Dialogue — a Lesson With Fred And Mary — a blast from the past from October 2012

*Sorry to do this.  Yes, I’ll be back on the strength by next week for sure.  The house we’re cleaning/painting to sell is ALMOST done and I have two days or so of cleaning to get it ready.  It’s not an intellectually demanding job, but for some reason it completely saps my ability to write or think — and my will to live but that’s something else.*

Yes, I’ve done this before, but I found while teaching a workshop that I couldn’t find it in the archives, and anyway, I’ll do it again from a different angle and maybe it will stay in people’s heads. It really is n many ways, when it comes to writing, what separates the pros from the amateurs. I mean, it’s not the only thing, but it is often the last to fall into place and while you’re doing this the amateur way it will slow the rhythm of your work and gum up the machinery of your narrative even if everything else is professional. On the other hand, professionally rendered dialogue covers a multitude of sins.

A caveat. You can – and should, if you have any interest – look at it and figure out what I’m doing (since it’s a demonstration lesson) BUT unless you’re one of very few people (I’ve met a couple) who can learn a skill by reading the instructions, you won’t know this and start using it until you practice it. It is something that becomes an habit of mind and/or fingers.

“Dialogue,” Mary said.

“Yes?” Fred asked.

“How does one do it?” Mary said.

She looked up at him, her blue eyes filled with anguish. Around her the room fell deathly silent.

“By doing it, mostly,” Fred said.

“Yes, but the tags,” Mary said. “Don’t you get tired of saying said and said and said and said. I mean I know
they say it’s invisible. But after a while it grates on my nerves.”

“Not really,” Fred said. “It is still preferable to admitted, exclaimed, exhorted or… ejaculated.”

“That’s not what you sa– Oh, you mean as a dialogue tag,” Mary said. “But it gets rather like watching a ping-pong match, doesn’t it?”

“Fine.” Fred smiled. He winked at Mary. “Then do it with action tags. You know, the sort of thing that gives your characters a body and shows that they’re in a physical world. Know what I mean.”

Mary blushed. She tugged her neckline closed and looked away. “Sort of. You mean, they can do things in the middle of the conversation?”

“Sure.” Fred grinned broadly. “Though frankly, if you only have two people talking, you really don’t need to tag the dialogue except to show emotion or other things not conveyed in the dialogue.”

“Not tag… You mean, not say who said it?” Mary asked.

“Yeah, if you only have two people talking, and you tag the initial one, you only have to tag every other one if that.”

“But don’t people lose track eventually?”

“Of course, that is when you have an action tag.”

Mary rose from the table, walked to the window and looked out at the flower garden. “You mean like this?” she asked.

“Like that,” Fred said. “Is a good action tag.” He got up and went to stand beside her, at the window. “Mary, I’ve been meaning to tell you, all these months together, in the writing group, I…”

“Yes, Fred?” She turned to look up at him.

“I love your clean cut sentences; the way you eschew passive verbs. I love your action sequences and how they chain on each other to a peak of emotional surrender. I pine for your sample chapters, and I don’t think I could live without your short stories.” He looked down at her, his eyes filled with mute inquiry.

Mary sighed and smiled, and wiped her own moist eyes. “Yes, Fred,” she said. “I will marry you.”


    1. Well, I think this was a good example of “show don’t tell”. [Wink]

  1. Lovely. I know I need to work a lot on dialog skills. One thing I’d dearly like to learn how to pull off is give every character a distinctive idiolect (=personal way of speaking) that doesn’t come across as clichéd.

    1. Not sure if this helps or not, bit I use grammar to signal character and (in some cases) setting. Rada uses informal contractions and slang when she is talking to Zabet or is Trading. She uses more formal language when she’s on Earth, often omitting contractions unless she is speaking with someone she knows very, very well, in part because her Trader accent can garble English contractions. And she’s exceedingly formal with adult Azdhagi. Joschka tends to be hyper-formal, but he’s also absorbed a lot of the Austrian upper-class culture and military culture. Rahoul Khan has no slang or casual usage when he speaks, which is a big clue that he’s working very hard to mask his original accent and dialect (he sounds like a BBC presenter).

      Some writers can use catch-phrases and little verbal tics, but I’d use a very light hand with those, unless it’s supposed to be comedy. Speech speed is another way, but catching that in writing is hard, at least for me. YMMV.

      1. You mean, as in: don’t write regional English dialects (Cockney, scouser/Liverpudlian, Southern US,…) in aural transcription? I do know non-native speakers have a devil of a time with that.
        Somebody else liked the idea of writing the speech of a British professor in UK English spelling. This would not survive a copy editor at a publishing house, of course 😉 but that’s a nonissue here.
        I did insert calques of foreign idioms in the speech of foreigners — like a German saying ‘I’ve got my nose full of this’ instead of ‘I am fed up’, or a Dutchman saying ‘two people and a horse’s head showed up’ instead of ‘ten people and a dog’.

          1. Besides, isn’t it a better exercise to practice giving multiple characters recognizably different voices without spelling things funny?

            You might be able to get some of the same effect by getting a giant list of body language examples and assigning different ones to different characters as emotional tells. (Like how Robert Jordan had _every_ _single_ _woman_ in the Wheel of Time series tug on their braids and adjust their blouses when they were nervous, except with different body language tells for each character.)

  2. Lagging, lagging, lagging — I just keep on lagging. Betide!*

    Fred’s a cheeky one. Nice little lesson packaged with a chuckle.


    *To the tune of Rawhide a’course.

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