Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.15: Dialog

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

Listener questions drove this episode, and there are only two of them but they were pretty good drivers.  Here they are:

  • Is it a problem that all my dialog ends up as logic-based debates between characters?
  • What can I do to create more variety in my dialog structure?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Joseph Meacham, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Remove all description. Now remove every 3rd line of dialog. Now rebuild the description replace with body language.

Thing of the week: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, by Natasha Pulley, narrated by Thomas Judd.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: First question: If all your dialog scenes turn into logic-based debates, is that a problem? Yes. One scene like that, okay. Lots? Not so good. Make sure your scenes have two goals, a physical goal and a conversational goal. Logic-based debate sounds like a conflict of ideas, competing ideas. Sometimes you should have other kinds of conversations. Don’t forget that most decisions are emotional, not logical. As an exercise, try removing every third line of dialog. Then add bridging material. Do all your character voices sound the same? Manipulate pacing, accent, and attitude for different voices. Punctuation, sentence structure and word choice, and how the person feels. Learn to use punctuation, experiment with m-dashes, colons, semicolons, commas, and ellipses. Second question: How can I create more variety in my dialogue scenes? Move the scene to another interesting setting. Give them two goals, a physical goal and a verbal/emotional goal. Think about the reader’s reward. Think about the authorial intent, why do you need this scene, and the character’s intention, what are they trying to accomplish?

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Dialog.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m having a conversation with my friends, Brandon, Mary Robinette, and Dan.

[Brandon] We are once again using your questions to sculpt these specific episodes. While the title is very generic, Dialog, there’s a specific aspect of dialog you’re asking questions about. Here is the first question. Most of my dialog seems to end up being… Turning into logic-based debates between whatever characters are in the room. Is this a problem?

[Mary Robinette] Yes.


[Mary Robinette] There are times… I shouldn’t say that. If it’s all of your scenes are turning into that, that’s a problem. Having a scene that’s like that, that’s not a problem. So there’s a bunch of things that you can do to address that. One of them is to make sure that there’s… If you give two goals in the room, one is a physical goal and the other is a conversational goal, that’s immediately going to cause things to shift for the [garbled]

[Brandon] Yeah. Agreed. Now, going back to your first point, Mary Robinette, it’s not necessarily a problem unless it’s all the time. What this means is, having different scenes feel different is part of what makes a book work. Having some of your dialog scenes that read like Aaron Sorkin dialog, where it’s just like back-and-forth, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, is great. It can be really exciting, it can yank you through a scene really quick, it can make you smile, it can make you just have a blast. But if every page is only that, it starts to, like anything in writing,…

[Dan] It can be exhausting.

[Brandon] Yeah. It gets exhausting.

[Howard] Let’s open up for a moment and look at the logic-based debate between two characters. Fundamentally, what you have there, it sounds like, is a conflict of ideas, and that is what… If that’s what every scene is ending up being, then every scene in which you have dialog, the conflict is competing ideas. There is… If we categorize the types of conversation people have, one type of conversation that can be very dramatic is the one where one person is trying to tell a story without revealing a key secret, and the other person is trying to learn the key secret and doesn’t care about the story. They’re… Now they’re not arguing, but there is tension, there is conflict.

[Dan] The fact that this is a logic-based debate also potentially highlights another issue which is that most people make decisions based on emotion, rather than on logic. I used to work in advertising and marketing, and that was our hallmark. People think they make decisions based on logic…


[Dan] But at the end of the day, it comes down to whatever emotional connection they have forged between themselves and the solution. So making… If your characters are being very careful to plan out exactly the best possible course of action or determine in steady debate who is right and who is wrong, most conversations in the real world don’t go that way. Some do. But most of them are a lot more emotional than that.

[Mary Robinette] There’s a trick that I have, for when I discover that I have accidentally written one of those things. Aside from the introducing physical conflict. This is to go through… This is a totally mechanical exercise that’s super fun. I go through and I remove every third line of dialog, because one of the things that happens when you’re conversing with someone that you’re familiar with is that you’ll jump ahead. You’ll see where they’re heading and you’ll jump to the next point. So when you pull out every third line of dialog… I want to be really clear. This is an exercise, this doesn’t work for everything.


[Mary Robinette] But when you do it, what happens is that those natural jumps ahead begin to happen. You do have to put in some bridging material to cover them. But it gets really interesting, and often has a more naturalistic flow. It compresses the scene, too.

[Brandon] One of the worries I have from this question is, again, if everything is a logic-based debate, I worry about character voices all sounding the same. One of the things I look for as a reader that really makes scenes work for me is when there’s a lot of variety to motivations, to how people approach a conversation. Dan mentioned this, a lot of people make decisions based on emotions. Having somebody think that they’re logic-based, but there really emotional, facing someone who is very logic-based, or someone who’s front about their emotions is often a more interesting scene than a platonic debate or a Socratic debate about here is… Are the logical points that I’m making. Often times, that’s just really boring to read, because we want to see the character’s investment in this.

[Mary Robinette] There are some tricks to changing the nature of a character voice that I learned from doing audiobook narration. There are five things that make a character voice in audio. Pitch, placement, pacing, accent, and attitude. Pitch and placement, you can’t do a darn thing with on the page except refer to them. Pacing, accent, and attitude are absolutely things you can manipulate. The length of time… So, pacing, you control with punctuation. How long the sentences are, where you put the commas, whether or not a character gets commas. Someone who speaks in a run-on sentence is going to have a very different feel than someone who has lots of short sentences. Accent is the sentence structure and the word choice. So if you take a training phrase, like, “What did you say?” That is serving to say, “I want you to tell me more.” It can take a lot of different forms, but a British nanny is going to say, “Pardon me, Dearie?” And a drill sergeant is going to say, “What do you say, maggot!”

[Brandon] [uh-hu]

[Mary Robinette] So, looking at the word choice and sentence structure. Then, the attitude is what the person… How the person feels. Again, that changes the word choices that we make. It changes our pacing. So looking at your use of punctuation, and your word choice, and sentence structure, is a great way to shift the language of your characters.

[Brandon] So, one of the things I noticed teaching my classes at the University over these last years, is that a lot of my students aren’t very fluent with punctuation. Now, these are high-level students. It’s usually… To get in my class, there’s 15 slots, and we usually have 100 or more applications, and we picket based solely on how good are these… The sample chapters that they sent. So these are high-level amateur writers. I just assumed because they are high-level amateur writers that if they’re not using certain punctuation structures, they’ve made a stylistic decision. Right? It’s okay not to like m-dashes, for instance.

[Mary Robinette] Sure.

[Brandon] I love them. Other people are like, “You know what, I don’t like this punctuation, it becomes a crutch, whatever.” Totally all right. But I started to mention to people, like, “Hey, this might use an m-dash. I know you probably aren’t stylistically interested in them, but you might want to experiment.” They’re like, “An m-dash?” I realized a lot of high-level writing student get there by practicing a ton, but they aren’t using all the tools because they haven’t been able to figure out how to take those boring, dry English major classes…


[Brandon] And apply them to actually writing stories. Using m-dashes, colons, semicolons, commas, ellipses in your dialog… That’s like something that’s vital to me, in order to make it feel right. I’m realizing more and more a lot of my students don’t use it just because they’ve never been… Had those tools explained as potential tools for controlling how the reader reads a scene.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. That is The Lost Future of Pepperharrow.

[Mary Robinette] By Natasha Pulley. I love this book. The first book is The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. I had enough time in between reading that one and when I got The Lost Future of Pepperharrow that I think that you can actually read this as a standalone. Obviously, there are some nuances. But, basically. The main character is a composer and a synesthete. He has synesthesia. It’s set in Victorian England. There’s another character who is clairvoyant. It’s this whole interesting thing of, like, what is free will, what are the choices that you make, and then there’s a clockwork octopus that steals socks. It’s just beautifully, beautifully written.

[Howard] That actually explains a lot.


[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So many things. So beautifully written. I love these books with abandon. One of the other things that I also love is that there’s a little girl character whose name is Six. She is… to a modern eye, she’s probably autistic. But they don’t have the word and the people just accept that this is who she is. They don’t try to make her be someone else. She’s just allowed to live her life, and there’s no like “We’re going to cure her” subplot or anything like that. It’s just characters who are fascinating. I just love these books a lot. I’m going to ramble about them for days. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. One of the reasons that I actually wanted to bring this up with dialog is that much of It takes place in Japan, where people are speaking Japanese. She has made the choice to render it in slang that is class linked to Victorian England, because the character who is interpreting it is a Victorian. So when someone is lower-class, in his head, he hears them as Cockney. Because…

[Brandon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] It’s so good. It’s really interesting.

[Brandon] Awesome. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow.

[Brandon] All right. So, the second question we have for this week is what can I do to create more variety in my dialog structure, or in my dialog scenes? One of the things you can do is something that I love to do. When I notice one of these scenes… Sometimes I just keep it, right? My dialog scene is working. Sometimes I’m like I have had too many scenes like this. These are the equivalents… I’ve talked about this a little bit on the podcast before. In movies, you will occasionally have scenes where two characters walk down a hallway, stop, and then there’s a shot, reverse shot, as they have a conversation, then they walk a little further down the hallway, then they stop, and there’s a shot, reverse shot, and then they walk a little further, and then shot, reverse shot. These scenes are okay, but they’re kind of the cinematic version of sometimes you just need to summarize in your book. They’re the sort of things that you don’t want to have to use unless it’s the exact right tool at the exact right time. They’re a little bit lazy, and they’re a little bit boring. In books, sometimes you have these scenes of dialog where you’re like, “I just need to get this information across. I know I need to get it across. I don’t want to do it as a big infodump. So I’m going to have characters have a conversation about it and do my best to not make it feel maid and butler.” I have found most of the time, if I can move that scene into some other interesting setting… Let me give you an example from Oathbringer. I had one of these. It was boring.


[Brandon] It was one of the worst scenes in the book. I just threw it away. I instead had a character… I’m like, “Who is this character? What is happening?” Well, it’s Dalinar. He is a warlord who is kind of repentant and becoming a different person, but he kind of wants to hold on to the fact that I’m a tough warrior. So he goes down and he wants to do some wrestling, right? It’s this whole thing, I’m going to go recapture some of my youth. He just gets trounced by these younger men. In the meantime, his wife shows up and says, “We were supposed to have a meeting. We’re going to talk about this.” He’s like, “Do it right now.” It was during the wrestling match. You would think that this doesn’t work, but it worked perfectly, because I was able to over… To give the subtext of he’s trying to capture his youth without ever saying it. With the things she’s saying representing his new life that he’s supposed to be getting better at instead of going trying to recapture his youth. The scene just played wonderfully in this setting where he’s getting pinned by these younger men.


[Brandon] That are feeling kind of embarrassed that they’re taking their king and basically just… He can’t do it anymore. Just changing that scene… When I ran that one through the writing group, one of my writing group members said, “Wow. This is the best scene in the whole sequence. The whole sequence of chapters.” It started as the worst one. So just kind of giving some more flavor to the scene can be really handy.

[Mary Robinette] That gets back to one of the things we were talking about ahead of… At the early thing, was giving them two different goals, the physical goal and the verbal emotional goal. Sometimes those two things are vastly… They just are fighting themselves. That sounds like so much fun.

[Howard] I think in terms a lot of what is the reader’s reward for having read this chapter or this scene or whatever. I mean, the scene has a purpose, and in some cases the purpose is, “Oh, I gotta do a bunch of exposition so that I can do a bunch of plot later.” The scene’s purpose is not the reward. One of the purposes should be a reward of some sort. Some page-turn-y bit. Taking the shot versus shot example… Or the whole hallway walking scene. One, yes, those are terribly lazy. But if in that scene, we are traversing a space between two very interesting spaces, and we arrive someplace where the camera opens up onto something wondrous, and the conversation stops because we are now in a new place looking at something interesting… Well, now that whole thing was justified because we set up pacing for an eye candy. Whatever.

[Brandon] Agreed. I love some of those things.

[Howard] I always think about it in terms of what’s the reward for the reader? If there isn’t one, what can I put in?

[Mary Robinette] You said something that made me think of a thing which is that when you are looking at these scenes, they actually serve two functions. There’s the authorial intent, the reason you, the author, need that book… That scene in there. But then there’s the character intention. Every time we’re talking, we’re speaking for a reason. There’s something that we are trying to accomplish. Sometimes it’s I want to look clever, sometimes I want to get information, sometimes it’s I want to prevent someone… It’s… There’s a purpose behind that. So if you can think about exactly why the character is saying that, and you make sure that that is present in the scene… It’s not a scene that’s just, “Hello, here is my authorial intent.”


[Dan] Yeah, that’s what I wanted to mention as well, because when we start scenes, we often think about what our goal as the writer is, what is this scene intended to accomplish. Making sure that you know what their goals are… Not only does it provide more characterization like that, but usually what it does is it brings a lot of imbalance into the scene. People want to have a different conversation than the person they’re talking to wants to have. Or, you will have a power imbalance, where one character is trying to convince their teenager or their employee or something to do something, like, “I don’t want to be a part of this conversation at all.” Or just a child talking to an adult and not being treated seriously. Those imbalances, wherever they come from and however they manifest, can add a lot of texture in there as well.

[Brandon] All right. That was a really good conversation about dialog.

[Dan] Hey!

[Brandon] Look at that. Let’s go ahead and go to our homework, which Mary Robinette is going to give to us.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. So, what I want you to do is I want you to take a scene with dialog. This can be a scene from something that’s already written or something that… A published thing or something that you’ve written. I want you to remove all of the description from it. So that you’re just left with dialog. Then I want you to do that thing I mentioned earlier, I want you to remove every third line of dialog. Put the context back in and use body language and internal motivation, where the character is thinking. Build bridging things in there so that the scene now flows, with those pieces of dialog missing.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.