Wednesday, March 14, 2012


I've been told I have a gift for dialog in my writing. I prefer to think of it as sticking to a few simple rules.

Stick to the point.
Real conversations tend to ramble around, are filled with incomplete sentences and often times incomplete thoughts. This makes up most of the our conversations with people. When we think about what was said later, our mind clears all that up and an hour long conversation turns into three paragraphs.

So I write dialog the same way my mind remembers them, highly condensed so the main points stick out.

Just like having the main points stick out, we tend to remember the funny things people say more than everything else. In real life even the funniest person you know doesn't have you laughing like you where at a comedy club. They might at best give one funny line for every twenty lines they say. But what do you remember about the conversation? That 5% of what they say.

So my characters tend to have a several one liners and funny saying sprinkled throughout their conversations.

Character Revealing
In real life we tend to be chameleons in our dialog, we blend our speech patterns to fit the people we are talking to. I used to call people all around the country. An hour of calling the upper mid-west and you would think I never left Wisconsin. Calling the south you'd think I was born and raised here in Kentucky. The North East people knew I was from New York, even 10 years after I left.

When writing dialog my characters don't unintentionally blend. They don't try to mimic the speech of the other people. That makes for good if unrealistic character reveals.

When these Rules Breakdown

Like most simple rules for complex problems when they break down, they really breakdown.

I tried to apply these rules to an argument that my MC had with his girlfriend.

The situation was they had started to have phone sex earlier, after being interrupted she tells him she'll try and call later. He leaves his phone in his room as he rushes out the door to go study. She calls him for an hour getting more and more frustrated. When she finally reaches him she unleashes all her anger on him. (He already knows she has trouble controlling her emotions.)

I followed my simple rules.

Sticking to the point: She yells at him, he tells her to calm down. She doesn't. So he tells he to call back when she can be calm. Neither character is supposed to be being really mean, it's just a major breakdown in communication.

When reduced to under 400 words it makes both of them sound like jerks. Guys read it and couldn't understand why my main character would take her back. Girls read it and couldn't see why heroine would want a guy who won't even attempt to listen to them.

Reading it after getting that feedback I saw their points.

Witty: In calm situations a character being witty is funny, in an argument it's being demeaning. Both my characters make witty statements constantly throughout the book. So in the argument they do it as well. Instead of relieving tension, it reads like each thinks the others feelings are a joke. Not good.

Character Revealing: The reason we try to blend our speech to people around us is not fool them into thinking we are something we're not. We blend our speech to put other people at ease. They don't have to translate what we are saying. This goes tenfold for an argument. In real life when people get mad they loose this blending ability. It puts up a wall letting the other person know, I care more about my anger right now than what you are saying. In real life if I hear someone's accent breakdown I know the argument is over, they won't hear anything else I say. If its someone I care about I'll ask them if they can take a breath and then say what they have to say. If it is someone I'm negotiating with I'll state my most reasonable terms knowing they will reject them. Then when negotiations resume they'll feel like a jerk.

Having the characters not try and blend with each other in an argument means they are being real jerks to each other and care more about being mad than the other person's feelings.

Rules for writing the Dialog in Arguments

I don't have any right now, I'll play around with my argument for a while until I can get some. Any ideas would be really appreciated.


  1. i found this very interesting, largely because the rules you cite either aren't ones I use or hadn't occurred to me (with the exception of #2). Since I speak the same no matter who I'm speaking to (unless I make a conscious attempt otherwise) my main characters tend to do the same. I'd never thought of that before because I never did it.

    As for sticking to the point, it depends on the purpose of the discussion. I like dialog and use it a great deal because it's where I do the bulk of my character development. But I'm perfectly in charity with all the extraneous nothings that go in a "regular" conversation, throwing in only the occasional pause or "er" so it doesn't seem entirely contrived.

    I'm not sure I've had many arguments, actually, or, because I always have insight into at least one of my character's brains, I felt like I didn't lose touch with at least one side.

    Of course, I'm hardly objective about what I do myself.

  2. This one spot was tough because I've never had characters really argue. I've had them disagree, and even shut down the conversation, but never argue.
    The biggest problem is truly arguing is something we all do at some time, and it makes no sense. If you ever watch an argument neither side is listening to the other, and often one person is mad at someone who isn't even there. (In this case my heroine is mad at people in general and my main character just happens to be available to be yelled at) From the outside it makes no sense, even when on the inside it makes no sense. But we all let our emotions fly on occasion and trying to get that on the page is tough.