19 December 2022

He Said, She Said.

girl and boy talking

“I love writing dialogue,” he said.

“Really?” she asked. “How come?”

“Well, first off, the lines are short, but it takes up tons of space.”

“In other words, you can crank out a lot of pages with less effort than straight narrative.”


“Isn’t that cheating?” she asked.

“Not if your reader enjoys the experience.  Who hasn’t quietly closed a book when confronted by a giant hunk of exposition, when tidy bits of dialogue might’ve kept things rolling along?”

“My mother.  She liked Dostoyevsky.”

“!”“That explains your penchant for lugubrious literary tomes.”

“No one says ‘penchant’, ‘lugubrious’ or ‘tomes’ in regular speech.”

I do, but you make a good point,” he said. “Actually instructive.  Keep that dialogue simple and unadorned.”

“That feels a little doctrinaire.”

“Simply advisory.”

“I do like my doctrines to be somewhat flexible,” she said.

“Then you’ll hate this: always write the way people speak.  Can’t, not cannot; don’t, not do not; isn’t not is not, you get the idea.”

“You never met my Professor of Medieval Literature, circa freshman year.  Contraction-free.   An eight o’clock class, no amount of caffeine was enough.”

“Leave him, and others like him, out of your book.  Better to waste time listening to Miles Davis.”

“Now there’s a right turn without a signal.”

“Not really,” he said.  “He’ll teach you a masters class in meter, tempo, rhythm and dynamics, all applicable to fluid and effective dialogue.”

“I lean more toward Bruno Mars.”

“Just as good.  ‘Julio, get the stretch.’  And the master of them all, Chuck Berry.

“You haven’t mentioned poetry,” she said.  “All this talk about meter, tempo, rhythm and dynamics.”

“Don’t forget brevity.  Too many words spoil the conversational broth.”

“Haiku.  The fewest words to convey the idea, none that don’t.”

“Though beware of double meanings,” he said. “Or triple and quadruple, if you happen to be T.S. Elliot.”

“Please don’t banish innuendo.  It’s my stock in trade.”

“Never.  I’ve seen Casablanca.  Innuendo is the match that lights the fuse.  The straw that stirs the drink.  The sauce that inflames the pasta.”

“So tortured metaphor is okay,” she said.  

“Not if the metaphor cries out in pain.  As I just demonstrated,”

"They say to show not tell.  Same with dialogue?"

"Especially with dialogue.  Which is why adverbs are verboten (see Elmore Leonard)," he said, imperiously.  

“All this clean and simple might slip into dull and boring.  Just saying.”

“Hemingway’s dialogue was simple, but no one ever said it was boring.”

“That’s an overstatement,” she said.  “My mother thought he was not only boring, but simple minded.  To say nothing of misogynistic and egomaniacal.  I also prefer my dialogue with a bit of garnish.  A flip of the wrist, a scattering of bon mots, a little storytelling, a gush of passion followed by self-deprecating wisecracks.  A full-bodied dose of sincere confession, delivered without restraint or censure.  An outpouring, a geyser, a revealing hemorrhage of pent-up feelings.  This requires some narrative elbow room, n’est-ce pas?”

Oui.  Just don’t lose the reader in the deluge,” he said.

“I can’t tell if you’re a liberator or a killjoy.”

“You can do anything you want as long as it works.  Rules are for scolds and scaredy cats.  Break them at will.  You just have to figure out if the gamble was worth the outcome.”

“So you don’t hand out instruction manuals.”

“Elmore Leonard ruled you should only use ‘said’ in dialogue.  If you use any verb at all.  He thought a good enough writer could convey everything through the strength of her writing alone.  I’m not so sure.  He also wrote you shouldn’t over-describe settings.  He obviously hadn’t read much Lawrence Durrell or Robert Silverberg.”

Chris Knopf
Chris Knopf

“Can you at least share some inspirational examples of great dialogue?” she asked (properly defying Leonard).

“Watch His Girl Friday and read Robert B. Parker.  Casablanca, to my earlier point, is another movie to pay attention to, and anything by W.B. Yeats.  Not exactly dialogue, but you asked for inspiration.”

“You said to avoid dialogue that’s too long.  Can it ever be too short?”



  1. A gentle awww moment about dialogue misunderstood:

    A girl I was quietly dating said, “I believe my friend Jill likes you.”
    “How’s that?”
    “She overheard you talking about something you like. She wants to get them for you but doesn’t know where to find them. She asked me where she could find chuckberries.”

  2. "Always write how people speak." Amen. I finally got that watching Ingmar Bergman's 1973 miniseries "Scenes From a Marriage" - the searing argument scenes were so 100% true to life that it was hard to believe that anyone was acting.
    Also, watch every Frank Capra movie ever made. Great dialog.

  3. Elizabeth Dearborn19 December, 2022 14:17

    "Brevity is the soul of wit." - Cicero

    1. Not to be a pedant, which I can be, Shakespeare is the author of the line. Part of Polonius's famous speech. My mother, with whom I had a lively correspondence, introduced me to that line when she wrote a letter that went something like, "Everything's fine here." Then delivered the quote in question.

  4. It's interesting to me that two of the most highly-regarded American playwrights of the twentieth century wrote dialogue that seldom reflected how people talk.

    Tennessee Williams was a poet, and his characters often spoke with an overblown lyricism. Actually, it's too bad that we don't really talk that way.

    Arthur Miller's speeches were often clumsy and aimless. Someone once told me they were New York Jewish, but that's not true, either. I played three roles in Miller plays at one time or another, and they were the hardest lines I ever had to learn because they didn't flow well and there was no logic.

    Then there are novelists who write dialogue that almost sings its way off the page and sounds completely real: Lehane, Winslow, Slaughter, Gaylin, Rozan, you (of course), and several others. I think I've pointed out before the way you have characters paraphrase and mimic each other, which conveys the impression that they listen to each other.

  5. Thanks, Steve. I agree with your choices, especially Lehane. Also about our famous playwrights. Beautiful words, but not realistic in real life. I wonder what you think of Mamet.

  6. Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo are masterpieces. A lot of his other stuff betrays his misogyny and pretension. Oleanna, for example, is delusional and unwatchable.

  7. I agree with you about Mamet, Steve.


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