Writing Excuses 5.20: More Dialog Exercises

The rules: Write dialog with no dialog tags and no narration. Write it in such a way that we get character, conflict, and setting. We did this a few weeks ago, and have more examples from you, our daring, sharing listeners!

We ran waaay long this time, but it’s okay because we spent a bunch of time reading the submissions. After each reading we discuss what went right and what went wrong, and what to learn from it.

Lots of principles come out of this, including avoiding Maid-and-Butler dialog, how to write natural banter, how to establish a character with that character’s voice, and how dialog-only, “white-room” pieces just can’t tell certain types of stories effectively.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Empire of the East, by Fred Saberhagen, narrated by Raymond Todd

Writing Prompt: Brandon decided to read the first two paragraphs of Empire of the East to us, because it’s all dialog and seemed to fit.

Special Guest Appearance: Howard’s pants. We haven’t heard from them in almost a month. They’re back.

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28 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.20: More Dialog Exercises”

  1. Oh nice! The update gives us a player that actually shows the whole timestamp.

    Brandon – from your website’s progress bars, you usually have multiple projects in the works. What, exactly, qualifies as “between books” for you?

    Overall, very interesting podcast, as with the other one. It’s nice to get some of those guidelines about dialogue (from the discussions about the limitations of dialogue-only writing). I have an alarming tendency to not put enough in dialogue when not actively trying to write it; I already knew when I was dialogue-light; now I know when I’m dialogue-heavy, too.

  2. I love these critique casts. Too bad there was no prompt, though.
    Or was there?….

    “Fit? Fit what?”

    “That’s all it said”

    “Are you sure you read it right? You’re not the greatest reader, you know.”

    “Whatever. Maybe they wrote it wrong.”

    “They’re writers.”

    “So’s that Twilight lady”

    “Tell me again”

    “Brandon read two paragraphs about an empire in the east and the dialog fit”

    “Dude, that doesn’t make sense”

    “I see my bus.”


    “I don’t like talking on the bus. It’s rude”

    “It’s not rude; I do it all the time.”

    “Yeah, I know.”

    “Are you sure it didn’t say ‘write two paragraphs of dialog’?”

    “My bus is here”

    “So what? Did it say to write two paragraphs of dialog? ”

    “Wait. That’s what it said”


    “Yes. I remember now. Write two paragraphs of dialog about an empire in the east.”

    “Cool. What about the fit part?”

    “Oh yeah, make it fit the pages”

    “I thought you said paragraphs”

    “No, it’s pages”

    “Did it say how many?”

    “Two. Seven.”

    “Seven pages?”

    “Definitely seven. Gettin’ on the bus. Bye”

    Note: No slight to Meyers; picked for popularity. I haven’t read her books.

    Welcome back pants!

  3. I think I speak for everybody when I welcome back Howard’s pants.

    After all, no one likes to see them go. They’re one of those things that you never realise how important they are until they’ve gone. I hope I never take them for granted again.

  4. Note: Just because we haven’t heard from my pants doesn’t mean I haven’t been wearing them. They’re usually very quiet, like most pants.

    Slacks, however… THOSE are conversational elephants, talk, talk, talk, right over all the rest of the conversation. BOORISH.

  5. The description in dialogue thing is something that goes back to theater, when the characters onstage would have to describe something that was impossible to show. If you’ve ever seen the version of Dracula with Bela Lugosi, the movie was based very strictly on the stage play, and there’s a scene where all the characters look out the window and tell each other, “Look, there! You can see a great wolf running across the lawn!” The filmmakers either didn’t bother or couldn’t afford to show, so they fell back on telling, and it’s immensely awkward.

    I really like these episodes. You guys should read writing prompt submissions more often.

  6. I agree with Kyu. I would like to hear more writing prompt submission critiques.

    Since you guys said there were a lot of good submissions it might have been nice to have an honorable mention list or something. That way I don’t have to spend the rest of my life wondering if mine was total crap or not.

  7. Lol@Kim

    Agree with Kye also; more critique casts would be nice.

    @Kye: Those early audio cameras were as big as a house and as loud as Howard’s elephant slacks…they were mostly kept stationary and enclosed. This left little room for action sequences. Early audio was a step backwards for cinematography.

    BTW, where are the submissions sent? I still haven’t figured this out.


    Writing Prompt: Howard’s Elephant Slacks and the Tales they Tell.
    This could be epic.

  8. @ioMu: I don’t know where everyone else is posting/sending theirs, but I’ve been putting mine on Time Wasters Guide. There’s a thread specifically for writing prompts. BTW, I love your prompt idea but people would have to be careful what kind of jokes they make since it would be hitting below the belt.


  9. We did a similar dialog exercise in one of my creative writing classes. The main difference was that instead of two characters talking, our assignment was to write only one-side of the conversation. Basically, like you’re only hearing one side of a phone call. Really good exercise that forced you to think about the dialog you could show. Of course, there was also the assignment that had us sit in a public place and eavesdrop on people talking. This had to be public places, and only one could be on campus. You simply had to sit in a public place and type/write, word for word, the conversations you heard. That was one of the better dialog assignments we did.

  10. @Nick: I incorporated the one-sided conversation in the last Schlock storyline, Massively Parallel. During the “High Olympus Command” chapter we get Thurl’s side of three different conversations. Then, during each of the subsequent chapters there’s a scene where we get both sides.

    It was frighteningly difficult to write, and I did not execute it perfectly. I executed it reasonably well, but not perfectly.

    @Who Was That Masked Man: Yeah, thanks for that. Now all these Writing Excuses fans are going to be convinced that I actually wear pants ALL THE TIME.

  11. @Howard
    I’m sure that the Writing Excuses fans will know better. They trust you. After all, isn’t that why we’re here?

    … although frankly I would hope that most of the people visiting Writing Excuses are doing so for reasons other than confirming the Schrodinger status of Howard’s pants.

  12. Another stealer podcast from the Writing Excuses team. I love it when samples of real writing are thrown on to the fire pit and roasted for our enjoyment, as well as the educational content. I laugh, I learn, it is a win, win situation.

    That said, I do so hope Howard and his pants are never separated during the recording sessions, especially after seeing his little happy dance video. I now worry that Howard might one day try a Ted Nugent like stunt, swinging into the studio on a vine wearing only a loincloth and yelling out the Writing Excuses tag line in a deep Tarzan like voice.

  13. The difference in confidence mentioned in this podcast is called “variation on the shy-bold axis” in behavioral biology/ecology. Just saying.

  14. Yes, a hearty welcome back to the pants, returning from whatever strange journey they have been on. Just in time for Howard’s video, thus saving him from resorting to his boorish conversational elephant slacks. (So you guys really have a construction site style safety sign? Dangerous pants, then. I get the feeling Howard’s pants lead a much more interesting life than I do.)

    Seriously, though, thanks guys for another excellent podcast. I hadn’t thought of doing these privately as an excercise, but it’s a very good idea. Very interesting point about the first panel, Howard – at least when I start a scene, I know the audience has been with me from the previous one.

  15. I’ve listened to nearly all of the Writing Excuses podcasts but don’t remember ever hearing one about rewriting novels after the first draft has been completed (although I know there have been some on essentially revamping one’s story). Have you never done a podcast on this? Will you?

  16. These dialogue exercises are awesome. I just followed my first writing prompt and submitted my first ever piece to you guys.

    I think dialogue is one of my top 3 most difficult challenges in writing. I learned a ton from this though.

    and not only learned from listening, but the act of doing this dialogue exercise really fired me up for it. It took a lot of the pressure off related to blocking I think. and the conversation was able to flow more naturally because I wasn’t concerned about writing all of these descriptors to go with it. Now that I see the whole conversation I can go back and add those, and I think it will be fun to do.

  17. lol@Kim and thanks. Have discovered the TWG. Will look for your posts.

    @Dave: Where did you submit to?

    @ThisThread: You are funny

    @HappyDance: You made my day. I had no choice but to turn you into an animated gif: http://bit.ly/e4L3zt

  18. The happy dance icon made me want to see the actual dance again. Which has now led me to watching Howard talk about ‘Talent? Who needs talent?’ I also see that there are videos of Dan doing public speaking, which I intend to watch shortly.

    And you know what? I kinda like putting a face to a name. I mean, I’ve seen photos; there was a sort of ‘book blurb’ page up on Writing Excuses when it started out. But hearing a voice and looking at a photo don’t give you a full picture of a person. How they move, how they talk, etc. It’s like another piece of a puzzle.

    Not that I’m saying Writing Excuses should do video segments. I figure the podcast as-is has to be more economical in terms of file size and bandwidth and so on, and can be played/used on so many more devices.

    But still, it’s cool to watch these.

  19. Also, funny thing…. the third segment of Howard’s ‘Talent? Who needs talent?’ talk has, among the list of videos suggested by Youtube as somehow being related, the video for Eminem’s ‘Just Lose It’.

    Not sure what that is saying…

  20. I wonder if you could use the Big Five factors. E.g. openness (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious) sort of sounds like the confident/cautious split that we saw. Then there is conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless) as another possible split. “I’ve got a plan.” “Why bother, let’s just make it up as we go along.” Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved) makes an easy split. Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. cold/unkind). Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident) would give another split. That would let you write at least five flavors of character pairs, even ignoring the combinations.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits for more details.

  21. ROFL!

    ioMu you have to post that gif on TWG! Freaking hilarious!

    BTW, if you’re looking for my posts on TWG, you’ll be more successful if you look for dhalagirl.

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