NVDT #62 – To Speak, or Not to Speak


The Prompt – Do you embrace dialog or narrate your way around it? Why?

Dialogue. Every time. I write dialog first and fill in around it, because it’s better from the characters than us. You can do so much with a little dialog. Dialog is our tone palette. Major, minor, happy, sad. Where rhythm and word choice from characters exposes them in ways narration never could.* Where they are allowed to breathe without tags and adverbs. I would open a forum for nothing but the discussion of dialogue if I could get participation. I dropped my example because of AW’s post, wherein I disagree that narration can fill in where dialog can’t. Even for time collapse, backstory, forward motion. Which was the example. I’d rather read 1,200 words of mostly dialog than “and then he did this, and she did that” and particularly any “thought this or that.” The only place dialog can’t supplant narration is the solo man/animal/creature against whatever, the endless postcard set design, and there are places in First Person where you have to weave in head time or the work would all be “And then I…” And for some people I know like Anonymole who openly admits he doesn’t like people, much less a buncha chicks sittin’ around shootin’ the shit. But for most other people? Dialog wins.

*Caveat – Good dialogue, not that crap where everyone speaks the same stilted cardboard supported by adverb tags or directorial action tags. He said, being a dialogue asshole. By ‘that crap’ I can go all the way to billion sellers the likes of Baldacci, James and the spy agency alphabet soup people. Come on, that adverb tag junk is Nancy Drew business. Authors as disparate as Elmore Leonard and Maya Angelou agree that the dialog should tell us how a character feels and if we as authors feel the need to tag it, we should rewrite it.

Dialogue is music. It has rhythm, dynamics, grace notes… I have often wished that writing had the same notation as music. Fermatas, crescendo, decrescendo, piano, forte, triple forte. All running over or under the dialogue like a sheet music melody line. Oh well. As students of dialogue we need to figure that out.

My characters run the gamut from gangsters to a Valley Girl Prima Ballerina, musicians, jocks, hookers, a French lawyer, motel clerks, construction workers, kids… Here’s some examples you are free to read or ignore.

Two Stevie Winners – La Soirée Dansante, plus a solid mix of narration and dialogue, built after the dialog, Gator Bait

My favorite Valley Girl – Octopus, The Recruiter, You Kiss Like You Dance

Short and Random – Redneck Hemingway, Nice to Meet You, Oh, What the Hell, Toothbrush, Dusk in Douala

 Several of those will give you character insight, tell a story in a story, open up backstory or kill time with a lot more finesse than telling you “She’s a Valley Girl Ballerina” or “Him and CL been friends since they was twelve”  carrying on like they’re all fifth-grade school teachers with adverb tags. You can learn all you need to know about who a character is by listening to them tell you who they are. And that’s pretty much my site. Oh hell, here’s a quickie for you if you don’t read Redneck Hemingway. You know who they are, something’s up and I never say a word.

Thursday, noonish, May 14th, 1981, Los Angeles International Airport

“That’s it?” Trace darted the Volvo wagon between a limo and a cab, slid up to the curb at LAX. “Gone ‘till Tuesday? No Coach Cowboy ‘You have a better chance of hitting it with your eyes open’ wisdom for them? Dude… It’s not gonna fly. I’m tellin’ you–”

“Don’t you start that Coach Cowboy shit. And they’ll get over it, trust me.”

“Yeah right… They’re gonna ask me, man, get all up in my ass. What’s my chop for that?”

“What I just said. Gone ‘till Tuesday.”

“You don’t know those women like I do. They’ll–”

“I know more than enough. They all have trust issues. All of them. Men talkin’ shit, men full of shit, patronizing flower-buying smoke blowers… Even if I laid out my plan, which I can’t because I don’t have one, they’d still call bullshit because they want something they can hold in their hands, not more talk. So leave it. Next Hollywood burger run is on me ‘cause I’m not gonna hear all the crap they come up with about me this weekend, you are.”  Jackson popped his door open. “If I’m lucky, I’ll never hear it.”

“If you say so. But I don’t like it, bro. Not even… Hey… What about your fuckin’ dog, man? That’s too much dog to just –”

“Taisia’s got Ella. Eeze skates, Ella runs. They’ll wear each other out.”

“Goddam, man… How tall is she?”

“The Russian or the Wolfhound?” Jackson climbed out, tossed his garment bag over his shoulder, looked back in at his driver, winked. “Six-two. Take your pick.”

“Dickhead. Two Amazons, one on skates. My sons need to see that.”

“Sure ‘they’ do. Take an oxygen tank or an am cap.”

“They’re teenagers.”

“You aren’t.”

“Fuck. You. So…Tuesday. Are you sure that’s all you have to say?”

“Don’t try to sell it, man. Let it ride. Gone. Till. Tuesday. Second verse, same as the first.” He patted the Volvo’s front fender, walked away.

Trace lit a roach from the ashtray, the limo behind him honked, Airport Security appeared by his door.

“Sir, this is pick up only, not drop off. You —”

“It’s raining upstairs.”

“That’s what everybody says. You still need to move your vee… Whoa! Aren’t you the dude from Cleave —”

“Yes.” Trace handed the roach to the security guard. “How’d you like to be me for a weekend?”

“Whoa, dude!” The guard hit the roach, handed it back. “I would, you know, but like that’s impossible. I mean, I can’t play guitar.”

“How are you with angry women and softball?”

What’re others saying about dialog? Check it out.


Published by

Phil Huston


21 thoughts on “NVDT #62 – To Speak, or Not to Speak”

    1. I’m not going to bust you for the total BS comment on what’s lit or better communication and what isn’t as that opinion/discussion requires about a gazillion qualifiers. I’ll quote you on your response to my comment way back when that the opening of Nethergate made no sense and was merely words strung together to sound like writing – “We all like different things.” There you have it. Characters tell stories, authors tell stories. True artists get out of the way. Keats, Byron, Blake… they don’t need dialog and well enough. Shakespeare does, and well enough again. Dialogue is a tool in the paintbox. Depends on what you’re painting as to how much of it you use.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You have the dialogue thing sewn up, lol! I’ve just found out from PJ’s blog that you’re not supposed to start a novel with dialogue. That’s a shame, because I used dialogue to open one particular book of mine, which strangely enough sells better than all the others.


  2. Dialog may be the glue, but events are the memories readers walk away with. What do I recall, just now? That the airport security guard took a hit off a doobie there in the loading zone. What did the characters say? Got me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But it was part and parcel of an interaction, not “dude drops friend off at airport, has anxiety for some reason, gets recognized as rock star and offers roach to security guard. Some people remember the tall Russian and the dog, some recall the line from Enerey the Eighth. But here I am preaching to the wall ’cause I know you’d rather read the op man version than the coupla dude shootin’ the shit version! Like I told Roberta, we all like different things. Except slop. I don’t like slop.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed. The dialog involves the reader to make the events stand out and become memorable.
        A couple o’ dudes shootin’ the shit only works if one of them reaches into the cooler and pulls out a half frozen squirrel that nearly bites his pinky off. Otherwise it’s just GilmoreGirls banter — instantly forgotten.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I love a post that gets responses, but this is the second time today I have had to remind “folks” that their opinion and sweeping generalizations are not founded on any empirical data. There are those who will read a story full of dialog and miss the point entirely, as the story/fable/morality play is in the dialog, and they only remember that there was a waitress in tight pants. Akin to superficial or tuned out listening. Me, say, with busy, predictable jazz or Baroque counterpoint. Gnat notes, yeah yeah. And I miss some interplay between the section players that makes the noodler on top irrelevant. There’s a shitload of Zeppelin like that. It might be heresy but to me, Page was always a workman-like guitarist at best. Some of his acoustic work was excellent, but *yawn* on the shrill solos. But hell yeah on Bonham and Jones. I love Hendrix, but Mitch Mitchell makes “Fire” crackle and burn. So, back to whatever point I was making – some people get the story from dialogue, some do not. All of my short things, there’s a morality play, a social indictment, a fable somewhere in that talk that’s got nothing to do with the waitress in tight pants or a big plate of nachos. Looking for the squirrel bite will cost you, all I’m sayin’. To discount or fail to listen or not listen on purpose, don’t even crack the page. – Like me and Spanish. Listen for the subject and the verb.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Although not empirical, I have done anecdotal research regarding what folks remember about stories (after we discussed this some time ago).
        The general consensus was what happened, striking character personas, some unique settings and the rare momentous quote.
        The pool I drew from was limited, work mates, family, ergo the variety.
        So, is this an authoritative survey? No. But it was not re-offered without thought.


      4. Anecdotal research is like asking your family and friends to beta read and edit. Some people like long-winded dialogue and some like long-winded narrative. I know the Lake Worbegone thing is all the rage for some, but not me. Here’s the deal, though. I will admittedly break all the dialog rules with some characters and let them talk. There’s the old rule about if a scene ends on a resolution, why was it there? I say because I needed it to get the characters talking, not me. Because classic story arc is protagonist+problem=resolution + new disaster. Scenes/chapters should be the same. Save for dialog scenes where character reveal is in place and then it’s divisible by 3. Protaganist presented with another person – interruption/issues ensue, protagonist or other offers resolution (exposures) and the resolution is dashed by mishap or language. “No, you can’t meet her until after the wedding.” Played perfectly by Helen Simonson in many scenes. Alternatively, characters expose themselves through chat and the last line is the cliff hanger. Played by mystery writers like Robert B Parker. “You think they’re waiting for us?” “I dunno. You think bears shit in the woods?”
        However long it takes, or how much counterpoint is involved, that’s the short story aspect of dialog. Dialog scenes should resemble a short story (/3). Which is why I can pull chunks out of listless novels and turn them into shorts. Maybe there’s a resolution, maybe there’s some philosophy, maybe there are two people on the way out the door that we know more about than we did. I’ll let them talk for exercise. Because there’s so much shitty dialog out there that when it counts I know I can write it short and sweet or Valley Girl.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Phil, you are really riled up this week! Do you need a hit off that roach? But I’m enjoying this. I suspected you were holding back on us.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You are feeling this hop prompt this week! Love it! Dialogue drives the chapters while I’m drafting a story. I spend quite a bit of time letting them tell me what they want to say before I hit the keyboard.


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