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

17.29: The Job of Dialogue

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

We’re back with Maurice Broaddus for the second in our eight-episode mini-master-class on writing dialogue. This time around we’re addressing the question of dialogue’s “job.” What’s it for? Why is this particular bit of dialogue in this scene, this chapter, this book?

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

Homework: Identify your authorial intent. Remove all lines of dialog that don’t support that intent.

Thing of the week: The Murder of Mr. Wickham, by Claudia Gray.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: What is the job of dialogue? Conversation has no real purpose or direction. Dialogue, however, needs to move the story forward, provide information, and help with characterization. It also has authorial intent, the reason the author put it there, and character intent, why the character is saying these things. Another part is to be entertaining, funny, to reward the reader for reading. It conveys information, but we mask that to keep the reader from noticing. Beware the unmasked info dump! Evoke an emotional response. Transition. Questions and answers. Sometimes you need to cut dialogue, because it doesn’t move the story forward.

[Season 17, Episode 29]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Episode Two of our Dialogue Masterclass, The Job of Dialogue.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Maurice] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And I wish I sounded as good as Maurice.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Maurice] I’m Maurice.

[Howard] Oh, he sounds good when he’s laughing.


[Dan] That’s Howard.

[Dan] So, this week we’re going to talk about the job of dialogue. So, Maurice, I’m just going to ask you, what is the job of dialogue?

[Maurice] So, first off, I mean, there’s a difference between dialogue and conversation. Right? I think we touched on this last week with the whole idea of just recording a conversation between folks, between friends, family, whatever. When you listen to a conversation, I mean, a conversation is just this… Well, it’s people who are in each other’s presence, they’re enjoying each other’s company, hopefully, but it’s going all over the place. There’s no real purpose or direction to it, it’s… It’s a conversation. It’s an exchange of ideas. Versus dialogue. Dialogue has a very specific purpose in writing and in telling a story. So the way I look at it is that whenever I’m coming to a scene and dialogue’s involved, it’s like, all right, I’m keeping in mind, I need to be moving the story forward, I need to be providing information, and I need to be honing in on characterization of the people who are engaged in this conversation or in the dialogue. All right. So I see those as the… Those three things, that’s the actual job of dialogue.

[Mary Robinette] Right. Within that, there’s… Something that I’m going to be talking about a couple of times throughout this course, which is the area of intention. The area of intention is, like, why the dialogue is, why the spoken line is happening. This goes for, like, actually verbal and unspoken dialogue. But whenever someone is talking, there’s a reason they’re saying the thing. Every piece of dialogue has two areas of intention. There’s the authorial area of intention, the reason the author needs it to happen, and there’s the character area of intention, which is why the character is saying the thing. So in this episode, what we’re focusing on is the authorial area of intention, that’s why is this here and what loadbearing thing is it doing for us.

[Howard] As often as not, when I’m writing a portion of the job of the dialogue is to be entertaining. It needs to be funny, it needs to be witty, it needs to be pithy. It’s… It has to do more than just advance the story and inform us about who the characters are and what they want or don’t want and where conflicts are and… I mean, that’s a huge load. That’s… That’s… That’s some seriously heavy lifting, but then, for my own part, I have to make sure that the reader feels rewarded for reading some of these lines of dialogue, that the banter is entertaining.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So a lot of what you’re doing is… Like, I joke, and it’s not a joke, that everything that happens in a story is exposition because all of it is… It’s conveying information and sometimes that information is about the tone, sometimes that information is about the characters, but it’s all conveying information. Part of our job is to mask that and to use a bunch of different techniques so that the reader doesn’t notice that. So, banter, keeping them entertained in whatever form, whether that’s through tension or humor, all of that is to mask the fact that I’m giving you a piece of information that you need in order to understand what happens next.

[Maurice] So, yeah, cool. I keep remembering, because there’s always this conversation like, oh, wow, in terms of providing that information, it’s like… We see a lot of bad examples of that, because… All right, let me confess. First off, I’m a TV junkie.


[Maurice] Particularly of like police procedurals. I just love police procedurals. So, CSI is like one of my comfort watching things. Actually, I’m watching… What am I watching right now? Assignment Witness, which is basically a British version of CSI.

[Mary Robinette] Aha.

[Dan] That’s cool.

[Maurice] But it’s all… But you see all of the best… And by best, I mean worst examples of this providing information. Right? Because you have these scientists, and they are explaining these tests out loud. Right? But they’re explaining it to their colleagues who hopefully took the same classes and understand the same things that is going on. That’s a poor mask.

[Mary Robinette] Yep.

[Maurice] Of providing information, that’s a poor mask of info dumping. So I often get that question. It’s like, “Oh, when is info dumping bad?” I’m like, “Well, bad isn’t quite the word we’re looking for.” Right? Because we need the information as readers, as viewers. We need that information. It’s how do you mask that because one of my favorite books is Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That is literally one big info dump. The whole book is just one big info dump. But we don’t care, because, what Howard said, because it’s entertaining. Right? So you don’t really notice, oh, he’s just… It’s literally an encyclopedia giving us information all the time.


[Howard] I was just watching… We’ve been re-watching CBS Elementary. The Sherlock Holmes with Johnny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu. There was a moment where Johnny Lee Miller asks a scientist on screen, says, “Tell Watson what you told me about DNA profiles.” The old scientist says, “I would be happy to. But I think I need to ground you first in a bit of molecular cellular biology.” At which point Holmes says, “Hold that thought a moment,” and cuts the connection and turns to Watson and says, “He can get kind of long-winded.” I love that moment because it tells us, yes, there’s a whole bunch of science here, and we’re going to hand wave it and just arrive at the conclusion. There’s this tension release where the old guy starts talking and you think, “Oh, please, no. This is going to be boring, and I want to hear Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu talk.” Then he disconnects…


[Howard] And there’s a moment of joy as the old guy gets cut off.

[Maurice] Great.

[Dan] Yeah. Those are, I think, another kind of entertaining. In addition to all of the loadbearing informational properties that dialogue has, sometimes it’s funny, like Howard said. Sometimes it needs to be frightening or it needs to be triumphant or bad ass or something where we are evoking a specific emotional response. Because that’s the part of the story where we want the audience to feel a certain way. We want them to be quoting a particular line because it’s so good. Yeah. All of these different kinds of entertainment.

[Mary Robinette] Sometimes the job is to transition us into another part of the story. So, sometimes it’s like this is the line of dialogue where everything shifts. It’s representing the moment when a character changes their mind. Or the moment when I need the reader to understand that this is not the story that they thought it was. Not quite a reveal, but it’s a… Like, oh, no, no. Reader, just remember this looks like we’re all having a good time, but you are actually in a horror story.


[Mary Robinette] Which is most of [garbled]

[Dan] So, speaking of transitions, let’s transition into our book of the week. Which, this week, Mary Robinette, is you. You were going to tell us about The Murder of Mr. Wickham.

[Mary Robinette] So. The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray. This is a book that was basically written for me. It is a Jane Austen murder mystery. By that I mean Claudia Gray has taken all of the Jane Austen main characters and their love interests. They’re all married now, and brought them to a single house party for reasons that makes contextual sense. Then, Mr. Wickham shows up, and someone kills the guy. It’s a good murder mystery, it’s a good Austen pastiche, it has a romance between two new characters that are the children of some of your beloved characters. It’s so good. The reason that I brought it up particularly for this is that as a murder mystery, every line of dialogue contains a potential clue. So, the authorial area of intention there, the amount of loadbearing that the dialogue is doing, is so good. They also all sound like Austenian characters, they all sound like distinct characters. Then, kind of one of the other things that I love about it is the absence of a thing that we have not yet talked about, which is maid-and-butler dialogue, or, we haven’t talked about it by name, which is basically where a maid and a butler stand around and have a conversation about things that they both know about only so that the audience will also know about this thing. So… There’s none of that in this, even though there are in fact maids and butlers and they do speak. It’s great. It’s just a good read. I really enjoyed it a lot. So that’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray.

[Dan] That’s awesome. I remember when she told me about that book, and I said, “Please make sure you send that to Mary Robinette.” She said, “I already did. Don’t worry.” So, that’s great.

[Dan] So, yeah, let’s talk some more about the job of dialogue. One of the things that we have referred to, but haven’t really gone into in detail is how dialogue can move the story forward. We said that’s not the only thing it has to do, but that is one of the things it has to do. How do we make sure that our dialogue is actually advancing the story instead of just spinning wheels?

[Maurice] Right. So, one of the things that I think about is this whole idea of like dialogue is kind of like conversation that confronts conflict. Right? So one of the things that we do as… Actually, Mary Robinette has got me thrown off, because I’m still thinking about this whole idea of areas of intent, so let me see if I can weave these two ideas together. Right? So we have this whole idea as an author each conversation has to confront conflict that’s either in that scene or in the overarching narrative. Right? But then as a character, dialogue’s a tool that they used to achieve their objective. Which still serves the authorial intent, but on the character level, dialogue becomes a tool which they are trying to work out what it is they’re trying to seek, to complete their arc. So I’ve… Yeah. Sorry, Mary Robinette, you just… I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got all these things going on in my head.” So you talk right now while I get all this stuff untangled.

[Mary Robinette] Okay. This is why I love hearing these podcasts because every time, I also have the oh, yeah. Yeah, I had this whole unpacking thing when you were talking earlier, and wrote a ton of notes. So when we’re talking about moving the story forward, basically stories… We’ve talked about this in other episodes, that stories are a series of questions that you’re answering for the reader. Some of them are things where the reader supplies their answer based on the information you’ve given them, and some of them are here’s the next piece of information you need. So it’s this causal event chain that’s happening. So, one of the things that dialogue can do as part of that moving forward is that it can either give the reader a piece of information that they need or it can raise a question for the reader that creates tension that causes them to want to keep going. There’s also the entertaining aspect, which is just this is funny. Which is part of like keeping them engaged as other things are happening. But if it’s just funny, eventually they will opt out. Because they’ll get frustrated that there’s no forward momentum. So the two things that are moving the story forward are providing information or providing a question. Raising a question.

[Maurice] Yeah. Sorry. There is a… You just reminded me of that. So I think… There’s a lot of times when I’m in the act… I’m going to call it the Howard mode, where I have my two characters and their doing this rapid banter, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. There comes a point where I realize, usually in editing, that I’ve just fallen in love with these characters.


[Maurice] And I just wanted to hear them talk.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Maurice] So then I have to ask myself, does this dialogue scene, does this actually move the story forward or have I just fallen in love with their voices and I just want to keep that going and is it actually necessary to the story?

[Howard] That’s what we call Brandon mode or Mary Robinette mode which is to I step in now and cut off Howard?


[Howard] I love the idea of conversation, of dialogue being inherently funny, because the compression algorithm that we used put a conversation from real life into dialogue in a book breaks some of the rules that we implicitly understand about the way that people converse. For instance, information should not flow that quickly from a conversation. But in dialogue in a book, it can flow that quickly. That’s a thing, any time you are breaking a rule, whether it’s throwing a crusk… Cuss word or falling into a manhole or whatever, there’s the opportunity for humor. So the very fact that we compress conversations into dialogue can be a source of humor just because of the pacing. I love that, and I exploit it a lot.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. You just also reminded me of a thing that I should’ve mentioned when we were talking about moving the story forward with the information or the questions, is that sometimes the thing that moves the story forward is achieving a goal. When you’re doing that compression that you’re talking about, it’s… Part of it is compressing it to the point where it is serving that need. Whichever needed is that you’ve pegged as this is the thing that the loadbearing thing that this piece of dialogue is doing. A conversational… Like, not just a line of dialogue, but a dialogue that is ongoing, will serve multiple functions. Each individual line may serve one or more. But it is this constant pull-through and you use whatever carrot you can pull the reader through.

[Howard] Yeah. In the novella Shafter’s Shifters and the Chassis of Chance, which is probably going to hit Kindle in June or July, there’s an interview scene where it could have been hugely info dumpy. One of the characters, yes, this is a Howard Taylor thing. “Tell us what happened,” said Judd. “Start at the beginning.” “No,” said Chris. “I’ll start with what’s important. And then you’ll tell me something important, and will keep taking turns until we run out of important things to say.” Everyone in the room was like, “Oh, that seems really smart.” It sets up this enter pattern of reveal after reveal after reveal. The reveals include some lies, which we find out to be lies later. But it fixed a huge pacing problem that I had in the first two drafts of the scene which is, no, I can’t let this guy tell the story from the beginning. That breaks everything.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] Yeah. That’s something I’m struggling with in a book right now, which is all about… Or one of the main functions of the magic system is memory loss. Which meant that I had three different points in the second half of the book where a character had to reexplain everything to a character who should already have known it. It just got so boring. I had to find different ways to get around that or to have it happen offscreen or to do compressions or abridgments so that we weren’t bored recapping the book 4 times.

[Dan] Anyway, let’s end with our homework and you can probably guess what that homework is. Mary Robinette, what is it?

[Mary Robinette] So. Your homework is about area of intention. I want you to do two things. That’s right, this is a two-part homework. One is to grab a book or a movie or whatever that you really enjoy. Or, it’s okay if you do it was something that you don’t enjoy, because this may break it slightly. Identify the area of intention for the lines of dialogue. So what you’re doing is, you’re looking at how an author has… Another author has done this. Because it’s often easier to identify with someone else’s work. Like, why do you think each line is there. Then, the other thing that I want you to do is I want you to go back to that transcript that Maurice had us do previously. I want you to decide an authorial area of intention for yourself. Like, if I were going to have this happen, what is my intention for this scene. I want you to cut every line of dialogue that does not serve your authorial area of intention.

[Dan] Sounds good. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.