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

17.35: Nuances of Dialog

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

We wrap up our eight-episode dialog master class with a discussion of nuance, which is difficult to describe in a blurb because it’s… well, nuanced. That may sound a bit recursive, but our discussion dives deep into the meta.

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

Homework: Create a word list for each of your characters – words only they will use, and words they share.

Thing of the week: Unfadeable, by Maurice Broaddus.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Nuance, some of the little effects to consider in dialog. Making the voice distinct and appropriate for the story and the character. Slang is a spice, don’t overdo it! On one end, some stories create an entire linguistic environment, while at the other end, one slang word can hint at the changes. What effect do you want to make? Pacing, rhythm, is represented by the punctuation on the page. Accent is word choice and sentence structure. Attitude is made up of all of those. 

[Season 17, Episode 35]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Dialog Master Class episode eight, Nuances of 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 have come at last to the final episode in our class. Thank you, Maurice, for being here and teaching us so much about dialog. We’re going to end with what ought to be one of the more complicated ones, nuance. Nuances of dialog. What do we mean by nuance? We talked about subtext last time. How is nuance different?

[Maurice] Well, nuances are some of the different aspects of dialog that partly ties into characterization. But it’s just the… What are some of the little effects that we have to consider when we’re talking about dialog, so…

[Howard] Oh, you’re talking about… Sorry, you’re talking about nuance at the meta level rather than nuance is an aspect of the words on the page.

[Maurice] I think it’s very much both.


[Dan] Perhaps one way to think of this, subtext is the characters communicating extra information, nuance is the writer perhaps communicating extra information through dialog?

[Maurice] Right. So I… So I… So I… In part, all these sort of things have to sort of inform my choices as a creative every time I sit down to write a new story. So I wrote this short story not too long ago called The Norwood Trouble. It’s all about there’s a community here in Indianapolis, this is actually real history. There was a self-sufficient, free Black community. It was established right after the Civil War. It was basically a functioning, independent city within Indianapolis that lasted until about 1950. I’m like just now discovering this city, this history, and all kinds of other things, right? So I write this story and I shared it with a couple friends. One of the things they say is that, “Hey. In Norwood, we wouldn’t speak this way. The English seems a little on the formal side. We wouldn’t speak this way.” Then he goes into some of the accents… Not accents. Well, accents, dialects, of people who were native to Norwood. I’m like, “You are absolutely correct, but my story’s absolutely correct also.” He’s like, “But why is that?” I’m like, “Cause if you… The story is a frame…” There’s a frame story where it’s obvious, the main person is talking to someone who’s trying to record this hidden history. So it’s a native talking to an outsider. What happens is that as the narrator, they code switch. Because they’re talking to an outsider. So now their language is different. So there’s like one moment where they slip, in terms of how they communicate, and talk like they would naturally. But they catch themselves and go back to having code switched. Because they’re speaking to an outsider. So that’s what I mean. It’s a nuanced thing that I have to be aware of at the metalevel, ’cause I can’t just be haphazard in what I’m doing here, but then the character themselves has to be aware of it, like, “Oh, I’m speaking to an outsider, therefore I need to be conscious of how I speak.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So this is… This is really about how to make the voice distinct and appropriate for both the story and the character who’s speaking. Like, when I wrote Of Noble Family, which is set in Antigua, I wanted… And I had… There’s a ton of enslaved Antiguan people as characters in the story. I wrote the… I wrote the dialog the way I would hear it for someone of that class in the US. But the US is not Antigua. There’s nuan… Very different nuances. So I had an Antiguan author, Joanne Hillhouse, whose work you should read. I had her rewrite all of my dialog because I knew that there was no way that I was going to be able to get the nuances of those characters. Just the sound… The disapproving sound that one makes is different. So when you’re thinking about the nuance, a lot of times you can hit that yourself. You can do it yourself. But sometimes you need to bring in someone from the outside. Like, I also get astronauts to help me. Here’s a fun piece of nuance. Instead of saying down the rabbit hole, an astronaut is likely to say, “Yeah, I’ve…” I know this because they said it. “Yeah, I was up all night because I fell down the Internet gravity well.”


[Dan] Let me give an example of doing this poorly. My book Ghost Station which is about Berlin in the Cold War. I knew the culture, sort of, as an ex-pat living in Germany for a while. But I also knew, as Mary Robinette suggested, that I needed to have some people with much… much closer to that context read it. So I had some friends from Germany, I even had a friend who grew up in East Germany read this for me. What I did not do is have a friend from Berlin read this for me. So there are several things where the German that I’m using is incorrect. It is southern German, rather than northern German.

[Mary Robinette] It’s basically having a New Yorker say y’all.

[Dan] Yeah. Exactly. In this case, it was things like having an old woman in Berlin greet someone by saying, “Gruss Gott.” Which is a very southern thing that seemed entirely normal to these southern German friends that I had read through this. So the nuances can be very, very specific.

[Howard] An example that lots of our listeners will probably be familiar with. The TV show Firefly. Part of the world building for Firefly was that most of the business gets conducted in English, but when you want to curse, you curse in Chinese. I was on a panel at a convention where we talked about how cool that was. There was a linguist on the panel who said they got it all wrong, because there’s no way you would switch from the sloppy tonality and pitching of English to the very precise tonality of Chinese after several generations of having done it. Those things would have blended. Because that’s just the way languages work. The nuance here is that if the show had been filmed with people Americanizing Chinese profanity, it would have fallen flat for us, and many many Chinese people probably would have been put out by the way this was done. So the nuance there was linguistically, worldbuildingly, yes, they got it wrong. But for the purposes of the show, they got it right.

[Dan] Let’s take a moment here for our book of the week. We are going to have a look at Maurice. You told us at the beginning of this class that you had to books come out this year. Let’s talk about the second one, Unfadeable.

[Maurice] Unfadeable. Well, Unfadeable is my second middle grade detective novel. It features a young lady, Bella Fades, who just wants to find the money to fund an arts project for herself and her community during summer vacation. As one does. Then she gets embroiled in a series of neighborhood corruption and the politics of… What goes on when it comes to finding out figuring out money. So she falls under the mentorship of a character… When I was writing him, I basically called him my retired Batman figure.


[Maurice] He mentors her. He doesn’t solve any of the problems for her. He gives her the tools that she can go continue the investigation on her own. So she gets to go up against all the city powers and all that, all on her own, because the book is all about agency and empowerment. I wanted just… Plus, I was inspired by one of my mentees, [garbled Angie Y?] So she helped to inspire part of the story, too. So it’s just… Unfadeable. I really feel a lot about this book. I love it so much.

[Dan] That’s awesome. That is a middle grade detective story called Unfadeable by Maurice Broaddus. Go check it out.

[Maurice] Right. One of the things about writing middle grade books is you are again making a series of choices. One, in terms… Probably the biggest one that I run into, because I just started another middle grade actually this week. It’s a historical middle grade that takes place on Indiana Avenue in the late 1930s. But it’s the same challenge in terms of what does slang look like in these books. So… Because slang is a way… It’s like any spice, right? If you put too much in, it can just over… It can be overpowering. So, I think back to my or… My first book series, Knights of Breton Court. I have a lot of slang in that book. In some ways, that book… Because of that, I lock some readers out. So that’s one issue that pops up. But in another thing, another issue, is now I’ve dated that book. Because of the slang choices I made. That book is locked in time. So we have these sort of considerations, the subtle considerations, when it comes to language use.

[Mary Robinette] Right. Then if… Especially if you’re doing something that is a secondary world or future, trying to come up with slang that seems appropriate to the era, that feels like things have moved on and evolved. Like, one of the things we were talking about on a break is… And this is… I promise this is related. Is that I’ve taught my cat to use buttons to communicate. It’s this whole thing, augmentative interspecies communication. AIC, you can check it out on Fluent Pets. That’s all… It’s cool and all of that. But here’s the thing. My cat has 70 words that she can use, and she still figured out how to curse with them. When she’s mad at me, she calls me dog. When she’s mad at a situation, she says litter box. Which is basically… You know. That’s…

[Howard] Gravel.

[Mary Robinette] That’s the place that she has, that’s her fecal matter. What’s fascinating to me about that is that what she did with the pejorative is she’s like, “What is something large and disreputable that I don’t like? That’s dog.” With the other, it’s like, “What is something that’s stinky and I don’t like?” She goes to fecal matter. So like looking… There are going to be certain things as you go forward that you can grab. Sometimes people will use the thing itself and sometimes people will invert it. I love on Dan’s middle grade audiobook series, the name of which has just gone out of my head…

[Dan] Zero G.

[Mary Robinette] Zero G. That golden is the way that kids say cool. It’s like, “Golden!” It makes sense as a natural progression of language. So it’s… When you’re looking at nuance, there is so many layers of that. And also, the kid speaks just like a normal kid with this one word put in. That sometimes you can just… You can create… You can evoke, to go back to the thing that Maurice talked about in our first episode. You can evoke the sense of slang and a shift in language without actually making the reader work through all of that the way they would in like Clockwork Orange.

[Dan] Yeah. Which is a great example of how this… This principle exists on a spectrum that at one end you have Clockwork Orange or Neuromancer or something that is going out of its way to create an entirely new linguistic environment for the story, and you have to really work to get into it. But once you’re there, it feels comfortable and now. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have something like Zero G which is just I made up one new slang word, and other than that, everyone talks like they do today, to hint at the difference. None of those… And every other part on the line between, all of those are good, all of those are valid. You just need to decide what effect you’re going for and what is going to be the best way to create it.

[Mary Robinette] And also what you as an author can sustain and will be enjoyable for you. Like, if you really enjoy language creation, go all in. If you don’t, there’s no reason… We don’t get paid enough.


[Mary Robinette] Basically. So, let me give you a couple of concrete tools to think about when we’re thinking about nuance and dialog. Because I promised that I would do this when we were in our first episode. I mentioned pacing, accent, and attitude. So pacing or rhythm is the sounds, the flow, of how the language comes out. You control that with your punctuation. So, roughly speaking, as an audiobook narrator, when I look at punctuation on the page, it’s. There. To. Tell me when to pause and breathe. So a comma kind of represents, and this is very mechanical, a comma kind of represents a one second pause. A period, I count for two, and a paragraph break, I count for three. Again, super mechanical. In the real world, it’s way more flexible than that. But when you’re thinking about creating someone who speaks very rapidly and they don’t really ever take a breath. Take all the punctuation out. You get long run-on sentences. If someone speaks… With short, choppy sentences. You put a lot of periods in. If you have… A starship… Captain… And they are… Then you can throw all of the ellipses in there that you want to throw in. Or periods, occasionally. Accent, which we talked about in terms of culture and nationality and class and age. Accent comes down to word choice and sentence structure. That’s how you represent that on the page. Then, attitude is kind of all of the above. It’s the rhythm with which we speak, which is represented by punctuation, and it’s also the word choices. So the way you speak when you’re happy is different than the way you speak when you’re angry. You can control the audience’s perception of that through your punctuation, word choice, and sentence structure.

[Dan] Awesome. Okay. So, now, we’ve got some homework to bring this all home. Before we do the homework, let me thank Maurice one more time for being here with us. You’re fantastic. We love to have you on the show. This has been a really fun, deep dive into dialog. So, Maurice, thank you for being here.

[Maurice] Hey, thanks for having me. This has been great.

[Dan] You’re welcome back anytime.

[Dan] Now, Howard, bring us home with some homework.

[Howard] Okay. You want a deep dive. Here we go. I want you to create word and phrase lists for your characters. Specifically, what we’re looking for, for each character, is a list of the words and phrases that are unique to them. That they are going to use that you won’t see from the other characters. Yes, it might be things like catchphrase. Third thing here.


[Howard] I made that joke during our ensemble episode as well. Reference to Free Guy. So, yeah, it might be things like catchphrases. It might be verbal tics. A couple of times in this series, I’ve said, “Wait. Wait. Wait.” The three waits in a row. That might be a tic that is unique to one of your characters. So you make this list of things that are unique to each of your characters. Then you make a list of things that are… This is especially important for an ensemble… Expressions, words that they share that are perhaps unique to them that you wouldn’t hear from folks in a different group. Essentially, what you’re doing here is writing a little mini dictionary that you can refer to so that when you are writing dialog and you get that spidey sense feeling that says I don’t know that the right character is saying this line, you can check your dictionary and find out exactly why that’s happening.

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