Speaking of Dialog

by | April 24, 2015 | General | 7 comments

by Kathleen Bradean

Like Donna, I had a topic in mind this month, but after I read Garce’s entry on dialog a week ago, I was inspired to switch too.

During my morning commute, I’ve been listening to old radio programs from the late 40s and early 50s such as Suspense, The Shadow, Gunsmoke,  The Falcon and Johnny Dollar. I’ve also listened to broadcasts of movie scripts such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre that were edited for radio and performed by the motion picture casts. No matter what genre it is, each of these programs are masterpieces of tight writing. Every line establishes or reinforces character and moves the plot along. With only the help of a foley artist and actors, the illusion of action is created. It’s really quite miraculous and wonderful.

On the other hand, in a novel or short story, you can’t get away with some of the crutches you can in a play, tv, or a movie.

For example, it’s considered bad writing to have an “As you know, Jim” passage where a character explains something to another character for the benefit of the reader rather than for the other character.  

“As you know, Jim, you were my college roommate. After graduation, we went to work together here. We were the best of friends. Then I dated your sister and after not-fully-explained-bad-event-in-the-past-that-caused-your-sister-to-take-up-with-a-yak-herding-cult there was a big rift in our relationship but we’ve got to put that behind us right now because the fate of the entire planet hangs in the balance!”

But that sort of dialog is often in plays and movies. While I grit my teeth at it, I’m sure most people in the audience don’t realize how ridiculous it is for, say, a CSI tech to explain to another CSI tech why they’re lifting latent prints off an item found at a crime scene.

That’s not the only way prose writers are more constrained by  the form they work in.

While His Girl Friday is an amazing movie, writing overlapping dialog in a short story rarely works well. (I tried to write an example. It sucked. If you don’t want to take my word for how difficult it is, watch His Girl Friday or any other Howard Hawks movie then try to recreate one of the more manic scenes on paper and see how far you get.)

Dialog in prose has the disadvantage of not being spoken. (Although I strongly suggest reading all your work, not just dialog, out loud before you submit it anywhere.)  Tone and meaning have to be conveyed through the reader’s imagination rather than benefiting from the skills of an actor to bring out that meaning for the audience.

Dialog is a strange form of art. The writer isn’t trying to replicate the way real people talk, Real people take too long to get to the damn point, say um a lot, and spend far too much time talking about things that aren’t the exciting plot points of their lives. So what we’re aiming for is a completely artificial construct that serves the story but is worded in such a way that the reader could imagine a real person saying it. No. They have to be able to hear it in their imagination in that character’s voice and it has to ring true or your readers are going to roll their eyes.

No pressure.

If you can, try to listen to a few old radio broadcasts and pay attention to what those writers were able to do with dialog, a foley artist, and maybe and organ riff or two. It’s not the same as writing prose, but it will give you new respect for the power of dialog.

Kathleen Bradean

Kathleen Bradean’s stories can be found in The Best Women’s Erotica 2007, Haunted Hearths, Garden of the Perverse, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 6, and She’s On Top in print. Clean Sheets and The Erotica Readers and Writer’s Association websites have also featured her stories. Writing as Jay Lygon, her stories can be found in Inside Him, Blue Collar Taste Tests, Toy Box: Floggers, and the novels Chaos Magic, Love Runes, and Personal Demons. Read more about Kathleen Bradean at: KathleenBradean.Blogspot.com www.JayLygonWrites.com


  1. Bryce Calderwood

    Here's what I go by: If it doesn't advance the plot or reveal character, it's probably not necessary. Each character should have a unique way of speaking so they don't all sound the same (more easily done in revision than in a first draft for me). And dialogue should not be "on point," where characters are saying obvious things that have no subtext.

    Great article!.

    • Kathleen Bradean

      Bryce – this "easily done in revision" part isn't so easy for me. I have to work to make my characters have unique voices. They all start off sounding like me. While I'm aware of that weakness in my writing, its hard for me to break out of it. Do you have any tricks for differentiating their voices?

  2. Donna

    I'm going to try to listen to some radio shows. Sounds like a fabulous idea. I actually find how-to writing guides for screen-plays more useful for my writing because it helps to approach story crafting from a different angle. I'm too used to my own habits with prose.

    I tend to hear the characters talking in my head, then write down what they say. In the editing process, I usually have to cut out a lot of "well," "so," "you know" and the like (not all, but more than would be spoken naturally). Another thing that amuses me is that I'd say the male characters are much more "me" than the female characters. I do agree it's difficult to write in different voices, especially for longer pieces.

    Are you going to write about what you were going to write about next month? I'm going to try–unless something else good comes up!

    • Kathleen Bradean

      Maybe, unless something more compelling pops up. I was going to talk about finding the starting point for a novel.

      I like the Johnny Dollar radio shows the most, probably because I love private detective stories, but also because the writing strikes me as some of the best I've heard. There isn't a wasted line.

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    [Darn. Blogger ate my comment!]

    I find dialogue pretty much the most difficult part of this game. The conversations in my early books are truly cringe-worthy. At least I've learned to use contractions now LOL, but I still have a long way to go.

    I'd never really considered the differences between spoken and written dialogue, but you're so right. We have so few cues to work with. No voice timbre, tone, pitch or volume. Very little information about speed or rhythm, aside from what can be conveyed with em-dashes and ellipsis. And of course no simultaneous utterances. We have to do everything with word choice and sentence structure. No wonder it's so tough.

    • Kathleen Bradean

      It is hard. Thankfully, the reader brings a huge gift to the party, and that's their imagination. When I read, I 'hear' the characters' speaking their lines, so I add pace, tone, etc., which may be why every reader has a different take on a character. They get their clues from the writer, but then shade everything coming out of the character's mouth with their interpretation of what those clues mean.

  4. Jean Roberta

    Good post, Kathleen! Having transcribed actual recorded interviews into type (many years ago), I'm aware that much of what people say doesn't advance a plot or stay on topic, so dialogue in fiction only has to SEEM realistic. Writing a play must involve tackling the difficulties of speech in a concentrated form.

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