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Talking About Talking. Dialogue Part 1. 

Depending on the genre in which you are writing, dialogue comprises a massive portion of any novel’s content. It is used to move along the plot, develop character, and emotion, and create or resolve conflicts. It needs to be done well, for a novel to work. Examples of famous novels in history and their proportion of dialogue show just how much dialogue we read:

 

  • Arthur Conan Doyle's 1892 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes has 46.95% characters within quoted strings.

  • Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula has 47.46%.

  • HP Lovecraft’s body of work is about 10 %. (Thank God. His dialogue is painfully bad.)

  • The Great Gatsby has 51.32%.

  • The Da Vinci Code has 29.59%.

 

In case you are tempted to think it is genre dependent as far as I can tell it isn’t. Even inside of a genre the numbers can vary widely. Look at some modern examples from fantasy:

 

  • 37% dialogue in The Final Empire (Mistborn #1).

  • The Last Unicorn, which scores a whopping 63%.

  • 13% dialogue for A Wizard of Earthsea.

Earthsea

Even the number of speakers in a novel vary widely. A Wizard of Earthsea has less than ten speaking characters. The Lord of the Rings has over 75.

 

Dialogue on average appears to run around 33% of a given novel with a typical range of 25-50 %. Given how much the dialogue makes up, it seems only right that we should talk about the good and bad types of dialogue. Over the next few weeks, we will explore good dialogue, and bad dialogue, with examples as well as types of bad dialogue we want to avoid.

 

We should define good and bad dialogue.

 

Good dialogue: Conversation which achieves moving the plot, character, or theme of a story forward, preferably more than one at a time, while not relaying heavily on the aspects of bad dialogue which is below.

 

Bad dialogue: Dialogue which fails to move the story forward, discover aspects of a character or setting, and which used one or more of the following poor structures:  

 

  • Melodrama.

  • Excessive or unwarranted exposition.

  • Butler and maid structures, (as you know… structures.)

  • Falls out of sync with the setting and time period

  • Fails to sound natural to the setting and characters.

 

Good dialogue sounds natural, has conflict and conflict resolution. It hides meanings, reveals meanings, pushes world views on others, coaxes behaviors, tries to convince people of things, or learn them. There is action in the words.

 

Bad dialogue tells the reader something they need to know. Bad dialogue sounds like a soap opera, where everything is very on the nose without subtlety. Good dialogue tells other characters things they need to know, and the reader is there for the story.

 

Next week we’ll look at examples and dig into melodrama, period / setting voice, exposition, and telling too much or too early through dialogue. Start thinking about good and bad dialogue examples you have seen in books and movies. Why are they good and why are they bad to you? Do they fit one of the examples above?

 

Until then, always remember, writers write. Go get writing.

Exposition. Dialogue Pt. 2. 

Humans are an interactive group. We love to talk. Dialogue in real life serves as one of our primary windows into other people’s thoughts, and serves as one of our primary methods to explain how we feel to other people. Our actions of course speak louder than our words, but our words are second probably only to deeds.

We established in the last dialogue section that books vary widely in the total dialogue between genres and even inside of a genre.

Dialogue can be used in a book to drive the plot by revealing information to characters which they did not previously have, thus making available to them options for action. It can be used in world building, through characters who are ignorant like the reader asking questions we want to ask. The answer expands the world. What is said and what is not said can drastically drive character development, especially when paired with actions which may say something else, or inner monologues which may say yet a third thing. Remember, people are not always self-consistent.

I want to touch on expositional dialogue today . Specifically, on bad expositional dialogue. We already said that dialogue can easily serve to tell the reader something that they don’t already know as the character learns it too. It's probably why so many stories follow the young, ignorant protagonist around as they have a witness exploration of the world. Following a character who knows everything makes it very difficult to have a reason for exposition.

This is one of the first lessons in bad exposition. It comes in many forms. “As you know,” dialogue, or sometimes called “Maid and Butler,” dialogue is a terrible use of exposition in spoken word. Example:

“As you know Mary, the lord is away for a week.”

“With his mistress as always.”

“The lady must be kept in the dark as usual.”

This is a brief silly exchange between a maid and butler about their lord and lady. Both people know everything said. They are not telling each other to exchange information, they are telling each other to tell the audience. This is bad exposition.

Pointless explaining of rules of magic in fantasy, explaining publicly known technology in science fiction, or the history of a serial killer in horror may all fall into examples of pointless, boring exposition. Here is another example.

“The bride,” she whispered to herself. “I’m getting married,” she tried again.

“Ready to give your life away to a human?” her father asked her.

“He is a good man,” she said. The words were worn from frequent use. “Humans aren’t all bad you know.”

“It’s just that you’re marrying one, is all.”

“I don’t trust humans either, but that doesn’t mean I hate them…”

The dialogue continues. This is an example of bad exposition, and generally overly on the head dialogue. I have removed the names of the characters which were used in the actual book, because I have no desire to insult an author, but the rest is unchanged.

Clearly the author wants us to understand a few points.

  1. Humans are bad.

  2. The young girl is marrying one.

  3. Her father doesn’t approve.

 

The author however almost comes right out and says the points verbatim in dialogue. There is no discovery, no intrigue no development, and no … interest. Everyone already knows everything that was being said. Nothing is learned, characters emotions are not present, and there is no subtext.

One solution in your own writing if you find such telling dialogue is to do exactly what I did above. What do you want your reader to learn? Make a list of the points you want expressed in the dialogue.

  1. What world building ideas I want expressed:

    1. Idea

    2. Idea

    3. Idea

  2. What character beats do you want to drive home?

    1. New character trait

    2. Reinforced character trait

    3. Character subterfuge or contradicting personality

  3. What plot moments need to be nudged forward?

    1. Things characters need to learn

    2. Things characters need to hide

    3. Things characters need to understand better

 

From these lists you can then move to figuring out ways in which people would express those personality traits, or act in real life to go about the action you want, without necessarily saying them outright.

If you ever find you have none of these things and the people on the page are talking just to hear themselves speak, you probably don’t need the scene! If you can help it though, most dialogue scenes should be accomplishing more than one of the items above concurrently.

Good Dialogue can certainly express these things, but need to do so in a realistic way. Example:

  1. Express a young man does not have in love parents.

  2. Express the nature of the relationship between the parents.

  3. Express the household dynamic.

 

“Are your parents still in love?” she asked.

“My mother and father? God, I suppose so. Are yours?”

“Not a bit. No.”

Peter went on eating.

“They don’t even share a room.”

“How long have they been married?”

“Lord, don’t ask me. I wouldn’t know.”

“All in all, I suspect they were still very much in love,” she suggested.

“I expect so,” he said.

“You won’t tell them I mentioned this will you?”

 

We learn deep things from simple sentences. “I wouldn’t know,” how long a parent is married implies no public telling or celebrations of the duration of a marriage. “My mother and father?” implied surprise. Who else would his parents be?

Study good dialogue. Study bad dialogue too, though in lesser volume. Learn to pull out the things you are really trying to say, and find ways to say them that everyone on the page needs to know.

 

Always remember, writers write. Go get writing.

Dialogue Pt. 3. Belonging to a Speaker.

Dialogue must belong to the speaker. This can mean almost anything once the author has established a character, but it encompasses multiple dimensions and must be consistent. As an author you own the world you write. The cadence of speech, the language, what constitutes a curse or a meaningful gesture, what can and cannot be said in public, what is an insult, all of it is up to you. You determine them all.

What determines these things? Other sections of this website have said that we borrow tropes and structures from our genre, and that is certainly a starting point. We have said before that when a character speaks, we should have a pretty good idea in context who is speaking from what they say and why, even if there is no dialogue tag. How you as an author create a character determines many of these markers that say which character is speaking independent of genre or current situation.

Some times we cannot escape the culture and time in which we live. At least not easily. I will say a word. Think of what comes to mind.

Tank.

Without context you could go many ways with this.

- A vessel to hold water, usually underground.

- A military land vehicle invented in the 1900’s.

- A well armored military person who has high constitution. (Game speak)

All of them would be broadly right. How a character uses the word in your world could mean any one of them. However, if your setting is 1600’s France, tank, used to mean a military man or vehicle would be dialogue that does not make sense.

This is one example that dialogue, and terms used, have to match the setting that we are writing in.

This is true of culture too. For a modern take of a Connecticut Yankee In King Authors Court: If you take a modern American speaker, and place them in the English court of 1800, and they greet the king by saying “What’s Up?” slurred to a more general “'Sup?” they would be using dialogue which is out of place and strange. So too in your writing if you establish a period dialect, you cannot shift that dialect without drawing attention to it.

If you have established that to speak of personal relationships is taboo in your science fiction culture, and it is frowned on all the time, without exception, but you need to teach the reader the relationships of the main characters, having them say it to one another would be breaking a rule you set. The dialogue would not belong in the characters mouth. UNLESS…. You are creating a character who is trying to demonstrate how they buck the system.

Then you have  the ability with dialogue to both create the system and character.

Be careful borrowing famous sentence structures. “Borrow you should not. Strange it would be.” Yoda anyone? Everyone in the genre would recognize it. That’s not to say you CAN’T use this terminology but everyone would know why you are doing it, so you have to have a reason. It doesn’t belong to your character, it belongs to Yoda.

Beware of sudden character tonal shifts. Say you are writing about a priest, who constantly quotes scripture, is always crossing themselves, citing small prayers, and is timid. Suddenly in one scene they’re gruff, curse for no clear reason, utter not one prayer… they are not themselves. If the author has not established a good reason for the sudden change their dialogue no longer matches their character. It doesn’t belong to them.

Characters who um, ah, and uhhh, all the time, who suddenly don’t use vocal pauses will sound like a different character.

Once you begin to establish how your character should sound, and what voice belongs to them, you can also learn slowly how to tweak it to demonstrate internal character arcs and changes. If over the course of a novel a character who has never spoken up for themselves suddenly does, this is not only in character, it can be the major turning point of a growth arc.

Pay attention to your setting, borrow carefully from modern dialects, be consistent, and don’t draw attention of your readers to out of place dialogue, unless you mean to.

Most importantly always remember, writers write. Get out there and get writing.

Dialogue Part 4. Beware Humor.

An unfortunate aspect of movies sharing a dominant space with literature is that the worst of the film industry has a tendency to bleed into the writing world. As the film industry has had an explosion of fantasy and science fiction adjacent movies over the last decade, some of the worst specifically of the marvel cinematic universe has spilled over into writing. In this case, I am speaking about humor in scenes, and humor in dialogue.

We have said in previous sections that dialogue must be natural to a character, to a setting, and to the moment. It is entirely possible to have a whimsical character, and to have a character who likes to make jokes. However, that doesn’t mean that every scene is the time and place for it.

Humor in writing is supposed to serve a primary purpose, releasing tension. Humor in movies and in some writing has started to be used to break tension which hasn’t occurred yet, or worse, is used so liberally, because writers worry that people can’t handle a moment of serious tension, that it devolves characters into something that is less than realistic.

Let’s take an early Marvel movie example of acceptable humor and dialogue.

In Guardians of The Galaxy, Rocket requests a man’s prosthetic leg, as part of a heist. The tone of the film has been established as less serious than movies which have come before, the character has been established as a trickster or even a playful liar when it serves him. He makes multiple jokes in serious moments before this scene. The leg is not needed, it is played for laughs during an otherwise serious scene, where he responds “I just wanted to see if you would do it.”

Get the Leg Scene

Due to the success of the movie, the writers in the marvel world began to implement more humor into every movie. Many of these were at times when it wasn’t warranted. Let’s take Thor’s character arc. Perhaps we should say the character boomerang. Through his first outings we see the character grow up, grow to become worthy of power (over a weekend… a little fast but I digress…) lose his kingdom, lose an eye, lose his self-respect and hope, fail to save the world… then… well.

This…

Thor Love and Thunder failure.

The Splits Scene.

This scene opens a movie. This is a travesty of terrible. It betrays character growth, sets a mismatched tone against the arc which has gone before, and undoes character development. It does this for the sake of humor, which is not funny. It is attempted humor run amok.

Humor can not only destroy protagonist character building, or deflate scenes which need to remain tense to draw readers in, it can also completely and easily destroy the villain. Villains, whether they are relatable, or not, are in some manner to be feared for their capability and threat.

Would Darth Vader be the villain if he cracked jokes instead of punishing people who disobey him?

Would Raistlin be an antihero, and creepy, if he constantly told jokes about his life threateningly low constitution? (Legends series)

Would Tarrant be a villain, on the path to redemption if instead of being terrifying he told jokes every time there was a hint of his dark magic at work, making people around him uncomfortable? (Coldfire Trilogy)

In every case the answer is no. Nothing can deflate the threat of a good villain faster than misplaced humor.

Humor has its place, but humor may have more incorrect places than not.

Ask yourself:

  1. Would any human real emotionally capable person crack a joke at this moment in time?

  2. What would I think of a character who did make a joke at this moment?

  3. Am I taking away from tension I want to build?

  4. Have I reached the most emotion I want from this arc or scene before I release it with a joke?

  5. Would this character have made a joke at all?

  6. Has the tone of the book up to this point indicated that humor might have a place in this book?

 

Only when you have answered these questions carefully should you consider placing humor in your scene. But you only have a book to consider it in, when you write. So get out there and get writing.

Dialogue Part 5: Tag, You’re It.

Let’s express one idea five ways.

  1. “I’m going to the store,” said Jane.

  2. “I’m going to the store, Jane said.

  3. Jane said, “I’m going to the store.”

  4. I need to go to the store, Jane thought.

  5. I need to go to the store.

 

All of these items are about the idea that Jane needs to express to the reader a need to go to the store. Most of them are dialogue, but as we have said before, dialogue is often for the purpose of conveying meaning to the reader, so for today’s thought process I want to include thought bubbles too.

Which of the above items are right?

I am aware of several prominent online writing lecturers who say that 1) is unequivocally wrong. “He said. She said. Jane said. Never use, ‘said Jane.’” I understand where they are coming from. But, are they right?

Let’s go to the jury of history. AKA. Well loved, very influential books.

three books.png

Examples from Larry Niven, Three Books of Known Space:

“That’s Funny,” said Kzanol/Greenburg. “I almost remembered something but then it slipped away.”

“All ships,” said the man in the lead ship. “I say we shoot now….”

 

Seems like score one for 1)… but wait. In the same book a hundred pages later you will note:

I said, “It’s really love, then.”

Anton said, “He’s right, Love. Jack, give me your door codes….”

That’s a score for option 3). In the same book. Surely in the same book an author would be consistent, right? Apparently, this isn’t so.

tyrany.png

I recently reread The Tyranny of the Night, Book One of the Instrumentalities of the Night. I was on page 70 or 80 before I even noticed that the structure is always structure 3. Very consistently.

garden.png

Examples from Steven Erikson’s Gardens of The Moon:

“Oh,” Rake said, “one last thing. You’ve done well, exceptionally well. You’ve earned a rest…”

I scanned through the book and found no examples of other structures used for direct dialogue tags.

 

Seems like a hefty few million words though the series of scores for option 2.

So, which of them are right? All of them are right. They are all legendary writers. They are all using a different rule. They are all right. You have to decide what is right for you, know why you are doing it, how it sounds to a reader and then stick with your own rule. None of them are grammatically wrong.

It is a longer conversation about how often or how many dialogue tags you need. More is usually worse, but when they are present, they can take any form you wish.

What about the nearby elements of thought?

Is option 4) or option 5) right? I have even seen option 6, (not noted above) where we see “I need to go to the store,” Jane thought. While I would say 6) is getting near to absolute wrong, the 4) and 5) are also equally right. Returning to an example from Gardens of The Moon: (Not quoted to not confuse even though this is a quote from the book.)

To Whiskeyjack’s mind Hedge and Fiddler were terrible soldiers. He had trouble recalling the last time they’d unsheathed their short swords. Whatever discipline had been part of their basic training had disintegrated through the years in the field. Still, when it came to sabotage they had no equals.

This is clearly a series of thoughts by Whiskeyjack. It doesn’t use the word thought, though ‘To Whiskeyjack’s mind,” is close enough. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with this structure. In the same book, skip ahead fifty pages and you find: (Again quote skipped this is entirely form the book verbatim.)

Oponn had been unkind… What had Rake meant? Have any of these thoughts been my own? Look at me – my every move seems a desperate search for someone to blame, always someone else. I’ve made being a tool of a god an excuse…

In the same book he later choses to express thoughts directly in italics. Same author, same books, score for option 5).

Do we all see the theme here? There is no strict right in this question. There is your preference, your editor’s preference, and your readers preference. So long as you know what you are doing, and why, in this case you really can’t go wrong.

Now go write some dialogue!

Dialogue Part 6… Talking to Pass the Time.

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 pic 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 heal 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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