Six impossible things

Doing Dialog

One of the first tasks most writers face is improving their dialog. This seems to happen in stages. In my experience, beginners start by writing dialog the same way they write narrative, in long, formal, complex sentences without idioms or contractions. Characters frequently speak in paragraph-long speeches with far too much explanation (usually of things that either everyone in the story should already know, or things they can see for themselves), so that if you print out a page and pin it to the far wall, you can’t tell whether it’s a page of dialog or a page of description. It goes something like this:

“Beside the door, you will find a small cold-box, made of ash and enchanted to keep whatever it holds as if lying in deep snow on a mild winter’s day. It will easily accommodate those perishable goods with which, if my perception is correct, you have filled your knapsack,” said the housekeeper.

“We thank you for your consideration, and shall certainly make use of the facilities you have mentioned,” the ranger responded. “Your hospitality is most appreciated after our long and arduous journey through the mountains, especially after the bandit attack, the encounter with the dragon, and the race to get away from the flash flood that swept away our horses and left us in the state you see, with our garments torn and dirtied and our backpacks over-full with what provisions we could salvage from fire and water.”

“Your tale is a harrowing one indeed, and moves me to make you thrice welcome to the Inn of Nine Rooms, which I hope you will find both safe and comfortable, as well as much to your taste after such a trip,” the housekeeper replied.

In the next phase, the writers have figured out the sentence structure and syntax reasonably well, but they often go overboard in the opposite direction, using nothing but short, simple sentences. Also, the content still unnecessarily repeats information and often sounds like someone reading from a FAQ:

 “Do you have somewhere to store our supplies?” the ranger said.

“There is a cold-box next to the door,” said the housekeeper.

“Can we use it for the food?” the ranger asked.

“Yes, it is nearly empty,” the housekeeper said.

“That is good. We have a lot to store. It was a rough trip. There were bandits, a dragon, and a flash flood,” the ranger said.

“That sounds terrible,” the housekeeper said.

Eventually, writers realize they don’t have to do the entire scene in the spoken part, even if it is a conversation. Contractions appear. They start using character actions and bits of description to prevent repetition and flesh out the scene, and they begin paying more attention to the positioning and phrasing of the speech tags:

The ranger lifted a bulging leather knapsack with a scorch mark across the side. “Do you have somewhere we can store our supplies?”

“There’s the cold-box,” the housekeeper said, pointing to a large chest beside the door. “It’s nearly empty.”

“Thanks.” The ranger opened the chest and began sorting through the contents of the knapsack, emptying a whetstone, a worn pair of gloves, two tent-pegs, and a coil of rope onto the floor and piling a collection of bruised fruit, broken crackers, waterlogged cheese, and squashed sandwiches into the cold box.

The housekeeper watched with growing curiosity, and finally could keep silent no more. “What on earth happened to you?”

“The trip through the mountains happened,” the ranger replied with a sigh. “First it was bandits, then a dragon. And just when we thought we’d come through the worst, a flash flood. This is all we could salvage of our supplies.”

“That sounds terrible!” said the housekeeper.

That level is sufficient and satisfactory for much publishable fiction. The next improvements come in giving each character a distinct voice. The first try at this is often done by using wildly different accents.

The ranger lifted a bulging leather knapsack with a scorch mark across the side. “Have you a storage room for our supplies?”

“Nowt save t’ cold-box,” the housekeeper said, pointing to a large chest beside the door. “But tis nigh empty.”

“Thank you.” The ranger opened the chest and began sorting through the contents of the knapsack, emptying a whetstone, a worn pair of gloves, two tent-pegs, and a coil of rope onto the floor and piling a collection of bruised fruit, broken crackers, waterlogged cheese, and squashed sandwiches into the cold box.

The housekeeper watched with growing curiosity, and finally could keep silent no more. “Was’t ill luck or bad planning has left ye w’ such a mish-mash?”

“Evil chances,” the ranger replied with a sigh. “Bandits, then a dragon, then a flood. This is all we could salvage.”

“Lawks!” said the housekeeper.

As the writer improves, they start using more subtle distinctions – word choice, syntax, the way the sentences scan – as well as content. One character may be willing to explain everything in great detail, while another sticks to the bare minimum; one may be consistently polite, if not formal, while another is slangy and inquisitive.

“Beg pardon, ma’am, but have you somewhere we might store our supplies?” The ranger lifted a bulging leather knapsack with a scorch mark across one side.

“Cold box,” the housekeeper said, pointing. She leaned on her broom, watching him suspiciously.

“I thank you kindly,” the ranger replied. He crouched next to the chest and began sorting through the contents of the knapsack. “I appreciate the welcome after so difficult a journey. The others will be in in a moment,” He pulled out two tent pegs and a coil of rope and stared at them. “We’ve no use for these without the tent. Can you use them.”

“The rope, mayhap,” the housekeeper replied.

The ranger set the rope aside and continued his work. “It was the dragon did for the tent,” he said. He pulled out some waterlogged cheese and bruised fruit and looked at it doubtfully. “The flood got most of the perishables the bandits left us. Might you be willing to sell us some replacements?”

“Not my place.” The housekeeper hooked a thumb in the direction of the back room. “Ask Bartlebor.”

A lot of the trick in developing different voices is in figuring out what content is actually necessary in the conversation, and letting the other details shape themselves around those crucial bits, depending on the characters’ voices and personalities.

7 Comments
  1. Great post, Patricia. I feel like I’m struggling through the final stage. My only comfort is realizing that…I’m in the final stage. 🙂

  2. Of course, there are people who talk in complete paragraphs. And even if they’ve telegraphed their point with the first sentence, insist on finishing their paragraph of exposition. And get annoyed if you interrupt. And if once they’ve finished their paragraph, if you disagree with them, they assume you Just Didn’t Understand, and repeat their paragraph all over again. I’ve known people like that.

    But unless for comic relief, you don’t want them to exercise their eloquence in your prose.

  3. You inspired me to dig up some of my early writing and see what the dialogue looked like.

    Sixth grade Miriam wrote dialogue that was mostly short but had reasonable length variation, with lots of interjections and interruptions and slight amount of characters stating the obvious. Spelling and punctuation could be a bit haphazard. There was a good variety of dialogue tags, which were necessary, as I’d decided that something in the neighborhood of six or eight characters was the correct number for my core group of heroes! In addition to the excessive (and undifferentiated) number of characters, the big problem is that it was choppy and disjointed and didn’t flow at all. I was aping the forms of dialogue in books I read, but still hadn’t quite gotten it yet.

    Ninth grade Miriam had discovered untagged dialogue, which was enabled by usually having only two characters speaking and utilizing strikingly different speech styles. It’s snappy and has much better flow, probably in part because the whole thing has forward momentum, instead of consisting of a small mob faffing around about what they ought to be doing. Overall I found that one quite charming, with some nice bits that were genuinely good, interspersed with a few egregious bits that in hindsight make one go, “Oh, sweetie, you *didn’t*.”

    11th grade Miriam seems to have largely eschewed dialogue, but the few bits I could find show hints of interspersing paraphrase with speech to keep conversations moving, and distinctive character voices through tone and sentence style. Also a shoutout for The Seven Towers in a story about a ghostly librarian.

  4. Dialog is something I’ve deliberately worked on improving in my writing, mostly by studying how other writers did it and trying to copy some of the techniques they used.

    I may once have had my characters speaking in whole paragraphs, but if so that was a brief phase of decades ago, when manual typewriters still roamed the earth. I also avoid heavy dialect except as a metaphorical sledgehammer, mostly used for humorous effect. This is because of the dire warnings I’d read (again, back in ancient times) about needing to use a light light light hand with deliberate misspellings and other dialect effects.

    I’m generous with my use of speech tags and speech-tag-like stage business, mostly because I prefer that as a reader. I’m annoyed by the lack of tags that causes me to lose track of who is speaking, much more often than I’m annoyed by tripping over excessive speech tags.

    • As a writer – I found constantly typing “said” was annoying. But then as a READER I read something that changed my mind. Specifically a fan-translated book where English was quite obviously not their first language. ZERO use of dialogue tags and “said”. (The novel was wonderful, even with the poor translation)

      “Said” is a lovely, useful word. Right up there with “the” and “and”.

  5. I love most everything Patricia McKillip has written, but at least once in every single book, I have lost track of who was saying what due to a lack of dialogue tags. Just a nudge now and then would help immeasurably.

  6. GREAT post, thanks Pat! One of the clearest and sharpest expositions on dialogue I have come across. Sharing it with my writing group 🙂

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003, gc@cbltd.com

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