August 21, 2009 / 3 Comments

Say Say Say

Michael Jackson, as promised.

So, this week I wanted to talk about… well, talking. I prattled on about dialogue descriptors just a few weeks back, and the simple power of said. However, a few recent things I’ve read over the past couple weeks– plus one god-awful movie I saw which was supposed to be about a real American hero– have had me thinking about dialogue as a whole.

Dialogue really is the lifeblood of fiction. Sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. If you’ve got dialogue problems in a novel or short story it’s really bad. In a screenplay it’s pretty much fatal. It’s a killer because everyone knows what people sound like. They may not all disarm warheads, fight ninjas, or race dinosaurs, but everybody talks to people, so it’s the first place a writer’s work can get picked apart.

So, here are five easy things to spot in your writing which can keep dialogue from flowing naturally.

Extra descriptors— Even if you’re using said, you don’t always need to use it. After a point, it should be apparent who’s talking. Look at this…


Tom cracked his knuckles. “You really want to do this?”

“I do,” said Jerry.

“No holds barred?”

“All out. Mano e mano.”

“You’re going to get hurt.”

“I better, for your sake.”

“Cocky little rodent, aren’t you?”


No problem keeping track of who’s talking, is there? Plus with less words it’s leaner and faster. You can feel the tension building in the exchanges because you’re not getting slowed down by excess words.

Not only that, once you’ve got speech patterns down for your characters, you should need descriptors even less. In my book Ex-Heroes, Gorgon’s dialogue could never get confused with Stealth’s. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy doesn’t speak the same way as Belloq, and neither of them sound like Toht, the black-coated Gestapo agent. Their voices identify them just as well as a header would.

Spoken names— It’s very rare to address someone by name. Pay attention during your next phone call, or look at The Road by Cormac McCarthy. We never learn the character’s names because they never say them. Why would they? They’re the only two people around, and have been for ages now. Look at that last example up above. Tom and Jerry know each other, and we get the sense they’re speaking directly to one another, so they don’t have to keep saying each other’s name again and again. It just starts sounding kind of cartoony.


“You know, Fred…”

“Yes, Barney?”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Wilma. Fred, do you remember that week Betty was away and you had to work late a lot down at the quarry?”

“Barney, you son of a–“

“We didn’t mean to, Fred. It just happened! It was–Fred, no! Put the club down, Fred! FRED!!!”


Even if you’re doing it a bit more seriously than I just did, spoken names can also come across as a bit fake. It’s the author acknowledging the audience may be having trouble keeping track, and throwing in a name is the easiest way to deal with it, rather than the best way. Remember, if you’ve got two characters who have been introduced, it’s really rare that they’ll need to keep using each other’s names. Especially if they’re the only ones there.

Cool lines D’you remember that bit in The Incredibles when Syndrome reveals his master plan? “And when everybody’s super… no one will be.” It’s an ugly truth–everything becomes mundane when there’s no baseline. If everyone’s a millionaire, being a millionaire isn’t all that great. If everyone on your basketball team is eight feet tall, who’s the tall guy? If anybody can hit a bullseye at 100 yards out, hitting a bullseye doesn’t really mean anything, does it?

The same holds for dialogue. We all want to have a memorable line or three that sticks in the reader’s mind forever. The thing is, they’re memorable because they stand out. Even in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old films, when he had piles of one-liners, he also had piles of lines no one remembers that just advanced the story. We all remember the first line he says to the Predator, but do you remember the first line he says to Dylan? What about any line he gave to Hawkins, the skinny guy?

Fun side note–believe it or not, Hawkins is screenwriter Shane Black, the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

If you try to make every line a cool line, or even most of them, you’re shooting yourself in the foot because none of them are going to stand out. When everything’s turned up to eleven, it’s all at eleven– it’s monotone.

“As you know…” – If you take nothing else from today’s rant, take this. Find every sentence in your writing that starts with this phrase or one of it’s halfbreed cousins like “You know, (insert character name)…”.

Once you’ve found them, delete them ALL.

This is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is. Think about it.

“Yakko, you know I get grumpy if I don’t eat.” If he does know, maybe you should just get to your point.

“As you know, Wakko, my birthday is coming up…” Well if Wakko knows, why does the speaker need to point it out?

“You know, Dot, we’ve been friend for twelve years now…” Did Dot have a head injury and needs to be reminded of this? If so, cool, if not…

“As you know, men, this war against the Zentradi has been going on for seven years now…” Seven years and you’ve got to tell a room full of soldiers who they’ve been fighting against and for how long? Where did these folks get shipped in from?

If you’ve got a really solid manuscript, you might be able to get away with doing this once. Just once. As long as you don’t do it your first ten pages or so. Past that, get out your editorial safety scissors and start cutting.

Grammatically Correct – very few people speak in perfect, grammatically correct English, aside from a few freaks with inferiority complexes. We all speak differing degrees of colloquial English. Our verbs don’t always line up with our nouns. Tenses don’t always match. Fact is, a lot of “spoken” English looks awful on the page. If you’ve got the grammar function on in Word (and, seriously, why is it on? Kill that thing right now. And the spellchecker while you’re at it), spoken English is a nightmare.

This is where a lot of new writers choke, because they can’t reconcile the words on the page with the voices in their heads (so to speak). Thus, they end up with several characters, all of whom speak in a precisely regulated manner which seems wooden, affected, and does not flow by any definition of the term. To help beat this, you want to have someone else read your words out loud. Not you, because you know where to pause and emphasize. See what someone else does with it, how natural the words really sound, and how well they really flow.

And that’s that. Five things you should be able to spot and fix with almost no effort at all.

Next week… I don’t know. Part of me was thinking about talking about action scenes, but I’ve also been bouncing around some thoughts about antagonists. Any preferences?

Regardless, go write.

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