Writing Dialog, Part 1

(Original post: http://blogs.officezealot.com/spiller/archive/2005/09/05/7898.aspx)

I’ve been gone a long time because I’ve been working on my novel and a children’s book. The good news is that I’ve learned all sorts of interesting things from these exercises. For me, deeply entrenched in technical work, the hardest new hurdle was writing plausible dialog.


First, I wrote a few chapters, but I felt that not only did everyone sound like me, but there was a lot of extraneous yakking that might be better in descriptive paragraphs. Everybody sounding like me was okay in the children’s book, but it wasn’t so nice for the grown-up novel.


First, I didn’t know how much dialog was too much. For one thing, I noticed that when there wasn’t much dialog in my own work, I got a little bogged down in description. Sitting here from the perspective of being about half-way finished with my first draft, I’ve decided to leave the early stuff alone until the second draft. I needed the process of describing things while writing those early bits, and I can cut the extraneous description—or dialog—when I’m further from the writing in my second draft. The plot has changed since I first set out, so I will be doing some serious chopping anyway.


But how much dialog is enough and how much is too much? I got out some of my favorite books had a look. Remember, this is not a scientific study, just me flipping through a few books.


  • Gregory Maguire, author of “Wicked” and several other adult fiction books in addition to scores of children’s books, wrote a page of dialog opposite a page of narrative consistently throughout several books.
  • Doris Lessing wrote about three-quarters of a page of dialog for every two pages of narrative. Her science fiction has more dialog than her semi-auto-biographical work by about 20%.
  • Umberto Eco (in translation, of course) evolved. In “Foucault’s Pendulum,” he wrote pages and pages of narrative and then dropped in a half page of dialog. In “Name of the Rose,” it was about 50/50. “Baudolino” was about 60% dialog.
  • Stephen King has different styles for different styles. His longest work, The “Dark Tower” series, can have several pages of dialog before there is any narrative. He also writes entire chapters in narrative. In his slightly-spooky work, the ratio is more like 1:1. I’ve only read one of his seriously scary books, but it was too scary to keep on the shelves with my more timid books, so I don’t know how he treats dialog there.
  • John Irving writes about 1:1, but he might go three pages in narrative and then do three of dialog.
  • Sue Grafton writes pages of narrative and then pages of dialog. Her ratio might be about 5:3, with more dialog than narrative.
  • Anna Quindlin writes about 50/50.
  • Margaret Atwood provides dialog at about 60%.

I didn’t look at classics (of which I have many) nor at books that had a genre hugely different from what I was working on, so you’ll have to do your own experiments. Also, those authors whose names fall later in the alphabet than RO are inaccessibly stored behind my computer table, so I neglected some of my favorites like Amy Tan, Anne Tyler, Gore Vidal, and Irving Stone.


Okay, so what did I do with this bit of information? Nothing yet. There’s more research to do before I’m really ready to write dialog.


Back to the shelves I went, looking for textbook discussion.

  • Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter recommend using narrative for the obvious parts of a conversation. In other words, write “Alice and James greeted each other and then Alice said ‘Where’s the ticket?’…” rather than “Alice said, ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello,’ James said.” They also discourage writers from revealing the thoughts of a character using monolog and recommend allowing thoughts to be revealed through implication in conversation or narrative
  • Peter Lovesy talks about being eager for dialog when he was a child and continues to delight in what he calls “propless” dialog, without descriptions or even attributions for the speakers. He prefers the use of a simple “said” rather than anything more descriptive when he does use attributions, though.
  • Flannery O’Connor says the opposite. He reminds us to write enough narrative that our characters have shape and form, and to reserve dialog for revealing character. Writing fiction is not writing a stage play, he says.
  • Robie Macauley and George Lanning support Bernays and Painter in their attitude about limiting common exchanges. They are also proponents of editing heavily, leaving only the essential exchanges. I particularly liked how they described “said” as the onion in cooking. You need a lot of it, but too much is too much and it doesn’t have to be in every dish.
  • Stephen King said the same thing about “said” and overly attributing as did the others. He also mentioned that he scrupulously avoids “ly” words in his attributions because they are too self-conscious.  

All of these experts advise against the inclusion of “um” and “you know” and “I mean” because although most of us really talk like that, they make dialog sound banal.


Okay, so let’s do a little exercise, shall we? Let’s look at the dialog of two people having an argument.


“You can’t tell me that,” Peter growled, “without backing it up.”

“Oh yeah?” Fred pulled himself up to his full height, wielding his fist. “I can back it up with this!”


I’ll look at the punctuation in Part 2, so just ignore that for now. Just look at the shapes of the dialog itself. The first speaker could have just as easily said either of these things:


Peter growled, “You can’t tell me that without backing it up.”

“You can’t tell me that without backing it up,” Peter growled.


I chose to interrupt Peter’s speech with attribution and a mannerism because it makes the speech seem as if it didn’t all come out in a rush. In the example with the attribution first, the fact that he growled seems more important than the words he said. In the example with the attribution afterward, the attribution is unimportant—even distracting—if you realize that readers probably already knew that Peter and Fred were having a heated conversation.


Fred’s activities are described in the same style as Peter’s for the same reason. In the rest of the dialog, I have to be careful that every single speech doesn’t come out this way or it will seem trite in short order.


Describing Fred’s behavior eliminated the need for a “said” or something like growled or shouted, either of which would grow tiresome if the argument doesn’t get any more explicit sometime soon. Let’s look at Fred’s speech turned around:


Fred pulled himself up to his full height, wielding his fist. “Oh yeah? I can back it up with this!”

“Oh yeah? I can back it up with this!” Fred pulled himself up to his full height, wielding his fist.


In the first example, Fred wields his fist before we know how he will respond to Peter’s speech. That’s okay, but I think it takes a little of the drama out of the situation. If we imagine that Fred is much smaller than Peter, it also adds a touch of the ridiculous.


The same thing happens when we push the attributive action to the end: the drama is sucked out of it. But now that it’s set up, fists and words can fly for a while without any attribution at all. The irrationality of a physical fight can be illustrated by leaving the reader wondering who said what.


Let’s try another. How about a little young love?


“Dana,” Arnold said, blushing. “Would you go to the dance with me on Friday?”

Dana was shattered. She had hoped that Mark would ask her first. “Can I tell you later? I’m not sure my mother will let me go.”

“Um, sure. Take your time.” He watched Dana walk away before he fled into the chemistry classroom.


In the first sentence, I interrupted Arnold with attribution because I wanted Arnold to have said Dana’s name as a complete sentence. He’s trying to get her attention.


In the second sentence, I wanted Dana to pause before speaking for a reason. We have to learn the reason or her non-refusal is just mean. And now we know that she is lying but it is not clear whether her motivations are to protect Arnold or herself.


In the third sentence, where Arnold has to deal with his humiliation, I originally cited his actions as an attribution with an action (he said, and fled into the classroom), but I decided that it was stronger if I used narrative to make a pause while he processed information. I wanted Arnold to be shy but not stupid.


The trick is to impart more information than the simple exchange of words. How characters say things is important, as is where and to whom. In fact, you could run the whole journalist’s checklist on each passage of dialog and then run it again on the attribution or activity implying attribution. The journalist’s checklist is who, what, where, when, and how. You probably heard that in High School.


There’s more to write on this subject, but for now, I’ll just close with my list of sources for the textbook discussion. Most of these books never mentioned dialog, but I thought you’d be interested in a collection of fiction-writing books anyway.


“The Fiction Writer’s Silent Partner,” Martin Roth.

“On Writing,” Stephen King.

“Six Walks in the Fictional Woods,” Umberto Eco.

“Steering the Craft,” Ursula K. Le Guin.

“Successful Writing,” Maxine C. Hairston.

“Technique in Fiction,” Robie Macauley and George Lanning.

“What if? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers,” Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

“The Writer’s Handbook” 1992 Edition, edited by Sylvia K. Burack.

“Writers on Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini.

“Writing Down the Bones,” Natalie Goldberg


You can find these blogs, a little information about my editorial services and me, and a collection of pages about my “real” life on my Web site, www.MelanieSpiller.com.

Posted: September 5th, 2005, 12:39pm CEST by Melanie Spiller

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