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Writing Dialogue

14 December 2014

From author Rowena Macdonald via Glimmertrain:

Many writers say they find writing dialogue difficult, which I always find surprising, as, without wishing to sound self-aggrandizing, dialogue is the one aspect of writing I find easy. To me, it isn’t that impressive to find dialogue easy. After all, we are primarily verbal creatures, we are surrounded by conversation every day, and most of us spend more time watching films and TV than we do reading books. I am always far more impressed by writers who are able to craft complicated plots, for example, since this is an aspect of writing I find difficult. To my mind, plotting is a superior skill because it isn’t something that occurs in reality: events don’t pan out in a neat, compelling sequence, loose ends are not neatly tied up and much of life is mundane, unsymbolic and random.

. . . .

1. Read it aloud. If it doesn’t sound natural, it isn’t. Make sure it sounds different from prose. Remember, few people talk in complete sentences.

. . . .

4. Don’t write out “ums” and “ers.” They are realistic, but they look cartoonish in a piece of literature. Instead, use ellipses to give the impression of pauses or uncertainty. Ellipses can also be used at the start and end of dialogue, when someone has been talking for a while and is likely to go on awhile, to give the impression of the other characters tuning out.

. . . .

6. If writing dialogue for a character with a specific accent, don’t write it out phonetically, as this can look patronizing and old-fashioned. Use odd syntax and a few choice bits of slang to convey their accent.


Link to the rest at Glimmertrain

Here’s a link to Rowena Macdonald’s books

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

39 Comments to “Writing Dialogue”

  1. Oh, yay, more rules I can ignore. Some I follow due to personal preference, but others I’ve previously broken and will continue to do so.

    She’s also not taking into account the fact some publishers may have style guides which conflict with her advice. I know of one online publisher who has their own strict rules regarding elipses vs dashes in submissions. It’s, frankly, one of the things that turned me off them before I fully decided to indie pub, because I use both elipses and dashes, and the publisher firmly denied use of one or the other (not sure which one now) in works submitted to them.

    • Excuse the interrobang, but… What?! Ellipses and dashes have different functions. It isn’t like a restaurant serving either Coke or Pepsi! My head hurts…

  2. Know the rules before you break them, then break them intelligently and infrequently.

    For example, one contested “rule” is whether or not writers are permitted to start sentences with conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). I don’t usually mind … but I’ve just finished editing a novel where at least two sentences on every page started with “But” or “And”. That was too many.

    • It is equally important to know what is not a rule. There is not, and never has been, any rule of English grammar or style that forbade beginning a sentence with a conjunction. There is not even a rule to forbid beginning a whole string of sentences with conjunctions. The King James translation of the Bible, which is universally considered to be one of the crowning achievements of English prose (by critics of all religions and of none), begins, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’ – followed by twenty-seven sentences beginning with ‘And’.

      The only rules that apply here are the rules of rhetoric. And every rule of rhetoric begins with the proviso (stated or implied), ‘In order to achieve such-and-such an effect’. If you want to use parallel sentence structures to build up an appearance of massive consistency and orderly, marshalled argument, then you may want to begin a whole string of sentences with ‘And’, as King James’ translators did. If you have any other purpose in mind, that probably isn’t a good way of going about it.

      It all depends on the effect you are trying to achieve. Rules of grammar have nothing to say about it, for or against; and rules of rhetoric are never universal.

      • Yup. I start sentences with “and” or “but” quite frequently.

      • Yes, this. I balk at the “that’s too many.” It’s too many for your taste.

        It’s a huge part of Hebrew style and poetic style, and I’m the first to admit I use a ton of leading conjunctions. The question is how well does the sentence read, not how many times did you start with a leading conjunction. Though as a regular abuser of them, if the leading conjunction was “so,” two per page really would be too many.

      • Yep–this is one of those spurious rules that was designed to teach children just learning to compose sentences the difference between complete sentences and phrases, e.g. “I like my dog and play with him every day,” not “I like my dog. And play with him every day.”

      • Well said, Tom. The thing I hate about the “Know the rules before breaking them” is that some psuedo-expert makes up some “stupid” rules, and then we have to pretend to follow them or act like we are so smart that we know when to break them.

        Well, screw your rules. I write what I want. I am already destroying literature by indie publishing, so it’s not like they can do anything to me 🙂

  3. I note that this Macdonald person has published exactly one book-length work, a collection of short stories, and has recently finished a novel (which is ‘with her agent’). Clearly this makes her an authority on teaching her grandmother to suck eggs.

    It comes as no surprise that most of her ‘rules’ are exactly the kind of shibboleths that you often hear from novices in critique groups: the kind of people who have read three how-to books and five issues of Writers’ Digest and think that everything in them is gospel.

  4. By the bye:

    without wishing to sound self-aggrandizing, dialogue is the one aspect of writing I find easy.

    Of course it’s easy, if you have low enough standards – such as, for instance:

    If it doesn’t sound natural, it isn’t. Make sure it sounds different from prose.

    Let us leave aside the fact that dialogue is prose, unless your characters, for some reason or other, happen to be talking in poetry. (The mere fact that Ms. Macdonald does not appear to know the meaning of the word prose, I would suggest, is sufficient to disqualify her as an authority on writing.)

    It has been said that there are only three reasons for any line of dialogue: to advance the story, to show character, or to get a laugh. A line that accomplishes two of these things is admirable; a line that does all three is golden. Each one of these things is difficult in itself – far more difficult than merely making the dialogue sound ‘natural’ (i.e., colloquial according to the parochial standards of your own place and time). Doing all three at once is so very difficult that I can only think of three English-language writers who ever managed to do it regularly: Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and P. G. Wodehouse.

    It is possible, I suppose, that Ms. Macdonald finds dialogue easy because she is as great a master of the art as those three. It is also possible that she finds it easy because she has not even tried to measure up to them. Which of these is more probable, I leave to the reader to decide.

  5. Thanks, PV, for pointing me toward Glimmer Train’s bulletin. I’d never read it before. Love this article by Melissa R. Sipin:

    do not be afraid to write what haunts you, what disrupts and fractures your colonized body—write to not be afraid.


  6. “Remember, few people talk in complete sentences.”

    Nonsense. 🙂

    • I know.

      Most people I know talk in complete sentences. Some talk in complex sentences, some in simple sentences, and very few in incomplete sentences. And one of my rules of thumb (meaning to help me, not to be didactic) is that girl talk tends to leave out half of every sentence/finish each other’s sentences, but guy talk tends to leave out half of the sentences.

      • And uptalk is annoying no matter which gender uses it.

      • girl talk tends to leave out half of every sentence/finish each other’s sentences, but guy talk tends to leave out half of the sentences.

        That reminds me:

        In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey has a masterly analysis of Tolkien’s use of dialogue. In particular, he points out how he produces strong rhetorical effects by having his speakers leave out transitional phrases, leaving the reader to infer the nature of the connections. It seems that when you work out for yourself why the statements are relevant to the topic at hand, it has a greater impact than if you are spoon-fed every detail. Partly this is because leaving out the connections makes the text shorter and pithier, but partly, I believe, it is because the reader is more actively involved in getting at the meaning.

        • OOOh. Thanks for that. I have another book edited by Shippey that I loved (The Shadow Walkers, a collection of essays on elements of Germanic mythology). Will definitely check it out.

          Just checked. And ordered. I even went for the paperback (pricey). Now I have a lot to do over the holidays – reread this book and then the Lord of the Rings. Yay!

        • Mr. Simon is too classy to plug himself, but he has his own book of essays on Tolkien that includes an examination of Tolkien’s literary style. All the essays are very interesting and I highly recommend it. It’s called Writing Down the Dragon.


          • Classy indeed. Thank you. Got that one too. I was recently called a ‘ringhead’* by one of my reading group members. It didn’t sit well with me although reading the description for his book, I now understand why. Snobbishness. I don’t have to be ashamed of loving Tolkien. I don’t write epic fantasy (at least not yet), but it is useful to examine aspects of it that are important to all of us who make extensive use mythology in our writing.

            *Guilty. I failed to get through more than 5% of the first book of Wheel of Time so maybe it was that person’s backlash reaction.

    • Here again we see the baleful effect of grammatical advice when given by people who don’t know grammar.

      Most people do talk in complete sentences for pretty much of the time, unless they are making an immediate comment on a sentence just spoken, in which case the repeated bit, the subject, verb, or object, or even two of the three, may safely be left out. Ellipsis is a legitimate tool of grammar.

      Interjection, too. (Note what I did there.) An interjection forms a grammatical utterance in itself. ‘Yes‘, ‘No’, ‘Aha’, ‘Ouch’, and ‘My God’, for instance, do not follow the rules of sentence structure, but each of them is grammatically complete in its own right. Your English teachers probably taught you that these were sentence fragments (mine certainly did); but if so, your English teachers were wrong. They very often are.

    • If you look at unedited transcripts of interviews, court testimony, etc., for example, though, you’ll find a lot of–that is, people start to say one thing and then change the structure of the sentence midway, for example. They aren’t always as coherent as they’d like, and there’s times when subjects and verbs don’t agree because the sentence wasn’t–they didn’t plan it out before they started saying it. Or, for example, they repeat phrases multiple times when they wouldn’t write that way. But we aren’t used to reading unedited transcripts of ad hoc speech, so we don’t–we aren’t used to it. I don’t think she necessarily means that people talk primarily in sentence fragments.

      • But also remember that you’re taking transcripts of when people are put on the spot. And sure, our phraseology is different in spontaneous dialogue and we’ll have the occasional false start and boy, does it get repetitious as that is how our brain processes through a thought, even a verbal one, but I wouldn’t say the majority of normal everyday speech is backtracking. I see a lot more of that when someone is trying to figure out the best way to say something, which is much more likely to occur in an interview or in court than in casual conversation.

      • I don’t think she necessarily means that people talk primarily in sentence fragments.

        You’re more charitable than I am. I have seen all the bad advice she offers here many times before, and I know it in context. The context of the bit about people not talking in complete sentences is a claim, very often made in the past, that conversational English does consist largely of sentence fragments. A run-on sentence, or the kind of grammatical wandering off the path that you describe, is a violation of grammar, but of a different kind than our rhetorical prescriptors want us to believe is normal.

        It is, of course, possible that Ms. Macdonald has her own interpretation of the rules that she is parroting. But the people who worked so hard to promulgate and promote those rules had their own ideas, and I am sad to say that I have a pretty thorough knowledge of what those ideas were. You see, they took me in when I was young and foolish; I read their explanations, or listened to them, at great length, and I often believed them. Later, I learnt better.

        • Yeah, I’m honestly not sure what she means. On the one hand, she (wisely, I think) suggests writers not fill dialogue with ums and ers, even though people say them; on the other, she wants us to remember that people don’t talk in complete sentences. Now, if she means stuff like:

          “Are you busy?”
          “Not really.” (Rather than “No, I am not particularly busy.”)


          “What’s your favorite food?”
          “Potato salad.” (Not, “My favorite food is potato salad.”)

          then I’d agree. But I’ve never seen anyone write dialogue that way (with only complete sentences)…

          • And both of those examples you gave are covered by the grammatical rule about ellipsis, which I mentioned above. As I said, and I’m sure you agree, breaking the rules is neither here nor there unless the rules actually exist.

            (‘Bless me,’ said Professor Kirke, ‘what do they teach in these schools?’)

  7. Um…

  8. Wow. I’m at the point where I read TPV comments before clicking on the links to the main articles. Y’all save me so much time! 😀

  9. So many blog posts seems like an opportunity for the blog poster to shine their ego, telling us about them rather than the topic at hand.

    Just an observation, not pointing to any one blog post in particular.

  10. I wonder what she means by “odd syntax.” I’m not being snarky. I genuinely want to know.

    My WIP has a character from Tennessee. Even though I’ve done research and spoken to people from Tennessee, I get this little nag in my gut when I type out this character’s dialogue. If it’s not 100% right, it’s going to sound like a bad imitation, or like I’m making fun of her.

    Anyone on here from small-town Tennessee willing to beta read some dialogue and give your blessing? 🙂 🙂 🙂

  11. i once had a vacuum cleaner that was new… the booklet took ten pages to get to the part about ‘press the red button to turn vacuum on.”

    Something like that….

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