The reality and fiction of dialogue

I haven’t been writing “real” stuff for a while, being submerged into book tour and book launch and marketing and general chest-thumping. When I have a writing lull, I usually start again by doing exercises to retrain my brain. I’ve decided to share these exercises with you, and to challenge you to do the same –and share the results in the comments section. This time, I’m dealing with dialogue (or dialog, for those US writers).

Gloria Oliver has a great post on It’s a mad, mad world about gestures and body language as part of writing dialogue and what makes it effective. It got me to thinking what exactly is good dialogue, what works, and what doesn’t.

Dialogue must convey a message, must have punch to be interesting. If you transcribe word for word a dialogue you’ve had with, say, a friend, there are a lot of bits and pieces that become redundant and boring. Like this.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“How are you?”

“I’m good. Not bad. How about you? How are you?”

“I’m tired today. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the weather. I haven’t done much to be tired these days.”

“Yeah. It’s been really cold. Listen, are you going to the concert?”

“I don’t know, maybe. Not sure.”

This kind of dialogue could go on for a long time –pages– without giving you much information about the two people, and it reads somewhat disjunct and aimless. It’s flat.

Written dialogue is like perfume: it’s been concentrated from the original and you need a lot less to get the effect you want. Once you have that concentrate, then you can add tags (he said, he yelled, etc.) and body language.

Here’s a short dialogue that conveys a lot of story, emotions, and a glimpse of characterization, even though it has no tags or body language.

“T-shirts.”
“Embroidered t-shirts.”
“From the army to t-shirts.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Where’s your pride?”
“The war changes you.”
“I waited for you.”
“I know. I know.”
“Two years, Rob.”
“I know.”
“Sheila works at Bell, now.”
“I modified the van.”
“You know Steve is married?”
“I need six months, Jenny.”
“Selling t-shirts in your van.”
“I have a lot riding on this.”
“If it only made sense.”
“Remember Tucson, Jenny?”
“You wanted to marry me.”
“I did. I still do.”
“I bet.”
“What’s six months more?”
“Lots can happen.”
“That’s what I say.”
“I may meet someone else.”
“You believed in me in Tucson.”
“We’re in Tempe now.”

By simply reading the words, you know these two people are estranged –have been– not only by him being a soldier but by how it changed him, and that they may have a rocky road ahead. Now here’s the dialogue again, with tags and body language to make it richer:

“T-shirts.”
Rob grinned. “Embroidered t-shirts.”
“From the army to t-shirts.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Where’s your pride?”
Rob leaned against the fender of the van. His eyes, suddenly unfocused, looked at a place above her shoulder. “The war changes you,” he finally said.
“I waited for you.”
“I know. I know.”
“Two years, Rob.”
“I know.”
Jenny wanted to cry. She wouldn’t though. She knew how tears made him shut down, become completely unreasonable. “Sheila works at Bell, now.”
“I modified the van.”
“You know Steve is married?”
Rob shook his head. “I need six months, Jenny.”
“Selling t-shirts in your van.”
“I have a lot riding on this.”
“If it only made sense.”
He shrugged, didn’t say more. Jenny walked to the edge of the parking lot, looked out at the leisurely traffic of Main Street. She heard Rob’s steps behind her, then felt his hands on her shoulders. “Remember Tucson, Jenny?”
“You wanted to marry me.”
“I did. I still do.”
The laugh that came out of her mouth sounded bitter, even to her ears.“I bet.”
“What’s six months more?” he said, impatient, now.
“Lots can happen.”
“That’s what I say,” he said as he turned her to face him.
“I may meet someone else.”
“You believed in me in Tucson.”
She sighed, shook her head. “We’re in Tempe now.”

Exercise: Write a dialogue that contains no tags or body language. Each line must consist of only one sentence.

Game to try?

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7 thoughts on “The reality and fiction of dialogue

  1. Robyn

    Thanks, Dom, this was fun! Haven’t wrtten anything in a long, long time.

    “She doesn’t look too bad.”
    “Mmm, is he here?”
    “He wouldn’t dare, would he?”
    “Oh, you bet your sweet bippy, he would dare most anything.”
    “And has.”
    “And has.”
    “What happened to her hair?”
    “God only knows, but they probably don’t get the best–,”
    “–people, right, you’re right of course, who’d want to?”
    “Who’d want to, exactly, but it’d be worse–,”
    “–makeup, yes, worse.”
    “Do they have makeup–,”
    “–just for this?”
    “The skin probably doesn’t work the same way as–,”
    “As regular skin, right, you’re right, undoubtedly.”
    “Why on earth, I don’t–why did they choose THAT dress?”
    “I know, she hated that dress, but no one asked me.”
    “Nor me.”
    “Isn’t that odd”
    “Why, do you suppose?”
    “Haven’t heard a word from anyone in the family.”
    “Maybe something to do with him, maybe something he said?”
    “Oh…oh. Do you think…?”
    “Oh, he wouldn’t dare, would he?”
    “Oh, he would, and has.”
    “And has.”

  2. Stephe

    (From an unused scene in Book 1 of my fantasy saga–a scene I really liked and couldn’t use! Boo-hoo. 🙂

    “Divorce?”
    “Well, at least it’s amicable.”
    “Why is it happening at all?”
    “You know why.”
    “Giving up isn’t like you!”
    “That’s not what I’m doing!”
    “Stop lying to yourself—”
    “She should be free to have the babies she wants.”
    “And you?”
    “I should be free to do my job without worrying about leaving little ones fatherless.”
    “For how long?”
    “What I do is too dangerous.”
    “That’s not an answer.”
    “Having children would be irresponsible of me.”
    “Hmph—if you just don’t want children, simply say it.”
    “I’ve… always wanted them.”
    “I know, friend.”
    “She’ll have the house and the tavern.”
    “Nice and neat, eh?”
    “Neither of us will want for anything.”
    “Except each other, fool.”

  3. Gloria Oliver

    Okay, let’s see if I can do this. No tags??? No body language???? It’s like untraining. lol

    “You’re a liar!”
    “Me?”
    “Who else!”
    “But I didn’t do anything.”
    “Of course, you’d say that!”
    “I have no idea what this is about all!”
    “Georgia…”
    “Oh…”

  4. newwaytowrite

    All rise
    Please be seated
    Will the accused please rise for the verdict
    Guilty as charged
    The court is adjourned until tomorrow at 2pm for sentencing.
    All rise.
    I can’t believe it.
    He said guilty, right?
    I just have to be sure I am here to see him sentenced tomorrow.
    Why?
    Because I need to know how long I can enjoy feeling safe in my own skin.
    Then I will drive you here and we will dance in the streets after the bugger gets 5 years.
    I will get my dancing shoes polished for the big event.

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