25th Trillium Award


Share |

Talking Tips

With Paula Daly, John Goldbach, Colette Maitland, Annie McLurg, Jim Nason, Hilary Scharper and Rebecca Silver Slayter.

This month, we asked a handful of authors to answer the question: What advice do you have for writing dialogue?

Listen. That?s the best advice I have for writing dialogue. Just shut up and listen. There are lots of practical aspects to writing dialogue that can be learned. You need to know, for instance, how to properly punctuate and format dialogue (easily understood by looking at how it is done in any novel from a reputable publishing house). You should rarely, if ever, use any word other than ?said? to assign dialogue to a character. Don?t continually split dialogue into two parts using assignations (a classic novice error). Don?t aim for verisimilitude. Do use dialogue to show character. Don?t put guttural or non-word sounds in quotes. They should be described using prose, not spelled out as part of speech.

Etc, etc, etc... lots you can learn.

But if you don?t listen to the world. If you yourself spend all your time talking and thinking about yourself, you are never going to hear anything other than your own voice. I?ve always felt that the most important ability a writer of fiction must develop is the ability to get out of the way. This is a skill that must be learned and honed. And it begins with how you listen to the world. You have to listen in two ways simultaneously: actively to what people are saying (the words and meaning), and passively to how they speak (the tone, inflection and general voice). You have to absorb this stuff. Voices should enter you like a song that you can?t get out of your head. Then you have to store them for later use. The words themselves are less important than the tone. If you get the tone, the words will follow. When you can?t listen any more, when you are full of these voices and need to expel them, you are ready to write.

Now let?s hear what some other writers have to say about writing dialogue.


Paula Daly is the author of the novel Just What Kind of Mother Are You? She lives in Cumbria, UK.

Aside from the basics — and I?m thinking of Stephen King?s advice here — only use the word ?said? in dialogue attribution and go easy on the adverbs — I?d say there are two main points worth mentioning when writing dialogue.

The first is before you begin writing the scene think about the outcome. What is it your characters need to say to each other to move the story forward? Or what needs to be revealed?

What you might think is witty, amazing dialogue is only interesting to the reader if the conversation is actually going somewhere (usually this meansthrough conflict). Dialogue needs to be there for a reason and if you can?t say what that reason is, chances are, it?s going to fall flat.

The second is: pay close attention to the beats within the dialogue. New writers often put in far too many beats, thinking it makes their writing better. It doesn?t. For example:

?No, of course I didn?t tell her I slept with Jemima,? John says as he wrings his hands furiously, furrowing his brow. ?I would never tell anyone that!? he adds, taking a step back, resting his elbow on the fireplace, while running the fingers of his other hand through his hair.

We don?t need these beats. The dialogue itself is enough to convey John is pretty anxious about his misdemeanour.

I think the tendency to overuse beats comes from writers trying too hard to Show and not Tell. In trying to ?show? us everything the passages become clunky and annoying. If in doubt, leave it out. Passages with quick fire dialogue with no tags and no beats jump off the page and are a joy to read. Particularly in the middle of a novel when the pace is flagging.


John Goldbach is the author of The Devil and the Detective and Selected Blackouts. He lives in Montreal, QC.

In an interview with John O?Brien of Dalkey Archive Press the great US novelist and poet Gilbert Sorrentino said: ?There is absolutely nothing valuable with tape-recorder accuracy in the writing of dialogue. All excellent dialogue is stylized dialogue. If you were to record what somebody actually sounds like, you would get a kind of hopeless, graceless, verbose hash [?] Voice is a formal design, to use [William Carlos] Williams?s term, just as formal as any other kind of narrative strategy that one might use.? Sorrentino makes a similar claim in his review of William Gaddis?s masterwork J R, praising Gaddis?s great novel for its stylized and brilliant dialogue, which ?is not the product of a tape recorder [?] but the carefully selected and shaped materials that reveal each character as definitely as physical description.?

I couldn?t agree more with Sorrentino. In a novel, say, even if you?re writing a transcription of a recorded conversation, it shouldn?t really be a taped conversation, presented plainly, because transcriptions of recorded conversations are incredibly boring on their own. It should be stylized and made part of the book?s overall aesthetic, etc.

William Gaddis is a great writer to read when it comes to written dialogue — perhaps the best — for his novels are almost entirely made up of dialogue (save his final novel, Agap? Agape, which is more of a Bernhardian style meditation/rant, etc.). The other novelist that immediately comes to mind when it comes to books primarily made up of dialogue is Manuel Puig, who?s a wonderful writer and worth reading, if you haven?t already. (Vladimir Sorokin?s The Queue is also a terrific novel that?s entirely made up of dialogue.) But, in short, ?how people really talk? doesn?t make for interesting written dialogue. It has to have more to it. If you just sit down with a friend and record the conversation and then write it out plainly, well, that?s dullsville. I used to transcribe documentary film footage (briefly) and rereading the transcripts really was boring, even when the content was fascinating, which it often was, but the dialogue on its own, presented plainly for the purposes of editing, had nothing to it; if I were just to cut-and-paste some of those transcripts into a novel, the reader would be justified in skipping those sections, etc. (Besides, that?s sort of cheating, I think.) Again, though, there?s nothing wrong with transcribed conversations in novels — they can be wonderful — but they shouldn?t really be transcribed conversations — they only work when they?re stylized, etc.


Colette Maitland is the author of the short fiction collection Keeping the Peace. She lives in Gananoque, ON

A writer needs to cultivate an ear for dialogue, and to do so she needs to listen to how people speak. My first bit of advice to beginning writers is to remove the ear-buds from your ears, put down your electronic devices and listen to the people that surround you — in your home, at work, the coffee shop, the mall, your local pub, on the subway, walking in the park or down the halls of your high school. Listen to the way that they talk, their idiomatic language ? their pauses, their verbal tics — listen to what they are not saying, watch how their bodies communicate. If you hear something that interests you, commit it to memory, or write it down on a scrap of paper from your wallet or purse, or in a notebook. Save it for later.

There is drama in dialogue, conflict in conversation. I discover a lot about my characters when they begin to speak to each other on the page. Often, I?ll let them blather on ? I can always come back later and cut out the boring bits. You find out a lot about people in real life if you listen to them, so allow your characters to talk and maybe they?ll tell you something you didn?t know, pushing your story into new and exciting territory in the process.

Nothing brings a story more to life than when your characters are speaking to one another, but a writer can really muddle things up by adding stilted or boring adverbs intended to let the reader know how the character is feeling because the writer doesn?t trust her own skill with dialogue.

Example: ?I?m so fucking pissed right now,? she said angrily.

Oh my, she has quite the potty-mouth. What does she look like, do you think? How old is she? What?s her name? Is she talking to a friend, a parent, a sibling, or a shrink? And what is it that has got her so out of sorts? Cut ?she said angrily?. Okay, you may end up needing ?she said? for clarity?s sake, but ?angrily?, like a lot of modifiers, is unnecessary. Not only did she say she was pissed she said she was fucking pissed (characters, unlike writers, will sometimes use modifiers) — I think she was pretty clear. Avoid tagging your dialogue with adverbs, stick with he said, she said.

Sometimes your characters, like the young lady above, will want to say mean, awful, spiteful things to each other, things that make the I-always-colour-within-the-lines-writer-that-you-are squirm. Let them say what they need to say. Get out of the way. It?s their story, not yours.

I never consider a draft to be complete until I?ve read the piece out loud. It?s amazing what I can catch when I hear the words coming back through my ears, rather than reading them silently — bits of dialogue that I thought were brilliant in my head may sound forced or untrue. Read your work aloud. Listen and revise. Repeat.


Annie McLurg is the author of the novel No Angel. She lives in Prince Edward County, ON.

Read. Read. Read. You will absorb it.

Explore dialogue as a way to define character. Pay attention to overheard conversations. Notice how conversation does not follow a straight line. How difficult it is to say what is meant. How the listener often goes off on another tangent. Notice how people do not treat everyone the same. People speak differently to those they love a lot than to those they love less.

Dialogue defines character. There is no need to explain. Character is revealed by showing instead of telling. And showing instead of telling respects the reader. Assume the reader is smarter than you are. Leave room for her to fill in the blanks.

It is the things that do not come in the expected sequences and patterns that allow the light to shine through. God hides in the details.

Pertinent dialogue moves the story forward. Pointless chatter bores the reader. Do not overdo local dialects.
Know your characters. Write out of love for all of them. How do they think, feel. What drives them.

Do not think too much. Take a running leap into the centre of the scene. Be the characters. Be playful. Lose yourself in the magic of creating story. One close up scene says it all.

Love what you are doing, not the result. Be willing to write shitty first drafts. Dr. Seuss says, ?everything stinks until it?s finished.? Do not let fear of failure get in the way. Ignore the inner critic.

Weave inner conversations into the story giving insight to the reader. It is a generous act to allow the reader into our feelings.

Dialogue is the proof that what we have been told is true.


Jim Nason is the author of the short story collection The Girl on the Escalator, and the novels I Thought I?d Be Happy and The Housekeeping Journals. He lives in Toronto, ON.

Great dialogue can keep your reader glued to the book and advance your story. Combining narrative description with dialogue in a harmonious flow is key to telling a story without too much forced language or taking your reader out of the moment of action. Real speech is efficient and does exactly what it needs to do: trust that.

Less storytelling and more action; dialogue should have a natural pace and be a seamless part of the action. It?s difficult to sustain momentum with a passage full of attributives. Avoid using a verb other than ?said? to carry dialogue — anything else usually feels contrived — but, wherever possible, omit the ?he said? or ?she said? entirely.

The spoken voice of your character should imitate the type of person she or he is ? short, choppy statements for abrupt individuals; longer sentences for your more animated characters. Spoken voice should mirror inner dialogue and reflect the interior narrative. David Sedaris is a master story teller. In his collection, Naked, by the time the mother speaks her first ?outside? words, the reader is well set up to hear the angry, sarcastic tone of her voice.

?Oh, for God?s sake,? my mother said, tossing her wooden spoon into a cauldron of beef gravy.

That act of tossing her wooden spoon into the cauldron is critical to supporting the conversation between the mother and son in Sedaris?s book. We know instantly that the mother has a tendency to be abrupt and flip things off without too much thought to the consequences of her words or actions. Although the reader is only on page two of the Sedaris book, this character is established by a few well-chosen words and an aggressive gesture. Gesture, action and tone are all part of dialogue.

Michael Cunningham?s novel The Hours is a masterpiece of pacing inner and outer dialogue. The book opens with the beautiful Prologue in which Virginia Woolf is walking to the river, contemplating her suicide. When her husband comes home he encounters the maid: ?Madame went out,? the maid said, plumbing a shabby pillow that releases a miniature storm of down. There?s nothing else that needs to be said about the tenderness of the lost life and the complexity of the relationship. Yet, we read on: ?She said she?d be back soon.? Most readers are aware of what happened to Virginia Woolf but we are compelled, by well-chosen words, to turn the pages. Trust Cunningham and study dialogue like his to figure out why it works.

Your characters are distinct. Give them distinctive voices that reflect who they are. And finally, don?t be afraid to drop words. As in real life, people don?t always finish their thoughts or sentences. There?s always more to be said? believe that your reader is smart enough to fill in the blanks.


Hilary Scharper is the author of the novel Perdita . She lives in Toronto, ON.

This is a very tricky question for me, mostly because I?ve never viewed dialogue as simply what people say to one another. For me, ?dialogue? is very much about what people can?t or won?t say to each other. So in my writing, dialogue has to not only function as natural, convincing communication among characters, but also capture a dynamic about ?unspoken? thoughts or agendas — a dynamic that unfolds within personalities, relationships and social conventions. I find the many non-verbal elements of dialogue often the most interesting and page-turning aspects of stories.

Why doesn?t he just come out and tell her that he?s madly in love with her?

In Jane Austen?s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mr. Darcy won?t do it properly for over 200 pages — making the novel a wonderful read!

Should she tell her friend the truth — the real truth?

In Edith Wharton?s Roman Fever (1834), Mrs. Slade gets more than she bargained for when her smugly secure relationship with her husband is shattered by three ?truthful? words spoken so softly, almost reluctantly at the very end of the story.

Why are they all so studiously avoiding the term ?ghost??

In Henry James?s Turn of the Screw (1898), the governess stubbornly avoids labeling what we all know is going on — or do we?

Some of the most compelling forms of dialogue in a story will capture the sense that words are a necessary, but limited and highly imperfect, way of communicating our real thoughts and desires. I think this is particularly important point while writing romantic episodes — especially given that human love is a quintessentially unquantifiable (and thus a profoundly inarticulate) experience. Even plain speaking in matters-of-the-heart can hide as much as it reveals. . . .


Rebecca Silver Slayter is the author of the novel In the Land of Birdfishes. She lives in Cape Breton, NS.

I suspect that behind much of the most tedious dialogue in literature is a single well-intentioned culprit: the pursuit of verisimilitude. Writing is not life; it?s art. That?s the beauty and challenge of it, that it?s an invented, stylized, highly distilled counterfeit reality that is somehow, nonetheless, meant to pass as authentic. As readers we?re primed to regard this artifice that is nothing like life as lifelike, as long as some critical part, some innermost kernel, feels true. And so it is with dialogue. In real life, we exchange endless pleasantries, stutter, hesitate, mix up our words, and interrupt ourselves. In writing, every stutter or hesitation or mix-up is designed to tell something about the characters and the things they aren?t saying. So good dialogue should never imitate the way people actually talk. And yet, it should capture enough of the diction or rhythm or speech patterns of the way people talk, that we are convinced it is. So to me, the art is one of editing as much as of writing. I try to revisit each passage of dialogue many times, cutting a little more each time, in the hope that what remains contains all the mood and subtext of the complete conversation?in just a few cogent, compelling lines.

I try hard to avoid expository dialogue. Dialogue is a really clunky, awkward vehicle for transporting exposition. It?s like arriving in a rusted-out Chevy that left its muffler two towns back. Everybody sees you coming, and there will be no more hope of smuggling in art, disguised as life. It is better to provide information in narration or reveal it only obliquely in dialogue, letting the reader guess at the truth or piece it together slowly over time. A writing teacher of mine says that dialogue should always be telling us something more than the words themselves reveal; that covert insight should be the purpose of each passage.

This may sound ridiculous — and perhaps it?s just me trying to make use of an undergrad degree in drama — but I find reading dialogue out loud (or even acting it out) helps me flag overwritten or phony-sounding lines (if it?s awkward to read out loud, it?s awkward to read on the page). This is also why I don?t write in cafes.

And then, when I?m not writing, I try really hard to be listening. I have a bizarre love of any kind of public transit where I can eavesdrop shamelessly. I like hearing how people of a particular age or background or circumstance talk to each other. I love encountering, unexpectedly, a glimpse into a relationship that I can only guess at from a handful of words. I very rarely, if ever, put what I hear directly on the page, but these fragments of truth fortify my imagination, and get me thinking about how people say what they mean, or somehow figure out what each other means without ever saying it at all.



SHAUN SMITH is a novelist and award-winning journalist in Toronto, Canada. His young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in 2009 by the Dundurn Group. His book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs is available on Kindle and is forthcoming in paperback from Tightrope Books in June 2013. shaunsmith.ca

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Advanced Search