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Talking To Yourself

Dialogue Done Right


“So how do you write convincing dialogue?” He leaned over her kitchen table, pen hovering over his notebook.  “I can’t seem to do it right.”

“What?  I didn’t hear you.  Wait a second.  The teakettle is boiling.  Ah.  There it goes.”  She grabbed the teapot, opened the whistling spout, and poured the boiling water over a tea bag in a cup.   “Nothing like a good cup of tea, I always say.  Now, what were you saying?  About writing what?”

“Dialogue.  How do you go about writing it, so it doesn’t sound like… you know… an interrogation scene.  Or a lecture.”

“Oh.  That.”  She brightened up. “First you learn how real people talk.  Did I ever tell you I used to go into diners with a notebook and–”

“Yes.  Yes you did.  And about the guy with tattoos and his landlady.  Never mind that.  This is about writing.”

“Okay, okay.”  She fished the tea bag out of the tea and tossed it, then came to the table, both hands wrapped around the steaming cup as if for warmth.  “So, what do you want?  Rules?”

“Something like that.  Principles, at least.”

“Um… the most important one is that people don’t talk linearly.  You don’t have a question and then an answer all nice and orderly.  Real people interrupt each other all the time.”

He made a face.  “Isn’t that terribly rude?”

“Probably.  But… Do you remember when that woman at our writers’ group waited till everyone had shut up to talk?”

“Right.  She just kept getting madder and madder.  I thought she was going to explode.  And none of us had any clue why.”

“Yeah.  There’s some amount of cuing.  I mean, most of the time we don’t actually talk over each other as such,” she said.  “Well, maybe we do, but–”

“Not exactly.  We wait for the momentum to slow, right?”

“Right.”  She took a sip of the tea and tapped his notebook with a finger.  “The other thing is, give the characters tags or something, when you have page after page of unbroken dialogue.  Otherwise, people won’t know who is talking.”

“You mean, give one an accent or something?”

She looked at him over her glasses.  “If I ever catch you writing accents phonetically,” she said.  “I will wash my hands of you.  You have no idea how hard those are to read to non-natives or people who don’t hear very well.”  She took another sip of her tea.  “Besides, your perception of the accent might not be what most people hear.  Do you really want to make this a test in phonetic transcription?  Or are you writing a story?”

“Story, story,” he said, showing both empty hands, in a gesture of appeasement.  “So, give them different levels of discourse?  Like one of them is illiterate?”

“Not always appropriate to every story.  Consider stage business instead.”

“The thing with the dog?”


“Shakespeare,” he said.  “You know, the bit with the dog.”

“TMI about Shakespeare,” She said, then laughed at his shocked expression.  “I’m joking.  Never mind.  No, I mean give your characters something to do, like one is drinking tea.  Or one smokes, or something.”


“Not really.”  She put the cup down, but kept her hands around it.  “It becomes more or less invisible.  You know, people don’t usually just stand there and talk.”

“Okay, but what about when a character has a lot of information to impart to the other.  How do you get past a page or so of it without it seeming like a long lecture?  I always hear that readers don’t like unbroken text, but how do you switch to another paragraph?”

“Oh, that’s easy.  You just have your character talking along and then, if you need to switch paragraphs, you just leave the end quote off the line.

“Then you start the next paragraph with a quote, and everyone knows the same character is still talking, till you get to the end of that paragraph, when you close the quote.  However, if your character is going to run to multi-paragraph speeches, you really should consider stage business to mark it’s still the same person talking.”  She filled the teakettle again and set it on the stove.

“You see,” she said.  “It’s much more natural that way and people won’t wonder if you just accidentally forgot the end quotes.”

“Besides–” She rinsed her cup, got a fresh tea bag and put it in.  “You know what copyeditors are like.  They might close that quote, and you might not notice.  And then your readers will be all confused.”

“I heard stories about copyeditors.”  He wrote something in his notebook.  “Like the guy who corrected the made up language.”

“Of course you did.”  She poured water over the tea bag.  “If we were fictional, we would now be engaged in maid-and-butler dialogue, which, as you know, is a no-no.”

“So, I have to become a butler?  And I never thought of you as a maid.”  He eyed the unwashed dishes on the counter.

“Nah.  It’s called that because it was used in old English comedies of manners, in which the maid and butler talked, telling each other stuff the other already knew, as a way of introducing the master and mistress to the reader or watcher.  It’s pretty silly, really.  No one talks like that in real life.”  She seemed to realize something, suddenly.  “Hey.  I’m sorry.  I never offered you tea.”

“I can’t have tea,” he said.  “Seriously.  We don’t even have names.  If I were drinking tea, too, then our similar speech patterns would become too confusing to the readers.”

“You could always take up smoking.”

  1. Francis T #

    “That was an awesome example of show not tell!” he said sycophantically.

    October 12, 2011
  2. Ellyll #

    Thank goodness I was only drinking hot chocolate when I read this, and not tea. 😉

    I loved it. Thanks.

    October 12, 2011
  3. thank you oh omniscient narrator.

    October 12, 2011
    • actually, not to be picky, but it’s camera-eye narrator, pretty much.

      October 12, 2011
  4. Chris L #

    “Methinks the lady doth enjoy dialogue too much,” he murmured to himself with a smile, inhaling the bitter aroma of his first coffee of the morning.

    The first of many, as it turned out.

    October 12, 2011
    • ‘s just sound and fury signifying nothing.

      October 12, 2011
  5. Kate Paulk #

    And thus was the power of the morning cuppa revealed.

    Wonderful, Sarah

    October 12, 2011
  6. That was great :).

    October 13, 2011

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