Dialogue writing examples from top books vs AI

From Now Novel:

Read dialogue writing examples from diverse genres as we compare them to examples AI gave given the same scenario, for seven ultimate insights:

How we chose the dialogue examples for this study

We took the first seven books listed under the Kindle Unlimited ‘Featured’ section on Amazon for a cross-section of authors writing in diverse genres such as dystopian, regency romance, mystery, and thriller.

This gave the following list of titles to explore for dialogue writing lessons and ideas:

  • The House at the End of the World – Dean Koontz (dystopian)
  • The Echo of Old Books – Barbara Davis (historical mystery)
  • A Girl Called Samson – Amy Harmon (historical)
  • Layla – Colleen Hoover (romantic suspense)
  • The Quarry Girls – Jess Lourey (thriller)
  • I’ll Stop the World – Lauren Thoman (coming-of-age, mystery)
  • You’ve Reached Sam – Dustin Thao (YA, fantasy/romance)

Dialogue writing examples (plus insights)

Let’s dive into an example from each book.

The method: We found the first dialogue (discounting solo utterances/inner monologue) in each of the above books.

We summarized the scenario and asked ChatGPT4 to write a piece of dialogue given the scenario and genre for each. This gave comparative talking points on what sets human vs AI-written dialogue apart (as of May 2023).

Dystopian dialogue example: Dean Koontz

The scenario: Katie has fixed a leaky faucet and her mom thanks her dad for fixing the tap over dinner, assuming it was the dad who did it.

That night at dinner, Katie’s mother smiles at Father and says, “Oh, by the way, thank you for finally fixing that faucet.”
When he says he hasn’t had the chance yet, Katie admits to the deed. Mother is suitably amazed.
Father, however, is not surprised. “She’s an artist.”
“Yes,” says Mother, “and not a plumber.”Dean Koontz, The House at the End of the World (2023)

Dialogue example generated for this scenario

We gave that scenario to ChatGPT4 with this prompt:

Write dialogue for the following scenario: A girl, Katie, has fixed a leaky faucet. Her mother thinks Katie’s father fixed it, not Katie, and thanks him for fixing it over dinner. Genre of the novel: dystopian.

This is the dialogue we got as output (note that the prompt is quite broad, we could specify that all three speak, that ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ are named as such in narration, etc.).

Katie scraped her fork against her plate, her gaze flickering between the chunk of dehydrated potato on her plate and her mother. A low hum of the purifiers outside, working to cleanse the fallout-laden air, acted as a somber symphony for their meager meal.

Her mother, Joan, leaned back in her chair, sighing contentedly. “John, I noticed the faucet in the kitchen doesn’t leak anymore. Thank you for fixing it. We couldn’t afford to lose more water.”

Her father, John, paused mid-chew, his gaze moving from Joan to Katie. He was a man of few words, his strength silent, hidden under a ragged exterior. His weathered face turned toward his wife. “I didn’t fix it.”

Joan’s brow furrowed. “Well, if not you, then who?”

Katie cleared her throat, setting her fork down. The soft clatter echoed in the room. “It was me, Mom,” she admitted, her voice soft but firm. “I fixed the faucet.”

Joan looked at Katie, her eyes wide with disbelief. “You? But how did you…”

Katie shrugged, a small, determined smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “I found an old plumbing manual in the rubble. Spent a few nights by the flicker of the solar lamp studying it. It wasn’t as hard as you’d think.”

Her mother stared at her, a mixture of surprise and admiration flickering in her eyes. After a moment, Joan nodded, a small smile gracing her lips. “Well, it seems like you’ve been underestimating yourself, Katie.”Dialogue example generated using ChatGPT4.

Comparison between dialogue examples

Comparing Koontz’s dialogue to ChatGPT’s dialogue output, the striking differences are:

  1. Length/wordiness: Koontz’s human-written dialogue says more with less. For example, mother’s ‘Yes, and not a plumber’ could be read as a pointed jab at her husband that he was the one who was meant to fix the faucet, not their daughter. You could cut Father’s ‘He was a man of few words, his strength silent, hidden under a ragged exterior’, leaving Katie’s dad’s words themselves to show these traits.
  2. Pacing: An astute editor looking at the second version may suggest cuts to keep the pace flowing. The second has a crush of detail which almost reads as shoehorning in the genre at every opportunity (the intrusive hum of the purifiers cleaning the ‘fallout-laden’ air outside, for example). The AI-written dialogue has too much unnecessary detail.
  3. Intrigue and implication: Koontz’s original dialogue establishes succinctly in the conversation how Katie’s mother’s and father’s expectations of her differ (between surprise and non-surprise). The AI version focuses more on descriptive detail and how Katie was able to fix the faucet, which reads as more ‘on-the-nose’ (saying exactly what the situation is and what happened, without subtleties and ambiguities to engage the reader’s imagination).
  4. Tone and mood: The ChatGPT dialogue example reads as hammering home genre, a dystopian tone and mood. Koontz’s dialogue, by contrast, suggests how even in a dystopian world the ordinary and mundane – dinner table talk – can take place. Genre doesn’t need to announce itself in every line.

Link to the rest at Now Novel

4 thoughts on “Dialogue writing examples from top books vs AI”

  1. This was an interesting example. I can see how the AI thought of adding purifiers and dehydrated potatoes to the scene, because it may have been programmed to to link “dystopian” = “Fallout Games.” So I wouldn’t mark it off for adding those scene-setting descriptors there.

    But yes, human writers beat AI writers for subtext, and for sounding natural. If it were human, I would refer the writer to Elizabeth George’s “THADs” (Talking Head Avoidance Devices) so it would use action beats more judiciously***. And indeed, the AI is wordy. If that sounds ironic coming from me, know that I write long, then cut. If something stays long, I either had no time to edit it, or I actually needed all of the words 😉

    ***To give an example of THADs — John Mulaney has a bit about stock characters who appear in episodes of “Law & Order.” The relevant one here is the guy who unloads crates while the detectives question him. This is an overused THAD in the Law & Order universe, but it exists in the first place because viewers do not like talking heads.

    • Hi Jamie (and Passive Guy),

      Thank you for sharing Elizabeth George’s concept, that might be something to expand my complete guide to dialogue with so I appreciate the share. Very interesting!

      Thanks for sharing my article, PG, much appreciated.

      Kind regards,

      • You’re welcome, Jordan! I forgot to name the book where George first talks about the concept, it’s “Write Away.” In her follow up book, “Mastering the Process,” George goes deeper into THADs by using one of her novels as a case study. It’s definitely a good tool. I cottoned to it when I was trying to figure out how to keep “Council of Elrond”-type scenes from devolving into a bunch of talking heads.

        • Thanks for the Elizabeth George reference suggestions.

          I find that in diving into any field, I go through a “how does this work?” phase, followed by a “I can do this — it’s not so hard” phase (which I think of as limited mastery), followed by a “now I understand what the advice I see is really suggesting, reviewing my own experience” phase. After 10 books, I’m in that third phase (“ripe”, as it were) for browsing something like that again.

          Alternatively: what are the tools / using the tools / mastering the tools (which never ends).

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