Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dialogue As Tool

Rowena Cherry mulled over the rewrite problem of the dialogue line:

""Devil!" She gasped. "What do you want?""

in her post on Monday.

First let me point out that your dialogue is absolutely off limits to copy editors and editors. But you can get back a lot of bright red circles with marginal notes saying "weak" "ineffectual" "unclear" "redundant" or even "out of character considering remark on p121."

Next, as I read this line of dialog, "She gasped." is a separate sentence and therefore "she" is not gasping the word "Devil." So that's OK.

But Rowena has posed a nice problem because the "right" word that goes in the second utterance absolutely depends on characterization.

The way a screenwriter solves this type of dialog problem is to refer to the character sketch notes and choose a main trait to illustrate with the dialog line. With screenwriting, dialog needs to be done that consciously because a screenplay is a work by committee. It's kind of like how you work in your own kitchen vs. how you work in a restaurant kitchen where there are dozens of people using the tools in shifts.

I have yet to discuss in this blog the integration of the various individual techniques we've discussed, characterization and dialogue being only two. The learning drill first combines each of the techniques in pairs with all the others, then in threes, etc until you are doing them all simultaneously. Drill-drill-drill is the key.

So here's two drills you can do with this swatch of dialog.

First note how the content of that second utterance depends on the plot and also on the story, as well as providing an opportunity to characterize and expound.

So that's 4 inter-linked (not independent) parameters that coalesce to generate that line of dialogue. Bad dialogue is produced by a lack of coalescing, not by a bad word choice. The bad word choice is a result, not a cause. Yes, writing dialogue is like walking and chewing gum. As long as you don't know you're doing both at once, it's easy.

The key to good "dialogue" (as opposed to natural speech) is that dialogue only works if the characters actually have something to SAY to each other, rather than to the audience. What they have to say resides in plot and story events.

But sometimes you want the characters to chatter at each other knowing someone is overhearing, or possibly unaware that the audience knows another character is overhearing. Overheard dialogue can spice up a plot, rev up a suspense line, or set up for a real funny payoff.

The "What do you want?" line we're playing with is not generated by ANY of the parameters I've named, nor any of the others that might be involved, as far as we can see from the excerpt.

That is why it falls flat, out of context or in context.

Let's spin some context examples out, just as an exercise.

Miriam closed the warding circle behind her and lifted her athame to begin the summoning.

Displaced air thumped into her back. She whirled to find a tall, buff and naked rouge figure outside her defense circle.


"The same," he intoned with an elegant bow. "Now we shall see who has summoned whom."

She gasped. "What do you want?"

By filling in the missing material, the dialogue suddenly makes sense.

"Devil" identifies a figure the reader can "see" -- and "What do you want?" characterizes the brash and self-confident woman, while the "gasp" shows she isn't as poised as she wants the Devil to think she is. So there's characterization of both in the dialogue, and the plot is advanced by the demand "what do you want?" The story is left hanging by "what do you want" as we try to assess whether she'll give it, fake it, try to trick the Devil, or scorch him with prayer to a higher authority.

It also made sense to me that the expletive "Devil!" might be spoken with ALL the breath, and thus a gasp was required before the demand or query, "What do you want?"


Ethan plugged the new computer into the wall socket. It whirred for a few seconds, then snapped and a little curl of smoke rose from it as silence fell in the kitchen.


The monitor lit showing that same suave figure that had been haunting his dreams and nightmares, only this time the figure was enjoying a belly laugh right there on the dead monitor's screen.

Ethan gasped. "What do you want?"

"How should I know? You summoned me."


So the lame dialogue actually isn't lame at all, just under-written. One thing beginners often labor over is "business" -- the bits of narrative between bits of dialog that detail what the characters are doing while they're not speaking. Dialogue includes "business" because we all talk with our hands, often contradicting our words.

So suppose what we have is a woman recognizing someone as "Devil" and then getting in his face and getting right to business.


Carla opened the front door. Five little kids stood before an adult, all in matching fairy costumes. She started handing out candy, letting each pick their favorite from a large basket.

The adult stripped off his mask revealing a ruddy complexion and two neatly curved horns, a second mask.

"Devil!" She gasped. Smile frozen, she proffered the candy basket. "What do you want?"

The Devil smiled at the kids before him.

It wasn't a second mask.


Now let's see how to change just the "What do you want?" in that line Rowena was playing with. Let's do a characterization/exposition exercise.
Each reposte to the Devil's sudden appearance avoids an expository lump by illustrating a character trait.


"Devil!" She gasped. "I suppose you're here to take the hindmost."

"Devil!" She gasped. "This is not, repeat NOT, your food cake."

"Devil!" She gasped. "Second hand smoke is toxic, you know."

"Devil!" She gasped. "I told you to knock before appearing!"

"Devil!" She gasped. "Will you put some clothes on!"

"Devil!" She gasped. "Don't poke that thing at me!"

"Devil!" She gasped. "If you don't get behind me this minute, I'll turn my back!"

"Devil!" She gasped. "Oh, just in time. My cooktop is on the fritz."

"Devil!" She gasped. "Bye!" POOF!!!


Frankly, I'd expect a copy editor would put one of those curly zigzag lines between "Devil!" and "She gasped." to reverse the order.

She gasped. "Devil! What do you want?"

I could play with this all day, but there's work to do.

So now it's your turn. Drop a comment with a rewrite of the dialogue line in question and name the techniques you used to generate the line.

Remember, as a writer your stock in trade is FUN, and if you aren't having fun, your readers definitely won't. So have FUN with dialogue.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Dushau Trilogy now on Kindle




  1. Oh, what fun! Thank you, Jacqueline.

    I've cut and pasted your post right into my Prologue-in-progress to remind me.

    As for dialogue being off limits, I agree that it should be. However, I once had

    "Take her away!"

    changed to

    "Take her. Away!"

    It did not stay that way.

  2. Rowena

    Oh, yes there is ALWAYS the showdown with the copyeditor.

    And I forgot to mention how the acquiring editor will often go through a manuscript and just whack sections of dialog out of a page, 4 or 5 parags at a time leaving you to wonder how to establish the missing information.

    A GOOD editor, though, is worth all the frustration because it does teach you.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg