Essential writing skills: lessons in dialogue

I realised recently that my standard conversation in any take-away always goes something like this:

“Hi, I’ll have a Super Glob Burger, hold the ketchup thanks.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question.”
“Could you repeat that please?”
“You mean, do I want chips with that? Yes please.”

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.
My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

What does that tell us about writing? First point is that it’s obvious who was speaking – all without a single “I said”, “he said”, or anything else.

More crucial is the mis-spelling. I did that deliberately. What impression does it give of setting and character? A bored burger slider? Background clatter? Me having trouble figuring it out? All of the above? I didn’t say – and that’s important, because it makes the reader think. However, mis-spelling is a trick authors should use only sparsely. One line of mangled dialogue is enough get the message across. More – and it gets hard to read, even boring.

The same applies for any other speech quirk. It’s possible, for instance, to represent a speech impediment or accent by mis-spelling, but there’s a fine line between making the story hard to read – or being patronising or offensive. If done well it can be great. Madeleine l’Engle used it in A Wrinkle In Time – wonderfully – to convey reverberation in the voices of the guardian angels. However, few of us have l’Engle’s skills as a writer. Get the balance wrong, and it can be the kiss of death.

My rule of thumb is not to be too explicit – make clear the speaker has vocal quirks, but do it through choice of words, through expressing emotions, frustrations or how others react.

Story telling is all about conveying emotion – and about making readers work for the reward.

As for the end of the fast food story? I got chips and handed over $5.90. I knew it was $5.90 because I got $4.10 change for my $10.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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18 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: lessons in dialogue

  1. Zane Grey was one for conveying accents. I like “Hod do” for “how do you do” and “laig” for leg. Or a character written with a Russian/German accent in mind.

    BTW, love your shameless self-promotion! 😉


    1. It’s a good technique when done well. He spent a lot of time here in NZ, not sure if he ever tried spelling our accent. It’s changed in the last century, become a lot flatter – very clear from early recordings. Today, I’m slightly sorry to say, the ‘i” has become “u” to the point where I saw an advertising sign the other day poking fun at it – a fast food promo deliberately spelt “fush and chups”. Sigh…

      Self promotion – yeah…it’s a tough job, but I gotta do it… 🙂


  2. That’s something I have a hard time balancing, especially when I have so many characters from different regions with different dialects. At this point I’m looking at putting an authors note at the beginning.


    1. There will be a balance point. One suggestion…if you’re at the point of needing to explain it by stepping outside the story, maybe consider re-pitching some of the content, so the story speaks for itself? Just a thought. For my own part, I’ve occasionally published author notes in my books, but it’s inevitably come about as a result of the intersection between what I have in mind, and what the publisher requests.


  3. I have a Scottish character in my novel. I only changed ‘you’ to ‘ye’ and ‘not’ to ‘no’ and reminded the reader that she’s got red hair. The full Glaswegian dialect would have been impossible to read. 😀


  4. Thank you for such an accurate re-enactment of those infrequent occasions I visit a “fast food” (in your world, take-away) establishment. Always, I hope for a vaguely familiar syllable as a place to begin; in your instance it was wanchi, which eventually got me to chips (here, fries). Here, it seems most conversations also involve super-sizing chips (fries) and soft drinks (sodas). It is just not a pleasant conversation but what a splendid job you did in illustrating what great dialogue does.

    My favorite novel by John Irving is A Prayer for Owen Meany; the title character speaks in caps for the entire novel, and Irving is brilliant in this novel with that device. I still hope to write a short story that uses some kind of speaking device similar to what your post addresses for when that is done well, it is a joy to read.

    Also, I, too, only understand the cost of an item based upon the change I receive. Loved that! Great post, Matthew.


    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. It’s a funny thing, the US terms are all used here in the McDonalds outlets, causing Kiwis to say ‘I’ll just get some chips’ and, on arriving at the counter, ask for ‘fries’. We don’t eat fast-food of any brand very often in our household – way too much added salt and sugar for our tastes.

      I haven’t read the Irving book, though I’ve seen a similar device in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where Death is the only character identifiable instantly from the typography.


  5. Interesting article, and a subject I am struggling with. I’m looking for a good book on it, since all my good books usually have a single chapter on it.

    I’m struggling with the fear of pulling the reader out of the story, with making them work to understand what they are looking at. Many ‘how to writers’ talk about laying it on thick one time and backing far away from misspellings and too strange phrasings.

    Some talk about making a character talk mostly in passive voice for instance (that could be a lawyer or a professor), or using really short sentences, or really long ones. And, making sure the character speaks from their vantage point. A child will usually see things differently than an adult. A sailor might use nautical terms and a woman would speak properly.

    Thanks, Silent


    1. I’m not aware of any books directly on this aspect of dialogue. Of course there’s always this blog… 🙂 Actually, you might want to check out Nancy Kress ‘Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint’ (Writers Digest 2005) – comes at the issue indirectly but in particular offers ways of creating compelling characters, the sort of character your readers won’t want to let go of.


  6. It’s a difficult skill to master, balancing uniqueness and readability. You know you’ve achieved it when the former doesn’t slow the story and the latter avoids becoming bland. Easier said than done, but then that’s why not everyone writes.


    1. Absolutely true… writing’s actually way harder than it looks! I think a lot of people try to write, but actually achieving good results is very much more difficult. In fiction, it is indeed that balance between uniqueness and readability, especially today with so much in the market.


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