Writing Dialogue: Agenda

cat hungry.jpg“Writing about dialogue is such a pain,” Corey said.  It was a futile thing to say as he was alone in his office.  Corey’s cat Niblet heard his lonely rambling and jumped up onto his desk to console him.

Corey’s eyes widened as Niblet brushed past his hands and went for the computer keyboard.  The furry fiend began smashing the buttons with her paws.  The following words stretched across the empty white blog expanse: “Human.  Why you sit and stare at this glowing window?  Fetch me treats human.  Then talk about the new book I saw you reading while squatting over the strange, water-filled litter box.”

write dazzling dialogue.jpgThe new book Niblet was referencing is, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell.  Oddly, I don’t have a lot of books on the mechanics of dialogue.  At 135 pages this one is absolutely packed with information.  I do have a few books written by Bell, and he seems to deliver consistently.  I’ll likely give the book its own spotlight later, but today I wanted to share a tool I found in it’s pages.

When we talk in real life there is often an agenda behind our exchanges.  Sometimes the agenda is transparent.  Other times it’s hidden beneath layers.  Let’s play with a random example I’m about to pull out of my creative whirlpool.

“Hello.  What do you want?”
“A caramel frappe latte with extra whip, chocolate sprinkles, and four pumps of chocolate syrup!  If there are five pumps, I’ll send it back.”

Thanks creative whirlpool!

Perks of Super Villainy

We know from those couple lines of hastily written dialogue we have two people: a customer and a server of some type.  We can also make some basic assumptions from what is said by the two.  The server doesn’t seem very friendly, and the person ordering the coffee seems like a level 27 control freak.

Dialogue Guy.jpgWe can also make some assumptions about agenda here as well.  The servers agenda is likely related to getting this person in and out as quickly as possible.  The person ordering the drink has a different agenda: to get what they want how they want it.

Grab whatever book you are reading or writing and go to some dialogue.  Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the scene, and read a couple lines.  After you are done, ask  yourself this question: What are the speakers goals?  Put another way, what are their agendas?

Dialogue, if it is going to be effective, should be building the readers understanding of the character.  Yes the words are important, but how the reflect on the speaker is just as important.  On a side-note, your agenda and the characters agenda should not be the same.  If you look at a string of dialogue and say, “That’s there because I needed to explain who, what, where, or when this was happening,” you might want to reappraise.

Consider the following example Bell offers from his book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue:

“I simply will not have it!” Robert Massingale expostulated.  “Not while I am the head of this family of five.  Goodness knows it is hard enough to run an estate during the reign of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria.  But having a servant from Hungary come into this house without the proper references, and with a scar across his left cheek to boot, which he no doubt got in a waterfront bar somewhere during his thirty years on this earth, I tell you, I simply will not have it” (p. 7).

Writing Dialogue.jpg

Before you say, “That Bell doesn’t know anything about dialogue,” understand the above passage was a example he provided of what NOT to do.  It may seem obvious, but normal people don’t talk like this.  Those bizarre snippets of backstory tossed haphazardly into normal dialogue are jarring.  It’s easier to notice it in other peoples work.  If a character begins feeling more like a ventriloquist’s puppet, and less like a real person, this might be the issue.

The Editor_1.jpgMany times, while in the grips of creation, we begin smashing information into dialogue that shouldn’t be there.  Now don’t get me wrong, dialogue is an outstanding method of delivering information to your reader.  You just have to do it in a way that is believable, and also ties into their agenda.  It shouldn’t be dialogue for the sake of information dump.

Bell recommends to break down each scene, look at what characters are saying, and write down (or at least consider) what their agendas were.  What were they trying to accomplish with their words?

I like this tip.  I think it’s a pretty solid way of measuring the worth of dialogue.  My only addition point would be to consider that an agenda doesn’t have to be a giant thing.  An agenda can be as simple as getting under someones skin (annoying them).

That’s it for today.  Oddly enough, this is the first dialogue specific posting I have offered.  Do you have a method of evaluating dialogue?  Or do you simply give a it a read (hopefully aloud) and see how it feels?  Are there aspects of dialogue you are curious about and would like addressed in a future post?  Let me know!  I’d love to talk about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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23 responses

  1. Some good tips here and what a great example of what not to do! There’s nothing more off putting than unnatural dialogue, it can make me turn away from a story instantly. I like to think I’m actually alright with dialogue, it’s one of the few things in writing that I actually have a bit of confidence in. That said, I’m forever struggling with what comes during it. The actions of the character.

    “Delicious,” he said, whilst taking another sip of coffee.

    The above, I feel, Is fine, but if it’s a long conversation how often is he sipping? What else do they do at the table? How long should each of these tidbits be? And when is it ok to not have any, and move from character to character fairly quickly?

    Liked by 6 people

    • Finding the balance can be tricky and it often varies. You don’t want your dialogue to get bogged down with extra action beats, but you also don’t want floating head syndrome (the characters are just heads floating in space talking to one another).

      Action tags in attribution become more important when there are a large number of characters talking in one scene. It’s always weird to a read a line of dialogue and think one character is talking, only to get to the end and see it attributed to a different one entirely.

      I’ve been told by some to read the dialogue without any action information to see how it flows. Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense when you strip away everything outside of what is actually said.

      I’ve also been told to read the dialogue but pay complete attention to the action tags and attributions. After reading, can I describe what the people were doing in the scene? If not, find a way to address it.

      I’ve also been told to look at the action tags in dialogue and see how important they are. Consider the value of (or lack of) scratched noses, jostled hair, and things of this nature. Are the action beats and tags enhancing the story and bringing important things to the reader’s attention?

      In you example you offered I would recommend removing the attribution entirely and using an action tag. I would also suggest tossing the, “whilst.”

      A literal reader (one who reads words and takes them at face value) will see that and say something like, “You can’t say a word while you are sipping coffee. It’s impossible to do both at the same time – try it!” Those readers exist. They are often found grazing in review websites along with angry grammarians.

      You could consider something like this:

      He took another sip of coffee. “Delicious.”

      I’m just going to tackle your questions one-by-one in short form.

      “…if it’s a long conversation how often is he sipping?” I would think of the cup of coffee as an emotion meter. It can become a tool to show the emotions/motivations of the person drinking it. How they drink it, how they handle the cup in their hands, how much sugar, stirring, all of these things can be used to show the emotions of the character holding the cup.

      “What else do they do at the table?” Depends totally on the scene. If this is the Mos Eisley cantina, and you are Han Solo, what you are doing with your hands changes with who is at the table with you. If Greedo is sitting across from you, your mouth and hands may be saying very different things. In this example, the extra information would be important to the reader. However, what he is doing with his hands is less important during the bartering scene with Obi Wan and Luke. If you haven’t seen Star Wars I could find a different example (let me know!).

      “How long should each of these tidbits be?” This totally depends on what is happening in the scene and what is needed. If it’s a device to ensure the reader knows who is talking it can be a quick little beat. If the action tag, or extra action attribution is important, it might be longer.

      “And when is it ok to not have any, and move from character to character fairly quickly?” Again, this is scene dependent in many ways. If you have two character traversing an area well-known to the reader, you may not need a bunch of extra tags. Also if you are riding high action, letting the dialogue flow faster feeds the readers excitement. You will put off some readers by slowing action to provide large amounts of dialogue attribution.

      I know some of these answers are vague in themselves, but it’s hard to address specific questions without context to work from. Hopefully some of this helps you out though. Thank you so much for reading and asking some great questions. If you need anymore clarification, don’t be afraid to ask!

      Liked by 5 people

  2. What good timing you have. My past couple posts have been about dialogue. I have also been focused on repairing and improving the dialogue in my manuscript using the show not tell method. I have found opposing views on every aspect of writing dialogue out there. I personally write my dialogue how I would speak and expect others to. I try to give each person a speech quirk or pattern. If I’m not 100% sold that it’s perfect, I ask someone to read it and be brutally honest. I’m guilty of overusing taglines, action tags and telling emotion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I will swing by your page and check out those posts for sure. I’m always looking to learn more about dialogue. It’s also nice to learn how different writers understand and use dialogue. I find that being able to understand writer motivations helps me during feedback. It also helps me in my own writing.

      Having someone read the dialogue is brilliant. Having them read it aloud is even better. Then you can watch when/if they stumble, but also both of you hear what it sounds like.

      I’m guilty of all of things you mentioned as well. I try to focus on these issues during re-writes. Thank you so much for reading and leaving some thoughts! Good luck to us both 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was the heart of the post for me:

    “Dialogue, if it is going to be effective, should be building the readers understanding of the character. Yes the words are important, but how the reflect on the speaker is just as important. On a side-note, your agenda and the characters agenda should not be the same.”

    Sorry, I don’t know how to do the fancy Quoting thing (any one know how to? ha-ha)

    Thanks for discussing this! I took a lot from it! Have you read “On Writing” By Stephen King? I think it is the only writing book that I have picked up, you’ve given me a lot to look into by the way. I just didn’t know if you had read this one and what your thoughts on it were!

    All the best!

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s how I normally do the quoting thing too! Hah! Unless I go into the fancy editing tool on the admin side. Which I am in right now so I can hyperlink this information into the next paragraph.

      I actually did a post about On Writing by Stephen king, here. It was a really enjoyable book for me. It seems to be a call-to-action for many writers out there.

      As for dialogue, it’s tricky. Some writers crush it and don’t even think about, while other think about it tons and have issues delivering. I think for this item specifically an extra set of eyes and ears is essential. What sounds like natural dialogue to you, may sound like some insanity to another person.

      Best of luck to you in your writing! I’ll be sure to swing by your blog and see what you and your wonderful family are getting into these days 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Interesting take on dialogue. I’m informed and intrigued. I was listening to the vocals of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn accompanied to Akira Yamaoka’s compositions (They both did a lot of the songs and music on most of the earlier Silent Hill Soundtracks before Team Silent disbanded and we later realized Konami is evil!) when I thought, well Corey’s informative posts haven’t hit my reader or I’ve missed it today, so I came to your page and sure enough there was a new wonderful insight into the writing world.

    Sorry for almost missing out, but it should say something that this random thought graced my mind while zoning out and trying to sleep. I dropped everything and came to check.

    Keep up the amazing articles!

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that you’ve mentioned the evil gaming franchise Konami, we are all in danger. I will bar my doors and prepare for violent entry!

      You made it past the cat intro!? Well I’m glad you were able to get past my ham-handed attempt at introducing the concept and found a useful tidbit here and there.

      I’m going to be adding Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Akira Yamaoka to one of my writing soundtrack stations. I find music sometimes makes my fingers catch fire and move at hyper speed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well the two collated quite a bit. Basically if the track is vocalized and the singer is female it is Mary. However even when it’s simple composition, Akira Yamaoka always had quite the ability to produce haunting tracks.

        One of my personal favorites the two worked on together was the song Room of Angel for the Silent Hill 4 OST. It is haunting and beautifully melodic. Still, Mary stayed on after Akira left to some voice work for some of the later game tracks when Daniel Licht (the composer for the music on the series Dexter) came on to replace Yamaoka. Daniel did a pretty excellent job of adding his own spin to the music for SH games and still managed to retain the original spirit Yamaoka left behind in his own music.

        Anyways, def worth checking out most of the silent hill game soundtracks. Mary has one hell of a voice and Akira always knows how to put together haunting sounds and music.

        Cheers! ^_^


  5. I love dialogue, not sure why, but I do. The novel I’m working on has tons of dialogue, funny thing is that I didn’t notice it until someone pointed it out.
    I just think it’s neat how much people can say without saying much, all the subtext. I’m also petrified that my reader won’t catch the subtext and will be left thinking, well gosh, this books is stupid, it doesn’t make any sense… So fine line I guess hehe



    • Dialogue is a fine line! Good luck walking it. As with most things in writing it seems striking the balance is tricky.

      Your point on subtext is well taken. Often times the meaning of what is said is far more important that what is actually said. It’s a tool great writers of dialogue use to drive their prose.

      Best of luck to you and thanks for swinging by to read!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah. The dreaded dialogue that somehow manages to befuddle even the best of writers… and I can’t understand why! o.O Normal people (I’m not talking about hermits or anything) are out in the world and a consistent basis. These people interact with others where they have brief exchanges, offer apologies, grumble under their breath, have full conversations, ask questions, and completely interact in a verbal (and non-verbal) manner. Yet, the thing we do almost every day baffles many writers. How?! How can you do something and not understand it?

    Alright. I suppose it follows the same line as trying to explain English grammar to a non-native English speaker. “Why do you conjugate it like that?” I dunno. That’s just how it’s done. Perhaps that’s how dialogue works in real life. We don’t think about it. It just works and the writers who haven’t taken the time to understand dialogue and how it flows between people (or perhaps lack the ability to understand people, who knows), are the ones who struggle with dialogue.

    This comment was really just more of a tangent on my lack of understanding of how one is unable to write realistic dialogue, but I just couldn’t help myself. (Then again, maybe I’m sitting here ranting and someone’s looking over my writing going: “the fudge did the character say that for?” :p) Anywho… Haha! Great post! I enjoy these! (Hope my comments are too random.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It seems like you have a solid handle on dialogue. You are right though, it’s a challenge for many writers. A number of them have dialogue that doesn’t meet the standard because they attempt to write it instinctively instead of purposefully. While this may work for you, it hurts many others. What we end up with is dialogue that makes sense and sounds like real people said it, but serves no real purpose.

      I’ve found two problems with writing dialogue based purely on instinct.
      First, most people (authors) don’t go out of their way to create conflict in their real lives. Most people don’t start conversations with agendas and attempt to force their will upon people. So most people only have a handful of truly “high stress” situations in their lives to pull instinctive and emotionally charged dialogue from.

      As we know, our fictional characters should be in a constant state of conflict. Each exchange of words should serve some purpose. It is a verbal duel. If the conversation is just meandering, it may not have purpose in the limited space within the book. Lord knows if I want to listen to meandering dialogue I’m not going to a book to find it; I will turn on the cable access channel and watch my city government official drone on ad nauseam.

      Secondly, when many writers write dialogue instinctively they say things like, “The characters were talking to me,” or, “It was really organic.” I’m always really excited to hear that. You know the author is building a solid creative connection when this starts happening. However, just because the character “said” it, doesn’t mean we don’t have to rework it.

      Meaningful dialogue often isn’t just overheard and transcribed by the author; it is invented and shaped by the author to serve a specific form and purpose. Like I mentioned above, we have to question the value of the words. What are they accomplishing? If it’s just a casual exchange, it’s time to chop.

      So this is my overly long way of saying, for some people writing instinctive dialogue is about as effective as farting into a hurricane and hoping to reverse its rotation. Life experiences vary and because of this instinctive tools do as well. If it works for you, you should do a happy dance though. You’re pretty lucky.

      Thanks for all the comments today. It’s nice getting a fresh perspective on this crazy thing we all call writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fascinating. Truly fascinating. Perhaps a lot of the reason my dialogue has never seemed to have issues is because of the particular genre and tone I write in: dark, gritty, tension-filled. There is no room for fluff conversations. Everything has a purpose whether the character is fleeing for their life, trying to persuade someone else, or enticing information from someone else. Have you seen this static, unrealistic dialogue in specific genres? Or has it been all over the map?

        I don’t understand this ‘characters talking to me’ concept. Perhaps I write differently or am in a different mind-set from these people, but I never quite grasp what that means. And I sure don’t know what you mean by ‘organic’. In a scientific sense, that makes absolutely no sense. :/ *tries to remove science hat, but it’s slowly fusing with my skull*

        Haha! Lucky. :p Well, I presume that my dialogue works. For all I know, betareaders stare at it in complete and utter bewilderment. :p

        Side question: Do you think some people have a natural affinity towards writing? i.e. People who can build characters and develop them from scratch, people who can create believable dialogue with little effort, etc. I’m curious to know your point of view since it seems you have quite a bit of experience with a variety of writers.


      • “Have you seen this static, unrealistic dialogue in specific genres? Or has it been all over the map?”

        I know from my studies it’s not limited to genre. After all, core issues in storytelling span all genres. In my personal experiences, authors seem to have issues with dialogue when they are trying to write period pieces, accents, or invented cultural dialogue. Just because you invented some new words doesn’t mean it drives the story…

        This observation may be worth noting though: the more fearless a writer is the more impressive their writing seems to be. By “fearless” I mean they write very intriguing stories but seem to have wanton disregard for punctuation, grammar, and syntax. In my opinion, that’s great. It’s why revision and editors exist after all. Just get it all on paper and have the sense to fix it afterwards.

        I really believe in the balance between creative and analytical thinking. I find the more analytical a writer is the more their books need creative revision (what I’m good at), and the more creative they are the more analytical revision (what I’m not so good at) required.

        “Do you think some people have a natural affinity towards writing?”

        I think every artistic medium has it prodigies. Beings who were touched by weird creative ether then teleported from the whirlpool onto this planet. They conjure up art that leaves the rest of us in awe. I also think that’s the excuse I invented to try to justify my own meager abilities.
        It’s interesting how many of these gifted artists went mad, or died young. I have to wonder if the amount of stress, pressure, and hard work they applied to achieve such notoriety didn’t have something to do with their early demise. This of course causes me to become very introspective about my own efforts, or lack thereof…hahahaha! We’ll leave it there.

        Short answer, I believe some writers are more gifted than others. However, their backgrounds (family, socioeconomic class, education, early exposure to mediums, work ethic) play a large amount in what we perceive as gifts.
        Interesting questions! Thanks for asking them.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Writing Dialogue: Exercises « Quintessential Editor

  8. Pingback: Writing Dialogue: Exercises — Quintessential Editor | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

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