Friday, April 24, 2009

A Dialogue About Dialogue

By John Gilstrap

Miller looked up from the pistol he was cleaning and nodded to the chair on the opposite side of the table. “Just shoo the chickens away and have a seat,” he said. Pistol parts lay strewn on a greasy towel.

I’d known him for years, and sometimes it was hard to tell if he was angry. “Am I in trouble?” I asked.

“Nah, I just wanted to talk to you about something.” In his baritone drawl, “nah” and “I” rhymed.

I nudged the weird looking brown bird with the back of my hand and she landed on her feet on the floor. Careful to insult neither man nor bird, I sat without checking for bird shit. I crossed my legs and waited for him to say his piece.

“This blog thing,” he said. “They never talk about dialogue. What do you think about that?”

I shrugged. “I think ‘never’ overstates it.”

“Rarely, then.” He pulled a rag through the barrel tube and looked through it with one eye, like a first mate searching for shore. He scowled and stuffed the rag through again. “I just think it’s an important component of writing.”

“Of course it is,” I said.

“Let’s talk about it, then.”

“What, here?”

“You got someplace better to be?”

“Chicken shit and gun oil. How could I possibly want better?”

Finally, a laugh. “I’ve got some Maker’s Mark on the shelf over there.”

Maker’s Mark puts a happy edge on everything. “So talk,” I said. The chicken squawked as I stood and brushed it with my foot. “You want one?”

“The Pope’s still Catholic, right?” He finally saw the gleam he’d been looking for, I guess, because he placed the barrel tube on the towel and emptied his hands of tools. “I think a lot of writers get dialogue wrong.”

“Get it wrong?” I challenged. “You mean there’s a right way and a wrong way? I don’t remember seeing a rule book.” I found two glasses in the cabinet and put them to work. I'm very generous with other people's booze.

“Take dialogue tags, for example: he said, he asked, he interjected, he postulated. Hell, in the last paragraph, you challenged. Why won’t a simple ‘said’ do it all the time?”

I handed him his drink and again dislodged the chicken from my chair. “I suppose it could,” I said. “Elmore Leonard made that one of his ten rules, right? I just happen to think that ‘challenged’ better clarified the purpose of my words up there. ‘Said’ would have been fine, but ‘challenged’ was better.”

“I disagree.”

“Good for you. It’s one of those—”

“Let’s talk about interruptions. You used an em dash right there. If you’d used ellipses . . .”

“It would have conveyed the wrong context. To me, ellipses indicate that my words just trailed off. But the em dash—”

“Is a hard abrupt interruption. Yeah, okay, I can see that. I still don’t agree about the tags, though.”

“They sure come in handy, though.”

“In what way?”

“Well, after long strings of dialogue, it’s easy for the reader to lose track of who’s talking.”

He weighed that. “You could always reestablish ownership of the speech by inserting a little action. For example, if you wrote—”

“ ‘He weighed that,’” I said. “Yeah, I did. Try to keep up.”

He took a long pull on his bourbon. “What do you think about exclamation points?”

“Hate ’em,” I said. “I used to overuse them like crazy. Now, if I use an exclamation point, it’s to communicate some loud friggin’ shouting.”

“You just said ‘friggin’.”

“Yeah, well, this is a family-friendly blog.”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m not talking about profanity,” he said. “I’m talking about the dialect stuff. Why not write frigging, complete with the ing?”

“I don’t have answer for you on that,” I confessed. (Yes, confessed. Get over it. In this context, it implies more than merely said.) “A little dialect goes a long way, though. After a while, I think it annoys the reader.”

“As annoying as a long blog post?” he asked.

“Even more, I think.” Point taken. I stood. “Can I take my drink with me?”

Miller laughed again. “I don’t think I can assemble the gun fast enough to stop you. But don’t you think you should ask them what they think?”

Them? Ah, the readers. The man might sound like Foghorn Leghorn, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders.

So, what do y’all think? What are tricks, triumphs and annoyances of writing or reading dialogue?

Yeah, I hear you in the back. “Trite little blog posts, har, har har.”

Seriously, let’s talk . . .

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.


  1. Great post, except the friggin' chicken was red.

  2. Nice job, John. You pretty much hit them all. My biggest pet peeve are dialogue tags that attribute animal sounds to human speech.

    “Get out and never come back,” she hissed.

    “Grab your weapons and start marching,” he barked.

    Snakes hiss. Dogs bark, People don’t.

  3. I love it! Yes, that did deserve an exclamation point.

    Here's another one: "I love this blog," she smiled. It's impossible to smile dialogue.

  4. Well and cleverly done. You also managed to show how dialog moves things along. I read the post throuhg a feed, and no no idea how much space it took on the screen until I came to the site for this comment. It flew by.

    Bad dialog will take me out of a story faster than anything other than truly amateurish writing. This I read to the end.

  5. John, chickens are all sorta beige by the time I get them on my plate.

    Joe, this is interesting. I'm guilty of both "barked" and "hissed." The occasional "growl," too. I like the raw animal element that tags like that can bring to a character. All things in moderation, of course.

    Joyce, your example of non-verbal tags is indeed one of my pet peeves. "'I love your post,' she said with a smile" works; "'I love your post,' she smiled" doesn't. Not for me, anyway.

    Whcih brings me to one of my overarching rules of the writing game: There are no rules. There's only what works. A technique used successfully by one author might not work at all for another.

    Dana, it's such a balance, isn't it? Somehow, the dialogue scene need to convey action, images and coonversation all at the same time. That's what makes it difficult to do.

  6. "Excellent post," R.J. agreed.

    The thing that tends to annoy me is the overuse of dialogue tags. It interrupts the flow of the story. You can see this in a lot of Robert Parker's later books. The dialogue goes something like this:

    "Where are we going?" I said.

    "I have to make a stop first," she said.

    "Please don't take too long," I said.

    "I'll only be a little while," she said.

    And it continues like this. Now don't get me wrong, Parker is great story teller, but a dialogue tag for almost every (or at least every other line) can get annoying.

    I was legally blind for a year and listened to a lot of audio books. And I have to be hones, I don't think I ever made it through an entire Parker book because of all the dialogue tags.

  7. I loved this post, John! One frequent problem I see with dialogue is that it is nonadversarial, dull, or non-goal oriented. It can be hard to distinguish the "voice" of one character from another (you mentioned how the author can use tags to help resolve that issue.) We could do an entire blog post on how to write a distinctive character voice.

    Another thing I think writers need to avoid in dialogue is making it too symmetrical--that is, every question receives an answer. That becomes dull. One character can break up that rhythm by changing the subject, or doing something unexpected.

    Writers should edit out most of the filler, such as hellos, good-byes, and social pleasantries. Such talk is "real," but it's also really boring to read.

  8. Great post John. I find the hardest thing is trimming dialogue down to its essential elements without losing atmosphere. Too many adverbs and the dialogue becomes ludicrous, too few and it's too staccato for my kind of story. As Kathryn said it's also important to keep the dialogue meaningful so you have to avoid the boring bits without losing the flavor of actual conversation. Tricky stuff! I have fun though with how characters reveal themselves through dialogue - banter between characters is one of my main pleasures when I get into the 'zone' in my writing.

  9. I wonder how the ancient Greeks did dialogue, since they didn't use punctuation, spaces, capitals, etc.

    Of course, maybe those are the reasons their longest novel was only a few dozen pages.

  10. R.J.: You're right about Parker, I think; and I also think it's an odd choice for him because his books seem so intentionally breezy to read. Another author who I think abuses the dialogue tag (and the adverb) is J.K. Rowling. Don't get me wrong, I love both authors' work. But a distraction is a distraction.

    Kathryn: I agree totally. Characters should never say hello or goodbye unless it advances the story. Similarly, I try to avoid having characters enter or exit a room.

    Clare, you nailed it on the banter thing, but even that can get old after a while.

    Basil: It's all Greek to me. (Sorry. It was there. Someone had to say it.)

  11. “Chicken shit and gun oil. How could I possibly want better?”

    a favorite perfume: hoppes no. 9.

  12. Great, great, great post, John. But now I want some Makers Mark. Damn you.