on writing dialog


As most of us aren’t Tom Stoppard (in fact, I’d guess nobody reading this is Tom Stoppard, but do compare your face in the mirror to the picture to be absolutely sure), and as I get a lot of questions from people on the mechanics of writing in general and dialog in particular, I thought I could put up a few points. Not all at once, but now and then. These are from my teaching notes.

(If it turns out that you are Tom Stoppard, we’ll carry on without you. On the other hand, if you find this kind of thing interesting or of use, please let me know.)

Before beginning, a word to the wise in the form of an Italian proverb: Do not remove a fly from a friend’s forehead with an axe. (I ask you, who but an Italian would think it necessary to state this?)

So here goes.

1. Dialogue must never convey information alone. It must accomplish more than one thing at once to earn its keep. It may:
advance the action,
provide exposition
(introduce theme/characters),
provide setting,
convey information.

2. Conversely, a line of dialog shouldn’t do all those things at once because then it will probably slip over the line (or march proudly over the line, better said) into the realm called (so elegantly) info dumping. Here’s an example (it’s fun to make examples of info dumping; but then I’m easily amused).

“But Joan, you went to law school because you adore your mother who has a law degree from Yale and worked for two years in the Eisenhower administration as White House Council.”

That is, never convey backstory in dialog. Very tacky.

6 Replies to “on writing dialog”

  1. oooh, Rachel, you’ve got the hang of it. I love ‘Topeka’, it’s the perfect touch. Now if Robyn keeps it going (can she fit the hairball in there) we might have the start of something.

  2. So would the next line be something like this:

    “Yes, that’s right, Peter. But unlike you, I did not have a rich uncle who died and left me five million dollars and an estate in Tuscany, and you know that Father frittered away all of Mother’s money after she died. So I am going to have to quit law school and go home to Topeka.”

    Goodness, you’re right, it is fun. I am an awful writer, and yet (?) I could just go on and on.

    Also, I think you’ve just shown me what it is about my beloved Trixie Belden books that is so irritating to me as an adult. Info-dumping. Thanks, now I feel better.

  3. Ursula LeGuin calls the dreaded info dump “an Expository Lump.” (I think imagining the sound of a determined yet ineffectual cat attempting to gaaaack a hairball adds to the descriptive effect. )

  4. “Topeka?!?” he said in stunned disbelief, not unmixed
    with righteous anger. “How dare you threaten me with
    Topeka, knowing (as you have, ever since my first
    breakdown), the depth of my post-traumatic horror of
    tornados, not to mention my violent allergy to wheat?
    Why, if you’re seriously willing to ask that of me,
    then, then –” He stopped himself, and looked hard at
    her, and when he spoke again his voice was softer and
    yet deadly serious. “Well, if that’s really what you
    intend, then I think it’s time to revisit our
    long-simmering conflict over why you refuse to return
    to Kokomo and do what your mother, Rhodes Scholar and
    Nobel Prize finalist that she was, was never able to
    do. Yes, face your mad, vindictive Presbyterian
    grandmother and claim what’s rightfully yours as the
    scion of your grandfather’s Meat Animal Byproduct
    empire! Of course, that would mean you’d have to
    reopen the investigation into his shocking and
    still-unsolved death.”

    She had fallen quiet, too quiet, and a wise man would
    have stopped there. But his words had been pent up for
    too long, and the truth had its own terrible energy,
    even though he knew his words could never be taken
    back, no more than he could correct his terrible
    mistake with Angelina and Betty.

    “I guess I’d be out of line to say that maybe you
    don’t have the guts to do that, even if you were a
    crusading policewoman before your… accident. Or is
    there something you haven’t told me?”

  5. Who knew it had a name? Who knew I was doing it? And, most abjectly, who knew it was sinful?

    No, Silly, I mean info dumping.

    Thanks for clarifying the writing sin that dare not speak its name, but would be happy to sneak a lot of stray information into a conversation.


  6. I had a drama coach who referred to such overly-informative dialog as “feather-dusting.” These lines are as hard to deliver as they are to read.

Comments are closed.