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

17.28: Keys to Writing Dialog

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Maurice Broaddus, and Howard Tayler

Writer, teacher, and community organizer Maurice Broaddus joins us for an eight-episode mini-master-class on writing dialogue. In this episode he walks us through his three keys: pay attention to how people speak, write in a way that evokes how they speak, and write dialogue that makes individual characters distinctive.

Liner Notes: We mention Descript transcription software in this episode. Here’s a link!

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Record (with permission!) a conversation of at least 15 minutes. Transcribe it.

Thing of the week: Sweep of Stars, by Maurice Broaddus.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Listen to how people speak. Learn to evoke that in writing. And make every character’s voice distinct. Err and uh and the F-bomb. Cursing with a slingshot or a crew-served weapon? Culture, nationality, age, class, education, community, all define the character in a specific way. Pacing and attitude. 

[Season 17, Episode 28] 

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Dialog Masterclass, Episode One, Keys to Writing Dialog.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Maurice] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Maurice] I’m Maurice.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] We are very excited to have with us for this brand-new class Maurice Broaddus. You’ve recorded with us in the past. You were one of our instructors on our retreat. We are so happy to have you back. Maurice, tell our listeners about yourself.

[Maurice] Well, A, glad to be back. I like to say I have three jobs. I am the resident Afrofuturist at a community organization called the Khewprw Institute. I’m a science fiction and fantasy author. I have… Man, I have two books that just came out this year. Then I’m also a middle school teacher. So, keeping it busy.

[Dan] Man. No kidding. That is a lot of stuff. Well, we’re going to talk about one of those books that just came out earlier this year later on as our book of the week. But for right now, let’s jump into this class. The next eight episodes we’re going to have Maurice teaching us about dialog. So this is where we’re starting. Maurice, where do we start?

[Maurice] So, it’s one of those things. So, dialog comes easily to some people. It’s like a chore for other people. I definitely fell into the chore category when I was first starting out. So I was kind of thinking of like different ways that I could use to just improve my dialog writing. So for me it came down to like three different things. Like, pay attention to how people speak. Then when I’m writing, only evoke how people really speak. Then, after that, it’s like how do I concentrate on making each character’s voice distinct. So those are the ways I tend to come at dialog.

[Dan] That is really fascinating to me. What do you mean… What’s the difference there between paying attention to how people speak, then only evoking how they speak?

[Maurice] Okay. So one of the most helpful exercises I’ve ever done, so pay attention, this may be homework for you all later on.


[Maurice] Is I was assigned… This was back in college, and I was assigned, hey, record a family dinner. So it was… Yeah, exactly. So I was in college and it was the assignment was record a family dinner and then transcribe it. Just to see what happens. So my family dinner… This like… This was… I was much younger person at the time, so I was still living at home. But it was me, my sister, my brother, my mother, my father. My mother’s from Jamaica. My dad is from here in the States. I was born in London. There’s a nine year age difference between me and my sister. So I’d never really thought about it before, but when I recorded that family conversation, and, believe me, people forget about the microphone five minutes in, because my mom went from trying to be all proper, blah blah blah, to “all right, so why are you guys throwing food at the dinner table?” That sort of thing. But it was really interesting to just sit there and then analyze that conversation, because all of a sudden, you can dissect people… Well, no, that sounded awful. But you get a feeling, for instance, oh, with my parents, there’s different kinds of slang that’s being used. Generationally, between my dad and then my sister. There’s different word jargon that gets used because my mom is a nurse and I was in college. So there’s… And I was a scientist at the time. So, now there’s different sorts of jargon that’s being used. Then who is driving the conversation? Because people interrupt, and different people drive the conversation. So it was just a fascinating exercise just to see the dynamics of just conversation. But that’s different from evoking… Because I have another friend whose name’s Gerald. He’s a mechanic. Me and Gerald, we go back decades. We’re in the same gaming group. But Gerald can’t describe the weather without using the F-bomb. I mean, there is no sentence he can’t work that into. I love how he speaks, though, because he’s one of the cleverest people I know. But I love his use of language. But I can’t use the way he actually speaks as dialog because that is a lot. So now it’s like how do I evoke how Gerald speaks versus transcribing how Gerald speaks. Does that make sense?

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Dan] That absolutely does.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Because one of the things also is that when you are having a conversation with someone in real life so much of it is also happening with nonverbal and with tone. And also there’s all of the places where you’re like, “Um. Err…” And the sentences are incomplete sentences. We can string it together when we’re listening to the conversation in person because we’re used to editing that out and adding in all of the nuances that are coming from things other than words. But when you put that stuff down on the page, people just sound incoherent. So you want to get that sense of… As you say, the evoking, the sense of the rhythm and background from the uh, err, uh.


[Dan] I tried that once in a scene in a book. It was… I can’t remember which, it was one of the John Cleaver books where I had just done jury duty.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, my.

[Dan] One of the lawyers that was in the case, he said “Uh” between almost every word. It was crazy and all of the jurors were talking about it and how funny it was. So, later, I decided to try to put this into a book. It was the most miserable experience trying to read it. It was as accurate a reproduction of human dialog as I could produce, and it was abysmal to try to read.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Well, to be fair, when you put that much uh into uh your uh dialog, it’s abysmal to listen to.


[Mary Robinette] That’s why we’re all talking about it.

[Howard] That’s why it caught your attention.

[Mary Robinette] But you can evoke that by having the uh appear at significantly less frequently in dialog, and that will give the reader the sense. Like I will have occasionally my characters repeat a word. In… In the way that we do. Like that one was deliberate, but it is a thing that we do. So I’ll occasionally have them do that to give a sense of someone who’s like reaching for a word, trying to figure out what they’re saying next. But I would never do it to the degree that I do it naturally in real life.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Maurice] The same thing with profanity. Because it’s… Admittedly, I’ve been known to use the occasional curse word.

[Mary Robinette] What! You’re kidding.

[Maurice] I know. Just in case any of my middle school students are listening to this. It’s been known to happen. But in the case of like my friend Gerald, it’s just like… Hey, one or two sprinkled in the in the course of a passage is one thing. One or two sprinkled in every clause…


[Maurice] Is another.

[Dan] An entirely different experience.

[Mary Robinette] So it sounds like he’s using the F-bomb as a uh.

[Maurice] Right. Well, as a uh, and a noun and a verb.


[Maurice] [garbled adjective]

[Howard] Noun, verb, adjective, adverb, exclamation, introjection.

[Mary Robinette] Very flexible word.


[Maurice] It is quite a flexible word.

[Howard] Quite the word. It’s funny because I think of Maurice cursing… I think… I often think of curse words as weaponized language because sometimes that’s what they’re there for, they’re there to sting somebody. When I curse, it’s like a kid with a slingshot. I’m imagining Maurice cursing with that basso profundo…


[Howard] That amazing baritone and that’s a crew served weapon.

[Maurice] Right. Right. It’ll stop a conversation.

[Mary Robinette] Speaking of stopping a conversation…

[Dan] Speaking of stopping conversation…

[Maurice] Both of you. You’re all in there on that one. All right, go.

[Dan] Let me stop this one and let’s do our book of the week, which this week is your’s, Maurice. Sweep of Stars. Tell us about that.

[Maurice] So, Sweep of Stars is book one in my Astra Black trilogy. It’s my first foray into the space opera. It’s about this intergalactic pan-African led community known as Muungano, and just their explorations in the universe. So we have Muungano proper that they’re navigating, some of the internal political issues. We have a starship powered by jazz music exploring the universe. We have an elite military unit who is exploring on the other side of a wormhole. Then how all of these things are interconnected.

[Dan] Sounds fantastic. That is Sweep of Stars by Maurice Broaddus available right now. Go and buy it with your hard-earned money and read it and love it.

[Dan] Now let me get back to one of the other things you said at the beginning. One of these key tricks or tools that you use you said is making sure that the different people have different types of dialog, that they sound different from each other.

[Maurice] Right.

[Dan] Which is, I find, also a tool that I use in something that I think is very important. To make sure that everyone sounds like a different person. How do you do that? What are some of the tools that you use to accomplish that?

[Maurice] So, this is where diagramming out that conversation was really helpful for me. Because I’m keying in on what makes each of us… Which sounds weird, but each of my family members as characters, what makes us work. Right? So my mother is from Jamaica and her patois increases or decreases… Decreases when she’s in a casual setting, but increases when she’s either excited or angry or surrounded by other relatives. Then all of a sudden, the patois thickens. But, also, the other quirk about her dialog is she can’t cuss right. So she… Despite being here many decades, she can never get cussing right. Which is hysterical. Because then we try to provoke her to cuss at us, and just watch her butcher cussing. But, so, you have those things. Already we have culture, we have nationality, we have… Culture, nationality, and age all factoring in to help define her as a character.

[Mary Robinette] And class.

[Maurice] And class. Exactly. And class. Then… So you just apply those same things to each of the characters. How are they working in terms of their cultural origin, their level of education, their vocation, their age, their use of slang, all these different things, and the community they hang around with. Because people tend to conform to the community they’re in in a lot of cases. Then when you take them out of that community… So, sometimes they sound like that community and then sometimes when you pull them out, oh, now, how do they sound? So it’s all those little things which all boils down to defining those characters in a very specific way.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I’ll talk about this more when we get… There’s a point when we get to talking about the nuances of this, which… Like, just to add on to what Maurice is saying, I just want to hit very quickly that one of the things that he’s talking about when he’s talking about culture and nationality and class and age and all of that, all of that goes into making up what we think of as accent. It’s very easy to think of accent is just this single flat thing that has to do with how you pronounce words. That’s the least important part of accent. There’s also the other thing… Two major things that affect the voice of the character are the pacing or rhythm of the character and also the attitude. So, like, you can have two Southerners from the same place, one of whom speaks very, very slowly, and one speaks with a clipped, rapid pace. Even though their accents are the same. Just because of their differences in personalities.

[Howard] One of the things that I’ve… I come back to this a lot when I’m looking at dialog. Back in the long, long ago times when I was dating, there was this terminology… There was this term for the conversation you have with your potential significant other, this person you’ve been dating. The term was DTR. It meant define the relationship. It’s this conversation where the two of you are sitting down and talking about us. A DTR can run for hours. But in, for instance, a romance novel, you get a page and a half. How do you compress the enormous emotional romantic angry whatever explorations of a DTR in a page and a half? The answer is, well, you have to listen to a lot of dialog, you have to read a lot of dialog, and you have to learn a lot of shortcuts. You have to identify what the key moments are and you have to be willing to compress. It’s kind of a lossy compression algorithm. But you gotta compress it.

[Dan] I find myself suddenly very curious as to what different patterns of speech you would find if somebody did that analysis Maurice is talking about with one of our episodes. That would be fun.


[Dan] Although, again, that would also be interesting just because this is not a standard conversation. We are performing. We are teaching. There’s the way we speak now is gonna be different than the way we would speak in a non-podcast scenario. But that is…

[Mary Robinette] Forsooth, what are you saying? Verily.


[Dan] This is going to be our homework. Maurice, you want to send them home with some homework this week?

[Maurice] Yeah. So… I love the idea of people just taking some time and just recording a conversation… With everybody’s permission, let’s get that out… Make sure everybody’s aware that there’s a recording in progress. But, yeah, record a conversation, you and your friends, you and your family, whatever. 15 minutes of conversation. Then go through and either transcribe it or just listen to it with the ear of, ooh, how did we sound as characters? How would this work as a dialog exchange?

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to ask people to actually transcribe it, because I am going to ask you to use that transcription later in this series for a piece of homework assignment. For those of you for whom transcription is difficult, for… There’s a software out there called Descript which will transcribe things for you. But if you are able to transcribe it yourself, I encourage you to do that, because it causes you to pay attention to the way the dialog happens in different ways.

[Dan] Sounds great. So there’s your homework and there’s a little sneak preview of what will be happening later on in this series. Join us next week, we’re going to talk more and more and dig into some nitty-gritty details on dialogue. So. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.