on writing dialog


I have (pretty literally) just gotten back from the South Carolina Writers Workshop, where I taught some writing seminars this weekend. One of my classes was on writing dialog, and I’m going to…well. Not so much ‘modify my notes for Magical Words consumption’ as ‘cut and paste my notes for Magical Words consumption’, because I haven’t got nearly enough brain today to make this any tidier or more web-format-friendly than it is. 🙂 It’s kind of long, so I’ll just drop it all behind a cut.

Catie’s Thoughts On Dialog follow:


There are constraints on fiction that real life doesn’t have to hold to: fiction, for example, has to make sense. Wild coincidences have to be explained, whereas in real life, coincidences happen all the time, without apology or rationality.

Dialog in prose is a great deal like that, really: it has to sound real, without actually being real. The truth is that if we record ourselves holding a conversation, there are an appalling number of half-finished sentences, our speech is littered with “Um” and “well” and “but-but-but”. We’re half incomprehensible, left to ourselves; it’s amazing we can communicate at all. But we all know we do that, right? That we use filler words, um and uh and well, pretty constantly. It’s a natural assumption to believe that if our writing reflects those vocal idiosyncracies, that it’s going to sound authentic.

Unfortunately, it’s not at all true. Writing dialog that sounds like we actually speak comes across as awkward at the very best, because we sound awkward when our speech patterns are analyzed from an even slightly remote point of view. Are any of you familiar with David Mamet?

Mamet, for those who aren’t familiar with him, is a playwright whose thing, his gig, is writing natural speech. I think people essentially either love or hate Mamet; I personally find his plays excrutiating to watch, because to my ear the language is so incredibly inept. It’s unquestionably how we really speak, but listening to lines scripted that way sets me on edge.

However, having said that, I’d hugely recommend actually watching one of his plays–several have been made into films, including one that Steve Martin starred in several years ago, called The Spanish Prisoner. I think very probably every writer should watch at least some Mamet–and it’s more important to watch than to read, because watching and hearing those deliberately scripted lines really helps the ear to understand how we talk, and how inept it is. It’s an object lesson in how not to write dialog.

(Yeah, it’s worked for Mamet, but the problem is that once one person makes a name with that kind of dialog scripting, for the rest of eternity anybody else who tries it is going to be referred to as “Mamet-esque”. You kinda can’t win.)

Generally, what we as writers want to do is write dialog that mimics reality. We want to actually impart information, to show emotion, and to do it in a way that tricks the reader into accepting it as natural speech. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to do this.

– Dialect: a useful and dangerous tool.

Listen to people. Listen to young people, to old people, to immigrants, to attornies and to surfer boys. Listen to word choice and sentence cadence. Strip away the filler words–“um” and “oh” and “well”, and pay attention to the rhythm of their speech. It’s all going to sound different: a 75 year old man is not going to sound like a 17 year old girl, and an upper crust British woman isn’t going to sound like a New York stock broker.

Go to Starbucks and just sit and listen. Go to Starbucks in every city you can visit, and just sit and listen. Write down phrases that catch your ear. Study how people speak. You’re going to have to strip a lot of it away when you use it in your actual writing, but listening will always help you develop an ear for dialog.

A few years ago I saw an interview with Ben Kingsley, who is of Indian heritage, but he changed his name from a quite traditional Indian name to a recognizeably English one so he could get work as an actor. Quite some time after that, he was cast as Ghandi in the Richard Atwood film, and he said the response from the Indian government and people was, “Who is this English man, this Ben Kingsley, who is playing our beloved Mahatma Ghandi?”

The thing is, when he related this story, he said that sentence with an Indian accent. It’s a stereotype–and there was an Indian kid in the audience who didn’t think it was at all funny–but it’s also true that a well-educated Indian who has learned English as a second language has a certain cadence to his sentence structure.

It’s almost impossible to get that down phonetically. It’s easier to evoke Texas by having a character say “Y’all” than it is to invoke India with dialog alone. As a writer, what you’re reaching for in trying to capture an Indian accent is the way all the words are spoken: the breaks between words and phrases shown by punctuation, and you may be counting, a little, on the reader being familiar with the Indian accent.

An American asking that same question might say, “Ben King–who’s Ben Kingsley, and why’s he playing Ghandi?” or even just, “Who is this guy?” It’s a completely different sentence structure.

You can do this with nearly any language or dialect. It takes work. You’ve got to develop a fundamental grasp of the differences in sentence structure, or–another example: we all know Russian accents, right? We know that it is heavy sound, is round words in your mouth. And we know if you are Russian and you are speaking English, there are words you drop, words you add: you say, “I am thinking that we should do this,” not “I think we should do this.”

These changes have to do with the speaker’s original language. I’ve been living in Ireland the past three years, and it’s grand fun listening to the way they use words. Order a piece of apple pie, and they’ll say, “Will I be heatin it up for ye?”; twist a kid’s arm, and he cries, “It’s me arm yer breakin’!” One that I cannot quite get the cadence of is a filler word that they put at the *end* of sentences: “so”, so the sentence is something like, “I’m after visitin’ me mother so.”

All of those idiosyncracies are born from the fact that the Irish version of English is basically structured on Irish-language sentence structure. They don’t have a word for “yes” or “no” in Irish, so if you say, “Are you going to the store,” the answer is almost always, “I am,” or “I am not.” Now, as a writer, you don’t have to know the base languages. You just need to learn to listen for the differences in how a sentence is put together, and then learn to apply it in your writing. You can do the same thing with American regional accents, from Southern accents to upper peninsula Michigan, to California golden boys and to New York City socialites.

Here’s where it gets dangerous: over-using dialect. Sometimes as a writer, you’re going to want to spell out the phoenetic sound of the words used when it’s a different accent. Done sparingly, that can work really well. It can remind a Pacific Northwest reader that the story is set in Atlanta, or set in the highlands of Scotland. But I really truly believe it should be done *sparingly*: I’ve read stories in which all the dialog was dialect, and…okay, “read” is an overstatement, because I couldn’t get through them. It’s easy to do too much. Dialect, particularly if you’re writing out the sound of an accent, should be a spice, not the flavor.

– Punctuation

I cannot emphasize enough how important punctuation is in dialog. Actually, in general, but since we’re talking about dialog… 🙂 I could do an entire class on punctuation alone, but that’s not what we’re doing here. I’d mostly like to say that if you have even the slighest suspicion that you might not be absolutely solid on the rules of punctuation, please consider taking an English 101 writing class, either at a local college or online, in order to study that.

The thing about punctuation is that–for example, a really simple sentence that’s frequently mis-punctuated: “No, you don’t.” The comma is often left out. Once in a while I know there’s an argument for not putting it there: the speaker is saying “Noyoudon’t” as essentially one flat, rapid phrase. But properly punctuated, it’s No comma you don’t, because the emphasis is equal on both sides of the comma. It doesn’t matter if I understand that the phrase is meant to be rushed: noyoudon’t. Every time I see it without the comma, it tweaks as wrong. You just don’t want an editor running up against that kind of mental block when she’s reading your writing. Learn punctuation. It’s worth it.

– Dialog tags

Dialog tags are a bugbear for most writers. I want to tell you what may be the most important thing I tell you in this class:

“Said” is an invisible word. Like “the” and “and”, readers do not notice “said”. This means that 90% of the time, if “said” will do as the dialog tag, then “said” is the word you *should* use. The reader will notice if you use “stated” or “declared” or “observed” or “noted”, and again, 90% of the time, you don’t want the reader to be noticing those words.

A story along those lines: a writer of whom I was quite fond put out a new book a while ago, something co-authored with another writer. It had an introduction, in which it mentioned that the author’s idiosyncracies had been kept intact, including the fact that he never used the word “said” when another word would do.

Now, I’d read about fifteen books by this guy. I’d noticed that he often used other words when “said” would do, and I found it vaguely annoying. I had not noticed that he *always* used another word if it was at all possible.

Having had it pointed out to me, I was so distracted and annoyed by it that I got maybe forty pages into the book and put it down and not only never picked it up again, but will never pick any of that writer’s books up again.

This is not the end result you’re after. 🙂

This isn’t to say you can’t use other words to great effect. Just bear in mind, as writers, that ‘said’ will essentially never offend.

Here, though, is the problem people have with said:

“Hey,” Jenny said.

“Oh, hi, how are you?” Billy asked.

Jenny said, “Oh, I’m okay, how are you?”

“I’m fine,” said Billy. “I heard Tommy is playing in the game tonight.”

“Oh!” Jenny said. “I didn’t know that. Are you going?”

Billy said, “I am. Do you want me to pick you up?”

That’s six lines. I managed to use “said” five times. It actually still remains pretty invisible, but this might be a more effective way to write that same scene:

Jenny hitched herself up onto the low brick wall in front of the school, knocking her shoulder against Billy’s as she did so. “Hey.”

Billy grunted and scooted over half an inch. “Hey there. How’re you?”

“Okay, I guess.” Kids poured out of the school behind them, scattering toward cars and buses and after-school sports practice. Jenny watched for Tommy Smith, whose bright blond hair and height made him easy to pick out of the crowd. Sitting on the brick wall helped, too, not that she’d climbed up there just to get a better vantage point.

Billy followed Jenny’s gaze across the teeming schoolyard, twisting a smile when he, too, saw Tommy Smith in the crowd. “I heard Tommy’s playing in the game tonight.”

Jenny’s face turned hot pink under her scattering of freckles. “Is he?” she asked, trying to sound uninterested. “Are you going?”

Billy turned his crooked smile at his feet. Jenny Doyle was his best friend, and sometimes it seemed like she didn’t know he was alive. “Yeah.” He sighed, accepted the inevitable, and added, “Want me to pick you up?”

So. Why’s that better?

– One thing at a time:

One of the things we do in reall ife is let conversations flow back and forth over each other. In prose, you almost always have to keep your dialog to one topic at a time. What works for our ears doesn’t necessarily work for our eyes. In dialog, a conversation can flow from one topic to a second to a third and then back to the first, but most of the time you don’t want to have all three threads going on at once. If you can pull it off as a writer, more power to you, but even so, don’t overdo it.

– “As you know, Bob”

Dialog is often used as an “As you know, Bob”. What that means is Scotty suddenly stands up and begins lecturing to Engineer Bob: “As you know, Bob, the dilithium crystals store energy which permits our warp engines to carry us beyond the spee of light. Without these engines and those crystals, we would be stuck in low Earth orbit, waving wistfully at the Vulcans as they zoomed by.”

Bob already knows this. If the reader needs to know it, then the last way you should want to inform the reader is by having Scotty tell Bob something he already knows. It’s far better to have an action scene where the dilithium crystals are suddenly drained and the Enterprise drops out of warp, thus *showing* us the crystals’ importance rather than telling us about them.

Virtually any time there’s an “As you know, Bob” or an information dump–and, in fact, whether it’s in dialog or in the text–as a writer you should want to have a look at that and see if you can’t work it into the story.


8 comments to on writing dialog

  • Thanks for the long and unedited post, Catie.

    My favorite person to do dialects is Terry Pratchett. He always (to me at least) gets it just right.

    If you haven’t yet, read his Wee Free Men novels for YA. They are a hoot, but most importabntly, they are meant to be read aloud. In that way, it shows that dialect done extremely well can draw your reader into the story. You find yourself not just reading “A Hat Full of Sky” but performing it.

  • HI

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this. I’ve found myself being called Mamet-esque because I’m interested in creating natural sounding speak, I’ve also found myself becoming increasingly aware of writers just copying the stuttery style of the dialogue. Great article, I’ll link to it.


  • Great stuff, Catie. Last year at SCWW I did a dialog workshop and hit many of the same points, particularly with respect to said-bookisms. I had my group do an exercise: write a scene/conversation between two people without using “said” “asked” “stated” or any other direct form of attribution. It was a challenge for the people in the workshop. I made myself do it at the same time as my “students”, and I found it challenging, too. But that little scene wound up being one of the best things I’ve ever written. I need to work it into a story.

  • “Great post, Catie, ” Faith declaimed.
    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

  • Christine

    Glad you made it home, Catie!

    I know myself and several others appreciated you being there. I got a lot out of your sessions, including this one, on dialogue. Put at ease one of the many things my brain distracts me with when writing. The whole ‘he said’ ‘she said’ thing was pounded into my head growing up and then sucked out again with using other words than ‘said’. And now I’ve learned I can get away with using nothing! *grins*

    And on a side note, I know Maggie, Stephanie and I all took away a great deal from your visualization session. I know some people in there were upset about the whole ‘don’t see pictures in my head’ thing, but honestly? It provided me with a whole new perspective (no pun intended!), and on how dependent one can be on the visual aspect of writing.

    Thanks again for sharing your time with us here in little ‘ole South Carolina!

  • Wendy

    Thanks for this! The dialect bit was so fascinating. The Ireland examples were really wonderful. 🙂

    You bring up another interesting topic with “invisible said.” My characters aren’t snarling and whining and gasping as they did when I was sixteen, but I find I still struggle with this.

    I notice, in your example, that you used “she asked, trying to sound interested.” Doesn’t this chop up sentences just as much as a not-so-invisible word? I certainly use this technique to avoid the snarling and what-not, but I guess I’m curious about what makes this ok, but not the other?
    (Beside the obvious that people can have a growly voice but do not really growl their sentences, and there’s always a better way to show that someone is cranky.) Any of the lovely writer types here can give me an opinion on this. I just haven’t come to a decision about it myself.

    Thanks again.

  • *laughs at Faith* Smartaleck. 🙂

    *waves at Christine*! I’m glad at least some people enjoyed that seminar–it’s a topic I love, anyway, though I think I probably should come up with more solidity if I want t try doing a seminar on it again. And it was great to meet you, anyway! 🙂

    Wendy, to be truthful, I probably wouldn’t have written “she said, trying to sound uninterested” in something I’d taken more than three minutes to write. It’s clunky and there are no doubt better ways of expressing her emotional response there, but it was really just a fast example I put together to show one way of avoiding most “said”isms. 🙂

  • Kia


    It was a pleasure to have met you at the SCWW.

    Thank you again for all of the valuable insight in your sessions. The visualization class was discussed long into our trip home on Sunday afternoon. You’ve made it impossible for me not to think about a potential reader who will only see the word tree and not the tree that I thought of as I wrote. Then again, most people will think of a different tree anyway, unless I describe clearly the fifteen-foot tall fir tree in my grandmother’s yard, which is the generic tree that always comes to my mind.

    I’ve added your blog to the oh-so-short list of blogs I read regularly. Thank you again.