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Dialogue Part 6… Talking to Pass the Time.

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

Dialogue can let time pass slowly, quickly, or in a manner which is indeterminate. In general, when we are trying to show, and not tell, we would avoid saying explicitly, “Time passed,” or “They stared at one another in silence for a while,” before resuming the talking. That is not to say we CAN’T do this, but we would normally try to avoid it in much of our writing.



What makes us know how fast dialogue is exchanged? The answer can be found in action tags. Actions tags, instead of dialogue tags, (He said, she said, ABC said) can let a reader know not only who is speaking, but the things happening in the room. Great for avoiding white room, but also great for telling us the cadence of events, because readers are smart enough to know what else is happening in a normal conversation.


When we walk and talk, eat and talk, read and talk, do activities and talk, we fill in the space between the words with actions, and several well-placed beats will tell the audience how much time is elapsing and how fast.


I am going to straight steal a series of lines from a novel in process by a friend of mine, Mike Cote. (Thanks Mike!) He is working on a fascinating quantum mechanics-based fantasy novel from which the following dialogue, stripped of all actions, take place. We pick up mid talk here with one added dialogue tag for clarity.


“Well, enough,” [Lizbeth said.]

“Did he attend the secret meeting at Maddie’s the other night?”

“Yep.”

“Do you think Jonathan will take David’s place?”

“Likely.”

“It shan’t be Jacob,” her mother said matter-of-factly. “Take his place, I mean.”

“Nay.” Her father cleaned his eyeglasses using his shirt tails.

“The bishop—” her mother started.

“Is an idiot,” her father interrupted. “Declaring the poor lad shunned.”

“What?” Lizbeth dropped her fork and blinked.


There are a few things we can already pick up on. Firstly, the short, clipped answers. “Well, enough,” “Yep,” and “Likely,” are monosyllabic in nature. One-word responses are meant to close down conversation, or at least shut down the line of inquiry being undertaken. They usually give an impression of increased dialogue speed, as the exchange would happen fast.


If we know this exchange is over a dinner table, we don’t immediately know how long this takes. Here is a version in which action tags demonstrate this conversation is in fact very rapid.


“Well, enough,” Lizabeth speared her asparagus.

“Did he attend the secret meeting at Maddie’s the other night?”

“Yep.” She folded the overcooked green stem in half wedging the entire spear in her mouth to hurry the conversation along.

“Do you think Jonathan will take David’s place?” Her mother handed the potatoes to her father.

“Likely.”

“It shan’t be Jacob,” her mother said matter-of-factly while the mashed butter and milk held together by spuds hovered there in the air unattended. “Take his place, I mean.”

“Nay.” Her father finished cleaning his eyeglasses using his shirt tails and then reached for the ceramic bowl.

“The bishop—” her mother started.

“Is an idiot,” her father interrupted. “Declaring the poor lad shunned.” He slapped a spoonful of white mush onto his plate atop his own asparagus spears.

“What?” Lizbeth dropped her fork and blinked, a mouthful of food sitting on her tongue un-swallowed.


This shows the entire exchange over a single mouthful. The cadence increase will heighten the sense that this is an argument taking place quickly. Contrast that to the following version which shows the same conversation again, drawn out, intended to make the tension heighten over time, as people don’t speak to one another.


“Well, enough,” Lizbeth said though her fourth spear of asparagus. She counted each chew the way mother had taught her, not swallowing until 21. The mushy pulp of green slid down her throat.

“Did he attend the secret meeting at Maddie’s the other night?” Her father silently gnawed at his overcooked steak.

“Yep.” She picked up a second helping of potatoes, and splashed them onto her plate like a breaking wave. The tines of her fork dragged through the mash of butter and starch to create tiny grids like prison cells.

“Do you think Jonathan will take David’s place?”

“Likely.”

“It shan’t be Jacob,” her mother said matter-of-factly. “Take his place, I mean.”

“Nay.” Her father cleaned his eyeglasses using his shirt tails. He rose and carried his cleared plate to the sink, and ran water across the surface to make dishwashing easier later.

“The bishop—” her mother started, pointing with her own fork in his direction.

“Is an idiot,” her father interrupted. “Declaring the poor lad shunned.” He turned abruptly on a heel in the kitchen to face the dining room.

“What?” Lizbeth dropped her fork into the potato prison and blinked.


We know that they have been eating, continued eating, got second helpings and played with them, and her father finished at least one helping during the exchange. This shows a more drawn out, terse dinner conversation. Always remember as conversation is delivered that there is opportunity to continue the telling of a story in the environment and use that environment to set a scene for how the conversation plays out.


For more of our ongoing talks on good dialogue, subscribe here, and always remember that writer’s write. Go get writing!

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Anna Varlese
Anna Varlese
Dec 06, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

That was a fun one. I'd love to see more like this dissecting something for analysis

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Michael Cote
Michael Cote
Dec 02, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Always great... but thanks for including some of my writing!

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