Dialogue: It’s not just what you say (an exercise)

I recently gave a mini-workshop on dialogue at the Seattle writing center Hugo House. I’ve adapted my teaching notes for this post.


Workshop: It’s Not Just What You Say
Dialogue is much more than what characters say. We’ll look at how people communicate between the lines (or without them), and learn tips and techniques for visualizing and writing specific physical action and body language to carry the conversation.

In stories, as in life, we use language to communicate with each other to get things done, express ourselves and share ourselves.

All these kinds of communication include emotional meaning. But sometimes that meaning isn’t in the words. Our challenge as writers is to make all the layers of meaning — even the unspoken ones — clear in our dialogue.

There are two traps writers often fall into with dialogue.

Trap #1 – Dialogue that is “on the nose.” Characters tell each other exactly what they are thinking, feeling or doing, in a rational, linear fashion. “Jim, you just treated me very disrespectfully and I’m upset and embarrassed right now,” Karen said.

This approach of explaining precisely what’s happening inside us works great in conflict resolution because it’s very clear, but there’s no scary emotion in it: but it rarely works in fiction. In real life, we do not say literally what we mean. We talk about things sideways, or avoid topics, or can’t quite bring ourselves to say what we mean. Sometimes we lie. Sometimes we stay silent.

Trap #2 – Said-bookisms. Sometimes writers use a “literary” word instead of “said” or “asked” as a dialogue tag, in order to try to explain to the reader what the character really feels. “Jim, you were so rude! How could you embarrass me in front of all our friends like that?” Karen complained angrily. This makes sure we know that Karen is angry, but not in a way that we can connect with directly on an emotional level.

If you have to explain to the reader what’s happening in every moment of dialogue by hanging said-bookisms and their adverbial friends on the words, you haven’t fully created the emotional context of the conversation. And emotional context is always the goal — a context so clear that each moment comes alive within the reader.

How do we make meaning come alive for the reader without “explaining”? Here’s a concept that I hope will help. In the workshop I taught, I did the following exercise:

I found a volunteer to ask me, “How are you?”

I looked at them hard for a moment, in silence. I folded my arms. I made my voice flat. I said, “I’m fine.”

Then I asked the class, “Am I really fine?” Everyone said no, you’re angry.

“How do you know?” I asked, and they described for me the way I’d used my voice and body.

We repeated this with “I’m fine” said by someone embarrassed, and someone who is stoned. I didn’t have to tell them how I was feeling — doing the feeling, living it, was more than enough to make the point.

We instantly identify meaning this way, constantly and unconsciously, in every interaction in our daily lives. There’s a neurological basis for this — mirror neurons that fire in your brain both when you do something, and when you see another person do the same thing. In this way, seeing is believing — I see you do something, my brain processes it as if I’m doing it myself so that I understand immediately what it means, and at that moment your experience comes alive inside me. If I see you start to cry, my mirror neurons fire as if I’m about to cry myself — and sometimes I do. Many scientists (although not all) believe that mirror neurons are the neurological basis of empathy and imitative learning.

So one key to effective dialogue is to find specific behaviors to accompany the words that will help the reader see and understand the true emotional meaning of the moment.

    These specific behaviors can include:
  • Physical action
  • Body language
  • Vocal tone
  • Facial expression
  • Interior thoughts
  • Metaphors to describe behavior (“I don’t think this is working. Us,” she said, in the tone of someone getting started on a nasty chore; someone saying, Let’s just get this done.)
    Your job as the writer is to:
  • Think about the emotional truth of each moment of dialogue
  • Imagine specific behaviors that your character might bring to that moment
  • Then make choices about what behaviors to describe. You cannot illustrate every single moment. and you don’t have to. If you pick a good, specific detail, it will ping the reader’s mirror neurons and bring the entire moment alive in his brain.

Your ongoing assignment in your everyday life is to observe yourself and other people, whether they are across the street or right next to you in the checkout line. Decide how they are feeling, what they might be thinking, and then pinpoint the specific cues that led you to that understanding. Every single one of those individual moments, those individual behaviors, is a potential tool for you as a writer. The world is your encyclopedia.

Here’s today’s exercise:

Two people are in a restaurant having a meal together, being served by a third person. Their conversation turns into a breakup. You can write from any point of view, and you decide what relationship is ending (lovers, partners, spouses, friends, family).

The goal is not to finish the scene — the goal is to live in each moment and find the emotional truth, and then decide whether the words speak for themselves, or if you need to find a specific behavior to help convey the meaning.

Post an excerpt of your writing below (please limit to 150 words) if you’d like feedback.

You can also download a copy of the workshop handout. And if you’re interested, here are the partial scenes I wrote during the exercise portion of the workshops.

Posted by: Kelley

24 Comments »

  • Jo said:

    Here’s my attempt:

    .
    “How was your date with April yesterday?” We’d been sitting in Kaine’s for twenty minutes. Megan hadn’t touched her black & tan. I’d sipped at my Guinness, but it tasted bitter and flat.

    “Awesome,” I shrugged. “We drove out past Bisti Badlands, hiked around a little, then came back into town and had dinner at Clancy‘s”

    Megan ran a fingernail tip over the edge of her napkin, indenting the embossing. “Why not eat here at Kaine’s with the rest of us?”

    I leaned back as Janel whisked up to the table and set our plates down. Megan began to cut up her veggie burrito. I sliced my fork into my beef-and-bean, twirling its tines in the copious cheese. “How does the rest of the Rio Cerdo land look?”

    “Moderate, not bad compared with the areas we’ve finished.” Megan finally picked up her beer. “But looks can be deceiving.”
    .

    Thank you for your help.

  • Dianne Cameron said:

    Jo —

    Lots of great detail here — the taste of the Guinness, Megan’s fingernail picking at the napkin. Also like the contrasts — “Awesome” paired with “shrugged”; The veggie burrito neatly cut up compared to the beef & bean spewing cheese. The dialog of the two women, dancing around what they really want to say, is nicely done. Keep up the great work!

  • Kelley (author) said:

    Jo, nice job. I like the details, and the way you use behavior to show time passing and moments of silence.

    I’m in the opposite camp on awesome/shrugged (grin). Mileage varies. For me, the contrast is jarring enough that it takes me a minute as a reader to work out the emotional through-line. Here’s my suggestion for streamlining the first two paragraphs to reposition some of the exposition and put an extra beat in the shrug moment (based on how I read it). If my interpretation of the moment isn’t right, well, just ignore me (‘nother grin).

    “How was your date with April yesterday?” We’d been sitting in Kaine’s for twenty minutes. Megan hadn’t touched her black & tan. I’d sipped at my Guinness, but it tasted bitter and flat.

    “April’s awesome,” I said. She waited. I shrugged. “We drove out past Bisti Badlands, hiked around a little, then came back into town and had dinner at Clancy‘s.”

    I also like the double-meaning dialogue at the end. It balances well between what people really do (sidle up to topics) and what good stories do (make those meanings clear so the reader can see them).

  • Jo said:

    @ Dianne – Thank you very much :).

    @ Kelley – I like your rewrite better than my draft, thank you for your help and praise. April is new on the crew. Megan thinks April is bad news, and is right. April is putting a lot of romantic effort Lucy’s way in order to manipulate her. I’m unsure, though, whether I want Lucy to be falling for it totally, or if she has a little doubt but is trying to ignore it (Lucy can be quite stubborn). I was leaning toward the doubt side in my post, hence the awesome/shrug dissonance.

  • Kelley (author) said:

    Jo — Oh, I see. In that case, I think your original construction would work if you chose a different word than “awesome” — for me, that word indicates enthusiastic approval, and it was the dissonance between the (implied) enthusiasm and the shrug that made me blink. So maybe find a word that’s a little more neutral but still on the approving side?

    Language is so fun :) There are times when finding just the right word for a particular writing moment occupies me for ages…

  • Jo said:

    @ Kelley – words rock :). I’m thinking also that Lucy is playing it cool because she’s talking with Megan, and Megan has made it clear to Lucy in an earlier scene that she doesn’t think much of April. Megan is Lucy’s best friend and the main source of wisdom in Lucy’s life. Lucy respects her greatly, but April is too tempting to resist.

  • Kelley (author) said:

    Jo — this all makes sense. And it’s an interesting moment to try to make particular, because it takes into account Megan/Lucy’s history (that Megan disapproves of April) and Lucy’s acknowledging that without actually talking about it, and maybe trying to downplay her enjoyment of the time with April. All in a shrug! But you know, that’s how it goes in real life, no? Fascinating to figure out how to bring these moments to life on the page.

  • Jo said:

    Here’s my rewrite:

    .
    “How was your date?” We’d been sitting in Kaine’s for twenty minutes. Megan hadn’t touched her black & tan. I’d sipped at my Guinness, but it tasted bitter and flat.

    Incredible, I thought as my mind flashed to April’s weight pinning my back against gritty sandstone. “April’s really cool,” I shrugged. Megan waited. “We drove out to the Bisti Badlands, hiked around a little, then came back into town and had dinner at Clancy‘s”

    Megan ran a fingernail tip over the edge of her napkin, indenting the embossing. “Why not eat here at Kaine’s with the rest of us?”

    I leaned back as Janel whisked up to the table and set our plates down. Megan began to cut up her veggie burrito. I sliced my fork into my beef-and-bean, twirling its tines in the copious cheese. “How does the rest of the Rio Cerdo land look?”

    “Moderate, not bad terrain compared with the areas we’ve finished.” Megan finally picked up her beer. “But looks can be deceiving.”

    .
    Thank you for your help.

  • Jo said:

    Hmm. Looking over this this morning, I think the transition between the memory and Lucy saying that April is really cool is too abrupt and that I need Lucy to play with her silverware or something before answering. Opinions?

    Thanks :).

  • Kelley (author) said:

    Jo — You read my mind :) Just an extra beat… but the overall approach is great, and the sense-memory of being against the sandstone is terrific.

  • Jo said:

    @ Kelley – (grin) Thanks. Here’s rewrite #2:

    .
    “How was your date?” We’d been sitting in Kaine’s for twenty minutes. Megan hadn’t touched her black & tan. I’d sipped at my Guinness, but it tasted bitter and flat.

    Incredible, I thought as my mind flashed to April’s weight pinning my back against gritty sandstone. I examined a scrape on my palm minutely. “April’s really cool,” I shrugged. Megan waited. “We drove out to the Bisti Badlands, hiked around a little, then came back into town and had dinner at Clancy‘s”

    Megan ran a fingernail tip over the edge of her napkin, indenting the embossing. “Why not eat here at Kaine’s with the rest of us?”

    I leaned back as Janel whisked up to the table and set our plates down. Megan began to cut up her veggie burrito. I sliced my fork into my beef-and-bean, twirling its tines in the copious cheese. “How does the rest of the Rio Cerdo land look?”

    “Moderate, not bad terrain compared with the areas we’ve finished.” Megan finally picked up her beer. “But looks can be deceiving.”

    .
    Thank you for your help :).

  • Kelley (author) said:

    Jo — fabulous! It works great because the scrape so clearly connects to the memory. This kind of cause-and-effect is just the thing for moments like this, because we can follow Lucy’s thinking and the sensory information really activates our own imaginations as readers.

  • Jo said:

    @ Kelley – Awesome, thank you :). I was having trouble finding something meaningful until I thought, oh duh, the consequences of wild sex on sandstone. Plus, I’m hoping that the injury can foreshadow April’s disregard for Lucy in the story to come.

    Now I just need a plot to drop my characters and emotional arc into . . . I’m working on it, but having difficulty. Lack of plotting ability is why I have ten jillion characters and emotional arcs in my head but never get past chapter three on anything.

    Thank you very much for your help :).

  • Kelley (author) said:

    Now I just need a plot to drop my characters and emotional arc into . . . I’m working on it, but having difficulty. Lack of plotting ability is why I have ten jillion characters and emotional arcs in my head but never get past chapter three on anything.

    One way to think about plot is in terms of emotional arcs. Plot is action: action is all about desire/conflict/choice/consequence. Characters want something; they experience trouble getting it; they make choices. Other characters respond to those choices. The choices and consequences propel everyone down a road to the next big emotional moment. Whenever you come to a choice, make the stakes and the consequences as high as possible for everyone involved.

    When you think about what feels emotionally true in each moment, plot becomes more obvious, and you’ll find yourself with a plot that feels more organic, rather than “squeezed into” a particular shape. It’s the same as what you just did with the moment of the hurt palm: you thought about the consequences of what came before, and in that context you found your particular bit of behavior for this scene.

    It’s a bit late, so you’ll have to tell me if this doesn’t make sense and I can try again in the morning :).

  • Dianne Cameron said:

    Tracy ordered in French. Brian assumed she was asking about the soup du jour; she might easily have been suggesting drinks by the pool. The waiter was a good-looking college student with slicked-back hair and a pretty mouth, and when Tracy handed him her menu, she hesitated — exchanging not-so-covert smiles — before relinquishing it.

    Brian scanned words he couldn’t pronounce without humiliating himself and asked for the fillet and a salad. He adjusted the napkin in his lap while Tracy’s eyes followed the waiter’s butt into the kitchen.

    “Happy anniversary,” he said, trying to sound upbeat.

    She blinked, raised an eyebrow.

    “Our first kiss. One year ago tonight.”

    “Oh…” She sipped at her wine, her eyes surreptitiously scanning the room behind him.

    “I thought women remembered that kind of thing.”

    She shrugged. “Some do.”

  • Jo said:

    @ Kelley – Late or no, that does make sense. Nicola explained it to me very similarly. It takes things awhile to percolate through my swiss-cheese brain, so I need to take what you both have told me and do some serious work with it. Thank you for your help.

  • Kelley (author) said:

    Dianne — I like this. Poor old Brian :) You’ve done a good job with the details and the flow, the emotional alignment of the dialogue and action: so I encourage you to trust that it works without a couple of the small “explanations” that you’ve snuck into it.

    Here’s how I would streamline:

    The waiter was a good-looking college student with slicked-back hair and a pretty mouth, and when Tracy handed him her menu, she hesitated — exchanging not-so-covert smiles — before relinquishing it.

    You had “drinks by the pool” to lead into this, along with the cues of “good-looking” and “pretty mouth.” You don’t need the smiles — we’ll know why she hesitates. For that sentence, even though we’re in Brian’s POV, you’ve set up the mirror-neuron trigger so we’re in Tracy’s experience for that single moment of sexual tension. The “not-so-covert” description brings us back into Brian’s POV from an intellectual perspective and dilutes the nice moment between Tracy and the waiter.

    Also —

    “Oh…” She sipped at her wine, her eyes surreptitiously scanning the room behind him.

    We’re in his POV, so it’s not surreptitious if he notices it; and again, we already get her behavior. We don’t need the “pointer” to interpret it. I wonder if this might be a holdover habit from screenwriting, in which those pointers are necessary because there’s no narrative prose component to set context?

    Nice job.

  • Jo said:

    @ everyone — Speaking of holdover habits, please let me know if I am repeating characters’ names too often. This is a trick used in human services; by the time you’ve read the fifth client file of the day, the pronouns blur and you can’t remember which info went with whom. Restating the name every couple of sentences keeps case managers clear on people’s details. I still do it automatically.

  • Dianne Cameron said:

    Kelly —

    I don’t think I’ve ever considered POV (or heard / recognized POV discussed) in this context / with this specificity. (Nicola pointed out that I shifted POV in a previous exercise as well.)

    Not sure I quite get it, but it might click down the line.

  • Dianne Cameron said:

    Jo —

    You’re doing great. My rule of thumb is to insert the name only when it becomes unclear who’s doing what or when you need to draw specific attention to what a particular person is doing. If you’ve got a man and a woman in a scene, you may only need to use names every few paragraphs; with two women (or more than two characters), more frequently.

  • Kelley (author) said:

    Dianne — I think what you’re doing in the scene is fine, and I didn’t mean to make a big deal of POV per se. But that little beat bumped me, and so I was trying to figure out why. I was in Brian’s head as he watched Tracy see the waiter, and then because he noticed her hesitation, I “saw” it too, and went there myself, and knew exactly what was going on (as did he). It’s a subtle thing, and you did a great job with it: I think you just needed one less layer, if that makes more sense.

    But you know, on stuff like this it really comes down to the writer’s choice of what information is relevant/important. Either way, it’s a nice scene.

  • Dianne Cameron said:

    Kelley —

    It’s just an exercise: I appreciate your insight. One of the hardest things about prose — and probably the reason I stopped writing — was trying to figure out what to leave in and what to leave out.

    One of the things I learned writing scripts (and having lots of people read my work) is that it isn’t always the writer’s choice. If the writer hasn’t communicated to the reader, s/he’s failed. If the reader stumbles over the words, if they take the reader out of the story…

    As Brandi Carlisle sings, “These stories don’t mean anything when you’ve got no one to tell them to.”

  • Dianne Cameron said:

    Kelley —

    Oh. Meant to say that you didn’t make a big thing about the POV thing. I find it interesting.

  • Jo said:

    @ Dianne — I’ve semi-been in the scenario you wrote about (grin). I think you captured the emotional essence well.

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