November 4th, 2018 – Creative Coworkers

Moderator Notes

What is the purpose of Dialogue?

  • Character development. (Specifically motivation.) Show don’t tell directly applies here. Having your character say something a certain way can be much more effective than explaining the same thing in narration.
    • Dialogue is a chance to let the character speak for themselves. It lets them be funny, sad, or angry without a narrator overtly telling the reader they’re feeling this way.
    • Dialogue should expand the reader’s understanding of the character’s personality, while reinforcing the motivation driving the character towards a resolution.
  • Moves the story forward. Have you ever tried to explain a youtube video or standup comedy routine, only to realize you’re taking twice as long to get the same information across? Dialogue is often a more direct and concise way to convey important plot elements.
    • Dialogue is an excellent place to add conflict! Tension makes for good dialogue.
  • Breaks up the narrative. Reading blocks of exposition can be tiring, even if they have good narrative flow and aren’t info-dumpy.


Natural versus Literary Speech

  • Common advice is to go out in public and listen to how people talk, but how does that translate to fiction?
    • In reality, people repeat themselves, lose their train of thought, talk in deviations and circles, and use filler words like “um” and “uh” while they gather their thoughts.
    • In fiction, we need to get to the point a little more efficiently. A friend will suffer a rambling story, but a reader wants relevant information. Every line of dialogue should be moving the story forward or building up a specific character trait.
    • Filler and awkward speech can and should be used, but sparingly.
  • Dialogue should feel authentic to the reader. It will likely never be “real” in the sense that it mimics the way normal people talk, but it should flow in line with the tone you’ve chosen for your story. It’s okay for your dialogue to be a little larger than life (bordering on caricature) if it fits the tone of your story. Think Terry Pratchett versus Joe Abercrombie, or Douglas Adams versus Isaac Asimov.


Passive Vs Active Vocabulary – Defining your character’s Voice.

  • Passive: All the words your character knows.
  • Active: The words your character actually uses.
  • A teen might have a large passive vocabulary, but only choose to use a few words in social settings so as not to stand out in a negative way.
  • According to one study, adults who took the test (http://testyourvocab.com/) had an average vocabulary of 20 – 35,000. Eight year olds averaged around 10,000 words.
    • Teens have an average vocabulary similar to adults, yet typically only use 800 words in day to day speech.
  • Think about a conversation between an eight-year-old and an eighty-year-old. Are they going to use the same words in the same way?
    • What about a teenaged ranch hand talking to a forty-something lawyer from the big city?
    • Two fourteen-year-olds discussing video games versus one of those same kids trying to convince his parents he’s old enough to stay home alone for the weekend?
  • In the case of speculative fiction, sparing use of characters who never use contractions can convey a certain sense of solemnity and alienation. For example, an immortal with limited contact with humans. A better option in most cases is to have certain characters use fewer contractions.


Dialects and Accents

  • General best practice is to use dialect sparingly.
    • Instead of using Southern drawl on every applicable word, pick one or two key words and use it there.
    • Having a character sound like Boomhauer from King of the Hill can be effective in small doses, but will quickly become exhausting if a reader has to endure pages of it. The brain is working harder to convert the dialect in a readers head, increasing the risk of bumping them out of immersion.
  • Examples of risky dialect:
    • “Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream. Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ah sound mind, ectetera, ectetera, but still want tae use smack? They won’t let ye dae it. They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign ay thir ain failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whut they huv tae offer. Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life. Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it’s thair fuckin problem. As Harry Launder sais, ah jist intend tae keep right on to the end of the road…”  Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh

    • “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.” — Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After chapter, Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

  • Immersion is everything. You want your reader to sink into your book and stay down there where they feel a sense of immediacy. Little stumbling blocks risk knocking them out. Sometimes risky efforts pay off, so it’s up to you to determine how important dialect is to the story you’re trying to tell.


Attribution aka Dialogue Tags

  • Include it early.
    • Good: “Short text,” he said. “More text of any length.”
    • Bad: “Long blah blah block of text a paragraph long,” he said.
  • If it doesn’t fit in the middle, add a beat up front.
    • He nearly spit out his Frogurt.  “Here’s a big ol’ block of text!”
    • Try not to overuse beats. People should not be frowning, shaking heads, drinking coffee, etc in every single line. Use sparingly.
  • Are they even necessary?
    • It’s a matter of personal style. Some people use them here and there, some on every line, and others not at all. As long as a reader can easily follow the flow of conversation without having to stop and backtrack to figure it out, anything goes.


Said Bookisms

  • ‘said’ is invisible in dialogue.
  • A ‘said bookism’ (TV Tropes) is ‘a variety of Purple Prose in which the writer goes out of their way to avoid the word “said”.’
  • Excellent examples from the Hardy Boys:
    • “I’ll say,’ replied Lola slangily.
    • “So!’ she ejaculated, as the boys appeared.
  • Is there room for flowery dialogue tags? Do any authors use them successfully? How do we really define line between good and purple prose?


Writing dialogue for characters outside of your own personal experience.

  • This is can feel tricky, but it’s not that complicated.
  • Write them as people first. Do not fall into the trap of turning them into a one-dimensional stereotype. Try as hard to imagine them as well-rounded personalities as you would any other character, then layer on a few identity elements like slang or character traits. Is your character saying things a certain way because it’s what their character would say, or are they a poor mimic of a rap video?
  • Do your best, then find a sensitivity reader. If you’re writing a different gender, ask someone of that gender to read it. Writing a different cultural background? Find someone of that background. The same thing applies if you’re writing armed forces or police. They have distinct elements of speech that are developed through training. If you don’t have that training, find someone who does and ask them if the character feels genuine.


Splitting Lengthy Dialogue into Blocks

  • Proper formatting is to open every new paragraph with quotes, but to only close the last paragraph with a trailing quotation mark.


Attendee Notes 1:

Why Dialogue?

  • Humanizes characters
  • Character development and comparing words to actions
  • Nuance in dialogue types, tones, and accents
  • Provides plot relevant information to the reader
    • Provides a concise method to convey the information
  • Worldbuilding & description through how people discuss the world
  • Provides atmosphere
  • Breaks up delivery method; Is expected by the reader;
  • Expressing character motivation: Allows you to show character expression and traits
  • Has an immediacy to it

Cases in which dialogue isn’t present or minimal is typically due to characters being alone or unable to speak.

Good dialogue should tell you something about the character, such as a trait or motivation, or move the plot forward.

If a narrator says something about a character is sounds poor or heavy-handed, but if it said by another character it sounds more natural. E.g. “Bob was very brave.” vs “‘Bob, you’re so brave’ exclaimed Anne.”

Having a lot of dialogue, especially snappy dialogue, can help break up the story and keep the reader engaged and moving forward quickly with the story while still providing exposition.

Two characters should generally not repeat something they both already know to each other.

Internal dialogue versus external dialogue provides a look at the characters state of mind.

Listening to real people talk can help give an idea of how people interact verbally, but people speak repetitively so in writing it requires slight changes. Take the important parts and condense. Don’t take everything away though, find balance between literary and natural speech.

Different writers own tones change how the dialogue sounds.

Generational writing can be difficult as dialogue changes quickly in the modern day. It can be difficult to not come across as outdated.

Writing outside of your experience requires you to do your research, as you may accidentally become offensive or generalize. Always remember to write them as a human being first. Having people who belong to the group you are writing about review the characterization can be beneficial.

When writing outside of your own experience try to get into the mindset of who you are writing, considering social and cultural influence.

Using cultural slang words and dialect can be a difficult path between being understandable and not generalization. Focus groups can help a lot.

Remember that characters will have different levels of vocabulary, adults and teenagers have similar levels around 25 000 – 35 000 words. People only use 800 unique words a day.

Try http://testyourvocab.com/ for your own vocabulary level.

Characters speech changes due to mirroring other people, especially mannerisms. Nonverbal behavior will also grow with familiarity.

Try talking out what the characters are saying, and make sure it sounds different and natural. Also try to write dialogue without specifying which character is saying what in order to discern if you can tell who is speaking. Still find balance though, and don’t overdo the character voice.

Take care with author voice as well.

Check in with your character’s emotional state at the beginning of the scene, and know your goal emotional state for the end of the scene. This will affect dialogue.

Having a character use a word incorrectly or a word that doesn’t exist generally is doable but requires context or prior characterization that explains it. You can have another character call it out to help. How the other character corrects them or if they do shares about their personality.

Attendee Notes 2:

Why Dialogue?

  • People, not robots
  • Huge for character development
  • Ton of nuance in how they say it, in what they’re meaning
  • Give out practical information to reader
  • Delivery through dialogue can be an extremely concise way to deliver information
  • World building/description
  • Ex: ER using medical words and not explaining it (Firefly, too)
  • Also just a expectation of the reader to have it in fiction
  • Might not be super present in short stories
  • Talking is a human necessity / communication is
  • Good for expressing character motivation
    • “Show, don’t tell”
    • Showing that bob was angry by him yelling at his wife, rather than just typing “bob was angry”
    • Easy to show feelings through what they say, to hammer in character motivation that drives them through the narrative
  • Good dialogue should:
    • Tell you something about the character
      • A trait, something about their personality
    • Moving the plot forward
  • There’s an immediacy to dialogue
  • If a narrator says something about another character, a defining comment, it can come across as heavy handed. But if another character says the same statement, it can come across as natural.
    • Bob was brave. VS “Oh Bob, you’re so brave!”
  • Dialogue breaks up a narrative
  • Info-dumping needs to happen in spec-fiction, but … nice to kind of break it up with dialogue
  • When you’re reading dialogue you can piggy back off a characters emotions
  • “As we both know/As you know” <–kill it with fire
  • Lack of dialogue can say a lot, too (Attack on Titan example)
  • Creative Writing class lesson that you should go to a public space and listen to how people talk (to learn how to write dialogue)
    • In reality, conversations are more broken up, known information not spoken
    • In paper, or in plays, etc, it’s a little more stylized
    • ZOOM in for important part, quick ZOOM out (which means not getting the “hellos” or “goodbyes”) – like on TV, no one ever says goodbye on the phone
      • Which can feel unnatural to us
    • Natural vs Literary speech
      • You can use um’s and dashes, etc, but if you use it TOO much, it can be like putting too much salt on food. A little can make it feel more natural. But too much…?
      • ART = more reliaism, confuse reader (by leaving out information when two people are talking for example)
      • You’d have less latitude in entertainment
      • Find a balance where it “seems” true
        • It feels like two people talking, but it’s not EXACTLY how people talk
      • Ex: Mamet – nobody talks like that in real life, but in his world, everyBODY talks like that so it’s almost believable
    • Internal Consistency is KEY
    • Research for some things, like how teenagers/kids today communicate, is required. U vs you
  • Writing Outside of your own Experience
    • Run it by an expert
      • Run your YA by a youth
      • Run your POC or ethnic character by someone else
    • Using friends as templates
    • Generally getting feedback
    • You will never capture it perfectly (especially in more spec fiction)
  • Focusing more on subtext – more on WHAT you’re saying than HOW you’re saying (when dealing with age/race)
  • Easier to cheat with your made up world, or a world where there is no texts
  • Sensitivity checks – be careful of authorial laziness
  • Marks ex: of “badonk” where it came across as the author making a caricature
  • Resorting to stereotype just to get the story done – use it sparingly as salt
  • Lexicon vs Vocabulary vs Active Vocabulary
    • Testyourvocab.com
    • Avg adult has 20,000-35,000 words
    • 8 year olds has 10,000 words
    • Teenagers use 800 words out of 20,000 words
      • For social camouflage (not cool to be smart)
    • Author voice, character voices
      • Word choice can play a big role in character voices
      • Knowing your character: a 14 year old talking to another 14 year old vs their parent
      • How a ranch hand would talk to a city slicker
  • Find the rhythms between your characters
    • Does your characters speech patterns change over the course of a series
    • Adopting mannerism from the other
    • Things they don’t need to talk aloud about, when they’ve been around together
  • Talk it out – get in the mindset
  • Talking different dependent on who they’re talking to
  • Speech mannerism are very situational
    • An academic in class or with another academic, then at the grocery story or hockey game with friends
    • Who does what in RESPONSE to what is said or how it is said is very telling for the other character and relationships as well


  • Hand out, re: risky dialect
  • And introduction of the strong dialect, and then taper it off. The reader will fill it in going forward
  • Or choose just one or two words, like “arse and shite” for british slang


Dialogue tags

    • Said book-isms: for anything that’s not “said”
      • A variety of prose where writer tries to avoid “said”
  • Scrivener has a way to highlight all the adjectives and adverbs


  • Hemingway app (cuts everything out to 3/4th grade level…cuz…why?)
  • Someone says: use them when it’s not obvious how it’s being said
  • Redundancy: saying “he yelled” when there is a ! – saying “he replied” because by the time you write that, the characters has replied
  • Sanderson BYU courses online for free, there’s 20 mins devoted to dialogue
  • Purple prose – getting too fancy, using it as a crutch if you’re not getting meaning across in your dialogue
  • A danger is overusing them (either of them imo, too many “said”‘s drive me nuts)