Writing Excuses 10.38: How Does Context Shape Dialog?

Our second installment for the Master Class’s month of context covers the way dialog between characters may change meaning depending upon the context you create for them. This context may be the setting or genre, and it may also be the “beats” in which you describe what a person is doing while speaking. We talk about how to make this work for you, how to avoid some of the common pitfalls in writing dialog.

Liner Notes: Howard mentioned episode 10.11: Project-in-Depth: “Parallel Perspectives”. If you need to go back and have a listen, now it’s easier!


This is the Transcript Exercise, and it’s a doozy. Take our A/B scene, which is character dialog with no beats, and add the beats and the context to set the dialog in two different genres. There are further instructions in the download at the link above.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, narrated by Simon Slater

13 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.38: How Does Context Shape Dialog?”

  1. The problem with Age of Ultron’s dialogue hadn’t even occurred to me, but you’re right. Maybe that’s why (at least to me), the twins and Banner felt more like their own characters, while everyone else seemed to be just the same person with different powers. Because if you look back on it (I recently rewatched the movie) those characters didn’t have too much witty dialogue. They kind of just said what they would’ve said. To be fair though, they kept playing with the idea that Ultron was Tony’s “son”, so he was bound to act a bit like Stark, including having witty dialogue. I can’t say much for the rest of them. I think they all felt more individual in the few scenes where they were not all in the same room.

  2. Hi. I’m continuing my effort to take part rather than just lurk :)

    Another interesting conversation. This is definitely one for re-listening and note-taking. I was aware of the problem of ‘on the nose dialogue’ but didn’t have a good name for it. That discussion definitely grabbed me and made me think a bit about my own writing.

    Agree with everything said about stilted dialogue.

    I guess I wanted to add that the bit about imitation of another’s style (a sort of ‘accidental pastiche’) does lead to stilted dialogue, but so can -not- having a literary frame of reference to work from. By that I mean that writers who refuse to read other works (often because they’re afraid of influence) also seem to fall into very stilted language. I think this might be because people don’t have a good scope or breadth of feeling for how dialogue should look on the page? It definitely seems to be another factor.

    I suspect another contributor, and maybe something that affects writers at any stage, is that especially early in a draft when the characters are not yet fully developed in the writer’s own mind, the dialogue can get both stilted and ‘samesy’. Sometimes it takes time and effort to work out the inner workings of your characters, and without that feeling for who they are, the dialogue maybe tends to slip back to easy phrases and stock sentences. I tend to think this is something that affects me, and so far my only solution (for me, anyway) is to rewrite from scratch the first 10-20,000 of any novel after I’ve finished it.

    Finally, can definitely recommend Wolf Hall. Wonderful, wonderful piece of work.

    Thanks for another great show.


  3. Funny, I’ve always thought the “that doesn’t look like a party” line fit her perfectly. For guys like Thor and Tony, a swarm of baddies heading straight for you is the best case scenario. They’re warriors – they smack stuff around. Black Widow isn’t a warrior, she’s a spy – she outmaneuvers the enemy to the point where she has an overwhelming advantage. (In the case of those mobsters interrogating her when she’s introduced in that movie, her advantage is psychological – they have no idea what she can do, and think she’s utterly helpless.) If it were a guy like Thor in her place, it would be a perfect setup; for her, it’s a genuine threat.

    I guess the problem is that the difference is entirely internal. She’s certainly up to fulfilling her part in the ambush in terms of her combat capabilities. She’s just not as comfortable with being in a full scale battle like that. Thus she’s apprehensive, thus her less than enthusiastic response. (This isn’t that well portrayed, partly because she’s one of the few characters in the movie that has very little setup beforehand. We see bits of her at work in things like Iron Man 2 at that point, but we don’t have something like the first Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc movies that give us a good understanding of the character’s motivations. (And unlike the Hulk, she’s not exactly a simple character. All that red in her ledger, and all…)

  4. Hi,
    I need to ask something here that will sound probably very odd, and it’s out of the topic of this specific podcast, but more that I listen to the podcasts here more desesperate I get. I love writing. I love the genre of Fantasy and Sci-fi more than any other, because of the way that goes deep to our deepest feelings, the symbolism inside it, the imagination, all of it. But the problem is that I’m beginning to doubt if I can really be a good fantasy/sci-fi writer (I want to explore both genres) because, truth be told, I’m not very good at sciences like Math and Physics. Chemistry it’s all right, not entirely good, but going, and Geography and Biology, o.k. My strong points are the Humans Sciences, the ones that I get very easily and love it, but I’m starting to doubt if it’s enough. Because I saw so many High-Fantasy writers, like P.Rothfuss and Brandon S (here),, and so many others that are so good in it and that gets me really insecure. And no matter how I struggle to try to understand this subjetcs, I’m always a step backward even from people that are regular at these subjetcs. At least, that’s how I feel it is. Now I ask you guys opinion about it, because you’re the ones that know these genres so well and I’m just yet crawling at it, trying to figure it out all of this.

    Obs: sorry if I sound repetitive or spelled something wrong, English is not my main language.

  5. @ M.S

    I’m sure Howard will answer this better than I can, but I sort of felt you might want more than one voice to chime in.

    There are absolutely many roads to take when it comes to writing good stories. Having a deep love for a genre and reading are perhaps the only things that are essential, and it sounds like you have those already.

    It may seem like other people are far out ahead of you, but remember that it took them a long time to get there. Some writers are not successful until their 40s or 50s or later. Writing is a long, slow process of improvement. It’s alright to feel that you don’t have skills in the right places: you just need to pay attention to craft and allow yourself to enjoy the writing itself.

    Also, keep in mind that not everyone produces fantasy quite the same way that intricate world-builders like Brandon or Patrick do. Older examples of more fluid writers are people like Lord Dunsany, but there are modern examples too. Jonathan Carroll jumps to mind, and I think Charles de Lint is more of a fluid, humanist writer than a world-builder. I’d even throw Neil Gaiman into that category. You are in good company.

    And not everyone writes science fiction that relies heavily on the hard sciences. Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula Le Guin all wrote (or still write in the case of Le Guin) science fiction that is spun out from the humanities far more than from hard science.

    However, if in the end you still feel that you don’t know enough about the intricacies of the world, then perhaps the best advice is to go out into the world and live and get to know it more. Travel. Read good non-fiction. Spend time doing things you wouldn’t usually do. Eventually you’ll find the stories that only you can write, because only you have the experiences of being you, and that is where you’ll find your place with writing.

    Hope that helps a bit :)


  6. @M.S
    I understand how you feel. All of the current top authors out there are, like, complete geniuses compared to me. I’m not much of a professional, but my advice would be to just start with where you’re at right now and roll with it. You say you’re strong points are the human sciences. I would argue that’s the most important science in regards to writing novels, because magic and science are all great, but at the core of every story are great characters. The more you understand humans, the better you can write them. So don’t worry too much if you’re not the best at math. There’s a great episode on this podcast called “Hijacking the Knowledge you Already Have”. I would recommend you give that a listen.
    But like these guys are always saying, the best writing advice that can be given is this: write. Write what you love. If you really want to become good at physics and all of that, study those things as best you can, but never stop writing if that’s what’s in your heart. Anyway, that’s all I got.
    Oh and your English is great! My parents both speak English as a second language, and you write better than they do haha.

  7. I loved this week’s writing exercise. I learned so much doing it. What a blast. Thanks, Mary and Writing Excuses team.

    M.S – The good thing about writing is that you choose your own story. If you don’t want it to rely on science, then don’t base your endings on an understanding of the underlying science and you’ll be fine. It’s more important for writers to understand people, how they react to others and their motivations, than it is to understand science. Science can be completely irrelevant in your story. If you want you can even write a stories based on a completely invented science, that’s what many magic systems are. It’s not about science, it’s about being consistent.
    Most writers get insecure at times. Stop comparing yourself to others. We all started at different times, with different skill sets and motivations; therefore, comparison is meaningless. You can’t compare an acorn to an old oak. You’re stories may have a place completely independent of all others. Push your fears aside and write.

  8. “Help!” he screamed, as he sank under the waves.
    “Help!” she said, as her heel caught in the grating.
    “Help!” the alien whistled, as the pekinese barked at it.

    And as the dialogue continues, you can read the transcript of the frolicking foursome talking about how to make talk work in context. Available now in the archives, or over here:


    Don’t worry, someone pulled the leash on the dog and made it quit terrifying the alien.

  9. @ C.P. Johnstone @ JDBalance @ Dougan Thanks for all your wonderful answers and support. It really helped to clear it out. I’ll do my best to find the right path towards my writing and world-building style, working to reforce my strong points and to improve the lowers.

    And thanks, JD :) ! My main language is actually Portuguese (I’m from Brazil), but I study English at school since I was a little kid.

  10. @M.S No problem!
    My parents are from Ecuador, so they speak Spanish. My best friend is actually heading over to Salvador, Brazil for a couple years to perform service.
    Anyway, good luck on your writing endeavors!

  11. @JDBalance Wow, that’s exactly my city – and I love it so much! Good luck for him in his trip. Make sure he ate “acarajé” (a typical plate down here, unforgetable) and bring to you “fitas do Bonfim”. Maybe a Jorge Amado’s novel translated to portuguese too, is a wonderful writer of the 19th, very inspirational to my writings, even not being a official fantasy writer, he has much of mystical and mythological in it. A great material for research.

    Anyway, good luck on your writings too, or “boa sorte na sua escrita”! :)

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