Writing Excuses 5.38: Dialog with John Scalzi

John Scalzi joins Brandon and Howard at Penguicon for a discussion of writing dialog. John’s advice begins thusly: “start reading outside Science Fiction and Fantasy.” It’s good advice regardless, but John’s justification for it is fascinating.

Dialog in prose is not very much like real-life dialog. Your goal as a writer is to convince the reader that it is. And that’s what we’re going to try to teach you how to do. Or at least how to learn how to do.


Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi’s reboot of H.Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy, narrated by Wil Wheaton

Writing Prompt: Write a dialog between someone ordering at a drive-through and someone taking the order, but the person taking the order is being held up at gunpoint.

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24 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.38: Dialog with John Scalzi”

  1. Just when I think it can’t get any better… Scalzi. You guys are good at what you do. I look forward to your casts weekly. Thanks for all your hard work and effort to be there for your fellow writers.

  2. @Minnie Pearl’s Hat: Scalzi and I met at Penguicon back in 2005, and our paths have crossed numerous times. When he showed up at Penguicon this year I invited him to join us for a recording session on Sunday, and he graciously accepted.

    It doesn’t hurt that Mary Robinette Kowal, VP of SFWA (the organization of which John Scalzi is currently President) is a great friend of the podcast, and has made that known on more than one occasion.

    We got Scalzi on the ‘cast because we didn’t go into it cold. There is an existing relationship. Also, none of us were afraid to extend the invitation. The worst thing that could happen is that he’d say “no.” (And yes, that’s happened before. We do get turned down. Who does Joe Biden think he is, anyway?)

  3. On the subject of the nerds talking differently–most of my nerd friends’ humor is entirely dependent on references. My characters tromping around 15th century Spain cannot wave their hands and say ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for’. Since a good sixty percent of what little conversation I have is entirely quoted from something else, coming up with original stuff (especially humor) is HARD.

    Then you add in the fact that human beings tend to talk in cliches in the first place, and you have why my characters tend to be the strong, silent types.

  4. Speaking of SFWA, you should have Nebula Award-winning Eric James Stone back for a podcast.

  5. I was hoping you three would show up at the Nebula Award, but none did :-( I did spend quite a bit of time talking to Mary Robinette Kowal. She’s so nice and awesome. At one point, I was like “oh, my gosh, she talks to me like I’m her friend.”

    On dialog, I use dialogues as a way to put colors into my story, and by colors, I mean emotion, attitude, and mood. I make sure each line have a different voice and tone from those of the narrator. It helps to wake the reader up :-)

    Question: Are dialog and dialogue interchangable?

  6. I enjoyed this week’s podcast, especially since it solidified a lot of thoughts I’ve had on dialogue for a while. While I haven’t read anything yet from Brandon’s nemesis, John Scalzi, this made me more curious about his work.

    My loyalty is still with Brandon, of course.

  7. Another great ‘cast – thanks. :-)

    Big agree on watching movies for dialogue, especially golden age Hollywood movies. One of my faves is His Girl Friday, though Thin Man is great, too.

    The SF fan talking differently from “normal” people reminds me of something I read years ago. An SF&F writer brought her non-fan sister, a sociologist or linguist or something like that, to a convention. The sister had some fascinating comments on fan behavior as a social group – how fans can talk to each other and speak at the same time, but understand what the other is saying, or the use of words that you don’t see in non-fan dialogue, indicating people who learned words from books. One of the most interesting comments was that fans tend to only use their mouths when speaking, while most people use more of their cheek muscles – this indicated people who learned to speak at a very early age, when their facial muscle development was still poor. (There were other comments indicating social awkwardness and such – I recall that the non-fan sister was concerned about how this would all be taken, she did not consider it flattering, but fans read it and say, Yup, that’s us! :-))

  8. Writing Excuses keeps shattering my worldview…first “steampunk is counter-culture” now “nerds talk different.” Maybe I just know too many nerds.

    Ditto the congrats to EJS. So happy for him and his Nebula!

  9. Again. Just when I thought writing excuses couldn’t get any better, John Scalzi hops aboard and goes warp speed. Ahsum!

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  11. First time listening to one of these ‘casts but you can be sure I’ll be going back to listen to a lot more. Honestly it was John Scalzi’s name that drew me to it, and I’m a big fan of both Brandon Sanderson and John Scalzi and what really pulls me into their writing style is their dialogue (well, I mean, among everything else. Trying to avoid being a complete fanboy).

    I’ve been knocked off my pace from dialogue by other authors (like the book I’m currently reading now but won’t name) but that’s never happened with Sanderson or Scalzi. They mix the perfect amount of real speech patterns and what I’ll call “high” language for their characters (High language being nerd speak). It’s a mixture I try to achieve and am absurdly jealous of. I will definitely be trying my hand at this challenge.

  12. Hurray for “The Thin Man” (and “His Girl Friday,” Laurie. Love Cary Grant).

  13. @Chris

    You make an excellent point with your response: conveying information to the ignorant side of a conversation (when it is the viewpoint) through dialogue is very difficult.

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