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Writing Excuses 5.38: Dialog with John Scalzi

Writing Excuses 5.38: Dialog with John Scalzi


Key points: Read outside your genre, looking specifically at dialogue. Understand that dialogue is not speech, it is a speech-like process to convey information in a story. Dialogue is a caricature of speech. Watch movies. Make dialogue feel real, but not be real. Read your dialogue out loud. Speak it! Be merciless with your dialogue. Practice reducing real conversations to tweetable versions.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season five, Episode 38, Dialogue with John Scalzi.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Brandon And we're not that smart. I'm Brandon.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[John] I'm John.
[Brandon] John, my nemesis, actually.
[John] Yes.
[Brandon] Welcome to the podcast, nemesis.
[Howard] I am carefully sitting between John Scalzi and and the man from whose grasp Scalzimagne slipped on the way to this convention.
[Brandon] Scalzimagne, which will someday shed the blood of John Scalzi, the pen destined to end Scalzi's pitiful existence. Thank you for being on the podcast with us.
[John] You're welcome.
[Brandon] I might have mentioned that he's my nemesis, but I'm not his. Anyway. We really do appreciate John, a fantastic writer, being on the podcast with us. We want to talk about dialogue, because you're good at dialogue.
[John] Yes, I've heard.
[Brandon] You actually are quite good. So give us some advice. Let's just start it off. Do you have tips? Tips for writing dialogue?

[John] Yeah. The first tip that I have, especially for science fiction and fantasy writers, is start reading outside of science fiction and fantasy, looking specifically at dialogue. The reason for this is because I have a theory about science fiction dialogue, which relates to science fiction writers and science fiction fans in and of themselves. If you've noticed, and I'm sure you have, science fiction fans and writers talk differently than normal people.
[Brandon] Really? Wow...
[John] Yes. As a matter of fact, they do. I know it is shocking.
[Howard] Quoth he knowingly.
[John] There is a reason for that. Normal people... Sorry... But normal people learn to speak to each other by speaking to each other. Right?
[Howard] Indeed.
[John] Science fiction fans, many of whom become science fiction writers, learn to speak by reading dialogue. They pick up the books, they see how people are speaking to each other in books, and they're like, "So this is how that's done." The problem with that is that dialogue is not actually speech. It is a speech-like process that exists to convey information in a story.
[Howard] Dialogue is a caricature to speech.
[John] Right.
[Howard] Dialogue is to actual speech as the cartoonist's line art is to fine oils.
[John] That's actually an apt analogy. Well done, you.
[Brandon] Wow. Man. We could end now. That was beautiful.
[John] Thank you, this has been Writing Excuses.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. This has been... It's 2 minutes and...

[John] No, no. Actually, let me continue anyway.
[Howard] Please.
[John] But so, the thing is... what happens is that science fiction readers... the way that you can tell, is like, for example, you ask a normal person, "So, how is your day?" They're like, "Eh, it's fine." or "Ah, you know."
[Howard] "Doing all right."
[John] "Got attacked by a cow." You know, that sort of thing.
[Brandon] That's the normal person?
[John] I don't know. I don't know where you live. Where I live, these bovine attacks have been increasing, and it's been a terrible thing, but that's an entirely different podcast. But you ask a science fiction fan or a fantasy fan, "So how have you been?" And they go, "Wow." They go through the menu in their brain, the drop-down menu of how do I respond to this, and all these things going around and around until they find the sentence that most aptly does that and then they'll sort of embroider it and try to put some humor in it, convey all that information, then go [machine gun sounds].
[Brandon] I think you're implying a lot more social awareness on... I think the drop-down menu might just be 404 Not Found... A person speaking to me in real life?... Get out my phone and text them.
[John] Right. What do I do now?
[Howard] George Carlin once said, "I'm not unwell, thank you."
[John] Right. Exactly. So... But the thing is that if you basically have that speech as dialogue, what happens is later when you become a writer, and you start doing dialogue... You know how if you make a photocopy of a photocopy, it gets kind of smudged?
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[John] If you do a dialogue that is based on somebody's speech being dialogue, eventually it becomes this highly stylized thing, which is fine in its way, but...
[Brandon] Right.

[Howard] To go back to my metaphor, that would be like a wannabe cartoonist learning to draw not by looking at life and creating a shorthand, but by looking at what other cartoonists are doing and creating a shorthand from there, which is what I did.
[John] Right. Well done, you. So what...
[Brandon] Ida would cringe. Anyway.
[John] So what I suggest that people do...
[Howard] It's a cave painting.
[John] The first way to break out of this is to start reading in other genres, in other... Read some romance, read some mystery, read some literary fiction. You are still reading dialogue, which is still this highly stylized thing, but at the same time, the way that that dialogue is crafted is a lot different. I mean, one of the things that I tell people is the way that I... My dialogue comes from science fiction to some extent, like, people like Heinlein and Piper and stuff like that, but I also get my tips from Carl Hiaasen, I get them from Elmore Leonard, I get them from Gregory McDonald who did the wonderful Fletch books. Just looking at how they solve the dialogue problem makes a huge difference. Another thing that I really suggest for people, because this comes from my own experience... I was a movie critic for a number of years, right? So I watched a lot of films.
[Howard] Cinematic dialogue.
[John] Cinematic dialogue, which is amazing because they... If you have a good screenwriter, they can do amazing things with dialogue that you're just... Because it's like you see how they do overlapping, you can see all these sorts of things. Some of my favorite screenwriters, like for example in Tootsie...Larry Gelbart, Elaine May... Just how they do the back-and-forth and how it works and it's so snappy. If you can incorporate some of that into fantasy and science fiction, it makes a huge difference. It makes it seem so much more fresh, because they're not... people are giving a new type of rhythm to the dialogue.
[Brandon] Right. My editor actually forced me to watch... which I had never watched, so I'm glad he did... forced me to watch The Thin Man.
[John] Oh, God, that's wonderful.
[Brandon] When I was trying to work on some of my dialogue, to punch it up a bit. He said, "You need to watch this film three or four times and figure out what's going on there and learn to do it." It was wonderful advice. Thin Man is a classic half screwball comedy, half mystery, but with just really great writing. This is interesting to talk to you about, because I really assumed that you were going to take us the science fiction and fantasy dialogue is not realistic, and you should go to these others to find more realistic dialogue, but that's not where you took it. You're just trying to get people to break out of their genre conventions to give freshness to their writing.

[John] Right. And there's two things to be said there. I mean, one is this is an easy way to do it. But the second thing is, the... when you're talking about dialogue, you do have to understand it really isn't speech. I'm okay with saying understand your artifice. Because if we did a lot of speech, basically what we would end up doing is we would have pages and pages of ums and ohs and circumlocutions and people not actually getting around to the point yet.
[Howard] The example that I give, look at a romantic comedy on film which is a 95 minute film. Now look at, in your own life, that experience you had where you and your girlfriend or boyfriend were having the define the relationship talk. That conversation lasted probably half again as long as that whole romantic movie, and that romantic movie had a define the relationship conversation in it that covered all of the high points of the one you had, and all of that emotional range, and it might have lasted 3 minutes.
[John] Right. It's a very highly efficient stylized form of transmitting information that seems plausible coming out of somebody's mouth.
[Brandon] Right. And I think that's the most important part, is the plausibility.
[Howard] Plausible.
[John] Plausibility.

[Brandon] What you're trying to do with dialogue is you want it to feel real, but not be real.
[John] Right. Exactly.
[Brandon] Any time it stops feeling real, you're kind of straying outside... You're going... You're distracting from the text. But anytime it starts to get too real, you'll actually do the same thing. People will stop, they'll pull out of the text, and be distracted, maybe even be bored. Whatever. So there's that sweet spot in the middle.
[John] It's hard for a lot of people to hit. I think part of it is, again, going back to science fiction and fantasy writers, a lot of them come out of fandom, a lot of them come out from the nerd point of view... We're all nerds here, so it's not like... We're not talking out of school or bringing it down, but it very much is a thing of we don't speak like other people do.

[Brandon] Right. You know what I've noticed, particularly from new writers in these genres? They tend to go too long. There's a lot of... They want to hit every point in every paragraph, they want to make sure it's very well explained, and the logic is all there. So you end up with essentially character one steps up and monologues, and then character two returns a monologue, as if you were giving an e-mail exchange arguing a point with someone.
[John] Well, what it is, is that they're trying to do a Socratic argument. Socratic arguments are fun if you're Socrates, but if you're not, then it becomes a thing of, "Well, as you know, Bob, here we are trapped on this spaceship with the oxygen..."
[Howard] And now with the maid and butler.
[John] Right. Exactly. You've just got to say... You have to stop it. Like I said, this is where you go back and you say, "How have other people cracked this nut?" Specifically, like I said, the great thing about movies is they have to do it in a very compact space and time. They have to do it usually within two hours, they have got a whole bunch of stuff to cover, and...
[Howard] And the reader only gets one pass.
[John] Right. Exactly.
[Brandon] And most of the screenwriters are doing it primarily through the dialogue. They're not allowed a lot of the... How shall we say?... Crutches that we get through narrative.
[Howard] Yeah. They're not allowed the third person limited see into the guy's head.
[John] When I was a movie critic, I went and did the press junket for Jurassic Park. I interviewed Michael Crichton. Michael Crichton was talking about the differences between movies and books. He said, "Look. In a book... A book is 400 pages long. The screenplay, if you were to format it the same way as a book, would be 40 pages long. So automatically you're losing 90%. Some of that will be compensated for because it's a visual medium. Be that as it may, you still have to say, I have all of this information. How am I going to collate it, and put it, and get it in there, and still make it seem like it's related to the original story?" Now I don't suggest that writers start writing like they're writing scripts or any of that sort of stuff. But what I think they should do is look at it with the critical eye of how are they doing this, why are they doing so, what choices... That sort of thing.

[Brandon] What can you take? You can learn a few things from them, you just don't want to... Anyway, we do need to get to our book of the week. Not surprisingly, it's a book written by John Scalzi.
[John] He is an amazing, amazing author.
[Brandon] Oh, yes. That guy.
[John] Wow. I love him. The book I have, which is coming out, is called Fuzzy Nation, which is a reboot of the 1962 Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. It is very much like a reboot of... Like they did with Star Trek, hopefully with better science. It's coming out on May 10. I will actually be starting my book tour then. Additionally, it's coming out in any number of formats then, hardcover, but it's also coming out in audio, which will be available from Audible. Our narrator... Ask me who my narrator is.
[Brandon] Who's your narrator?
[John] I'm glad you asked. It's Wil Wheaton.. TV's Wil Wheaton.
[Howard] Wait. Star Trek's Wil Wheaton?
[Brandon] No. Evil Wil Wheaton.
[John] Evil. He's...
[Brandon] Is he the good one or the evil one?
[John] The Big Bang. Well, it's odd because as you listen to the story, you will find a sort of Wil Wheaton easter egg in there. Which makes it especially juicy that it is Wil Wheaton of all people who is my narrator. I am tremendously excited. It's going to be...
[Howard] I'm excited about it. So you can go out to and pick up... By the time this podcast airs, you should be able to pick that up. Go to and you can kick off a 14 day trial membership and get Fuzzy Nation for free.

[Brandon] All right. So I'm going to fire one more question at you here, John.
[John] Shoot.
[Brandon] How do you think... What is the best way to convey that feeling that this dialogue is real without actually being real? Are there tricks? I've mentioned before that writing is much like stage magic, where you're wiggling one hand and drawing people's attention while you're doing something important with your other hand. I find dialogue a lot like that. Where you are doing... You are using smoke and mirrors to imply that this is real, that this is actually the way that people would speak. Yet it completely isn't, if you broke it apart line by line. How are you giving that sense?
[John] One of the things that I think that you should do, ironically, is speak it out loud. Because even though dialogue is not speech, if you have done your dialogue right, when you are speaking it, you should be able to get through a sentence without, for example [groan] and having to draw a breath. You should be able to model it as a sort of emotionally spoken thing. So if you can speak it, and it seems reasonable coming out of your mouth... If it seems like something you could see an actor saying, then you have got something which is reasonable dialogue. So ironically, for dialogue which is a model of speech, one of the best ways to model that dialogue is to speak it. This is a thing that really gets out of the brain of a lot of people. It's like, "Wait. I should actually speak what I write? That's madness." But, no... Really. In fact, the way to make sure that it sounds good is to actually sound it out. Speak it. If you're not a person who can tell whether it can be spoken, have someone you know and trust speak it and give you an idea of that experience.
[Brandon] I do know a few screenwriters, and the ones that I know actually always do that with a script. They always get... Just friends, it doesn't have to be like a cast of people, but they'll get a different person for each part and they'll have them just speak it to each other, not even really acting it out. Speak it to each other, and the screenwriter sets back behind and makes notes on the screenplay as they go. I actually went and did this for one of them once, and it was a fascinating experience for me as a writer to see how they were treating their dialogue. It made me want to do the same thing with my writing group.
[Howard] So has that movie come out yet?
[Brandon] Yes, it has. It was Richard Dutcher's movie Evil Angel.

[John] The whole thing is that when you're doing that, you also have the experience that you always have to have as a writer, which is, be merciless with... Be as merciless with your dialogue as you are with any other part of your writing, because if it's not working, you're going to throw out the reader.
[Howard] I've got to tell you, when I'm writing the comic, I am forced to get everybody's dialogue into those little bubbles. But what's fascinating is that by compacting the dialogue into those little bubbles, you have sentence lengths that are necessarily much more like human sentence lengths. I'm not likely to put out long, long long long diatribes because there's no room for the pictures, and that's what people want to see.
[Brandon] Yeah, you're probably just... Are you hoping that someday we transition to all of us like texting so you'll get so much more economy for your...

[Howard] Oh, you know what, I was going to suggest this earlier. [background sounds] One of the exercises that I think is really useful for me, is when I take a conversation that my wife and I have had or that my kids and I have had, and I try to reduce it to something that is tweetable. So... By the way, for those of you not benefiting from the video right now, Brandon and John are arguing over which of the two of them has to give the Writing Prompt at the end of the episode, and it's John. Because Brandon is your nemesis. Or... No... You're...
[Brandon] You're my nemesis.
[Howard] I'm sorry I didn't get that straight. That's what I get for sitting in the middle. But the point of all this is, you take an actual conversation that you had, with you and your spouse, or one of your children... Something that was poignant, something that was meaningful, and reduce it to something that is bloggable, or even tweetable. If it works, it's because you took something that was real, and you made it feel right while being quite a bit smaller and shorter.
[John] Well, there you have it.

[Brandon] John, we're going to force you to give us a Writing Prompt. It must be brilliant, and articulate, and interesting, and make all of our listeners want to become even better writers. This is my gift to you as my nemesis.
[John] Such a gift it is. Okay. Since we have been talking about dialogue, I think that we should have a Writing Prompt that is about dialogue. I believe what I want people to do is have a dialogue between somebody ordering at a drive-through, and someone taking the order. But the person taking the order at the drive-through is also currently being held up at gunpoint.
[Brandon] Oh. That's a really good Writing Prompt. I was hoping you'd flub that. Scalzi!
[John] And this is why I am your nemesis.
[Brandon] Yet again.
[Howard] Well, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much. This was recorded live at Penguicon. A little noise from the audience.
[Howard] Everybody, you're out of excuses.
[Brandon] Now go write.
Tags: dialog, dialogue, genre, magic, merciless, movies, smoke and mirrors, speak it

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