Writing Excuses 4.26: Avoiding Stilted Dialog

“As you know, we’ll be discussing stilted dialog” said Howard. “We should do something different for the introduction.”

“Let’s speak our dialog tags” said Brandon cleverly.

“We mustn’t forget to include adverbs” said Dan pensively.

That’s not exactly how it went down, but that’s a nicely stilted object lesson, right? And let me state for posterity that writing it was painful.

What is “stilted dialog?” Who is wearing stilts, and why? More importantly, how can we avoid writing dialog that staggers about on leg extensions?

We offer a few tricks, including heavily re-writing (after first racing to get as much dialog on the page as possible), using turns of phrase that are in-character for the person saying it, and turning exposition into arguments.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, which is currently being read by the Internet reading group One book, One Twitter.

Writing Prompt: This is a two-parterStart by writing the very worst infodumping maid & butler dialog you can (using an actual maid and an actual butler.) Now rewrite it with the maid & butler arguing viciously. Include all the same information, but make the dialog believable and entertaining.

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18 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.26: Avoiding Stilted Dialog”

  1. For anyone interested, in reference to how screenwriters do characters talking at the same time, something called Dual Dialogue is used. Whatever the characters are saying to each other simultaneously is laid out side by side in two columns, one for each character. The neat thing is most screenwriting software like Final Draft will automatically format the page for you whenever you need it. :)

  2. Loved the episode, as usual, but I thought there would be segment about managing adjectives and adverbs. I got really excited because I always struggle with them.

  3. A simple way to test your dialogue is to read it out loud. If it sounds wrong to you, in some way, then you need to re-write it (or sometimes erase it all together).

  4. You know, this is exactly the episode I needed to hear. I have been stuck in one place for a very long time (we’ll just call this place “Chapter 48” for purposes of convenience). And Chapter 48 is where the villain’s motives finally become clear and much is revealed. But in Chapter 48, only two people know the truth: the main protagonist and the villain. The main protagonist learned the truth back in Chapter 47, but he learned it while he was “off screen” so the reader still doesn’t know what the protagonist knows.

    In chapter 48, the truth has to come out, and the villain is not the kind of person who reveals his evil schemes in dramatic monologue, or in any form. He’s too secretive. The protagonist knows the truth, but he needs a reason to speak it out loud so that the reader, and all the other characters, can learn it.

    I’ve been having a lot of trouble making this scene work, and only recently have I been able to make the scene flow with any kind of sense. It’s a life-or-death situation, so I can’t just have the protagonist say “Okay, while the villain is attacking us with deadly force, let me just tell you what he’s been up to since the beginning.”

    I’ve been toying with the idea of having the protagonist reveal the truth in the form of an accusation, reprehending the villain at the same time that he’s making the revelation. But I still need some way to halt the action while this is happening.

    Anyway, I feel like this podcast has broken apart some of the clouds I was trying to move through. Thanks.

  5. Awesome! You did a show about dialogue. Thanks. I love dialogue and it was great hearing your take on it.

    My favourite trick is to use awareness about status. Not as a life situation thing bur as a living thing created trough our actions and confirming others actions changing each minute. Once you think about it, and get to know that people usually shows that they are just a little higher and a litter lower in status while talking and confirming each other status, and every now and then flipping status things tend to feel more alive. We know this stuff unconsciously, like some awesome hidden language we all speaks. And its easy to put into writing “In what way does he/she show that discussing this right now that her/his status is little lower/higher?”

    But dialogue is lovely. Listening to people, trying to capture the feeling, working with dialogue in some improvised media also rocks.

  6. My method for characters arguing over each other probably comes from my theatre background. David Mamet specifically (but only for heated arguments, otherwise it’s impossible to easily read). There’s always one person driving an argument at any given time, so I write their entire rant out first, then cut in interruptions from other characters. It really helps to have clear character voices in this. It goes something like this:

    “I didn’t scam anyone, and I will not listen to your slander and calumny!” (I just thought this up now, bear with me)

    Which becomes:

    “I did not scam-”
    “Yes you did!”
    “-anyone, and I will not listen-”
    “You don’t have a choice!”
    “-to your slander-”
    “Well you’d better start!”
    “-and calumny!”

    It gets hard to read, but it gets the point across. The above example is rough, but accurate.

  7. @E. Antonio Colon: The best way I can think of to manage adjectives and adverbs in dialog tags is to not use them at all. Just use “said” for everything. If someone is shouting or whispering, you can use “shouted” or “whispered,” but don’t make people shout or whisper just because you’re tired of writing “said.”

    The result will be boring dialog tags that begin to fade to invisibility. If the dialog still works, you can probably remove most of the tags because the characters have their own voices and the reader only needs a few cues. If the dialog does not work then you’re not going to be able to fix it by adding tags.

    Obviously if the dialog is taking place during important action you can include the blocking in the tags (e.g. “you’re right about one thing,” said Mike as he jumped onto the table and drew his sword. “Dessert had better be wonderful.”), but this short-circuits the indicators for “is it good dialog” so it’s not the best place to start.

  8. [i]’ “you’re right about one thing,” said Mike as he jumped onto the table and drew his sword. “Dessert had better be wonderful.” ‘[/i] I nominate this for an alternate writing prompt. :-)

    I’m with Dan, I like to throw the characters together and just let them talk. This can make it hard to edit it down later, though, I get attached to the discussion.

  9. Thanks for that tidbit, Tony. I occasionally write scripts (though for stage, not for screen) so that’s useful information.

  10. Awesome podcast. I too have been struggling with much of what was covered. Thanks guys. Nice to have Howard back.

  11. Howard’s back … and you’re gonna be in trouble…

    (sorry, the well-aged muzak is playing louder than usual in the brain today)

  12. I always thought of Stilted Dialogue as a guy on stilts as well. For me though, it is how awkward a person looks when walking on stilts, not how tall he appears to be. His movement doesn’t flow naturally.

    I love your pod casts. Keep them coming!

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