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Writing Excuses 5.20: More Dialogue Exercises

Writing Excuses 5.20: More Dialogue Exercises


Key Points: Make sure characters have different personalities. A little banter goes a long way. Practice and good writing group comments can help. Think about how to evoke character and make it interesting. Beware narrative and description forced into dialogue. Keep the dialogue natural. Short, the way most people talk. Trust your readers to make connections, to put things together and figure out what is going on and why.

[Brandon] To refresh you on the rules here, I had people sending pieces of dialogue-only writing. No blocking, no description, no dialogue tags. Their challenge was to introduce a problem and two distinct characters using the... just dialogue. All right. I'm going to read some of it to you. As a warning, this podcast will go probably around 20 minutes instead of 15 to account for all the time we spend reading.
[Jordo] I'm sure people will complain.
[Brandon] We shouldn't be in here.
You're always such a baby. We won't get caught. We hardly ever get caught.
You know this time is different.
So what?
So we shouldn't be in here.
So I want to see what my father is hiding. Plus, it can't be that bad, or we wouldn't have made it past him.
Or maybe he wanted us to get by so he could catch us?
Hmmm. I didn't think of that. Oh, well, I think my distraction will give us at least 10 minutes.
Don't worry about that.
The last time you said don't worry, you caught my bed on fire.
I told you it was an accident. Take Dad's teachings and forgive and forget.

That was my fault. Sorry. All right. So, what do you guys think about this piece? What criticism can we offer the person who wrote it?
[Dan] Um. I thought they did a fairly good job of giving the characters... the two characters, very different personalities. There's the one who's afraid of the one who is overconfident. I especially liked a lot of the dialogue that the overconfident speaker got. Like right at the beginning, he or she says we won't get caught, we hardly ever get caught. Which are two kind of contradictory statements that really speak to how overconfident this person is. That they're going out on a limb, but they're just gung ho anyway.
[Howard] Right. The other character, you can hear some of that "We have gotten caught in the past. I fear consequences because I have suffered consequences before." That's coming through in the dialogue.
[Dan] We got a few specific examples of consequences they've suffered before.
[Howard] Although catching the bed on fire was... well, that's obviously a consequence, but it didn't sound like a punishment... a consequence of having gotten caught. It's a consequence of a really good distraction.
[Brandon] You know, I'm actually going to read a little piece more of this. Because I want listeners to hear and I want to talk about the banter. So...
[Howard] OK. Go.
[Brandon] They said forgive and forget.
Well, it's hard to forget in the middle of the night when I'm sleeping with half a blanket.
You can curl up.
Yeah, see how comfortable that is when I take your blanket.
Shut up.
No, I won't.
Listen, dimwit...
What is that?
I don't know because you keep talking. We...
Quiet. I don't like the sound of that. Let's get out of here.
After seeing what is making the sound. It must be what Father is hiding.
Father must be hiding it for a good reason.
Can we please go?
Stop being a baby.
I'm not a baby.

It goes on like that for pretty much the entire thing.
[Howard] Because it's pretty hard to open up the box and have...
[Brandon] So what do we think about banter like that? What's our Writing Excuses pontification upon banter?
[Howard] Per the exercise? It starts to fall apart. In a book, you interrupt something like that with blocking and it's awesome. So...
[Brandon] I think this is really good practice for the author to be doing. This doesn't stand on its own as well as some of the other pieces but that's simply the limitations... the unreal limitations.
[Howard] I guess that's what... yeah, that's what I'm saying. The exercise... this is very fulfilling of the exercise, but if I were trying to write short fiction that was just dialogue tags, I wouldn't approach it this way. Or not dialogue tags, just dialogue.
[Brandon] Yeah. I mean, we do have to differentiate for ourselves and for our listeners, that these aren't intended to necessarily be stand-alone stories. This is an exercise. As writers, it's really useful to do these things sometimes. I actually do them myself in between books to try and practice different aspects of writing. Doing something like this can really help you see how writing changes when you put these restrictions on yourself. Then you can blend it in with other types of writing.
[Howard] A writer doing this is like the trumpet player, the piano player, doing scales and arpeggios. We can criticize the form and the pitch and everything of the scale and the arpeggio, but we're not going to talk about why you wouldn't use that on stage.
[Dan] Now, just like flamboyant musical extemporizing or whatever, banter is very hard to do right. Very fast-paced character banter is very difficult for the reasons we're seeing here. Because either you have no dialogue tags and it starts to get muddy, or you have dialogue tags and the pace slows down. Having written a farce, I can attest to how difficult this is to do right. Practice and good writing group comments is a great way to do it.
[Howard] Actually, it's pretty easy once you are able to draw pictures to go with it. I do banter a lot.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, see, and visually, banter works better, because you don't have to rely on the other things.
[Howard] Exactly. Visually, it works well. When you're screenwriting, you've got the actors, the whole visual medium supporting it, and it's awesome.
[Dan] Definitely.
[Brandon] Now, I'm going to speak to this piece... to the author of this piece, and to all of you out there. Banter is great. If I were speaking... and I guess perhaps I am, to the person who wrote this. I would take a look at this and say what can I do with this banter to better evoke character and to make it more interesting? Because as it stands... what it's evoking, it's doing some things. For instance, it's giving us the sibling relationship. Which we're all familiar with, it's putting us on familiar ground, we've all been there, we've all heard kids, we've all heard them arguing. Yet part of this just wants me... to make me engage my shut-up-you-stupid-kids instinct. Which is probably good, but at the same time, you can do banter in a way that will move more things. It will move more character, it will move more plot, it will tell us more. They start to do it with "Hey, what's that? I can't hear because you're talking" but there needs to be more meat to this banter.
[Howard] Example I was going to give is... one of the characters says... what is it, shut up dimwit?
[Brandon] Yeah. Listen, dimwit.
[Howard] Listen, dimwit, and gets interrupted with "Mom said not to call me that." Wow...
[Brandon] Yes. See, there we go.
[Howard] Suddenly we have a whole...
[Dan] One of the things... one of the directions this conversation started to go, in the shut up dimwit sequence was the roles kind of got reversed a little bit. The overconfident character was suddenly the nervous character because he or she heard something. That is a nice meaty place to take banter because it is altering the character's parameters a little bit. But again, that's very difficult to pull off unless you can slow down for a sentence or two of description.
[Howard] Rabbit season. Duck season. Rabbit season, duck season. Duck season! Rabbit season. Hah!
[Dan] Visually, that lets you know "Aha, they have just switched." Without visuals, without dialogue tags, when those roles are reversed, it becomes less effective instead of more effective.
[Howard] We watched that Looney Tunes DVD and my kids would play rabbit season, duck season all the way to grandma's house, which is a 10 Hour drive.
[Dan] OK, then. That's why your children are all dead.

[Brandon] All right, on that happy note, our book of the week. Dan? You've got another one for us this week?
[Dan] Yes. Our book of the week this week is Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen. Saberhagen... after I finished Lloyd Alexander and J.R.R. Tolkien, Saberhagen is the next fantasy author that I turned to, with Empire of the East and his Sword series. I just loved them. They are a large part of the reason I wanted to become a writer. Empire of the East was originally published as three novellas. They are now all connected together and audible has them all as a single novel, unabridged. About a very intriguing fantasy world that very early on you start to recognize technological elements and Earth elements, and realize that this is not just a fantasy world, but it is a near future Earth fantasy world. Which then colors the rest of it and the exploration of that mystery becomes the rest of the story. It's a really great fantasy that I recommend.
[Brandon] I'll have to ask Harriet if she worked on that one. It's a Tor book, and Harriet was Saberhagen... Harriet McDougal, Robert Jordan's editor, was Saberhagen editor.
[Dan] Really?
[Brandon] Yes.
[Dan] Well. Then she does fine work.
[Brandon] Yes. I would be very interested.
[Howard] Download it at... well, go to Kickoff a 14 day free trial, and you can download this one. Have a listen for free and support the podcast.

[Brandon] All right. Let's do another dialogue exercise.
[Howard] Yes, let's.
[Brandon] All right.
I think we should stick together.
We don't know what's going on. Ever since we got back to shore, we haven't seen one living soul. I just don't think it's a good idea to split up.
I'm just going to walk to town for some gas. We're in the middle of nowhere. It's no surprise we haven't seen anyone. I'll be back in a couple of hours. You need to stay here and watch our stuff.
I'd really like to come with you. I'm pretty sure our gear is safe.
What about those kids we saw camped on the north shore of the lake? Do you want them to come over here and steal our boat or food or worse yet, our beer?
You mean the teenagers we haven't seen for the last four hours?
Their tents are still there. Their camp fire still smoldering. They're probably just off in the woods doing what teenagers do best.
Last night, we could hear them laughing clear across the lake. What do you hear now? Nothing, that's what. No laughing kids, no birds, not even any insects buzzing around. This doesn't strike you in the least bit odd?
Fine. I'll admit it is a little peculiar, but right now, I just need to focus on the task at hand. That truck is out of gas. I need to go get some, so we can get out of here, and frankly, I'm not comfortable leaving it, not to mention the boat, out here unattended. Maybe we missed something while we were out. Maybe a small storm moved through and scared everything off. Doesn't something like that make more sense than whatever it is you are implying?
Look... I suppose. It's just... well, I've got a bad feeling about this.
Just lock yourself in the truck. Try to take a nap or something.
Yeah, right.

OK. So. Comments for this person? Oh, wait. It only goes on another two paragraphs. I'm going...

Look, just lock yourself in the truck. Try to take a nap or something.
Yeah, right.
I'm taking the rifle with me. You hold onto the pistol and keep it close. Nothing bad is going to happen. I'll be back before you know it. OK?
I guess.
Good. Oh, and Dad?
I love you.
Shut up, son.

[Dan] [chuckle]
[Brandon] OK. So.
[Dan] I don't think that was supposed to be funny. A lot of this dialogue was fairly stilted. It read very awkward to me. By which I mean it didn't sound like real people saying those lines.
[Brandon] I'm really glad we read this one actually, because I was hoping one like this would come up...
[Howard] What it sounded like to me was I need to get these descriptions into this dialogue. It was...
[Dan] A lot of narrative forced into dialogue.
[Howard] Square peg pounded into a round hole.
[Brandon] Well, it's... I took away the opportunity to put in description, and so they put it into the dialogue instead. I'm really glad this came up, like I said, because this is very common, particularly with newer writers. I don't get many pieces submitted to me like Jason's from several weeks ago. Most of the time I get this, particularly if I tell students to focus on their dialogue. Well, when they focus on their dialogue, they just shift everything into the dialogue, which is not what we're saying to do. You'll notice as listeners, as you listen to this, the paragraphs... they talk in long paragraphs. Just because I do that on this podcast does not mean that it is going to be natural for fiction.
[Howard] We keep telling you, Brandon, we want more banter and less expounding.
[Brandon] Shut up. Dad.
[Dan] Shut up, Dad.
[Howard] I love you, Brandon.
[Dan] Now that's another point. Maybe I missed it, but I did not get the nature of that relationship until the final word, which...
[Brandon] It felt like they wanted that to be a zing at the end. But I didn't feel a zing, I just felt a "oh, that should have been given to me earlier."
[Dan] Unless they were trying to make me laugh, because it did. But otherwise, I think having that much earlier would have changed the way we read everything. Part of the problem with the stilted dialogue is that both of them were doing it. If only one of the characters talk that way, then it would've been identifiable as a character affectation. This one is older, this one is more educated, this one is whatever. Having the dad-son relationship much earlier, especially the very antagonistic dad-son relationship, I think would've flavored the entire sequence and made it a lot more natural.
[Brandon] What's... some more advice on this one, I really think that...
[Howard] Pulling back on... oh, are you offering more advice, or are you asking us to?
[Brandon] No, no. I'm offering more advice. I'm saying... you're trying to cram too much into this dialogue. What's going on is, you're not trusting your readers enough. Several of the other examples we've had, you've seen, they're very short, and they're trying to get things across by showing rather than telling. This is a really excellent example of someone doing a lot of telling. Instead of making us feel that the characters are creeped out or worried, they're instead saying I am creeped out or worried because of this and this and this and this. Which... the problem is... number one, those things aren't all that creepy.
[Dan] Yeah. It felt like they were overreacting.
[Brandon] Yeah. It felt like they were overreacting. When instead, if they'd said, "Where are the dogs? The dogs... they're always here. Dad, what happened to the dogs? Oh, they just ran off. Dogs don't do that. Particularly all four of them."
[Dan] Now, another case where you could pull this up... one of the characters says, "Do you really want those kids to come over and steal our boat or our food or worse yet, our beer?" You can break that down and say, "Do you really want those kids to come over and steal all our beer?" And then the other guy says, "Is that really what you're most concerned about, is the beer? What if they take our food? Then we'd starve."
[Howard] Better yet, better yet. You... all right, let me back up a little bit. Rewriting the story... we're telling a story in which something horrible has happened and all the people have disappeared. These people have been out on the lake, they're coming back, oh, no, the truck's out of gas, we've got to go get gas. Be serious here, what's the first thing you're going to do? You're going to take a $20 bill from your pocket and you're going to walk over to those kids and see if they'll let you siphon a gallon of gas out of their vehicle so that you can... now, have them wander through the kids' campsite. "Hey, where'd everybody go? I don't know where they went. Do you know these kids? I don't know these kids." The discussion is now a little more natural where you're talking about the fact that this campsite's empty, and you're wondering where everybody is. But that's me rewriting the story, which I'm not allowed to do.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think there's just too much being crammed in there. All the other ones that were really working, it was much shorter. So shorten it. Try and hint.
[Jordo] I actually have a comment.
[Brandon] Oh, Producer Jordo.
[Jordo] I'm leaning uncomfortably close to Howard.
[Howard] Mwah.
[Dan] There's no such thing as uncomfortably close to Howard.
[Jordo] Well, when he has his pants on.
[Brandon] We haven't had a Howard pants joke in like four weeks. Good job, Jordo. Man, we're going to have to take down that sign that says no Howard pants jokes. We've been Howard pants jokes free for three weeks. It's gone now.
[Howard] I couldn't read the whole sign. I just thought it said no Howard pants.
[Jordo] Anyway. This may be can of worms, but I've noticed that most of these or a large portion at least you're reading, the only way they're differentiating the two people is one confident, one worried or scared. So, I was just thinking to myself, maybe this is a good time to mention that...
[Brandon] No, that's a great thing. If it's what most people are doing, then that's a clue that it may be something number one to look at and see if you're doing it and how can you differentiate yourself from the group. It does seem like we've got a lot of "I'm scared, I'm overconfident" as the relationship.
[Howard] I wouldn't say scared versus overconfident. I would say...
[Brandon] Concerned.
[Howard] Confidence level. The master and the servant, the... which Jason's was an excellent example of that relationship, but what they're focusing on is disparity, and the easiest thing to pick on is confidence versus the lack thereof.
[Brandon] All right. I really want to get to this next one.
[Howard] OK. Read this next one.
[Dan] OK. Hit us.

[Brandon] This is by Laura. She actually put her name on it.
Easy, Gilbert. The master will be furious if we kill the girl before it's time.
But she's so heavy. Aren't virgins supposed to be light and innocent as air? Besides, you're the one who wanted to eat her.
Shut up, gurgle brain. Just move her over to the opening in the unicorn's box. Shove her legs up in there. Yes. I've got her arms. Mmph. Damn human might as well be made of lead. Should've used a shorter box. Ah, there. Good.
Gol, I think it's waking.
What? The girl or the unicorn?
The unicorn.
Then why aren't you whispering, you three-toed freak?
I was whispering until you made me move the girl.
Shuddup. Get down and hand me the fire stick. I'll slip it under the lip of the box and wake the unicorn. Wait, we've only got one virgin. Are you sure she's lined up right?
Gilbert, if everyone was as finicky as you, we'd never get anything accomplished. I heard her heart beating. It smelled rich and sweet.
Gol, we must not. She must be pure, unharmed.
I know that. Her heart is over the hole. The unicorn's horn will pierce it easily. The moment it lifts its disgusting white head, the change will begin.
Here's the stick then.
Good, good. Ah, delicious smell of burned flesh. Yes, you wake, you wretched creature of peace. Aha.

All right. There you go.
[Dan] Nice.
[Brandon] What do we think?
[Howard] I think that not having descriptions is causing me to picture some awkward sorts of things.
[Dan] I know which line you're thinking of.
[Brandon] Clean rating!
[Howard] Clean rating, clean rating, clean rating. Need some dialogue tags. But other than that, I love hearing the monsters talk. It's always fun to discover very early on that you're in the heads of the monsters and that they are people too.
[Brandon] It stands out from the pack by concept. A lot of the back-and-forth, though... the banter is kind of fun. It's hard to keep track...
[Howard] It is hard to keep track.
[Brandon] Of who's who and what's going on. It might be the... I don't know, it's differentiating itself, but it's not as elegant as some of the others.
[Dan] Yeah. They both seemed very similar. What I noticed is that as much as I liked the early part, when it starts explaining at the end what they're trying to do, it really started to fall apart, I think. That's perhaps more an artifact of the scenario... the strictures of the exercise that you gave them.
[Howard] Directions. Yeah.
[Dan] that they weren't allowed to describe anything. So that... writing this out normally, I think she would take that point to say, to break down or explain it in some other function...
[Howard] We've got to quit penalizing people for that. We're awful.
[Dan] I know. We need to stop doing that. But for everyone listening, you can tell this is the point when they start explaining her heart is perfectly lined up over the hole and when the thing wakes up, it's going to stab her through the heart... that's where it becomes awkward. So, that's where you can notice in your own writing, "Oh, I'm doing that thing that they talked about in the podcast. I need to stop."
[Brandon] Well, and you can... I mean, in an exercise like this, you can try and think your way around moments like this, and when you start to get stuck with that big descriptive, you can say, "OK, how can I do this in fewer words or with more character and stop bogging us down with so much of these descriptions?"

[Howard] One of the most difficult things that I do is the dialogue in the first panel of any given strip. Because while I do expect that the vast majority of my readers have read everything, I want you to be able to start at the first strip and know what's going on without feeling like I just bludgeoned you with a summary of the last three days of strips. So I'm always looking for that little snippet of dialogue that suggests we've moved forward in time about five minutes from the last strip. If you read the last strip. If you didn't, here you are in the middle of a conversation, and it's interesting, and you don't need to know what happened before, let's just go. It's really difficult to do sometimes. Sometimes it's easy, it flows quickly, but...
[Dan] Now, here's me breaking the rules of your writing exercise.
[Brandon] OK.
[Dan] Because if I were doing this, writing the scene with these people trying to accidentally sacrifice a virgin, that would be the point where I... where it starts to become awkward and they start explaining the mechanics of it, just go into description, but don't actually say what they're trying to do or why. Say Og and Thog flopped the virgin up in the right place in the box and woke up the unicorn. It woke up... this is obviously horrible narrative, but you describe how the unicorn wakes up and stabs its heart. You don't have to tell the reader that that's what they wanted. Because the fact that it happens, and then they're happy about it, you go, "Oh, that's probably what they were trying to do." Then something happens and the reader goes, "Oh, well, that's probably why they were trying to do it." The reader can put all of this stuff together on their own without you having to hold their hand the whole way.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] I'm loving that mythos. Oh, you trick a unicorn into killing a virgin and the unicorn turns into a... I don't know what it turns into. Transformation.
[Dan] A sad unicorn.
[Brandon] Yes. We are out of time. I'm going to...
[Howard] Way out of time.
[Brandon] Way out of time. I'm going to have Dan give us a writing prompt. But while you do, I want to mention, I just noticed Empire of the East, the book of the week, starts with two paragraphs of dialogue.
[Dan] Nice!
[Brandon] Two big, thick paragraphs of dialogue.
[Dan] If we weren't already 23 minutes into this, we should have read them.

[Brandon] I'm going to read those. We'll just skip the writing prompt. I'm just going to end this by reading some Saberhagen. All right?
[Dan] OK. Nice.
[Brandon] Hear me, for I am Ardneh. Ardneh who rides the elephant, who wields the lightning, who rends fortifications as the rushing passage of time consumes cheap cloth. You slay me in this avatar, but I live on in other human beings. I am Ardneh, and in the end, I will slay thee, and thou wilt not live on.
Hear me, Ekuman. Neither by day nor by night will I slay thee. Neither with the blade nor with the bow... neither by the edge of the hand nor with the fist... neither with the wet nor with the dry.

The next line is him dying.
[Dan] Sweet. Talk about promises to the reader.
[Brandon] Yeah. There we are. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: characters, dialogue, natural, trust, writing excuses, writing group

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