writing dialogue

Lots of discussion is going on at Narratives and Wanderlust about dialogue. There are issues with this but I wonder how many people have sat in a public space and listened to what people say? No need to bring up the shade of Truman Capote in this regard who supposedly got in trouble for doing this to his own advantage. But good dialogue has something to with listening for sound and tension in general conduct.

Obviously, a listener can’t study their own talk. What do people say is mere factual catalogue. Why people say is the deeper issue.

“Could you please stop that tapping?”

“Could you please stop tapping your foot?”

“That tapping is really bugging me.”

“You tap your foot a lot.”

“You’re going to ruin your shoes that way.”

Five instances of the same situation but totally different contexts and intents.

I like the last one.

“You’re going to ruin your shoes that way.”

“You mean the way you ruined me?”

“It’s obvious that you have no respect for your elders.”

“My god, I have fifteen years on you.”

“I wish this damn rain would quit.”

And so forth.

9 thoughts on “writing dialogue

  1. Maureen

    This is great…Also brings up ideas of region and dialect…[If were are talking about sound and tension]…

    For instance if you are doing a Southern story..you might say “Y’all” instead of “You all”..[but that is obvious..] Or “Cos'” instead of “Because” if you are doing British [Northern England]

    You have to try and get across to your reader certain tones and inflections..So that that they may know what region the story takes place without you having to spell out..Georgia, 1966..or Yorkshire, 1899…

    …”So, have a bloody good time doin’ this excercise lads and lasses… It may be a bit dodgy at times, cos’ ya may be new at it..But you’ll get the ‘ang of it straightaway…” ;) [I have to punch this up a bit more..I know..]

    Most Graciously,

    *A Mayde in her own little woode…

  2. john

    Thanks Steve for continuing my communications theory approach. You’ve provided the influence of our senses and, in the latter part, the process of “punctuation.”

  3. gibb

    Maureen, polish up your accents: This is on the discussion table for the Narratives meeting, and you sound like a likely candidate for the dialogues studied!

    Dialogue is indeed one of the most enjoyable but often difficult aspects to write, and is capable of revealing the characters in the classic “show, don’t tell” method exactly as Steve, Neha and John have pointed out, by the voice used.

  4. ersinghaus

    Nice comments.

    What’s can happen here is to take each variation and write from it: the same story can’t develop from those sets. But what’s critical, it seems to me, is for the writer is to get a sense of flesh behind the words. Just as Theodore tells Sahara that he’s 15 years older than she, or Theodora claims 15 years ahead of Sergio (the dialogue is genderless at this point), I could see the reaction at the table, the foot stop for just a moment.

    My point: there’s a visceral reaction “in” the writing.

    Maybe then the reader will find the thing entertaining or interesting.

    “Punctuation” is good!

  5. Maureen

    Hello folks..good comments all around! Oh good Susan, I’m glad that accents are on the table for the narratives meeting. I am into that right now..especially Brit ones..It is a quirk I am working through right now…Exactly, accents can “show” or “reveal” region or attitude..and even “class” [station in life]… You know, is your character “working class” or “posh”…

    Most Graciously,


  6. Bob Brown


    I’m not a member of the narratives group because I can’t make evening meetings due to other responsibilities–family and the community. I hope you don’t resent my butting in, since Steve included me in this mailing.

    In any event, the subject of dialogue fascintates me as a former journalist.

    I cover a meeting. The speaker makes a point worth making, but it also is made ungrammatically. Do I do it straight, or to I use the brackets, etc., that suggest words were left out or altered? How is the reader to interpret this?

    Consider this scenario: I am at a meeting of the Bored (yes!) of Education. I take diligent notes until the meeting drags into its fourth hour, at which time my eyes glass over and my mind goes numb. I lose interest. Do I disserve my audience by failing to complete the task of observation?

    Accurate depiction of dialogue–the words of others captured by an observer who is as close as possible to neutral–can add immensely to any piece of writing. I plan to discuss this among other issues during the presentation that Neha has asked me to give for the writers conference in April. It is something that always fascinated me in journalism.

    Note, too, that is used this phrase in the previous paragraph: “an observer who is as close as possible to neutral.” The ultimate question for someone who is reporting dialogue remains this one: “How neutral can, or should, one be.”

    Thanks for letting me participate

    Bob Brown

  7. gibb

    You’re very welcome, and welcome here as well! Dialogue is truly an amazing subject to research, even though we do it, or should by listening carefully, every day to what is heard.

    Suprisingly, it’s not that simple since as in the old game of gossip, and more recently seen on television studies of groups that all hear the same thing, but what they report hearing is not the same at all.

    I’m looking forward to your presentation in April, but in the meantime, feel free to add your thoughts and experience here any time.

  8. Deb


    You say that you are into accents, particularly Brit right now, and how dialect can reveal characters. I am curious, what do you think of Dickens? This is one of my very most favorite features of his writing, I consider him genius at it. He can almost convey an entire personality through some quirk in the character’s speech (think Uriah Heep).

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