W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

No 22. Writing Dialogue


Riding on the bus from the Cornavin Train Station to the UN building in Geneva takes ten minutes. Two American young women sat near me. I knew they were American because their sentences were peppered with "like" and "you know." I started counting when we were at the main Post Office, half way. In five minutes they used the two phrases over 200 times.

"Like, you know, he called and like he said, like do you want like to do something you know?"

"Like what did ya say."

"Like I told him, you know, like…" and on and on and on.

Besides wanting to strangle them to get the story out without all the "likes" and "you knows" it reinforced the point that we can't merely copy real dialogue. We need to write dialogue realistically - a dilemma at best. (I admit to being an eavesdropper and have no desire to reform. It's a great way to get story ideas.)

For example the following conversation must be repeated millions of times each day, but makes boring reading.

"Hello," she said.

"Hello," he said.

How are you," she said.

"Fine," he said.

One of the reason dialogues like this fails is because it doesn't serve one of its primary purposes, which is to move the plot forward.

Many novices make the mistake of putting in too much information that the other speaker knows.

"You know, Sis, our Auntie Helen who lives next door at 113 Embury Avenue, and is married to our Uncle Ed, and works at the same supermarket as you do, is coming for dinner."

Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but I've seen things close to that in the first efforts from my creative writing students.

Information should be imparted, but it has to be based on information the other speaker doesn't know. The same information given is more believable if done this way.

"Hey, Sis. Auntie Helen is coming to dinner. Did she say anything to you at work?"

"Didn't talk to her. When I went on break, she took over at the cash register. The store was mobbed today," she said. "Uncle Ed coming, too?"

"Don't know. Run next door and ask."

At least we know that Sis and Auntie Helen work together, Auntie is coming to dinner, she's married to Uncle Ed and they live next door. The rest of the information can be imparted in background information if it is necessary.

Dialogue can also be used to show character. People can be assigned speech mannerisms like the word "like" if it is not overdone. Gs' can be dropped, a man can talk down to a women by calling all of them sweetie, etc.

A character's educational level can be shown by the vocabulary used. A high school drop out might not use six-syllable words. A pretentious college professor would. However, if we use too convoluted language for the professor we'll lose our readers.

What people say can contradict their actions.

"I love you," he said right before he hit her.

Dialogue can also show accents, but caution is necessary. Too much can be hard to read. Consider this example of the Bostonian accent.

"I flunked out of Hahvahd, but Bawston College accepted me. That was too hahd for me, too."

A single sentence might work or wohk, but imagine reading that for 250 pages.

Dialect can be shown. While in Boston I was buying a camera for a friend, who wanted to take advantage of cheap US prices. The clerk waiting on me was from Russia. Later the same day watching a skating show, several Russian skaters were interviewed. I noticed none used articles in their speech. Likewise the English don't use the article the in front of the words hospital and university. They go to university, and are rushed to hospital. And if your character is a Scot, an occasional "wee" would not be out of place. Irish people sometimes refer to family with the word our.

"Our Maria will be late getting home."

If characters speak foreign languages sprinkling the foreign phrases is sufficient. Peter Mayle in his books does well in showing foreign language usage. A good trick is to use a foreign phrase and then explain it in the dialogue such as:

"C'est vrai?" Jean-François looked doubtful.

"It's true," Marie-Claude said.

Many new writers vary the appellation: she said, asked, replied, demanded, cried, smiled, grinned, screamed, whispered, etc. This marks the writer as an amateur. Use said or asked almost exclusively. An occasional whisper or screamed might be acceptable only in extreme situations. You want the reader to easily identify the speaker but you want the appellation to be invisible to the reader. Some writers avoid appellations as much as they can.

A way to get around it is to ascribe an action to the speaker.

"I won't go." Amy folded her arms across her chest.

"Oh, yes you will," Her mother grabbed her hair and pulled her.

If you want to check how your dialogue sounds, read it into a tape recorder and listen. Or have friends read it aloud. If anyone stumbles that is clue the dialogue doesn't work. Also what doesn't sound right becomes clear.

A quick word on punctuation based on manuscripts I've reviewed from new writers. (Experienced writers, please humor me). The correct formats are:

"I love you," he said. Quote mark-speech-comma-quote marks-lower case on a pronoun appellation-said-period (or full stop).

"You love me?" she asked. Quote mark-speech-question mark-quote marks-lower case on a pronoun appellation-period (or full stop).

Americans tend to use " marks and the United Kingdom uses '. Likewise quotes within quotes are reversed.

American: "I heard Aiden say, 'No way am I going,' and then he laughed, that laugh," she said.

English: 'I heard Aiden say, "No way am I going," and then he laughed, that laugh,' she said.

How you do quotations depends on which market you are preparing your manuscript for.


Example 1

This sample is from THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro and is an excellent example of moving the plot forward. The butler Mr. Stevens, does not want to leave his duties. The housekeeper conveys the gravity of the situation in print. The hesitancy of the butler shows his character. He puts his job before his father. The relationship between the housekeeper and the butler is shown because it reveals what she did for the father and she is not about to accept no for an answer but calmly keeps adding information to convince the butler that he really cannot wait any longer.

'Your father has become ill, Mr. Stevens,' she said. "I've called for Dr. Meridith, but I understand that he may be a little delayed.'

I must have looked confused, for Miss Kenton then said: 'Mr. Stevens, he really is in a poor state. You had better come and see him.'

'I only have a moment. The gentlemen are liable to retire to the smoking room at any moment.'

'Of course. But you must come now, Mr. Stevens, or else you may deeply regret it later.'

Example 2

Jane Smiley in MOO doesn't use appellations in this sample. There is little doubt who is speaking. She does use ellipses and contractions. Notice the punctuation.

Marly, who had finished her shift after lunch and gone home without passing Lafayette Hall, was just waking up from a long nap when Nils called her from the emergency room at the hospital. She looked at her watch as she answered. It was nearly seven and she had slept through Father's suppertime. Where was Father anyway? She picked up the phone on the fourth ring after calling out. "Father" Father? You here? and receiving no answer. Rooms were dark.

"…pick me up because Ivar is all involved with the police," said Nils.

"What are you talking about?"

"Well, my dear, you'll be happy to know that my injuries seem to be very slight, although I am sure that there will be neck problems later on. And I am going to press charges against that little mat -"

"Nils, I've been asleep, so I really don't know what you are talking about."

Example 3

This sample is from TRUFFLED FEATHERS, a mystery by Nancy Fairbanks and shows how incorrect speech can be used. A waitress is speaking.

"You'd have to ask the cops. They didn' tell us. Ask a hunderd questions, don' answer none."

Later the waitress says…

"Well, it's not like people don't get offed in Jersey, too. Ma's got MS. She thinks someone's gonna break in an' tip over her wheelchair. Like anyone would think she's got anything worth stealin'."


  1. Eavesdrop on a conversation somewhere and try and transcribe it as accurately as possible. What are the speech mannerisms? Can you guess the social status and/or educational level of the speakers?" Rewrite it to a meaningful dialogue. (Don't get caught listening)
  2. Go to a movie or watch a DVD and listen closely to a dialogue between two characters in a single scene. Play it over and over. How is information given to the listener in dialogue? Unlike in prose, the background information is shown. Now go back and see what information you get from the set, the facial expressions, etc.



An earlier W3 wrote about naming characters. Netscape has just reported the 20 most popular names for babies born in America during 2003. They are really different than names chosen even five years ago. As we said in an earlier edition we need to select names that are appropriate for the birthplace and birth date of the character.

20 Most popular boys names.
Aidan/Aiden/Aden (could this be because of SEX AND THE CITY?), Jaden/Jayden, Caden/Kaden, Ethan, Caleb, Dylan, Jacob, Jordan, Logan, Hayden, Connor, Ryan, Morgan, Cameron, Andrew, Joshua, Noah, Matthew, Addison, Ashton

20 Most popular girls' names:
Madison, Emma (did Rachel and Ross have anything to do with this?), Abigail, Riley, Chloe (Good thing I named the baby in my novel CHICKPEA LOVER NOT A COOKBOOK this), Hannah, Alexis, Isabella, Mackenzie, Taylor, Olivia, Hailey, Paige, Emily, Grace, Ava, Aaliyah, Alyssa, Faith, Brianna


As writers we are so concerned about getting the words right, but we seldom think of the units that make up words, units being letters. I came across a book I found fascinating called HOW 26 LETTERS SHAPED THE WESTERN WORLD ALPHABET by John Mann. I'll never take my vowels and consonants for granted again.


Q: Who is D-L NELSON?
A: D-L Nelson is an American who makes her living as a novelist and freelance journalist. Her fiction and poetry have been published in six countries. Her novel CHICKPEA LOVER (NOT A COOKBOOK) is in its second edition hardback and will appear in paperback this year. It will also be published in German and Russian this year depending on completion of translations. She divides her time between Geneva, Switzerland, Argelès-sur-mer, France and Boston, MA USA.

Q: Where do the ideas for topics come from?
A: The first few issues were topics that I taught in my creative writing class at Webster University in Geneva and in seminars. Over half of the topics have been suggested by readers. In two cases, I felt that other people would be better to write the theory part of the newsletter. Thus Larry Habegger, publisher of the popular travel anthologies Travelers Tales
www.travelerstales.com and Susan Tiberghien, author of LOOKING FOR GOLD, www.susantiberghien.com were guest writers.

Q: Why do you describe it as an "almost monthly" newsletter.
A: To give my self wiggle room in case my life goes out of control.

Q: Why do you do this?
A: I started writing in a vacuum. I could have learned my craft faster had I known some simple tricks. Eventually through writing seminars, my M.A. in creative writing at the University of Glamorgan in Wales, and the support of the Geneva Writers Group (GWG), I began making progress in my writing as well as learning the business side of writing. People were extremely generous to me and this is my giving back. And it's selfish. I feel happier with myself when I share.

Q: Can I put announcements in W3?
A: I am happy to include announcements about retreats, seminars, contests as well as print letters and comments, space permitting.


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