Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

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!

Homework: 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.

Thing of the week: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, narrated by Simon Slater.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: The context — genre, setting, viewpoint, beats — can change the meaning and impact of dialogue. But we don’t want beats every line, either. Use beats to emphasize or to keep the reader in the scene. Mimicry, cliches, and pop culture references may cause stilted dialogue. Remember the motives of the character in this scene. Beware on-the-nose dialogue. Dialogue needs to be shaped by why the character is saying it, who they are talking to, and the function it serves for the author. Let each characters talk in their own way. People may talk in big blocks of dialogue, but that’s not how we write it on the page, usually. Put in the interruptions, put in the personalities, put in the beats.

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 38.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How Does Context Shape Dialogue?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] “And I’m Dan,” he said.
[Howard] Nakedly.
[Brandon] Eww. These are my couches.
[Dan] Not anymore.
[Mary] Oh, context.
[Brandon] All right. So, dialogue.
[Mary] It’s usually me that goes there.
[Brandon] Dialogue, dialogue. Well, Howard does…
[Mary] Okay.

[Brandon] Moving on. Dialogue. How do you write a good dialogue, Mary?
[Mary] Well, I’ll tell you.
[Dan] As you know…
[Mary] As you know!
[Dan] What is this, season three again?
[Mary] Can you tell this is the last episode we’re recording today?
[Howard] Except it’s not.
[Dan] One more after this.
[Mary] Okay. So…
[Brandon] Talk.

[Dan] We wanted to talk about context around dialogue, specifically. Dialogue is something that we talked about a lot, but the environment in which the words are said, the genre, can change the meaning. The emotions of the characters, even the setting, can change the impact that the dialogue will have. Even identical words said in an identical way will mean something different depending on where they’re being said and how.
[Mary] The exercise that we do in puppetry, and I make my writing students do it too, is called “What did you say?” The idea is that the body language that goes with that completely shapes the perception of how that is being said. While I can’t do the body language for our listening audience, the way that works on the page is if I say, “‘What did you say?’ The principal opened the drawer and put a paddle on the desk.” That’s a very different read than “‘What did you say?’ He leaned away from the speakers that were blaring punk rock music dialed to 11.” And “‘What did you say?’ He adjusted his hearing aid.” All of these completely change what “What did you say?” means.
[Brandon] Wow. Yeah. That really does. Sometimes I don’t think we as writers think about this quite enough. The issue is, we also don’t want to have a beat every line.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] This is a problem I see with my students.
[Howard] Unless you’re me.
[Brandon] Well, yes, unless you’re you. But with my students, a lot of times they’re trying to get dialogue right. What they’ll do is, they’ll “He walked to the door. Oh, what’s going on? She walked to the door with him. Oh, this is going on. They looked at the cars. Oh, this is…” Everything has some sort of an… The reason you don’t want to have that is that these things are important for context, but they’re going to distract you. Each one is a distraction from the context of the conversation.
[Mary] In puppetry, again, this is something we call head bobbing. You’ll see puppets where the head will move with every single syllable. It becomes muddy. With characters on the page, you have a limited set of facial expressions. So when you are giving constant information to the reader, they can no longer tell what’s important. With puppetry, what we do, and this is what I do with dialogue when I’m writing as well, is that I will pick one… What is the thing that I’m trying to underscore? I will use body language if there is an ambiguity or if I want to emphasize something. Otherwise I… In theory, the dialogue should be able to carry itself.
[Brandon] Now, I do like to use it to keep you in the scene, also. So every four or five lines, I like to make sure there’s something, to remind “Oh, wait, this is what they’re up to.”

[Brandon] I’m going to divert this topic a little bit. What do you think causes new writers to write stilted dialogue? Is there something you can diagnose that commonly they do, when you read this and you say, “This just feel stilted?”
[Howard] Mimicry where they don’t realize that they’re mimicking their influence.
[Brandon] Okay. What do you mean by that?
[Howard] You’re going to be sorry you said that…
[Brandon] Okay, using clichés.
[Howard] We’ve all heard that.
[Dan] Using clichés, and I would say, using a lot of pop-culture references. Which, when done well, we all like it and we go, “Great!” But done poorly, it’s worse than a cliché sometimes. It just rips you out of the story, or you go, “That feels really forced.”
[Brandon] I would say one of the big ones for me is new writers tend to forget the motives that their characters have in a particular scene of dialogue and focus instead on the goals of that scene of dialogue. Meaning, well, they need to have a conversation about this thing. Let’s make sure that they’re having a conflict, because I know there’s got to be a conflict. Suddenly you have characters acting outside their motives, and it feel stilted for that reason.
[Mary] Yeah. The other thing, which is actually where I thought you were about to go, is on-the-nose dialogue.
[Brandon] Yes. Oh, yes.
[Mary] Which is where the character says exactly the thing that they are thinking in exactly the way they are thinking it. They don’t have any subtext going on. Frequently, when we are having a conversation, there’s a lot of shared background. There’s also hidden motives and other things, which will affect the way we’re saying and why we’re saying it.
[Brandon] No, that’s perfect.
[Howard] Liner notes. If we go back and look at the Project-In-Depth for Parallel Perspectives, when I wrote the dialogue and handed it to the illustrators and then they illustrated the dialogue. I got it back and realized all my dialogue, if I use it as is, is on-the-nose which is bad. Now I have the opportunity to tell a whole new story and add subtext. It’s wonderful as a result. I think that thinking about it in that way, thinking about how the context can deliver that, opens things up for you.

[Mary] Yeah. So I think when you’re writing dialogue, there’s three pieces that you need potentially for… But three pieces to think about. One is why your character is saying it. What they are trying to achieve. Who they are addressing, because who you are addressing will change how you say things. Then the last one is what is the function that it is serving in the scene for you, the author. That dialogue is a combination of all those things. Which does not necessarily help you write less stilted dialogue.
[Mary] The other thing that I see with stilted dialogue is sentence structure that is all very much the same. This is, again, for me, a context thing. When we’re looking at dialogue is that the way you say things will depend on who you are talking to and where you’re from. Like when I’m talking to my parents… My family is from the South, and I don’t take on a Southern accent. But the way I say things changes.
[Brandon] Right. You use Miss Emily and things like this.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Because…
[Brandon] With my wife. Which is totally bizarre to a Westerner. She’s not a Miss, she’s a Mrs.
[Mary] But Miss Emily… Instead of saying I’m going to the store, I’ll say I’m going to go on over to the store. I don’t know what those extra words are doing there, but they have to be there.
[Mary] So one of the things that I also have my students do with the “What did you say?” exercise is that I will have them write it… This is not your homework assignment, but go ahead and give this one a try. Write down What did you say? But give it to me so that I can tell that someone else is saying it. So let me hear a British person say it. Change the intention of how it’s being said. If I want to make it very clear that the reason this is being said is because someone couldn’t hear, then…
[Brandon] Have I told you guys my favorite making-someone-speak-British?
[Mary] No. No.
[Brandon] I just started using the British spelling. Oh, it was so much fun to write their dialogue with extraneous u’s and things like this. It’s one of those things you look at the page and you don’t even notice it. But it was so much fun as a writer to be using the British…
[Howard] That’s hilarious. I wish that I had… That I could set up a camera and let you guys watch me draw faces under the dialogue…
[Brandon] We do that every day. You don’t know about that?
[Dan] He hasn’t found the camera yet.
[Howard] The dialogue I’ve written… Plot twist.
[Mary] I’ll just tell Sandra to move it.
[Howard] The… I will very often draw the face of someone who is saying a line of dialogue and realize, “That’s not the right facial expression. That doesn’t mean what I wrote.” I’ll change it. Sometimes I will accidentally create something that is working at cross purposes, and I will discover that this strip is way better than I thought it was because I’ve created a new context for this line.
[Mary] Yeah. Sometimes, also the context is the way… So it’s not just my character and what my point of view character is thinking, but also how my point of view character reacts to what is said to them. Like I recently had a conversation with a family member who is from the South. I was telling a friend, it’s like, “So basically, they begged me to come.” They said, “Really? They begged?” I said, “Well, what she actually did was she stated that this event was happening.” When I said, “Oh, I could probably come home,” she said, “That would be great,” instead of “Oh, you don’t really have to readjust your schedule.” I’m like…
[Brandon] Better be there.
[Howard] Yup.
[Mary] That was a demand in that context.
[Brandon] But here, that would not be a demand.
[Mary] No. Here that would just be, “Oh, that’s a thing.”
[Brandon] Right. I was actually told when I was going over to… I just got back from Abu Dhabi. Someone told me to be careful about stating a desire for something, because they will take that as a request for this thing, and their hospitality is called into question if they can’t provide it for you. Really interesting.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Dan? You’re going to talk about Wolf Hall?
[Dan] Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Kind of in the news right now. PBS Masterpiece is doing a miniseries of it. It is the first book in a series about Thomas Cromwell. Kind of showing the other side of the Man for All Seasons story about Thomas Moore. I’m currently reading the second book, which is called Bringing up the Bodies, which I like even more. But start with Wolf Hall, because it’s incredible. One of the great things about it, in terms of context, is that the writing in it is so spare. It’s very beautifully written, but it’s very different. It’s not the way you’re used to getting narration or dialogue. The dialogue in particular, you don’t always get a lot of cues as to who’s saying what, and you have to pick that up from the context. They speak in very veiled terms. It is a primarily political novel about Henry VIII and all of his various machinations and things with the Church of England. So the characters in the story can’t always come right out and say what they mean, because they’ll be killed for it. So they have to speak in doubletalk, they have to imply a lot of things. It’s really just beautiful to read through. Once you get into the rhythm of it, you just kind of flow along and see all these incredible ways she is using the context to add meaning to what is, at the end of the day, very, very spare dialogue.
[Brandon] Excellent. Howard…
[Dan] And very cool stuff. So. It is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It is read by Simon Slater. You can get it for free on if you start a 30 day trial membership.

[Brandon] Fantastic. Now, one of the things I notice with my students is they like to put big blocks of dialogue. Huge, big long paragraphs. Sometimes those are appropriate. Sometimes I feel like it’s really ruining the scene. Yet if you actually listen to people, we tend to speak in big blocks of dialogue. So I’ll go to the students and say, “You really ought to chop these up,” and they’re like, “But this feels real to me.” How much do you guys try… How do you balance this idea between what’s going to look good on the page and read well versus what’s actually realistic?
[Mary] So for me, one of the things that… About the reason that big chunks of dialogue look…
[Brandon] Intimidating.
[Mary] Inti… Not intimidating. Look like a monologue on the page, while in an actual conversation with people, they are a dialogue, is that there’s a lot of nonverbal cues that are going on.
[Brandon] Or even little verbal ones, like I just gave.
[Mary] Exactly. So those… Putting those little insertions in, can help it feel more natural. That just dropping in the other character asking the question or having a moment of surprise can make it feel more organic, like a conversation that you would have in a room. But there are times when you do want a character to monologue. So I think that it’s… One of the things that you’re looking at when you’re trying to make those decisions is, going back to our conversations about pacing… Is one of the characters dominating right now? Or is… If you have something where there’s not a lot of punctuation and the character is just doing this big spew of excited energy, that’s going to read very differently than someone who just [inaudible].
[Brandon] When I’m going to write these, and I know I’ve got a big… If the character’s going to be talking for the main… For the whole page, I start to make sure… Or I naturally start to have them speak more colloquially.
[Mary] Interesting.
[Brandon] Meaning they’re like, “So you know how it feels when this goes on…” Where I normally wouldn’t have them… I’d say, “I felt like this,” or not too on-the-nose like that, but… When you’re putting that in, it’s the character starting to ask for this. Which makes it feel more natural, like the dialogue you read before, so that even when those nonverbal cues aren’t being put in as beats, you’re imagining them. Because the main character’s started… Or the narrating character started speaking colloquially.
[Dan] Exactly. If it feels like or… If it feels like a wall of text, then that’s going to hurt. Whereas the more amount of personality you can put into it, then it doesn’t feel like a person standing in the middle of a stage and just speaking to the audience.
[Howard] Just this morning, I inked a scene in which Capt. Tagon is telling a story. He’s telling the story with gestures. I’m actually showing a new side of him, which is him telling a story that the reader of previous books will be familiar with. One of the listeners… He says something, the very first where he complains about the little girl who is in charge of the ship and there is nothing I could do about it. One of his listeners is female. And her… She says, “I hate it when that happens.” But the way I drew her, she went from standing in a very natural opposed to standing with her arms folded and sort of a scowly, lidded expression. So the reader can see, “Oh. She’s… She’s not really participating in the conversation Tagon thinks she is.” He does not miss a beat. He just keeps on going with the story, which in terms of subtext, has now given us insight into these two characters, which is going to let me do fun things that I haven’t written yet so I should probably stop talking.

[Brandon] Yeah. But this is great. Actually, I thought of Dan’s first-person novels. I mean, first-person is basically a long story, but it works because you add all of these nuances into the way the character’s speaking and how they’re interacting. That needs to be in your dialogue when you’re not in a first-person narrative, you need to have all of that. All of that fun and character and personality coming through in the way that people speak.
[Mary] Yeah. It really, for me, always gets back to motivation. It’s like the number of times that I read a line and I’m like, “Why would anyone say that?” You have to know how the other person is going to respond. Sometimes… This is commentary about our tribe. Sometimes, I have noticed, some writers getting annoyed with other people in real conversation, and I think it’s because they expect people to be able to follow that script.
[Brandon] Yup. I do have to say, it’s been a lot of fun writing the Reckoners stories, which are first-person. Because one of the characters is really bad with metaphors and similes. That dialogue… It makes the dialogue so much more fun to have something linguistically that can make this character stand out. That’s one of the things that I look for, is how is each character going to stand out linguistically in the way that they speak? Because we all do it.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Dan] You can always tell when someone is doing that poorly. I want to mention, as much as I loved the second Avengers movie, a lot of those characters just sound like they’re the same person.
[Brandon] Yeah. They’re all Joss Whedon writing snappy dialogue.
[Dan] Ultron, in particular, who should be the menacing bad guy, sounds like everyone else. It’s just Xander, it’s just Tony Starke.
[Brandon] That was actually a great movie, by the way. Great movie. But that was my least favorite part of it, was that Ultron sounded like everybody else. In my… The first movie, some of my least favorite parts were where Black Widow sounds like everyone else. The wonderful line where she’s like, “That doesn’t sound like a party.” When it’s like, “I’m bringing the party to you.” That’s not something she would say. I don’t… I haven’t… She’s not that dense. She doesn’t fail to get a metaphor. She’s not that guy in Guardians of the Galaxy that’s trying to grab things that go over his head. Anyway…

[Brandon] We’re totally out of time. This is a fun, fun topic. To go with it, we actually have what I think is one of the best writing exercises we’ve come up with for this Masters’ Course. Mary’s going to take you through it.
[Mary] Okay. This one is a three-parter. You do not have to do all three parts. But, if you want to, get ready. So we’re going to have, on the website, a transcript of something that we call in theater an AB scene. An AB scene is just… Basically it’s a script with no character descriptions, no names, nothing. Just dialogue from a character A and a character B. What I want you to do is, I want you to give us context around that. You’re going to shape the dialogue. You can’t change the dialogue. But you will shape the dialogue by changing the description around it. So I want you to do this, and I’m going to have complete detailed instructions on the site. But basically what you’re going to do is, you’re going to take the AB scene and the first time, you’re going to write it in one genre. Then, you’re going to do it again, and you’re going to change it to a completely different genre. Then,… With like different characters, same dialogue, though. Then you’re going to take the one that you like better. So this is pass 2. In your second pass, what you’re going to do is you’re going to take the one of the genre that you like better, and you’re going to flip it to the other character’s point of view, because again, that’s going to change the context and the way those lines of dialogue are being perceived. You have to make everything make sense. Then you’re going to flip it one more time. That last pass is, you’re going to take the dialogue that’s already there and you’re going to remove all of it and replace it with completely different dialogue, but leave the context the same. So, as I say, I’m going to have full instructions up on the website. The AB scene is there. It will drive you a little bit crazy, but it’s really worth it for getting a hang on this.
[Dan] At the risk of lengthening the episode, I had a chance to do that with the new John Cleaver book. Because there’s the book, and then the novella from a different character’s point of view. In one scene, I had to keep exactly, like you are talking, all the dialogue is exactly the same but we’re getting a different character’s perspective on it. You’re right, I learned so much about how dialogue works by doing that.
[Brandon] There’s a short film competition that does this. They get an AB scene, and then film a scene. The best one I’ve seen from one of these is one called Room Eight. I would go watch that. Then you can go watch all of the others, which are still all very good, that use the exact same dialogue, and how different each of the films are. Fantastic.
[Mary] Yeah. It’s a great acting exercise. They actually had us do that at the Sesame Street workshop, too. So we were doing that with puppets.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.