Posted on 07/08/2010


“Hey Bob, how are you?” Mary asked.

“Fine, Mary. That’s a lovely yellow dress with frills on it. How are you?”

“Oh doing well. My son just graduated from Middle School.”

“He did?”

“Yes. I know that you, being an attorney with a large practice could appreciate that.”

“I didn’t know they had graduation ceremonies for Junior High,” Bob said.

“Yes they do. The children get to walk across the stage and everything.”

“That sounds neat for the kids.”

“It is. Devon, loved it. He’s a good boy.”

“Is your husband still staying in the city?”

“Yes. His job as a reporter at the paper requires him to work long hours.”


“I know you were the one who killed Quentin,” Paul said.

“You can’t prove I killed him,” Sheila replied.

“Yes I can.”



“Easy how? I think you are bluffing.”

“No I am not. I can prove it with this.” Paul pulled a red deflated balloon from his pocket.


Yeah, that’s some kick ass dialog(ue) there, isn’t it?  Boy you can just feel the energy leaping off the page into your lap.  Stilted dialog is one of the hardest and most difficult thing I think people have to over come when they write. Many people just have a tin ear for dialog and it’s hard for them to write it well.  I did for a long time until I started doing a couple of things to liven it up.  Is my dialog better? Maybe. Hell, probably.  It’s one of the things I am most complimented on in my readings.  But it took me a while to get it down where it just flows naturally, and even now, it doesn’t all the time. Often, I have to go back and read the dialog out loud and cut sentences with extreme amounts of suckage.  Stilted dialog can be from many things, and often has certain characterstics (expostion through dialog is a big no-no!)

One my favorite short pieces of dialog is in the movie Intolerable Cruelty. It goes something like this:

Clooney: But you don’t think so.

Zeta Jones: How do you know?

Clooney: Why would you be here?

 Zeta Jones:Why did you ask me?
Clooney: Can’t I be curious?

Zeta Jones: About what?  
Clooney: Do you ever answer questions?

Zeta Jones: Do you?

Awesome! No one ever answers a question!

Here’s a few tips and how I use them:

1. I learned the art of cross-talk. You know what cross-talk is? It’s when two people come together to have a conversation.  Both of them have an agenda about what they want to get across in the conversation, and the agendas typically are different.  How many times have you been talking to someone and they carry the conversation away with them and you have to rope them back into what you wanted to talk about? 

2. Keep completed sentences to a minimum. Sure, it’s proper english, but most folks don’t use them.

3. Remove all the “Yes”s and “No”s from your dialogue. This goes back to the cross-talking. Simply put, never have a character answer another character’s question. Ever.  I know what you’re thinking, but nix that thought. It’s stupid.  Trust me. Never have anyone answer a question…directly.

4. Read it out loud.  It will sound different in your head from being heard in a voice. Hell, act it out a little and get into the role. You know?  You will sound like a tool to your spouse in the other room, but what do they know?

5. Make sure to not ever try to tell the story through the character’s dialog. As in, “That’s a very pretty yellow dress you have on.”  Blech.

So, an example of the things above:

“Thanks for coming,” Marko said, shaking Shane’s hand.

“Sure thing. So what’s up?” Shane asked. He checked his phone.

“We want to make you a proposition.”

“A proposition?”


“Okay.” Shane checked his phone.

“We want you to infilitrate Garrus Inc and be a corporate spy for us.”

“You want me to be a spy?”


“I don’t know. That sounds risky.”

“It’ll be okay. If you get caught, you just come back to work for us.”

“I can get my old job back?”

“Yes. You can.”


Now…I’m gonna rewrite this, but trying to only change Shane’s dialog whenever possible, and leave Marko’s alone. I would normally change it all, but I think this illustrates it better.

“Thanks for coming,” Marko said, shaking Shane’s hand.

“I’ve got a meeting in five.” Shane said.

“We want to make you a proposition.”

“No shit. I didn’t think you brought me here to talk about the weather.” Shane checked his phone.

“We want you to infilitrate Garrus Inc and be a corporate spy for us.”

Shane looked up. “Seriously?”

“You’re our best bet.”

“Kapersky’s better.”

“Don’t be worried. If you get caught, you just come back to work for us.”

“What if I don’t want to come back?”

“Maybe you should hear the deal first.”


Now, I just typed this up quick, so it probably sucks rope, but at least you can see what I am talking about.   I never answer a question directly. I never have a Yes or a No in the dialog.  Also notice how Shane says, “Kapersk’y better” but Marko never comments on that? He just keeps going with his dialog.  Sometimes people ignore comments others make so they can continue their own thoughts.

One last bit. I’m no Fauklner, or Richard Russo, or hell even Elmore Leonard, but here’s a small piece from one of my stories. It’s not great, it desperately needs more revision, but try to pay attention to the dialog, ignoring the other crap,  and see if it sounds stilted in your head.

“Thanks for coming, bro,” Marcus said.

“God I hate it when you call me bro.” Roland sat at the table.

Marcus smiled. It was the smile that could get him into the White House with no credentials. It was the smile that made Roland want to punch his brother in the face.

“And cut that damn smile off too. I’m not one of your lackeys.”

Marcus’s face dropped into mock hurt. “Of course not. We’re blood.” He emphasized the word blood as if it actually meant something.

The waitress came by, wearing a skimpy pair of shorts and her boobs hanging out of the top of her white shirt. “What can I get you?”

Roland watched Marcus turn into Mr. Charm. Here it comes. His brother always did his best to appear like a beer aficionado. “I’ll take a Dogfish Head.”

Roland had to look down and wrap his hand around his mouth to keep from laughing.

If Marcus expected the waitress to have some sort of reaction to him ordering a beer named after a fish with a dog head, she wasn’t impressed.

“And you?” she asked Roland.

“I’ll take a Bud Light.”

“Tap or bottle?”


She left to get their order.

“She’s a hot one,” Marcus said.

“So what’s up?”

Marcus slid the ashtray to him, pulled out his cigarette case with his initials ridiculously emblazoned on it. Roland didn’t know why his brother couldn’t just smoke the damn things straight out of the pack, as if putting them in some fancy container made the habit less disgusting. Marcus lit the smoke up with his torch lighter. “I wanted to offer you a position on a new plan I got—”


Marcus smiled. “At least hear me out.”

“Every time I hear you out, I end up with a sore ass and a guilty conscious.”

“Very funny. I’m serious.”

“You were born serious.”

Marcus took a drag, and then spoke as he exhaled. “It involves Jasper Karsten.”

Roland, mid-way through popping the knuckles on his hand, stopped at the mention of Karsten. “If you’re lying to me–”

“I want to take his ass down.”

“No shit.”

“I think I might have found a way.” Marcus took a drag off his smoke.

“I still don’t know why you want this guy so bad.”


So what do you think? Did this help? Sorry for my suckage of writing. Hopefully I illustrated my point well enough for you to get it.

Posted in: Dialog, Writing