Dialogue and Its Limitations


I sucked at dialogue till high school. I mean, everything I wrote was 90% narrative with the occasional sentence of dialogue tucked in. Nobody much read my work but my mom, but I knew it.

I had been going to be a writer since I was old enough to read. I was a competent enough critic even I knew my writing was bad. And since I enjoyed reading stories with lots of dialogue, I decided to do something about it.

Here’s what I did. I started writing plays.

They weren’t good plays. Very few high school writers are especially brilliant, and I wasn’t one of them. But plays force you to write dialogue to further the story, and so I had to write something I was bad at. And because I was committed to being a good writer, my plays, as far as interactiveness was concerned, got better.

In the process, I learned the one thing writers most need to know. This is a simple but antisocial rule. Writers need to eavesdrop.

I went to coffeehouses, college libraries, bus stops, and just sat there and listened. After awhile, I also watched. This is what I learned.

First, conversation doesn’t sound anything like narrative. If a person is a person, she sounds like she’s making it up as she goes. He stammers, or stutters, or starts sentences and then starts and finishes with a different sentence.

And as I watched, I learned other things – things I had no words for. People who were in love… you could tell. They sat closer, they bickered in a different way, they looked at each other all the time. They ducked their head, or they faked coolness. They basked in the presence of each other. They said “you” with a little fondle in the voice.

People who were angry sometimes were closer, sometimes a little farther away than two people talking to each other normally were. Their voices were sharper, their sentences either meandered along or were clipped to just a few words at a time. They said “you” as if it were a bad thing. If it were two guys, they often shoved or poked.

Plays became not enough, and I went back to stories, as I knew I would, because I wanted to describe how people behaved. I was puzzled, because I knew that wasn’t dialogue – but it somehow was important.

Years later, in college, I read Edward Hall and began to see that every interaction goes on with words, but not just words. Everything in a culture means something. How far apart you stand, the language you use, the music playing out your mood – a whole person exist in a culture, and a writer should be aware of it.

Most writers aren’t. I have always found the literary genre as a whole boring, and when I started analyzing it, I realized one major reason was class blindness. Most literary writers come from a privileged background, or at any rate learned to write in a privileged milieu, and don’t notice their own culture. So the people in it are seldom people I care about or are interested in. I’m not upper middle class, and their problems and concerns seldom reflect my life.

Before you start screaming about “universal,” stop. I do like some literary fiction, if it’s aware. Most of the writers who do that well have what WEB Dubois calls “doubled vision,” though. They see the “norm” but they see it through their experience, which is not the norm. That’s why, I think, I like sf and fantasy so very much: it forces a doubled vision.

The biggest problem with dialogue is that we don’t notice what we do far too often. Too many writers write not as their characters would talk, but as the plot requires. Their descriptions seldom encompass much in the way of body language or other nonverbals. One thing I still enjoy about teenage writing (which I can get quantities of in fanfic) is that they are so imbued with pathos that they provide thick description of it with their characters. Their people are always listening to certain music and lyrics, wearing particular clothes, arguing in particular ways.

Dialogue is not just the words on the paper; that’s why writing a play is an awesome exercise. You have to provide stage directions. Where the actor raises and lowers his voice, if an actress actually shrugs her shoulders – those things have meaning. Most of us know on an unconscious level what that meaning is. What writers need to learn is how to recognize those behaviours, and then use them to build a character.


Reflections of a “Grammar Nazi”

Suzzallo Library, UWI read the phrase “Grammar Nazi” years ago, as I perused the pages of Live Journal fans — fan fiction is a personal and academic interest of mine. The phrase annoyed me partly because it ridiculously overstates its case (no one who knows anything about the Nazis would really believe that there are people who break into private homes, drag them off to camps, and kill them, invade other countries in search of power, and desecrate old icons by making them stand in for blood.) But of course, it’s also an insult and a suggestion that a fondness for Standard English or common spelling is wicked.

I wrote and posted some commentary on that on my blog at the time. Since this journal is about teh writing (sorry, fanspeak) I would like to get it on record here as well. Understand, it doesn’t mean I am 100% accurate in my proofreading. It’s simply a defense of trying to get style right. I’d like to add, I also favor non Standard English when the situation calls for it; there are cultural and social differences, and dialogue demands honoring these.

That said, here are the Reflections.


My mother had sterling silver she’d gotten for her wedding. Much of it, mostly the spoons, was ground up in the disposal over the years, but the knives remained intact until my parents divorced, and Mom took over “manly” chores like tightening screws.

She didn’t own a screwdriver. She used the sterling to tighten and untighten. When I was having a problem with a loose bracket under my bookshelves, she’d say, “Go get a knife out of the drawer.” For a hammer, she used anything handy, usually a loose brick.

I was an adult before I learned that unscrewing something is far, far easier with a screw driver – not to mention kinder to the sterling. That a hammer can hit a nail with greater accuracy and more force. That the right tool makes all the difference between temporarily solving a problem and fixing it.

As a result, I’ve become a passionate tool advocate. I’m totally messy, but ever since I got a toolbox I always put my tools back into it. I have six or seven screwdrivers, both Phillips and flathead. (I think my mother finally broke down and bought a Phillips screwdriver as her first tool besides the putty knife for fixing broken windows – a common occurrence in our home.) Each has different torque and different size, and I simply love using them. I also have an electric drill which doubles as an electric screwdriver, but I haven’t got the hang of it yet.

I’ve had a lot more formal training in writing than carpentry. The nearest to being taught anything about repair work was being shown by my ex’s current partner how putting paraffin on a screw makes it easier to put in and take out later. Helpful, and it made me feel cool and macho, but not extensive.

And that formal training and private experience has left me with one deep conviction: a writer who’s serious about writing acquires the tools of the trade.

I have a dear friend who is working on her editing. It took years to convince her that she should be, though. Her attitude toward writing was that anyone who beta’d for her would catch the errors and fix them anyway.

You’ve got to understand, there was always at LEAST one error in spelling per paragraph – and her paragraphs are short. Typos, erratic punctuation, and dubious grammar were also constant. The result was that I spent most of my reading time noticing errors rather than concentrating on the story. Reading it was like using a silver knife on a screw; eventually one would be finished, but the constant slipping of the tool meant an overall shoddy job and a diminished temper.

If you’re a writer, words should matter. Yes, character and plot are important. Crazy people and critics debate which is “more” important, but for academically-trained writers, there’s a bottom line – they both have to be dealt with. That’s filtered down to commercial as well as amateur writers, but what some don’t seem to know is that style is on that list as well – if your style sucks, the story sucks. And just as there are right and wrong tools to develop character and plot, there are right and wrong tools for style.

For those who know and love words, every misspelling, every misplaced comma, each grammatical inaccuracy damages the story. I taught beginning writing courses (college beginners) for many years. As a teacher, I would not correct their work, just highlight the most important errors and let them figure them out for next time. I’m sure a lot of the business majors and so forth had the same argument as beginning writers: when I’m famous, I’ll just hire a proofreader.

Well, on a purely marketing level, the problem with that is the steps to famous. Unless you have been married to a serial killer or had an affair with the President, you’re unlikely to get a writing contract on the basis of content alone. Showing a poorly edited work marks you as an amateur –not a fan sort of amateur, doing good work for sheer love of it, but someone who wants the kudos without doing the apprenticeship. Hard to sell.

But there is a higher level than commercial considerations. Writing is an art. You have a choice of producing the best art you possibly can, or doing a slapdash job because it’s not the work, but the praise which drives you. It doesn’t have to be a choice. You can do really good work because it matters, and then luxuriate in the praise as other people recognize your labour. But only if you understand what should be in your toolbox in the first place.

Spelling. In Shakespeare’s time, English was consolidating from several other languages, and spelling was fairly random. After all, hardly anyone previously was literate, except people hired just to write for other people, and of course (some) people in religious orders. England was still primarily an oral society, and a mongrel one at that, so French, Anglo-Saxon, and other local languages all competed for a logical spelling. Now, there are standards, but the changes in international communication seem to be leading to another spelling civil war.

Grammar. The crossbreeding of language led to a highly unfortunate situation where present and past tenses and subjunctives have lots and lots of exceptions to any rule. Sometimes it’s because a reasonable past tense (like go, goes, goed) sounded like some other word, so speakers began using the past tense of another common verb, wend, and over time the rules became go, goes, went.

As in our adventures in spelling, we seem to be in another era where that’s going on – even places where paid editors used to guard the gates of grammar are now showing invented words; nouns where perfectly good ones already existed, and verbs conjugated in unexpected ways. Some of the changes may even be reasonable: how many of us actually know that the present tense of “wrought” is “wreak,” for example? And why should we care? But others are newly invented and decreasing the standard – “gift” and “gifted” as present and past tense verbs, for example, when “give” and “gave” were already there, out in public, giving tautness to a sentence as good verbs do. Or nouns like “cliché,” turned into an adjective when the adjective “cliched” already happily hung around volunteering. (“I write clichés” is correct, and so is “my writing is clichéd”. Though I hope untrue.)

Punctuation. Why punctuation matters will make sense if you ever take a class in, say, Northwest poetry, or study the works of the late Adrienne Rich. Reading the poems aloud, you learn that how poetry sounds is incredibly important; breaking on the line or against the line make a difference in cadence, the free verse poet’s form of meter. If you read national ads aloud, you’ll hear the same thing. In that case, the writer is usually trying to make their words sound as much like speech as possible.

Actually, it might be useful to think of punctuation as the score for a song. It can slow down or speed up a line, clarify what part of the sentence is important, or imply a particular emotion by presence or absence. Try reading the following couplet aloud:

I barely grown now wait for you

To give my life meaning.

Aside from the phrasing, which is not the subject of this essay, this could sound several ways: ironic, wistful, tragic. Even the line breaks play a part:


Barely grown now

Wait for you

To give my life


Is designed to slow the sound and to work with the breaks. Punctuation can do the same thing, but it’s not especially attractive in poetry if avoidable:

 I, barely grown,

Now wait for you

To give my life meaning.

If you’re sitting here reading this and thinking, omigod, I had no idea the line breaks in poetry were anything but random unless they rhyme, and go out to find some other poems to see if I’m right, you’re a serious writer – or at least, reader. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What a waste of time for fiction – it’s not poetry,” you’re perhaps a serious critic, but not a serious writer. (I used the word “serious” where nonwriters would probably substitute the adjective “obsessed.”) And if you’re thinking, “This is the perfect illustration of a waste of time,” it’s not words which drive you, which perhaps should be one of the warnings at the top of your fic. I would deeply appreciate that warning. The odds are I wouldn’t read the fic, which could only benefit both of us (if you believe in karmic punishment).

Aside from the fact that betas do not catch everything, and therefore should be an addition, not a substitute, to your own proofreading, letting someone else decide the cadence of your work is to make it less your own. Do you let betas decide your characters’ back story? Or change your plot twists for you? Assigning style to a beta shows contempt for language no writer can afford.

That leads to the last of the four things you should think about.

How words fit together. Style isn’t just important to the literary genre, though there it often obscures plot, character, and even world building. I googled dictionary definitions, and came up with the highly unsatisfactory “how things are said.” I finally found a really good one: 

“The author’s word choice, sentence structure, figurative language, and sentence arrangement all work together to establish mood, images, and meaning in the text.” (readwritethink.org)

Style is all the elements, taken together, which makes what you’ve written yours. People who read a lot in certain genres would recognize a typical Faulknerian or Hemingwayian sentence without thinking twice – and many other writerly variations. In the fanfiction world, even certain uses of adjective make someone familiar to me. Humorists are often particularly identifiable – try confusing Thurber and Dorothy Parker, for example, even though they wrote at the same era and very often for the same magazine. One reason is because what makes humor funny is timing; what the Greeks called kairos for speech. Often, timing in writing might just be putting the most important word in a sentence at the end. From that, it expands infinitely.

When you don’t notice the order your words come in; when you don’t read something you’ve written aloud to see how it sounds; when you assume that if it’s clear, that’s all that matters, you’re selling your future writing self short. It’s hard to improve without developing your ear as well as your eye. Yes, of course clarity matters — but never stop there.

If good spelling is a Phillips screwdriver compared to a sterling silver knife, developing an ear for timing and cadence is learning to use a hammer instead of a brick. It’s the most important tool you’ll ever have, and everyone has to make her own.

Please don’t think this is a rant. It’s a plea for you to start learning the tools of your trade, or the tools of your favorite activity. There are certainly good stories out there with terrible “SPAG” (fanfic slang for Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar) but many discerning readers will never know that; they won’t get that far. 

It’s like my mom telling me, “Get a knife from the drawer and tighten that screw.” Like my mother’s labour, it’s well-intentioned and unlikely to last.

Watchers at the Gates

It happens to the best of us...
It happens to the best of us…

A long time ago, a friend talked me into starting this blog, basically so I could read hers. Now she’s talked me into entering words into it! It only took four years, bless her.

I took my blogname, the Watcher at the Gate, from Gail Godwin’s lovely piece on her inner critic, which sabotaged her writing occasionally. My novel, Gates, has been in process 9 years, and while some of that is from illness and ineptitude, some of that is also the invasion of the Watcher at the Gate.

So now that I’m trying to keep writing that and other things, I thought I’d just post a link to the piece which inspired me. If you haven’t run into it, you may find it helps. Here it is.

Friday Fictioneer: The Old Desk

He’d disappeared. I checked the kitchen and the bedroom.

Then I checked his study.

His shabby old desk looked as it always did. I glared, as always, at the ugly photo of him working at the desk.

“It’s ironic,” he’d say, when I suggested he get a better picture. “Look at me. I look just like the foxhunter on his horse – same curved back and everything.”

I looked closer. Howard always used the quill. He insisted on it superstitiously. But in the picture, he was writing with a modern pen.

I picked up a paper. “Help!” it said.


I’m participating in Friday Fictioneer, a 100-word drabble challenge from a picture prompt. It’s hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and anyone can play.

Friday Fictioneer: Wingwalker

http://rochellewisofffields.wordpress.com/ photoprompt for writers: Friday Fictioneers.
Photoprompt for writers: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

She’d wanted to ride a plane her whole life.

The photograph of the DC-10 from a passenger seat fascinated her. She had put it up next to her desk at home and stared at it, wistfully.

“Think of that view,” she told her husband Sammy. “Just a vee of aluminum alloy, and beyond that, the world.”

Sammy made his living following politicians around. “A plane ride’s bad food, shoulder-to-shoulder people, bumps and bounces, spilled drinks. Why would you want to be a passenger?”

She sighed and prepared to bank. “Back to your seat. I’m putting the seatbelt light on.”


I’m participating in Friday Fictioneer, a 100-word drabble challenge from a picture prompt. It’s hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and anyone can play. 

And here I am.

Haven’t actually seen wordpress before — this is quite the pretty site!  I plan to write about writing, reading, and related issues here. My greatest competency is in worldbuilding and dialogue, and I always welcome help with plot and structure — ESPECIALLY how to write fewer than 200,000 word novels. Currently I’m working on one which is 5,000 words short of that. Inquiry letters to be sent out soon.

Thinking about Writing