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Writing Excuses 5.17: Dialogue Exercises

Writing Excuses 5.17: Dialogue Exercises


Key Points: Make your characters identifiable from their dialogue alone. Make sure there's a sense of the world, the setting, and action. If you use dialect, do it sparingly, but be consistent. Word choice, sentence length, verbal quirks, social position -- any and all of these can be used to differentiate your characters. And don't forget the interplay of the characters, too.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Five, Episode 15, Dialog Exercises.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart, said Dan.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon. What?
[Dan] It's dialog exercises. I'm attributing myself.
[Brandon] I'm editing out your attribution.
[Dan] Dang it.
[Brandon] Okay. To bring you all up to speed...
[Howard] And I'm Howard.

[Brandon] Who is not up to speed. I posted on twitter and Facebook that I would be doing... I was practicing dialogue, and I was going to do a dialogue exercise myself. I invited people to send in their submissions, and we and Writing Excuses would read them and talk about them on our episodes. We're going to do that today. So these are sent in by readers, or listeners I suppose in this case. We're going to talk about them. We won't necessarily critique them. We will critique them, but we won't say all bad things. Some of these are actually pretty good. I've read them. So we want to point out what they're doing well, and what they might be doing that they may need to look at for revision purposes. We're going to start off... I'm just picking these randomly, so we'll hope that these... we actually have something to say. All right. First one is... um, by a person who didn't give me their name. Scribbly is in their e-mail address.

Dad, I'm scared.
It's okay, we'll be fine. Just keep holding my hand.
We should just set up camp like last night.
Do you really want to spend another night in bed rolls, having biscuits for breakfast again, when there's a proper inn an hour away?
I still don't like the dark.
The dark can't hurt you.
I think... I think I see one, behind that tree, in the shadow.
Hold up the lantern. See, just a twisty like branch.
But what if it hid?
Dorn, look at me. You're wearin' your charm, right? So no one of unholy faith can get you.
But Lyda told me an ice dryad can kill you with just one touch.
One touch? Ice dryads? That's what you're worried about?
Son, it's high summer. No icees in summer, not in these parts.
For sure?
Certain as larks in the morning.
But then, why are we wearing charms?
Ha. I always did say you were a clever boy.

I'm not going to read the whole thing. Now remember...
[Howard] Did they get eaten by an ice dryad at the end of the story?
[Brandon] The father vanishes, I believe.
[Dan] Spoiler warning.
[Brandon] But anyway, let's talk about this. The requirement was no dialogue tags.
[Howard] No dialogue tags, no descriptors.
[Brandon] No description, no blocking. My challenge was to give a conflict and two distinct personalities, and see how much you can convey just with dialogue. How'd this person do?
[Dan] I thought they did pretty well.
[Brandon] Yeah? What were they doing well?
[Dan] You could tell who was speaking, from line to line. Part of that is because you are altering your tone of voice a little, but you'd get the same effect reading it and seeing, "Oh, line break, new character." But these characters did have a solid sense of who they were and how they were different from each other, which I thought was pretty good, actually.
[Howard] If it hadn't been for the strictures of the exercise, I would have glossed over it completely. As it was, the reference to Dad felt like cheat.
[Brandon] Uh-huh.
[Howard] But like I said, if it hadn't been for the strictures of the exercise, that would have felt very natural.
[Brandon] Yeah. I didn't think it felt like a cheat. I thought it was an appropriate way to start.
[Howard] Yeah.
[Dan] Even with just dialogue and no descriptions, you still got a pretty good sense of world from this, I thought. You could tell that it was a... there was at least some kind of fantasy going on. Low technology level, they had bedrolls, they were headed for an inn, they were worried about ice dryads, they were wearing charms. We had references to old wives' tales that he had heard somewhere. I'm impressed. He
[Brandon] There was a little bit of dialect. Just... I think... they maybe could have used a shade more, because if they're going to do it occasionally...
[Howard] Icees?
[Brandon] Icees and there was a wearin' instead of a wearing. Which, in that sort of thing, you don't want to overload us, but you do want to be consistent. If he's dropping the g once on something like that, a few more times to indicate yes, this is actually a dialect. The son or daughter not having the same dialect sounded... it made me wonder if there is a reason. I felt like probably should have been a dialect, but just a faint one. We've talked about dialects. Don't overdo it. But if you're doing a dialogue exercise, you know, that's one of the tools you have to work with. I thought they did a very good job. The complaints I would have... well, not complaints, something to look at. I worry that they're both... they're talking too similarly, despite not having... one having that simple... like, enhancing the sense that one is a child and one is an adult might have helped out a little bit.
A.m.] Well, one of the ways that they were doing that, making them very similar to each other, is that the sentences seem to all be about the same length. Things like varying that, making the father more verbose or the child's language more simplistic, is a way that could potentially differentiate them.
[Brandon] You know, though, looking at it, the child's sentences do tend to be smaller. Which is a good thing. This person is doing a very good job. Any other comments?
[Howard] I want them to be eaten by ice dryads, but we'd need descriptors tags for that. Unless...
[Dan] I want the child to be an ice dryad, and eat the father.
[Howard] There it is. There it is. And the last line is, "Ah..."

[Brandon] All right. Next one.

Hum. That was one hell of a curse. Did you see?
Yeah. Silencer, right?
Nope, looked like a vocal adapter. Cow if I'm not mistaken.
Isn't he giving the first speech? Should we tell him?
No point. We only needed to tell him before he ate it.
And when it takes effect?
Well, then he'll know, won't he?
Sometimes I forget how petty you are.
I'm not petty. It doesn't matter that it's Gerund. It would be funny whoever.
And you're not even the tiniest bit more enjoyment out of the situation because it's him?
Well, maybe a little. Don't tell me you don't think it's funny.
I won't when the damn curse kicks in and your terrifyingly muscular brother-in-law comes looking for us.
Oh, he is not my brother-in-law. Besides, we're completely blameless in this.
Right. And the cursed sandwich sitting right outside his room has nothing to do with you?
I was experimenting. Put it down, and then forgot about it.
How convenient.

That's not the end, obviously. But let's talk about this one.
[Howard] I'm having a harder time telling these two people apart.
[Brandon] Yeah. Much harder time telling these people apart. The idea of a cursed sandwich is awesome.
[Dan] It is.
[Brandon] I like the concept a lot.
[Howard] I've actually had a couple of those.
[Brandon] It can carry a story like this.
[Dan] But we do have it out now [inaudible, garbled]
[Brandon] I would probably lead with, "Did I see a cursed sandwich" or something like that. I would lead with that in the first line. When you've got to have a dialogue like this that's really punchy, start with your best concept.
[Howard] I don't know where they are. I don't have... I didn't get... with the first pair, I felt like I was in the woods, and in the dark. I don't know if they were in an auditorium, watching somebody about to speak, or...
[Dan] Well, that's what I started to get, and then it kind of felt like it turned into a dorm room or something.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's give advice, though. Let's not just...
[Dan] Okay. Advice. The first one... the way the first sample gave us such a great sense of place was even though it didn't include actions, it describes them. Raise the lantern a little so we can see what's behind that tree.
[Howard] Oh, that's just a tree branch.
[Dan] Little things like that to tell us what's around them. This didn't have any of that, except I think there was a reference to this sandwich was outside of a door. That's kind of all we got.
[Brandon] Okay. I say yes, the biggest trouble I'm having with this, is telling the difference between the two characters. Now, I'm... it's a little unfair to do this to people because one of the examples I gave of this is They're Made of Meat, the Hugo award-winning story in which... it's two aliens talking, and it won a Hugo. So... your mileage may vary. But in this exercise, one of the reasons I was doing it, was suggesting to try and teach yourself as writers to differentiate your dialog for each character so that it feels like they're distinct individuals.
[Howard] My complaint, that I couldn't tell where we were is... for purposes of this exercise, yeah, we didn't do it well enough for this exercise. But if I'm trying to tell that story, and I'm having a hard time with the setting, I throw a descriptor in, and we're good.
[Dan] Now, some specific advice on how to differentiate these two characters is... first of all, if you can, make the characters different. It seems like these two are more or less in the same area, the same place, the same...
[Howard] Frame of mind.
[Dan] Demographic.. Making one of them older or younger like they did with the father and son, making one of them something else...
[Brandon] See, I would've suggested something like the janitor walks by while he's planting the cursed sandwich. Start off with, "You didn't see that." "No, sir, I didn't see you drop a cursed sandwich in front of her door." "Good. Wait... how do you know it's a cursed sandwich?" "Oh, my family goes way back with the cursed sandwiches, sir."
[Dan] I once ate a cursed pastrami on rye...
[Brandon] Talking... you could have that sort of class interplay and bring it out in their language. One's long and rambley, the other one is anxious and worried. Or something like this.
[Howard] Or the nervous kid who's worried about getting caught with the prank versus the veteran prankster who...
[Brandon] Right. Oh, that would have worked very well, too. So, yeah, we need more differentiation, and more of a sense of interplay between the characters. These two could have been discussing the weather, if that makes sense. Like, there's a cursed sandwich, something's happening, but we're not really finding out anything about either of them. It's not just that they aren't individuals, they aren't... we aren't discovering anything. We've discovered that there is a cursed sandwich, and one of them likes to play pranks.
[Howard] One of them has a muscular brother or something?
[Dan] Now, outside the bounds of a writing exercise, you may well have in your story two characters who are very similar to each other that end up having to talk to each other. You can do things like giving some of them verbal quirks, or just finding little ways within the framework you already have to differentiate them.

[Brandon] All right. Let's go ahead and stop for our book of the week. We're going to have... Howard, what's our book this week?
[Howard] Our book this week was submitted... what? I don't know, 30 to 60 times, and rejected.
[Dan] Yeah. Urban legend stuff.
[Howard] A little known work that you may have read by Frank Herbert called Dune.
[Brandon] I think I may have heard of that once.
[Howard] I read Dune in high school, and it broke my brain.
[Brandon] Is that what happened to you?
[Dan] I've always wondered.
[Howard] one of the many things that happened to me.
[Dan] Think you would have been able to put it back together, since.
[Howard] The whole concept of ulterior motives. The... looking at the motivations of characters as they do things. This was the first time that I'd ever really seen that explored deeply in a work of fiction, and so it was very impressive.
[Brandon] Well, and the beautiful, awesome world building that somehow manages to incorporate the best of epic fantasy and the best of science fiction together in one awesome book. That is Dune.
[Dan] Dune is, I can honestly say, my very favorite book. I've read it more than any other book. Including books of Scripture.
[Howard] Wow.
[Brandon] So, if you have not read or listened to Dune, you can go to and download a copy. Support the podcast, start your free trial at audible, and give it a listen. It is a fantastic book.

[Brandon] All right. We're going to go on with this. Like most of the things where we actually read selections, we will go a little long on this podcast. It's what we generally do, because we want to give a decent amount of time of actual commentary rather than all of it just reading. The next one I'm not picking randomly, I'm actually going to go ahead and pick one by our dear friend Jason Denzel who runs Dragonmount, the main Wheel of Time website, and who's also a screenwriter. So he's kind of cheating, because he's a screenwriter.
[Howard] Oh, he has to do this all the time.
[Dan] Well, then.
[Howard] All right, Jason, lay it on us.
[Dan] But we're not going easy on you, Jason.
[Brandon] Yeah, he does this all the time. He's a screenwriter, movie guy, all-around film scripter dude, so...
[Howard] You're going easy on him?
[Dan] I'm not.
[Howard] Oh, okay. Kid gloves are coming off. Go.
[Brandon] All right. Here we are.

You called for me, master?

[Dan] That's a stupid way to start.
[Howard] Oh, yeah, Jason, it's on.
[Brandon] You called for me, master?
Ah, yes, son. Come in. Watch your step. I'm afraid I haven't cleaned this clutter in a while.
I've never seen so many books, sir. How many do you have?
Oh, I don't know. Around 14,765.
That sounds very specific, sir?
Well, that's how many I think I have. I can't be certain, because my apprentice hasn't catalogued them for me.
Um, no, sir. In two years, you've never asked me to come to your study. Am I here to count your books?
Heavens, no. You're here for something much more exciting.
I am?
Certainly. Come stand next to me beside the window. And mind the ink jars on the table there.
Yes, master, of course.
Tell me, son, do you know what day it is today?
It's after midnight now so I believe it's the day of the Sun.
Have confidence in your answers, boy. A mage is not wishy-washy. Tell me, is it or is it not the day of the Sun?
Yes, sir, it is.
Better. Never forget that if you know something to be true, speak it clearly with all the authority you possess.
I will, sir.
Now, back to the primary question. I'm not interested in the day of the week. I want you to tell me about today, but in a grander sense. What day is it?
I... I don't know, sir. Er... that is to say, I'm not aware of any holidays on this day, sir. Would you like me to research and provide you with an answer within the next quarter hour?
Oh, how you amuse me, lad. Be at ease. No, you don't need to research anything. Does my steward push you hard in your studies during the day while I do my research?

Anyway, we'll stop there. It goes on.
[Howard] What day is it?
[Brandon] Anyway, what do we say to Jason?
[Howard] Does he... okay, he set up a conflict. I want to know what dang day it is. All right, Jason, you got me on this one. What day is it?
[Dan] Okay, he was doing really well a lot of the things that were messing us up with the last one in differentiating the two characters. They were in very different periods of life, one was older, one was younger.
[Howard] Different stations.
[Dan] One was in charge, and one was very subservient. You could always tell who each of them was, and why they were different from each other, and what their relationship was to each other.
[Brandon] This one, I mean, it's obviously very well done. I wanted to read it. I'd actually read through the thing and thought, "Wow, this is really good. So I'm going to use this, because I want to have good examples." Because this isn't just about pulling out of talking about what's wrong. Learning to emulate what screenwriters do and movie people do as a writer of prose fiction can be just an invaluable skill. Picking up some screenplays and reading them and looking at what they do with dialogue. So what he's doing here, a lot of people when they say I'm going to differentiate my dialogue, they go for either dialect -- which we talked about, it's good, it can work -- or they go for the standard -- and I've talked about this on Writing Excuses before -- big words versus small words. Which again is something you can use, but... I think a lot of writers writing this would have had the master throwing around these six and seven syllable words to sound like a master. But it also starts to sound unnatural when you do that because people don't actually talk that way. So a much better balance was struck here with the master-subservience method which Dan talked about. You can do this, just with normal diction, you can set up at someone's in control of the conversation and driving it, and another person is in the back seat wondering what they've got to be doing. That's a great way.
[Howard] Wondering what day it is.
[Dan] With word choice here, even though both characters were using big words, one of them had very simple sentence structure. The servant's sentences were, most of them, very small. Thank you, sir. Yes, sir. Then every now and then, you'd get a big long one. Would you like me to go and do all of this research for you and blah blah blah blah blah? Yet you still got this sense of subservience out of it.
[Brandon] Characters' emotional state and... how about setting?
[Howard] I get the setting. Cluttered office, mind your elbows for the ink wells... that was perfect.
[Brandon] 14,765 books. Just one little word. All right, let's give Jason some advice. Do we have any advice for Jason about how to fix this or are we just going to say that he did a good job? Come on, you said the gloves were down.
[Howard] it's obvious that he's never going to be a successful writer of fantasy films...
[Dan] Because nobody is?
[Howard] Because nobody is. Yes. Write to the market, Jason. Put in a helicopter...
[Dan] And crash a taxi into it. Okay. I'm sure that I have comments, but Howard's distracting me.
[Howard] What did I do?
[Brandon] All right. They're going to be little things. I would ditch the phrase wishy-washy as pulling me out and setting me in modern-day. I think that the apprentice, his language through the course of it, was too similar to his previous one. That's odd, from what I said, but I wanted to... Jason's writing at such a high level here. I'd actually like to see the apprentice change a little bit more. He did that at the end where he was like, "Oh, do you want me to do this..." but, his subservience thing... there were just too many sirs. How about that? It was kind of getting on my nerves.
[Howard] Drop him out of the subservient mode as he's getting to be more comfortable?
[Brandon] No, no, no. We want him to stay subservient, because that's what's working. But I think really, what I'm just getting at, too many sirs.
[Howard] I guess, what I'm saying is the overt subservience versus the... you're still in charge of the conversation, but I no longer need to say sir, I no longer need to preface everything with a request...
[Brandon] Of course, we only read a few paragraphs of this. I actually probably wouldn't change anything in these paragraphs, but if it continued that way, I'd say, "Heh, this is getting a little bit annoying." I want to get more out of this character. It started to...
[Howard] One thing that I did think was a little weird, and it's entirely possible that the setting fully justifies this. How long has he been an apprentice, and it's been a year or two, and he's never been into the guy's study?
[Brandon] Looks like someone else is doing the training.
[Dan] Could be.
[Howard] Seemed odd, but...
[Brandon] Okay. We're totally stretching.
[Dan] Well, I was going to say...
[Brandon] Oh, you got something?
[Dan] The thing that was starting to get on my nerves was that the master was just a little too Socratic. He was not getting to his point. Which I think, like you say, up to this point I'm okay with it, but if it had continued like that for too long, with the master not ever actually saying anything, it was just on the verge of being too much of that.
[Brandon] All right. I do think we're stretching a little bit, though. This was a really solid writing exercise.
[Dan] Also, he smells bad, and...
[Brandon] I can beat Jason at magic. How about that? There you go, Jason.
[Dan] Take that.
[Brandon] Anyway, all right, let's wrap this up. We'll probably do a few more of these in a couple weeks, just to keep looking at this. I think it's one of the most important thing is that new writers can learn, is how to just make your dialogue represent your characters.

[Brandon] So we'll go ahead and do a writing prompt. Dan?
[Howard] Ha, ha!
[Dan] Oh, man. Okay. You are walking down a back alley and you meet Jason from Dragonmount and he's getting all uppity about how he had a great writing sample. What do you do to him?
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: character, conflict, dialogue, setting, writing excuses
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