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Writing Dialog – Letting Characters Be Who They Are

Easter (or more aptly Resurrection Sunday) is the highest holiday on the Christian calendar.  It is also one of the two periods (Christmas being the other) where church attenders will endure the most classically poorly written dialog that writers can muster.

“My name is Matthew and I used to collect taxes.  I was actually selling out my people to Rome!  Can you believe it?  Then one day, Jesus called me and I decided to leave it all and follow him.”   Perhaps this was proclaimed by a middle aged man who always regretted not taking high school drama wearing a brown bath robe from Kmart.

OK, I’ll go easy because dialog like that at least accomplishes half of what a writer is trying to do – convey information.  The goal was to identify Matthew, give a little background, throw in a little historical exegesis, and convey the change of direction in his life.  The good news is that church people are used to forgiving bad drama – especially if it involves children.

It reminds me of those old radio dramas of the 1940’s where the writers had to figure out how to give the reader information without any visual means.

Dialog 1:

“Hand me that wrench, Joe.  I’ll use it to turn this stuck knob located at the bottom of this white window.  It looks like it was painted over.  Let me put it on here and turn.  We’ll see if I can get it loose.   Uggggggg.”

That pretty much conveyed everything the reader might want to know about the situation short of including a schematic drawing of the window.  But face it, folks.  Do you really imagine working with your dad or a buddy and having a conversation like that?  I think it would sound more like this.

Dialog 2:

“Gimme that.”

Joe handed Charlie the wrench who applied it to the bolt.


Joe watched the muscles contract in Charlie's neck as he doubled his grip and pulled.  Finally he let out a sigh and clanged the wrench to the floor.  Both men stared at the bolt.

“What’ll we do now?”

This may not be the best writing in the world but it is better.  At least I can believe it.  I can imagine actual people who would probably say “Gimme that” and “Damn” but there are very few people I would imagine giving the detailed explanation that the first dialog offered.

In the dialog 1, Charlie was not talking to Joe.  He was talking to the reader.    He was saying, “Hey, let me tell you about this window.  We can see it but you can’t so I better describe it for you.  And let me spell out exactly what we are doing because unless I spell it all out, I just don’t think you are going to get it.”

In the second dialog, Charlie was actually talking to Joe and we just happened to be listening in.  We are observers.  We are part of the process.  We are smart enough to figure out that they were trying to get a window open, that there was some sort of stuck bolt (really doesn’t matter where the bolt is or what color the window was painted) and that it was important for them to them to get that window open.  Also, he didn't have to say, "I couldn't move the bolt.  It is too tight."  We figured that out by his actions.

Authentic dialog is a key tool to getting a reader to love (or hate) a character, believe in them and take them into their heart for a while.  It may mean that you can’t say everything you want to say.  It may mean the reader will have to make observations and connections about what is going on.  But, that is the fun of reading – creating a picture in my mind based upon the clues the writer is giving me.  If you want to control exactly every detail, take a photograph.

As I write, I can often hear how a person might say something.  Often, this “hearing” is based upon a conversation I heard or participated in – in short, how a real person really said something.  Narrative can fill in the details if the dialog is too cryptic.  It can also be used to provide spacing and timing if periods of silence are appropriate.  But dialog is what convinces the reader your characters are believable.

One Response to Writing Dialog – Letting Characters Be Who They Are

  1. Made some corrections in the original post. I had Joe and Charlie mixed up when I was writing the explanation. This would be good fodder for why we need editors.

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