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We’re all talkers, right? Most of us are, anyway. We know what a conversation should sound like, even if there’s no sound involved. (As the Gallaudet students recently proved, no actual speech is required to detect insincere conversation.) So why isn’t dialogue easy? Why do so many conversations lose their vitality when put down on paper, or get pulled out of context faster than a John Kerry song at the James Dobson Karaoke Festival? (I realize there isn’t such a thing... but there should be.) So, by reader request, some long-delayed suggestions on making dialogue work. (Yeah, I know it’s been a frighteningly long time since the last entry in this series... but I tried to make up for it a little with some bonus Leaving Laura excerpts.)

Said Bookisms and Other Pitfalls
Probably the biggest single dialogue issue writers encounter is the temptation to use "said bookisms," which is when a writer goes crazy trying to avoid using the word said. As it turns out, said is a perfectly acceptable word - clear, unambiguous, active. Unless you don’t vary your sentence forms at all (which is a whole different issue), no one is going to feel like you have too many saids. On the other hand, it’s very easy to make a manuscript nearly unreadable if insead of saying anything, your characters laugh, breathe, or chortle their words, or do other things that people can’t actually do while talking.

So instead of

"Make love to me again, George," laughed Condi.


"Make love to me again, George," said Condi with a laugh.

or even better

"Make love to me again, George." Condi laughed as she said the words, stroking his cheek gently.

If the conversation is flowing smoothly and naturally, and the characters’ voices are clear, readers don’t always need a lot of reminders of who’s speaking - it should be clear with just minimal reminders. Which leads to another potential pitfall: Don’t overcrowd your conversations, either with people or with chitchat. As a reader, it’s next to impossible to keep track of all the threads in a conversation with more than a few participants. (It’s not that easy in real life, either.) Try to focus on the two or three key players, and let them do most of the talking. Likewise, while it may be socially necessary to spend a large chunk of a conversation in status-building chitchat rather than actually conveying information, it makes for a deadly dull read; try to keep the information level in your characters’ conversations relatively high, with a few words of chitchat (and if necessary a segue) taking the place of long empty passages.

Body Language
Instead of moving your characters’ conversations forward with a lot of stage directions, you can use body language to convey the same effect. It will give your dialogue a more natural and dynamic feel: No one wants to listen to two people standing around lecturing each other, and a lot of our understanding of conversation comes from watching that body language.

In other words, show rather than telling. Don’t tell me that someone’s nervous as she’s speaking; show her clasping and unclasping her hands unconsciously, or glancing at the door constantly, or whatever else would make you notice that nervousness in a real conversation.

So instead of

George pulled away nervously as Condi’s tongue touched his ear. "Only Laura does that to me," he said a bit drunkly.


George pulled away sharply as Condi’s tongue touched his ear. He overbalanced on the motion, almost slamming his head into the bedpost. "Only Laura does that to me," he said, slurring the words a little. "Only Laura does that to me." Tears started running down his flushed face.

Body language gives readers cues for how to interpret what the characters are saying - are they holding something back? spilling the depths of their pain? living their dreams? We should know by their body language. As a general principle, you shouldn’t have to tell the reader your characters’ moods; if I can’t tell whether they’re angry, sad, or a combination of the two then you haven’t paid enough attention to nuances of conversation to give me enough as a reader to work with.

Another thing body language can do is break up otherwise uncomfortably long bits of dialogue; if the characters are fidgeting, the readers are less likely to. If your character is uncomfortable then show that discomfort - it feels like a cheat if you leave it at "she said, uncomfortably" - which doesn’t really tell me much about how she reacts to uncomfortable situations. Does she internalize her doscomfort? Does it show on her face? Does she get flushed when she’s nervous? Does she play with things on the desk in front of her unconsciously? Does she doodle? Telling me any of those things gives me a much better picture of your character. In other words (editors repeat this a lot), show, don’t tell.

Talking Like Real People
Mark Twain, in his "Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses" - one of the funniest pieces of literary criticism ever written - pointed out that characters should talk like living people unless they aren't, and the reader should be able to easily distinguish between living and dead characters. No one will believe characters whose dialogue seems to convey information without any personality or inflection. Exaggerated dialogue is just as bad: Don’t make your character talk like a pirate unless your character is a pirate.

Avoid writing in heavy dialect if you can: It’s hard to read, easily confused, and even if your intentions are good, can come out as borderline racist. (For an example, see Richard Adams’s unfortunate novel Traveler, which is told from the point of view of Robert E. Lee’s horse in what a British author imagined was a heavy southern black dialect. After about a chapter the metaphor of horse-as-slave gets old, and soon turns more than a little bit creepy. On the other hand, Adams’s classic Watership Down - told from the point of view of a group of rabbits - makes excellent use of dialogue.)

Ideally, you should be able to put yourself in each character’s head and give that character a distinctive voice and verbal mannerisms. This can be very subtle. Think about the vocal cadences of the people you know; certain words get used more or less, there are distinctive styles of pausing, some friends have better timing than others, some use more slang, some never curse. Are you writing a more formal character, who seldom uses contractions? Are there quirks of word order, like a Californian’s "the Fifty-seven Highway" versus a northeasterner’s "Route Fifty-seven"? Pay attention to the conversational mannerisms of the people around you. There’s an essential voyeurism to being a writer: You find yourself listening to other people’s conversations a lot, not because you care what they’re saying, but because you want to be able to convincingly imitate the way a 14-year-old talks, or convey a Caribbean lilt (rather than just telling readers a character has one).

Making a conversation sound real is very different from transcribing an actual conversation. A lot of empty language that’s invisible in everyday speech gets old very fast in written dialogue. Feel free to use a couple of likes and you knows to convey mannerisms - but don’t overuse them, or use them anywhere near as often as they occur in real speech.

Another thing to avoid are jarringly sudden mood changes in conversation that leave the reader behind. Don’t change a character from calm  to angry in the space of a few lines of dialogue without showing the mood changing along the way. Does a fist begin to clench and unclench unconsciously? Are there other body language indicators? Does the wording shift, in the way people’s language often does as their moods change? Don’t just tell the reader that someone’s suddenly angry; let the reader see the anger develop.

Direct Thoughts
You may want to avoid using quotes for direct thoughts or internal dialogue. It becomes hard to tell what’s spoken out loud and what isn’t. As a writer and editor I prefer to put direct thoughts in italics, although if there’s a lot of direct thought - more than a couple of lines on a page here and there - you may want to leave direct thought set in roman type to avoid an unreadable amount of italic text.

He wondered what Laura would do if she found him here in Condi’s bed

is not direct thought, but

Laura’s going to kill me if she finds me here, he thought.

is, and so is the simpler

Shit. Laura’s going to kill me.

Conversation Lengths
Most of the conversations you write will be shorter shorter than real-life conversations. They’ll convey information more quickly, with less chitchat and fewer interruptions than in reality. Readers want something that feels real, but they also want you to get to the point in a hurry, and not waste their time in plot digressions - but except in rare cases, human conversations don’t focus completely on the topic at hand, and much of what seems important to the people going through a crisis may prove pointless or off-topic in retrospect. You will need to trim much of the conversational fat - not all of it by any means, but do your readers a favor and get in the habit of serving a reasonably lean conversation.

Your characters words don’t need to show everything your trying to convey in a conversation. Sometimes, much of the meaning of a scene is conveyed not in the conversation itself, but in the interaction between two or more characters. We all know couples or families who never say anything that seems out of line - but the tension is palpable in every word spoken. You can convey that tension in the way characters hold themselves, their facial expressions, whether they seem desperate to be somewhere else. Is one party to a conversation zoning out or distracted? Is someone unusually quiet? These things all give key information beyond the actual words spoken - and you don’t need to tell me every word spoken to convey them.

Scenes from Next Week’s Episode...
My diaries will probably be intermittent for a while; I have three books coming out next year for Wildside Press, plus five more to edit for them (including two by Unitary Moonbat). Sometime soon, we want to do a sequel to Rove: The Roleplaying Game, but otherwise it will depend on when I’m trying to avoid a deadline, or if someone has a particularly intriguing suggestion. (This one’s been kicking around partly done since before the election and I’m just now getting it finished.)

The Rest of the "How Publishing Works" Series
I do still monitor and respond in the previous episodes, so feel free to post questions or comments in them if you’d like. And feel free to post requests for future topics in the comments as well.

Part 1 - Why bad things happen to good books.
Part 2 - Avoiding publishing scams.
Part 3 - Literary conventions (with an emphasis on SF Conventions).
Part 4 - Book packagers.
Part 5 - Submitting a manuscript.
Part 6 - Publishing lists.
Part 7 - Literary agents.
Part 8 - Copyediting.
Part 9 - Marketing and publicity.
Part 10 - Outlining.
Part 11 - Editing.
Part 12 - Ideas.
Part 13 - Contracts.
Part 14 - How Writers Get Paid.
Part 15 - Worldbuilding.

Originally posted to Swordsmith on Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 01:48 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  tip jar (25+ / 0-)

    finally finished this one on the plane ride back from my first honest-to-goodness vacation in many years.

    Hope everyone had a good holiday.

    Economic -5.00 Social -5.49

    by Swordsmith on Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 01:46:18 PM PST

  •  A writing teacher once told me (5+ / 0-)

    to use "said" as if it were punctuation. No one would seek work-arounds to avoid repeated use of commas.

    In other words, just use "said" and get on with it.

  •  This is one of the traps I sometimes fall into (4+ / 0-)

    (along with the one about ending sentences with prepostitions)

    Thanks for the reassurance about using "said" - I was starting to worry that Surly was doing too much fuming, growling, and grunting.

  •  Thank you kindly! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Swordsmith, cfk

    Wanted to say that before reading the content!  Congratulations on all of the publishing projects.

    Every time history repeats itself the price goes up - Anon.

    by Pithy Cherub on Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 03:13:40 PM PST

  •  thank-you for the diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Swordsmith, JPete, tita weng

    this and the previous one.  I am (with luck depending on my paying job) within 2-3 months of finishing my first novel.

    It's funny how little things can make a huge difference in writing, and the single suggestion that has made the most difference in my writing applies to a lot of your suggestions for dialogue as well.  That is to SHOW the reader things instead of telling the reader things.

    And that's what most of your suggestions come down to.  As another commenter indicated, the word "said" is like punctuation.  You can have too many commas of course, but you wouldn't go out of your way to avoid one.

    By far the most common pitfall in dialogue is one that you didn't mention directly.  That is the use of adverbs to modify "said","replied", etc.  Something like:

    "Come here, George," she said breathlessly

    I have found that - as your examples suggest - the way around this is more than just changing a few words.  It sometimes involves multiple sentences, such as this:

    Condi's nostrils flared with the heat of the moment.  Her voice did not rise above a whisper, but despite the pounding of his heart, Dubya could hear every word.  "Come here, George."

    The first time I reread a paragraph or section for editing, stuff like this is pretty much the main thing I look for.  And the concept of showing the reading instead of telling the reader extends to the whole book, not just dialogue.  I tend to be a bit extreme on the subject, but I search for and destroy adverbs as often as I can in my fiction.  Certain genres, such as satire or category romance, need more adverbs as a linguistic tool to contribute to the feel of the genre.  But a good fiction writer is always asking whether even the smallest of ideas can be conveyed in a way that more directly speaks to the reader.

    •  congrats on the novel (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tita weng

      I agree that the need to root out wasted words becomes a sort of obsession - although there are times you have to focus on just finishing something, even if the language isn't quite what you want in places, knowing you can clean it up afterward.

      I'm looking forward to seeing your book someday.

      Economic -5.00 Social -5.49

      by Swordsmith on Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 03:46:54 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Swordsmith: I have a general publishing question (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Swordsmith, JPete

    Let's say I sign a book deal.  I get an advance, of which my agent takes 15%.  Then, a year later, the publisher drops the project, and, as per the contract, I have to pay back the advance.  So then we place the book with another publisher.  They pay me an advance, all of which goes to the previous publisher as part of the payback.  My question is this: Does my agent have to pay back his portion?  Or is that money lost to me?  Do I have to pay back 100% of the advance, even though I only received 85% of it?

    If you're not sure, that's fine.  Regardless, I always enjoy reading your installments.  Please keep them coming!

    •  why was the project canceled? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tita weng, The Angry Rakkasan

      That can make a big difference. Typically, if you're not in breach of contract and the publisher cancels the book, you are free to keep whatever they paid you, but they don't have to pay you anything further and the rights revert to you. Essentially, the portion of the advance you've been paid acts as a kill fee.

      If the publisher canceled because of a breach of contract on your part - say you were three years late delivering the book and they no longer wanted it, for instance - then you still couldn't be forced to repay the advance (since publishing contracts aren't enforceable that way), but they could tie up the rights indefinitely and keep you from publishing the book elsewhere until you'd repaid them.

      If you and the publisher had a falling out, it's not unusual for an agent to make an arrangement to repay the advance in return for the book being resold elsewhere. In that case, you would be repaying the full fee - since your agent presumably did her job, and is acting at your direction.

      Depending on the contract wording, there may be other contingencies - I'm basing these on typical contract language. I hope I'm not being too vague.

      Economic -5.00 Social -5.49

      by Swordsmith on Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 03:56:33 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I got two stories... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Swordsmith, tita weng

        the official one and the unofficial one.  My agent told me they were killing the project because they felt that they weren't going to be able to successfully market the book.  He said they cited a "glut on the market of similar" books.  However, because they couldn't legally withdraw for that reason (as per the contract), they had to find a way to say that I was in breach of contract.  Therefore, the letter I got from the publisher said that the book was simply "editorially unacceptable."

        What you're telling me lines up pretty much with what my agent has said--that if we hadn't placed the book with another house, I would have just kept the money.  But because it's already been picked up by another publisher, I'm going to have to pay it back.

        When you say,

        you would be repaying the full fee - since your agent presumably did her job, and is acting at your direction,

        I think that's the answer for which I'm looking (unfortunately).

        Anyway, thanks for helping.

        •  I had a similar situation (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          tita weng, The Angry Rakkasan

          with a book I packaged, which was orphaned (the acquiring editor left) twice, and ended up on the desk of someone in a completely different genre (who stood to gain no credit of the book succeeded but would take blame if it failed). She tried (understandably) to cancel it, but realized they'd be out the money (since the manuscript had already been accepted, they couldn't un-accept it), so they finally decided to publish it in a small way.

          That story ended well, at least: The book is now in its fourth printing.

          Good luck with your new publisher.

          Economic -5.00 Social -5.49

          by Swordsmith on Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 04:17:27 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Depending on the contract (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          and your willingness to fight with the publisher in question, I think you'd have a pretty good case for keeping the money based on the new sale. I know writers who've fought this battle and won using the argument that the book's placement with another publisher clearly demonstrates that it is not "editorially unacceptable." It does however leave relations with that particular publisher strained.

          Kelly McCullough - WebMage available from ACE books (Penguin)

          by KMc on Wed Dec 27, 2006 at 07:10:05 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  I would assume that (0+ / 0-)
          Your agent would get one paycheck - that is, that you wouldn't have to pay him his fee on BOTH advances when you only got one.

          But I don't know anything, and am only speculating.

          Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

          by elfling on Sun Dec 31, 2006 at 09:42:24 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I've just discovered this really (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Swordsmith, tita weng

    useful series.  I write non-fiction, but I'm really interested in the many processes that go under the label "writing a ...".

    Right now I'm trying to figure out why the details of writing can seem so difficult.  A copy editor and I have just spent a lot of time on two sentences.  Not that I feel incompetent or anything.

    (Just to close a circle, part of the text in question shows up here.  I finally noticed that an earlier copy editor had inserted the second comma in

    a major issue regarding tenure, the relationship between tenure, and the exercise of free speech.

    So that had to come out and then the latest copy editor rightly thought putting "that is," in after the first comma would make it clearer.  

    I can't really figure out how I lose comma control. :) )

  •  George and Laura seem to have spent (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    some hot and heavy Atlanta Nights together. Your introduction to that classic back in Part 2 took me way off course. Sometime I'll have to get back to reading the rest of your series.

    Ever think about writing a diary on how to write a diary? I've often thought about doing so, but am worried that I'd come off as a curmudgeon. At the top of the list would be no more lists! Seriously, I wish people would drop the list of grievances as a means of structuring a diary. Yeah, yeah, 9/11, Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, Terri Schiavo, Katrina. We get it.

    Hmmm, maybe I am a curmudgeon after all.

  •  Thanks for writing these (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    they are truly outstanding.

    "You'll get everything you want after the election. But just for the meantime, shut up so that we can win." -- Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer

    by The Strategist on Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 11:45:01 PM PST

  •  "Thank you....... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    So much for the outstanding tips," Bill said while smiling gleefully, visions of an imaginary conversation already being written in his head.

    Have no intentions of writing a book, but do like to write the odd bit of humor.  What wonderful advice you've given.

    •  I did write.... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      a dialogue to try out your tips, and published it as a diary... not a lot of readers, but it was 'Rescued' this morning, and called "satirical (and perhaps frighteningly accurate)" which I took as a compliment :>)

      The tip that, for me, had the most impact was the one regarding including body language...  went a long way I felt, to making the conversation as real as I could make it.  But all worthwhile - I'm going to back-read now, and look forward to further diaries from you, thanks again!

  •  Distinctive voices (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Swordsmith, tita weng

    Oh, the possibilities with those two :)

    "I've decided to stay the course and keep on going a few more minutes," George declared in the throes of passion.

    "Oh, no. You're not sweating all over my Liz Claiborne sheets one minute longer!" Condi replied.

    I was a postmodernist, back in the modern age.

    by cskendrick on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 04:25:35 PM PST

  •  I'd been advised to stop by these diaries (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    this is my first visit, Swordsmith.

    Nice work.

    I feel like my writing future is secure now.


    Now to reconcile reality and fantasy. :)

    I was a postmodernist, back in the modern age.

    by cskendrick on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 04:43:25 PM PST

    •  why reconcile them? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Don't we read fiction specifically to keep them from reconciling? I like to keep my fantasies at arms length from reality... preferably not too closely acquainted with each other.

      But I suppose that's why I write fantasy.

      Economic -5.00 Social -5.49

      by Swordsmith on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 06:02:25 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Fantasy is not invariably diversion (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Sometimes it is a simulation, a special asking and answering of one or more questions, set into a safe imaginary place where the implications can be explored and solutions developed.

        And I think this is the underlying purpose of imagination -- it's not to contrive stories, but to develop solutions to complex problems with no linear or purely logical solutions.

        That sounds cold, I'm sure, but there is a reason why we dream, and it's not some vague "because we need to dream." We dream because it serves a valuable set of functions in human existence, or nourish ourselves with the dreams of others because that is valuable as well.

        My personal theory is that an incapacity to dream or appreciate the dreams of others is a fast-track toward mental illness.

        Which gets us back around the circle to why write fantasy?

        Answer: Because a lot of people's lives truly thrive with it, are indeed enriched by the dreams of others.

        Wow. That has implications for me, personally and professionally that I wasn't even thinking about when I started this post.

        I was a postmodernist, back in the modern age.

        by cskendrick on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 06:46:48 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I wasn't saying it's just diversion (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          ...just that if it's contaminated by too much reality, it's constrained from actually being fantasy. It's precisely because fantasy can be used to work out life problems and implacations that I said it; fantasy is a useful way of doing that because you can take away many of the preconceptions and emotional baggage and deal with the problem in its essential form. A lot of why I write (and play) RPGs is to create tools for that. Keeping it at arms length from reality doesn't keep it from having real life applications. I remember a friend calling and recounting her salary negotiation, which was directly and strongly influenced by gaming in my group (including the point where she saw through their strategy and decided to make her employers pay a "stupidity tax").

          Economic -5.00 Social -5.49

          by Swordsmith on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 07:51:24 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

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