15.15: Dialog

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

Listener questions drove this episode, and there are only two of them but they were pretty good drivers.  Here they are:

  • Is it a problem that all my dialog ends up as logic-based debates between characters?
  • What can I do to create more variety in my dialog structure?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Joseph Meacham, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Remove all description. Now remove every 3rd line of dialog. Now rebuild the description replace with body language

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, by Natasha Pulley, narrated by Thomas Judd

5 thoughts on “15.15: Dialog”

  1. I tend to prefer using narration (deeply entrenched in character voice) rather than dialogue in my story. To the point I’ve written three straight chapters without any dialogue whatsoever. I try to balance this out with focusing on character emotions and sensations rather simply describing stuff. Using on average much shorter paragraphs to make it easier for the reader to read. Interjecting internal monologue frequently. Are there any glaring pitfalls to this approach?
    Thanks in advance for the help and keep up the good work, mate.

  2. I think one of my favorite dialog examples for having a physical/verbal goal in the same scene is the series Chuck that aired years ago. It’s almost the expected joke that the characters are talking about their non-spy, emotional/relationship lives in the middle of hopping through lasers or beating up bad guys, etc. But because of the tenor of the show being basically a rom-com, these scenes often added both good drama but also opened up many times for comedic moments (like sometimes the bad guy getting in on the conversation about their personal lives, or momentary slapstick, etc). I think the show actually did get a TV award for its choreography, but one thing that’s interesting is that a lot of their choreography is underscored with character dialog and moments.

  3. The conversational quartet, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, chewed over a couple of questions about dialog (a.k.a. dialogue). First, the problem of having all your dialog scenes turn into logical debates. Second, how can I get more variety in my dialogue scenes? Strategy, tricks, exercises, things to watch for, and things to try. The quartet had a very good talk, and you can read all about it in the transcript available in the archives.

  4. Thank you for answering mine! I guess I probably should have mentioned that I still try to have my characters’ logical debates be derived from their personal beliefs and that they can exhibit emotions while arguing, but even with that miscommunication on my part, this episode has been massively influential for how I will be thinking about dialog going forward.
    When Mary Robinette mentioned that there needs to be a physical goal in addition to the emotional goal…that is exactly my problem. I’ve always thought that my biggest weakness in writing was in how I tend to skimp on the details when establishing the setting (which, admittedly, does need work too), but actually it’s that my characters aren’t really desiring something that is in their environment. They just want to *know more*. Getting attached to physical things isn’t something I often find myself doing in real life, but it wasn’t until this episode that I could recognize how I subconsciously held back on providing earthly attachments to my characters too. It has been to their detriment. In that sense, Howard also had me pegged: I’ve been overemphasizing the conflict of ideas. I need to remember that, even though I so often desire only the immaterial , ideas aren’t the only thing a character wants–and they probably aren’t the only reward that my readers should have from me either.
    I am also grateful you guys tackled my followup question to explore different types of dialog scenes that I could consider trying in the future. I loved Howard’s observation that you could a scene where characters want to control a secret without actually getting into an argument about it. And while I’ve heard you guys talking about having multiple things going on in a scene, it somehow never occurred to me that the actions taken are subtext for the thing one character doesn’t want to talk about (thanks Brandon!). Dan’s observation that power imbalances between characters can have a bunch of possible effects on the dialog was also excellent and I will definitely have to do more active experimentation to bring that out of my work in the future. And lastly, I’m excited to do Mary Robinette’s homework since I’ll be able to see just how much I can do when I’m not just relying on the structure that I naturally stick to.
    Again, thank you everyone for such an amazing episode!

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