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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Discussion of Dialogue and Style
August 14, 1998


Question 3:

My problem with writing is not finding a subject to write about but how to write the dialogue and how to express the characters' thoughts. It would help a lot if you could tell me how you write dialogue. Is there a set of rules that you follow, or what?

-- Submitted by Rhian Hibner

OSC Replies:

Rules and Tricks

Expressing thoughts is a subject I deal with at length in my book Character and Viewpoint; I won't repeat that discussion here, except to say that in contemporary writing, you generally don't set thoughts apart with quotation marks or italic type or underlining. Instead, you treat it as if it were narrative, except that, when necessary, you tag it as thought.

"Nice dress," he said. If only it were on a nicer body, he added silently.

If point of view has been established with deep penetration, you can even get away with:

Rick thought he was being subtle, but some women always know when they're being watched.

"What are you looking at, Mr. Van Orden?"

"Nice dress." Too bad they were out of your size.

"Thanks. My sister and I share all our clothes."

"And you won the toss tonight?"

"What toss?" She looked puzzled.

No doubt the flow of blood to her brain was constricted. "What does your sister wear when you've got the dress?"

"There's more than one dress, silly."

"Oh," said Rick. "People are always having to explain things to me."

"Me too," she said. "Don't you just hate that?"

She leaned in closer and touched his arm. Apparently now they were kindred spirits.

Notice that with deep penetration, the thought "Too bad they were out of your size" needs no tag or even identification as a thought. It's in the same line as the dialogue, but outside the quotes; therefore, the reader knows at once, it is an unspoken thought of the speaker. This allows it to use the second person pronoun, as if these were actual words he was thinking.

With "Apparently now they were kindred spirits," however, the thought does not occur in the same paragraph as a speech, and therefore will be parsed as narrative, not unspoken dialogue. So the pronoun moves to third person: "they were kindred spirits." However, recast that with dialogue, and it can move to second person:

She leaned in closer and touched his arm.

Apparently now we're kindred spirits. "Ouch," he said.

There is no ironclad rule for this, and it can often go either way, depending on how thoroughly you maintain deep penetration.

The only dialogue "trick" I know is one that I learned as a playwright. When you have an extended section of paired dialogue between two people who know each other, you can often make it sizzle by going through and pulling out pairs of speeches here and there. Dialogue that you wrote in a perfectly logical sequence now seems to jump around. It makes it sound like they have livelier wits, or suggests that they know each other so well they don't have to spell everything out.

"Give me back my pen, please."

"It's not your pen."

"I just handed it to you so you could sign the papers."

"I know."

"So it's my pen. Please give it back."

"But the papers took effect the moment I signed them."

"So what?"

"So all our personal property is divided up according to who is in possession of what at the time of signing."

"That does not include my pen!"

"Your lawyer should have stipulated that if it's so important to you."

"This kind of stupid joke is why I hate you."

"But I always loved your complete lack of a sense of humor."

Maybe this dialogue sounds fine to you the way it is. But what if we remove a couple of pairs of speeches? Cut out the pair "I know" and "So it's my pen...." and then the pair "That does not include ..." and "Your lawyer should have ..." and see what you think. You lose something; you gain something.

Notice, however, that brevity is not the goal here -- brevity, in fiction, is rarely the goal. Instead, what is wanted is leaping in the dialogue. In the trimmed version, the characters are catching on quickly enough that they don't need some of the explanation; the readers, too, must make that leap, and it makes them feel clever, too. You could just as easily have added more information by including some of the viewpoint character's thoughts, thereby making the scene longer. Long and short aren't important. Interesting, believable, and clear -- those are what matter. Sometimes those are enhanced by changes that shorten a scene, and sometimes by changes that lengthen it.

Question 4


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