Writing Dialog, Part I

universeFor a fictional story to feel real, readers must believe that the universe our characters inhabit existed long before first paragraph and will continue to exist long after the last one (unless you are a nihilist and blow up your universe at the end).

That means each fictional universe has a timeline (even those zany time-travel stories I am not clever enough to write). We need not concern ourselves with the post-story timeline or most of what happened before the story started, since those things do not directly affect the characters. When it comes to writing dialog, though, knowing the character-specific events in the pre-story timeline is critical. Because if our characters haven’t “lived” those unwritten moments, lame dialog may result.

Example 1:

A mother is harping on her teenage daughter to clean her messy room, but her emotion level is disproportionately high for the situation. The daughter, prone to outbursts of clunky exposition, says, “Ever since Dad died, you’ve been taking your anger out on me!”

Example 2:

Two inmates are walking the yard at the penitentiary. Hank, worried about Cletus’s terrible memory, summarizes, “I can’t believe that I’ve spent 15 long years in this joint for a crime I didn’t commit. But, by the grace of God, I just have to survive one more day, because they granted me parole and I will be released tomorrow!”

Example 3:

A husband serves his wife with divorce papers. Inclined to speak in expository list form, she says, “First you pushed my mother-in-law down the stairs and tried to make it look like an accident, then you cheated on me with my yoga instructor, and now you have the nerve to divorce me?”

***

These examples all suffer from the same problem: The characters are talking about things they would logically have discussed ages ago… because they already “lived” through them, even if we didn’t write about it. The daughter wouldn’t wait until that moment to mention her mother’s behavior for the first time, since she is clearly aware that Mom’s behavior has changed since her father died. Hank wouldn’t need to give his pal a rundown of what has gone on in his life for 15 years, because Cletus has been seen it happen. And I’m sure the husband and wife have already discussed the yoga-teacher affair at length.

Writing good dialog involves many elements. Relative to today’s discussion, though, a writer can improve her dialog by making sure the answer to the following question is “yes”: Is this dialog exchange in its logical place on the timeline?

With that in mind, here’s how I would rewrite the dialog in the above examples:

#1 – Daughter, as soon as her mom finishes screaming about the messy room: “I didn’t give Dad cancer, Mom.”

Without exposition or histrionics, we know that Dad is probably dead (and that will be clear soon enough anyway), and that Mom has been overreacting to minor issues involving her daughter ever since. Plus, it’s more cutting and hurtful, which reveals the dynamic between them more clearly.

#2 – Hank, to Cletus, whom he has known for years: “You know how many thousands of times I’ve walked this damn yard in the past 15 years? Well, this is the last lap I’ll ever do.”

Hank is still saying something Cletus knows, but now the line has a wistful, hopeful quality, because Hank is about to experience a big life change.

Tragically, Hank is stabbed to death that night by a mysterious figure cloaked in black, thus setting up the new bestselling mystery series Cletus McPhatter – Prison Detective.

#3 – First of all, I’d rather read about the mother-in-law getting pushed down the stairs than about someone handing someone else a legal document, so that’s the story I’d tell. However, I didn’t make up this scenario. Well, maybe I did, but let’s just go with it. I’m jonesin’ for some Taco Bell and want to finish this post.

The wife, after her husband hands her divorce papers: “After all the shit you’ve put me through…”

There’s no need to restate the existence of the divorce papers through dialog. When a bartender asks for your ID, you don’t say, “Here, I’m handing you my driver’s license,” do you? Plus, now we are curious about what horrible things he has done to his wife.

That’s it. I’m off to get a volcano taco. Please share your thoughts below.

_____________________________________________

Universe timeline: Big Bang, 13.2 BYA... Earth forms, 4.5 BYA... first Taco Bell opens 51 YA

Universe timeline: Big Bang, 13.2 BYA… Earth forms, 4.5 BYA… first Taco Bell opens 51 YA

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33 responses to “Writing Dialog, Part I

  • wantonwordflirt

    Thank you Eric! Not only did you give us some excellent advice. you provided valuable concrete examples for us to compare and ensure understanding. Appreciate it!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks. It’s hard to talk about dialog writing without examples. This post just another way of saying, “Avoid exposition.” Exposition is dull when coming from a narrator, but it’s really awkward when coming from a character.

  • nrhatch

    Enjoy that taco . . . you EARNED it! 😀

  • Jodi

    You’ve nailed it. I can’t tell you how much I hate it when I can tell certain dialogue bits are there only to convey backstory. They sometimes call this “Maid and Butler” dialogue.

    • ericjbaker

      I recognize that explanation from an expert character is sometimes necessary (like when the detective in an old mystery reveals how he discovered the identity of the killer), but it grates on me when a character speaks in exposition during an emotional moment. Not only does it sound fake and amateurish, but it robs the scene of impact.

  • Andrew Zigler

    Team Taco! Also, great post!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Whoa – that American spelling of dialogue really threw me for a minute. It looks so weird. 😉

    Within sci-fi/fantasy circles, the bad dialogue you’ve written here is known as “As you know, Bob”, as famously presented in the famous Turkey City Lexicon (http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/turkey-city-lexicon-a-primer-for-sf-workshops – scroll down to part 5).

    if our characters haven’t “lived” those unwritten moments, lame dialog may result.

    That’s a great way of thinking about it. As writers, we need to remember that these things happened in the past, and to not refer to them as if they’re still happening at that moment.

    • ericjbaker

      I seem to be in the minority by spelling it “dialog.” It’s just that New Jersey is so crowded I have to save space wherever I can.

      😉

      I have to say that sci-fi novels are the worst when it comes to characters spouting exposition. No ever seems to say anything unrelated to technology, the immediate action, or the plans of the villain.

  • Uzoma

    Great piece of advice. The examples are top notch. Ha! How can I repay you for your generosity?

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Slipping pieces of your character’s backstory into dialogue is a good way to convey bits of information, but as your first examples prove, too much can be a bad thing. These are great examples, Eric. I hope those tacos were just as good. Happy Father’s Day! 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks! If we’re going to reveal story through dialog, we must do it obliquely. So much of our real communication is body language. Trying to replace body language exclusively with words will shatter our fiction’s illusion of reality rather quickly.

  • Arkenaten

    I always love these ‘lessons’.
    I have picked up stuff every time.

    • ericjbaker

      Cool and thanks! I spend a lot of time dissecting data at work, and that mindset carries over to my reading and writing. I’m not sure if my rational/logical approach robs my stories of feeling, but I believe my dialog and prose flows professionally at least.

  • Bryan Edmondson

    I think this post is for more advanced writers. I did not glean what others obviously do. Bear in mind, I do not exactly know what “back story” means.

    My main confusion seems to be that I do not understand in what context these dialogue examples occur.
    For example in the dialogue correction, “I didn’t give Dad cancer, Mom,” is the fact that he is dead supposed to be stated in dialogue to proceed or follow this? Is this a novel?

    Bear in mind I am strictly a short story writer so it seems important to me to know whether the father is dead or suffering from cancer in the back room, out of earshot, and wearing out a caregiver.

    p.s. Congratulations on producing and now distributing your new Album. That is to musicians; as “getting published,” is to writers.

    • Jeff Peters

      I don’t think he’s saying it isn’t important that the dad is dead, rather, no one talks that way in real life so writing in that style comes off clunky. My grandma has been dead for several years now, but I’ve never once said something like, “Janet, you are my sister. You know I’ve been sad since grandma died from the colon cancer she first got five years ago.”

      1) Janet knows she is my sister, about grandma, this history, etc. so that is just there to give information to the reader, which comes across as an unnatural way

      2) Almost all people do not speak this direct.

      Certainly later he could tell someone the story of how his father died or have some inner thoughts about it. That’s my take, coming from someone who is awful at dialogue. 🙂

      • ericjbaker

        That’s a great example of exactly what I am trying to say. I doubt your dialogue (I’ll use the mainstream spelling) is awful at all.

        To Bryan: Perhaps this post fell short in that I did not provide enough context for the example. The idea is to reveal the characters’ situation through their actions and reactions rather than through explanation. If fleshed out properly, this scenario between the mother and daughter will reveal what happened to the father. Perhaps in a future post I will write it out.

        Getting away from dialog for a minute, let us change the scenario to the daughter being dead instead. Instead of writing, “In the two years since Madison’s death in a car accident at the age of 5, Louise had been dusting her room, changing the sheets, and placing her dolls and stuffed animals back in the same exact position, every day. Meanwhile, her husband George felt lonely and ignored,” you could show George calling for his wife, finding Louise in the room cleaning and crying and arranging stuffed animals, shaking his head and starting to walk away. Then, fed up, he turns and says, “It’s been two years, Louise. Let her go.”

        You know it’s a dead daughter, you know their marriage is ruined, and you know it’s coming to a head without a word of explaining.

  • Katie

    Besides not simply blabbing on and on in my writing, plot be damned, dialogue is probably my biggest obstacle. It often feels very contrived on read-thrus!

    Taco Bell, eh? Every once in a while I gotta get me a beef and potato burrito.

  • Bryan Edmondson

    Eric Baker, would you like to go on record about your current and future affiliation with PFC? I have not visited this fame blog in a year.

    I was driving through the Hollywood scene as always, but missed the off ramp to Baker Street. It is not there anymore as far as I could ascertain.
    This was a big let down, but I dared not complain. Why not? because of Livefyre security. I mean what is Livefyre, exactly;is it like a scary secret castle with a flaming draw bridge? Livefyre roughed me up, pilfered at ever social media account I have, only agreeing to let me comment for my life story. Th damn thiingt was demanding more personal information than a moat, chock full of swimming Mark Zuckerbergs.

    Am I on to something with this rant? Or just a disgruntled misanthrope who had a bad day? Seems to me that “Clawing at the Keys.” is the place to be.

    Sorry for dumping on everybody. I lost a lot of money on on hermit crab racing today. I don’t know whom I dread seeing more, my money-grubbing trophy wife, or my nefarious bank examiner.

    Please do not tell your friends I am crazy. “I prefer ‘Savant.”

    • ericjbaker

      Hermit crab racing is a swirling vortex of pain and anguish. It’s worse than anything that happens in Conan the Barbarian.

      I still write an article for PFC every other weekend. Other weekends happen 26 times per year. I am not a fan of Livefyre. At all.

  • kriskkaria

    Thanks! I love examples, and your examples were great.

  • 1WriteWay

    Great post, Eric! You have such a great sense of humor. Your posts are very entertaining and educational: the best combo (aside from what you might get at Taco Bell).

  • Zombies, Dr. Suess and other things that caught my eye | by, JH Mae

    […] sound so stupid I wish I had the sharp wit of Eric John Baker. As usual he got me giggling with this post about making sure you give your characters something intelligent to say. My pet peeve is when […]

  • VarVau

    I’m too tempted…

    “Jay, you’ve been my friend since we shat in diapers. You know I’ve had explosive bowel syndrome–I can’t help what happened with your sister in the backseat.”

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