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

18.28: Writing Conversational Dialogue

How do you write dialogue that sounds natural? We have some things to keep in mind when you write conversations between characters. When people converse, they do so with more than just words. Body language, tone of voice, and societal context all play a role in understanding what a person means. How do you convey that on the page or in audio?


Take dialogue you’ve written. Delete every third line, and replace those lines with blocking.

Thing of the Week:

Cunk On Earth

Mentioned Links:

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Dialogue, conversations between people. Dialogue that doesn’t sound like real people talk versus verbatim transcripts? Middle ground, that isn’t accurate, but feels accurate. Writers convey to a human brain that a dialogue is happening. Every line of dialogue does two jobs, the authorial intention, why the author needs that line, and the character reason, which depends on who the character is talking to. Real life, um, or bantery fun? In real life, interruptions follow the actual word, but for punch, in writing you often interrupt at the word. Think of written dialogue as compressed talk, with the small talk stripped out. Pacing, accent, and attitude. Much of conversation is nonverbal. Pause points and body language. The rules in dialogue are much less rigid. Natural dialogue changes over time. 

[Season 18, Episode 28]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Conversational Dialogue.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] Today we want to talk about dialogue. How to do conversations between people. One of the things that will pull me out of a story faster than almost anything else are conversations, dialogue, that don’t sound like real people actually talk. The problem is if you actually do write down exactly how real people talk, it is often unreadable and also just as bad. So there’s a wierd middle ground that isn’t really accurate, but feels accurate. We’re going to magically somehow tell you how to find it.


[Howard] By way of metaphor, in my audio engineering class, they explained… They sat us in front of a pair of speakers and played music, and the right answer to, “What are you hearing?” Is, “Oh, I’m hearing a pair of paper cones move back and forth powered by magnets.” As audio engineers, we were taught we’re creating the illusion of these things by using other tools. As writers, you are using patterns of dots, whether it’s ink on the page or pixels on the screen or whatever, to convey to the human brain that a dialogue is taking place. It is a magic trick. At some level, you gotta lie.

[DongWon] Well, it’s funny. We’re kind of performing a version of that magic trick right now. I mean, this podcast is intended to be very conversational and it sounds conversational. But this is also not how the five of us sound when we’re sitting around the dinner table and chatting. There’s all this crosstalk, over talk, interrupted thoughts, pauses. Those are things that we, as podcasters, are working to [garbled]

[Howard] Wait, hang on. Is Dan allowed to have French fries?


[DongWon] No.


[DongWon] But we’re ignoring that for the moment. I mean, exactly, that kind of interruption. Right? Like in… We do that a little bit here and there, but I think we’re very deliberate about it. Unlike me, at the dinner table, I’m a huge interrupter, as everyone here has realized.


[DongWon] I think those are kind of things to think about is how are you going to manufacture the illusion of a flowing conversation, rather than replicating the absolute chaos that is a real conversation between friends.

[Dan] When we were talking this morning, and planning out exactly how we were going to do these episodes over breakfast, we were talking about this episode specifically, and I suggested one angle on it, and Mary Robinette suggested something else. Then we had a brief exchange that was mostly, “Uh… Ch… Oh…” Like, and we knew, because we’ve known each other for like 13 years, exactly what we meant.


[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] That’s how we decided the topic for this was like 13 bizarre syllables in a row…


[Dan] That come to us, made perfect sense.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That’s one of the challenges when you’re writing is that every line of dialogue is doing two jobs on the page. There’s the authorial intention, the reason that you, the author, need that line to be there. Then there’s the reason that the character is saying that. The reason the character is saying that is going to change depending on who the character is talking to. So it’s like I could not have that multisyllabic partial utterance conversation that I had with Dan, with the majority of the listeners, because we don’t have any of that shared context.

[Howard] It actually… It wasn’t polysyllabic, it was multi-gruntle.

[Mary Robinette] Multi-gruntle. Thank you.


[Mary Robinette] Our multi-gruntle modality is one that is very specific. So when I’m trying to create dialogue for characters, I think about two areas of intention. What am I trying to accomplish on the page, like, what scenic lift is this doing? Then, the other is, why is the character saying this? What is my character’s goal? What’s the [garbled]? Again, that shifts for me, depending on who they’re talking to. So if I swap characters out in a scene, my dialogue has to shift as well.

[Erin] I think one of the interesting things about that is that sometimes your authorial intention can be to replicate conversation as best you can on the page. Sometimes it’s more stylized. Any sort of dialogue can have a range from being almost completely fidelity to the way that we speak, with um’s and pauses where you’re trying to show that this feels like real life too, like, very bantery where it’s completely… No one actually speaks like that, but there is a fun in it. I think about Dawson’s Creek when it came out a zillion years ago, and no teenager talks the way that they do, but there was a fun in hearing teens use this like very complicated language that they wouldn’t in real life. So, sometimes your intention is also in showing something with the dialogue style, in addition to the dialogue itself.

[DongWon] Or, I think about Deadwood a lot, with this… Where most of the characters spoke in a very vernacular way. Then you have Ian McShane playing Al Swearengen who talks in these elaborate Shakespearean just foul mouth paragraphs, where he’ll just be talking and talking and talking. But it’s one of the most delightful things to witness, and all of the other characters seem to understand him, even though I, as the audience, I’m like I barely figured out what he was trying to say there, but…


[DongWon] It was delightful. So you can use that to great effect to communicate things about character in ways that play with what is naturalistic. But how the other characters listen and respond to that, I think, can also be very powerful.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to talk about one mechanic, just to start us off. As an example of something that I see people doing on the page, and it was something that I would do, is that you want the character to interrupt some other character. In real life, when we’re speaking, that interruption comes several words after the word that causes the character to want to interrupt. Most of the time on the page, you do the interruption right at that word. So if you want the dialogue to see more natural, then you go ahead and you let the character carry a couple of words past that interrupting thing. If you really want to put a punch underneath that word for some reason, then you would have them interrupt right at that time. So, like, if I were saying, “Uh, we’re going to be going downstairs,” and someone interrupted me on the page, and the downstairs was the thing that I wanted to underline, it might be, “We’re going to go downstairs.” “Downstairs! How dare you say downstairs!”


[Mary Robinette] Whereas in real life, I might say, “We’re going to go downstairs to…” “Downstairs! How dare…” And it doesn’t play the same. So you can think about that. Like, why are you doing that interruption and how are you playing with it?

[Howard] I like to think of conversational dialogue, conversational moments in books, as a compression algorithm. My favorite compression algorithm is the GIF, or jif, or we’re not going to have that argument, where you pick key colors and you say this color for this many pixels, this color for this many pixels. When I had a breakup conversation with a girlfriend in high school, we talked for like three hours. When you read a breakup conversation in a romance novel, when you see one in a rom-com, it is not three hours. What got compressed? What were the key colors? How many pixels did they run for until the reader knew that that was the color that they needed. I don’t know what the right compression algorithm is for everything, but I know that it has to be compressed. Because real conversations take a lot longer than they take in books.

[DongWon] There’s the way that nobody says goodbye on the phone in a movie unless someone is about to die. Right? Like… Because otherwise, you don’t need that note of we are concluding the conversation. All of the information has been communicated, we’re moving on from here.

[Mary Robinette] This is, I think, as a side note, one of the reasons that so many people in fandom have difficulty with dialogue is because they have… In real life, is because they have learned it from film, television, and books where all of the small talk has been stripped out.

[DongWon] Yes.


[Howard] Also, so many things in romance and rom-com and drama, people will say such cruel things without any sort of warm up or even any sort of justification. Because, wow, that’s the punchy bit. I’m sorry, people, don’t learn to talk by what you see on TV. Because those people aren’t being nice to each other.

[DongWon] Well, it’s also dialogue in fiction is designed to communicate the emotional state of a character. Right? You are very rawly and directly trying to get what the character’s actually feeling across to the other character, but really to the audience so they understand what’s happening in this conversation. When I am in conversation with somebody about how I am feeling about something, it is rare that I am directly stating it. Right? I’m talking about effects, I’m talking about consequences, I’m talking about all kinds of other things that are ways to get them to understand what my experience is. But coming out and saying it directly is actually not a very effective way to get them to understand what it is that you’re experiencing.

[Erin] I’m thinking back to that idea of the compression algorithm. One of the things I like to do when thinking about dialogue is trying to read more uncompressed speaking. Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright, her style of doing plays is to actually go interview people and then turn it into a one woman show. She does some compression, because otherwise it would be endless, but her technique is trying to remain fairly faithful to the way that people talk. Like, so… Listening to her do her shows, I’m like, “Well, that’s pretty true to what a mildly compressed speech is. Now what do I want to look at?” A Marvel movie might have like super compressed bantery stuff. Then, trying to figure out where do I want to fall in between. Repetition is a great example. When I listen to her work or other things that are more uncompressed, we repeat ourselves. When you broke up with your girlfriend for three hours, I’m going to guess you said the same thing 18 different ways. That’s some of the stuff that happens in real life, but on the page, it gets repetitive in a bad way. Because you’re not in the same moment. So you want to use… You can use repetition to make things feel more real, because that’s what happens. We forget where we were, and then we come back to what we were talking about.

[Dan] Well, this goes back into some of our previous conversations about format and about different types of writing. There are things you can do, for example, in a script that don’t work on the page because of all the extra um’s and so things that we kind of add-in that sound very natural to us, but reading them become very onerous. Let’s pause now and come back later.

[Howard] I did not know how much I needed Cunk On Earth until I watched the first episode of Cunk On Earth. This is a comedy documentary, faux documentary of human history presented by Philomena Cunk, who is a character played by the actress whose name I’ve now forgotten.

[Dan] Diane Morgan.

[Howard] Diane Morgan. Diane Morgan so brilliantly stays in the voice of Philomena Cunk. That’s where half the comedy comes from. Her uncertainty when interviewing people, her… The self-consciousness coupled with the absolute certainty that she’s right. “Oh, my mate so-and-so shared this with me on YouTube. No, really, the moon is a lie. I’ll send you… You just need to see the video.” I love Cunk On Earth. 30 minute episodes, which is the perfect length for this kind of comedy. Available right now on Netflix. If you’ve ever wanted to learn lots and lots of things about human history mostly correctly while laughing, Cunk On Earth.

[Mary Robinette] So, as we come back in, I want to talk about a couple of tools to make your character voices distinct. Because when you’ve got two characters speaking to each other, in an ideal world, they sound like different people. Coming out of narrating audiobooks, there are five things that make a character voice, roughly speaking. Three of which can be replicated on the page. I’ll tell you the other two, because it’ll annoy you that you don’t know them. They are pitch and placement. But the three that can replicate on the page are pacing, accent, and attitude. So, pacing is something that you control with punctuation. It is someone speaking with very long, fluid sentences, or somebody who’s talking with lots of parentheticals. I mean, sometimes they talk with parentheticals, but sometimes they don’t. Like, that kind of thing. Accent is about your sentence structure. It’s not about replicating someone’s like phonetic distinctions on the page, it’s that the sentence structure is going to vary based on where they’re from. When I’m talking to my parents in Tennessee, I will… My pronunciation doesn’t change that much. But I’ll do things like, “I’m going to go on over to the store.” I’m like I don’t know what all of those extra…

[Dan] Syllables.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Mono-gruntal.


[Mary Robinette] I don’t know what all of those extra prepositions are actually doing. On over to? Like, what are we doing there? But that is, rhythmically, that is… That’s built-in part of the accent. Then, attitude is about your word choice. So the words that you pick when you’re mad at someone are very different than the words that you pick when you aren’t mad at them. It’s kind of an all of the above scenario, too. Like, if you take, “What did you say?” And you’re mad at somebody, it’s like, “The actual did you say?” That changes…

[Erin] Yeah. I love that where people come from impacting the way that they speak. One of my favorite things is that there are many languages where at the end of sentences, you basically say, “Are you with me?” Some sort of phrase, like, yeah, got it. It’s like different languages have different words that go at the very end, but it’s basically like, “Are you still with me as I am speaking?” If you have someone who comes from a culture like that, or you’ve invented a culture like that, you might have more check in words at the end of sentences, because that’s part of their way of speaking. That will come through. I think something that’s really important and interesting to consider is that none of us just speak in a vacuum. Everyone is… One of my sort of pet peeves is everyone has culture including you. So, as opposed to thinking of changes in language as something that just other people do, it’s why do you speak the way that you do? Then think about for your characters, why do they speak the way that they do, and what are they conveying about themselves that they may not even realize through the way that they speak?

[DongWon] Love that. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about in the course of this conversation, I actually don’t have a great answer for, but so much of conversation is nonverbal. It’s facial expression, it’s gestures, it’s eye contact, it’s all of these things. I think one of the struggles that we’ve all had living our lives mostly mediated by Zoom these past several years is these tools got much more difficult to apply. So when you’re doing just verbal dialogue… So, like, in Dark One: Forgotten, we’re not getting character gestures, body language, eye placement, all of that. All we’re getting is what are they actually saying. So what are some of the tips and tricks to communicate the things that would otherwise be communicated by like a tag that’s like, “He sighed, he shifted, he…” Whatever that happens to be. He broke eye contact in some way. Like…

[Mary Robinette] So… The thing is that we’ve actually been doing nonverbal dialogue… Dialogue decoupled from body language since the invention of the telephone. So we know how to do that. We’re familiar with those patterns. What I find is that when you’re trying to replicate that on the page, you want to look for the natural pause points. Because anytime you put in body language, that’s going to slow things down. So instead of saying he paused, then you would say he scratched his ear. What I find is that… Again, the body language is, as you say, part of the communication. So, he looked away… Well, what did he look at? What is that actually conveying? I’m very bad in my books. My characters do a lot of sighing. I have to go back in and do a search and find/replace to swap that out for other pieces of body language. Because it becomes in-specific.

[Dan] So, if you want a really great example of how important all of these kind of nonverbal cues can be, get on… Jump on YouTube and go look up what I’m going to call the mother F-r conversation from an early episode of The Wire.


[Dan] Which is two characters who are doing what is essentially like a…

[Mary Robinette] It’s a crime scene.

[Dan] Crime scene investigation…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] Trying to figure out how a woman died, where the bullet is, all these things. The only word that they say, over the course of about five minutes, is not one we can say on this show. But because of their attitude, because of their vocal inflection, because of the way that they look at each other, you know exactly what they’re saying and exactly what they mean. It is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen. Flipside of that, another one of my very favorite shows is Justified. One of the things I love about that is how distinct the dialogue is. So, yes, of course, it’s a show and so they’re doing some visual cues. But, going back to what Mary Robinette was talking about, how do you make all of your characters sound different, watch an episode of Justified. Pay attention to, for example, the way that they threaten each other. Wynn Duffy is kind of an outsider, he’s not really a Southerner, he doesn’t have that kind of slow laconic way of talking that so many of them do. He’s very clinical. At one point, he says, “If I see you again, I’m going to get a blow torch and make you as small as I possibly can.” Which is just very direct and to the point. When Raylan Givens, who’s the main character, wants to threaten somebody, he says in this very slow way, he… Actually, to Wynn Duffy, he pulls a bullet out of his gun, drops it on his chest, and says, “Next one’s coming faster.” Which is such a beautiful way of encapsulating his personality, the way he solves problems, his absolute economy of words, but in a way that’s completely different than Wynn Duffy’s.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things about threats in particular is that they often say more about the character who is making the threat than the character who is receiving the threat. Because most of the time when people are making threats, their actually signaling this is something that I would find upsetting. They are not necessarily signaling this is something that would be a problem for you.

[Erin] Thinking back to what we were saying about the difference between, like, when you’re putting something on the page and dialogue and when it’s spoken, I was thinking that sometimes it’s… Think about this sentence. I don’t know about that. Right? So I’m thinking if I don’t know about that and I am saying it in a conversation with people who can see me, I might sort of pause, think, and then say, “I don’t know about that.” On the page, you might say like, “She furrowed her eyebrows,” or something much better than that, but in…


[Erin] In a dialogue, I’d be like, “I… Don’t know about that.” That’s what I would do on the phone. Because what I’m doing is taking that space where you would see me do the furloughing and putting it in a vocal… Like, I’m doing it vocally, because you can’t see me. That’s what you do on the phone. So, something that’s really interesting is just pay attention to the things we do when we’re talking on the phone and figure out is there a good place to put those in text. When do you lower your tone and whisper? When do you get louder, when do you extend vowels and when do you get more clipped in the way that you speak, maybe because you’re upset.

[Howard] This circles back to what I think is kind of a 101 level, but we should all be reminded of it, writing and editing rule as it might be for dialogue, which is that the rules for grammar and punctuation and spelling and whatever else for dialogue are much less rigid than for other things. Because we don’t put commas where they necessarily are supposed to go when we’re speaking. Play with that. There’ve been a lot of times when I’ve had to step something from a copy editor because my grammar has been egregious and I have to go back in and say, “No, that was meant to be egregious,” because of the way this is supposed to read. But in checking what the copy editor has written, I am like, “Let me make sure that that reads correctly. I didn’t accidentally spell a bad word, did I? No. Okay. We’re cool.”

[DongWon] One other thing I want to point out is that what feels like naturalistic dialogue also follows trends and evolves over time. What was naturalistic in the 1950s was the screwball comedy, which is incredibly fast-paced, had a very specific accent, and cadence. Then we entered the 70s, where there was this very like naturalistic like thing is how people really talk. As audio changes, as technology changes, as our expectations change… Right now, we’re in the era of mumble core movies, where it’s almost impossible to tell what anybody’s saying because of the way the sound is mixed in the way dialogue is written right now. You find that in prose, too. In text, how people talk in different eras, different genres. What feels like natural language, natural conversation, those shift depending on what you’re trying to inflect. So I think what really we’re circling around in so many ways is conversational dialogue, natural dialogue, is highly stylized. It is approached to great effect through a real character, through a real tone, through a real genre and category, in all these really powerful ways.

[Erin] I think I love that. I love that I think it’s both what you’re trying to inflect and also what you’re trying to reflect. Because not all folks talk the same. So I think one thing that’s really exciting is to not feel like you need to force yourself into the way that the dialogue that you’re used to reading or use to seeing is, if that’s not the story that you’re trying to tell. I really love the way that like, an author like Susan Palumbo, who’s a short story writer, uses dialogue in a different way. She’s from the Caribbean, and, like, there’s a different style of writing that she’s doing that is amazing and completely natural. But just natural to a different storytelling ethos than the one that we’re use to, specifically, in the United States.

[Mary Robinette] So, I’m going to give you some homework this week. What I want you to do, and it’s a very simple exercise. I want you to take dialogue that you’ve already written and delete every third line. This is going to give these gaps in the conversation, that you are going to have to then bridge with the body language that you use and having the other characters make the deductive jump that we would make in natural conversation. It’s not going to be a perfect thing that you need to do with everything that you write. But it’s an exercise in making deliberate choices for what you’re doing in your dialogue. Try deleting every third line of dialogue.

[Mary Robinette] In our next episode of Writing Excuses, we discuss the different sounds of collaboration, and learn about two of our hosts experiences building worlds with Brandon Sanderson. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.