Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Writing Dialog, Part 1

I’ve been gone a long time because I’ve been working on my novel and a children’s book. The good news is that I’ve learned all sorts of interesting things from these exercises. For me, deeply entrenched in technical work, the hardest new hurdle was writing plausible dialog.


First, I wrote a few chapters. Rereading, I felt that not only did everyone sound like me, but there was a lot of extraneous yakking that might be better in descriptive paragraphs. Everybody sounding like me was okay in the children’s book, but it wasn’t so nice for the grown-up novel.


First, I didn’t know how much dialog was too much. For one thing, I noticed that when there wasn’t much dialog in my own work, I got a little bogged down in description. Sitting here from the perspective of being about half-way finished with my first draft, I’ve decided to leave the early stuff alone until the second draft. I needed the process of describing things while writing those early bits, and I can cut the extraneous description—or dialog—when I’m further from the writing in my second draft. The plot has changed since I first set out, so I will be doing some serious chopping anyway.


But how much dialog is enough and how much is too much? I got out some of my favorite books had a look. Remember, this is not a scientific study, just me flipping through a few books.


I didn’t look at classics (of which I have many) nor at books that had a genre hugely different from what I was working on, so you’ll have to do your own experiments. Also, those authors whose names fall later in the alphabet than RO are inaccessibly stored behind my computer table, so I neglected some of my favorites like Amy Tan, Anne Tyler, Gore Vidal, and Irving Stone.

Okay, so what did I do with this bit of information? Nothing yet. There’s more research to do before I’m really ready to write dialog.


Back to the shelves I went, looking for textbook discussion.

All of these experts advise against the inclusion of “um” and “you know” and “I mean” because although most of us really talk like that, they make dialog sound banal.


Okay, so let’s do a little exercise, shall we? Let’s look at the dialog of two people having an argument.


“You can’t tell me that,” Peter growled, “without backing it up.”

“Oh yeah?” Fred pulled himself up to his full height, wielding his fist. “I can back it up with this!”


I’ll look at the punctuation in Part 2, so just ignore that for now. Just look at the shapes of the dialog itself. The first speaker could have just as easily said either of these things:


Peter growled, “You can’t tell me that without backing it up.”

“You can’t tell me that without backing it up,” Peter growled.


I chose to interrupt Peter’s speech with attribution and a mannerism because it makes the speech seem as if it didn’t all come out in a rush. In the example with the attribution first, the fact that he growled seems more important than the words he said. In the example with the attribution afterward, the attribution is unimportant—even distracting—if you realize that readers probably already knew that Peter and Fred were having a heated conversation.

Fred’s activities are described in the same style as Peter’s for the same reason. In the rest of the dialog, I have to be careful that every single speech doesn’t come out this way or it will seem trite in short order.


Describing Fred’s behavior eliminated the need for a “said” or something like growled or shouted, either of which would grow tiresome if the argument doesn’t get any more explicit sometime soon. Let’s look at Fred’s speech turned around:


Fred pulled himself up to his full height, wielding his fist. “Oh yeah? I can back it up with this!”

“Oh yeah? I can back it up with this!” Fred pulled himself up to his full height, wielding his fist.


In the first example, Fred wields his fist before we know how he will respond to Peter’s speech. That’s okay, but I think it takes a little of the drama out of the situation. If we imagine that Fred is much smaller than Peter, it also adds a touch of the ridiculous.


The same thing happens when we push the attributive action to the end: the drama is sucked out of it. But now that it’s set up, fists and words can fly for a while without any attribution at all. The irrationality of a physical fight can be illustrated by leaving the reader wondering who said what.


Let’s try another. How about a little young love?


“Dana,” Arnold said, blushing. “Would you go to the dance with me on Friday?”

Dana was shattered. She had hoped that Mark would ask her first. “Can I tell you later? I’m not sure my mother will let me go.”

“Um, sure. Take your time.” He watched Dana walk away before he fled into the chemistry classroom.


In the first sentence, I interrupted Arnold with attribution because I wanted Arnold to have said Dana’s name as a complete sentence. He’s trying to get her attention.


In the second sentence, I wanted Dana to pause before speaking for a reason. We have to learn the reason or her non-refusal is just mean. And now we know that she is lying but it is not clear whether her motivations are to protect Arnold or herself.


In the third sentence, where Arnold has to deal with his humiliation, I originally cited his actions as an attribution with an action (he said, and fled into the classroom), but I decided that it was stronger if I used narrative to make a pause while he processed information. I wanted Arnold to be shy but not stupid.


The trick is to impart more information than the simple exchange of words. How characters say things is important, as is where and to whom. In fact, you could run the whole journalist’s checklist on each passage of dialog and then run it again on the attribution or activity implying attribution. The journalist’s checklist is who, what, where, when, and how. You probably heard that in high school.


There’s more to write on this subject, but for now, I’ll just close with my list of sources for the textbook discussion. Most of these books never mentioned dialog, but I thought you’d be interested in a collection of fiction-writing books anyway.


“The Fiction Writer’s Silent Partner,” Martin Roth.

“On Writing,” Stephen King.

“Six Walks in the Fictional Woods,” Umberto Eco.

“Steering the Craft,” Ursula K. Le Guin.

“Successful Writing,” Maxine C. Hairston.

“Technique in Fiction,” Robie Macauley and George Lanning.

“What if? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers,” Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

“The Writer’s Handbook” 1992 Edition, edited by Sylvia K. Burack.

“Writers on Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini.

“Writing Down the Bones,” Natalie Goldberg