Thanks for the idea, Neeks!

  3. Sometimes, when I’m writing dialogue, I find that I have been far too formal. One can only really tell what it’s like when reading it back. That would be my tip to anyone, read it out loud. My partner laughs at me, she walked up the corridor one day and stopped to listen to me putting on all the voices – but it works!

    “When writing we have to remember that the rules do still apply.” I’m not sure that they always do; personally I feel that rules are made to be broken if it works. This is especially true when looking at dialogue. As you say, not everyone speaks in grammatically correct sentences. Here are some examples from moderately 🙂 successful books.

    “One thing I could never stand was to see a filthy dirty old drunky howling away at the filthy songs of his fathers and going blurp blurp in between as it might be a filthy old orchestra in his stinking rotten guts;I could never stand to see anyone like that. whatever his age might be, but more especially when he was real old like this one was.”

    One thing that is drummed into writers is to avoid repetition, however, what about the two examples below? What does the recurring “yes” bring to the first speech? What does the repetitive “sir”, in the second, tell us?

    “and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

    ‘If the biler of this vessel was Toe bust, sir,’ said his new acquaintance, `and Toe bust now, this would be a festival day in the calendar of despotism; pretty nigh equallin’, sir, in its effects upon the human race, our Fourth of glorious July. Yes, sir, that is the Honourable Elijah Pogram, Member of Congress; one of the master-minds of our country, sir. There is a brow, sir, there!’

    If in doubt, read it out!

    • Reading it out is an excellent tip, thanks Dennis.

    • Ah, Dennis! Yes. I recognize your “yes”! If you ever read my book “Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder,” see if you recognize my allusion to the same in there! I doubt if most people will make the connection.
      On the subject of dialogue, I started out a lot more formal than I am now. One of the important things is to remember to use contractions. People just don’t say, “I am going to the store now” or “You do not understand me.” And I agree that reading it out loud helps. You don’t need (you do not need?) any audience except your computer.
      However, sometimes I use more formal English for a purpose, e.g., if it’s an academic presenting a paper at a formal meeting. Also, my principal Bird alien in “The Termite Queen” never uses contractions. He speaks excellent English (he has lived on Earth 25 years), but this is my way of showing that English is still not quite natural to him. My termite people also don’t usually use contractions. Of course, they’re Shakespearean termites, so you wouldn’t expect them to sound exactly like the guy you meet at the corner hangout!

  4. Ooh, you’ve just given me an idea for what to write my next blog about. Thank you! I’m going to remain mysterious about it for now, but hopefully I’ll get it written in the next day or so, and I’ll link to this one from it (hope I’m not building it up too much now).

    I was also going to go say about reading dialogue out loud, but that’s already been covered so this sentence is redundant now.

  5. I just watched a short video clip by Maeve Binchy on YouTube about writing dialogue and how we tend to make it stitled when we write–good clip. Check it out. 🙂

  6. Ooo that was a great post from Dave! I think I make dialogue pretty realistic, maybe, but distinguishing who it’s talking without saying who said it its quite a challenge for me. It’s hard to give each person a separate voice unless you as the writer have multiple personalities! Lol join, but you get my meaning.

    I’ve got to run to class, but I can’t wait to read your story!

    • I’m glad you checked out his story. It was pretty cool, wasn’t it? Thanks for stopping by Raven!

      • Hey Neeks, yes it was totally cool! I’d read it when it was posted and I was very impressed. I’ve been wondering about my dialogue and my ‘voices’; whether each person sounded enough different so I wouldn’t need the tags with each quote, and whether it sounded believable, though I think I have that part, from what family says. Then again what family will tell you different? LOL

        I’ll try reading out loud when I edit. I appreciate you posting this very much, and Dennis’s suggestion as well.

  7. A friend of mine recommends spending a day recording her conversations, then play them back to hear “real” dialogue. Apparently it helps a lot. I’ve never tried it because I love writing dialogue.

  8. Reblogged this on By C. R. Scott and commented:
    This is an insightful article about writing believable dialogue. I rather like the exercise they suggested within it: Write a short story completely in dialogue. “No clues, no descriptions, nothing but dialogue between two people.” I think I might try this myself.

  9. You don’t want you’re dialogue to get TOO natural.

    You can wind up with ‘This is Spinal Tap’-‘A Mighty Wind’-Eugene Levy mockumentary style dialogue. Kind of painful to read.

    That’s just my opinion, though. Maybe you DO want that.

    • When I said natural I guess I just meant “readable.” Normal sounding (for that character). You don’t want the reader to get hung up on big words or odd word choices that pull them out of the book and make them think about sentence structure or who is supposed to be talking? etc. Thanks for your comment, and you are absolutely right!

  10. In judging a script, they say you should be able to cover the names on the left and still know who is speaking. It’s probably equally true of characters in novels. Each character should have their own unique way of speaking – but as usual, that’s easier said than done.

  11. Fun idea, Neeks. I enjoy writing dialogue, and in fact I think it’s easier to pull it off than some other aspects of writing fiction. Like some others have already mentioned, I always read my stuff out loud, and I make sure the characters have their own voice to eliminate the he said/she said.

    • It’s something I’ve had a problem with in the past, and had been afraid of at times. Reading it aloud does help a lot. I was impressed with Dave’s example and thought others would like to give it a try as well.

  12. In answer to those who have indicated that it was difficult to distinguish who is speaking, it depends on the situation. If two people are talking, you hardly need any “he said, she said” unless the reader is likely to lose track of which one is currently speaking or if you want to qualify how they’re speaking, e.g. “she said with a smirk” or “he yelled like a crazy man.” Another way to indicate the speaker is to put some descriptive phrase with the speech, such as “Bob was setting the table. ‘Did you have a nice walk?'” You don’t need “he said” because it’s all in the same paragraph and it’s clear Bob is speaking.
    When you have a bunch of people conversing, then you may need more indication of the speaker or it can get confusing.

    Here’s an example of my dialogue: the opening paragraphs of Chapter 6 of “The Termite Queen,” where Kaitrin Oliva the linguistic anthropologist has just been scratched by the specimen of giant termite:

    Beside herself, Kaitrin shouted, “Damn it, Gwidian, I wasn’t in any danger! It was only exploring me! Ouch!”
    MedTechs in full hazgarb were swarming around, irrigating the two-centimeter scratch with stinging antiseptic, pressing transdermal injectors full of antipathogens against her neck.
    A’a’ma was hopping around the periphery in much distress, staying as far away as he could in order to avoid having to undergo detox. Gwidian loomed over Kaitrin, his face furious.
    “Do you know how much alien flora is in that creature’s saliva? To say nothing of the terrestrial microbes attacking it! This is why it’s not wise to allow amateurs … ”
    “It’s your fault it scratched me! If you hadn’t blundered in like a bull elephant and startled both of us, nothing would have happened! We were just getting to know each other!”
    Gwidian gestured extravagantly. “You flaming XA types can find human attributes in rocks!”
    The MedTechs were hauling Kaitrin away to the detox area. “And you flaming hard-science types can’t see past your data files! I’m convinced this is an intelligent lifeform – that it wants to communicate!”
    “Goddam it, Oliva! I was really afraid for you!”
    And as this outburst followed her out the door, Kaitrin found herself surprised by Prf. Gwidian’s reaction for the third time that morning.

    • I think we all agree with you, it’s not hard to distinguish When we need to identify the speaker ~ the problem for some (read me) is in feeling as though you’ve done it effectively. Your example certainly is effective.

  13. Just thought that I would jump in here again. What follows is part of a critique of a story of mine (which I am currently re-working).

    “This may be part of British spellings, but I found a lot of the dialogue between Paul and his wife very “stiff” when he
    was driving his car from work the first time, where as the dialogue between Paul and Parker felt right.”

    The above really made me think, and I still have no answer. The whole point of the story is that the protagonist starts out as an insulated corporate drone in the near future, with no real feelings for other people, the only person he feels close to is his wife and that is in a very paternalistic way. A lot of the initial dialogue is quite formal, including the way his wife is at home learning to programme ready meals etc. It was supposed to be, if not a parody of those 50’s TV series with the ‘little woman’ at home doing wifely things, then at least referring to that sort of attitude. Certainly the ‘hero’ is nothing of the sort at the start of the story.

    As the story progresses, circumstances change, and the couple hit the road looking for work, at this point the language between husband and wife becomes more natural.

    I just wondered if other people have tried to use the way someone talks to try and indicate their attitudes i.e. not so much what they are saying but how they are saying it. What worked for you and what didn’t?

    • I thought Dave did a pretty good job, one of his characters is very angry and a feeling of barely restrained violence comes through very clearly in his dialogue.
      I’m sorry I haven’t read any of your work yet, but as for the critique of the story it’s one of two things, right? 1) The reader is missing clues that would lead them to understand the stiff dialogue in the beginning, or 2) The clues aren’t there. From what you’ve said, this sounds like a #1 to me.
      Question: How did you get bold text in the comment box? I’ve tried and can’t get wordpress to do it!

      • Thanks.

        You have to embed the html codes in the text you are posting. For example (but making sure to use the arrow brackets not the curly ones)

        {B} bold {/b} or {I} italic {/i}

      • Oh, and when I said arrow brackets, of course I meant > and <

        As for your point that the reader was missing the clues, perhaps; but maybe that means the clues were a bit to subtle! Will look again…

      • Thank you Dennis, if I did that right…

    • In response to Dennis’s query about making characters’ language reflect their attitudes, I can again use my own novel as an example. I’ve mentioned somewhere (was it earlier in this thread?) that my alien Bird Professor never uses contractions even though he speaks excellent English (he has lived on Earth for 25 years). This is meant to suggest that he isn’t speaking his native language. Kaitrin Oliva is young, enthusiastic, and strong-willed; she always speaks in an informal, relaxed manner and she can be blunt and tactless. But the best example is Griffen Gwidian, my enigmatic male protagonist. He’s from West Britan (read: Wales), although he spent most of his childhood and youth in South Africa. Then he went back to Britain for university. Therefore, he is supposed to be speaking with a hybrid British accent and to have a deep, rich voice. He speaks rather formally and he lards his dialogue with quotations from “Hamlet.” And he has the reputation of being a womanizer; he’s a man that women seem unable to resist. In the beginning Kaitrin thinks he’s a poseur, but later she learns that he adopts this stance for self-protection – to hide his real self. Here’s another bit of dialogue, spoken between Kaitrin and Gwidian during a dinner date when things are going a bit sour:

      “So you were already a Professor before you went into xenology.”
      “No, I wasn’t,” he said a little curtly.
      Twelve years of work and he had nothing to show for it? [This is meant to be in italics; I always do people’s thoughts in italics.]
      “Then that’s why you were so old when you became a Professor,” she said with an utter lack of tact.
      Gwidian’s carefully shaved cheeks reddened. “I was thirty-eight – undoubtedly that seems ancient to you,” he said. “I’m quite certain you will have earned seven Professorships by that age, Kaitrin … I beg your pardon, Asc. Oliva.”
      They were drinking a rather heady wine and both of them were growing increasingly edgy. Kaitrin could sense herself getting out of control, but in her present mood she was rather glad of it. “I prefer that, yes. I feel we should preserve some barriers – maintain the conventions of professional distance.”
      “The conventions of professional distance are perhaps more honored in the breach than in the observance.”
      “You can’t win me over with Hamlet quotations every time, Prf. Gwidian.”
      “Damn it, Kaitrin, it’s not a pretense. It’s my natural way of talking!”
      “Don’t call me … ”
      “Do you know that you are the first woman I’ve ever brought here who refused to let me utter her given name?”
      “Maybe that’s the trouble! You’ve brought too many women here!”
      They were both getting rather loud. At a nearby table someone glanced across and Gwidian lowered his voice, but his irritation trembled in it. “You know, Asc. Oliva, I had thought you the sort of woman who would judge a man by firsthand observation rather than by rumor and hearsay. Perhaps I was mistaken.”
      “Margit Terrie wasn’t a rumor!”
      Gwidian took a sharp breath, then expelled it and said nothing. Kaitrin rubbed her hand across her mouth. How had they gotten to this pass, anyway?
      She excused herself and headed for the women’s room.

  14. Great post Neeks! I hadn’t replied because I was milling around trying to do something on dialogue. I give up… it’s too hard! Kudos to you!

    *bows out gracefully*

    • Beth, you are much too kind. Try it again and make one of the characters look and think like yourself. Have the florist flirt (with you) while delivering roses from the boyfriend. You can start with a short piece and go from there, having just that small interaction. Or you can add the boyfriend coming home and getting all macho about his girl, or he is crushed that she flirts back, or is proud that she shuts the guy down. Our day isn’t one continuous conversation, it’s a series of short ones with lots of different people.

      I may have cheated a little in writing a phone conversation, by doing that I eliminated any real need for setting or character descriptions.

  15. Ok Neeks, I’ve written that blog now that I mentioned somewhere up there ^^^ that you inadvertently gave me the idea for! It’s called ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish (Or why everyone should read Salinger)’ – if you go to my blog you’ll see it!

  16. Thanks for the shout out too!


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