Guest post on dialogue!

Today, please welcome Paul Cosca, who’s written a fabulous blog on my favorite thing to write, dialogue.

As I review self-published and indie novels, there’s one issue that I see more often than any other. Beyond pacing and plotting and punctuation (no, not really punctuation, I just needed another “p” word), the problem I see more than anything is dialogue. Now, my roots are in playwrighting, so that means I’m probably going to be bothered by dialogue more than most (or at least more specifically than most), but even people without my kind of background are going to notice something is off, even if they can’t quite put their finger on what it is.
So if you’re struggling with dialogue (and you know who you are), how do you make it better? There are no surefire answers, but let’s see if we can add some hardware to the toolbox.

  1. Know that dialogue doesn’t have to be completely realistic.
Here’s an excerpt from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross:

ROMA: Three business days. They mean three business days.
LINGK: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
ROMA: I don’t understand.
LINGK: That’s what they are. Three business days. If I wait till Monday, my time limit runs  out.
ROMA: You don’t count Saturday.
LINGK: I’m not.
ROMA: No, I’m saying you don’t include Saturday in your three days. It’s not a business day.
LINGK: But I’m not counting it. (PAUSE) Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. So it would have elapsed.
ROMA: What would have elapsed?

Does that sound like real people talking. No. No, it certainly doesn’t. And personally, I don’t really love David Mamet. On the other hand, this play won a Pulitzer, so what the hell do I know? I know that David Mamet has made a very healthy career out of writing dialogue that bears little resemblance to the way people actually speak, and a lot of people love it. And they love it because he has style. It’s bold and brash and completely…Mamet. David Mamet shows us that we don’t have to be realistic, we just have to be good. So experiment. Make strong choices. Be anything but boring.

2. Tune your ear.
If you’re going to try your hand at realism (and this is where a lot of popular prose sits), then you’re going to need to tune your ear to catch what real people really sound like. This isn’t easy, but there are things you can do to help yourself. Something that is suggested in a lot of playwrighting courses is going out to a public place (a park, a restaurant, etc) and listening. You can bring a book or notebook to not be quite so obvious, but just sitting and listening to real people as they go about their day can be very informative.
Now, that might be a little voyeuristic for your tastes. Understandable. If you’re squeamish about listening in on other people’s lives, you can try a more passive approach. Documentaries, a great source of ideas, are also great tools for hearing how people speak. Now, some documentaries end up feeling a little more rehearsed than others, but cast your net wide and you’ll hear speech patterns from people of all ages and demographics (and just ask me if you’d like some documentary recommendations, because I tend to watch a lot).

3. Remember to differentiate.
A problem that a lot of writers encounter isn’t that their dialogue is boring or unrealistic, but that everyone ends up sounding the same. Now, everything you write is going to have at least a little bit of you in it (you’re writing it, after all), but you have to make sure that each character sounds unique. If you’ve got a college professor and a 19-year-old high school dropout making small talk in an elevator, they certainly are not going to sound the same, right? It doesn’t mean mean that your 19-year-old is going to be stupid (it doesn’t even mean that he needs to sound uneducated), but your college professor is probably going to use longer words and longer sentences. Your dropout might feel either intimidated or feel like he has something to prove; either way you might find he uses shorter, choppier sentences. Perhaps something like:

PROFESSOR: Really lovely weather today.
DROPOUT: ‘s pretty good.
PROFESSOR: Fantastic day for a baseball game. That’s where I’m headed. I’ve got tickets to see the Mets play.
DROPOUT. Huh. The Mets suck.
PROFESSOR: I can’t disagree with you there.

Obviously this is a pretty rudimentary example, but even in those five lines, can you feel how different those two people are? Try this as an experiment. Take a section of your writing with some good dialogue, and strip out all of the dialogue tags and descriptions. Now with just the dialogue, give it to someone who doesn’t know the story and ask them if they can figure out what kind of people these are just by how they speak. If your reader comes back without a single clue, you probably have some work to do in making these people feel unique and alive.
There are many things you can do to help yourself when it comes to dialogue, but the first thing you have to do is figure out if you’ve got a problem or not. Identify the problems and you’re that much closer to finding the solutions, making your prose that much better. And if you have any questions, feel free to let me know!

Paul Cosca is a playwright, novelist, and reviewer of all kinds of art. If you have a project you would like reviewed, or just have questions, send an email to and don’t forget to follow him on Twitter @PaulCosca



Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Guest post on dialogue!

  1. One of the most common problems I see when editing is the lack of differentiation between characters in their dialogue. I’m working on a manuscript right now where every character says “living hell” as a substitute for an expletive, which would be so much more effective (and interesting) if only one character said it.

    I love your suggestion to strip the dialogue tags and ask a reader to describe something about the characters. Thanks for this helpful post!

    • If you’re having trouble finding an authentic voice for a character, maybe this exercise might help:

      Write a monologue of your character explaining something somewhat mundane, like instructions on how to program a VCR. Write it all in that character’s voice. If it doesn’t sound like you want it to, pick another mundane topic and try it again. Once you know how that character speaks when the stakes are low, their high-stakes dialogue will come flying off your fingertips.

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