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February 2, 2010 / theoldsilly

Professor Old Silly’s Tutorial Tuesday – Moron Dialog

Welcome back to Bloggyversity, English Comp Class 10001.3b, “Writing With Power in Fiction.” Be seated, class, your full attention, please, and I mean right now. Really – let’s get right down to business. Stop with the flirting and nonsense, turn off your ipods, cell phones, black and/or raspberries, stop with the twittering, get your faces out of Facebook, adjust your monitors, adjust your underwear, plop your butts in your seats and be still. I am as usual in no mood for your typical hooliganistic behaviors.

Ahem. Thank you. Today we’ll delve into more on realistic sounding dialog. As we’ve discussed earlier in this course, in a conversation between two characters, once the back and forth flow of the talking is established, oftentimes the dialog tags become needless and even burdensome, and should, for the most part, be dispensed with. But one should be careful not to create a dry passage in the book where the dialog is reduced to what is referred to as mere ‘talking heads’ … a talk between two individuals with no body movement or actions taking place, with predictable responses to each other as if done in push-button, knee-jerk reactions. And, I might add, with knees the prose does not mention and, apparently, the characters have none of. Here is an example of a sterile conversation, one in which the tags are soon dropped, but the scene just sits there like a dry, flat pancake with no syrup.


“Do you want to go to the movies with me tonight,” John asked Mary.

Mary said, “That would be wonderful. What is showing? I really want to see Avatar if it is still at the Imax theater in 3D.”

“Oh it is still there, all right. Still breaking records every weekend, too.”

“Great. So what time do you want to go?”

“Can I pick you up around seven? Show starts at seven thirty, that will give us plenty of time I would think.”

“Cool. This is like, so totally awesome, John. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Oh you are welcome, Mary. I would not want to go with anyone else.”

“Really? So you are saying that I am special to you?


Now, wasn’t that about as entertaining as watching paint dry? No, not even quite that much fun, I didn’t think so, either. So. What’s wrong with this picture?

There is no picture. Nothing is shown to the reader. What are John and Mary doing while they talk? What tones of voices, inflexions, and body movements are happening? What’s happening in the background? None of this is written into the scene. Additionally, the dialog itself sounds stilted. For one thing, people speak in contractions. Unless you are writing a character with say, an especially prim and proper upbringing, or maybe a stiff upper lip professor of English, use contractions in your dialog. For another thing, all the questions asked received direct and immediate answers. Most people, unless they are speaking to a superior or have been programmed to respond like robots, do not always give a question a direct answer. They might just as often change the subject or ask a question back. Let’s now look at this passage rewritten with some more interest and realism put into it.


“Do you want to go to the movies with me tonight,” John asked Mary, his usual baritone rising with a bit of nervousness. He bit his lower lip and crossed his fingers beneath the picnic table.

Mary’s face lit up as she said with a delighted squeal, “That would be wonderful. What’s showing? I really want to see Avatar if it’s still at the Imax theater in 3D.”

A balmy fall breeze wafted through the overhead Maples. John held his visible excitement to a minimum, shifted his weight and said, “Oh it’s still there, all right. Still breaking records every weekend, too.” He swatted at a fly.

“Great. So what time do you want to go?”

“Hey—what’s that?” John pointed with a quizzical look at her pink leather bag atop the table.


He pointed again. “Your purse, it’s got a smudge or something on it.

Mary looked. She rolled her eyes and sighed in exasperation. “Crap. Nasty birds.” She snatched out some hand wipes and started cleaning her purse. “Bird poop. Just frickin’ great.”

“Can I pick you up around seven? Show starts at seven thirty, that’ll give us plenty of time I would think.” He ran his fingers through his thick black hair.

“Cool. This is like, so totally awesome, John.” She continued scrubbing, but gave John a seductive wink and said, “Thanks for inviting me.”

Wow, John thought, her voice can sound so sexy, so sultry. And oh, my god. I could get lost in those hazel eyes. “Oh, you’re welcome, Mary. I wouldn’t want to go with anyone else.” He smiled, cocked his head to the side and stroked his chin.

“Really?” Mary finished her cleaning job, set her purse down with a little grunt of satisfaction, and after a breathy sigh and a scoot closer to John, leaned in and tilted her head up so she could whisper in his ear, “So you’re saying I’m special to you?”


Much better, hmm? Okay that’ll be it for today, class. Please, as usual leave your comments on my desk, and make sure to blog in next week Tuesday, as we’ll be discussing even more subtleties with regard to composing realistic and natural sounding dialog. Gotta scoot – I promised Ms. Flanders a nice veggie lunch in the Student Union, and she … oh there she is now …. 

You coming, Professor Old Silly? I’m starving!

Yes, Ma’am! Okay, class, chow.

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Leave a Comment
  1. John Standish / Feb 2 2010 6:13 am

    Another fine class, Prof Old Silly – and hey – Ms. Flanders is HOT! No wonder you’re in a hurry to get going every week! lol 😉

  2. Cactus Annie / Feb 2 2010 6:14 am

    The second example really is more “alive” – thanks for another good writing class, old silly!

  3. Barbra Kelser / Feb 2 2010 6:30 am

    Well – so now we finally get to see Ms. Flander, eh? Tsk, tsk, Old Silly … wee bit young for you, isn’t she? LOL – hey, really enjoyed class today. The dialog lesson was clear and interesting to read, too.

  4. Elizabeth Spann Craig / Feb 2 2010 6:35 am

    Great examples and tutorial as usual, Marvin! You know I tweet these. 🙂

    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • theoldsilly / Feb 2 2010 12:11 pm

      Many tanks for the many tweets, Tweetie! 😉

  5. unwriter1 / Feb 2 2010 6:44 am

    I want some meat with my raw veggies. Picking her up at seven is cutting it way too close. There’s parking, getting the ticket, the drive to the theatre, all those little things. Oh, the dialog was better in the second one.

  6. Crystal Clear Proofing / Feb 2 2010 8:03 am

    Your wonderful examples make your lessons Crystal Clear! 😉

  7. Helen Ginger / Feb 2 2010 9:07 am

    The first example is like boiling a pot of water, adding a carrot and calling it soup. You need more flavors for it to be good.

    Straight From Hel

  8. Elspeth Antonelli / Feb 2 2010 12:06 pm

    Dialogue is everything. It can make the characters come alive, or it can put the reader to sleep. I try to aim for the former!

    Another excellent tutorial, Old Silly.

  9. stephen tremp / Feb 2 2010 12:09 pm

    The latter is definately engages the reader. It almost paints a three-dimensional picture where the reader can not only read the scene but see the scene. Nicely done.

    Stephen Tremp

    • theoldsilly / Feb 2 2010 12:12 pm

      Thanks, Stephen – I notice you do a good job with this aspect of writing, too.

  10. Alex J. Cavanaugh / Feb 2 2010 12:39 pm

    You’re right – no one just stands and talks without doing somethng else!
    And I think drying paint is much more exciting.

  11. karen walker / Feb 2 2010 12:58 pm

    Yet another wonderful class. Glad I was able to sit in today.

  12. MadMadMargo / Feb 2 2010 1:19 pm

    I squealed with delight…..once.

  13. quirkyloon / Feb 2 2010 1:24 pm

    “He swatted at a fly.”

    Am! I’m telling PETA on you!

    It’s not nice to kill a fly.

    It shouldn’t hurt to be a fly.

    You’re in deep, deep trouble now Mister Marvin!


  14. ReformingGeek / Feb 2 2010 1:47 pm

    A guy that notices a smudge on a purse? A guy that notices a purse?

    Wait. That wasn’t your point, was it?

    The fog clears, opening up Reffie’s head to coherent thoughts….

  15. AmyLK / Feb 2 2010 2:00 pm

    Good class today! have fun at lunch!

  16. yvonne lewis / Feb 2 2010 3:21 pm

    Another brilliant class Marvin, how the extra words make all the difference.


  17. Patricia Stoltey / Feb 2 2010 5:04 pm

    And a super technique for testing your dialogue is to read it aloud, even act it out.

  18. tashabud / Feb 3 2010 11:56 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m squealing with delight. This class is most helpful to me. The three chapters that I’m currently writing are mostly dialogs. You must had me in mind when you wrote this one. LOL.

    Anyway, I don’t blame you for having a veggie sandwich with Ms. Flanders. She’s a real hottie. I promise not to say anything to the Mrs.


  19. Cassandra Jade / Feb 4 2010 3:26 am

    Great post and thanks for the example. I think this is really helpful advice for many writers.


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